In the Company of Strangers



March, 1979



This wasn't Pathways.

Peter knew that the moment they pulled into the drive and stopped at the guardhouse, the moment he'd seen the heavy iron gates, the high brick wall surrounding the "Pine Ridge County Youth Home".

Home. What a joke. These people didn't know what home was. This was prison. They were sending him to prison, even though he hadn't done anything wrong.

"It's only for six months," Warden Trager had tried to assure him.

Six months! Might as well be six hundred. A lot could happen in six months. Hell, a lot could happen overnight. Overnight, the world he'd known all his life had been taken from him. Overnight, he'd lost his home, his father, everything he knew. Overnight, his hopes for a new life had been taken from him, too....



~~~~~



January, 1979



Peter Caine shuffled nervously from foot to foot. He hated being called to the warden's office. It usually meant he'd done something wrong. Though for the life of him, he couldn't figure out what it could be this time. Trager shuffled some papers on his desk, pulled out a file folder and opened it.

"Good news, Peter," he began with a smile as false as the imitation leather of his worn chair. "There's a family who've agreed to take you into foster care."

Peter blinked. This was the last thing he expected. One of the first thing the counselors told him was that foster parents for kids like him were few and far between. "Why?" he blurted.

"Well," Trager hesitated, "I'm assuming it's because they want to help a boy like you."

"Who are they?"

"The Moys. Tom and Susan. They seem to be good people. From their profile, they appear to be loving, hard-working folks who'll take good care of you."

"You mean you haven't met them?" Peter asked, stunned. They were willing to send him to just anyone?

"Well, uh, no, I... I don't have time to talk to all the prospective foster parents. But the social workers at the Placement Office do. They wouldn't have gotten their application approved if they hadn't been good people."

Peter just scowled. He knew the truth--he'd heard it from the other guys at the home. The county was so desperate for foster parents that they accepted just about anybody. As long as you were still breathing and weren't a convicted mass murderer, you were foster family material.

"So," Trager cleared his throat. "You're expected there after school tomorrow. Mrs. Jacob will meet you after school and take you over there."

Mrs. Jacob was Peter's social worker; she tended to treat him like he was seven. It wasn't exactly what he wanted as his introduction to his new foster family, but that was the way it was done, he guessed. "Okay."

"Any questions?" Trager asked.

Peter shrugged. "Am I still gonna go to Emerson?"

"Yes, you'll keep the same class at school. We don't want too much disruption, now, do we?" He smiled--that weak, watery expression that only twitched his mouth.

Peter's heart sunk. It was bad enough they were throwing him out to land someplace else, then they had to make him stay at one place he hated more than Pathways.

In school, it was far too clear to Peter just how different he was. He didn't know his lessons, didn't know the other kids, knew they all had families, knew they knew he was from the orphanage. He was the outsider; prey to the bullies who "accidentally" dumped his lunch tray in his lap, and the whispers and giggles behind girls' hands as they stared at him, making him blush furiously. In a world where being cool was more important than anything, Peter Caine was definitely not cool.

"Any other questions?" Trager asked, bringing him back to the present. Peter just shook his head. "Fine. Pack your things tonight, so you can take them with you in the morning. And good luck, Peter. I'm sure things will work out well for you. This is a chance for the family you've always wanted."

Peter looked up sharply. Trager was so stupid! How could he think Peter would want what some white-bread folks like the Kitteridges could offer? He wanted his father. And that wasn't the same thing at all.

But there wasn't any point to protesting and being thought ungrateful. So he just nodded and shuffled out of the office.





News traveled fast in the orphanage. When Kyle slid into line behind Peter at dinner, he said, "So, I hear you're leaving."

"So I've been told."

"What are they like?"

Peter shrugged. "Trager's never even met them. They're probably axe-murderers. He doesn't give a damn."

Kyle laughed lewdly. "Or else child-molesters. Better watch your sweet ass, Pete, my man." He playfully pinched Peter's rump.

Peter swatted his hand away. "Oh, thanks, Kyle! You're a big help!"

"Just yanking your chain, Ace." Then Kyle sobered. "They're probably fine, upstanding, boring people who figure taking in the poor orphan cancels their karmic debt this century. It'll be a drag, but probably not too bad."

"Thanks," Peter said glumly, and the subject was dropped.

It didn't drop from Peter's mind, however. And as he packed his few belongings in the suitcase they gave him, he played various scenarios in his head--envisioning a wonderful couple who would love him like he was their own son. Their name was Moy. Maybe they were Chinese. Maybe they'd even be Buddhist!

Yeah, and maybe pigs would fly.

He sighed, zipping up his holdall. Nothing he could do about it, even if they were psycho-killers. He was stuck. Better make the best of it.

And anyway, wouldn't any place be better than this?



~~~~~



Peter's leave-taking was rather unceremonious the next morning. He was so busy getting ready for school, he didn't have time to think about its being the last time he'd see the place. He nodded at Trager's final instructions and walked down the drive to the bus stop without looking back.

He left his suitcase with Mr. Green in the Counselor's Office, since it was too big to fit in his locker. And the day progressed like any other day. He flunked a math test, flunked a social studies quiz, got called on to read in English and flubbed it, missed an easy basket in gym class, and got into a fight in the lunch room. The only reason he hadn't gotten a detention out of it was that he explained he had to go to his new foster family right after school and Mr. Wells, the Assistant Principal, must have decided that it would be bad to screw up Peter's chances with his new family before he even got there.

Peter thought that was generous, but realized later it was just that they didn't like orphans at the school. It was easier for the mucky-mucks if everybody was in a normal family. A school full of Brady Bunches, that was them. There wasn't any room for Oliver Twist.

After the last bell, he went to Mr. Green's office to wait for Mrs. Jacob.

"Peter, there's been a change of plans," Mr. Green told him. "Mrs. Jacob got tied up with another situation and can't make it. Mr. Trager said that you could go to the Moys on your own, or else you could wait and somebody from Pathways would come down to pick you up."

Peter frowned. While he was grateful to not have to listen to Mrs. Jacob's sickening sweet talk at him, it could be awkward, showing up at someone's door unannounced. On the other hand, they were expecting him. And he didn't want to have to hang around the school and wait for someone to come pick him up, like he was too little or too stupid to do it himself.

"I'll go myself," he said, "except I don't know where they live."

"Mr. Trager left me precise directions," Mr. Green said, and handed Peter a piece of paper with their name, address, phone number, and directions. It would entail taking two buses, but it still beat hanging around here.

"Okay," he nodded.

"Fine. I'll call Mr. Trager back and tell him everything's set." Mr. Green smiled at him. Funny, it was the same insipid smile Trager had. "Good luck, Peter."

"Thanks," he mumbled, picked up his small suitcase and headed to the bus.



~~~~~



Peter stood in front of the little bungalow and stared. This was it. His new house. His new family.

Don't get carried away, Caine, he thought. You're a foster kid. That means temporary. Don't start thinking of this place as home. He'd seen enough of the other guys at Pathways go to foster homes, only to come back again; he knew all too well just how temporary the situation was.

Well, not getting anywhere standing on the curb like a retard. He took a deep breath, walked up the steps and rang the bell.

A minute later, he saw a woman's face at the glass and his heart leapt. A Chinese face looked back at him. Then the door opened.

"Yes?" asked the woman through the screen.

"H-hi," he managed.

"Hello. Can I help you?" she asked.

Peter frowned, confused. Weren't they supposed to be expecting him? "I'm Peter," he said.

Now it was her turn to frown. "Peter?"

She really didn't know who he was! For a moment, Peter thought maybe he'd gotten the house wrong, and dug the crumpled paper out of his pocket. "I-is this the Moys?" he asked.

"Yes," the woman said.

Maybe they'd just never been told his name. "I'm--they sent me from Pathways," he blurted.

"What?" She stared at him for a moment, then suddenly got wide-eyed with surprise. "Peter... Oh, my God! Oh, my God! You're...isn't someone with you? Someone who brought you here?"

"Sh-she couldn't make it," he stammered. "I came on the bus, a-after school." What was the problem? He'd come here, just like Mr. Green told him to.

"There must be some mistake," she said. "We told the agency we wanted to take in a small child, not..."

All of Peter's tentative dreams evaporated in an instant. They hadn't wanted him after all. They'd wanted a baby.

"Hey, no problem." He put on his best brave front. "Mistakes happen. Sorry for bothering you." He turned to leave.

"No, wait! Where are you going?"

"Back," he said simply. "I'm not what you bargained for, no big deal. Keep trying 'til you get a younger model, there's lots of 'em out there." He turned again and started down the steps.

"Peter, wait," she called again. "I'm sorry, it's not that we don't want you, but-- I was just so surprised, that's all."

He looked at her. So what was she gonna do about it? It was her move. Him, he'd rather just go on back. It was easier that way.

"You've come all this way, I can't just let you go back," she said, as if that was an excuse. "Come inside. I'll make some phone calls, we'll wait for my husband to get home, and we'll figure out where we go from there." She opened the screen door for him. "Please?"

Peter swallowed. He didn't want to be here. They didn't want him here, they wanted somebody else. But he couldn't just leave, not without Trager or the people from the Placement Office telling him he could. He had no choice. He sighed turned back around, going into the house.

She took his coat and ushered him to a seat on the couch. He sat there, feeling awkward, glancing around the room uncomfortably. It was small and cozy; he thought they kept it too hot. On one wall was a Chinese watercolor, a beautiful picture of peonies and butterflies. Peter's heart ached with homesickness. Here was something he knew, something he could be comfortable with. Except they didn't want him.

"Can I get you something to drink?" she asked, interrupting his thoughts. "Juice, or milk, or soda?"

"Coke?"

"Yes," she smiled.

"I'll have that, thanks."

She fetched his glass of soda, which she set on a coaster on the cluttered coffee table. There was a small jade frog on the table, too, and Peter longed to touch it, to feel the cool smoothness of jade again. But he didn't want them to think he was rude, so he just picked up his glass.

"Where are you from, Peter?" she asked.

He frowned. Where did she think he was from? "From Pathways," he answered.

She laughed. "No, I meant where were you from, originally?"

"Oh. Um..." He wondered how she'd react if he told her he'd been raised in a Shaolin temple. Despite the watercolor and the jade statue, she seemed very "western". She didn't have any accent at all, and he didn't even know if she spoke Chinese, or what she'd think about him, a white kid, being raised a Buddhist. Maybe he'd better keep his answers simple--for now. "A little town in northern California called Braniff."

"What brought you to this city?"

"Um...there was a...a friend of the family. We came to be with his relatives. But he got sick and put me in the orphanage before he died."

"How old were you?"

He swallowed. "That was in April."

"Oh."

Oops. He'd managed to make her uncomfortable. Well, tough. He was uncomfortable, why shouldn't she be?

"What happened to your parents?" she asked.

"They died." What a dumb question. Wasn't that what "orphan" meant?

She didn't say anything else, and for awhile they just sat there, feeling awkward.

"Well," she finally said, "if you'll excuse me, Peter, I want to make some phone calls. Get this straightened out."

She left him sitting there, drinking his Coke and feeling like an intruder. He wanted more than anything to run away, but knew that wouldn't solve anything. He knew what happened to kids who ran away. His life was not his own; he had no choice but to let others decide his fate.

From the other room, he heard snatches of conversation. "....young.... Pathways....agreed...mistake...." He hated hearing people talk about him. As if he wasn't even there. As if he was too stupid to hear, to understand.

When she returned, she forced a smile. "Well, Peter, it seems there was a little misunderstanding between ourselves and the people at the Placement Office."

"Yeah, I figured," Peter nodded. That much was obvious. The question was, what were they going to do about it? "So what now?" he asked.

"They said they don't have a child the age we want at the moment, but we've asked to be kept on their list."

And that was that. Peter nodded. "Okay, well. Good luck." He stood up.

"Where are you going?"

"Back."

"No, you're staying," she said.

Peter stopped, confused. "But you said--"

"I said they didn't have anyone right now. So you can stay for the time being."

"What? Why?" It didn't make sense. They didn't want him; why want him to stay? Going back was fine; he could handle that. But staying where he wasn't wanted....

She shrugged. "We did agree to have you stay; we're obligated to at least give it a try. Besides, we might be wrong about wanting a younger child."

That was exactly it. They didn't want him, but the paper they'd signed said they had to keep him. "Great," he muttered. Nothing like this to make a guy feel wanted.

"Peter, none of this is any of our making," she said, exasperated. "We're just trying to make the best of it."

And you're an ungrateful brat for not appreciating it, were the unspoken words.

"Sorry," he mumbled.

"I know this isn't what you expected--"

"Don't sweat it," he shook his head, feeling that gaping hole in his soul again--the one which seemed to have taken up permanent residence there. "I didn't have any expectations," he lied. "It's no big deal."

But it was.



~~~~~



Mr. Kitteridge came home a couple hours later. He was nice enough--for a guy who didn't want you in his life. He smiled a lot--that false smile like the ones the counselors used. And he called Peter "Pete", which he didn't really like (well, Kyle did it, but given some of Kyle's nicknames for people, "Pete" was the easiest to stomach).

To give them credit, they did try. They asked him questions about his school work and tried to look interested when he told them about his classes. He got to see more TV than he'd ever seen in his life, the bed in the guest room was comfortable, and the food sure beat what they had at the home. The best time was when Mr. Kitteridge took him to a basketball game, and for just a moment, they could forget the awkward situation no one wanted and just be two guys at a ball game together. Peter began to think that maybe this foster thing wasn't so bad after all.

Except that it wouldn't last, so it didn't pay to get too comfortable. Every time Peter felt himself starting to feel easy with his surroundings, he'd pull himself up short. No point in settling in; they were just going to send you away again.



~~~~~



That happened sooner than Peter expected.

Five days after his arrival, a Tuesday, he got home from school to find Mrs. Kitteridge (he never called them anything except Mr. and Mrs. Kitteridge) waiting for him. His little hold-all was in the front hall. He looked at the bag, then looked at her.

"You're sending me back." It wasn't a question.

"The placement office called today and said they had a child--a girl," she explained.

Which means you're not welcome here anymore.

But Peter put on his brave face, shrugged and picked up his hold-all. "No sweat. It's not like I ever thought anything else."

"I'm sorry, Peter--"

It was too much. "No you're not, so spare me the fake sympathy!" he snapped.

"Peter!" she scolded. "You know you don't help any with your attitude. We might have gotten to like you, but you wouldn't let us. You wouldn't let us get close."

"Why should I? You didn't want me here. You told me the minute I walked in the door I'd be walking back out as soon as you could manage it. Why should I bother?"

"Because you make everything harder with your attitude. No, you weren't what we wanted, but we were willing to give it a try. But you're always so sullen, so uncommunicative. It was like living with a zombie."

"Yeah, well maybe I just didn't want to get my teeth kicked in again. If you let yourself care, you let yourself get hurt."

"Who told you that?" she frowned.

"That's the way it is."

She just shook her head. "I'm sorry, Peter. You're a nice boy, and I hope you find a family you can be happy with. But that won't happen unless you decide to let someone in."

Oh, that was good, coming from her. We don't want you, but we want you to pretend that we do. Fat chance. "Don't worry about me," he said, suddenly uncomfortable under her gaze. "I'll take care of myself. I don't need someone's pity; I'm better off without it."

She gazed at him some more, and he had to force himself not to squirm. He hated it when people stared. Finally, she sighed. "Come on, I'll take you back. They're expecting you."

"I can go myself."

"No, I'll take you. I have to sign the release papers anyway."

Otherwise you could fly for all I care.

Peter just shrugged and followed her to her car.

They were silent during the drive back. What could you say to the person who'd just told you you weren't fit to be a part of their family? So Peter said the appropriate thing--nothing.

And when he saw the front drive of Pathways, he was oddly relieved. The beds were lumpy and the food stunk. But at least he knew what to expect here. Weird to feel more at home in this alien place than he did anyplace else.

They went to the warden's office, and Trager made him hang around while Mrs. Kitteridge did the paperwork thing. So Peter sat on the bench outside his office. He heard running on the stairs and Kyle bounded into the hallway.

"Hey, Ace!" he exclaimed, giving Peter a high-five. "They get sick of you so soon?"

"Oh, man, it was the biggest joke," Peter said. "They didn't want me after all--they wanted a baby. They told me that straight off, but then they made me stay anyway. Man, I never thought I'd be glad to see this place again!"

Kyle chuckled. "Yeah, scary stuff when this looks good, isn't it? That's how I felt when I came back after that one last year."

"What was that?"

"Before your time, Ace," Kyle said gravely. "Before your time. Let's just say it wasn't pretty. But at least I managed to avoid Pine Ridge over it, so that's cool. And you're back. I wish I could say I was sorry, but better to be here than in a family that's bad."

"Yeah," Peter nodded, thinking about this past week. "This place still sucks, but I guess it could be worse."

Whatever Kyle was about to say got cut off by the Warden's door opening. Trager was saying his goodbyes to Mrs. Kitteridge.

"We'll see you tomorrow, then," Trager was saying. She nodded, turned to go, and saw Peter sitting there.

"Goodbye, Peter," she said, putting on her best false face. "Take care."

Trager was watching him--watching to see what he'd do. "Yeah, bye," he managed.

She stood there for another moment, as if she wanted to say something else. He wished she would just go. Then with a shake of her head, turned away and walked down the hall.

There was one of those "heavy" pauses--the kind Peter identified as adults not knowing what to say next. Finally, Trager cleared his throat. "Come on in, Peter," he said. "Kyle, you can clear off."

"Later, Ace," Kyle waved and sauntered down the hall.

"Now, Peter," Trager intoned, and Peter shuffled into his office.

There was the obligatory awkward pause as Trager shuffled some papers on his desk.

"Peter, I'm sorry that didn't work out as we'd planned," the warden finally said.

Peter just shrugged. What was there to say, after all.

"Mrs. Kitteridge said you were well-behaved but a little--sullen." Trager stared at him.

"Nothin' to say."

"You could have made an effort--"

"Why? They told me right away they didn't want me! Why should I try? Why did I have to stay there, anyway?"

"Peter, we have to at least make the effort," Trager said. "The idea is placement--permanent placement, in a family that can take care of you. Pathways was never designed to be a permanent home. That's not its purpose. We have to accept what comes, even if it's not ideal. I'm sorry things didn't work out the way we'd planned, but that's no reason to stop trying.

"Now, when another fosterage opportunity comes up--and one will--" Trager held up his hand in case Peter should want to interrupt. Not that Peter had any intention of interrupting. There was still nothing to say. "You've got to promise me that next time, you'll at least make an effort to get along with your new family."

"I wasn't the one who didn't want them," Peter mumbled.

"What?"

"Nothing. Can I go?"

Trager sighed. "Yes. Your old bunk is still available. Go get settled in." Peter turned to leave, but Trager called him back. "Oh, and Peter--"

Peter turned around. "Yeah?"

"They're not all like this. Promise." He smiled--that watery smile he had which always made Peter's skin crawl.

There wasn't much he could say to that, either. He simply nodded and left the office.



~~~~~



Things went on much like normal for several weeks; the food at the home still stunk, the beds were still lumpy, Peter was still flunking all his classes--yes, everything was just like normal.

Until Trager called him into his office again.

"Peter, we've got another foster family for you," The warden said, as if this was the greatest news Peter could imagine.

Hardly.

He didn't say anything, just waited for Trager to elaborate. "We checked very carefully this time, and they definitely are looking for an older boy. They've got a son of their own--a little younger than you--and they'd like a boy who can be a companion to him. Perhaps even help out in their business--Mr. Healey runs a small printing shop. Their names are the Healeys--Dave and Vicki. Their son's name is Brian."

Peter frowned; it sounded like they wanted slave-labor, not a foster kid. But it wouldn't do to say so. He'd had enough of being thought ungrateful.

"So," Trager went on when Peter remained silent, "they'll pick you up here after school on Thursday. We want to be especially sure this time. All right?"

Why did they keep asking him questions for which there were no answers? No, it wasn't all right. Nothing was all right. Nothing would ever be all right. But he couldn't say that, could he? So he just said, "Yeah, I guess," and let it go at that.

Trager, of course, took that to mean that Peter approved of the situation. There was a big difference between approval and acceptance. Not that Trager would ever notice.

"Good. Then I'll see you here after school on Thursday." Trager smiled. "You'll see, Peter. Everything will work out."

And with that, he was dismissed.



~~~~~



Having dutifully packed the night before, Peter rode the bus home from school on Thursday with much trepidation. He didn't know what to expect from this new foster family--didn't want to go, knew he had no choice.

He hated his life. He'd hated his life ever since--

Yeah, well, it didn't do any good thinking about that. Nothing would bring them back. All he could do was, as Trager put it, "make the best of it". Those had to be the most hated words in the English language.

He went right from the bus to Trager's office, where he wound up cooling his heels for almost an hour, waiting for his new foster parents to arrive. Peter thought their lateness didn't say much for their responsibility, but Trager made some excuse like they probably got caught in traffic. He had to wonder, not for the first time, whether Trager actually believed any of the bilge he spewed, or if these words popped out of his mouth automatically, without his ever thinking about what he was saying. In a way, he kind of hoped it was the latter. Be pretty pathetic if the guy actually believed what he told them.

Finally, an overweight woman with badly dyed blonde hair wearing clothes too tight for her, and a kid who looked about ten, who was wearing a dirty t-shirt, knocked on the open door.

"Is this Mr. Trager's office?" the woman asked. Peter nodded, feeling his expectations sink to his socks. Not that he was expecting Mr. and Mrs. Brady--not that he'd have even wanted Mr. and Mrs. Brady--but if this was Mrs. Healey, he could just imagine what Mr. Healey was like. Just like those thugs in the town who used to terrorize the monks when they went down for groceries. What was it he once heard Master Khan call them? Oh yeah--rednecks. Though Peter didn't know why--their necks hadn't looked any redder than anybody else's.

It had been a band of those "rednecks" who'd destroyed the temple. Even though they'd been masked, Peter still knew who they were. They'd tried it once before, but his father had managed to chase them away. But that time--

And Trager was expecting him to live with these people?

Trager got up to greet them. "Mrs. Healey, I presume?" he said. There was that insipid smile again.

"You must be Mr. Trager, hi," she said. "Sorry we're late. We had a little--problem. My husband was going to come, but he, um, got involved with a big project at work. I know he wanted to be here."

"That's all right," Trager fawned. "Though we'll need to have him--"

"Are you really an orphan?" the kid asked Peter.

"Brian!" his mother scolded.

Well, at least it was an honest question. "Yeah, I am," Peter told him.

"What happened to your parents?" Brian asked.

Peter couldn't help smiling, but only inside--wouldn't do to let the others see it. Hey, if the kid wanted an answer, he'd get one. "My mother died when I was little. My father was killed by soldiers of evil."

"Oh my--" Mrs. Healey gasped.

"Peter!" Trager warned.

"Cool!" Brian enthused.

"Brian, that's enough!" Mrs. Healey slapped his shoulder. Peter frowned--seemed like a violent reaction to a simple question. Great, they were probably child beaters.

"Heh, heh--kids ask the darndest questions," Trager said. Nah, the guy couldn't be for real--nobody was that stupid. "I'm sure Brian and Peter will have a lot of time to get to know one another," he continued. Then again....

Everybody did the "smile at each other and look uncomfortable" bit before Trager said, "Well, if you'll just sign here, Mrs. Healey. And we'll need to get your husband to sign, too--and send a copy back to us. Peter, why don't you go get your bag? Perhaps Brian can help you."

Peter shrugged and got to his feet. He didn't need any help to carry one little hold-all. But Trager probably wanted to talk about him and wanted to get the kids out of the way. "Come on," he motioned to the kid and set off down the hall, not waiting to see if he was coming.

He came all right--chasing after him all the way and asking questions non-stop. Did he live here all the time, how long had he been here, what was it like, where did he go to school, what grade was he in, what was his favorite sport, how good was he at Space Invaders.... Peter answered him--he couldn't not. But he kept his answers short. No point giving too much away too soon. On the other hand, little Brian, enthusiastic and stupid as he was, might prove to be a good source of information.

"So what's your father like, Brian?" Peter asked. They were on their way back with Peter's bag.

The silence before the kid's answer felt just a little too long. "Oh, he's OK. I mean, he's my dad--he's the only one I've ever known. Well, really, he's not my real father, but my mom won't tell me who that was. I keep thinking he was somebody cool, but he was probably a crook or something. My mom says that Dad--my dad now--he's the best we can do. He takes care of us, so everything else, well, we just have to put up with it. She says life's not perfect, and at least we've got a roof over our heads. I mean, it's better than what you've-- Oops. Sorry." Brian ducked his head, afraid he'd insulted Peter.

Well, he had, but how insulted could you be by someone who didn't even know what he was saying? Peter got the impression good ol' Brian wasn't the swiftest kid ever put on earth. He seemed nice enough. A little too enthusiastic--kind of like that stray puppy they once had at the temple--always into everything, unrepentently following everyone around, looking for handouts and anyone who'd pay attention to him.

"Anyways," Brian went on as if nothing had happened, "Dad says that he's gonna use the money they get for taking care of you to help the shop. He's a printer, but my mom says business hasn't been great--she called it a recession. And then Dad-- Well, never mind." Brian sputtered to a stop as they got back to Trager's office.

Peter smiled disgustedly to himself. Damn Trager. He was going to send him off with a family that didn't give a damn about him--they just wanted the money. That money was supposed to go to support him. But Dave Healey was going to take it to shore up his failing business. Just great.

"Well, are we ready?" Mrs. Healey asked, pasting a smile on which was prettier than Trager's but not a lot more real.

"Yeah," Peter nodded.

"Mom, you should see their game room!" Brian told her about the rec room they'd passed. "They have air hockey!"

"That's nice, honey. Come on. We need to get home so I can get dinner started before your--before Dad comes home."

"All right," Trager nodded, shaking her hand. "Now, make sure Mr. Healey gets that signed agreement back to us. We have to get all the i's dotted and the t's crossed." Again that smile. Peter couldn't wait 'til he didn't have to see that smile anymore. "Goodbye, Peter."

"Bye," Peter mumbled, and with that, they left the warden's office. Well, at least he'd been spared more of Trager's "pronouncements" about how this was such a good thing. Briefly, Peter wondered how Trager would function in a situation like this--being tossed from place to place without anyone caring about him. He wondered if Trager would even notice.

The Healey's car was a "beater"--an old rusty huge thing, with only one bumper and plastic over one of the back windows. Inside, the seats were ripped and it reeked of stale cigarettes. The smell made Peter's nose wrinkle. He and Kyle sometimes snuck cigarettes, but he'd never had to smell the lingering odor. It was lots worse than the fresh ones.

Mrs. Healey, who'd lit up as soon as she got outside, fought with the ignition of the car, finally getting it to turn over. "Damn car," she muttered. "It's ready for the junk heap, but Dave likes it."

Peter didn't like to think about what that said about Dave.

"Well," she smiled at him. "Let's go. Peter, we didn't mention this before, but you'll be sharing a room with Brian, is that all right?"

Peter shrugged. "Yeah. I have--I mean had--roommates at the home."

"Good. Brian's a good boy--he keeps his stuff cleaned up."

"That's 'cuz Dad hits me if I make a mess," Brian piped up.

"Brian!" his mother scolded. She looked uneasily at Peter. "My husband believes in a well-run household. You'll have rules to follow and chores to do. Can you handle that?"

"Yeah," Peter agreed.

"My husband is really looking forward to having you in our family, Peter," she said, trying to shine a good light on someone Peter was already getting very worried about meeting. "He says you're going to be a big help."

"When'd he say that, Mom?" Brian asked.

"You didn't hear him," she answered. "But it's all he's talked about for the past week. How nice it'll be to have another child in the family--someone who can spend time with Brian, maybe even start to learn the printing business. Would you like that?"

"I guess," Peter shrugged. Yep. Slave labor, all right. They'd take the money that was supposed to support him and use it for a dying business, then expect him to work for free. Great. Just great.

Conversation lapsed as they drove through the city to the outskirts of town. The houses were more run-down here, and especially with all the leaves off the trees, there was a depressing grayness about the neighborhood.

The Healey's house was a good match with the car. The paint was peeling, shingles were askew on the roof, the front steps leaned at an angle and the bottom step had been replaced by a cement brick. A board covered the bottom of one window, and there were papers and junk in the front yard. A fence surrounded the back yard, and a mangy looking dog yelped as they pulled into the driveway.

"Shadow, shut up!" Mrs. Healey yelled at the mongrel, who ignored her warning and continued to bark. "Damn dog--Brian, go shut Shadow up. Give him a bone or something."

"OK." Brian hopped out of the car. "Peter, you wanna come meet Shadow?" he asked.

"Peter's coming inside first," Mrs. Healey said. "We want to get him settled before Dad comes home." She smiled at Peter again. "Come on--I'll show you where you can put your things." She unlocked the door and Peter followed.

"This way," she said, leading him through a kitchen with dishes piled in the sink. The rest of the tiny house was shabby, but reasonably picked up. Down the narrow hall, she flipped on the light in the first bedroom. "This is where you'll be staying. You and Brian can decide who gets the top bunk. My husband just bought the bunk beds--just for you." She smiled.

She wanted him to be impressed that they'd bought him a bed. Sorry, but he expected a bed, whoever took him in. It just made sense. They probably had to agree to that in the agreement. Instead, he said, "Brian said that Mr. Healey isn't his father?"

"Brian talks too much," Mrs. Healey snapped. "I keep telling him that Dave is his father now, and that's all he needs to be concerned with. He's a good provider. He takes care of us. And he really is looking forward to your being with us, Peter. He works very hard, and sometimes he gets overtired and irritable. But he means well. He cares about us, that's what counts."

Peter frowned. It sounded like she was trying to apologize for her husband. Peter was getting a very bad feeling about this.

"Well," she sighed. "I'd better get started on dinner before Dave gets home. Why don't you go out and meet the dog? Brian loves that animal--God knows why, he's stupid as a post. Did you ever have a dog?"

"Yeah, a couple different ones," Peter said. "They were strays that just kinda--showed up."

"Just like Shadow," she laughed. "You should get along well, then."

Peter couldn't help but smile, too. Whatever else, he kind of liked Mrs. Healey. She had a good heart, a sweet spirit. He thought it would have been nice to meet her in some other circumstances. He followed her out of the bedroom and back to the kitchen, where he headed out the back door to find Brian and the dog.



~~~~~



Mr. Healey, according to his wife, usually came home about 6:00. Consequently, at 6:00, she had dinner waiting for him.

It was still waiting at 7:00, and still waiting at 8:00. She'd gone ahead and let Brian and Peter eat earlier, some noodle and hamburger and sauce thing, and they were watching TV in the living room when a car pulled into the driveway and screeched to a stop.

"Oh, thank God," Mrs. Healey mumbled, gave another stir to the casserole, which had been warming in the oven for two hours, and went to the door to meet her husband.

Dave Healey was a big man--tall and broad. He had light brown hair which was going bald on top and grew over his collar in back, and he was dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans.

Redneck, Peter remembered the description. That fit Dave Healey, all right.

And he was drunk.

"Where've you been?" she hissed.

"None of your business," he growled.

"We had the appointment at the orphanage today."

"So d'ja get the kid?"

"Yeah, but you have to sign the agreement. They were expecting you!"

"Tough. Where's he?"

Dave Healey pushed his wife out of the way and strode into the living room.

"Hi, Dad," Brian piped up.

Instead of answering, Mr. Healey grabbed Brian by the arm, hauled him to his feet, and flung him at the TV set. "What is this shit!" he roared. "I said no TV 'til your homework is done!"

Brian shut the box off and turned to his stepfather with tears in his eyes, rubbing his arm. "I-I thought that with Peter--"

"Who's Peter?"

"I am." Peter stood up. He'd grown almost six inches in the past year, but Dave Healey still towered over him. He stared at the man, unafraid. He'd faced bullies before. He thought of his father's lesson from Sun Tzu (insert something here).

"So you're the kid from the orphanage," Healey appraised him. "How old are you?"

"Thirteen," Peter answered directly.

"Vicki!" Healey shouted.

"Yeah?" His wife appeared in the doorway.

"I thought they were gonna give us an older kid."

"I am one of the older kids," Peter answered. Oh, there were guys at the home who were older than him, but he was in the top dozen or so.

Healey looked him up and down. "Well, I guess you'll do." He grabbed Peter's upper arm and it was all Peter could do to keep from throwing him over his shoulder the way he'd been taught. That's what you did with bullies, after all. "You strong?" Healey asked.

"Strong enough," Peter replied. Yeah, strong enough to put you down. If he could put Master Khan down (well, OK, just that once, and only because Master Khan had slipped), he could handle a guy like Healey. Though he hoped it wouldn't come to that.

Healey guffawed. "Well, you don't look too strong, but there's muscle there." He let him go. "Good. Welcome to my happy home, Peter." He gestured expansively.

"Thanks," Peter said, not feeling thankful at all. He didn't think part of the foster agreement included the foster kid feeling threatened. This wasn't what his father had been training him for. On the other hand, anywhere the training could be used was appropriate, he supposed.

"Dinner's ready," Vicki Healey told her husband.

"Come and eat," Healey ordered the boys.

"They've already eaten," Vicki said.

"Why did you have them eat without me!" Healey roared again. "You know I want this family to have dinner together!"

"You were so late--I didn't think it was fair to--"

"I'll tell you what's not fair! Its your going behind my back all the time, that's what's not fucking fair! If they're not hungry, then they can just sit at the table and shut up! This family is gonna have dinner together!" He stalked into the kitchen, shoving his wife in front of him.

Peter glanced at Brian, who was red with embarrassment. "He's not always like this," Brian whispered.

Peter just nodded, knowing poor Brian was lying through his teeth.

"You won't tell them to take you back, will you?" Brian asked softly.

"I can't," Peter said. "I have to go wherever they send me."

"You two get in here! NOW!" Dave Healey shouted and both boys hurried into the kitchen.

They sat at their places at the table, and Dave, having gotten himself a beer from the refrigerator, sat down at the head of the table. Vicki took the casserole out of the oven and brought it to the table. Two hours warming had not done it any favors; it looked like it had dried out. She stirred it up, but that didn't help it a lot. Dave took a big spoonful from the casserole. It fell to his plate in a lump.

"What the hell is this?" he growled. "What the hell are you trying to pass off here?"

"It was fine two hours ago when you were supposed to be home," she replied icily.

"Don't you tell me how to live my life, you bitch!" he roared to his feet, knocking his chair backward.

"Don't you call me names!" she yelled back.

"You deserve them--you lazy worthless whore--can't even cook a decent meal, can't keep the house clean--"

"If I was given someplace decent to live--" she shot back.

"Why you--" He lunged across the kitchen, backhanding her and knocking her against the refrigerator. "You're nothing but a stupid bitch who can't fuckin' do nothin'!"

"Stop it!" she shrieked. "Stop it!"

"Not 'til you start doin' what I'm tellin' ya!"

"Stop it!" Peter shouted, jumping up from the table. There was no way he could sit back and let this brute beat up on her.

"You shut your face!" Dave Healey growled. "Don't go messin' in things that ain't none of your business!"

"I'm living here, aren't I? That makes them my business!" Peter snapped. "You're the one who brought me here, not the other way around."

"And we'll kick you right back out again if you don't shut up!"

"Fine. But that's no reason to hit her."

"I said shut up!" Healey crossed and went to back-hand Peter.

Instinct took over. Next thing either of them knew, Healey was lying on his back in the middle of the kitchen table. The food and dishes had scattered to the floor, and Brian was standing, petrified, in the corner.

Dave Healey took a minute to catch his breath, then lunged to his feet. "Why you little--" He started for Peter.

"Dave, don't!" Vicki screamed. "Leave him alone!"

His attention diverted, he focused again on his wife. "You're taking his side against me, is that it? You wanted to get the kid so you'd have young meat, is that it?" He grabbed a knife from the kitchen counter. "I'll teach you to go fucking around behind my back, you slut!"

"Leave her alone!" Peter shouted. "It's me you're pissed at."

Healey spared him a glance. "You're next, you little prick--" he growled, and feinted with the blade in Peter's direction.

Peter bit his lower lip, waiting for the right moment. He had to do this just right or somebody was gonna get killed tonight. Healey was showing off, tossing the knife from one hand to the other, threatening Vicki and even once turning around and waving it at Brian, whose face was streaming with tears.

"You fix me some decent food, woman, or I'm gonna have to use this to show you who's boss here. And don't you think about fucking little stud here, or I'll have to use this where it counts. You got it?" he sneered.

"I'll make you a new dinner, Dave--just put down the knife," Vicki sobbed. "Don't hurt us. Please."

Healey guffawed. "That's right, bitch. I wanna hear you beg." He approached her slowly, waving the knife in front of her face. She whimpered in fear.

"Put the knife away, honey. I'll do whatever you say. Just put the knife away."

He laughed again. "Beg some more. On your knees." He grabbed her by the hair and forced her to the ground. She fell to her knees and curled around herself, weeping. Then he spun on Peter. "You too, little bastard," he said, waving the knife at Peter.

"I'm not a bastard--my parents were married," Peter said calmly, defiantly. He needed Healey to come closer.

"You're a bastard 'cuz I say you're a bastard," Healey snarled.

"Well, you're wrong," Peter replied.

"Why, you--" He lunged with the knife. Peter took a deep breath, prayed that Healey was really as drunk as he seemed, and side-stepped the man. As he passed, Peter grabbed the hand with the knife and twisted it backward, reaching with the other hand to grab the knife away. Healey let go of the knife just before Peter could get a hand on it, and it clattered to the floor, but not before its blade slid along Peter's palm, between his fingers and thumb, cutting deeply. It hurt, and distracted him enough that he lost his grip on Healey, who fell backwards, hitting his head on the doorframe. He slumped against the wall for a moment, then Peter saw the madness return to his eyes.

"You son of a bitch!" he roared and launched himself across the kitchen.

Peter kicked out, aiming for Healey's knees, wanting to bring him down. But his aim was off. His foot glanced off the older man's thigh and kept going, impacting right between his legs. And impacting hard.

"Oof!" Healey squawked, stared wide-eyed at Peter, then dropped like a stone.

For a moment, there was silence as they all stared at Dave Healey, writhing in agony on the kitchen floor. Finally, Vicki Healey found her voice.

"What did you do?" she asked, and there was equal parts relief and accusation in her tone.

"He was gonna kill you--or me--or both of us."

"What did you do?" she repeated.

"I didn't mean to--I was just trying to get him to stop," he tried to explain.

"Dave--oh, my God--Dave--" She crawled over to her husband, trying to help him but not knowing how. "Oh my God--" She knelt there for a moment, flustered, then looked at him. "I'm going to call the police. Get an ambulance for him. You might have killed him!" She got to shaky feet and stumbled to the phone.

Killed him! Peter looked again at Dave Healey. He'd never heard of anyone dying from a kick to the groin, but he supposed it was possible. It was one of the reasons his father would never let the students fight until they knew what they were doing. Too many things could go wrong. Killed him! Oh no! He might have killed him! Would the cops believe self defense? Would Vicki tell them what happened? He couldn't take that chance.

She was on the phone, calling the police. He couldn't take the risk of sticking around 'til they got here. He had to go. He grabbed a paper towel and wrapped it around his bleeding hand--the hand hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, but he knew he had to ignore it. He had to go.

"Are you going?" Brian asked. Maybe he wasn't as stupid as he seemed. He'd figured it out.

Peter nodded. "Come with me."

Brian looked wide-eyed from his mother to Dave Healey to Peter and back again. "I can't," he whispered.

"If anyone asks, you don't know anything," Peter told him.

"I don't anyway," Brian shrugged.

"Good." He looked at Brian again. Having to live with this--having to put up with abuse--expect it. He hadn't bargained for this when he got sent here. He doubted the folks at the Placement Office had, either. But poor Brian had to live with it--every day. He couldn't just leave like Peter.

Peter knew what happened to guys who ran away from their foster homes. But he had to take that risk. He couldn't stay. Not now.

One last look at Vicki Healey, talking to the police. One last look at Dave, still writhing on the floor. One last look at Brian, whose expression of wide-eyed terror Peter didn't think he'd ever forget. "Good luck," he said, and then he was gone, bolting out the door. He left his coat, his bag, his backpack with his school books. Everything. They didn't matter. He had to get away.

He ran until his lungs felt like they were going to explode. He heard the sirens of the squad cars and the ambulance as they rushed to the Healey residence, and he ducked behind some bushes until they'd passed. Then he ran some more. He didn't know this part of town, but knew that if he kept heading the direction they'd come from, eventually, he'd find something that looked familiar.

He stumbled along the street, the adrenaline rush having finally worn off, leaving him weak-kneed and exhausted. And his hand hurt like crazy. The paper towel was soaked with blood, and Peter knew he needed to find medical help for it. If his father were here, he'd put some awful smelling herbal poultice on it, and wrap it in clean linen. But, of course, his father wasn't here. If he had been, none of this would have happened. That was the point.

As he walked along, he thought about his options. He could run and just keep running. That was the most appealing option. Maybe find the temple again. He knew sort of where it was; with a good map, it shouldn't be too hard to find, and maybe some of the monks had stayed in the area. He could turn himself in to the police. That didn't appeal. He didn't want to go to jail for something that wasn't his fault. He could find a hospital, have them take care of his hand, and then set out again--maybe try his hand at living on the streets. He'd heard of kids who did it. It was hard, but it beat having to go through something like this again. He could go back to the orphanage. But he knew what happened to kids who ran away from their foster homes. It was a threat always hanging over their heads--behave or you'll be sent to Pine Ridge. Peter didn't know anything about Pine Ridge--except that he didn't want to go there. So that was out.

The hand throbbed some more, and the paper towel wasn't soaking up all the blood anymore. He needed a doctor. But at 9:00 on a Thursday night, where could he find one?

At the next corner, he found a pay phone. He didn't have any money, but there was a phone book hanging there--beat up and missing half its pages. But the section on hospitals was intact, and Peter looked at the listings, figured out where he was by the street-corner, and made a guess as to which hospital was closest. So decided, he set off in that direction, hoping that he'd find it eventually.

It was after 10:30 by the time he finally stumbled through the doors of the emergency room at Bethany Park Hospital. It felt like he'd walked forever; it had probably been at least three miles.

He went up to the receptionist and said, swallowing against a terribly dry mouth, "I need to see a doctor."

"Mmm-hmm" she said, not looking up. "Your name?"

"Caine. Peter Caine."

She dutifully wrote that down. "Fill this out--" she handed him a clipboard.

"I can't," he said. "I cut my hand."

She looked at him then. Looked at him appraisingly, and frowned. "How old are you?"

He swallowed. It never occurred to him they wouldn't treat him because he was a kid. "Eighteen," he lied.

"Try again," she said icily.

He took a deep breath. "Thirteen."

"Where's your parent or guardian?"

"I don't have one."

"Where do you live?"

"Nowhere. This really hurts. Can I see somebody?"

"We can't treat you without parental permission," she said.

"My parents are dead!" he snapped. "Are you just gonna let me bleed to death?"

She gave him that once-over again, and said, "Wait over there," pointing to a row of chairs.

He sighed and did as instructed. He sat on the uncomfortable chair, fidgeting, wondering if they were going to treat him or if they were going to send him away. He tried to pull the paper towel off, but it was stuck to the cut and it hurt when he tried. So he left it alone.

A few minutes later, a young doctor came out. "Peter Caine?"

"Yeah, that's me," he said, getting to his feet.

"Hi, Peter, I'm Doctor Corbin. Will you come with me?

Peter dutifully followed the young intern through the double doors and into one of the cubicles.

"Now then, let's see what we've got," the doctor said, and wet the paper towel before carefully pulling it off. The cut was about two inches long, and looked deep. "How'd you get hurt?" he asked.

"An accident," Peter answered vaguely.

"What kind of accident?"

"Does that matter?"

"It does if we're going to treat you properly. It's a different sort of injury if you cut your hand with a scissors or blade, or if you cut yourself on some rusty metal. You see?"

"It was a knife," Peter said softly.

"Uh-huh. A fight?"

"Why?" Peter frowned.

"Just curious how a thirteen year old boy wound up with a knife gash like this. They're the kind that usually happen in knife fights. You're gonna need a few stitches in this," he said matter of factly.

"I misjudged," Peter answered.

"Misjudged what?"

"The guy with the knife."

Dr. Corbin smiled at him. "Okay, we'll let it go--for now." He swabbed the wound, which caused Peter to hiss from the sting. "Peter, the nurse said you told her you didn't have any parents."

"Yeah."

"Were you telling the truth?"

"Yes," he said shortly.

"Then where have you been living?"

Peter swallowed. "Here and there," he evaded.

"On the streets?" the doctor asked.

"Yeah."

Dr. Corbin smiled again. "You know, I might just believe you, except for one tiny thing."

"What's that?" Peter looked at him suspiciously.

"Your clothes are too clean, your hair's been recently washed, and--" He picked up Peter's hand, "you don't have dirt under your fingernails. You haven't been on the street, Peter. I've seen lots of kids who are from the street, and you're not it."

Peter didn't say anything, just looked away, refusing to meet his eyes.

"So where are you from?" the doctor urged softly.

Peter swallowed. There was no way around it. "I ran away," he said softly.

"Uh-huh. From where?"

Suddenly, it call came out in a rush. "They put me in this foster home only the guy was a drunk and he went after his wife with a knife and I stopped him only maybe I killed him!" He blurted. "I don't want to go to jail--it wasn't my fault!"

"No one's saying anything about jail, Peter. Just calm down," Dr. Corbin soothed. "Where did you live before this foster home?"

"Pathways Children's Home," he whispered.

The doctor nodded. "Peter, you know we have to call them at Pathways. We can't stitch up your hand without adult permission. They're your legal guardians, so they have to provide the permission."

"I can't go back there!" he blurted.

"I'm sure you won't have to go back to that foster home, if it was as bad as you say--"

"Not there--I can't go back to Pathways. I--I ran from the home. That makes me a runaway. They'll put me in jail...." Peter was almost crying now. His hand hurt, he didn't know where to turn, and the only person who had seemed sympathetic, now wanted to turn him in.

"I'm sorry, Peter. I wish I didn't have to do this. But you need stitches in that hand." The doctor looked sympathetically at him. "Anyway, if you explain the situation, I'm sure it won't be so bad."

"You don't know Trager," Peter muttered.

"Do you want me to talk to him?"

Peter just shrugged. It didn't matter anymore. Whatever happened, he was not in control of his own life. He had never been.

A phone call was made, and a few minutes later, Dr. Corbin returned, smiling. "It's all set. I'm going to stitch up that hand, and Mr. Trager's on his way over to pick you up," he said. "I talked with him--he seemed nice enough. He was sorry to hear you'd been hurt, and said that nothing would happen until he had a chance to investigate your story."

"It's not a story--it's the truth!" Peter insisted.

"That's what he's going to find out," the doctor assured him. "Meanwhile, let's get your hand taken care of."

So they put six stitches in his hand, bandaged it, and by the time he got out of the treatment room, Trager was there, waiting for him, along with Mrs. Jacob. Both of them cooed over him, making sure he was all right, thanking the doctor for taking such good care of him, and they led Peter out of the emergency ward.

But before he left, he turned around to where Dr. Corbin stood.

"Good luck, Peter," the young physician said, and his was the first friendly, real smile Peter had seen in months.

He tried to thank him, but his voice caught in his throat. Instead, he just nodded, and followed Trager and Mrs. Jacob out to their car.



~~~~~



The investigation consisted of an interview with Peter, who told the story exactly as it happened, and an interview with the Dave Healey, whom Peter had not killed, who told them that Peter had gotten angry at not being allowed to watch TV, and had gone berserk with a knife. Vicki Healey had agreed with her husband--to avoid, Peter knew, his wrath. And both of the Healeys refused to allow Brian to be interviewed. So in the end it was his word against theirs. And even though he knew they were lying, and he kind of got the feeling Trager knew it, too, there was no way to prove it.

Besides, he'd run away. And that was plenty. The punishment was six months at Pine Ridge. So following two days' "grounding", he was taken to the county youth home, there to begin his "sentence".



As the car passed through the gate and it closed behind them, Peter turned around and looked--looked at his freedom ending. He wouldn't even get to come out to go to school--they taught you here. And no matter how much he hated school, this wasn't the way he wanted to get out of it. Life just wasn't fair.

Still--no matter how bad Pine Ridge was, and he'd heard enough stories to know it was pretty bad--at least it wasn't living with the Healeys. He felt sorry for poor Brian--having to live with that, day in and day out. Peter was a prisoner of walls and bars. Brian was a prisoner of fear.

He knew which one of them was more free.



Chapter 3: The Kindness of Strangers

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