Independence Day



July 2nd, 1980



Paul arrived home from work and was going upstairs to put away his gun, when a sound from his oldest daughter's room made him pause. He heard Carolyn giggle, but unlike her usual infectious laugh, this was a very obvious, coy giggle. And the deeper voiced response made him frown in concern. He went down the hall to see who was with her. He was surprised to see Peter sitting on her bed, looking through her photo album. Carolyn was sitting very close to him, leaning against his shoulder and gazing at him adoringly as her fingers twisted a lock of her hair into a coil. At Paul's presence, she looked up.

"Hi, Daddy," she smiled.

"Hi," Peter repeated, straightening and closing the photo album.

"What are you two up to?" Paul asked.

"I was just showing Peter my pictures," Carolyn said. "He said he doesn't have any pictures of himself."

"No, well we'll have to change that, won't we, kid?" Paul said, chuckling when Peter blushed and ducked his head, shrugging. "Did Mom say when dinner will be?"

"She said she'd call when she needed me," his daughter answered.

"Fine," Paul nodded and went on to his bedroom to put away his gun. Belatedly it occurred to him that Carolyn was wearing a halter top and short shorts, leaving little to the imagination (not that at age twelve there was a whole lot to imagine). He frowned, thinking about his daughter's posture, the tone of her voice. It sounded very much like she was flirting with Peter.

Paul had known, of course, that his oldest child found her new foster brother attractive--adorable was the word she'd used--but hadn't realized how serious she was until that moment. He vowed to keep an eye on the situation.

When the two older children came down to get dinner on the table, Paul watched them carefully. Once again, the tone of Carolyn's voice was one Paul had never heard her use--hadn't even known she knew how to use. When she asked Peter to go to the pool with her the next day, looking up at him with her chin tucked down, a slight tilt to her head and her eyes wide and adoring, her demeanor set off alarm bells. So did the fact that she had put on lipstick and mascara. While it wasn't uncommon for 7th graders to wear makeup, his particular 7th grader had never shown any desire to do so--up 'til now.

Paul continued to watch both children all during dinner. Carolyn was trying her best to capture Peter's attention and interest. But Carolyn was ordinarily the talkative one of the family anyway, and Peter apparently didn't see any difference in her behavior. He told her he'd go with her to the pool, but only if they went in the morning, since he had his appointment with his tutor in the afternoon. Carolyn beamed at the prospect of going to the pool with her new older brother, and seemed disappointed when Annie told her that they were to take Kelly, too. No doubt a twelve-year-old pool date didn't include a little sister.

Thankfully, Peter seemed inured to Carolyn's special attentions--either that, or he was simply oblivious to her efforts. Paul suspected it was a combination of the two. He was still so overwhelmed by the newness of his surroundings, he wasn't reacting the way she expected him to; in fact, he treated her no differently than he treated Kelly. He was a little shy, friendly, maybe just a little diffident. Everything was new to Peter; he knew he had a lot to learn, and he looked to the girls--to Carolyn especially--to show him what to do.

But, Paul knew, at some point Peter would become comfortable with his situation and he'd become just like any other fourteen year old boy--with all of the raging hormones fourteen year old boys are heir to. And before that happened, before the situation with Carolyn got out of control, it would need to be dealt with.

The talking to Carolyn he'd leave to Annie; this sort of thing was what mother-daughter talks were all about. But he suspected Peter would be more than a little uncomfortable discussing the facts of life with his foster mother--that was a conversation best handled "man to man."

After dinner, Peter refused Carolyn's offer to go upstairs and listen to her new record with her, saying that he had to study for Josie tomorrow. Paul was surprised, then, when Peter disappeared outside. The kid's tendency to "vanish" occasionally was worrisome at first, until he explained, uncomfortably, that sometimes he just needed to be alone--to think. Paul wasn't sure how much "thinking" was actually good for his new son, feeling that Peter could be spending too much time dwelling on the misfortunes which had befallen him in his young life. Part of it was Peter's struggle to come to terms with what had happened to him during these past two years, but Paul wondered how much was Peter's worrying at things he couldn't do anything about.

About a half-hour later, Paul heard the screen door slam and knew Peter had returned from wherever he'd gone. It was time to have that talk. He sighed and opened the door to his den.

Peter had just poured himself a glass of lemonade and was about to sit down at the kitchen table to do some studying. While Paul was reluctant to take the boy away from his work, he felt this "talk" was more important at the moment, especially in light of what he'd seen this evening.

"Peter?" he called, "Do you have a moment?"

Peter looked up, surprised. "What is it?"

"Come in here."

Peter's forehead wrinkled in confusion, but he nodded, set down his glass and joined Paul, who ushered him into the study and closed the door.

"Sit down, son," he said, a hand on Peter's shoulder. "I just wanted to talk with you about a couple of things."

The frown deepened. "Is there a problem?" he asked.

"No, it's just--" He paused. "It's just that there's still an awful lot we don't know about each other. I thought I'd like to get a couple of things settled."

Peter shrugged. "Okay."

Paul smiled and ruffled his hair. He sat in his easy chair, Peter sat on the small couch. Paul took a deep breath.

"Peter, what have you been taught about sex?"

Peter gaped, wide-eyed. "W-what do you mean?"

"Have you been taught about sex?" Paul asked.

"Yes." The boy nodded. "There was--a class--in school--about it. And," he tried not to smile at a memory, "they gave a talk about it--at the orphanage."

Paul smiled. "Lots of joking after that one?"

"Yeah," Peter flushed.

"You've been told what it's all about, how it all works?"

"Yeah."

"Any questions--anything that concerns you?"

He shook his head slowly. "I--don't think so."

"Have you ever had a sexual experience?"

Peter stared at him, incapable of answering for a moment, then he turned red and looked away.

"What is it, son? Have you?" Paul coaxed. Peter shook his head mutely. "Then what?"

Peter swallowed and stared at his pants leg, picking at threads. "It's embarrassing," he finally said.

"I promise I won't tell anyone," Paul told him. He looked up, searching Paul's face.

"Sometimes," he began,looking away again, "when I wake up, I--" He couldn't finish--opening and closing his mouth, unable to find the words. He raised his hand to gesture, but couldn't get it to cooperate.

"Find you've ejaculated during the night," Paul completed for him, guessing the nature of the problem.

Peter looked at him, stunned for a moment, then nodded.

"The technical name for it is nocturnal emissions," Paul told him. "The guys at the orphanage probably called it wet dreams. And it's nothing to be ashamed about--it happens to every man."

"It does?"

Paul smiled. "Yes. And despite what your friends at the orphanage might have said, having a wet dream doesn't make you a pervert or anything like that. How long have you been having them?"

"Um--" Peter blushed. "Awhile."

"About a year?"

Peter nodded.

"Well, your body is going through a lot of changes right now--you've probably noticed that. This is just one of them. It can be uncomfortable or embarrassing, but there's nothing wrong with you--not physically, not mentally."

"But sometimes, some mornings I wake up--h-hard," Peter swallowed.

"That's the same thing--you just wake up before it's done. It's really nothing to worry about--it happens to all boys your age. It doesn't mean you're having erotic dreams--though if you do, you'll be liable to react the same way. If it's any consolation, it does happen less often the older you get. You learn to control it."

Peter didn't answer, simply thought about it, then slowly nodded.

"Don't worry too much about what your body thinks it's telling you--its as confused as you are at this point. Eventually, it all straightens out on its own." Paul smiled at him, and Peter returned the smile weakly.

"Eventually, you'll find someone, some girl you find attractive, and she'll be attracted to you. I hope that won't happen for a few years yet--give yourself a chance to grow up--learn what you want. And eventually you'll want to get close to this girl--get intimate. That's all right, also. But don't let your friends from school tell you that it's no big deal--it is. It's the single most important thing you can do with another person, and it's not a game, and it's not to be treated lightly. Do you understand?"

Peter nodded.

"And one more thing: Carolyn and Kelly are off limits."

Peter inhaled sharply and stared at him, open-mouthed. "W-what?"

"Just what I said. The girls are the young ladies you'll spend the most time with, and I don't want you getting the wrong idea."

"I-- I-I didn't-- I wouldn't--" Peter stammered.

"I didn't say you had, Peter, but my daughters are pretty girls. More than that, you're also a good-looking boy. Carolyn has already noticed. And she's feeling a lot of the same things you are, in her own way. What I'm saying is that no matter what you might think you feel, it would be wrong for you to start getting the wrong ideas about Carolyn or Kelly. There are lots of good reasons why in this society brothers and sisters don't have intimate relationships. Genetics is only a small part of it. I'm not going to belabor the point, just remember what I said."

Peter could only nod, still wide-eyed.

"Now, any other questions?"

Peter shook his head.

Paul smiled. "If you're still uncomfortable about the nighttime emissions, keep a towel next to the bed--it'll help take care of any--accidents."

"Okay," Peter said, and Paul noticed the boy still seemed uncomfortable in discussing it. "Is that it?"

"Yes, unless you've got something else."

"No."

"Good. Just remember what I said--everything will work out fine." With a smile, Paul got to his feet and opened the study door. He watched Peter's retreating back, sorry the kid hadn't felt more comfortable discussing the matter with him, but confident that, like everything else, that would come in time.



~~~



Peter walked out of Captain Blaisdell's den and went straight outside, abandoning his lemonade and his school books. He was finding it hard to breathe.

The captain had practically accused him of making sexual advances toward his daughters!

It was impossible to take in--impossible to understand! As if he were capable of doing such a thing! As if he'd even thought about it! He knew Carolyn thought he was cute--heck, he thought she was cute, too, but mostly her attentions, especially recently, just made him uncomfortable. But that Paul would think he would take advantage of the situation-- His father had taught him to have more respect for people than that.

The thought of his father depressed Peter even more. It had seemed so easy there, in the temple. He knew who he was, he knew what was expected of him. He was a part of the society of the temple and he understood it. Not like here.

Here he felt like an alien--like he'd never understand. How could he live in a place where they thought he was such a barbarian--such a monster! He'd just never fit in.

This was just the most recent of conflicts which drove the point home with blinding clarity. Things like not understanding the concept that once a week Paul would hand him an allowance--$5.00--just because. And that the money was his to do with as he pleased. Peter had never had money of his own--he didn't know what to do with it. Thus far he hadn't done anything with it--the $15.00 was in a drawer in his room. After all, he was fed, clothed, housed, what did he need money for?

The obvious wealth of the Blaisdell household was also hard to comprehend. For a boy who'd never lacked for basics, he'd never had luxuries either, and he was awed by it. He felt like he always had to be so careful, surrounded by all these--things. And then there was the house rule of "put everything back where you found it"--important so that Annie could find things because she knew where they were supposed to be. But Peter was so afraid of doing it wrong, he seldom touched anything they hadn't specifically given him.

And then there was church. After several Sundays of visiting with the Blaisdells, he finally agreed to go to church with them, curious about the church of the Christians. His only exposure to it thus far had been seeing the Christmas decorations in the town when he was young, and the half-hearted effort made to celebrate that particular holiday at the orphanage. He didn't understand Christmas, but he was curious.

The service that Sunday was long and boring. The girls went off to a Sunday School class, but Peter stayed with the Blaisdells. Used to the ceremonies of the priests at the temple, he found the rituals at the church meaningless and flat, and the focus on God to the exclusion of everything else confusing and, rather pointless. And the people he met all seemed condescending--like they felt sorry for him, or they treated him like an idiot because he wasn't "one of them."

Afterwards, when Annie had asked him what he thought, he'd replied honestly that he'd found it confusing and nonsensical, even refuting several of the things the priest had said against his own beliefs. The Blaisdells had agreed, once he came to live with them, that he didn't have to go to church if he didn't want to. But, Paul told him, he shouldn't try to talk to the girls about what he saw as the fallacies of their church, declaring that it was important to him that all his children should have a grounding in religion. Peter, with his upbringing, already had one, but he wasn't to interfere with the girls' learning.

It was just one more example of Peter's not being trusted--one more example of his not fitting in.

He wandered outside until it got dark, then, knowing the Blaisdells would worry, went into the house. His lemonade was warm, so he dumped it out, rinsing the glass and putting in the dishwasher. His school work held even less interest for him than usual so he gathered up his books and went upstairs to his room.

Annie knew something was wrong when she came to kiss him goodnight. He was already in bed and feigning sleep, but of course, since she didn't see, she couldn't see the pretense. She could "tell" he was still awake, and came in just like she always did. Peter knew she could sense he was upset about something, but she reacted just like normal--a cuddle and a kiss and a sweet word for him as he settled down for the night. Peter didn't know what to make of it. Annie's love--that all-encompassing, permeating entity--was unchanged. And yet everything had changed. How could she love him when she didn't trust him? Peter spent a restless night, plagued again with the bad dreams which had tormented him after the temple was destroyed.



~~~



July 3rd



In the morning, everyone acted just as they always had, but Peter, perhaps even more anxious than before, couldn't bring himself to trust it. He was afraid to be with Carolyn and Kelly, and when Carolyn reminded him that they were going to the pool, he refused. She was disappointed, but he told her some bullshit about wanting to study because he hadn't gotten it done the night before. Josie came over in the afternoon, but she cut the session short, seeing that Peter wasn't concentrating on his lessons. She told him that he'd need to work harder in order to get himself up to speed in his classes. He nodded, but wondered whether it really mattered what he did, whether anyone really cared.

After Josie left, he took himself out to the woods behind the house--a place he'd found to be alone. He didn't think he'd ever be able to fit in; he was just too different. Nothing made sense anymore.

Several hours later, Peter was no closer to a solution. He didn't know what to do, and there was nobody he could talk to about it. He was coming across the lawn when he saw the girls and their father putting suitcases into the car. He could just make out their voices. Kelly said, "But I don't want to!"

"Don't be such a party pooper, Kel," Carolyn sighed, exasperated.

"I don't want to go!" Kelly insisted.

"Girls, that's enough," Blaisdell said, "now get in the car." Both girls shut up and climbed in. He slammed the trunk closed, then got in as well, starting the car and driving off.

Peter stood in the middle of the lawn, trembling so hard he didn't think he could keep his feet. The captain was sending the girls away--because of him! The Blaisdells were going out tonight to a concert, and they didn't trust Peter to stay alone with the girls--they had sent them away!

As if something finally clicked into place, Peter knew suddenly what he had to do. He couldn't stay here--he had to go. He couldn't ruin the Blaisdell family any more than he already had, and he couldn't stay where they didn't trust him--where everything was such an effort.

Somehow, he didn't know how, he managed to get into the house and upstairs to his room. The room--it wasn't his. It had never been his, he'd only been using it.

Annie was getting ready to go out; from his room, he could smell the scent of her perfume, hear the sound of her humming. Peter sat on his bed, unmoving, his mind racing a million miles an hour. What to do? Where to go?

He knew he didn't want to go back to the orphanage--the thought turned his stomach. If he was a misfit here, he was even more of one there. He briefly thought about finding the temple ruins, but knew that even if he did, there was nothing there to hold him, no one there to help him. He was an outcast no matter where he went.

He heard Paul's car pull into the driveway, then heard the captain come into the house--heard his footsteps on the tile of the front entry hall.

"Annie?" he called up the stairs, "you ready?"

"Almost," she called back, and Peter heard the rustle of her skirt as she came down the hall and looked in on him. "Peter, we're going out now. There's a frozen pizza in the freezer; will you be okay for dinner?"

"Yeah," he managed to say, suddenly starting to shake again.

"We'll be home around 11:00 or so. You can watch TV, but don't leave the house, and don't stay up too late." She crossed to the bed where he was sitting, and he was amazed again at how she knew exactly where he was. He stood up, and she reached to kiss him. She must have felt him shake, because she pulled back and frowned. "Are you all right, honey?" she asked, brushing a hand over his forehead.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he said, fighting to get himself under control. "Have a good time."

She smiled at him. "Thanks--we'll see you later. Be good." She kissed his cheek and left his room.

Peter stood unmoving in the center of the room until he heard the door close and the car pull away down the driveway. Then he stood some more until he was sure they were gone. Then he moved.

He opened his drawers, looking for the articles of clothing he'd brought with him from the orphanage. There were few of them left--most of them had been thrown out. He found his old pajamas, a pair of bluejeans, a t-shirt and a sweatshirt, socks and underwear. He didn't want to take anything that wasn't his; he didn't want them to think he'd stolen from them. The other clothes he put in a pile on his bed, along with his schoolbooks, and any of the other little things they'd bought him over the past weeks. He changed into his old clothes, and slipped the photo of his mother into his back pocket. Then he frowned. He'd come here without a suitcase--he'd need something to carry his belongings in.

They'd bought him a backpack to carry his schoolbooks in. He didn't want to take it, but had no choice, so he took out the books and papers, and stuffed his few articles of clothing, a comb and a toothbrush into the bag. Then he got a piece of notepaper out of the desk, wrote a note to the Blaisdells, explaining why he was doing what he was, asking them not to hate him too much. He left the note and the $15.00 he'd been given on the desk. Then he went downstairs and out the back door, pulling it shut behind him. Peter was crying freely now, hating what he knew he had to do, hoping they wouldn't be too angry. Realizing he was now a runaway and could get in serious trouble--if he was caught. But knowing there was nothing else he could do. He vaguely knew the way toward the city, and he cut across the back lawn and through the woods--heading to the one place he hoped he could fit in.



~~~



"I'm worried," Annie Blaisdell said to her husband as they drove away to the concert.

"Oh?" he replied, "About what?"

"What else--Peter." She related to Paul her feelings when she went in to say goodbye to their foster son--how she'd felt him shake. "Something's bothering him, and I don't know what it is."

"I have no idea." Paul shook his head. "He's been quiet the last couple of days, but he's such a moody kid, you never know if something is wrong, or if he's just being quiet."

"Hmmm," she thought, but they hadn't said anything more about it, and they'd both enjoyed the concert--managing to put an evening behind them without the constant worry about their newest family member.

On the way home, after the concert, the subject came up again.

"I hope Peter was all right on his own tonight," she said.

"He's almost fifteen," Paul commented. "If Carolyn's old enough to babysit, he's certainly old enough to be on his own for an evening."

"I suppose. I just wish I knew sometimes what went on in that head of his. He's so complex; there's so much inside him."

"Well, Shaolin philosophy isn't the simplest in the world."

"Has he talked about his philosophy with you?" she asked.

"Not really--I know more from what I've read about it."

"Do you have a book on it?"

"I got one from the library."

"Get it again and read it to me--I want to know everything I can about it--maybe it'll give me a clue to him. I worry about him."

She felt Paul take her hand and give it a squeeze. "Well," he said, "I'm going to take him and the girls to the fireworks display tomorrow--I'm hoping he'll enjoy it. It'll be good to do things together as a family. You sure I can't convince you to come along?"

She smiled. "I can't say I'm terribly impressed with fireworks, but I'll consider coming along to keep you company."

The car turned, and she knew they were pulling into the driveway.

"No lights on," Paul commented, "Peter must already be in bed."

He stopped the car, then came around and helped her out of the car. He didn't need to do that--she was perfectly capable of finding her way on her own, but he enjoyed helping her, and she let him. He unlocked the door, and she went in ahead of him, heading for the stairs.

She wasn't even halfway up the stairs when a feeling of dread came over her, and she hurried to the top of the landing.

The nagging feeling she'd had since she entered the house was confirmed--there was no one up here.

"Paul--" she called, "come here." She knew her voice held alarm, and within moments, he was climbing the stairs behind her.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Peter's not here."

"What?"

She was still standing at the top of the stairs, not daring to go into his room and have her fears confirmed. "I felt it when we came in just now--the house is empty. He's not here."

Paul moved around her, taking her arm and heading down the hall to Peter's room. She could feel that the door to his room was open. He always slept with the door closed, treasuring his privacy after his time at Pathways. She felt Paul turn on the overhead light. Then he swore.

"What is it?" she asked.

"His clothes--his books and things--they're in a pile on his bed."

"What?" Her heart started racing. "What happened?"

"I don't know--wait a minute...." He moved to the desk and she heard him pick up a piece of paper. "Oh my God--"

"What is it?"

"He's gone."

"What do you mean gone?"

"Gone--ran away-- He left a note."

"Read it to me," she demanded.

He cleared his throat. "Dear Captain and Mrs. Blaisdell," he began, "I'm sorry if I hurt you--I never wanted to do that. And I never wanted to hurt Carolyn and Kelly either. But this just isn't working--I can't stay here anymore. I'm sorry. My father always told me you had to find your own path. I'm finding mine. I had to take the backpack--I'll send you the money for it as soon as I can. I'm sorry. Please don't hate me. Peter."

"Oh my God--" she breathed. "Why?"

"I don't know--" she heard him moving around the room, picking up things and putting them down. "You don't think he resented not going with the girls on their sleep-over."

"I can't imagine it could be that--it's a girls' slumber party," she told him. "Did he seem upset to you earlier?"

"I talked to him yesterday--our facts of life talk. He was quiet afterwards, but he's so hard to read sometimes--I didn't think anything was wrong."

"Did you say anything that would have upset him?"

"I don't think so--he's been having some night emissions--was embarrassed about that, but he didn't seem upset enough to do something like this."

"Well, something must have happened," she said, moving to the bed, reaching down and touching the pile of belongings he'd left there. She could tell by feel his pajamas, bathrobe, several shirts and sweatshirts, pairs of jeans. She wondered what he'd taken with him. She heard her husband leave the room. "Where are you going?" she asked.

"To make some phone calls," he told her. She heard him go into their bedroom and pick up the phone. She sat down on the bed, absently picking up the bathrobe which was lying there, holding it to her, remembering the feel of the fabric beneath her hands when she held and cuddled Peter. She held it to her face, breathing in, able to detect a slight scent which she'd come to identify as her foster son--it wasn't anything she could describe or define, but she knew it as well as she knew the "scents" of her husband and daughters. She heard Paul's voice in the other room.

"Mr. Trager, Please. Bill, this is Paul Blaisdell--I'm sorry for calling so late. By any chance has Peter shown up there this evening? No, we got home from an evening out to find he'd gone--left us a note, saying he had to find his path. Something about his father. Yeah, well, if he should show up there, please call us immediately--Annie and I are worried. Do you know where else he might go? No, I didn't think so. Oh? Do you think he would? Was he happy there? That's true--he's having some problems fitting in, he'd most likely look for someplace where he'd feel at home, but there isn't really anyplace like that for him. Hmm, that's a thought. No, I know some people down there--it's in my precinct. I'll make some calls. Yes. Listen, Bill, could you do me a favor and not report this call? I want to keep this unofficial. Yeah, I know he has a history, but I want to try and handle this ourselves. If the state gets wind of this, they could yank him out of here and he'd be worse off than he is already. I think if we can find him--talk to him--we can get to the bottom of whatever the problem is. At least I hope so. Thanks, Bill, I really appreciate it. And I'll keep you informed. Meanwhile, if you hear anything-- Yes, thank you. Good night." Annie heard nothing more for a minute, then her husband spoke again.

"Hello, is this Josie? Josie, this is Paul Blaisdell. I'm sorry for calling so late. Was Peter upset when he worked with you today? He was? Did he say what the problem was? Did he say anything? I see. No, he's bolted, and we're trying to figure out why. No, but we've got an idea. Do you think he might look for you? I see. Well, if by chance you should come across him, please call us immediately. I'll do that. Thank you. Good night."

Annie sat where she was, hugging the robe, until she heard Paul come back into the room.

"He's not at the orphanage," he began.

"No, I didn't think he'd go there--he hated it terribly."

"Bill Trager will keep an eye out for him."

"Mmmm," she nodded. "He had a suggestion where Peter might go?"

"He said that between the time the temple was destroyed and Peter came to Pathways, he was living with an old priest in Chinatown--spent about a month there, before the old man realized he couldn't care for him and turned him over to the state."

"Is the old man still there?"

"No, apparently, he died shortly after Peter entered Pathways--someone found out and let him know. Trager said Peter became very withdrawn after that."

"I'm not surprised. If the old man was his last link with the life he'd known, and then the old man died, Peter would feel like he'd lost everything. So Trager thinks he might have gone to Chinatown?"

"It's only a hunch, but it makes sense. He might try to make it to the old temple ruins, but he knows there's nothing there, and Chinatown is the only other society he knows." He sat down next to her and put an arm around her. She leaned against him and sighed heavily.

"Oh, Paul, this is terrible. I don't think this could hurt any more if it were one of the girls. I don't know how I can love him as much as I do in such a short time."

"Maybe because he needs it so much more," her husband said.

She took a deep breath. "What now?"

"Well, I can make some calls to my contacts in the Chinese community--have people keep an eye out for him."

"You're not going to search for him?"

"Chinatown is like a warren--he could go to ground there and we'd never find him, not being outsiders. I'll get some of my contacts searching for him in the morning--there's nothing that can be done before then, anyway. Except make some other calls. Come on," he said, standing and extending a hand to her, "come and keep me company."

She stood, and reluctantly let the robe fall back on the bed. She wouldn't resort to wandering around clutching his clothing to her--at least not yet. "Oh, Peter--" she whispered to herself, "Why?"



~~~



July 4th



Peter sat down on one of the cement planters which dotted the main business street in Chinatown, slipped his backpack off his back, then tugged his sweatshirt over his head, tying it around his waist. It had been a good thing to have last night when it had gotten cold on the street, but as the morning sun heated up, it was definitely getting too warm. His t-shirt would be more than enough. He shrugged back into the backpack and took a deep breath before getting to his feet.

His feet hurt, he was tired, he was hungry, he was thirsty. And for some reason, Chinatown looked completely different than it had two years ago when he'd lived here. Of course, he hadn't spent a great deal of time getting to know the area, either; he'd been too busy trying to deal with what had happened, and trying to recover from his injury. He remembered going out a few times with Ping Hi, but couldn't really remember where they'd gone or what they'd done. Those days were still shrouded in pain. He tried to find the street where they'd lived, but either he'd gotten it wrong, or Ping Hi's cousin didn't live there anymore, because he didn't recognize any of the people who came out of the house he thought he knew.

Last night had been scary. By the time he'd made it to Chinatown, it was well after midnight, and he'd gone through some pretty raunchy neighborhoods to get there. The shops were all closed, the restaurants were closing, and the bars were no place where a fourteen year old boy could find refuge. Especially one with no money. More than once he'd thought about calling the Blaisdells and telling them to come pick him up, but he didn't. First, because he didn't have money for the phone call and he wasn't about to call them collect, and second because running back there wouldn't solve anything--things would still be as bad as when he left. He had to stick it out.

In the end, he'd spent the night walking the streets, looking for something familiar, aching with the loneliness in his heart. He dozed briefly in a park, but kept waking up at strange noises--dogs barking, babies crying, people arguing, cars and busses zooming past.

In the morning, Peter resumed his search again, looking for something that felt like home to him. There was nothing. He tried to steal a piece of fruit from one of the stalls but had been spotted and sworn at by a little firebrand of an ancient Chinese woman. When he tried to say something to her in Chinese, his tongue got tangled, so he turned and ran. He approached another shopkeeper and asked, this time managing to find the Chinese words, if he might be allowed to work for food. The man looked at him suspiciously and answered, in English, that he didn't need any help. So in the end, Peter had to go hungry, looking covetously at the piles of fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts displayed in front of every shop--so close, yet so unobtainable.

As he watched the residents of Chinatown go about their business, Peter realized that despite what he'd originally thought, he really didn't have much in common with these people, either. He knew almost nothing about daily life in Chinatown, they knew nothing about his life in the monastery. There was nothing in common except ancestry. And ancestry wasn't going to fill Peter's stomach, nor put a roof over his head.

He turned a corner and headed down another side-street, no longer having a destination, no longer having a real goal--except to find a place to rest. Maybe to think. Probably to cry. About mid-way down the block, a storefront bore a yin/yang symbol on its front window, and a sign which proclaimed, in English and Chinese, "White Crane Kung Fu Academy", and in smaller letters, "Solomon Chu, Master". It was a simple enough sign, but to Peter, it was a beacon. A kung fu academy. Maybe Shaolin. Maybe the master would know something about the priests from the temple. Maybe he'd know of a place where Peter could fit in.

He opened the door to the sound of tinkling bells, then stopped dead in the doorway. Somewhere in the background was the sound of a flute. The memories rushed at Peter and his eyes filled with tears.

The tune stopped and a small, elegant Chinese gentleman of indeterminate age appeared from the back room. He was dressed in the traditional kung fu garb of black pants and jacket with white trim, and he was holding a wooden flute. He looked at Peter. "Yes?" he asked.

Peter's legs collapsed and he dropped to his knees. "Help me," he whispered.



~~~



By the middle of that afternoon, Paul Blaisdell had several acquaintances in Chinatown looking for Peter. It being the 4th of July, and the Chinese being big with celebrations, the neighborhood was jammed with tourists. Ordinarily there were few occidental faces in the sea of oriental ones, but on this occasion there were lots of them, and the search was made more difficult by it. He'd talked to several contacts by phone last night, and a few more this morning. Then he drove down to Chinatown to pursue some inquiries on his own. Annie insisted on staying by the phone--in case someone called with information, or in case Peter should call himself. She stayed home to wait for Carolyn and Kelly as well, who were being dropped off by their host's parents after the parade in the afternoon. She wanted to talk to the girls--see if they'd noticed anything peculiar about Peter's actions--see if they heard him mention anything that might give them a clue to his whereabouts.

"Sorry, Captain," his friend Fred Chen told him. "I've got my boys out looking for him, but it's so crazy here today, he could be anywhere. He could be in front of us and we'd never see him in this crowd."

"Look, he had no money, and he's been gone over 18 hours--he's going to be hungry--has anyone reported seeing a young thief?" Blaisdell asked.

Fred laughed. "That's the national sport among the young people around here, Captain--trying to sneak food from the shopkeepers' stalls--nobody'd notice one sneak thief over another, unfortunately."

"Well, keep looking, Fred--and thanks," Blaisdell told him.

"If you can wait until tomorrow, the crowds will have thinned out by then--it should be easier to look."

Blaisdell sighed. "Unfortunately, we don't even know for sure that he's here--and frankly, we're worried. He's not even fifteen yet--young to be on his own for any great length of time. The streets are a dangerous place for a boy alone."

Fred smiled grimly. "I can understand that. Okay, Captain, we'll keep trying."

"Thanks," he smiled and shook Fred's hand.

He went back to his car and called into the station, having already put his officers on alert. He didn't want to get his boys involved yet, for fear that a strong police presence would spook Peter. But his top officers knew the situation, and knew to pass along any information as soon as they heard it.

When he called in, they told him that Annie had called for him, and had left the message that she was on her way to Chinatown. He swore; while he understood his wife's worry and concern, she was unfamiliar with the area. He'd need to help her in this unfamiliar, crowded place, something he could ill afford to do when he was trying to search for Peter.

He made his way to the Three Happiness restaurant, one of their favorite spots in the neighborhood, and the one place Annie would know to come. Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later, a taxi pulled up and she got out. She paid the driver, then extended her collapsible cane, ready to make her way across the sidewalk to the restaurant.

"Annie," he called out, and she turned toward his voice. He reached her and she put her arms around him, hugging him tight.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

"I'm sorry--I just couldn't sit there anymore and do nothing."

"What do you expect to do here?"

"Be here when you find him," she said simply. "The girls are spending the afternoon at Janice's, and they're all going to the fireworks together--Jackie said she'd bring them home afterwards--hopefully, we'll be back by then, but if not, they're big enough to be on their own for a little while."

"Why not have them stay at Janice's for another night?" he asked.

"Instinct--I want them home when we bring Peter back. I don't know why, but it's important. And we've imposed on Janice's parents enough today."

He smiled and tightened his grip on her shoulders, kissing her hair. "Come on," he said, leading her across the crowded sidewalk to the cool interior of the restaurant.

The restaurant was run by Jimmy Fong and his wife Lee, who had become good acquaintances of the Blaisdells. Lee Fong met them at the door.

"Annie," she said, hugging the other woman, "I'm so sorry--anything we can do to help."

"Thanks, honey," Annie replied.

"You want anything?" Lee asked.

"Not right now," Annie answered before Paul could respond in the affirmative. She turned to her husband. "Any news?" she asked.

"Nothing--with the holiday crowds, it's a real madhouse down here."

"I'm starting to worry that maybe he did try to get to the temple. Where did you say it was?"

"Northern California--north of San Francisco. That's a hell of a long distance for a boy alone to travel--even if he did hitchhike. Besides, I'm not sure he knows exactly where it is."

"So you still think he's here somewhere?"

"I don't know. Right now, it's the only thing that makes sense--except that the whole thing doesn't make sense. I thought he was happy with us."

"Captain," Lee Fong interrupted. "Jimmy said your Peter lived here for a time?"

"That's right--about 2 years ago for a month or so. He and his father lived at a Shaolin temple that was destroyed."

"Oh, I remember hearing about that. How did he get here?"

"He was with an old priest who brought him here."

"Hmmm," Lee thought. "I vaguely remember an old Shaolin priest--I don't know what happened to him. But there is a kung fu academy on Dorn street, and the master is Shaolin--maybe he knows something."

"It's a possibility--where is this academy?"

"On Dorn between Waverly and Jones--ask for Master Chu--he'll help you."

"Thank you, Lee," Paul said with a smile. "Babe, why don't you wait here?" he asked his wife.

"Paul, I didn't come down here to sit and wait--I could have done that at home. I'm coming with you."

"It's crowded and confused out there--it's going to be tough enough going without--" he stopped. He'd never denied her the right to go her own way and find out for herself. He was damned if he was going to start now. "I'm sorry--" he took her hand and kissed it, "of course you'll come with me. I'm just--worried."

"I know, darling," she smiled at him. "I'm worried too. I'll manage--if you've got to leave me at any point, do it--I'll stay put. Just remember to come back for me."

He smiled and hugged her. Annie's independence and strength, no matter what, were one of the things he loved about her. That independence had struck him when they first met, struck him whenever he watched her tend her home and family, struck him when he watched her interact with society. A life of blindness could have made her reticent and shy. Instead, it made her strong. "Come on," he said.



~~~



"More?" the master asked him.

Peter handed the empty glass back to the older man and shook his head. "No. Thank you." He wiped the water from his chin and sat crosslegged on the mat, waiting for the master to return.

In a moment, he did so, and sat next to Peter. His flute was in his lap.

"You are--troubled," the master began.

"Yes. Master--I-I need your help."

"How can I--be of assistance?"

"I--" Peter swallowed. He'd never told anybody how he felt, not really. Not even Annie. There were some things she just wouldn't understand. But Master Chu--he'd understand everything. "I--I'm looking for someplace. To fit in."

"To fit in?" the master frowned.

"Yeah. I-- My father--he was a Shaolin priest." He noticed the raised eyebrows of the master, and went on. "We lived in a temple--in California. Until it was destroyed."

The master nodded. "I knew of that temple. I knew some of the priests who were killed."

Peter's eyes widened. "Maybe you knew my father--Kwai Chang Caine?"

Chu shook his head. "I knew of him, but we never met. I was a student of an old priest who had lived there--Ping Hi."

"Ping Hi looked after me after the temple was destroyed!"

The master's mouth opened and he nodded slowly. "Yes--that is why you seem familiar. You are the boy who was with Ping Hi when he came here. Peter, isn't it?"

"Yeah--that's me. Did I meet you then?"

"It is doubtful you would remember. You were quite sick."

"I was?" Peter frowned. He didn't remember being sick.

"It was a sickness of the heart, not of the body. Your body healed quickly. But you are still--sad, in your heart?"

Peter sighed. "It's just--there's no place left for me. When Ping Hi got sick, he stuck me in an orphanage."

"And you seek to leave that place?"

"Well, not exactly. See, this family--they took me in--a couple of weeks ago. They're--they're great people, I really like them, but-- But I don't belong there, either."

"Why not?"

"I just--it's too different. I don't understand most of what's going on. It all feels wrong. I understood the temple, it was what I knew. But this--I don't know their religion, their way of life. It confuses me and they expect me to know everything and I don't. I can't stay there--where I'll never fit in. So I came here, hoping to find someplace where I do fit in. But I can't find anything here, either. Unless it's with you. I don't suppose you're lookin' for an apprentice, are you?"

The master shook his head sadly. "I am sorry, Peter. You cannot--stay with me. It is why I did not offer--when Ping Hi could no longer take care of you."

"Why not? I mean, I'll work--you won't have to support me--"

"No," the master shook his head again. "My reasons are personal ones. And practically, you are still--a child."

"I'm almost fifteen!" Peter insisted.

"But--according to the law, you still require--supervision. More than I could provide. Also, I cannot give you the--security--you knew at the temple. That life is gone. You must learn to live in the life which is given to you."

"But I can't! It's all wrong! There's so much I can't understand!"

"Then you must ask. Peter, all teaching, at a kwoon, or at a temple, is to enable a student to face each day, each challenge he comes up against. It is not to enable a student to hide from the world--that would serve no purpose. You now live in this world. You cannot return to your former life, it is gone to you. You can only make the best of this life, learn to live in it, learn these ways you do not understand. Then you will find that these new ways are as familiar to you as your old ways. You only must be patient."

Peter ducked his head. He never in a million years expected that the master would turn him down. Shaolin Sifus were supposed to help people, not turn them away! "So you won't help me?" he mumbled, feeling his voice break.

A gentle hand touched his shoulder, and he had to pinch his eyes closed to keep from crying.

"I can offer guidance, I can impart wisdom. But I cannot provide sanctuary--it is not what I do here. I am sorry, Peter."

The last feeble flame of hope was extinguished and Peter felt his heart die. He belonged nowhere now. He was totally alone. "'s okay," he whispered.

"You should go back--to your family," Master Chu was continuing. "To your new family."

"I can't," Peter shook his head.

"Why not?"

He looked up. "I-- I ran away. I hurt them--they'll be so disappointed in me. I just can't go back."

"And yet, that is what you must do."

"No," the smallest of scabs began forming over his ruined heart and he shook his head determinedly. "No. I'll manage." He got to his feet. "Thanks for the water."

"Peter--" Chu began.

"Hey, I understand. There's got to be a place for me--somewhere. If not here, then somewhere else. I'll find it. My father always told me everyone had a destiny--a path. Well, I guess I'll just keep searching 'til I find mine." He put his hands together in the ancient symbol of respect. "Thanks. 'Bye."

Then, before he could chicken out, fall to his knees and beg to be allowed to stay, Peter turned and walked out the door.



~~~



It was about a six block walk to the academy Lee mentioned, and the streets were crowded and congested. Paul kept an arm around his wife the whole time, and she kept her cane folded up in her handbag, relying on him to lead her. They turned the corner of Waverly and Dorn, when Paul saw something ahead which made him start. A young caucasian boy was coming out of the academy door--clad in an old t-shirt, bluejeans and tennis shoes, a sweatshirt tied around his waist, a backpack on his back. His back was to him, but Paul had never been as sure of anything in his life.

"Peter!" he called out.

"Do you see him?" Annie asked.

"Peter!" he repeated. The boy turned around. Sure enough, it was Peter, looking tired and worn. But when he made eye contact with Paul, a look of sheer terror crossed his face, and he turned and bolted down the street. "Peter!" Paul shouted after him. "Wait here," he said to Annie, pushing her toward a lamppost--an anchor to keep her secure. And then he was running down the street after the rapidly retreating figure.

Less than a block along, he lost sight of him. There were so many alleys, the kid could have gone anywhere. He sighed and turned back. Annie was where he left her, clinging to the lamppost, listening to the sounds around her, trying desperately to orient herself.

"Paul?" she called as he approached, and her voice was full of alarm.

"Yes."

"Was it him?"

"I'm not sure--I think so."

"Didn't he see you?"

Paul recalled the animal look of panic and terror on Peter's face. And it was the first and only time he'd ever been grateful his wife was blind--she'd been spared that sight--the sight of Peter taking fright and running away. Afraid of them. "No," he lied. "He must not have. And then I lost him in the crowd--he could have gone anywhere. But he was coming out of the academy--let's go talk to the master." He took Annie's arm and led her down the street to the storefront kung fu academy.

A light bell tinkled musically when they opened the door, and a slender oriental gentleman stood in the center of the room, holding a flute.

"Master Chu?" Blaisdell asked, and the other man bowed in acknowledgement. "I'm Paul Blaisdell and this is my wife, Anne. I believe a young man who was just in here is my foster son."

"Ah," the Sifu nodded, "young Peter."

"Yes."

"He is--very troubled."

"He ran away from home last night; we're trying to find him. I saw him just now out in front, but he ran away. Do you know where he'd go?"

"He is--searching--for a home."

"He has a home--with us," Annie said.

"But he is--unhappy there?"

"Obviously, but he won't say what the problem is. We didn't even know there was a problem until he left us a note saying he was leaving."

"He has been raised Shaolin, now he must learn to live in the western world. It is--difficult for him. He feels he does not--fit in. He is seeking his path, but he seeks it in the past, not in the future."

"What do you mean?" Paul asked.

"He seeks to--go back--to life in its innocence. I told him that the kwoon is a place to study, and to learn. It is not a place to hide. He is fearful of--many things. And now he is fearful of--your anger."

"We're not angry, we only want to help; we want to understand," Annie said.

"Ah," the master nodded.

"So do you know where he'd go?"

The master opened his hands and shrugged. "I--do not know," he said. "I advised him to return to his home, but I do not think he wanted to take my advice. He sought protection, not truth."

"Master, did he tell you why he ran away?" Annie asked.

In response, the master approached her and took her hand, holding it between both of his. "He said only that he was--unhappy. That he felt like an outsider--he did not belong. He expressed sorrow--that his actions--hurt others. I believe he cares for you, but he is--confused. Lost. He is looking for something to 'make it better'."

"He's been with us such a short time; we were hoping he'd settle in."

"Yes," Master Chu nodded, "but he is young--and time is different for the young--than for the old. To him, weeks seem like years, and always and never are absolutes. He does not understand that the things which disturb him now will scarcely bother him in some months' time."

"Master, if Peter comes back here--"

"I do not think he will do that," Chu shook his head, "he did not find the answers he sought here. But if I do see him again, I will let you know."

"Leave a message with the Fongs at Three Happiness restaurant," Paul told him.

"I will, and--good luck," the master said, and bowed.

Paul bowed in return. "Thank you, Master."

They left the academy, heading back to the restaurant. Paul sighed.

"Peter did see you, didn't he?" Annie asked as they walked.

Paul knew better than to lie to his wife--she could always tell. "Yes," he said.

"Why didn't you say that before?"

"Because when he saw me, he ran. I didn't know how to tell you that," he said simply.

She didn't say anything else, just took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"We're getting nowhere like this," he said, mimicking her sigh. "I think I'd better call in the troops."

"Oh, Paul, I thought we were going to keep them out of this," Annie said. "It's been 24 hours now, Babe," he reminded her, "besides, it'll start to get dark soon, and it's going to get worse here on the streets. We can't do it alone anymore--not if we hope to find him. At least we know he's here."

She sighed. She knew he was right. "So what now?" she asked.

"Let's go back to the precinct--I'll get some boys down here and start searching, and we'll monitor the action from there. I don't want you out on the streets here tonight--it's going to get too crazy, especially once they start with the fireworks." The Chinese tended to celebrate by blowing things up--a practice which was technically illegal in the state, but never stopped the Chinese revelers. It was a never-ending battle trying to confiscate all the tons of illegal pyrotechnics which were made by the locals every year.

Reluctantly, Annie agreed, so he walked her to his car and got her settled. Then he opened his own door. But before he got in, he paused and looked at Chinatown, shimmering in the late afternoon sun.

"Where are you, Peter," he said to himself. "Where are you?"



~~~



Peter ran.

He ran as if his life depended on it. He ran until he found himself on the other side of Chinatown, where he finally slowed and allowed himself to catch his breath.

He hadn't expected them to be able to track him this easily. He hadn't expected them to bother to track him at all. When he heard that voice call his name, he had to turn around and look. And if it had shocked him to see Paul Blaisdell standing there, calling him, it had devastated him to see Annie on his arm, helping with the search.

He was in real trouble now; he saw the pain in their faces. Not that he'd expected anything different, but he'd really blown it this time. If they didn't trust him before, they certainly weren't going to trust him now that he'd hurt them. He willed himself to calm down--to think.

He was fast running out of options. Coming to Chinatown had seemed the logical move, because it was the only other place he knew. But Ping Hi was gone now, and he'd never really known anyone else here. He'd also forgotten a couple of facts; one, that it was the 4th of July holiday, and Chinatown was jammed with tourists--people coming to gawk at the locals. And second, that though he'd been raised Shaolin, and understood it better than any western culture, he was still the son of a white mother and a half-caucasian father, and to the residents of Chinatown, he looked like any other white kid. He wouldn't ever fit in here either.

The kwoon had been his last hope--his last refuge. But the master, while kind and gentle, had not offered him the sanctuary he'd been seeking. He, too, rejected Peter--told him that his path now lay in the world of the westerners, not in the confinements of Chinatown, or the memory of a Shaolin temple.

The water he'd received from Sifu had assuaged his thirst, if not his hunger, but his fast getaway had made him thirsty again. And he was still hungry. He'd have to make food his number one priority.

The light was starting to fade now, and the revelers were coming out in force. Up and down the streets were the flare of sparklers and the scream of roman candles. Peter hated them--they reminded him too much of the explosions at the temple. As had happened last night, with the coming of dark, Peter started to get scared. And with the fear came regret. Why had he done what he'd done? Surely there should have been some better way to handle this--some better way to gain his independence. Maybe he was right that he'd never feel like he belonged with the Blaisdells, but there must have been something else he could have done.

As darkness fell, Peter retreated to the alleyways, searching for something to eat, and someplace quiet and warm to rest--maybe to cry in peace. But even the alleys held revelers tonight; Chinatown was full of people partying--there was no refuge for a young boy alone. Especially a young boy who'd now been up for almost 36 hours, and was exhausted, hungry and heart-sick. He thought about going back to the sifu, asking the master to give him refuge for the night--just a place to sleep, and in the morning, he'd continue his journey. But he'd seen the Blaisdells outside the academy; they'd've gone in and talked with the master, it wouldn't be safe for him to go back there now.

Peter had never felt more alone in his life.

He was skulking through an alley behind one of the myriad restaurants in the neighborhood, trying to prowl through their dumpsters quietly--hoping to find something edible amongst the refuse they'd thrown out. He was concentrating so hard on the task at hand, and the noise from the street was so loud, that he never heard the footsteps behind him.

"Hey there, kid, what are you doing?" a voice said.

Peter reacted without thinking, striking out blindly. Next thing he knew, a uniformed police officer was on the ground, groaning in agony. He stared dumbly for a moment, unable to reconcile the man on the ground with his own actions, when the officer's partner came running down the alley.

"Hey, kid!" the officer yelled, and Peter bolted like a startled deer, pelting down the alley in the opposite direction. He heard the officer swear, then shout something, but he was too scared, and too pumped on adrenaline for the words to make any sense. All he knew was he had to run. He could hear footsteps behind him, and kept running, darting up one alley and down another, weaving down the crowded street, avoiding the revelers and the vendor's carts like a car avoiding obstacles on a course.

He turned another corner and found himself down a blind alley--trapped with no way out. He stared at the alley mouth for a moment, wondering in an almost detached way if he should fight or try and make it past them, then the officer and four others appeared, and rational thought fled. He tried climbing the fence at the end of the alley, but one of the cops caught hold of him and dragged him back down. And then Peter was fighting for his life--fists, arms and feet flying. Then he felt pressure bearing him down, and the press of several bodies. And then awareness faded....



~~~



It was almost 10:00 when they got the call at the station. They'd been sitting there for almost four hours, waiting for something to happen, wondering if anything would happen. Paul was alternating between sitting at his desk and pacing around his office. Annie was sitting in one of the chairs opposite, feeling his tension, fidgeting with a chain of paper clips.

"Captain," the dispatcher intercommed, "Brachman just called in--they've got him."

Annie heard Paul punch the intercom button. "Where?" he barked.

"In an alley in Chinatown. He took down Parkes before they got him subdued, though."

"What?" Annie exclaimed.

"How is Officer Parkes?" Paul asked.

"They've taken him to the hospital--he was knocked out--they'll probably treat him and release him. Brachman said it took five of them to finally get him under control."

"But he's just a boy...." Annie said softly.

"They're bringing him in?"

"Right away," dispatch told him.

"Let me know the moment they arrive--and tell them to take him to Interrogation 2."

"Yes, sir."

There was the sound of static, and the connection ended. Paul sighed.

"He took an officer down?" Annie just shook her head.

"He may be just a boy, Babe, but he's a boy trained in kung fu. And if he was frightened, he probably reacted out of instinct. What worries me is how many it took to subdue him. I'm afraid he might have gotten hold of something."

"Something?"

"PCP or something."

"Drugs?"

"It's possible--especially in Chinatown. The drug traffic down there is mostly heroin, but there are all types available on the street. His reaction could have been from fear and terror, or it could have been from something nasty. We'll have to see when he gets here."

Annie took a deep breath, trying to slow her heart-rate. She was terrified of what they'd find when they brought Peter in. She was afraid for him, afraid of what these past 24 hours had done to him. And afraid of whatever had happened to make him run in the first place. She sat still, and Paul paced, as they waited for the arrival of the officers, and their son.

When dispatch called and said they'd just pulled in, Paul escorted her to interrogation room two, where she took a seat at the table in the center of the room. Momentarily, she heard footsteps, several pairs, come down the corridor and into the room. She also heard an unmistakable clank of metal.

When the small party stopped just inside the door, she looked up at them. "Is he in chains?" she asked.

"Yes ma'am," the officer said.

Her blood started to boil; the thought of Peter--frightened, vulnerable Peter--in shackles was insupportable. "Well take them off--now."

"He took down an officer, ma'am," the officer explained.

"I don't care what he did--take those shackles off of him right now!"

"Mrs. B., I don't think--"

"It's all right, Officer Dowell, take off the handcuffs and shackles," Paul interrupted.

There was a pause. "Yes, sir." Then there was the sound of Peter, in chains, being led to the other side of the table, a chair pulled out, and Peter being sat in it. Then there was the noise of handcuffs releasing, and ankle chains coming off.

"Thank you Officer," she said, not too surprised to hear the roughness in her voice.

"All right, Dowell, that'll be all," Paul said. "All of you--out. And put out the word--the next person who steps through this door uninvited will get desk duty for a month."

"Yes, sir," the officer replied, and there was the sound of retreating footsteps, the snick of the door closing. And then the only noise was the shallow, rapid breathing of the boy sitting across the table from her. She knew--could sense--that Paul was still standing over by the door, but he made no move toward the table. He was leaving the first move up to her.

"Peter," she began, "I'm so glad you're all right, baby, I've been so worried about you. What happened? Why did you leave like that?" There was no response, so she reached across the table to him, and felt him pull away. He scooted his chair back away from the table. She'd have to get up now if she wanted to make contact with him.

"Come on, Peter, tell me what's wrong," she went on. "I need to know what's wrong--was it something that I did--or Paul? Or the girls? Did something happen in the neighborhood? Please, honey, talk to me. Don't shut me out. Whatever it is, we'll take care of it. Whatever happened, we'll make it right, I promise." She rose from her seat, reaching for him. She heard the sound of his chair slide and then crash to the floor as he bolted out of it, then she heard the thump as he hit the wall.

"Don't do this, Peter. I can feel your pain and tension and fear, but I can't see your face; I don't know what's happening with you. You have to tell me what's wrong, I can't tell any other way. I love you so much, and I want to help you, but I can't help you if you turn away from me."

He was completely silent--she couldn't even hear his breathing, so she could no longer tell where he was.

"Sweetheart, we're not mad at you, not at all. We've been worried about you--frightened of you being on your own all of last night and all of today. We've been afraid for you. We love you and we don't want anything to happen to you. Please, talk to me. Peter?" She extended her arms, a gesture she used to offer a hug. He'd never yet refused her hugs, but this was a very different Peter she was dealing with; this terrified creature bore little resemblance to the "cuddle-bug" she'd been tucking into bed and kissing goodnight every night for the past three weeks.

"Come on, sweetie, it's all right," she soothed. "It's all right."

Finally, almost in response, she heard a sound from him, a cross between a whimper and a moan, and she could get her bearings. She moved toward him very slowly. "It's going to be fine, honey," she murmured, moving closer to him. She reached out a hand and encountered an arm; he flinched at her touch, but didn't pull away. He was plastered against the corner of the room, but she whispered, "Shhh, it's all right," and reached a hand up to cup his cheek. He was trembling like a leaf, and his face was screwed up in an effort to suppress his emotions.

"Shhh, let it out, it's okay," she said softly, and her hand traveled from cheek to the back of his neck, and she slowly pulled him into an embrace. He didn't fight against the gesture, but his body was rigid and shaking with emotion, and his breath came out in little moaned gasps. As she tightened her arms around him, he finally let go.

It started with a low, wrenching sob, and then a wail, and then he started crying in earnest, great wracking sobs, and he lost control of his limbs and slid down the wall. She went with him, never releasing her hold on him, all the time whispering, "It's all right, baby, let it out. It's all over, it'll be all right. Shhh."

Eventually, he reached for her, wrapping his arms around her and holding on tight, body shaking with the almost hysterical sobs which wracked him. She kept her arms around him, holding him tightly, rocking him, soothing him. Eventually, the harsh sobs turned to hiccups and coughs, and she heard the door open and Paul leave the room, returning momentarily. He came over to the corner where they huddled and knelt down next to them.

"Here, son, drink some water, you'll feel better," he soothed, putting a hand on Peter's shoulder.

Peter raised his head from where it lay buried against her neck, and Paul held the glass while he drank.

"More?" Paul asked, and she felt Peter shake his head. He sniffed and coughed again, then lay his head back down, and she felt the tension begin again as more tears came.

It sounded less painful this time,the crying; more a gentle weeping than panicked hysteria, though it didn't let up. Paul stayed where he was on the floor with them, a hand stroking up and down Peter's back, smoothing the back of his hair. She felt his hand slide along Peter's arm, and she knew he was looking for evidence of needle-marks. But she didn't think he'd had any drugs. She thought this reaction was nothing more than a lifetime of sorrow finally coming to a head. She kissed his hair and snuggled him close, holding him tight against his endless weeping.

She had no idea how long it had been that they'd huddled there on the floor; she assumed it had been quite awhile, as she was getting stiff from their position in the corner. But finally the weeping subsided into sniffs and an occasional whimper. She kissed his hair.

"Peter, we're gonna take you home now," she said, stroking his hair. He lifted his head from her shoulder.

"I-I'm s-s-sorry," he whispered.

"Shhh," she soothed, kissing his forehead, "It's going to be all right--everything's going to be fine." She cuddled him some more. "Can you get up now?" she asked. In response, he struggled to sit up, but seemed to have lost all coordination. "Paul?" she said softly, and Paul was there, lifting Peter to his feet. He extended his other hand to his wife and she took it, pulling herself upright. She stood in front of Peter, put a hand on each side of his face and kissed him. "Come on, sweetie, let's take you home."



~~~



Peter really became aware again when he was on the floor in the interrogation room, bawling his heart out in Annie Blaisdell's arms. He remembered being cornered by the cops, then he didn't remember anything else until he found himself in her arms, sliding to the floor, crying as if his heart would break.

It wasn't the way he'd planned it. None of it had gone the way he'd planned it. But he had no natural defense against a woman who offered him such open and generous love. He could do nothing when faced with that but go into her arms and let nature take its course.

By the time the tears finally stopped, he felt so weak, so drained, he could barely see, much less move. It took all his effort to get to his feet, and if Paul hadn't kept an arm around him, he would have fallen. He knew everyone at the station was staring at him, but he didn't care. All he wanted to do was go home, go to bed, and sleep forever. He was so tired....

He vaguely remembered getting put into the front seat of the car, between the Blaisdells. And he remembered holding tight to Annie's hand--as if to let it go would be to lose himself. They had to help him out of the car at home, as he couldn't seem to get his arms and legs to work properly. But he didn't let go of her hand, all the way inside.

In the kitchen, Peter got a shock. Carolyn was waiting for them. She smiled at him, and he went cold; he couldn't help his reaction as he practically crawled behind his foster mother. He hadn't expected to see her--last he knew, she was being sent away. But of course, once he was gone, they brought the girls back. Then why had they now brought him back? It didn't make sense. Carolyn, seeing Peter's reaction, lost her smile. "Is Peter all right?" she frowned.

Annie had opened her arms to him, letting him bury his head against her shoulder, and she stroked his hair.

"He'll be all right, sweetie. Thank you for putting the soup on for us. Why don't you go upstairs, Daddy and I will be up in a little bit."

"Okay," Carolyn said, and left the kitchen.

Annie gave him a hug. "Peter, did something happen between you and Carolyn?" she asked.

Didn't she know? Nothing made sense anymore. He shook his head. Usually she scolded him for nodding and shaking his head--movements she couldn't see. But this time, since his head was on her shoulder, she could feel it. She didn't mention it. "We'll talk about it later. Come over here and have some soup. Are you hungry?"

Two hours ago he'd been starving. Now he was just tired. But he whispered, "Yeah," and sat down at the kitchen table. Paul ladled him out a bowl of soup, but he could only eat half a dozen spoonsful before he pushed it away.

"Come on, son," Paul said, putting a hand on his shoulder, "let's get you cleaned up and put you to bed."

He looked up and discovered that at some point, Annie had left the kitchen. He struggled to his feet and his foster father helped him upstairs. His foster mother was in his room, having turned down the bed, and gotten out his pajamas and bathrobe. The pile of stuff he'd left on the bed was no place to be seen; he assumed it was all back in his drawers.

"Go take your shower, Peter, you'll feel better." She handed him his robe. He nodded mutely and shuffled off to the bathroom. He spent several minutes simply standing under the warm spray, letting it wash over him, letting it cleanse the anguish and the tension away. Then he gave his hair a half-hearted washing, and a quick swipe down the rest of him. He dried himself with equal lack of enthusiasm, and when he finally wandered back into his room, Annie, who was waiting for him, reached for him, felt how wet his hair was, and sat him down, gently toweling it dry for him. Then she handed him his pajama bottoms and he mechanically stripped off his robe and into the pants.

She coaxed him into bed and drew the covers up over him, tucking him in. "Whatever the problem is, we'll work it out--please trust us. We love you so much--we don't want anything to happen to you. Now just go to sleep--everything will be fine." She leaned over and kissed his forehead and both cheeks, and patted a caress to his chest through the blanket. But before she could stand up, he grabbed hold of her hand, it suddenly desperately important that she not leave--at least not right now.

"Don't go," he whispered.

She smiled tenderly at him. "Okay, honey, I'll stay--I'll stay until you fall asleep. Just relax, everything's all right." She kept hold of his hand, stroking it soothingly, while with her other hand, she gently brushed the damp locks from his forehead. She began to softly sing a lullaby, and Peter shivered. It was one of the only memories he had of his mother, and it was a hazy one at that--of a beautiful woman holding him in her arms as she sang a lullaby to him, her voice sweet and gentle.

Peter couldn't stop the tears which flowed again. But she used her hands to gentle and soothe him, and whispered sweet words to him, and hummed that painfully beautiful tune he remembered from his past, until he cried himself to sleep.



~~~



Annie was getting Peter into the shower when Paul decided he could leave them long enough to check on Carolyn. Her light was out, but she wasn't asleep and she sat up as soon as he opened the door.

"Daddy?"

"Yes, honey?"

"Is Peter okay?"

Paul sighed and came into his daughter's room, the light from the hall casting just enough illumination to see by. He sat on the edge of her bed. "I hope so. But he's very tired. We're going to let him sleep--maybe he'll feel better when he wakes up." He didn't say that the raw pain he saw in his foster son this night had frightened him more than he'd ever admit. And he didn't tell his daughter he was as baffled as to the cause of these

events as he'd been more than 24 hours ago when they first discovered Peter was missing.

"It was like--he was afraid of me," Carolyn said, and she shivered at the memory.

"Can you think of any reason he should be?" her father asked, soothing her with a gentle touch.

She shook her head. "No--except for--well, you know, what I did."

"What you did?"

"You know--flirting with him."

He smiled and patted her hand. "Well, I doubt that caused him to run away, but you know not to do it again, don't you."

"Yeah," she nodded.

They were silent for a moment, thinking. Something Carolyn said--about her flirting with Peter--was niggling at him, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.

"Daddy?" Carolyn asked again.

"Yes?"

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

He smiled at her generous spirit. "No, honey, it'll all work itself out. But maybe leave Peter alone for a litle while; let him work through whatever's bothering him."

"Okay," she agreed.

"Good night, sweetheart," he kissed his daughter.

From Carolyn's room, he went to check on Kelly. She'd been asleep, but heard him come in.

"Daddy?" she said groggily.

"Yes, sugar?"

"Is Peter home?"

"Yes, he is."

"Good. 'Night."

"Good night, baby," he said, kissing her on the forehead. She drifted right back to sleep.

He left his daughters and moved back to Peter's room. The boy was finally in bed, Annie sitting at his side, softly singing a lullaby. Every now and then he would hear Peter sniff, and wondered how the boy had any tears left. At one point, the crying jag had been so strong, he'd seriously considered calling in a doctor. He wondered whether it might not be a bad idea anyway--emotional outbursts of that magnitude--that strong and that uncontrolled, could be symptoms of a greater problem. For the first time, Paul wondered if he was capable of caring for such a troubled child as Peter.

He left Peter's room and went to the kids' bathroom, picking up the dirty clothes Peter had left there. Paul looked at them closely, realizing these were among the old clothes he'd brought with him from the orphanage, and wondering what had become of Peter's backpack. He was about to put the clothes in the hamper when he felt something in a pocket and pulled out an old, worn photograph of a young woman--red-haired and green-eyed, smiling, with a yellow flower tucked in her hair. She was a pretty girl--full of life. He turned the picture over, and scrawled on the back were the words "To my own True Love". He turned the photo back, gazing again at the smiling face. He could just about see a similarity in the eyes, and in the smile.

"I'll try and look after your little boy for you," he whispered to the photograph.

He put the trousers in the hamper, then went back to Peter's room.

The boy was asleep now, and Annie had left his side, standing next to the bed, looking at him in the way only she had of looking at a person. She might not see his body, but she was examining his soul from head to foot. She turned her head when he came in.

He put the photograph on the desk, and she felt his movements. "What's that?" she whispered.

"I found a photo in his pants pocket--I think it's of his mother."

"Really?"

"Pretty girl--red hair, green eyes. The photo looks--well-loved."

She smiled, and her gaze drifted back to the boy in the bed.

Paul came up behind her and put his arms around her, and she let herself lean back against him. "He's finally asleep," she said.

"He'll probably sleep a long time--he was exhausted." He kissed her cheek. "Come on, he'll be all right."

Reluctantly, she let herself be led from the room, but got only as far as the hallway outside the door, when she stopped.

"I keep feeling like if I let him be for a minute--if I turn my back, he'll be gone," she whispered.

"I don't think he's going anywhere for awhile," he told her.

"Maybe," she sighed, and leaned against the opposite wall, staring at the closed door to his room. She'd taken her glasses off, and her eyes looked smoky in the dimness. Then she sighed and slid down the wall to come to rest on the floor.

He watched her for a moment. "That can't be very comfortable."

"I dunno," she shrugged, "I'm getting sort of used to floors."

He smiled and lowered himself to the floor next to her--if she felt it necessary to sit vigil, she'd not do it alone.

As soon as he was next to her, she turned to him, putting her arms around him and hugging him tight.

"Oh, he's got me so frightened." She sighed against him. "I don't know what could have caused this. I thought I knew him so well--I thought I'd had him figured out. Then this--this came from nowhere. I keep wondering whether he was sending out signals and I missed them."

"You're one of the most intuitive people I've ever met, darling--if you didn't catch any clues, there probably weren't any to catch."

"He's been quiet the last few days, but I thought he was just going through a moody patch. I mean, all kids do that--especially ones who are in the throes of adolescence."

"I'm wondering if maybe we shouldn't take him to a doctor--that kind of emotional outburst like this evening--that can't be normal."

"Yes, but on the other hand, this is Peter--nothing about his life has been 'normal'. He's had a simply dreadful two years--everyone, absolutely everyone he knew is dead, everything that was familiar is gone. He got put into a place he hated, and went from the quiet and solitude of a Shaolin Temple, to the chaos and coldness of the orphanage. He hasn't had a moment's privacy in over two years--there's been no time for him to grieve, and no place. I think some of what happened tonight was a release of a lot of pent-up emotions--because he could. Nobody would think badly of him if he cried."

"He's cried before," Paul reasoned.

"Yes, but he always fights against it, as if he's ashamed of what he's feeling. Someone told him it wasn't 'manly' to cry, and he believes it."

"He didn't fight the day we asked him to stay with us."

"That was different--those were tears of joy."

"So you don't think there's anything wrong--at one point there, he was crying so hard he could barely breathe."

"I know--I was the one he was crying on. And yes, something is definitely wrong--he wouldn't have run away if it wasn't. But I don't think the crying is anything more than a temporary symptom. I imagine he'll still cry when he's unhappy, but that kind of harsh sobbing, no, I expect that won't happen again."

She sighed against him and he kissed her hair. "Poor thing," she went on, "to have gone through everything he's gone through in such a short period. It's hard enough for him to have suffered such loss and confusion, but then to be fourteen on top of it--one large walking hormone, trying to cope with being a man while still being a little boy...."

Something clicked in Paul's head--the missing piece fell into place. "Oh, my God," he breathed.

"What?"

"Oh, no, it couldn't be," he said again.

"What is it?"

"I think I've got an idea of what at least part of the problem is."

"So don't keep me in suspense--tell me!"

"I had that talk with him the other day--and I told him hands off Carolyn and Kelly."

"Yes?"

"And he was absolutely aghast at the suggestion. He's been so busy dealing with all the changes in his life, he hasn't had the chance to start paying attention to the clues his body is giving off. It never occurred to him to think of Carolyn and Kelly in any way at all except perhaps as sisters. When I mentioned it, it was with the assumption that he was feeling some of the same things Carol is feeling. But he wasn't. He must have thought I didn't trust him, if I could think he could do such a thing."

Annie gasped. "Oh my God. That's what he meant in his note about not wanting to hurt the girls. He thought we thought he would."

"It's the only thing that makes even the slightest sense." He shook his head. "Then this is all because of a misunderstanding. A goddamned misunderstanding."

She sighed deeply. "What now?"

"I don't know--not much except wait, I suppose. Wait until he wakes up--see if he'll talk to us. He's got to talk to us--tell us what's wrong. We can't do it without his cooperation."

She simply sat there, shaking her head slowly. "I keep feeling like I should be able to do something--like I'm somehow failing him."

"Sweetheart, you've done everything humanly possible for him, don't blame yourself," he soothed. "We've got to face the fact that Peter is a very troubled boy. It could be that his problems aren't going to be solved easily, or by us. We may need to get professional help."

"Professional? Like a psychiatrist?"

"A counselor of some sort," he confirmed.

"I don't know, if he can't talk to us, I don't know that he could talk to anybody. I'd rather see if we can get him to talk to us first. I don't want him to start thinking we think he's crazy. He needs encouragement, not ridicule."

"It's not ridicule," Paul insisted.

"I know that, and so do you, but if Peter could take a comment as potentially innocuous as the one about Carolyn and Kelly and completely misread it, then he could easily take the suggestion of outside help as even more proof that we want to get rid of him. And nothing could be further from the truth."

He was silent for a moment. "You're still convinced we're doing the right thing?"

She turned her head. "You're not?"

"No, I am, but it's not going to be as easy as we thought it was. He's finding out that a hug doesn't really cure anything."

"Perhaps not," she nodded, "but it can make the going a little smoother. Yes, I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we're doing the right thing, both for Peter, and for us. It's not going to be easy, but it is going to be worth it, because he's such a special child, and he deserves so much-- And we can give him so much. So we owe it to him, and to ourselves, to try."

Paul smiled. That was why he loved her--right there in that one sentence. We have so much to give him, so we owe it to him to try. Assuming they ever sorted out these difficulties, Peter could well find himself the happiest of young men, surrounded by the love of one Annie Blaisdell and her family.

Her eyes were closed and she rested her head against his shoulder. "You should get to bed," he told her, "when he wakes up tomorrow, he's going to need you, and you need to be at your best."

She sighed and nodded. "I suppose." Then she raised her head. "Do you think he'll be all right tonight?" she asked.

"Oh, I think so--he was so tired, I expect him to sleep through 'til morning, if not beyond. Come on, sweetheart, let's go to bed." With that he pushed himself upright, reaching his hands out to pull her up. As they headed down the hall to their room, he knew that both of them would sleep with one ear open--a "parents" trick they'd learned when the girls were small. Should Peter wake during the night, they'd know.



~~~



July 5th



It was quiet, the following day. Peter slept the day away, not surprisingly, and the girls, aware of the events the previous evening, were subdued. Carolyn, still uncomfortable about Peter's reaction to her the night before, was feeling particularly insecure.

Annie was sorting laundry in her room when Carolyn came in and sat on the bed.

"What is it, sweetie?" Annie asked.

"I'm just--worried," Carolyn said.

"What about?"

"Peter. How he acted last night. Is he sick?"

"No, I don't think so--not physically, anyway. Heartsick, maybe." She left her sorting and sat next to her daughter, putting an arm around her. "Peter has had a very difficult couple of years. He's still trying to make sense of everything that's happened to him, but there are lots of hurts there, and he doesn't always know how to deal with them."

"But we're going to take care of him now," her daughter said, "why did he run away?"

"I don't know, honey," Annie said. "We won't know until Peter tells us. I can make some guesses--like he feels he doesn't belong--like he's an outsider. He really doesn't know what it means to have a mother and father--to have sisters. A family that loves him. It will take some adjusting before he's comfortable with us. I think he was expecting it to be like it is on TV, and life just doesn't work that way."

Carolyn sighed heavily. "I want to help him; I just don't know how," she said plaintively.

"I know you do," Annie said, giving her a cuddle, "but I think the way you can help best is to be a sister to him. Talk to him, have fun with him, do things and go places together. Not like 'here's this cute boy that's moved in', but more like a brother. Can you do that?"

She nodded, "I think so."

"Good." Annie kissed her daughter. "Here--take those piles of clothes to your and Kelly's rooms. I'll take care of Peter's things."

"Okay." Carolyn took the clothes and put them away. Annie took Peter's into his room, stopping and listening to the steady breathing coming from the bed. It was times like this that she wished with all her soul she could see--to stand here and watch her sleeping son, and know--see with her own eyes--that he was going to be fine. That would be the greatest gift....

She didn't want to disturb him, so she didn't approach the bed, merely set the stack of clean clothes on the chair next to the desk, and quietly left the room.

Paul was in the family room, watching a baseball game when she went down to him. "What's wrong?" he asked. She hadn't realized her worry would be that evident.

"I just went to put some clean clothes in Peter's room," she said.

"Is he all right?"

"Well, he sounds like he's sleeping peacefully, but--"

"You want me to check?"

"Would you mind?"

"Not at all," he replied and she could hear the smile in his voice. She followed him up the stairs and together they went into Peter's room. They were silent as Paul looked at his foster son. Then he made a move to the bed, Peter let out a little sound, and Paul shushed him back to sleep. A moment later, Paul took her arm, leading her from the room.

"Well?" she asked.

"He's fine--didn't even wake up."

"I heard him."

"He was just rolling over--he's made a tangle of the covers, I straightened them for him. He's still sound asleep--I'd be surprised if he wakes up yet today. He was pretty exhausted." They walked back down the stairs. "Come on, babe--take a walk with me," he said. She smiled and leaned her head against his arm. He knew when she fretted or worried, and they'd often walk around the grounds, talking or not talking as the mood took them, simply feeding off each other--strength and love and abiding companionship.

So they took a stroll around their property, not even talking, just content to be together. Paul kept an arm around her shoulders, and she had hers around his waist.

By the time they completed their circuit, she had relaxed considerably, and just before they turned onto the deck to head back inside, she stopped and put both arms around his neck.

"Thank you so much," she said softly.

"My pleasure," he replied and she heard his smile. He kissed her tenderly.

Arms around each other again, they went back inside.



~~~



It was a little after 9:00 when Paul looked up from the television screen and saw Peter standing in the doorway. He was clad in his bathrobe and pajamas, and he looked groggy, his hair mussed. Annie sensed his presence about the same time he did, and said, "Peter--"

He smiled sleepily. "Hi," he said.

Annie got up from the couch and went over to him. "Are you all right, sweetie?" she said, taking him by the hand.

"Yeah," he said, though his voice was pitched softly.

"Are you hungry?" she asked.

He considered for a moment. "Not really--I'm thirsty, though."

Carolyn popped up from the floor. "I'll get you something," she said. "Lemonade?"

For some reason, that surprised him. "What? Oh, yeah. Thanks," he said.

Annie hadn't let go of his hand. "Come and sit with me," she said. But Peter did something unexpected-- He pulled away from her.

"Not right now," he said. "We--we need to talk." He stared at Paul.

"Are you ready to talk now?" Paul asked.

Peter nodded, a little reluctantly. "I--I think so."

Carolyn arrived back with Peter's drink, and heard the end of the conversation. "Do you want us to leave?" she asked her parents.

"No," Paul shook his head. "We'll go to my den." He rose from the couch and put a hand on Annie's arm, the other going to the back of Peter's neck. "Come on." Together they headed to Paul's den.

Paul ushered them into the room and closed the door. They both settled on the small couch, leaving his easy chair for him. He watched Peter drink about half his lemonade in one gulp, and asked, "Anything else you need?" The boy shook his head.

"Kleenex box," Annie said. Paul smiled and pulled a box of tissues out of a desk drawer, setting it on the coffee table in front of her. She smiled. Then he sat in his chair and waited for Peter to begin.

Peter took another long drink, finishing the glass. He set the empty glass on the table, cleared his throat and began speaking.

"I'm sorry for what happened yesterday," he began. They waited. "I--I don't know what happened--things just--got out of hand. Is the officer I hit okay?" He looked up at Paul.

"He will be," Paul told him. Officer Parkes had been treated for contusions and a bump on the head, and released.

"I'm sorry," Peter said again. "I don't even remember doing it. He came at me from behind and I just--reacted. I think I was pretty scared." He seemed to expect some response, but both Paul and Annie remained silent, and he stared at some middle-ground for several moments before he spoke again.

"I--I guess I need to find out-- What my options are. I--don't want to go back to the orphanage-- If I can help it." He took a deep breath. "But I can't stay here, so I need to figure out where to go."

"Why can't you stay here, Peter?" Annie asked, her voice soft.

He looked at her sharply, mouth open but no sound coming out. He tried several times before he managed, "I--just can't. I-I--don't know anything about being in a family--every time I try to do it right, I mess up."

"What have you messed up?"

"Everything! I don't understand so much--things all of you take for granted--you expect me to know things and I don't, and then I feel so dumb! I don't know how I'm supposed to act. Every time I think I've got it figured out, I'm wrong. I--" He stopped, swallowing, and his eyes filled with tears. "I could never do those things to Carolyn and Kelly, never--I-I didn't even think about them, but you thought I could, you--" he paused, gasping.

Paul took a deep breath, both relieved and sorry that his guess had been right. "No, son, you misunderstood me," he said. "I never thought you had done anything like that. I didn't think you were going to, either. But Carolyn had been flirting with you; I didn't want you to get the wrong idea."

"I didn't ask her to!" his voice raised.

"I know that; we've talked to her about it. She realizes she made a mistake. It won't happen again."

"But you sent them away...."

"What?" Annie frowned.

"The other night--you sent them away!"

"Sent them... Oh, no, sweetie," Annie shook her head, "we weren't sending them away. They were going to a friend's for a slumber party-- they'd had this planned weeks ago."

"We do trust you, Peter," Paul continued. "We trust that you're intelligent enough to do what's right, and that you'll continue to show your sisters the same respect you've shown them so far."

Peter stared at them for a long moment, the look of fear in his eyes almost equal to the one Paul saw in Chinatown yesterday afternoon. "You see?" he sobbed, "I got it wrong! I always get it all wrong! I don't know how to be in a family!"

"Peter, baby," Annie pleaded, "nobody's expecting you to be perfect. Nobody's expecting you to be anything but what you are. You're trying so hard to fit in, you're making yourself miserable. Don't try so hard, honey, nobody expects it of you except yourself. Don't be so hard on yourself. It hasn't even been a month; give yourself the time to adjust."

"But it all feels so--wrong," he sniffed.

"That's because it's different," Paul told him. "It's different from the orphanage, and it's a lot different from the temple. But that doesn't make it wrong. You've just got to let yourself get used to it."

Peter looked away, struggling to get his emotions back under control. As Annie had said, he was embarrassed about crying and was fighting against it. He fought to blink back his tears. "I just don't understand," he said.

"What don't you understand?" Paul asked.

"Any of this. I mean, I've caused so much trouble--why did you come after me?"

Annie reached out and took his hand, the first physical contact they'd had since he'd pulled away from her in the family room. "I'm not sure we can explain the whys, Peter, except to tell you that we love you and we want you in our family."

"'Cause you feel sorry for me?"

"No, not really. Because we can help. Because we want to help. Because you're a sweet, wonderful person, and we want to be a part of your life--have you a part of ours. As to why we went after you, well, it's the same reason. Because we love you--you were upset and hurting. We wanted to find you to learn what the problem was--to help you."

"Peter," Paul continued, "we haven't made a habit of taking in boys from the orphanage. You're the first one. And you'll be the only one. But something--clicked--between you and us. Almost as soon as we met you, we knew we wanted you in our family."

Peter swallowed, still fighting his tears. "But I ran away--you should send me back for that--"

"Do you want to go back?" Paul asked.

"No!" Peter's reply was instant and definite. "But--"

"Honey, we want you in our family," Annie told him. "We love you. We don't ever want you to go, unless you want to. That's why we waited so long to finally ask you to come live with us. Because we wanted to make sure it was right--for all of us. And now that you're here, you're here for good. You don't have to worry about us sending you back. If we have problems, then we'll work them out amongst ourselves. Sending you back wouldn't solve anything--that would be running away, too. You're a part of our family now--we've chosen you to be with us. And that's forever."

Peter closed his eyes, but the tears seeped out anyway. He was trembling, holding his emotions in check. "I'm sorry," he whispered huskily. "There's so much I don't understand--"

"I know, kid," Paul said, and reached a hand to clasp his foster son's shoulder, "we're not expecting you to have figured it all out overnight. But if you have questions, if there's anything you don't understand, then talk to us--let us know. Whatever it is, we can work it out--we can find you your answers. But you've got to talk to us--we can't help unless we know what the problem is. Running away and hiding doesn't solve anything."

Peter nodded slightly, trembling with emotion, eyes still pinched shut. He let out a shaky breath. "Then you're not going to send me away?"

"No, sweetie. We're not, we promise," Annie told him. "Do you still want to leave us?"

Peter's face crumpled and he shook his head.

"I can't hear your head rattle, Peter," she scolded him gently.

He choked on a sob and he turned to her, burying his face against her bosom. "No," he cried, "No, oh, please, no."

"Okay, honey, okay," she soothed, wrapping him in an embrace, holding him fast.

Peter cried for a minute, then he pulled back slightly and scrubbed a hand over his eyes. "Damn, I hate it when I do this," he muttered, "you must think I'm such a crybaby."

"No, Peter," Annie soothed, pulling him back into her arms, "it's been a pretty trying time for you, we understand. I'll bet you never cried in the orphanage, did you?"

"Oh, that would have gone over real well," Peter sniffed.

"But here you're safe to let it all out. That's fine--we won't think any less of you because of a few tears."

Peter seemed to think about it for a moment, then he closed his eyes again and lay his head back on Annie's shoulder. He shuddered on a sigh and whispered, "I'm sorry."

No longer able to sit there and do nothing, Paul moved to the small sofa and put his arms around the boy, and also around his wife, hugging them both to him. "Shhh, it's all right, kid. It's going to be all right. You're home now, everything's gonna work out fine." Peter raised his head and looked at his foster father, chewing on his lip to keep from crying. And then he reached for the older man, his face crumpling again as he hugged him tight. Paul stroked his hair, soothing him. In some ways, he wished that Peter would go ahead and let the tears come; maybe then he could purge the fear and put it behind him. But Paul was coming to realize that last night was the exception, not the rule. He wondered whether the boy would ever feel comfortable with his emotions, if they'd ever see the depths which were in him.

Eventually, they settled into a cozy hug, the three of them, he and Annie soothing Peter, comforting him. In a little while, Peter was calmer and his trembling stopped. He sniffed away the last of the tears and simply lay in the cocoon of their arms, content for the moment to just let life happen to him. It reminded Paul of those Sunday mornings, many years ago, when he and Annie would be wakened early by two wriggling little girls who jumped on the bed and squirmed to crawl under the covers with Mommy and Daddy. Especially on cold winter mornings, when the frost coated the windows, and the bed was a cocoon of warmth. He would cuddle one, and Annie the other, and they'd talk and play, and sometimes fall back asleep, all four of them, snuggled together like Eskimos. They were among Paul's most cherished memories, and he was glad to be able to share a similar experience now with Peter.

He looked across at Annie, who was resting her head on the back of the seat. She'd taken her glasses off--the better to cuddle, he knew. But she was blinking in the light from the table lamp, so he turned around and flicked it to its lowest setting. Then he turned back to her. She was smiling at him, her pale blue eyes fathomless and loving. He leaned across his dozing foster son and kissed her tenderly.

Peter snuffled.

"Come on, kiddo," he said, "let's get you to bed. Come on, Peter, wake up."

Peter surfaced groggily, more asleep than awake. "Huh?" he blinked and looked around him. "Oh, sorry."

"It's all right," his mother told him, "you're still tired from before, aren't you?"

He nodded, then said, "Uh, yeah."

"Well, then, let's get you to bed."

Together they struggled off the small couch, Paul keeping an arm around each of them. Once outside his study, he kissed them both on the top of the head, and said "You two go on, I want to talk to the girls." Annie smiled and nodded and he let them go, crossing back to the family room. He stopped before he got to the doorway, blinking a few times. Paul hadn't had a good weep in years, not since Julia, his first wife, had been killed eight years ago. But he wasn't too surprised to find his eyes moist now. And it just wouldn't do to be seen to cry in front of his girls. He took a deep breath and stepped into the family room.

They were both curled up on the couch, watching TV.

"Daddy?" Carolyn said when he came in, "Is Peter okay?"

"Yes, honey, he's going to be just fine. We had a long talk--we understand each other now."

"What happened?" she asked.

"He got confused by some of the things which have happened around here," he began.

"Like my flirting with him?"

"Like your flirting with him," he nodded.

"Shoot, I never expected he'd react like that!" she exclaimed.

"And that'll teach you, won't it?" he said mock-sternly. She blushed and nodded. "There were other things too, not just that. He thought we were expecting him to be something other than what he is. He was afraid of doing things wrong."

"Doing what wrong?" Kelly asked.

"Lots of things. Peter's had a very different childhood from you, sugar. There are a lot of things we take for granted which are new to him. Things confused him, and he got scared. But we've talked it out--he understands we love him and we don't want him to leave. I think it'll be all right now."

"Good," Carolyn grinned. "I really like Peter."

"So do I," Kelly added.

"I'm glad," Paul told them. "It won't ever hurt to show him that you like him--within reason, of course," he said pointedly to his oldest daughter.

"Okay, Okay," she exclaimed, "sheesh, can't a girl make one mistake?"

"Of course you can--but this one could have turned out much worse than it did. Peter's your brother--don't you forget it."

"I won't," she said.

"Me neither," Kelly added.

Paul laughed. "Good." He looked at his watch, then at the TV. "You can stay up 'til your movie's over, but then get to bed."

"Yes, Daddy," both girls replied, and they turned their attention back to the tv. Paul smiled and went upstairs.

Annie was in Peter's room; Peter was in the bathroom. She looked up when he entered.

"I'm going to stay with him for a bit," she said. He raised his eyebrows in surprise. The expression was lost on his wife.

"Is that necessary?"

She shrugged. "Maybe not, but I think he'll feel a little more comfortable if I'm with him for a little while. He's still kind of--at sea. Now that he's decided he's staying, he's gotten a little clingy. I guess I want to give him reassurance. It won't be for the whole night--just 'til he's asleep."

"Well, I hope not," he said. "I don't mind sharing you for a little while, but I don't want to give you up for the whole night."

She laughed lightly and moved to him, slipping her arms around his waist.

"Don't worry," she said softly, "you'll get yours."

"I'm planning on it," he murmured and kissed her deeply.

The sound of the flushing toilet separated them, and when Peter came into the bedroom, Paul put his arms around him.

"You all right?" he asked.

"Yeah," Peter said, leaning against him. "Thanks."

"Good." He kissed the top of his head. "Sleep well, sport. I'll see you in the morning."



~~~



July 6th



Peter was sitting on the far corner of the back deck, perched on the railing and staring out across the lawn to the woods beyond. The gentle summer rain had started about ten minutes ago. He was wet, but it kind of felt good. Refreshing. After several emotionally fraught days, it felt good to just sit here and let his mind go blank. He'd slept late again this morning, but had woken starving, having missed more than a few meals the past days. So he'd eaten a huge breakfast and drank almost a quart of orange juice.

Kelly and Carolyn had been in the kitchen when he came down, and they greeted him cheerfully, just like they always did. As if nothing had happened. There was a certain pleasure in that, too--that life could go on just as it had. They'd asked him if he wanted to go to the pool with them, and he'd said yes, since he'd missed the chance earlier in the week. He'd never been swimming in a pool, only in the lake by the temple, and was looking forward to it. But the onset of the rainclouds had precluded their planned excursion, and Peter found himself with nothing to do this afternoon. So he took himself outside, planning on taking a walk, but got to the edge of the deck, decided to sit down and watch the rainclouds move in, and there he'd stayed.

He heard a sound behind him--the sound of the sliding doors opening and closing, and then a sploosh of a tennis shoe hitting a puddle.

"Hi, Peter," Carolyn called from behind him.

"Hi," he said, turning around to look at her.

"How come you're sitting in the rain?" she asked.

He looked back across the lawn. "Because it's quiet," he said, swinging his legs against the railing.

"You want me to leave you alone?"

"Nah." He shook his head. "You can get soaked with me if you want." He looked at her and grinned. She smiled back and perched next to him.

"I've never done this before," she said.

"What, sat in the rain?"

"Yeah. Mom gets upset."

"You mean she'll be mad at me?"

Carolyn shook her head. "She knows where you are--I told her."

"Oh."

They sat in silence for a time, listening to the soft patter of the rain striking the lawn in front of them, the wood of the deck behind.

"I'm sorry for what I did before," Carolyn finally spoke.

He looked at her. "That's okay." Then he laughed softly. "I'm sorry I missed it."

She blushed and looked away. "Dad said that's why you ran away."

"No," he said immediately. "It wasn't that, it was--lots of things. Things I didn't understand. But I think we got it all figured out now."

"Still, it was a stupid thing to do--I didn't realize."

He nodded. "Yeah, probably." He looked at her again. "If it had been anybody but me--it probably would have worked. But I-- I wasn't even thinking that way. I mean, I think you're cute, Carolyn. But it never even occurred to me. I've never had a girlfriend--I'm not sure I'd know what to do if I did."

"Really?" Carolyn looked surprised. "None of the girls at Emerson?"

"Well," he looked away, knowing he was going pink, "there was this one girl, right when I started, who used to follow me around. But I was so messed up, I think she got tired of waiting for me to notice. Problem is, I noticed, I just didn't know what to do. And then after Pine Ridge, they stuck me in the classrooms at the orphanage, so I didn't go back to Emerson."

"Oh," Carolyn considered. Then, "Did you think that girl at Emerson was cute?"

"She was okay. Nothing special. Not as cute as you."

Carolyn blushed again. Then she asked, "What do you mean you didn't know what to do?"

"I don't know how to talk to girls," he said diffidently.

"There's no big deal to it," she said.

"Well sure, not for you--that's 'cause you are one."

"Not for anyone," she insisted. "You just--talk to her. Like any other person. Like you talk to me."

He smiled at her. "Thanks--I'll remember that. If I ever get the chance to find out again."

"You will," she said knowingly.

They fell silent again, and the rhythm of the rain was soothing.

"Peter?" she said.

"Yeah?"

"I don't know if I said this before, but-- I'm glad you're in our family." She hesitantly reached out and put her hand on top of his where it rested on the railing.

He smiled, turning his hand over and linking their fingers. "Thanks. I am too." They shared a shy smile.

He tugged gently on her hand and she slid down the railing closer to him. They sat, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, and watched the rain fall.



Chapter 6: Dragons in the Night

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