The Kindness of Strangers



April 1980



As first impressions went, it wasn't much of one.

Paul Blaisdell first saw the boy when he arrived at the orphanage for a meeting with the warden about what had become his annual lecture. He liked coming a day before, to get the lay of the land, meet some of the boys. Sitting on the bench in front of the warden's office was a tallish, gawky adolescent with too-long hair, and what looked like a permanent scowl on his face. He smiled at the boy, not too surprised to see the kid's eyes narrow in response. It wasn't an unusual reaction--most of these boys had only known kindness in the form of pity. And that in itself was a pity, because it meant that eventually, a large percentage of them would wind up in his precinct--and not because they'd decided to become police officers, either. Some system they had in this country, that abandoned its kids to institutions like Pathways, whose only concern was getting rid of them as fast as possible. Most of these boys would wind up in foster homes totally unsuited for the care of children, and many of them would become runaways--trying to escape from a system that didn't want them. Unfortunately, that was often the first step to the life which would bring them in contact with Police Captain Paul Blaisdell and his officers.

But at the lecture he'd be able to meet these kids before they became hard cases, before they got into constant trouble. And that, he reasoned, was why he still did it, instead of pawning it off on a subordinate as had been done to him years ago. It was a chance to maybe make a difference to one or two kids in the bunch, who'd think twice about getting involved in something illegal because they remembered the cop who talked to them--and seemed like an okay guy.

"How's it going?" he said to the boy, surprised when the kid stared at him. That was unusual--these boys usually preferred no eye contact.

"Oh, just swell," the kid muttered, then looked away disgustedly.

"Mr. Trager in?" Paul asked.

The boy shrugged. "You can knock."

Paul was about to do so when the door opened and two men came out.

"Paul, good to see you!" the smaller of the two men, Bill Trager, shook his hand. "Come on in, I'll just be a minute." Paul went into the office, but lingered to hear the conversation at the door.

"Peter," Mr. Trager was saying, "Mr. Hayes has agreed to let you off with a warning this time, but it's the last straw. If you can't learn to behave in the classroom, we'll have to put you some place where you can."

The boy, Peter, shrugged. "So send me back to Pine Ridge. I don't care, and neither do you."

Trager sighed. "Don't tempt me. Now get out of here before I find some excuse to slap you with a reprimand."

Peter smirked, but lurched to his feet, heading off down the corridor. Blaisdell went inside the office, and momentarily, Trager followed.

"New conscript?" Paul asked.

Trager groaned. "Don't I wish. If he was new, maybe we'd have a chance of placing him. But he's been here two years already--I think we're stuck with him for the duration."

"Two years? I don't remember seeing him before."

"When he first got here, he was so quiet you probably missed him. He exuded hurt like a wounded puppy. Now we're into the anger phase and he's getting harder and harder to deal with."

Paul took a seat and Trager poured him a cup of coffee. "So tell me his story."

Trager sighed. "Peter Caine--age 14. We don't know anything about his mother except that she died when he was a baby--he's got a photo of her--pretty girl, looked Irish. We don't know if his parents were married, but in any case, when she died, Peter was taken care of by his father, who was a Buddhist monk or something. Showlin I think he said."

"Shaolin," Blaisdell corrected, having a passing familiarity with the sect, since Chinatown was in his jurisdiction. "His father was Chinese?" He recalled that Peter had no oriental features at all.

"Half-Chinese, apparently. Anyway, he raised the boy in a Buddhist temple in northern California--in the hills. A couple of years ago, the temple was destroyed under suspicious circumstances, and the father was killed. Peter lived with an old man from the temple for a month or so, but the old man wasn't up to tending an active adolescent. He became a ward of the state right after that."

"Rough transition?" Blaisdell commented.

Trager chuckled. "You could say that; the kid was completely clueless about most aspects of life that we take for granted. He'd never eaten hamburgers, or played most sports, and his education was so different from our schooling here, he was completely lost. They've already held him back a grade, and he's running the risk of getting held back again. He spoke fluent Chinese as well as English, had a strong grounding in eastern philosophy, no surprise there, and he's a hell of a fighter. But none of these things won him any points. He's been in trouble any number of times for fighting; the other kids taunt him and he reacts the only way he knows how--the way he's been trained. Quite frankly, we're more than a little concerned. There could be real trouble if he decides to go bad, with his training...."

"Oh, I should keep an eye out for this one then," Paul said wryly and Trager laughed.

"I shouldn't laugh, it could be a serious problem. He's got a chip on his shoulder a mile wide and giant "no trespassing" signs. He's already been at Pine Ridge once, and had two fosterings that went badly--the last one is what earned him six months at Pine Ridge."

"Runaway?"

"Knife fight, then runaway," Trager confirmed. "I'm not convinced Peter was totally guilty in this case. His story was that the man got drunk and went after his wife with a knife. Peter intervened, got the knife away from him, and nailed him with a kick to the balls. Wound up with six stitches in his hand for his trouble. But the man and his wife said that Peter got angry and went berserk. It was his word against theirs. I'm more apt to believe him, but there wasn't much else we could do. He fled the house, of course, so simply being a runaway was enough to put him into Pine Ridge."

Paul shook his head, more convinced than ever that the American child welfare system was pretty pathetic. "Given the circumstances, I'd run, too," he commented. "I don't know, he sounds bright enough."

"Oh, I'm sure he is. The problem here is more one of attitude than anything else. He doesn't want to be here, so as long as he's miserable, he'll go out of his way to make sure everyone else is miserable, too."

Paul shook his head again. Unfortunately, there were no easy answers for the Peter Caines of the world. He took a healthy swig of his coffee. "All right, Bill, what's the agenda for tomorrow?"



~~~





After the meeting, Paul took himself to the rec. room. In the back of his mind, he was hoping he'd run into Peter again. He didn't know why, just that something about the boy had touched him. He didn't know whether it was the story Trager had told, or Peter's own look of wounded defiance, but there was something....

Eventually, he found himself in the gym, watching a group of boys playing basketball. There was Peter, in sweatpants and sweatshirt, chasing the ball with the others. He looked more relaxed here--less angry. Paul decided to hang around until after practice, hoping to get the chance to talk to Peter.

His chance came sooner than he expected, when the ball bounced high out of bounds and up onto the balcony. Paul caught it, pleased when Peter was the one who ran upstairs to get it back.

The kid looked warily at him, obviously remembering him from earlier.

"Hi, I'm Paul Blaisdell, I'm a police officer." He regretted the words as soon as he said them; they sounded too authoritarian.

"So is this a bust?" Peter retorted, that same smart-assed half-smirk on his face.

Paul chuckled. "I don't know--have you done something I should bust you for?"

"Ask the teachers."

"Well, I did. And they said you're a pretty smart kid, but you have an attitude problem."

A look of defiance flashed across Peter's face. "They've got the problem." He swallowed. "I know who I am."

Paul smiled at the shaky teenaged confidence, sensing something more beneath the young arrogance. "That puts you ahead of most of us." He took a deep breath. "I'm giving a lecture tomorrow--you interested in law enforcement?"

"No," Peter said flatly. Then he smirked, "Are you gonna throw the ball back or do I have to wrestle you to the floor to get it?"

Paul gave his own sly smile and fired the ball back at him. Peter oophed when it caught him in the gut. "You know--" he began, "if you cut yourself some slack, I'll bet that chip would just fall right off your shoulder, son."

Peter's eyes narrowed. "What's it to you?" he asked suspiciously.

"Not a thing," Paul smiled.

Peter frowned and turned away, heading back to the game. But at the bottom of the steps, he stopped. "Hey!" he called, looking up at Paul. "When's that lecture tomorrow?"

"2:00."

Peter's eyes brightened. "Maybe I'll make it--that'll get me out of a math class." He grinned and went back to his game.

"Good," Paul said softly. He watched him play for a while longer, then headed home.



~~~





Peter didn't really want to go to the lecture. He didn't really want to do anything that this place told him he ought to. It was just one more irritation from living a life he hated.

It hadn't been easy, these past two years. He'd often told his father that he wanted to be a part of the world outside the temple walls, but the reality was far less than his imagination. A quiet boy with a short brush of hair all over his head, he'd been a perfect target for the rough-and-tumble crowd who inhabited the orphanage. The fact that Peter, thanks to his kung fu training, had been able to handle his aggressors easily had earned him a certain respect amongst his peers--but few friends.

His education at the temple, with its very different way of teaching, had insured that Peter struggled with school from his first day. He went from having always considered himself reasonably smart, to feeling like the dumbest kid in school, and he was at a loss to figure out why. He knew lots of stuff--but what he knew, they didn't care about, and what they tested him on, he didn't know. He even flunked gym class first semester, because what he knew of sports he'd learned from television. So while he was a good athlete, he was always the last chosen on a team, because he simply didn't know the rules. After his first year in this new, terrible place, they held him back a grade, hoping that by repeating everything, he'd catch up. Then, after his stint in Pine Ridge, they pulled him out of the regular school and into the orphanage classrooms, and Peter got lost all over again. Now it looked like he was going to fail everything once more.

In order to survive, Peter had determinedly put everything about his past behind him. He worked very hard to make himself "just like everybody else." During these past two years he had learned a great many things about life on the outside, and had tried very hard to assimilate. But that was not easily accomplished. He was still very much an outsider--and his long hair, bluejeans and scuffed tennis shoes did nothing to change that. At the heart of it lay the fact that he had a cultural upbringing completely different from that of his peers. He didn't understand Christmas, Easter, even Thanksgiving. They didn't understand the things he'd been raised with. And no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't really forget them--they were as much a part of who he was as "typical American boy" defined the others. He missed his friends at the temple--Dennis, Sung Chu, Philip.... He missed the atmosphere of the temple, the feeling like he belonged. And he desperately missed his father. Many was the night when he would lie in his bed and stare at the ceiling, tears running unchecked down his face to puddle on the pillow as he wept silently, afraid to wake his roommates. Afraid they wouldn't understand.

Once a month, the staff would bring in a member of the community to give a talk. They'd seen doctors, lawyers, businessmen, the assistant mayor, a fireman, even a local pastor. But this particular month, they brought in a Police Captain.

Peter hadn't been impressed when he'd seen the captain yesterday outside Trager's office, nor later in the gym. He had no intention of listening to some cop talk about how great it was to be Mr. Policeman. But getting out of a math class with a legitimate excuse....

Peter went to the lecture.

Captain Blaisdell had a craggy face--a no-nonsense face--with heavy eyebrows and penetrating blue eyes. But his voice was friendly and his manner easy. More than that, he talked to the boys in such a way that they felt he was really talking to each of them. At least, that's how Peter felt. It was nice to feel like somebody was really paying attention to you. And he didn't talk down to them--Peter hated that, when people and talked to them like they were babies--as if orphans weren't as intelligent as everyone else. But Blaisdell wasn't patronizing at all. And the things he said--

It was as if someone had opened a door for Peter. He saw a way out of his miserable life--a way to do something good. He could combine his father's teachings of helping those in need, with a way to fit in to this society he was forced to live in. And he could continue to learn to fight--his ultimate goal--but do it in such a way that it did good, not harm. At the end of his talk, Captain Blaisdell asked for questions, and for the first time, Peter raised his hand.

"Yes?" the captain asked.

"How do you become a cop?" Peter asked.

"Glad to see you could make it," Blaisdell smiled, recognizing him. "That's a good question. There are lots of ways--a lot of it depends on where you are when you decide to become an officer of the law. Some of our officers go through military training first--they learn what they need to know in the army or the navy--sometimes even serving as military police. Most of the others go through police training. The city runs a police academy, and students who are enrolled learn about police work and all its varieties. They also learn the skills necessary to become police officers. When they graduate, many of them go on to serve with the city's police department, some go on to police departments in neighboring communities. With a good police academy background behind you, there isn't a force in the country you couldn't qualify for."

"But how do you get into the police academy?" Peter wanted to know.

"It's a lot like any other school--there's an application process and an entrance exam. We require our applicants to have a high-school diploma or equivalent. We prefer some college, though a degree isn't necessary, but we do require a certain degree of competence in several academic areas--like math, spelling, communication."

"That lets you out, Pete," one of his classmates behind him jeered, and the other boys laughed while Peter flushed with anger and shame.

The captain fielded a couple more questions until Trager interrupted to say they were out of time, and to thank Captain Blaisdell. The boys all applauded, and the lecture was over.

Peter considered heading straight to the gym--or maybe the tv room, but after these lectures, they had juice and treats. It was a pretty good way to insure attendance--promise to feed them. The juice was some disgusting red stuff, but the kitchen staff had made brownies, and they were one of Peter's favorites. So he told himself he'd get a brownie, eat it fast, then get out of the crowd.

The line for the food table had already formed, and Peter took his place at the end of it, hating to stand in line and wishing it would hurry up. He finally got up to the table, took his brownie and a paper cup of the sickening juice, and was about to turn away to eat his booty, when he almost ran into someone standing near the table. Since he was looking down, all he saw was navy blue trousers and shiny black shoes.

"Whoa, careful son" said the shoes' owner, and a hand came up to steady him. "Watch where you're going."

Peter recognized the voice and looked up, feeling ice-water in his veins. It was Captain Blaisdell.

"Sorry," he mumbled. The hand stayed on his arm.

"Peter, isn't it?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Thanks for your questions, Peter, they were good ones."

Peter didn't know what to say to that; he only flushed and looked down again.

"So you think now you might want to become a police officer?" Blaisdell went on, pretending not to notice Peter's discomfort.

Peter looked up again. "I don't know--maybe."

"What made you change your mind? What about police work sounds interesting to you?"

The question caught him by surprise--he wasn't expecting Blaisdell to pay any attention. He certainly wasn't expecting to be asked his opinion. So he tried to answer the question honestly. "I think--helping people. Being one of the good guys."

Blaisdell raised his eyebrows. "Not shoot-em-ups?"

Peter couldn't tell if Blaisdell was teasing him, so he answered, "Not if I could help it."

It must have been the right answer, because Blaisdell smiled. "Well, that's good to hear--there's nothing glamorous about using a gun. Police know how to use them, and know when to use them. But there are lots of better ways to solve problems than by shooting people."

"Yeah, I know."

Blaisdell smiled again, and patted his arm. "So you think you'd be interested in entering the police academy, eh?"

"Maybe," Peter replied.

"How are your grades, Peter?"

Oh oh. This was it. He looked at the floor again. "Lousy," he mumbled. Then he looked at Blaisdell through upturned eyes.

The Captain frowned and pursed his lips. "You'll need to do a little better than 'lousy' to get into the academy," he said. Then, "How old are you?"

"Fourteen."

"Well then--you can't start at the academy until you're at least nineteen; that gives you plenty of time to get those grades up. You're a freshman?"

Peter shook his head. "Eighth grade."

"That gives you even more time."

"I'm--not very good--at a lot of things."

"Who said?" Blaisdell sounded surprised.

"All my teachers," Peter answered.

"I'll bet some things are harder for you than others, right?" Peter nodded. "Then those are the things you'll need to work hardest at. But I doubt there's anything you can't learn, if you put your mind to it. And if you're serious about wanting to try for the academy, you can think of it as a goal to work for. Then you'll have the incentive to do better in your schoolwork." He smiled at Peter again. And Peter nervously returned the smile.

"Yeah, okay."

"Good." Blaisdell put his hand on Peter's shoulder. "Now you promise me you'll work at those classes. And I promise I'll check back with you--see how you're doing. Sound good?"

This man--this important person--was taking an interest in him. The feeling was--incredible. He smiled, a genuine, pleased smile. "Sure."

"That's my man," Blaisdell said, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Well, I've got to be going. Good bye, Peter--I'll see you later."

"'Bye," Peter answered, and Blaisdell reached to shake his hand, but Peter's two hands were full of brownies and juice, so he set them both down on the table behind him and shook the captain's hand. His handshake was firm and warm, and Peter thought that if he hadn't already decided to like Blaisdell, his handshake would have convinced him.

Trager walked the captain out of the room, and Peter watched them go, musing about the extraordinary conversation which had just taken place. A top-ranking police officer had taken an interest in him, decided that he was a possible candidate for the police academy, and offered to help him get there. No one had ever cared about him like that. No one since his father....

Peter shook his head, vowing to go right upstairs and work on his math homework. He turned around to get his brownie and found that someone had stolen it. The punch, however, was still there. Abandoning the punch, he went back to the snack table, only to find all the brownies were gone. So empty-handed, he walked out of the room, quite a lot less sorry about missing out on a brownie than he would have been otherwise--because that brownie had brought him the best conversation of his life.



~~~



Paul Blaisdell was silent as he walked back to Bill Trager's office to collect his coat. "Bill," he finally said, "I've got a question about Peter Caine."

Trager chuckled. "Yeah, I thought you might. Shoot."

"His questions about the police--is this common? Does he always ask questions?"

Trager shook his head. "No--this is the first time he's ever spoken up when he hasn't been specifically asked something. He feels like an outsider, so he acts like one. Among the staff, he's gotten the nickname of James Dean--rebel without a cause."

"He doesn't try to make himself fit in?"

"It's like putting a square peg in a round hole, Paul. He's not going to fit in, no matter how hard he tries--he's too--different. He can't help it, his childhood ensured that. And you know what kids are like--they can be cruel to the outsider. Crueler if the outsider tries to get in. I think Peter gave up trying after the first couple of months. Because he struggles so badly with school, that makes him feel even more alienated. He's the dummy. Worse, he's the weird dummy. And the kids here are sometimes a little rougher than most. So mostly, Peter keeps to himself. I think it's how he's determined to survive."

Paul thought about that. Peter Caine, from what he'd seen of him, was a bright kid with potential. But he was mistrustful and, Paul suspected, lonely. And, for whatever reason, he knew he couldn't get the kid out of his mind. They got to the office and he collected his coat.

"How would he respond to a friendly overture?" he asked as they walked to the door.

Trager shrugged. "My first response would be to say mistrustfully--he's going to wonder what lays behind it. He rejects most overtures if he decides they're motivated by sympathy. It's one of the problems we've had in placing him in foster homes. As soon as he feels someone's pitying him, he bolts. On the other hand, he's already shown that he responds to you, so who knows? Why, what did you have in mind?"

"I'm not sure yet," he replied. "But I'd like to try."

Trager frowned. "Paul, I think it's only fair to warn you that we've had placement problems with him in the past--his two previous fosterings were both unmitigated disasters. One lasted about a week, the other one didn't even last the night."

"The knife fight?"

"Yeah, that's the one. We've got him listed as difficult. We're not really expecting to place him anymore. Most likely he'll stay here until he's 18, then he's on his own."

On his own, at which point, he'd more than likely get into trouble. And why not--after years of having his "undesirability" pounded into him. Paul shook his head. "I'm not looking to take him in--at least not yet. But I do want to keep up contact with him--make friends."

"Well, if you're looking for any suggestions," Trager went on, "the only one I can offer is to go easy. Treat him like the stray dog you're trying to befriend--put out your hand and let him come to you."

They smiled and shook hands, and Paul left the orphanage.



~~~



"How'd it go?" Annie Blaisdell was sitting in the living room, listening to music.

"Fine," Paul said, taking off his coat and kissing his wife. He sat next to her on the couch and put his arm around her--a comfortable embrace which was always available to him, whenever he needed it. "There was a boy there who interested me."

"And?" she asked. She knew that wasn't the whole story.

"And I think I'd like to see about helping this one. There was something about him--I can't even describe it. He needs someone. He needs to know someone cares." He smiled and told her what he'd learned about Peter's history. "He's a little shy, tries to cover it up by being a smart-ass; he's easily embarrassed, a loner by circumstance rather than nature, I'd venture. But he was interested in what I had to say, and even asked some questions afterwards--something the warden said he'd never done before."

She nodded. "So what are you going to do?"

"I'm not sure," he said, pursing his lips in thought. "I've got two possible connections to pursue--one is the school work--I've already started with him there. The other is the interest in police work."

"What would you do as far as the school work goes?"

He shook his head. "I don't know. According to Bill Trager, his schooling at the temple was very different from what he's getting at the orphanage. I'd like to talk to his teachers--find out the real story. Then--"

"How about finding a tutor for him?" she replied. "If it's true that he's bright but just lost in the system, then a tutor could help get him back on track."

"I think they've got tutors at Pathways who work with the boys," he told her.

"How many--2 or 3--for all those kids? It sounds like this one--what did you say his name was?"

"Peter. Peter Caine."

"It sounds like Peter needs some special attention."

"Yes," Paul nodded. "It'll cost us," he said.

"Do you think it would be worth it?"

He was silent for a moment. "Yes. I do. I'm not sure why, but something about this one--got to me. I must be getting soft." He chuckled and his wife joined him.

"No, you've just seen someone you can help--someone who needs a little TLC."

"Yeah--and he does, too. You know how sometimes you see someone you just want to hug--make it all better. Peter Caine's like that. But I think if I tried that, he'd bolt. Bill Trager said they've had trouble placing him in foster homes because he rejects kindness."

"He's probably afraid of getting hurt again. I know I would be if I were him."

"Maybe."

"Can you keep it business-like, at least at first? Deal with his schooling, maybe take him to see the station--would he like that?"

"You know, I'll bet he would," he nodded. "I'll talk to Bill and set something up for him for next Saturday; that'll give me time to talk to his teachers, and find a tutor."

"Will you bring him home?"

"You don't think that'll be too much for him, especially at first?"

She shrugged. "Maybe. See how it goes. If he seems responsive, then we can try."

"All right. You don't mind this?"

"Heavens, no, Paul. I trust your instincts. You've been dealing with these boys for years and none of them has ever affected you like this. If this one really does have something special, and if we can help him, then we should do whatever we can. God knows those boys need all the help they can get."

"Thank you," he said, and kissed her.



~~~



A week later, on a Saturday morning, Peter was called to the warden's office. As he went down the corridor, his mind did a quick survey--was there anything he'd done that he was likely to get in trouble for? His temper had a tendency to flare at--inopportune times--and he'd been reprimanded more than once about his use of force against his classmates. The fact that the other boys started it didn't carry much weight--none of them knew how to fight against flying fists and feet. But this time, he couldn't think of anything; it had been a couple of weeks since his last battle--the kid's nose was almost back to normal, in fact. So he had no idea why the warden wanted to see him.

He got to the warden's office and knocked on the door. He heard "come in" and entered the room. And there he stopped dead.

Captain Blaisdell was sitting there, smiling at him.

"Hi, Peter," Blaisdell said, "how're those classes coming?"

Peter's elation at seeing the police captain turned to despair--he only wanted to find out about Peter's abysmal school scores.

"Still lousy," he mumbled, head down.

"Have you been studying?" Blaisdell asked.

"Yeah, but--it's hard, some of the stuff."

"You've got time, just keep working at it."

"Yes, sir." Peter wondered when he'd be dismissed.

But instead, Blaisdell said, "So, Peter, how would you like to see a police station in action?"

"Huh?" Peter said, then could have bitten his tongue. How articulate!

"The captain has come to give you a tour of his precinct, Peter," Mr. Trager told him.

"Oh." If he kept this up, Blaisdell really would think he was stupid.

"Would you like that?" Blaisdell asked.

"Oh, yeah--that would be--great!" Peter grinned, then flushed when the captain smiled back.

"Go get your jacket and come back here," Trager told him. Peter just nodded and sprinted from the office, running to his room and grabbing his coat, then flying back to Trager's office in about three minutes flat--afraid that if he were gone too long, Blaisdell would leave without him.

"Ready?" Blaisdell asked when he reappeared. He could only nod, too out of breath from his sprint to say anything. "I'll have him back by lights-out," Blaisdell said to Trager, and the warden told him to have a good time.

They walked to Blaisdell's car, and the captain put his hand on Peter's shoulder. It was a gesture Peter remembered his father using--a hand to guide. The reminder of his father was uncomfortable, though the gesture made Peter feel good--like somebody cared about him.

They were silent during the drive. Blaisdell didn't ask him any more questions, and he was still too stunned to say anything. He wondered why the captain should take such an interest in him--what lay behind it. He supposed it really didn't matter, as long as he remembered that once the captain got what he wanted (whatever that was), he was history. Still, if it got him out of the prison for a little while, that was a good thing.

The car pulled up in front of an old building, brick and concrete. It looked like an office building--or like a police station from some of the tv shows he watched.

"Here we are," Blaisdell said and turned off the engine. "This is where I work. Come on--I'll show you around." They got out of the car and Blaisdell put his hand on Peter's shoulder again, leading him into the station house.

Peter had never seen such chaos in his life. Rows of desks with people at each of them, telephones ringing, people talking, people yelling, people scurrying back and forth between one spot and another. A uniformed officer was pushing a man in handcuffs in front of him. Another man was being fingerprinted over in the corner (Peter recognized what they were doing from seeing it on tv). A man with a briefcase was arguing with another man in a suit, and one in a uniform. It was pandemonium and Peter knew instantly that he loved it.

"Wow," he said to himself, and Blaisdell's chuckle told him he'd spoken it out loud.

"It's not always like this, son," Blaisdell said, "sometimes it's worse."

Peter looked wide-eyed for a moment, then realized the captain was probably joking, and smiled. Blaisdell ruffled his hair in response.

The tour progressed from there. Wherever they went, Blaisdell would introduce him as "my friend Peter Caine, who wants to learn about becoming a police officer." That made Peter feel good--being called Blaisdell's friend. Nor did Blaisdell ever tell anyone where they'd met, knowing without Peter's saying so that he was embarrassed about living at the orphanage. And he was encouraged to ask as many questions as he wanted, to as many of the different people he met. At first, he didn't know what to ask--it was all so overwhelming. But then his curiosity got the better of him.

Peter was still asking questions almost three hours later when Blaisdell finally declared their tour at an end, with the promise to Peter that he could come back another time.

"I'm hungry, and I'll bet you are too," Blaisdell said.

Peter hadn't even noticed--and he almost always noticed when he was hungry. "Yeah," he said, and Blaisdell smiled at him, putting his hand back in its now-familiar position on Peter's shoulder and leading him from the precinct house.

They went to a McDonald's--a place Peter had never been before, and he ordered a Big Mac, large fries, and a chocolate milkshake. Over lunch, they talked some more about the tour.

"You were really interested in all that, weren't you?" Blaisdell asked.

"Yeah," Peter said between mouthsful, "it was great!"

"And you still think you'd like to consider police work when you're older?"

"Sure--if I can ever figure out how to pass math and English."

Blaisdell chewed thoughtfully. "I talked to one of your teachers," he began, "Mrs. Kendall."

Peter went wide-eyed with surprise. What was he doing talking to his teachers?

"She said she didn't think you were a bad student," Blaisdell went on, "just that because of how different your early schooling was, you've got a lot of catching up to do. She said it's not that you don't know the answers, but that you sometimes don't understand the questions. You aren't used to the way classes are taught in public school or in the orphanage--you're used to smaller groups, more individualized teaching, right?"

Peter frowned at him, his appetite fled. "How much do you know about me?" he asked.

Blaisdell smiled gently. "I know you were raised by your father in a Shaolin temple, and that your father was killed when it was destroyed. I know you've been a ward of the state since then, and that you didn't attend public school until you came to live at the orphanage. So I know you've got a lot of catching up to do."

Peter just stared at him. "How did you find out all that?"

"I asked. After we met last week, I asked Mr. Trager about you."

"But--why?" This was getting very confusing.

Blaisdell reached across the table and put a hand on Peter's. "Because when we met, I thought you seemed to be a smart kid, with a lot of potential, smart-assed attitude notwithstanding. And you showed an interest in something that's very important to me--police work. Now, potential without hard work means absolutely nothing, but I believe you're willing to work hard. You just need some help. Are you with me so far?" Peter just nodded. "So what would you say to working with a tutor who can help get you up to speed in your classes?"

Peter shook his head. "They've got tutors who come to the home, but they're always so busy, and I'm so far behind...."

"I'm not talking about the group tutors at Pathways--I mean someone who will work with you individually--one on one. They can help you with the subjects you have the most trouble with. Say, a couple of times a week. You'll have to promise to work hard in between, but the tutor can help. What do you think?"

The idea of a tutor--someone who could help him with the things he didn't understand, and wouldn't ridicule him because he was stupid--was a wonderful one. It would be more like the lessons he'd had at the temple. But Peter still didn't quite trust it. "A tutor just for me would be expensive--they wouldn't allow it--they can't do anything special like that for one person--they'd have to do it for everybody."

"They won't be paying for it. I will."

Peter's frown deepened. "Why are you doing this?" he asked again.

"I told you--I see a lot of potential in you. You're not a bad kid, Peter--don't let them tell you otherwise. You've had an upbringing different from everybody else's--different's neither good nor bad. You've had some hard knocks, too. Maybe I just want to show you that life isn't all hard knocks. There are still people out there who care. I'm in a position where I can help you, and I'd like to do just that--if you'll let me. So what do you say? Will you work with that tutor?"

The skeptical part of Peter's brain still didn't trust it. But the emotional part thought the statement sounded sincere, and he really wanted to accept it. "For how long?" he asked.

"As long as you need it."

Peter shrugged; it wouldn't do to seem too enthusiastic. "Yeah, I guess. Thanks."

Blaisdell smiled. "Good. I'll talk to Mr. Trager--get it all set up. Are you done here?" he indicated the hamburger wrappers. Peter nodded, and they cleaned up their garbage and left the restaurant.

Outside, Blaisdell took a deep breath. "Well, it looks like summer may get here eventually after all," he said. Sure enough the morning, which had been cold and damp, had burned away to a sunny afternoon with warm air just on the horizon. They walked to the car.

"So what now?" Peter asked as they got in.

"What?"

"Are you taking me back now?"

"No, not unless you want to go back," Blaisdell said.

"Not especially," Peter mumbled.

"Good. Then we've got the whole afternoon. What do you want to do?"

Surprised, Peter could only stare gape-mouthed. The tour had been wonderful, but to spend the entire day with this man--and not even to have to do something special--it was too much to believe. "I-I dunno," he finally stammered. "I--don't even know what there is to do."

"Hmmm," Blaisdell mused. Then, "How about the movies?"

"You mean in a movie theatre?"

"Yes."

Peter grinned. "I've never done that--I've only ever seen movies on TV."

"Do you want to?"

"Yeah!"

"All right, movies it is."

They bought a newspaper and sat on a park bench, deciding which looked like the movie they wanted to see. Peter pointed to one that looked interesting.

"What's that one about?" he asked.

"You've never seen it? My God, I thought all kids had seen that."

"Not when you don't get to go to movies," Peter muttered uncomfortably. "I'm sorry, of course. But it was a huge hit. The sequel's due out next month, so they're showing it again."

"What's it about?"

"It's science fiction--do you know what that is?"

"Like Star Trek?"

Blaisdell smiled. "Sort of. But better special effects."

"Can we see it?"

"If you'd like."

So they saw "Star Wars" and Peter was absolutely mesmerized. He loved the action, and the excitement--and the funny parts. Blaisdell bought him buttered popcorn and a large pop, and he spent most of the film curled up in his seat, eating popcorn--and then chewing his nails when the popcorn ran out--enthralled with the action on the screen. Blaisdell seemed to really enjoy it too--he laughed at the funny parts, looked just as tense as Peter felt during the suspenseful parts, and cheered the hero just like everyone else.

Early on, when the homestead was destroyed, and Luke was all alone, Peter felt the sting of tears. The scene hurt--it was too much like himself after the temple. But instead of being able to go out and find his fortune like Luke, he was stuck in the orphanage, where he didn't belong, where he hated everything. He sniffed and felt Blaisdell look at him. But he kept his eyes forward and tried to concentrate on the screen, steadfastly ignoring the man beside him. Blaisdell didn't say anything, just laid his arm across the back of Peter's seat, where it remained for the rest of the film. Eventually, when he realized no questions or comments were forthcoming, Peter relaxed and settled down to watch the rest of the movie. He kind of liked the idea of the captain's arm being there--it was comforting, in a strange sort of way.

There were other scenes that were hard to watch, too, like the death of Obi-Wan, and Luke's learning about the Force. The Force was kind of like the Tao, and Obi-Wan-- Obi-Wan was his father.

But mostly, the movie made him happy. It was exciting and fun, and he could set the painful parts aside and enjoy it for what it was--his first real movie. When it ended, Peter was almost sorry it was over--it had been an amazing experience. Movies on tv hadn't prepared him for large screens and Dolby surround-sound, and he was almost vibrating with the excitement of the event. Blaisdell smiled at his enthusiasm, and put an arm around Peter's shoulders--a gesture Peter welcomed with a smile.

"Well," the captain said as they walked back to the car, "I hope I haven't fed you so much junk food that you won't be able to eat dinner."

"Dinner?"

"Yes--my wife is planning dinner and I thought I'd bring you home. You ever had a home-cooked meal?"

"I don't think so."

"You don't know what you're missing," Blaisdell smiled.

But Peter got nervous all over again. He knew after spending the day with the police captain that he really liked Blaisdell. But he wasn't sure about meeting his wife. He never liked meeting new people--especially since he assumed Blaisdell's wife would know where her husband met Peter, and he didn't need some well-meaning woman's sad-eyed clucking sympathy.

Peter was silent as they drove to Blaisdell's house. The captain pulled into the driveway of one of the biggest houses Peter had ever seen, and into the garage. He started to get out of the car, but Peter, suddenly petrified, didn't move.

Blaisdell stopped. "They don't bite, Peter," he said gently.

Peter looked at him. "They?"

"My wife, and my two daughters."

Two girls--oh no, he was doomed!

"Come on--it'll be all right." Again that reassuring hand on his shoulder, accompanied by an affectionate wink. So finally, Peter took a deep breath and climbed out of the car.

They went into the house through a door off the garage, and immediately, Peter's nostrils were assailed by the most wonderful smells. His mouth started watering and he hoped his stomach wouldn't embarrass him by growling.

"Hello, we're home," Blaisdell called as they entered.

"About time--I was wondering what happened to you," came a voice from the next room--the kitchen. A slender blonde-haired woman was standing over the sink, running water into a pot. Blaisdell went up to her and she turned her head so he could kiss her hello. Peter saw she wore dark glasses, and he thought that was strange, then realized suddenly that she was blind. He wasn't sure exactly how he knew--maybe the way she held her head--just like Geok Seng used to.

The captain's wife was blind! That wasn't anything he'd expected.

She shut off the tap and turned around to face him, drying her hands on a towel. "And this must be Peter," she smiled, and her smile was warm and genuine. "I'm Annie Blaisdell. Welcome to our home." She extended her hand to him.

"Thanks," he said and took her hand for a handshake. Her handshake was nice, too--strong and warm. She held his hand for a moment, and he felt the warmth come through it.

Then he followed an instinct, and brought her hand to his cheek.

Her face lit with a beautiful smile. "Why, thank you, sweetie," she said to him, "may I?"

"Yeah," he said, and she ran her hands over his face, feeling his bones, his hair, his features. "There was a blind man--when I was younger. He always greeted you by wanting to touch you. He said he saw through his fingers." Peter felt he owed her an explanation.

"He's right," she said, "we do. Thank you," she said again. Then she put both hands on either side of his face. "You're a good-looking boy," she said. Peter instantly blushed. "Oh, I've made you embarrassed, I'm sorry."

"How did you know that?" he asked.

"When you blush, your face gets warm," she said. He put a hand to his cheek and felt the heat there. She was right. And that made him blush even more.

Blaisdell, meanwhile, was checking on what was happening in the oven. He closed the oven door, pressed a wall intercom and called, "Girls--dinner's almost ready--come and help Mom." Peter could hear voices and footsteps overhead. Then he heard them come down the stairs. And then they were in the kitchen. They were both younger than him, one with light hair, one dark. Peter didn't have much experience with girls, but he knew these two were cute. Except that they took one look at him and started giggling. And Peter felt his face go hot again.

Blaisdell sighed. "These two gigglers are my daughters, Peter," he said. "The older giggler is Carolyn. The younger one is Kelly. Say hello to Peter Caine, girls."

"Hello, Peter." "Hi, Peter," the two girls managed to say before they started giggling again.

"Hi," Peter managed to choke out over his embarrassment.

"Girls, please get dinner on the table," Mrs. Blaisdell said. Then, "Peter, why don't you go clean up--Paul will show you where."

"Thanks," he said, and Blaisdell pointed him in the direction of the bathroom.

Blaisdell had been right--a home-cooked meal was something really wonderful. If the smells had been great, the actual food was even better. It was roast beef, cooked so that it actually tasted like something and not that rubbery stuff they served at the home. And vegetables that were crunchy, and potatoes in this wonderful sauce, and applesauce, and rolls with butter. Peter had second helpings of everything. Throughout the meal he was silent, listening and watching as a "normal" family had dinner. It was something he'd never experienced, and he found it fascinating. He admitted to himself he was envious of the family--this was a common occurrence for them, while he was still squirming from the newness. He wished it could feel so normal to him as well.

Carolyn and Kelly Blaisdell, having apparently gotten over their initial nervousness about meeting someone new--and thus getting the giggles--were warming to him, and started barraging him with questions--where did he live, where did he go to school, what did he do there at Pathways, whether Peter had heard the new Fleetwood Mac album, what his favorite tv show was--and so on. Peter answered them as best he could, and found himself getting over his embarrassment with them as well. At one point, he even caught himself forgetting that they were cute girls, thinking instead that they were two kids with whom maybe he could be friends.

Dinner over, he helped the girls clear the table and load the dishwasher. He'd washed dishes at the temple, but this was new to him. However, Carolyn, who was about two and a half years younger than him, had appointed herself Peter's "guide" to Blaisdell family life, and told him everything he needed to know about dishwashers.

"You've really never seen one?" she asked, amazed at any such thing.

He shook his head. "We did dishes ourselves where I grew up, but the kids aren't allowed in the kitchen at Pathways."

"That would be cool--not having to do dishes," Kelly commented. Kelly was nine.

"Maybe," Peter said, rinsing a plate and handing it to Kelly to stack in the machine, "but it also means--you don't have a family."

"Oh," Kelly said, Peter's comment having effectively quashed the conversation.

They finished the dishes in silence, and Carolyn turned the dishwasher on, giggling when Peter jumped at the noise.

The ice broken yet again, she said, "You want to play Clue?"

"What's Clue?"

"It's a board game--you get to be detectives and figure out who killed this guy, in what room and with what weapon--it's lots of fun."

Detective--this was something Peter would enjoy--he was good at deductive reasoning. "Sure," he answered.

"Good. Come on."

They played three games, sprawled in the middle of the family room floor. They laughed, joked and even squabbled, and Peter couldn't remember ever feeling this comfortable with people. Not even with the people in the temple sometimes. It was often so serious there; you were always trying so hard to learn your lessons. This was different--this was a chance for Peter to be exactly what he was--a teenaged boy.

A little after 9:00, Captain Blaisdell put down his paper. "Peter, it's time we got going if I'm going to have you back by 10:00."

Peter felt like someone had thrown cold water on him. He was having such a good time, he'd forgotten he had to go back to the orphanage.

"Awww, Daddy, does he have to?" Kelly whined.

"Yes, sweetie, you know he does," Mrs. Blaisdell said. "But he'll come back again to visit, won't you, Peter?"

Peter gaped. The chance to come back? Fantastic! "Yeah, sure!" he said, and Blaisdell chuckled at his obvious enthusiasm.

"Come on, kid, get your coat," he said.

"It was nice meeting you, Peter," Carolyn said, getting up from the floor.

"Goodbye, Peter," Kelly piped in.

"It was nice meeting you too," Peter replied, feeling himself blush again. He'd never blushed so much in his life. "'Bye."

Mrs. Blaisdell got up and walked with Peter to the door, taking his arm as if it was the most natural thing in the world. It felt perfectly natural to Peter, too.

"I'm so glad you were able to spend this evening with us, Peter," she said, "I want you to promise you'll come back just as soon as you can."

How about tomorrow, he felt like saying, but instead he simply said, "I promise."

"Good. Now you take care of yourself." She started to extend her hand for another handshake, then pulled it back and waved it in rejection. "Enough of this silly handshake business--give me a hug, sweetie." And she extended her arms to him.

Peter fell in love with Annie Blaisdell in that instant and he went into her embrace, aching with the beautiful wonder of it. He could feel the love in her--it radiated out of her and soaked into his every muscle, every pore. He fought desperately hard to keep from hanging on for dear life and bursting into tears. But somehow he managed to hold onto his control, and eventually pulled away.

"Good night, honey--see you soon," she said, and her gentle voice was a caress.

"Good night," he managed, "and thanks."

He was silent all the way back to Pathways. Each rotation of the tires brought him closer to the life he hated--and further from the love he'd just felt.

They got to Pathways and Blaisdell pulled the car up in front, shifting into park.

"I'll arrange for a tutor, then talk to Mr. Trager--set up what time would be best for you. But you have to promise me you'll really work with this, got it?"

Peter smiled. "Got it."

"Good." Then Blaisdell took a breath. "You have a good time today, kid?" he asked.

"Yeah, I had a great time. Thanks."

"I'm glad. Think you'd like to do it again sometime?"

"Sure!"

Blaisdell smiled. "How'd you like to see a police crime lab?"

Peter went wide-eyed. "Really? That'd be cool!"

"Good--plan on it for next weekend."

"Okay, great."

"And Peter--"

"Yeah?"

"Pack an overnight bag--that way we won't have to rush you back here."

Peter's heart almost stopped. Spending the night--at the Blaisdells? It was almost too good to be believed. He couldn't stop the broad smile that burst across his face. Blaisdell saw the expression and smiled, too.

"I'm glad you liked my family--they liked you too."

Peter couldn't say anything--liking the Blaisdells was like saying he missed his father. Liking was too mild a word to use for the people who made him feel--complete. So he just stared at Blaisdell, completely and utterly unable to express how he felt.

Blaisdell must have understood anyway, because he put his hand on Peter's shoulder and said gently, "I wouldn't say no to a hug either, if you want."

Peter looked away, embarrassed. He was letting too much of his feelings show. He was giving the captain the upper hand. He should be able to stay calm, like his father. But in spite of himself, he nodded. Blaisdell reached over and pulled him into a hug. This time he couldn't stop it when his eyes filled with tears. He couldn't stop the trembling that shook him as he held onto this man who had just given him the greatest gift.

"Shhh, it's all right, son," Blaisdell soothed, a hand stroking his hair, "it's all right."

Eventually, he calmed enough to break the hug, embarrassed by his lack of control. That hadn't exactly gone as planned. But Blaisdell didn't seem to mind--he simply handed him a handkerchief, and took it back again wordlessly when he was done with it.

"Well," he said, "we've now got about two minutes before you're late, so you'd better scoot."

"Oh--yeah." Peter climbed out of the car. But before he slammed the door, he leaned back in. "G'night--and thanks."

Blaisdell smiled. "Good night, kid--see you next week."

Peter gave a big grin, and ran up the steps. Then he turned and watched as the captain's car pulled out of sight. He stood on the front step, musing about his most amazing day, when he suddenly realized it was almost 10:00, if it wasn't already past, and he bolted inside and down the hall to his room. He didn't want to be late--the last thing he needed was to get in trouble and have his privileges suspended--just when things were looking up!



~~~



Annie was getting ready for bed when her husband came home.

"Well?" she said when she heard him come in.

He sighed. "If it had been up to me, I would have turned the car around, brought him back here and kept him here."

"So why didn't you?"

"You know I can't."

"You could call the placement office tomorrow and make the arrangements."

"No--I don't want to steamroll him--I want to take it slow. I don't want him to bolt."

"Not much chance of that," she said with a smile. "You didn't feel how tightly he held onto me when I hugged him."

"I felt how tight he hung onto me," he answered. "But he's overwhelmed right now. It's new and different. I want him to be sure it's right."

"But you do want to have him come live with us."

"I want to at least consider the possibility."

She nodded. "We'll need to talk to the girls about it," she told him.

"I know--that's another reason we should wait--let them get used to the idea first. Let them get used to him."

"I thought they got along pretty well."

"Oh, they did, but they were all on their best behavior, too. Besides, he's a cute kid, and Carolyn is smitten, I think."

"That could be a problem."

"Not if you talk to her."

"Me?"

"And I'll talk to Peter. If he decides to stay with us."

"All right," she nodded and got into bed.

He went to the bathroom and cleaned up, then came back to the bedroom, turned off the light, and slid in next to her, taking her in his arms.

"I've invited him to tour the crime lab next weekend," he said, breaking from a luxurious kiss.

"Good," she said, stroking a hand down his back.

"And I told him to pack an overnight bag--stay over on Saturday. All right with you?"

"Of course it is. I felt terrible having to send him back there tonight--he needs a family. He doesn't get that there."

"It'll work out--I'm sure of that," he said.

"So am I," she replied, and settled down in his arms.



~~~



Peter was waiting for him when Paul pulled up in front of Pathways the following Saturday morning. He had a brown grocery bag with him.

"What's that?" Paul asked as Peter ran down the steps.

Peter stopped dead and looked stricken. "My stuff--for--tonight?"

"You don't have a suitcase?" Paul asked.

Peter looked confused for a moment, then shook his head. "I had one last year, but I, um--lost it."

Thanks to a knife fight and a subsequent flight, no doubt, Paul mused. But he smiled and said, "Well, never mind--I need to speak with Mr. Trager for a minute--you want to wait for me out here or come back in?"

"Here," Peter answered.

"I won't be long," Paul said with a smile, patting the boy on the shoulder. He walked into the building and turned toward the warden's office.

"Bill?" he said, knocking on the open door.

"Paul," Trager smiled and got up from behind his desk, shaking his hand, "How are you?"

"Fine. I'm here to take Peter for the day--I'll have him back on Sunday--after dinner."

"Good," Trager nodded. "You know, if you want, we can look into having him stay with you in a foster situation."

"I'm considering it," Paul confirmed, "but I'd rather go slowly. He's still skittish; I want to make sure he's comfortable with my family before we make any decisions."

"Fosterage isn't permanent," Trager told him. "If it doesn't work out--"

"If it doesn't work out, it could devastate Peter," Paul completed. "I have no desire to become disastrous fostering number three. I'm trying to help him, not hurt him. So I won't make the offer to him until I'm sure."

"I see."

"What about his tutor?" Paul asked.

"Josie Simms," Trager answered. "She met with him on Thursday after school--she'll be coming on Tuesdays and Thursdays to work with him. She's a good teacher--decided she'd rather work with kids individually than in a classroom. I've had nothing but good reports on her."

"How did Peter respond to her?"

"Like he responds to everybody--he was quiet, didn't say much. But she's a warm person--I think she'll draw him out eventually. I talked to her before she left; apparently, he's more than aware of every area he has trouble with--he was very honest with her. And she thought he seemed like he really wanted to change the situation, if he only knew how."

"Then you think this could work."

Trager shrugged. "I think it could help. Whether it'll really make a difference, only Peter can decide that."

Paul nodded, satisfied. "Well, he's waiting for me, and he knows we're talking about him--I don't want to make him any more uncomfortable. I'll have him back on Sunday."

"Have a good time," Trager shook his hand again, and Paul left the office.

Peter was nowhere to be seen when Paul got outside, and he was about to go back inside to look for him, when the boy came out, this time with a beat-up overnight bag over his shoulder. Paul looked at it, then at Peter.

"I thought you said you didn't have a suitcase." Peter nodded. "Where's that from?"

"Borrowed it--from one of my roommates."

"Borrowed it?"

"Yes."

"Asking permission?"

"Yes!" Peter was getting indignant.

Paul smiled. "Okay, let's go." He put his hand on the boy's shoulder, leading him to the car.

They were off to a rocky start. Paul hoped the weekend wouldn't go the way it had begun. They were silent as they left the orphanage, Peter's discomfort coming off him in waves.

At a stoplight, Paul turned to the boy next to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Peter, it doesn't matter to me if you've got a suitcase," he began, "I was just surprised. You didn't need to go through the trouble to find one." Peter didn't say anything, simply looked down, clearly uncomfortable. "Hey," Paul said, chucking the boy lightly under the chin, making him raise his head, "I'm gonna like you whether you have a suitcase or not--you don't need to impress me."

That made Peter smile shyly before he looked away, embarrassed.

Paul chuckled and ruffled his hair, letting his hand settle at the back of Peter's neck.

When they got to the central crime lab, Paul guided him into the building, a hand on his shoulder or back the whole time. Once again, it took Peter a while to warm up, but once he did, the questions came non-stop.

From the Lab, Paul drove them home. Carolyn and Kelly were waiting for them; they were going bowling. Peter said he'd never been bowling, and it was a good way for the three children to interact--spend some time together and get to know each other.

When they got out of the car at home, Annie met them at the door.

"Hi there!" she called to Peter and extended her arms. Paul smiled as the boy almost ran to her, putting his arms around her and hugging her tight. Whenever he saw Peter's reaction to the affection they offered, he was more sure than ever that they were doing the right thing.

"Did you bring a bag for tonight?" his wife was asking the boy. He nodded, and she replied, "I can't hear your head rattle, Peter."

"Oops, sorry," he mumbled. "Yeah, I did."

"Good," she smiled. "Go get it--I'll take you up to your room."

Paul wondered if Annie even realized what she'd said--your room. But Peter caught it and he saw the boy swallow. "Okay," he said and ran back to the car.

"Peter, don't take too long," Paul told him, "and tell the girls we're ready."

Peter smiled. "I will." He grabbed his bag out of the back seat, then ran back to the house where Annie was waiting.



Bowling had been a good idea. Peter, like any new bowler, wasn't very good, though he improved markedly with each game. There seemed to be quite a lot of athletic ability in the boy. Kelly was a pretty mediocre bowler, too, and the two of them managed to laugh about it and got into a mock-competition over who got the most gutterballs. Carolyn, who'd just had a short gym class on the sport, though using plastic balls and pins, found that real balls and real lanes were a lot different. For himself, as a former league bowler, Paul found that he was rusty, but the skills came back easily and by the second game was coming close to his old average. The kids, meanwhile, realized that if they added up their scores, they could hope to beat their father, and in fact, by the third game, managed to do just that.

So it was a happy group which stopped at a fried chicken place to get dinner, then headed home. Annie hadn't been idle while they were gone, and they walked in to the smell of fresh-baked brownies. Paul smiled, amazed all over again at the things his wife managed to do by herself, and also amazed at the depth of her memory and consideration. He'd told his wife about Peter looking covetously at the brownies at the orphanage when he was there, and she'd remembered.

After dinner, they all moved into the family room, Carolyn declaring there was a tv movie she wanted to see. Peter, apparently, was always willing to watch tv. Kelly curled up next to her mother on the sofa, acting as interpreter for the program, and the two older children sprawled on the floor, soon absorbed in the program.

The movie was mildly diverting, and when it ended, Carolyn got up and turned off the television. Paul glanced over at Peter to find him hunched over his knees, staring at the TV without seeing it--lost someplace in his head. At the silence, he came out of himself and blinked, looking around, flushing as he realized that he'd missed the end of the program.

But Carolyn, bless her, pretended to ignore Peter's lapse. Instead, she said, "Come on, Peter, let's have brownies now."

The boy sighed, relieved, and followed her into the kitchen.

A late-night snack of heated brownies, vanilla ice cream and milk was enjoyed by all, and conversation wandered across various topics, mostly among the kids, discussing movies and tv shows. Peter explained that they didn't let the kids watch tv except on weekends and when homework was done. Since he spent so much time doing schoolwork, he often had to sneak into the tv room--usually late at night. And, he explained sheepishly, he usually got in trouble for it, too.

It had been an enjoyable day for everyone, but Peter and the girls were starting to run out of energy when Paul and Annie shooed them up to bed around 11:30--later than they usually got to stay up.

Paul had just seen the girls to bed when he stopped by Peter's room to check on him. Annie was sitting with him on the bed, holding his hands in hers.

"What do you want to know?" Peter asked, a little uncertainly.

"Oh, lots of things. Let's start with the little ones first. What's your favorite color?"

"Gold."

She tilted her head. "That's different. Why gold?"

He ducked his head and shrugged. "Dunno, I just--like it. I always have." Then he frowned. "How do you know what colors are?"

She smiled. "I have my own--impressions--of colors. For instance, ice feels blue. Grass smells green. And metal, like this--" she took off her wedding ring, "feels gold."

He tilted his head. "What about silver?"

"There's no difference between silver and gold to me," she told him. His mouth opened, then he closed it with a frown; perhaps the implication of what being blind really meant had just hit him. But she smiled and said, "My turn again. When's your birthday?"

"August 22nd."

"Is that Leo or Virgo?"

"Huh?"

"Your zodiac sign. Astrology?"

"Oh. I don't know. I don't know that zodiac. I know the Chinese one."

"What's your Chinese zodiac sign?"

"1965--the year of the snake," he answered promptly.

"And what are the characteristics of snakes?"

"Um--they're determined, sometimes stubborn. Leaders, whatever that means."

She laughed. "I think all zodiac signs tell you that--you've got leadership potential. So do you think you fit the snake?"

He shrugged again, then seemed to remember that she couldn't see the movement. "I don't know. My father--" he stopped abruptly and swallowed hard.

"Yes?"

"Nothing."

She squeezed his hands in her own. "Peter, it's all right to talk about your father."

He turned his head away. "I--I don't like to."

"How long has he been gone?" she asked softly.

He swallowed and looked down. "Two years," he said, and his voice trembled a little. She reached a hand to touch his face, but he turned away from the touch. "Can we talk about something else?"

She slowly lowered her hand, putting it instead over his other hand in his lap. "Yes, of course. I'm sorry." She took a deep breath. "Do you like sports?"

He looked at her. "Yeah."

"Which ones?"

"Hockey, soccer, baseball. And swimming."

"Do you swim?"

"Yeah."

"Well maybe one of these days, when the weather gets warmer, you can go with the girls to the pool. Would you like that?"

"Yeah," he repeated, but the haunted look was gone, replaced by a glimmer of hope.

Paul shifted in the doorway, making his presence known. Both heads turned toward him. "The girls are in bed," he told his wife, "I was just checking to see if you needed anything, Peter."

"I'm fine, thanks," the boy answered.

"You want to shower tonight or in the morning?"

"The morning, if that's okay."

"Yes, fine." Paul cleared his throat. "The girls and I will be getting up and going to church in the morning; you're welcome to join us."

Peter frowned and licked his lips. "What church?"

"St. Mark's. It's Episcopal. Do you know what that is?"

Peter shook his head. "It is Christian?"

Paul smiled. "Yes. It's kind of like Catholic, but not quite. There are lots of differences. Have you ever been to church?"

"No. I--I don't really know a lot about churches."

"Well," Paul said, "I know it's not something you're used to, but you're welcome to come with us. Welcome to, but don't feel like you have to--if it makes you uncomfortable, we understand."

Peter frowned again. "Do you go to church every week?"

"Most weeks," Paul confirmed.

"And do you go with them?" Peter turned to Annie.

"Normally," she answered.

"So if you don't go, you're not goin' because I'm here--"

"That doesn't matter," she assured him. "I don't need to go to church every week--God knows that I can remember Him without being in a church." Then she leaned over and whispered conspiratorially, "I'll let you in on a little secret--usually I go so I can sing in the choir."

Peter's eyes widened. "You sing?" She nodded and smiled. "Can I hear you?"

"Not right now. Maybe later." She patted his hand. "So do you want to go to church with Paul and the girls?"

Peter swallowed and looked down. "I--I d-don't have anything to wear. I mean, aren't you supposed to dress up to go to church?"

"Most people do, but it isn't required. You'd be fine in jeans and a shirt."

Peter took a deep breath and chewed on his lip, clearly confused, and afraid of saying the wrong thing.

"Peter, you don't have to go, we understand. We know that our church isn't what you were raised with, and that you might feel uncomfortable there," Paul added.

"Yeah, but-but--what I was raised with--isn't there anymore."

"That doesn't matter," Annie told him, "it's still what you were taught. You haven't forgotten it, just because the place is gone."

Peter took another deep breath, as if fighting with himself. Paul felt very sure that Peter really didn't want to go to church with them, but didn't want to tell them in case they would be angry.

"Tell you what," Paul said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Why don't you sleep in tomorrow morning; Annie will be here, you can help her with breakfast. Then maybe another week, you can think about it again. Sound all right?"

Peter looked up at him and a flicker of relief crossed his face. "Yeah."

"Good." Paul smiled and ruffled his hair. "Come on, sport, it's late--hit the sack."

"'Kay," Peter nodded and Annie stood up from her seat on the bed, allowing Peter to swing his legs under the covers. Once he lay down, she pulled the blanket up and tucked it around him gently.

"Good night, Peter," she said softly, "Sweet dreams."

"Night," he gazed up at her, obviously in love with her. It was even more obvious when she leaned over and pressed a kiss to his forehead. His eyes widened and his mouth opened, and he watched her progress as she turned away from the bed and headed for the door. Then his gaze shifted to Paul, and he flushed, realizing that Paul had seen his expression.

Paul smiled at him and winked, patting his shoulder. "Good night, kiddo, sleep well." He shut off the light. "Door open or closed?"

"Closed, please."

"See you in the morning," Paul told him and softly closed the door behind them.

They walked in silence to the stairs.

"What?" Annie asked.

"What what?"

"You're dying to say something. What?"

"Not dying, but-- He's in love with you, you know."

She smiled sweetly. "I know." She turned her head toward him. "I represent something he's never had before."

"Mother love," Paul completed.

"Mother love," she repeated. "If he wants to think of me as a mother, I'm all for it. I want to give that boy all the love I can. Were you there yet when he talked about his father?"

"Yes."

"There's a lot of very raw pain still there, Paul. I don't think he's done any healing at all. And after two years, he should have started to heal. But there hasn't been any time, there hasn't been any way."

"He's good at putting up barriers."

"Oh yes. But maybe I can use the 'mom' thing to break through some of them. At least I hope so. He's such a sweet boy, he deserves all the love we can give him."

He smiled and put an arm around her. "So you still want to go through with this?"

"I want to give it our best shot," she confirmed. "If it doesn't work, it won't be because we didn't try our best."

Paul didn't answer that, simply turned her in his embrace, kissed her soundly, then escorted her back downstairs.



~~~



Annie was in the kitchen running orange halves through the juicer when she felt a presence behind her. She was surprised she hadn't heard his approach--most 14 year old boys of her acquaintance made enough noise to register on the richter scale.

"Good morning," she said and smiled. "I was wondering how long you'd sleep."

"I heard everyone get up--I thought I'd just keep out of their way." His voice still had the hoarseness of sleep to it.

She turned to him. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yeah. Thanks."

"Good," she smiled, then extended an arm. "Come and say good morning." He moved into her embrace a little awkwardly, hugged her tight, then let go. "Did you take your shower yet?"

"No," he ducked his head.

She ran a hand over his shoulder, feeling his t-shirt. "Well why don't you do that now, then come back downstairs. You can help me fix breakfast."

"Okay," he agreed and turned to go.

"Towels are in the linen closet in the hall--take what you need. Oh, and Peter--"

"Yeah?" He turned back.

"It's all right if you come down in your PJs--just throw a robe on, if it makes you more comfortable."

"I--I don't have a robe."

Annie wondered what other little things they all took for granted that this child did without. But she smiled and said, "Then I'll have Paul find one of his for you to use."

"Okay," he repeated. Then he was gone. Annie listened to the sound of his retreating footsteps, memorizing them so she'd recognize them again. They were surprisingly light for an adolescent. But then, she'd noticed more than typical natural grace in Peter--he wasn't your average 14 year-old klutz.

Smiling at the thought, Annie went back to her oranges.

Peter came back downstairs a short time later, as she was finishing setting the table. Sunday breakfast was a tradition in the Blaisdell household, one she fully intended to introduce to Peter. Most mornings, breakfast was a hurried affair, with cold cereal and toast sufficing as she got a husband and two children ready and out the door. But Sunday was special.

She especially liked the Sundays when Paul would take the girls off to church and she had the luxury to putter and do special things, like fresh-squeezed juice. She usually accompanied her family to church, but she hadn't been joking when she'd told Peter she mostly went for the choir. The High Episcopal ritual meant less and less to her each passing year, and what passed as "Christian charity" in the congregation, more often annoyed her. Annie had fought for her independence all her life, and to be treated as "the poor blind lady" made her hackles rise.

In truth, Paul wasn't really much of a church-goer either, though both of them had strong faith in God. But Paul was a firm believer in the importance of a religious grounding for children, so for their daughters' sake, they went to church. Once the girls were grown and making their own decisions--well, they'd decide that when the time came. And as for Peter--

He stood in the doorway, a very strong physical presence.

"I didn't know what to do with the wet towel," he began, "I just looped it over the shower rod."

"That's fine," she said. "Come and help me with the cinnamon rolls."

He obediently moved into the kitchen. "What do you want me to do?"

She pulled the tube out of the refrigerator. "Open this for me?" She got out a pan and greased it. She heard some tearing sounds, and some scratching.

"Um--how do I open it?" he asked hesitantly.

"Oh, I'm sorry, you pull the outer wrapper off--near the top, you can feel the loose corner. Then you whack the tube on the edge of the counter."

"O-kay," he said hesitantly, and she heard the paper tear. Then the sound of cardboard hitting formica. Then a cry, and the sound of cardboard hitting the floor with a thud.

"What happened?" she asked.

"I think I killed it," he said, and bent to pick up the dead rolls. "I hit it like you said and--it exploded." He handed her the remains. Sure enough, the tube had burst open.

"I'm sorry, Peter," she said again, smiling. "It's supposed to do that. I should have warned you. Did any of the dough hit the floor?"

"I don't think so," he said tentatively. She ran her fingers over the soft substance, to make sure.

"I think they're fine. Don't worry. Here--" She twisted the tube to reveal the sliced rolls. "You take each one from the tube and lay them side by side in the pan--like this. Fill the pan up." Then she handed the tube back to him.

He did as instructed. "Now what?"

"Now we put them in the oven, set the timer, and ignore them 'til they're done." She felt the braille digital clock on the counter, then set the timer. "Where's the icing?"

"The what?"

"That hard little cup at the one end of the tube."

"Oh. I was wondering what that was. Here."

"After they've baked, we take them out of the oven and spread the icing on them. Then as they cool, the icing melts all over the top--they're good and gooey."

"Sounds great," he said.

She smiled. "It'll be awhile before we're ready to eat--if you're hungry now, there are bananas on the counter."

"I'm fine," he told her.

"There's nothing else we need to do 'til just before the rolls are ready. I've got the timer set, so we can relax." She extended a hand to him and led him into the living room. She sat on the couch and patted the seat next to her. "Come and sit with me--we can get to know each other."

He sat down, but like his morning hug, she felt a distance in him.

"What do you want to know?" he asked.

"I still don't know anything about you--I want to learn about you. And I can answer any questions you might have about us."

He took a deep breath. "Um, I don't think I have any questions."

"Well, then why don't you tell me the things you like."

"What things?"

"Anything. Do you like music?"

"I like listening to it. I can't sing or anything, though."

"What kind of music do you like?"

"Rock. I like Genesis, and Fleetwood Mac, and I used to like Styx but they got kinda boring. I like Pat Benatar."

She smiled. Fortunately, having two nearly teenaged daughters kept her up to date on the contemporary music scene, even though her taste leaned toward light classics, jazz, and some of the folk music of her youth.

"What do you like about the ones you mentioned?" she asked, and put her arm around him, letting him rest against her in a hug.

"I dunno--I guess I just like the way they sound. And Pat Benatar's a fox."

Annie laughed. "Have you ever played a musical instrument?"

"No. My--my father played the flute. But I never did." He pulled himself back out of her hug, sitting up, a little distance from her.

She frowned. "Peter, is there something wrong?" she asked.

"No," he answered, a little too quickly.

"Yes, there is. You're pulling away. I thought you liked to be hugged."

"I do, but--" the words disappeared.

"But what? You can tell me," she coaxed.

"I don't know. I guess I--" he sighed. "I guess I'm still trying to figure this out."

"Figure what out?"

"This--all of this. I mean, you and the captain, and everything." He took a deep breath. "You're not foster parents--if you were, we wouldn't be doing this weekend thing. I guess I just can't figure out what's going on. Why you're doing this."

"What do you want to be going on?"

"I dunno. I-- I don't really care, as long as--as--" The words sputtered.

"Oh, I don't believe that. I think you care about what happens to you."

"Maybe, but what's the point? There's nothing I can do about it, anyway."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because people are going to decide what's best for me, whether I like it or not. They're gonna tell me what to do, where to live, how to act. 'Cause they always have."

"So you tell me--what do you want?" she repeated.

He sighed on a big breath. "I want for none of this to have happened."

She felt so sorry for him, but tried not to show it. "Well, that's kind of hard, since what you want is impossible. We can't do that--we can't turn back the clock, however much we may want to."

"Then maybe I want to understand what's happening. I want people to tell me the truth."

"I'll tell you the truth, Peter. You only have to ask."

"Why are you doing this?" he asked promptly.

"Doing what?"

"All of this--the visits and everything. What's in it for you?"

"Does there have to be a hidden agenda to everything?"

"There always is," he insisted. "Everybody's always looking for something, no one does anything without a reason."

"I didn't say we didn't have a reason, just that there's no hidden agenda--our reason is a simple one; we like you, we want to help you, we're able to help, so we are."

"But--why?"

"Why what? Why are we helping, because we can. Because we like you."

"How do you know?"

"You can't analyze some things, Peter, some things just are."

"No," he shook his head. "There are always reasons."

"Well, then maybe sometimes the reasons can't be explained."

"That's not an answer."

"It's the only one I have--I'm sorry if it's not good enough for you."

"See, that's what I mean--treating me like I'm some idiot."

"I am not--I'm being honest with you. I don't know how to explain why someone likes someone else. Liking isn't something you can decide on, it just happens. Paul saw your interest in the police, you know that. That's what started it. But once we met you, we realized we wanted to get to know you better, so that's why the visits."

"But what do you get out of it?"

"A friend--someone to talk to, maybe. And you may not realize this, but making someone else happy is a wonderful way to make yourself happy. If we can help make you happy, then we're pleased."

"Oh, I get it--you feel sorry for me." The words were bitter.

"No. I'm sorry for what's happened to you in your life, but I'm not sorry for you. You're a bright enough boy to be able to take any adversity and get over it--go on. I like you a lot, Peter, but it's got nothing to do with pity. You see, that's something I battle every day of my life--I certainly wouldn't inflict it on someone else."

"What do you mean?"

"Look at me. What do you see? Describe me."

There was a pause. "You're blond, not very tall, you wear dark glasses." There was another pause. "You're pretty."

She smiled. "Thank you. But I'm surprised."

"Why?"

"Because you didn't mention the one word that most people use to characterize me above all others. Blind. I'm a blind lady, Peter. And it doesn't matter what else I am, because all most people will ever see is the fact that I don't see."

"But there's more to you than that."

"Exactly. Just like there's more to you than just being an orphan. But an orphan is what you are, however little you want to admit it. You can no more change that than I can stop being blind. You've got to stop caring that people know, or even think about, your being an orphan, or else that will become the only thing you are. If I were to believe everyone who tagged me blind above everything, I'd never do anything--I'd sit in a helpless shell in my little room and I'd let people wait on me. But that's no kind of life. If you decide that all you are is an orphan because that's how everyone describes you, then you'll never let yourself be more than that. You'll always attract their pity, but not their love. And you won't ever let yourself become involved, because you'll be too afraid of being hurt by them. Sure there are going to be those people who will hurt you by being insensitive. But there are lots more who will be able to get beyond the label and see the real you. Once you stop defining yourself by one word, so will everybody else."

There was a long pause, and when Peter spoke again, there was uncertainty in his voice. "So what are you saying?"

"I'm saying that just because you met Paul at the orphanage doesn't mean that's the only reason he took an interest in you. You have to stop assuming that everyone only wants to pity you, or else you'll make them not even want to be around you. I want to be around you, Peter, I want to get to know you. But I don't want to pity you. And I hope you can accept our friendship without looking for hidden motivations that aren't there. Because that will only frustrate you--and us."

There was another long pause, and then Peter sighed heavily. "I'm sorry."

Annie put her hand on his shoulder, and cupped the side of his face with her other palm. "You don't have to apologize, sweetie. It's gonna take some getting used to. But it'll be worth it, you'll see." She took her thumb and gently touched the corner of his mouth. "Now, can I see a smile?"

Reluctantly, almost against his will, Peter's mouth curved in a hesitant smile.

"That's better," she whispered, and pulled him into a hug. This time, he went willingly, hugging her back, cuddling up as she held him close. She rocked with him a little, kissing the top of his head.

"I guess I still don't understand," he said softly.

"It'll come in time," she soothed. "Just relax--let things happen."

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then took another. "You smell good," he whispered.

She laughed softly. "Thank you, baby." She stroked his hair, enjoying the feeling of being his comforter, his protector. She'd meant it when she said she didn't feel pity for him, but she did feel sorry for him--for all the things he'd missed out on.

"How old were you when your mother died, Peter?" she asked gently.

He raised his head. "Um--I'm not sure. Young."

"How young, do you know?"

"Well, I was born in August, and she died in March."

"Oh. Oh, you really were just a baby, weren't you?" He nodded; she felt his head move on her shoulder. "Do you remember anything about her?"

"No."

"Then who took care of you when you were little?"

"My father."

"By himself?"

"I guess." She felt him shrug. "I remember spending time with one of the priests--Ping Hi. He was the one who took care of me after--after my father. Until he got too sick. But my father--he took care of me mostly, from what I can remember."

"Do you know anything about your mother?" she asked. She felt much less resistance in him when talking about his mother than when talking about his father.

"Only what my father told me," he said. "She was very beautiful. She looked like a movie star."

"Which one?"

"Rhonda Fleming."

"Who?"

He giggled. "That's what I said. He said to watch the late show."

"Then we'll have to look for a Rhonda Fleming movie so you can see what she looked like."

"Yeah," he sighed.

They were silent for a time, comfortable with each other.

"I don't know anything else about her, really," he continued. "I don't even know how she died. Only--I wish she hadn't."

"Your father probably wished she hadn't, too," she said.

"Yeah. I guess." Again, that shut-off when discussing his father. Annie started wondering whether she'd ever get a straight answer about the man who'd raised Peter from infancy. So instead of pursuing it, she simply cuddled him closer and kissed his temple, stroking his shaggy hair.

The timer rang a minute later, and she gently eased him out of her arms. "That's our cue," she said, "time to get going on the rest of breakfast. Paul and the girls will be home soon."

He stood with her, following her into the kitchen. But just inside the door, he put a hand on her shoulder.

"Yes?" she turned around.

He reached a tentative hand and touched her cheek. "Thanks," he said softly.

She smiled and put her hands on either side of his head. "You're welcome, honey," she said, and reached up to kiss his forehead.

He grinned and went into the kitchen with her. He still didn't understand, not really. But whatever the reason, he was willing to accept their attention and caring. It felt better than anything he'd known in a very long time. He knew better than to wish for the impossible, but in his heart of hearts, he hoped that this time, it would last.



Chapter 4: Brave New World

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