Ren

~    P a r t   1    ~

Chapter 4

> 1 <


Ren lay in bed, sunlight filling the room. He didn’t feel like getting up. It felt good simply lying where he was, letting his mind drift. There was no mother screaming at him to get his lazy ass out of bed and feed his brother. There was no angry mother’s boyfriend pounding up the stairs no more than thirty seconds later, coming to do her bidding. No one was invading his privacy. No one was telling him what to do. Right now there was no reason to get up at all other than some tantalizing, evocative odors making their way into the room. He knew it wouldn’t be long before his stomach would be urging him to investigate those aromas.

Right then, however, it was more fun just letting his mind drift. He thought about what had been said in the truck on the way to the ranch, about wanting him to know who he was, and then later about him going after what he wanted. The thing was, he didn’t know who he was, and he didn’t know what he wanted. But as he thought about that, he realized they were both sort of the same thing. Who he was probably had a lot to do with what he wanted, and vice versa.

And just what did he want? He mused on it. Probably a lot of things. A house where he was safe to be himself and wasn’t afraid all the time. He wondered if he had that already now that he was here. Enough food to eat, but he had that, too. The ability to grow up, learning by doing, even making mistakes but without the constant criticism and punishments. To be treated fairly. To be able to have fun, make friends.

It never occurred to Ren to want one of the things he most needed: to want someone to love him and to grow up surrounded by love. He’d never had either, didn’t really know what they were. There was an emptiness in him because of that, but it seemed it had always been there, and so he hadn’t noticed it.

He lay in bed, thinking about the basic things he thought he had now. Saftey, food, shelter. And especially a man who he was pretty sure was planning to look out for him, help him when necessary. This all sounded pretty good. But what else did he need?

He heard some noises outside. It sounded like children’s voices. And then he was reminded about what he’d thought of yesterday in the truck, something he really needed but didn’t know how to get: friends. He wanted to have friends.

Friends were important. He wanted kids his age to be with, ones he liked to be around. And maybe a special one, too, eventually.

Yeah, that was one of the things he really wanted. He didn’t expect to get it, not here, but he could dream, couldn’t he? And he could dream for anything he wanted. That was for a boy, a special boy. He knew that perfectly well. His dad had said he might be gay or he might not, that it was too early to tell, but the man was wrong about that. Ren knew how he felt and that he wanted a boy to love, and for that boy to love him back.

He didn’t even think there was anything terribly special or specific about his want, either. Other than one thing. He’d read about younger men wanting older men to take care of them or younger men who were attracted to older men. He’d also heard of old men who liked younger men—or even boys. Well, he wasn’t particular about the boy he wanted, other than just one thing: he knew he wanted someone about his own age. Maybe a year older or younger, but that was all.

Since he was just dreaming here, he decided he should think this through. Should the boy be cute? Well, that would be nice, but it didn’t seem than important. Bobby wasn’t really cute. But he was nice, and he liked Ren and Ren liked him. Ren decided cute was a superficial quality and wasn’t very important, just like what color hair they had or how athletic they were. But thinking about Bobby made him realize one thing: he wanted a boy who liked Ren as much as Ren liked him.

He sighed and thought it was nice to think about it like that, but real life probably didn’t work that way, and anyway, he was on a ranch with a very limited number of people, so the chances of finding a boy like that here were as remote as the ranch itself was. Probably when he went off to college was when he’d find someone to love. The trouble was, his body was telling him he wanted someone now, not five years from now.

He liked what he’d done with Bobby. Waiting five years to do it again just seemed unfair.

Realistically, however, he knew the more important thing for him to think about was fitting in here, with the people here and with his dad. He wanted that so badly. He’d been scared for so long. Now, he wasn’t. He was nervous, but the fears he’d carried around like a heavy load on his back were absent. Other than the one about fitting in.

That was amazing when he realized it. He searched his body for fear and couldn’t find a trace of it! He’d been scared for as long as he could remember and particularly since his mother had taken in her last boyfriend. And then had come the incident with Bobby. That was really scary, first because of what would happen when he got home from Bobby’s and then when he was told he was no longer welcome in the only home he’d ever known and would henceforth be living with a father he had no recollection of. He’d been terrified the father wouldn't want him, either, when he learned why he was being unceremoniously shipped off to him. He’d been too scared to even think about what would become of him after that happened.

But his fears had been way overblown, and in fact, lying on the couch as he was, he felt pretty good about most everything. He let his new life prospects wash over him. He’d liked talking to his dad, driving here. He’d liked getting to know him, and thinking about that, he felt warmth in his chest. The better he’d got to know the man, the better he’d liked him. He felt safe and secure with him, and he hadn’t felt that for a long, long time. The man had even complimented him! He tried to remember the last time his mother had done that, the last time she’d even said a simple thank you for something he’d done, and couldn’t remember any at all.

He’d liked what he’d seen when they’d finally arrived at the ranch, although he hadn’t been able to see much. They’d turned off the highway onto a gravel road as the light was fading, and it had become that twilight time of day when everything was a little less distinct than it had been. His dad had said this wasn’t a road, it was a driveway. Then he’d laughed because it didn’t look like a driveway to Ren, and his expression must have made that clear.

It was just a gravel road with the same scenery on both sides that had been boring Ren silly all day. They’d driven on it for at least a couple of miles before he’d seen some buildings way off in the distance ahead.

It had been close to dark when they’d finally arrived. Ren had been looking all around, wanting to see his new home. What he’d initially seen was a large house, looking something like the southern plantation houses he’d seen in movies. Its front lights were on, illuminating four white columns on the front porch holding up a massive roof. The porch itself was wide and had some greenery in pots set on it, but there was no furniture. It looked more like a show porch rather than one to laze around on.

The road, or driveway, continued past the house. His dad had driven slowly, and Ren had seen other buildings behind the main house, with porch lights illuminating their fronts. His dad had been silent, as usual, and Ren hadn’t bothered asking what everything was but had simply taken in the sights.

The area behind the house was quite large, maybe an acre. Ren wasn’t sure how big an acre really was, but he guessed what he was looking at might be about that size. It was a large rectangle, deeper than it was wide. In the central area there was a large lawn, looking black in the night, but he could imagine it being an area of mowed, green grass. On the nearest short side of the rectangle was the rear of the main house. Along one side of it were houses, six that he could see, and on the other side four larger buildings. At the far end, on the short side of the rectangle directly facing the rear of the ranch house but across the lawn from it, was a large building that his dad told him was the stable. He thought he saw a barn behind that but wasn’t sure.

The gravel driveway had split into two parts, one running along each side of the grassy lawn before meeting up in front of the stables. His dad had turned to the left where the driveway separated and had driven past the back of the main ranch house then turned right, following the drive, and stopped at first house they’d come to. He’d driven off the driveway onto the grass next to the house and turned off the truck. “Welcome home, son,” he’d said and winked at Ren.

They’d walked into the house, Ren feeling much better than when they’d done the same thing in the small, spare and tired-looking house in Danton. This house was cheerier overall. It was still small, which made sense as its intended purpose was to be a bachelor pad. It was a single-level home with a living room, kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms, the second having been intended to be used as an office. The rooms were small but not cramped, the furniture solid and functional, and the house had the air of one that was being lived in rather than sitting empty most of the time. There was a medium blue-and-gold area rug on the living room floor and landscape artwork on the walls.

Cal had turned on the lights as he entered. It took just a few moments to show Ren around, and then they were looking at the den, soon to be Ren’s bedroom.

“I didn’t have time to get any furniture. I guess you can sleep on the couch till we can have some shipped here, or maybe you can find something you like in our storeroom building. Sorry, but I had no time. And I didn’t know what you’d want. Now that you see the space, maybe you can decide what you want, and we can order it all at the same time.”

Ren had been looking around the room. And when he’d done that, he had been unable to help himself. He’d sighed.

Cal had seen Ren’s shoulders slump, too, and immediately had asked, concern in his voice, “What’s wrong, son? You don’t like it? I’ll get all this stuff out of here, put it in the living room someplace, or maybe in the main house.”

Ren had straightened up, forcing himself to smile. “Oh, no, it’s fine. Great, really.”

“Ren…” His father had been frowning at him. “I thought we’d talked about honesty. About being honest even when it seemed better not to be. Didn’t we?”

Ren had lowered his eyes. Then, with effort, he’d raised them again. “Yeah. Um, yes, sir. I guess I forgot and didn’t want to disappoint you. No, the room is fine. I was just thinking of all the stuff I used to have, stuff that’s gone now. But I’ll get over it. Everything is just new, and I need to adjust. That’s all. I just...” He’d stopped, and his shoulders had sagged again.

Cal had stepped over to him and taken him in his arms. That was too much for Ren. He’d broken down and started crying, hating himself for the weakness he’d felt. It was just stuff. Why was he getting so emotional about it?

“Hey, it’s OK. Really. It’s OK. You’ve been through a lot in too short a time, and now you see a bedroom that isn’t a bedroom and doesn’t feel like yours, and I understand; I really do. But look, let’s talk for a moment. Come on.”

He’d released Ren and turned and walked into the living room, giving Ren a moment to compose himself. He’d sat in his favorite chair and waited till Ren had appeared.

Ren had come in a minute later and sat down at the end of the couch nearest Cal, giving his dad a wan smile. “Sorry,” he’d said.

“No need to apologize. None at all. Shows you’re human, is all, and I already knew that.” He’d chuckled, and Ren couldn’t help it, he smiled. It was a wan smile, but a smile nonetheless.

“OK. Now, what did you leave behind you’d like to have? I’ll have your mother ship it out here.”

Ren had looked at him like he was crazy. “There’s no way you’d ever get that stuff. You can’t get anything from her. You just can’t. And it’s just all the stuff I had; maybe that’s why I’m feeling like this. You know, a computer, books… my stuff, part of me. But I don’t need it. Let’s just forget about it.”

“Nope. We’re going to get everything you want. Want to bet I can’t?”

Cal had been grinning at him, and Ren had felt his spirits lift. From the tone of voice he was hearing, at that moment he would have guessed there wasn’t anything his dad couldn’t do.

“No bets, but it isn’t possible and not worth the effort. But what I miss most are my books. I read a lot. Being anyplace in that house where they could see me reading meant listening to her boyfriend’s abuse. I doubt he’d ever read a book in his life and thought anyone who had was a sissy. It also meant having to do her jobs and chores and such. She couldn’t stand to see me idle, and to her, reading was being idle. So I stayed in my room. I had my computer, which wasn’t much, and I don’t really miss it and it probably wouldn't work out here, anyway, but I had tons of books and several bookcases. I will miss those. I had clothes, too, but I guess you’ll have to buy me more. I’ll pay you back when I can.”

Cal had shaken his head. “Tomorrow,” he’d said. “Tomorrow I’ll call her and have her send you everything you want in that room, or anywhere else in the house. Everything.”

Ren hadn’t believed it. He’d believed his father meant it, but knew it wouldn’t ever happen.

Cal had stood up. “I don’t cook much. But you’re probably starving again, and I’ll see what I can rustle up. Maybe you want to help?”

“Sure. I can do some stuff. Mother didn’t like to do anything she could get someone else to do, but I made a habit of burning or undercooking everything, and she finally realized she had to fix dinner. But I did that on purpose. I can cook a little.”

Cal had laughed. “I see you didn’t really need my advice about using your head, did you?”

“Well,” Ren had said, smiling. He’d realized he’d never smiled this much back home. His former home. “It was still good advice. I’ll remember it.”

“So let’s see what I have. Probably not much.”

In the end, Ren had shooed his dad out, saying he’d like to try to fix dinner for them. His dad had said he needed to check in with Mrs. Hanson and asked when dinner would be ready. Ren looked at the clock, then told him a time and set to work.

His dad had returned when he’d been told to, and Ren had proudly set a dinner before him of a large omelet filled with cheese, fried potatoes and bacon, along with a tossed salad and buttered toast.

“I didn’t make any coffee. I didn’t know if you drank it at night.”

Cal had clapped Ren on the shoulder, careful not to touch his back, and said, “This looks delicious! You really are something, you know that?”

Ren had blushed.

Afterwards, they’d washed dishes together, and then Cal had helped Ren make up the couch with sheets and a light blanket and had brought in one of his own pillows. Now, Ren had a bed.

“If it’s OK with you, I’m going to bed,” Cal had said when they were finished. “We tend to get started early around here. Good night.”

It was still pretty early for bed, and Ren had wondered if the getting-up-early business was really why he’d said that, or whether his dad really was going to bed right then simply to make it possible for Ren to do so. He’d had to admit, he was tired. Really tired.

“OK, see you in the morning, Dad.”

Cal had stopped, looked back at him, then walked back and given him a gentle hug. He held him a moment, then said, “If your back’s bothering you, let me know.” Then, to Ren’s great surprise, the man gave him a quick kiss on the forehead before walking to his room.

> 2 <

The kitchen was on the far end of the living room with a half wall separating the two. It allowed food odors to flow to where Ren was still lying on the couch under a thin sheet. The wonderful smell that had awakened him was a powerful incentive. He had to get up, knew breakfast was waiting for him, but had a small problem. He giggled, thinking that. He had a large problem, as large as it was possible for him to be. He had to hope his dad was at the stove cooking and would have his back to him. He pushed the sheet off and sat up. He didn’t see Cal, so was pretty sure Cal wouldn’t see him. He stood up, put his hand over his extended briefs, pressing in against his body, and scooted to the hallway to where the bathroom was located.

While peeing, he decided he was being silly. His dad had been a teenaged boy once. He’d even been married and had had sex. He certainly knew boys got hard in the morning. Maybe he still did, too. He didn’t know much of anything about adult men, but it made sense that their equipment would function much as his did. So he didn’t have to be embarrassed about something that just happened all by itself every morning. Something that was normal. Maybe around girls or women, but not his dad.

He flushed, washed his hands, and hoped he’d be entirely awake by the time he’d had his orange juice. He’d seen some in the refrigerator last night and was looking forward to it now.

Stretching, yawning even, thinking that his back wasn’t even hurting this morning and liking that, he wandered back into the living room and then toward where the delicious smells were coming from. In the middle of a huge yawn, he stepped into the kitchen, finished yawning and opened his eyes.

Two girls were looking at him. One was an older teen, the other about his age. The older one had raised her hand to her mouth, which might have been hanging open, and seemed on the verge of laughing. The younger one was running her eyes up and down his body, and he was suddenly aware of the old, tight and almost- transparent-from-too-many-washings briefs he was wearing and the fact his morning dilemma was not yet completely flaccid.

“Ack,” he screamed, dropped his hands, and was about to turn and scurry out of the room when, at the last second, he remembered his back. So instead of turning, he backed out of the room as quickly as he could, praying that if there was a God in the sky, He wouldn’t allow him to trip. He raced to the bathroom again to be out of sight, envisioning tripping and having the girls come kneel down over his body, making solicitous remarks, and he wondered if it was possible for someone to blush themselves to death; he just knew if that actually could happen, he’d be a prime candidate. He wondered what the death certificate would read.

While he was hiding in the bathroom and his head was still churning out this scenario, he suddenly realized all his clothes were still lying next to the couch. In the living room. He stuck his head out of the bathroom. He didn’t see anyone, but he heard muted voices and… Was that giggling?

“Shit!” he said out loud. Ren almost never swore. This seemed the perfect time to do so.

He couldn’t stay in the bathroom. As embarrassing as the incident had been, he knew, instinctively, that he couldn’t cower in the bathroom. This was his first meeting with some of the kids here, and the story of what had happened would probably go around quickly. It would be bad enough as it stood, but there was a humorous element to it and a little sexiness, too, which kids his age loved. If he didn’t go back, the story would end there, and people would get the idea he didn’t have much spunk. On the other hand, if he showed up in the kitchen again, dressed this time, and somehow he could brazen it out, he could come out of this thing as something of a… of a what? Scamp wasn’t the right word. Someone slightly risqué who could roll with the punches. Oh, wait. He had it. A rogue. What a great image that would be to have! Yes, he had to hurry, dress, and go back in there. And then, the one thing he absolutely could not do was act embarrassed. Nonchalant was what he had to shoot for.

He moved to the beginning of the hallway and peeked around the corner. They were still in the kitchen, and he could hear soft voices. Quick as he could, he raced on his tiptoes to the couch, sat and grabbed the jeans he’d been wearing yesterday and pulled them on up to mid thigh. Then he stood up and slipped them up the rest of the way.

He put on his shirt, covering his back, and walked to the kitchen. His dad was sitting at the table, a coffee mug in front of him, and when he saw Ren, he smiled with his lips, but his eyes looked concerned as he looked searchingly into Ren’s face. Ren could see he was worried how Ren was feeling and perhaps how he was going to handle what had just happened.

Ren was worried, too. In the normal order of things, he was a little shy, but he was well aware of the rules of social intercourse with the opposite sex at his age. You couldn’t show weakness or embarrassment. You just couldn’t.

So, hoping his voice would behave, he said to the girls, “Hi. I’m Ren. Sorry about before.” He grinned and rolled his eyes just a little to act like he wasn’t a bit bothered by it; it was just something that had happened. “Didn’t know we had company. Lucky I was at least partly dressed or you’d have had a real floorshow.”

He laughed. It wasn’t that hard to do. All he had to do was look at their faces. The older girl was stifling a laugh. The younger one looked to be entirely unresponsive, staring at him, eyes wider than normal. Watching them, he felt really good; he was sure he’d pulled it off as well as it could be pulled off. Certainly as well as he could pull it off.

“Ren, this is Lu and Izzy,” his father said, filling any conversational gaps that might have appeared at that point. “Lu is actually Luisa, Luisa Rivera, and Izzy”—he put his had on the younger girl’s shoulder—“is Isamar Gonzales. Lu’s 15, Izzy’s 12, I think? Is that right?”

Lu nodded. Izzy didn’t react at all. Her eyes were fixed on Ren.

Lu had long, black, flowing hair she’d tamed away from her face with a white headband. She was remarkably pretty, with a trim figure and skin the color of very milky coffee. She wore a summer dress that made her look even more mature than her age. She seemed to be wearing just the faintest hint of lipstick.

Izzy was cute, shorter even than Ren and wearing a tee shirt and jeans shorts. No lipstick for her. Her hair was chopped off and was completely untended, and he might have mistaken her for a boy without having been told differently. She was sunburned and freckled and something told Ren that there could be a mischievous personality behind her current stiffness, all fun and eagerness, even though it wasn’t on show at the moment. He figured out that Lu was probably mature and had left childhood behind; he had no idea at all about Izzy, other than she seemed fascinated with him. She just kept staring at him.

When no one spoke, Cal filled the silence. “I forgot to tell you about Lu coming here in the morning, Ren, and I apologize. I told you I don’t do much cooking. Lu’s mom is already fixing breakfast for six, and I talked her into making it seven when I realized how much I hated doing it for myself. Sometimes I drop over there and eat with them, and sometimes Lu is nice enough to bring it here. Today Lu brought it over for me and brought enough for you, too. Somehow, she seemed to pick up a straggler on the way.” He was laughing by the time he finished, and he reached out and ruffled Izzy’s hair, which wasn’t noticeably affected by the assault when he took his hand away. Her blush was, however. Even blushing, Izzy never took her eyes off Ren.

“You could have warned me,” Ren growled, although his tone of voice suggested he really wasn’t that upset. Then he added, “Are we going to continue doing that? Does this mean I don’t have to cook breakfast for you every day?” He emphasized the ‘for you’ very slightly, and then grinned.

Cal could tell he was being teased, probably being paid back for not letting Ren know there were young visitors in the house before he got up. He winked at Ren. “We’ll talk about it.”

Ren sat down to breakfast. Lu set a plate in front of him and smiled as she raised the cover off it. He was met with succulent steam-containing smells that were new to him but set his mouth watering.

Lu giggled when she saw the question in his eyes. “Huevos rancheros,” she said. The words were pronounced with the letters being rolled in a way that perplexed Ren, but it was something he was sure he could never reproduce, even though he loved the sound of it. “Corn tortillas. Refried beans. That sauce is made with jalapeño chilies, garlic and tomatoes.”

The description didn’t help Ren at all. Cautiously, he lifted his fork, cut into what was before him, and took a small bite. Lu was watching closely. He chewed, swallowed, and said, “Wow!” Then he cut a much bigger bite.

Lu grinned. “It was nice meeting you, Ren. Es un placer,” she said.

“Huh?”

Cal laughed. “You’ll get used to it.”

“Oh, yeah, gee, thanks!” Ren blurted out, but laughed and didn’t stop eating. Izzy just watched.

> 3 <

When the girls had left, Ren finished his breakfast, and then Cal washed the dishes while Ren dried.

“Is this what you usually do?” Ren asked. “Wash the dishes, and then they come back for them?”

“Normally. But now that you’re here and I have to find some chores for you...” He stopped a moment, then said, “I think you should have chores, because all the other kids have them, and so you won’t be any different, and because it’ll make you feel useful. But I don’t want to ask you to do anything you’d hate or something just to make work. I got from what you’ve said you’ve had a belly-full of that already.”

“That’s true,” said Ren, and then grinned. He’d wanted to say ‘yeah’, but didn’t want to offend his dad. He’d even stopped himself from saying ,‘true dat’, which also seemed slangy and disrespectful. But he hoped not all slang would be a problem. If so, speaking would require a lot of thinking!

“Good. Well, how about part of what you do is to wash the breakfast dishes and then take them back to the Rivera house? It’ll let me get outside sooner that way in the mornings.”

“Yeah, that’d be fine.” Ren paused, then said, “Dad? I’ve been saying ‘yeah’ all my life. I’ve been trying to say ‘yes, sir’ to you, but I slip all the time. It just doesn’t come easy. When we’re together, it would be so much easier to say ‘yeah’. But I don’t want you mad at me. Or disappointed.”

Cal had been sitting in his chair in the living room with Ren again on the sofa, next to him. Cal stood and stepped to the sofa and sat down next to Ren, then put his arm around him.

“You know, Ren, I had no idea what to expect when your mother told me you were now mine to deal with. No idea at all. There are a lot of kids around here, quite a few your age, and I know how they act. I’ve got to say this: everything you’ve done so far, everything I’ve seen from you, has made me proud. I don’t have a lot of respect for your mother, and I’d find it hard to believe she raised you into what you are today. I think you’re like you are because you decided that was the way you wanted to be. And I want to tell you, you did a damn fine job.”

He pulled Ren to him, squeezed him briefly, then loosened his hug. “So no, I have no objection at all if you want to say ‘yeah’ when we’re talking. I don’t care, actually, if you say it to other people, either. My objection before was because of how other people might judge you when they hear that. But if you don’t care, then neither do I. I know you well enough now to know you’re not a boy who’s disrespectful just to be ornery or lazy.”

Ren sat back on the couch, Cal’s arm still around his shoulders. Ren hadn’t had much overt affection in his life. It was no surprise at all that he was elated about how his dad was showing he cared about him. “I’ll wash and take the dishes back,” Ren said. “I’m sure you’ll have other chores for me, and if you think I should do them, I will. OK?”

Cal squeezed him again, then let him go, standing up. “OK. Now it’s time to get your stuff shipped here.”

“I still don’t see how you’re going to do that. She’s probably burned it all by now, anyway.”

“Not if she’s still as lazy as she used to be. And as cheap. She might be trying to sell what she can, but she’d check a lot of places to get the best price, and it hasn’t been long enough for that. No, I’d guess she still has everything.”

“But still.…” Ren was sure there was no way he’d see his books again.

“Watch and learn,” Cal said and gave a short laugh, but Ren could see no humor in his dad’s eyes.

Cal walked into Ren’s future bedroom and sat down at the desk. He pulled out an address book from under some papers, looked up a number, and dialed his phone.

Ren stood in the doorway, watching. He was nervous. Just thinking about his mother made him nervous. She’d been the most powerful figure in his life for a long time and not a particularly benevolent or even friendly one. Now, his dad was calling her on his behalf. While Ren was building an intense respect for his dad, he also felt that dealing with his mother the man would get eaten alive. No one, but no one, could out-argue her. The one time he had, it had only been his persistence that had won the day, and he’d paid the price for that from then on.

“June? It’s Cal.” Then there was a pause, and Cal just sat with the phone to his ear, showing no expression at all. Finally, he said, “Perhaps if you’d let me explain what I want instead of all that, we could get this over with quicker.”

Another pause, shorter this time, and Cal said, “I’m calling to tell you to send all Ren’s things here. Everything in his room or elsewhere. He’ll know if anything’s missing. You ship it here, you pay for it, and that’ll be the end of it.”

Ren could hear her voice, shouting now, as Cal moved the phone away from his ear. The shouting went on a bit, and then, when Cal spoke again, Ren expected him to shout back and was surprised that didn’t happen. Instead, there was a suddenly a different quality to Cal’s voice. He actually spoke softer than before and a bit slower, but an edge and steely hardness had somehow developed in his voice. He said, “You hang up now, you’ll severely regret it!”

Then, speaking in the same tone, “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing: I’m threatening you. But you know me—I don’t make empty threats; I never have. Here is why you’ll do what I’m telling you to do. I took pictures of Ren’s back. I also had him make a statement and had it notarized. In his statement, he names the man you’re living with as the one who abused him—abuse that really amounts to torture—and he named you as a witness to the event and, as his primary-care provider, the one who had the legal responsibility to stop it. I know your boyfriend will go to jail for what he did to a minor. If it’s deemed a hate crime—which attacking someone who’s gay is if the attack is because of his orientation—the sentence will be harsher. Ren said there was name-calling during this, and he’ll swear to it, so the hate-crime allegation has a good chance of holding up in court. You certainly will be brought before a court, too, for neglect and possibly conspiracy to maim, certainly to abuse. Your other son will be taken by the state. And you’ll run up all sorts of legal bills while sitting in a jail cell. No more boyfriend to do your bidding, no more income from my check, and mounting legal bills. A comfortable life that’s over. That’s what you’re looking at.”

He paused. Ren could hear nothing coming from the phone. Then Cal continued. “Or, you could simply do as I ask.” Cal’s voice had lost its steely edge but maintained its tone of command. “You are to send the things that are his, that he wants. He’ll go through them when they arrive. If any have been damaged, if anything is missing, I send the photos and the statement to the district attorney in Jackson.

“Send his things today, June. If we don’t receive them by the day after tomorrow or sooner, I’ll send my information. I’d suggest you begin packing his stuff right now. Pack it carefully.”

There was silence from the phone for a moment and then a sputtering, and then, before she could speak again, Cal said, his voice now his normal speaking voice, “That’s all I have to say. Oh, and of course, as I just said, there’ll be no more support checks. Ren’s told me what a great job your boyfriend does bringing home the bacon. Maybe you’re going to have to get a job. Hard to imagine who’d hire you. You know, the job market might be tight when the only qualification you have is ‘bitch’. Come to think of it, you might put in an application at the DMV. They seem to specialize in hiring those.” He was chuckling when he hung up. Ren couldn’t hear any humor in it whatsoever.