Survival

by
Cole Parker

The boy stood just off the curb. It was summer, and warm as it usually was in Tulsa; the boy was wearing only a pair of shorts, a little too short, a little too tight, and a thin tee shirt. He was leaning into a car window. “Hi, mister,” he said winningly.

The man was in his early forties, but to the boy, whose name was Nick, age didn’t mean anything. The man could have been anywhere from twenty to seventy.

“You want a ride, kid?”

“You want me to get in?” Nick had learned these negotiations began in many different ways, but going cautiously at first was a constant. It was necessary to feel each other out, look each other over. More to the point, each one wanted to make sure he was safe.

The man looked at the kid for a few seconds, then said, “You’re awfully young.”

Nick smiled at him, trying for his cutest smile, the one that seemed to work best. “Old enough,” he replied. Then he laughed and wiggled his eyebrows. He’d had to work on the laugh, work on keeping it from sounding forced.

The man still hesitated, and then Nick saw in his eyes he’d made a decision. With a hunger now only half-contained in his face, the man said, “Get in.”

Nick’s heart sped up. He knew he couldn’t keep all the fear from showing. He’d learned that fear would be attractive to some and that he didn’t want to encourage that kind. He knew it would be a turn-off to others. To disguise it, he looked down at the door handle as he pulled on it, then averted his eyes till he was sitting in the seat. By then, he’d got his smile fixed again.

The man put the car in gear, and Nick said, “Wait! Before you drive off.”

The man stopped, put the car back in Park, then turned to Nick, his eyes voicing his question for him.

Nick said, “Before we go, there are some things to get clear. You got to pay me first, and you got to bring me back here afterwards. Is that OK, mister?”

“Yeah, sure. How much?”

Nick squirmed. This was the difficult part. Well, one of the difficult parts. The whole thing was difficult.

“Ten for you to look at me and touch me. Twenty for me to get you off. I don’t do blow jobs or screwing.” That was the difficult part, because many of the men drove away when he said that. A lot of them wanted to fuck him. At the very least they wanted him to blow them. They expected it. But he didn’t want to do it, and so far had been able to get enough customers to survive without doing it. He did get rejected because of this refusal, however. So he worried, every time he said it.

“So does playing with you and you getting me off all come for twenty bucks?” The guy had a grin in his voice, and Nick’s fear eased just a bit. When the customers weren’t really uptight, he felt safer. The ones that joked around with him were usually just fine. Those who were really tense or high strung scared him the most.

Nick put a matching grin into his voice, too. “I’ve got a sale on today, only for you. “Twenty-five for the package deal. Money up front, of course.”

“Money back guarantee?”

“You’ll be happy. I’ll make sure. But no money back. I’m just like a restaurant. If you eat the steak on your plate, you can’t complain it was tough afterwards and ask for your money back.”

The man laughed. “I like that, kid. OK, you got a deal.” He put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.

It wasn’t until Nick was getting out of the car later that he was able to breathe normally again. He’d been gone from where he stood on the street about thirty minutes. That’s a long time for one’s heart to be beating a little too fast, for one’s breath to be shallow and quick. When the car had completely gone with a flash of brake lights just before turning the corner, he finally started to calm down.

He looked around him then and saw the normal ten- thirty PM activities on Barston Street. Further up the block two older boys, dressed similarly to him but with long pants instead of shorts, were talking together, standing on the curb. That they were older wasn’t surprising. Nick was the youngest boy on the street at night. He turned and looked in the other direction and saw no one except another boy, one who appeared older still, leaning against the old brick building Nick used as his backdrop for business. He was watching at Nick.

This was the seediest part of downtown except for skid row, and that was only one block away. Nick stayed away from there, skirting the area when he had to come here at night. A boy his age walking all alone at night through that area was asking for trouble. He’d learned that the first night.

There was talk of renovating this street and others nearby, but it was more talk than action. A few loft apartments had been fashioned out of abandoned industrial buildings but nothing else was being remodeled at the moment. There were three restaurants on the next street over that had been opened hoping to cash in on the proposed development and the people that would bring to live in the area, but without the development moving forward, they only did a desultory business.

As Nick watched, he saw a few people walking along the sidewalks on both sides of the street. Some were walking towards parked cars. A few were coming from one of the restaurants. Most of them were just going somewhere else, wearing older clothes, walking with a purpose and not looking at the boys who were working these two blocks. It always seemed to Nick that they purposely didn’t look at the boys. They only looked straight ahead, most of them. There weren’t many of these people, but enough that Nick felt somewhat safe here. Not really safe. He never felt really safe.

The boy leaning against the building, watching him, appeared older than the working boys. Probably 18, maybe even older than that. He had on jeans and a sweatshirt, neither of which appeared to be clean. He was skinny-looking; his hair was shaggy and uncombed, and his skin was pasty, even in the yellowish glare of the sodium vapor streetlights.

Nick had found it better not to have anything to do with anyone who wasn’t a customer. Nothing good came from casual conversation with anyone. He’d started coming here three weeks ago, and had learned a lot every night he’d been out. He only had to come about every third or fourth night. It was hard getting here, hard being here doing what he was doing, and hard getting back home afterward. Talking to anyone except when it was someone he was negotiating with usually ended up with someone trying to get his money. He needed that money. Without it, he starved. A couple of the street boys had tried to be friendly with him, but the first time he’d let his guard down, thinking maybe that would work, giving in to his need for someone to talk to, he’d ended up losing what little money he had. He accepted that as part of what he was learning. He had no choice but to accept it; he couldn’t do anything about it. But he tried not to talk to anyone after that.

He didn’t like the boy on the wall looking at him. He’d developed a radar that alerted him to trouble, and it was beeping steadily now. He remembered what Rory had told him, too. He quickly turned and started walking up the street, away from the boy on the wall.

After he’d gone half a block, he looked back. The older boy was still where he’d been, leaning against the building. Still looking at him.

The first night he’d been on this street, he’d met Rory. Well, that’s the name he called himself. One of the things Nick’d learned in these three weeks was not to believe anything anyone said—a hard lesson for a young kid.

He’d just got out of his first car. Rory had been there. He was older than Nick, but everyone was. Nick had felt sick and shaky, and Rory had seen it and for some reason had taken pity on him. Nick hadn’t met anyone else since then who’d felt pity for anyone, and often wondered why Rory had felt it for him.

“Here kid, come’ere and sit down.” Rory led him into an alley near where the car had dropped him off. Nick was too upset to resist when Rory put his arm around his shoulders and led him to the alley. Back a ways from the street there was a bale of broken down, flattened and tied up cardboard boxes. Rory hopped up on it, then helped Nick up on it too. They sat with their backs to the wall, the cardboard more comfortable that the paved alley or sidewalk, the area more private than the street.

“That your first time?”

Nick was still feeling shaken. He nodded.

“The first time usually feels like how you look. What’re you, ten years old?”

“Eleven.”

“Tough. You run away?”

”Yeah. My father....” Nick stopped. Rory didn’t say anything for a while, just sat next to Nick.

When he did speak, it was with matter of fact intonation evincing little emotion. “What’s your name?”

“Nick.”

“I’m Rory. Look kid, let me tell you some stuff. You won’t survive at your age without it. When you get in the car, you’ve got to be in charge. The man will think he’s in charge of the situation, but you have to take care of yourself. So when you get in, you tell him what you’ll do and what you won’t do. Don’t wait till he’s driven to some dark, isolated place. Tell him up front. What you’ll do, how much you charge. And get the money up front. He can still take it away afterwards, but they usually don’t.

“And don’t trust anyone on the street. Everyone you see wants something. Your money, your body, your clothes, something. So be alert, let your senses tell you where danger is, and stay away from it.

”There’s this guy who hangs around here. Eighteen or nineteen, thin, wears a gray sweatshirt all the time, sort of sick looking, like he’s on something. Watch out for him. He takes money from the boys out here, and he’s nasty. He has a baseball bat and he’s hurt a couple of the boys bad when they couldn’t pay him what he demanded. Stay away from him.”

Rory had told him more, too. He’d told him to stay away from the cops. Cops were trouble. A few cops would simply pick him up and take him to the CPS facility. He didn’t want to be taken to CPS; Rory’d emphasized that. Those people would act all nice, and feed him, but they’d put him in a group home, and the kids there would initiate him, sometimes over and over again until there was another new kid, and he’d never be the same after that. Some of the supervisors even got in on the act.

Rory said there was another kind of cop, too, the kind that would put him in their car and take him somewhere, and when they got there, they’d get in the back seat with him. He wouldn’t have any say about what happened then, they’d do what they wanted, and he wouldn’t get paid for it, and often, when it was one of the rough ones, he wouldn’t be able to work for the next few days.

They’d tell him it was for his own good, they were showing him why he should get off the streets. They never made the effort to get their eyes to look like they believed what they were saying, though. Their eyes were smug, arrogant, and it was easy to tell they did what they did because they liked doing it, but even more than liking the sex, mostly they liked having the power to do anything they wanted to do.

Then Rory had told Nick he could hang with him that night if he wanted to. Nick had really needed someone after the car, and accepted. Rory had led him to the basement of an abandoned building where he’d made a place for himself. They’d settled down on an old smelly mattress, and Rory had held him. Rory had asked him why he was on Barston Street, and Nick had told him he’d met a kid who told him when he got hungry enough, that was where he could make some money to feed himself. So when his hunger got bad enough, he’d come.

“When did you last eat?”

Nick thought for a moment. “Two days ago, I think. It’s hard to be sure. It’s funny. I used to be pretty smart. Now, things are fuzzy. I don’t remember stuff as well.”

Rory got off the mattress and went somewhere in the dark room and came back with a can of soup. It was cold, and Nick had never cared for vegetable soup, but he gulped it ravenously right out of the can, hardly even chewing the solid bits.

Rory lay down behind him and held him. Nick’s thoughts got away from him and he started shaking. Crying, too, but noiselessly. Crying and shaking.

Why him? Why couldn’t he just have a mom and dad and live in a nice house and have friends and go to school? What did he do that made this his life? Was he bad? Did he do something to deserve this? He didn’t think so. He thought he was just like any other kid. So why was he on a dirty mattress in a basement with some stranger holding him? Why did that feel like about the best thing in the world right now? A can of cold soup, some kid he didn’t even know comforting him, that was about the best thing he could hope for?

When he finally stopped, he slept. It was a dreamless sleep. Mental and physical exhaustion had made his slumber deep and uninterrupted.

In the morning, Rory had told him he had to find his own place, that they couldn’t hang together. “I’m sorry, kid, but I can’t be helping you out. I got to look after me, and that’s hard enough. I’m trying to survive just like you are.”

Nick thanked him and walked away. He never saw him again. He went back to the basement about a week later, looking for him, but the door was nailed shut. And Rory was gone. He was the only person who’d been kind to him.

What Rory had told him better prepared him for what lay ahead. Nick waited till his hunger forced him to go back before making his way to Barston Street again. He made enough money from just one car to feed himself for two days, so it was only every third night he had to show up there.

He was now ending his third week. He felt more capable of surviving, but hated what he was doing. Still, he could see no alternative. No one would hire a kid his age. He was living in an old abandoned and condemned house he’d found. He stayed inside mostly. He’d found a library he could visit, and he spent time there, too. He could wash there in the bathroom. He could drink from the drinking fountain.

Then he could go back to the space he’d found to sleep in.

He didn’t cry any more. He spent his time in the library, or in the abandoned house. Mostly thinking and daydreaming and, when his mind was more focused, trying to figure out what to do.

He stole some clothes from a store that had a few display racks out on the sidewalk, so he had another pair of shorts and another tee shirt. He kept one set to work in and wore the others all the rest of the time, trying to keep his working clothes as clean as possible. He washed the others in the library restroom sink and air-dried them where he slept. They were wrinkled, but not too dirty and didn’t smell.

He had to have presentable clothes for work. If he didn’t look good, none of the cars stopped for him, and he didn’t eat.

It was time. He hadn’t eaten anything since the day before; he hadn’t had anything to eat. It didn’t do any good to get to Barston Street before nine. That was the earliest cars started slowing as they drove by, scanning the boys standing near the curb, the ones available that night. Nick took his usual route to the street, the safest one he knew. He got to his regular spot, then tried to look attractive, standing on the curb, facing traffic.

Maybe this was going to be a lucky night for him, he thought, as he’d only been by the curb for ten minutes when a Cadillac slowed to a stop right next to him. The tinted passenger side window smoothly slid down.

“Hey, kid.”

The man was nicely dressed, middle aged, well groomed. The scent of leather seats wafted from the window.

“Hi.” Nick always made an effort to sound as young as possible. He had to attract them with any asset he had, and his youth was mostly what he had going for him.

“You want to go somewhere?”

“Sure. If you’ll bring me back here. I don’t have my driver’s license yet.” And he laughed, trying to make the man think this was the first time he’d said it.

“Get in.”

Nick cracked open the door, but didn’t get in. Instead, he said, “I don’t screw or suck, but I’ll get you off, and you can play with me. But if you want more, you’d better find someone else.”

The man hesitated, looking him up and down. Nick wished his clothes looked better.

“How much?”

Nick told him, and the man had him get in.

When he dropped him off afterwards, Nick got out, thanked the man, and shut the door. As he started to walk away, he spotted the thin, sick-looking teen he’d seen once before, leaning against the building where he’d been a few nights ago. Nick thought about what Rory had said, thought about the guy being here twice now.

Nick started walking, moving fast but not running, keeping his eyes in front of him.

He hadn’t gone more than a few steps when he felt a hand on his arm. He tried to shake it off, tried to dodge away. The grip on his arm tightened. He couldn’t wriggle loose.

He looked up into the coldest, deadest eyes he’d ever seen. Up close, the teen’s skin was very pale with a thin sheen of sweat on it. Nick’s heart began beating very fast.

Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ

Travis Karcher was out for his morning walk and early shopping. He’d stopped at the neighborhood market and picked up some sweet rolls for breakfast along with a bag of French-roast beans, a couple of oranges and a large cup of yogurt. He justified the two rolls to himself by thinking he was only going to eat one of them, and besides, the rest of the food was healthy enough. He and his partner were careful about their diet, not obsessive. They were both in their thirties, fit and happy.

He was just strolling back toward their apartment, enjoying the morning sun and the soft summer morning, when he saw a kid on the sidewalk in front of him struggling with two large shopping bags. When the kid set the bags down, shaking his arms apparently to get his circulation going and his muscles relaxed, he half turned and Travis could see the left side of his face. He appeared to be about ten or eleven and the bags seemed too much for him to handle. He was making the effort, though. With his head turned slightly toward Travis, his pursed lips were noticeable and Travis could just see by the expression on his face, the wrinkling of his forehead and the tension in his cheeks, he was determined to do what he was doing and he wasn’t going to let the weight of those bags beat him.

The kid had dark hair, shaggy and needing to be cut, and sharp features set in a narrow face which had a slightly olive complexion that bespoke a Mediterranean heritage. His clothes were wrinkled and a little too small for him. Then the kid turned even more toward Travis, and the man could see a black eye and split lip, both looking recent.

Disregarding the bruising, the kid’s face had a great deal of character in it, and the way he was fighting with his burden somehow made him quite appealing to Travis. This wasn’t at all usual, his finding a kid attractive. He usually ignored kids. He didn’t get on with them generally, found them a nuisance and bother.

Both he and the boy were going in the same direction. Travis was behind the boy and he slowed and watched him struggle to pick up and carry the bags again, somehow interested in the boy’s behavior. Travis couldn’t walk slowly enough to stay behind him, however, and so soon caught up to him. When he did, he surprised himself by speaking.

“Hey, kid, that looks awfully heavy. I’ve got a free hand. I could carry one of those for you, if you wanted.”

The boy stopped and looked up at Travis, setting his bags down on the sidewalk when he did. He was probably five feet tall, and Travis was close to six. The boy had to look up.

“Uh, I can manage. Thanks though, mister.”

He wiped his forehead with the back of his wrist. Then he took a deep breath and reached for the bags again. His very determination made Travis want to help him even more, a reaction he didn’t understand at all. Normally he’d just walk by kids like this. He had no time for them. He had his own life to think about, and it didn’t include kids.

He watched the boy pick up the two bags and begin walking away. Against his better judgment, Travis spoke again. “You have far to go with those?”

The boy took two more steps before turning his head to answer.

“Just another block. I can make it.” But he stopped again and set the bags down when he did. He shook his hands and arms as he’d done before.

“Look, I’m going in that direction anyway. Why don’t you take my bag and I’ll take both of those?”

The kid looked up at Travis again, and the expression on his face showed he was considering it. Finally, he took a deep breath, let it out, and said, “Gee, mister, it would be awfully nice of you to do that. I’ve been hauling these for blocks now and my arms are about stretched out. I think they’re longer than when I started.” He grinned then before saying, “But I don’t want to trouble you any. I can make it by myself.”

“It’s no trouble. You look about whipped. Let me have those.”

The boy gave him a large smile, a relieved and happy smile combined in one, and Travis felt himself warm to the kid, something he never did. The kid’s smile was askew, sort of lopsided and showed slightly uneven teeth, but somehow they fit with the look of the boy. He still wasn’t handsome, but his eyes were dark and intelligent, their twinkling adding to his crooked smile to make his face captivating. Travis thought he was adorable, and then couldn’t understand the thought. Travis never thought any kid was adorable.

Travis stepped over to where the boy had set the bags down. He handed the boy his bag, then reached down for the boy’s bags, saying, “I’ll be glad to help you. I can see these are way heavy for you.”

Travis put one hand on each handle of the bags and picked them up. Whoa! They were heavy, probably twenty-five pounds each. Way too much for a kid this size to carry very far.

The two of them started walking again, and it was Travis going a little slower this time. He couldn’t help but wonder, and so asked, “What do you have in here, anyway? “Rocks.”

“Rocks?! What the he…I mean, why are you carrying rocks?”

“I’m building something, mister. I can show you when we get there. It’s just around the next corner. It’s really nice of you to help me like this.”

“Okay. What’s your name, anyway? I’m Travis Karcher.”

“Nick. We turn up here.”

Travis waited for the kid to say more, but he didn’t. Travis realized this wasn’t the chattiest kid in the world, that getting much of anything out of him would take some prying. He knew many young kids weren’t too verbal with adults they didn’t know, and then thought that just maybe this one was tired from hauling rocks. In any case, now that he was going out of his way, toting heavy rocks for some kid he didn’t know, and the kid wasn’t even being very communicative, Travis began feeling that he’d been dumb, he should have just left the kid to his rocks. Feeling dumb was a normal thing for Travis. But the thought escalated. He should have ignored the kid. He began getting irritated. Stupid kid, anyway.

They walked past several apartment houses and came to a sort of broken down one that looked like it had been evacuated; it was four stories tall, typical for the neighborhood, and had signs on it saying, “Building Condemned, Keep Out,” on the front door and also on the front wall at both sides close to the corners. Nick turned in there, motioning Travis to follow him.

Travis almost stopped. He didn’t like the looks of the place.

They walked along a dirty and cracked sidewalk that ran along the side of the house and then around to the back. There was a weed-infested empty lot behind the building with miscellaneous junk scattered around. An old dishwasher missing its front door stood next to a stack of concrete building blocks. A few 55-gallon oil drums were lying on their sides. In the rear part of the lot, a rusting car that had no rear window or tires seemed to have found a permanent resting place.

The back of the building itself looked worse than the front. It had several broken windows, others that had been boarded up, and an air about it that screamed of abandonment. There was a set of steps leading down to a doorway about six feet below ground level, obviously the entry into a basement of some sort.

Nick pushed on the door. It didn’t seem to be latched at all, but had apparently swollen into the frame so that just pushing wasn’t opening it; Nick had to kick at it a couple of times before it gave in. It squeaked as it swung ajar, and Nick stepped inside. Travis hesitated, uncertain.

“You want to go in here?” he asked. “You sure it’s safe.”

Nick turned to look over his shoulder at him, smiling. “Sure. It’s OK. Come on.” Then he walked on farther into the building.

Reluctantly, Travis followed, the weight of the bags and their thin handles cutting grooves in his fingers, encouraging him to get this over with. At least, he thought, there couldn’t be too much farther to go. He hoped getting rid of the bags wouldn’t include climbing four flights of stairs.

There was a dark corridor inside with finished walls on both sides. Travis imagined the basement had been partitioned off into storage areas for long gone tenants of the building. Nick walked towards the front of the building and turned a corner. Travis lost sight of him momentarily, but when he himself turned the corner, Nick was standing in a doorway further along the new corridor. It was darker here as the light from the door behind them, the only light source that Travis could see, was having difficulty reaching that far back.

“In here,” Nick said, and waited till Travis started forward, then slipped into the doorway he was standing in front of.

When Travis got to the door and stepped inside, he found the room was even darker than the corridor had been. From what he could make out in the gloom, the room appeared to be what he’d thought it would be, a storage area. It was narrow, had a cement floor and cinder block walls and no windows. There was some stuff that was piled in the corners, other stuff which had been littered here and there towards the sides of the room. It was empty of furniture. The ceiling was supported by round steel poles which ran down the center of the room about four feet apart. There was a pile of rocks on one side of the room and a wooden box sitting against one of the poles in the middle of the room.

Nick was standing next to the box, right next to the pole.

“If you’re strong enough to carry those bags just a little bit farther, could you put them on this box?” Nick asked him.

Travis had been about to put them on the floor, but took what he’d been asked as a sort of challenge. Even though his arms were starting to feel something like limp spaghetti, he walked over to the box and reached his right arm forward, lifted and set that bag down, then shifted his weight and reached forward to set the other bag next to the first one. His upper arm and left hip brushed against the pole. He was only thinking about how good it felt to get rid of that weight at last, and then about being able to get out of this building.

He was just setting down the second bag when things suddenly sped up and got confusing.

Nick abruptly moved away from the pole, stepping past and behind Travis and then around him, very quickly circling him. Travis was more concerned with getting the bag out of his hand than anything else, and Nick’s movement, though strange, was at first simply a distraction.

Putting down the bag took a moment. Travis’s fingers had sort of curled up along the sides of the handle where they were almost cutting into his skin. He had to uncurl his fingers to get the bag off, and the uncurling wasn’t an instantaneous thing with numb fingers. So Nick’s circling in the darkened room was only of peripheral interest.

But then, with the bag down, Travis felt something. Something around his back and right arm. He looked up, all his attention finally on Nick, and saw what the boy was doing. He had a roll of duct tape in his hand, and was running in a circle, wrapping the tape around Travis. The other end had been wrapped several times around the pole.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Travis asked him, pulling back against the feel of the tape, surprised, not yet alarmed.

Nick didn’t answer, just kept running. Pulling had just caused the tape to stick tighter to Travis. He was surprised. He thought to try jerking, thinking it would break the tape. It didn’t.

Nick was well away from Travis, the roll of tape in his hand, the tape itself stretching from the pole, across Travis’s back and arms, then about four feet to the roll. As soon as Travis set down the second bag, the tape was around him, and then Nick was past him and the tape was back almost to the pole. Nick kept going. He reached the pole, ran around it and was back around Travis again, unrolling tape as he went.

Travis’s confusion remained, but he instinctively wanted to get out of the confines of the tape. He began fighting it. He found simply pulling and jerking against the tape didn’t seem to do much. Thinking he needed some slack in the tape, he moved closer to the pole. When he did that, Nick encouraged it, yanking on the tape, pulling him still closer to the pole.

That made the circle Nick had to run in smaller, and he sped up. After only three circuits, Travis found he had very little leverage to move at all. He was being taped to the pole.

He was still trying to figure out what was happening and trying to get his feet solidly under him as Nick made another circuit and started another still. Travis suddenly realized with greater clarity what was happening and jerked himself hard to the side, putting all his energy into it now, trying to get some slack in the tape, trying to somehow break free. He began shouting at Nick, cursing him. Yelling. Then screaming.

Jerking didn’t help at all. Neither did the noise he was making.

The amount of jerking Travis could do at this point was greatly restricted. He simply couldn’t move much of anything. He had layers of tape around his upper arms and back, and Nick was still circling. The tape was really strong. Travis tried to struggle even harder, and then started to try to yank and twist against the tape in earnest when he realized he wasn’t making much progress at all. All his attempts made no headway against the tape.

As Travis struggled, Nick kept running around, and with every circuit Travis was losing more ability to move. He was being wrapped into a duct tape cocoon, the front side of him up against the pole, unable to move more than even a wiggle.

There had been method to Nick’s running. Travis’s torso and arms had been fastened to the pole, then a gap had been left, and the taping had resumed about mid-thigh and gone down to the ankles.

When Nick had finished with the ankles, he ran out of tape. He ran to a corner of the room and grabbed another roll, and he used this one to put even more layers around Travis’s upper arms and the pole. Travis wanted to bat at him, to use his elbows to hit him, but Travis couldn’t move that much, and in any case, Nick stood behind him and out of any conceivable reach Travis now had.

Very quickly, Nick had Travis completely enveloped in tape except for his very top and bottom and middle. The tape started at Travis’s ankles and ended just below his butt, then started again at his waist and ran to his neck. The only thing Travis could move was his head, and just a little at his midsection. Nick didn’t tape that part to the pole at all. Travis found out why when Nick reached into his pockets and extracted his wallet and cell phone.

Then Nick took a third roll of tape and did him up again, not missing the middle of him this time. Travis was now a gray lump standing on the floor with a pole coming out of it, with only feet and a neck and head not taped.

When he was finished, Nick stepped back and spoke. “Okay, mister. I’m really sorry about this. I just don’t have any choice. I’ve got to do this. So tell me, are you going to cooperate?”

“Cooperate?! With what? What the hell are you doing, kid? Take this tape off. Right now!”

“I guess you aren’t going to cooperate. It would be easier if you would. I don’t want to have to make you cooperate. Please don’t make me.”

He walked around so Travis could see him. Nick seemed to be looking at him with a rather sad expression, although in the dim light, he couldn’t see him clearly enough to be sure.

Travis’s whole situation had gone from ordinary to nightmarishly weird in about a minute. He needed time for his body and mind to catch up.

“So, will you? Will you cooperate? It’ll be better for you if you do. Please, mister.”

“Kid, what are you doing? I was helping you, and suddenly I’m all taped up here. What’s going on?”

“I’m kidnapping you. I need money. I’m desperate. I figure I can get a lot of money for you. Maybe several hundred dollars or more. Look, I’m sorry, but we’re wasting time. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. Are you going to cooperate or not?”

“How do you mean, cooperate? And why would you kidnap me? That’ll get you in big trouble. You’ll go to jail.”

“I hope not, but that’s my worry, not yours. Your worry should be what happens if you don’t cooperate.”

Travis thought Nick was acting like he thought he was being entirely reasonable, but that Travis was beginning to annoy him a little bit. It was about then Travis began to wonder if maybe Nick was insane.

“Kid, that’s about enough. This isn’t some game. Now let me loose and maybe we can forget this, but it has to be right now. This isn’t funny at all.” Travis used his most adult voice, speaking as sternly as possible, sure it would have an effect on Nick.

It didn’t seem to. “Are you going to make me make you cooperate? Come on, mister, please don’t make me do that.”

Damn, the kid was almost pleading with him. Well, fuck that! “Fuck you, kid. Let me out of here. And I mean NOW!”

Nick looked at Travis, his expression showing the determination he’d had when Travis had first encountered him. That determination was not being lessened in the slightest by Travis’s outburst. Nick just turned around and walked over to where he’d got the rolls of tape. He walked back, this time carrying a hammer. Not a claw hammer, but a mini-sledge hammer. It had a small sledgehammer head mounted on a hammer-sized handle.

“Mister, it’d be better if you’d cooperate. No one’s going to hear you if you scream, but I’d hate to have to do this. I’d feel awful about it. Watch this.”

Nick reached into Travis’s bag of stuff and took out one of the oranges. He set it on the floor so Travis could see it, then hit it with the hammer.

The effect was dramatic. Orange juice and pulp shot all over. The orange smashed apart and was flattened where the hammer had hit it.

Nick looked at it while wiping juice off his face, looked up at Travis, then walked over to him and knelt down by his feet. He leaned over and rested the hammer on Travis’s shoe.

Travis tried to jerk his foot away, but couldn’t move it at all. He started sweating.

He saw Nick raise the hammer then, and shouted, “NO! I’ll cooperate! No! Don’t!”

Nick swung the hammer down, hard, and hit the floor next to the shoe. A lingering pang sound echoed in through the room.

Nick stood back up, still holding the hammer. “It would be best if from now on you just did what I said and didn’t argue or say no. I feel bad enough about this. Besides, this way, I won’t have to ruin any more oranges. Or your toes, either. This’ll go much faster if you cooperate and don’t argue. Is that okay with you, mister?”

“Sure,” Travis said, his voice suddenly shaky.

“So are you ready to cooperate?”

“Yeah, kid. Sure. What do you want?”

“Well, nothing right now, mister. I have to think for a minute. This went better than I’d expected. I wasn’t sure this would work. So give me a minute, OK?”

After saying that, Nick went and moved the bags of rocks off the box, sat down on it, only a foot away from Travis, and began eating the breakfast remaining in the bag. He ate quickly, taking big bites, paying no attention at all to Travis.

Travis stood there. He couldn’t do anything other than stand there and talk, and he wasn’t sure what to say right then. He’d just been kidnapped by an eleven-year-old. He wasn’t feeling real friendly. Stupid, dumbass, fucking kid.

Nick finished the rolls and the yogurt and ate the remaining orange last. He checked the bag to be sure nothing was left when he was done. He put the trash in the bag, then tossed it to the side of the room. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve before speaking.

“Okay mister. I’m truly sorry about this. It’ll all end up OK. Let’s get this done quickly so I can let you go. Now I need to know who will pay for you. And how much they can pay. I was thinking when I planned this that I could get maybe a thousand dollars for someone, but you don’t look like you have that kind of dough. I don’t know if you’ve got friends who’d pay that much for you, or who could even scrape up that much. So now I’m thinking maybe five hundred.”

What? Travis couldn’t believe it! What a pissy thing to say! He always just put on his casual clothes for his morning outing. A guy doesn’t wear a suit or dress slacks to go for a morning constitutional and get breakfast stuff. First this little shit kidnapped him, now he was insulting his clothes and calling his friends cheap? He started hating the kid.

“What the fuck, kid! You think I’m poor or my friends are cheap?”

“Oh, you’re not? Your friends aren’t? Should I ask for more?”

Oops, he thought. He shouldn‘t be talking so much. He didn’t answer.

Nick looked at him, waiting, and then finally said, “So who do I get the money from?”

Travis didn’t answer right away. He was trying to think. His brain didn’t seem to be working well. Really, though he wouldn’t ever admit it, his brain never worked extraordinarily well. But now he was thinking. He was considering that in all the action adventure movies, the hero was always clear-headed and smarter than the villain, and when the laser beam was nearing his crotch, or his car was just about to go over the cliff, he was planning and executing his escape. Here was Travis’s chance to do the same, and he realized his head wasn’t working at all. It was something he was accustomed to, but also wished that right now it could be different.

Stupid head, anyway.

“You’re not saying anything, mister.”

“Okay, sorry. Just trying to think. I just realized. I have to go to the bathroom. Can you undo me here? I mean from the pole? You can keep my hands all taped, so I can’t get away. But I need to pee.”

Nick was annoyed at that. He seemed to think for a moment, then said, “Can’t you just hold it?”

“No, I can’t hold it! Talking about it is making it worse. Untape me.”

“No way, Jose. It was hard enough getting you like this. I’m not taking any chances of losing you and the money now. I got to have that.”

“But I have to go.”

“Just hold it.”

“I can’t! Hurry up or I’ll go in my pants. I don’t want to pee myself. It’ll stink, and I’ll be all wet, and it’d be awfully humiliating. Come on, kid, you’re not that mean, are you?” “I’m not mean at all. I don’t like this whole kidnapping deal any better than you do. OK,” he said, and paused to think. “I’ll see what I can do.”

He reached in his pocket and pulled out a jackknife, which he opened. Travis was taped with his front against the pole. He really couldn’t move much at all. Nick stood to one side and then the other, looking at him, then crouched down in front and took a closer look. He stood back up and said, “We need to move you to the right about an inch or two.”

He got on the left side of Travis and started pushing. Travis attempted to jerk to the right to help. After a moment of them both working at this, Nick looked again and said that ought to be almost enough. Then he crouched down again and pressed the knife blade against Travis’s crotch.

“Hey! What’re you doing?”

“I’m going to make a hole here so you can pee. Don’t move.”

Travis didn’t know if that was a joke or not, but he certainly wasn’t moving. Nick cut and poked and sawed, and pretty soon said, “Okay, I can see where your zipper is. Hold on.”

He reached into the opening he’d cut and pulled down the zipper, and then stepped back.

“Uh, Nick, I can’t exactly do anything here, you know?”

Nick gave out an exasperated groan. “You mean I have to...?”

“Yeah. I don’t like it any better than you do.”

So Nick came forward again and reached into the opening he’d cut and fumbled around in Travis’s underwear a little and then pulled him out. The side of that part of him was up against the pole, which was cold, and the rough edges of the tape were touching it, too. The fact he also had a young boy looking at it added to Travis’s discomfort.

“Can you get something for me to go in?” “Oh, yeah.”

Nick looked around for a moment, then picked up the trash bag. He rummaged in it and pulled out the yogurt container, then brought it to Travis. He looked at it, then at Travis dangling in front of him, and giggled. But he positioned the cup so Travis was hanging inside it.

“Okay,” he said.

Travis just stood there. Finally Nick said, “Well?”

“I can’t go! I need to. But I’ve never been able to go when someone’s watching.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I just can’t.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Maybe it is, but it’s true.”

“Well, I’m not going to stand here all day holding a cup, waiting on you. Just tell me when you really have to go, not fake go.” He set the cup down on the floor, then stepped back. “Okay, now give me the name.”

“Uh, aren’t you going to put me back in? I feel sort of exposed this way.”

“I’m not touching that thing any more than I have to. Give me the name.”

Travis thought, what the hell? He needed to get free from this, and while being trapped in a basement by an eleven-year-old wasn’t something he was going to put in his memoirs, being stubborn just to save $500 didn’t make much sense. Besides which, this was a kid. He’d probably be able to get the money back and the kid into reform school where he belonged, once he had this stupid tape off. He hoped it would be one of those bad reform schools he was always reading about. One of those with nasty, sadistic guards.

So he told Nick his partner’s name and address.

“That’s a man’s name. I thought I’d be dealing with a wife. Women are easier.”

“That’s my partner. I’m gay.”

Travis could see that surprised him. Nick thought a moment before speaking again. Then he said, “Well, this is tricky then. A guy could grab me. A gay guy might rather have me than you. I’m better looking and a lot younger. I’m not sure I like this. Is this guy into kids?”

“No. Neither am I. I hate kids. I hate them even more now than I did a few minutes ago. I was trying to help you, you know?”

Nick looked sad for a moment, then grinned. “Yeah, I was counting on that. Everyone wants to help a cute kid. That was my plan.”

“You’re really high on yourself, aren’t you, kid. You’re not that cute.”

“Cute enough. I got your attention.”

Travis couldn’t think of an answer to that, so just remained silent.

Nick went back to his original train of thought. “So tell me how I should do this. I don’t want to get caught. Dealing with a man is more difficult. Maybe I should ask for more money. For the greater risk. I don’t know. How should I go about this?”

“You want me to tell you how to collect a ransom that’s being paid on me? What kind of a kidnapper are you, anyway?”

“Give me a break here, mister! This is my first one. Next time I’ll be experienced and do it better.”

“Yeah. Next time. Well, you’re supposed to write a note to my partner, telling him not to get the cops involved, telling him where to take the money, and that after you get the money, you’ll let me go. That’s what they always do in the movies.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen that, too. You forgot one part, though. In the movies they always cut off a finger or an ear or something. Then the guy paying can identify whatever is cut off as the victim’s. I guess we’ll have to do that, too. I don’t really want to. That’s kind of gross. But I need that money.”

“NO! No, you don’t want to do that. You just want to have a way he knows you have me. Those guys who cut off fingers or other parts always get caught. You’ve seen that, haven’t you?” “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Okay, so how will he know I really have you, that I’m not making this up?”

Travis was about to tell him to take a picture, but realized, unless the kid had a digital camera, he’d be kept here for a day or two while the picture was being developed and decided that wasn’t a good idea. So he thought some more, then said, “I’ve got a ring on my finger he can identify that I never take off. He gave it to me when we committed to each other. You could put that with the ransom note. And I could tell you the nickname I use for him, and he uses for me. Put those names in the note and include the ring; that should convince him.”

“Okay, that sounds good.” Nick lifted the lid of the box and took a kid’s school notebook and pencil out of it. Then he put the lid back down and sat on the box, opened the notebook on his lap and began writing. He wrote, then stopped to think, then wrote some more. Then he stopped again and asked what names to use, and Travis told him. Finally, after writing some more, he finished and looked at his prisoner.

“This is what I wrote: ‘Dear Mr. Benson: I kidnapped your friend. This is serious. I’m not playing around here. Don’t call the cops. Put $500 in an envelope and take it to the library at Grand Avenue and Cypress Street today before noon. In the shelves at the back, there is a book called Tax Procedures for the Self-Employed Rancher or Farmer, 1996.’”

He stopped then and grinned at Travis. “See,” he said, “I had this all planned. It’s a good plan, too.”

Then he went back to reading his note. “‘It’s on the bottom shelf. Put the envelope in the book when no one is watching. Put the book back where it was. If any cops are watching the book when I go to get the money, or if I see you around, Travis will die and it will be bloody.’”

Nick looked up and grinned. “That part’s cool,” he said. “He won’t fool around when he sees that.” Then he returned to the note again.

“‘He will go free when I have the money. If I’m captured, I’ll pretend I don’t remember where he is, and he’ll pee and crap himself and then starve to death in agony. Don’t call the cops after you’ve left the money. If I see cops around, I won’t let him loose. He said you’d recognize this ring, and that you are Bunny and he is Karch. Yours truly, The Kidnapper.’”

Nick looked at Travis, who thought the kid seemed to want his approval. Travis told him, “I don’t see anything wrong with it. What are you going to do, drop it through the mail slot in the front door, ring the bell and then walk away?”

“Yeah, thanks. I wasn’t sure. That ought to work.”

He stood up, folded the paper and put it in his pocket.

“Now I need the ring.”

Travis was encased in layers of duct tape. Nick walked around him, just looking, then stopped. “I don’t want to cut you, but I might. If I do, it wasn’t on purpose. It was your idea to use the ring.”

“Hey, wait a minute. You don’t really have to have that ring, you know?” Thinking of him sawing away with nothing between the blade and his finger but tape that was being cut through had Travis worried again. “Why don’t you just say that I told you about the ring, and that if he doesn’t do as you demand, you’ll send him the ring in your next letter, and my finger will come with it?”

Nick grinned. “I like that. It’ll scare him. If he really cares about you. Maybe he cares more about the $500.”

“No, he definitely would pay that much to get me back safely. I just worry it might take him some time to raise that much. That’s an awful lot of money. You want to get this over quickly, and so do I. Hey, I’m ready to pee now.”

Nick stood up and picked up the cup. Travis was able to go this time. Nick yelled when he got some splashed on his hand, and he jerked back once so some got on the floor, but Travis apologized, telling him he couldn’t help it. Most of it went in the cup.

When Travis was done, Nick took the cup out of the room. He was gone only about two minutes. Travis used all the force he had in him to test the tape during that time, but had no leverage at all, and duct tape is strong. He couldn’t move.

Nick came back. “OK, I think I’ll do what you said. I don’t want to cut into the tape. He should believe me without the ring. And, I thought of something else.”

He walked over to the box, then began dragging it behind Travis. Travis tried to turn his head to see what he was doing, but couldn’t look directly in back of him, and that’s where Nick had dragged the box.

Nick moved it so it was up against the man’s legs. Then he put a hand on his shoulder and stood up on the box. Travis heard his jackknife click open.

“Hey! HEY! What’re you doing? You’re not cutting off my ear, are you? Hey, kid!”

“Stop yelling. I’m getting something to replace the ring with, but not your ear. Hold still.”

He put his fingers in Travis’s hair. Travis had long hair. He was inordinately proud of it. He had heard that his was a young guy’s hairstyle, but he always replied that he was young, so it was appropriate. He was sure he wasn’t too old to have long hair. He saw a lot of people looking at his hair.

Travis felt a slight yanking, and then Nick got down and walked in front of him, and he saw Nick had a handful of hair. “MY GOD! What did you do?”

“Just getting some proof I have you. He should recognize it, and will know you’re in my control as you wouldn’t let me have this any other way. So it’ll be as good as the ring.”

“But my hair!”

“Oh, don’t be like that. It’ll grow back. You can just wear a hat until then.”

Now Travis was really angry. He’d been scared, but now that was gone and he was beside himself. The boy had cut his hair! He had no right to cut off any of my hair, Travis screamed to himself.

Nick was looking at Travis, and he saw the anger. At first he looked very worried, but then a harder expression replaced the fear. He took a few steps, leaned over and picked up the hammer, and came back.

“You’re not deciding to try something, are you? You look angry. I don’t much like that. You start trying to get loose, start yelling, start anything at all, I’m going to hit you with this hammer. I’ll hit you till you stop. I don’t want to hurt you, but I want my money. I’ve earned it. So don’t think you can mess this up.”

He glared at Travis. “I told you I’m sorry about this. I really am. I wouldn’t be doing this except I have to have that money. You can get mad or not, but I’m going to get that money. It’ll be easier if you just relax and help me.”

Travis tried to glare back, but his anger was dissipating quickly. He was totally trussed up, helpless, Nick hadn’t bothered tucking him back into his pants so that wasn’t helping his psychological equilibrium at all and added to the vulnerable feeling he was experiencing. He hated the fact he’d lost some hair, but in the big picture, that wasn’t something to get that upset over. It seemed like he was going to be here for some time, until the kid let him go. Anger wasn’t going to help anything.

Travis decided his best course of action would be to help get this over with. Causing Nick any grief at all would be counterproductive.

“OK. I’m sorry I got angry. It’s just that I’m proud of my hair, and it made me mad when you cut it.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because I didn’t want to lose it like that.”

“No, I mean, why are you proud of it? It’s too long and looks funny on you. Like you’re trying to pretend you’re a teenager.”

“Look kid, just go get your ransom and let me go. I want this to be over.”

“OK, but I have to change that note first.”

Nick sat back on the box, started with a new sheet from his notebook, and wrote for a while. When he finished, he took out an envelope, wrote Travis’s partner’s name on the front, then put the paper and the hair in it and sealed it.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be back. Oh, let me do this, first.” Then he started taping again. Round and round and round. From Travis’s feet up to his shoulders. Travis had been thinking that, with the kid gone, he might be able to jerk sideways enough to loosen the tape, maybe tear it, even though he hadn’t made any progress the first time he’d tried. Now, with this new taping, he gave up all hope of that.

Nick finished with the tape. He walked around Travis, giving him the once over, then said, “See ya later,” and then was gone, closing the door behind him.

Travis thought he should at least try calling out, and did so, but no one seemed to hear, and it hurt his ears when his voice echoed back at him in the small concrete room.

He tried twisting and forcing his arms to move, but couldn’t really budge. He tried relaxing his legs, but it made no difference. He was taped to the pole, and the tape held him in position without his leg muscles helping at all. He was very uncomfortable. He couldn’t move, and was beginning to get hot. He could feel sweat on his skin. Unfortunately, he had on a long sleeved shirt and long pants, and whereas it was possible sweat might have loosened tape stuck to skin, there was little skin the tape was attached to. Only his hands.

Travis was going to be there for the duration. He hoped the kid didn’t spook and just leave him there.

Oh! That was a terrible thought! What if he got the money, then scooted? Why would he come back? He could call someone anonymously and say where Travis was with very little risk to himself, but what if he didn’t?

That made him panic a little and test the tape again. Doing so had exactly the same result as before.

Time passed. He had no way of knowing how much. The room was very dark, and the light didn’t seem to change much all the time he was there. He could only stand there and think. And worry. He did a lot of that. What if no one came?

Someone did, though. It was Nick.

It was probably four hours later, although Travis didn’t have more than a guess at that. He heard the door open and then steps. Then Nick was standing in front of him. He had a grin on his face.

“I got the money! I’m rich! See?” He showed Travis five one-hundred dollar bills, fanning them out. He was smiling. Travis realized it was only a few hours ago he’d thought that smile charming. How stupid of him. Stupid kid. Stupid him.

“Okay, Nick, now cut me loose.”

“I will. But I have to say some things first. First, I’m sorry I had to do this. Second, I’m a kid. You’re an adult. You can probably spend some money to find me, and I’d be in trouble. You can go to the cops, and they might catch me. So you have to promise me you’ll forget about this. And I mean really promise. For sure. I didn’t hurt you at all. You just spent some time taped up. No big deal. Right? And I didn’t ask for enough money to make much difference to you. I saw where you live. $500 isn’t that much. So, promise me.”

“Okay. I promise. I just want this to be over with. Five hundred dollars is a whole lot of money, but I’m not going to break a promise over it.”

“Okay. I trust you. I’ll cut you loose now. But I need to tell you one more thing, just to be fair. Are you listening real good?”

“Yeah, I’m listening.”

“Okay. If you do break your promise, it’ll really be bad for me, I’ll probably be in a huge jam. But you promised not to tell, and I believe you. And if you break that promise, you’re not playing fair. I’ve been honest and fair with you, and as nice as I could be about kidnapping you. I know you’re probably pissed off, and I’ve already apologized for that, and I meant it, but I can’t help it, either. But I came back for you when I didn’t have to, and I’ve played fair. If you break your promise, you’re not playing fair. That means I don’t have to either. So what I’m saying here is, you’d better keep that promise. If you don’t, I’ll probably be in trouble, but you’ll be in bad, bad trouble, too. You need to know that. You understand?”

Travis had no idea what Nick was talking about, but agreeing with him seemed the fastest way out of the tape, so he told him he did understand, and said he’d forget about this whole business, that Nick had his word on it. He made it sound like he meant it.

Nick took his knife and began cutting the tape where it was fastened to the pole. He cut from the top to half way down on one side, then reversed it on the other side, cutting from the bottom up half way. Then he poked the knife through the remaining tape holding Travis to the pole in several places on both sides, cutting little slits, popping through and weakening the tape. When he was satisfied, he closed the knife and stepped back. He picked up the hammer and notebook and pen and put them in the bag with his morning trash, then walked to the door so he was behind Travis, out of his sight.

“Okay, I’m leaving. You can break the tape now by jerking back and forth. It’ll tear. It might take you a while, but you should be able to manage. I taped your ankles together but not around the pole, so when you get loose from the pole, you’ll have to remove that, too. I left the end loose so you’ll be able to get to it, but if you get loose too fast, with your ankles taped like that, you won’t be able to chase after me.”

There was a pause, and then in a softer, more concerned voice, Nick said, “Look, I want to be sure you’re OK. I’ll come back to check here in a day or so. If you’re still here and dying or anything like that, I’ll save you then. But you should be able to get away now, if you put your mind to it. Try it. Try jerking your body.”

Travis did, and nothing happened. So he tried again, and heard a small ripping sound from the tape. He jerked sideways again, and the noise was louder.

“Good. Keep doing that. See ya. Or, I hope I won’t see ya. You promised you wouldn’t come looking for me or go to the cops. You heard what I said about that. I meant it.”

Travis jerked again, and the ripping sound was a little louder. He said to Nick, “This is going to take forever. And when I jerk, it hurts. Can’t you cut the tape a little more?”

There was no answer. Nick was gone.

He set about getting loose. It took that forever he’d told Nick it would take and even more. Not every jerk tore the tape, and quite a few times he thought he wasn’t going to get loose. He was exhausted when he was finally able to walk out of the basement. Exhausted, filthy, covered with tape burns, and one other thing. When he was finally free, even before then, when he was fighting his battle with the duct tape, he became so angry he would have killed the kid if he’d got his hands on him right then.

Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ

Bunny was frantic when Travis opened the door. He was the dramatic type in all situations anyway, and this was beyond the pale. Travis had been worried that Bunny would fall apart just hearing he’d been kidnapped and might not be able to follow the instructions in the note. Travis was overjoyed and relieved Bunny had held himself together and delivered the money.

Bunny hugged him and asked what had happened, and Travis told him. Travis gave him the entire story while in the bathtub with a very icy martini in his hand and as his back was being scrubbed gently and soothingly. He was sore and tired and the martini, his third, and ministrations helped, but his anger still seethed. It wasn’t burning as hot as it had been when he’d been so frustrated trying to get out of that tape. That was an ordeal he never even wanted to think about again. It had taken over an hour to get loose, and he’d felt desperate much of the time, thinking he might not have the strength to manage it, and it had been painful, and he’d used up every ounce of strength and energy he’d had and, and…and...he didn’t want to think about it.

Bunny was rubbing his soapy hands all over him, soothing his sore and abused muscles, then took his manhood in his hand and said, “Oh, this is red and looks sore. What happened?”

“That damned kid, when he taped me the last time, this was out of my pants and the tape stuck to it. When I was jerking against the tape to get free, the tape sort of pulled the skin. It’s very sore.”

“Oh, poor baby! Should I rub it?”

“NO! Just leave it alone. It’ll heal.”

“It had better. And what was it doing out of your pants anyway?”

“Never mind, it just was. Forget about it.”

Bunny had let it go and was now ministering to other of Travis’s aches and pains. He stopped, directly behind Travis, and said, “Oh, look, I see where he got the hair. You know, Karch, I’ve been telling you how you needed to get your hair shortened. Now you have reason to. You’ll look a lot better. I keep telling you you’re too old for this style. So this wasn’t all bad.”

What?! Bunny was happy he’d been kidnapped and some of his hair hacked off because he’d finally get his way and Travis would have shorter hair? Did he think that was supposed to help his mood? Yeah, sure! He went back to thinking his evil thoughts about revenge. He added a scalping to his growing agenda of retributions.

“Now what?” asked Bunny, when Travis hadn’t spoken in several minutes.

“Now I find and kill that kid.”

“Karch! Really!”

“Fuck yeah! I’m not letting that little shit get away with it. I think I’ll tape him up and roast his nuts with a blowtorch.”

“Karch! NO!”

“Okay, but I’ll catch him and scare him a little, maybe rough him up just a little too, and then I’ll give him to the cops. I owe him! He’ll probably be in the juvenile system till he’s twenty-five. He deserves more than that.”

Bunny was silent then. Travis could tell he was unhappy with him. With Bunny, all his emotions were right on the surface and as easy to read as a billboard. Knowing the answer, Travis asked him what his problem was.

“You said he was only ten or eleven. It was only five hundred dollars. You’re back safe. Are you sure you won’t just forget about it? It might be better. He did say you’d regret it if you came after him. He said he was sorry, but he had to do it. You’re sure you’re not just mad because a little kid got the better of you”

“No! That’s ridiculous. I’m going to castrate that little mother!” Travis knew that what Bunny was saying had some truth to it, but didn’t want to admit it even to himself. Being outsmarted by a kid! Stupid kid!!!

“If you can’t just let it go, why don’t you just call the cops, let them handle it?”

“I thought about that all the time I was getting loose. I owe that kid something, and he’s going to get it. I’ll call the cops. But I’m going to deal with him myself first.”

“He’s just a little kid, Karch! You said you found him appealing, that you liked his looks. You sure you want to dump a kid like that into juvie for years? If he’s only ten?”

“Fuck him. And I think he’s eleven.”

Bunny was quiet then, and Travis knew he was disappointing him. But Travis was mad. The kid was going to pay. That was all he could think of.

He wrested his thoughts from the kid and considered the cops. The quicker he called them, the more likely they were to believe him totally, he knew that. The longer he delayed, the more they would wonder why. So he should call them right then, shouldn’t he? He realized he should have as soon as he’d got loose, but he’d been too mad and only thinking of getting home, and thinking of revenge, and besides, the stupid little bastard had taken his phone! He’d been so exhausted, getting home was the foremost thing in his mind and he wasn’t going to stop at a pay phone on the way. Calling the cops didn’t seem that important at that moment.

Even as he considered all this, he knew he still really wanted some time alone with the kid, too. He could turn him over to the cops after he’d explained a few things to him. He didn’t want to rough him up too badly, Travis wasn’t like that, but he did want to put the fear of God into him. He was a little kid. That should be easy enough to do.

And he knew how to get hold of him. He didn’t have to canvass the entire city. He knew.

Travis called his boss and told her he had a family emergency and wouldn’t be in till the following week. Then, he told Bunny what they were going to do. Bunny would stake out that apartment house for the next 12 hours, and he’d take the following 12, and then Bunny again if they hadn’t got the kid by then.

The kid had said he’d be back to check on Travis in a couple of days. Travis didn’t know if the kid would really come, but he thought he would, and he thought it would be sooner than two days. Just the way Nick had spoken at the end, he thought he would; it had sounded like the kid might have been worried whether Travis would be all right. Travis didn’t know if he would actually come sooner than he’d said, but he thought he would and he wanted to be the one who caught him. Bunny would be waiting for the first shift, and he himself would be there the second, when he thought Nick would turn up. When he did, he’d nail him.

Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ

Travis was getting sore, all his muscles stiffening up. He’d abused those muscles severely, trying to wrench the tape off. He’d checked, and the door Nick had used was the only way into the building. The other doors were all nailed shut. Bunny had taken the first 12-hour watch, after a lot of grumbling and a lot of persuading. It was now the next day. Travis was concealed pretty well. The empty lot behind the building where he’d been held provided plenty of great hiding places. The old car without tires that sat at the back of the property was just the thing. He had an unobstructed view of the doorway and since he was inside the car, he couldn’t be seen at all.

It was uncomfortable; Travis’s gathering stiffness was not helping at all, but he endured, waiting. He was going to get that kid. That thought kept him focused and still.

It was getting late in the afternoon when Nick showed up. He was very tentative. He came around the corner of the building and just stopped. He looked all around, didn’t see anything, then walked down the stairs and kicked the door open, but didn’t go inside. He called into the building, then waited. Travis moved slightly, readying himself. He needed Nick to go inside. If he didn’t, by the time Travis got out of the car and made his way to the door, Nick would have scrammed.

Nick called into the door again, waited a minute or so, then walked away. He walked back to the corner of the building, then turned the corner and was gone. Travis watched. Damn! He wanted to rush after him, but decided, after coming this far, if Nick actually cared if Travis was in there, still unable to break free from the tape, then the kid wouldn’t just walk away. He was playing it safe, that was all. He’d only left so if Travis was free and waiting inside, waiting to catch him, then when Nick left like this, he’d get discouraged and give up and leave too. If Nick didn’t see him come out, he’d come back. So, Travis waited.

He did come back, a half hour later. Travis was really anxious by then, but he had waited, and Nick came back.

This time, he didn’t bother to call out, but just walked quietly into the building. Travis was immediately out of the car and jogging stiffly across the lot. He got to the door and there was no sight of Nick. He went inside.

The corridor was darker than the day before because the light outside was failing. Travis walked as softly as he could. He wasn’t yet to the room when he saw Nick in the hall coming back toward him. Both stopped. Then Nick turned and ran back, scampering back into the room, and Travis simply stood and waited. There was no way out except the door through which they’d both entered.

After a very few minutes, Nick came back again.

“Hey, mister,” he said, “I was just coming to see if you were okay.” Travis could hear fear in his voice. Good.

“Yeah, well I have a couple of things to say to you. Let’s go back to that room.” Travis’s voice was hostile.

“NO! I don’t wanna!” Nick was scared now. He’d heard the intonation of Travis’s voice. Travis saw Nick’s reaction and felt some pleasure in that.

Travis grabbed Nick’s arm and pushed him into the room, then stood in the doorway.

Before he could say anything, Nick said, “You promised, mister. You promised.”

“Screw that. I want my money back. And then you’re going to the cops.”

“I only have a hundred left.” Nick reached into his pocket and pulled out a hundred dollar bill and handed it to Travis. “I needed the rest. I needed it to pay someone. That’s why I kidnapped you.”

“Save it for the cops, kid. I should punch you around a little. Maybe tape you up and just leave you here with your dick hanging out. Maybe tape you up and twist your dick off.”

“You promised, mister.” Nick’s voice was petulant and pleading. For all his spunk, Nick was just a little kid, standing in a dark basement with a man he knew was angry at him. He was almost crying now. Travis felt something then. It was only remembering what it was like trying to get out of that tape that allowed him not to feel some pity.

“Fuck that promise. I’m turning you over to the cops. Just stay there.”

Seeing Nick, hearing him, Travis knew he couldn’t physically hurt him. He’d thought about it, but thinking and doing were different. He took out his new cell phone and called the cops, and told them where he was, and to send a car. They said one would be there right away.

“You promised,” Nick kept saying, but there was defeat in his voice, and he didn’t even seem to be directing it at Travis. But finally, when he heard people at the outside door and then moving down the corridor, Nick looked up at Travis, met his eyes, and said, “You promised, and I warned you not to break it.”

Then the cops were in the room. Two of them. Before Travis could say anything, Nick did.

“Thank God you’re here, officers. This guy was going to make me do things. He gave me a hundred dollars, see.” He pulled the hundred-dollar bill from his pocket. “He showed me another one and said I’d get that too, if I did a good job. Then he put it back in his pocket. It’s still there. He taped me to that pole, and did things to me, down there, then said if I didn’t do the same things to him, he’d just walk away and leave me there, and I’d starve to death.”

“That is a load of crap!” Travis said at that point. “He kidnapped me. He taped me to that pole. Those bills were part of my ransom money. He’s the one responsible for all this. I was the one who called you guys.”

The cops looked at each other, then at Travis, then at the boy. Speaking to Travis while looking at Nick, one asked, “You say he kidnapped you?” Then the cops both started laughing. Nick did, too.

Then Nick said to the cops, “I’m so glad you came. I tricked him into calling you. I didn’t think he’d fall for it, but he did. He’s not very smart. And he’s a pervert. He’s gay. He told me so. He wanted me to do things. Disgusting things. He was wagging his dick at me. I can tell you what it looks like to prove it if you want me to.”

“You bastard!” shouted Travis. “He kidnapped me, and held me for ransom, and I can prove it!”

That’s when the officers took them both to the station. Nick rode in the front with them, sitting on the passenger’s side on the cop’s lap. Travis sat in the back behind the metal screen with handcuffs on his wrists.

He had time to figure out what to do, and when they permitted him his one call, he called Bunny. Luckily he was there. Travis told him the only proof they really had of what had happened was the ransom note. It was in Nick’s handwriting and had his fingerprints on it. Travis told him to bring it to the station.

“But Karch....”

“What?”

“There was no note. I got a phone call. Funny sounding voice, obviously disguised. Sounded like a woman to me. Might have been a boy. Told me what to do, and to look by the mail slot in our front door. I did and saw some of your hair there.”

“But that letter was the proof I needed!”

“Isn’t the tape still there? All that tape? Two rolls you said he used on you.”

“Yeah, but he says I used it on him. When I was getting out of it, it got all wadded and stuck together. It would have his fingerprints on it, but mine too. It wouldn’t tell anyone anything.”

Bunny said he’d come down and talk to the police, and not to worry. Yeah, right!

When Travis was taken back to the interview room, he walked by where Nick was being interviewed. They’d probably left the door open, wanting him to be more comfortable, and Travis heard him saying, “And that’s when he tried to piss on me. He was laughing and playing with it and pointing it at me and trying to piss. I jumped back and he just sprayed a little on the floor. I don’t think any splashed on my pants, but you should be able to find where some of it dried on the concrete floor.”

Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ

The judge looked at Travis, the frown he’d had since the beginning of his story deepening the longer it went on.

“You expect me to believe that?” he asked when Travis had finished.

“Yes, your honor. It’s true. I wouldn’t make that up. It’s humiliating, to start with. And you can check the facts. Mr. Benson says he got a call from someone with a ransom demand. He says he heard the pet names we use. The police found traces of an orange in that room. And urine on the floor which will certainly prove to be mine if they do DNA on it. And the tape was still there.”

“Which the child’s testimony all explains. All except the orange, which he says he knows nothing about. Orange juice and rind on the floor hardly vindicates you.”

“But he’s lying! He kidnapped me!”

The judge kept frowning at Travis, then said he had to talk to the kid again and the police were still looking at evidence and the arraignment would be delayed for a short time. He’d make his decision later in the day after considering everything. In the meantime, Travis was to remain in custody.

Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ

Travis was taken from the holding cell in the court house into the judge’s chambers. Bunny was there. So was Nick. A bailiff stood by the door.

“Mr. Karcher,” the judge began when Travis was seated, “we’ve gathered some new facts. I think we need to talk some more.”

“What new facts? I hope you discovered I’m telling the truth, and that the kid is lying. Stupid kid.”

The judge frowned at him. Travis thought maybe he should try to keep his temper in check.

“Easy, Karch.” That was Bunny. Nick was silent, looking at the floor.

The judge cleared his throat. “The police try to get all the evidence they can to support or refute the testimonies of the people involved in criminal proceedings. We’ve found that even the most ridiculous sounding stories can be true, and the most plausible sounding stories can be false, and so we try to support what facts are given us. This appeared to be a very open and shut case. But the police still examined the evidence.

“They didn’t have that much to examine. They had the supposed ransom money, the tape, and a library book. They checked them all for fingerprints. The tape was no use at all. The book had Mr. Benson’s fingerprints, but not Nick’s, so that was useless. The money, however, was something else.”

He paused then and looked at Nick before continuing, addressing his comments to Travis. “We had two different stories. Nick said you gave him a $100 bill, and kept one to give him later. You said that money was ransom money. We checked, and Mr. Benson withdrew $500 in $100 bills from the bank yesterday morning. His fingerprints were on the bills and the book, so it made the story possible he’d actually left those bills in the book, but certainly didn’t prove it. Knowing he’d touched both the book and bills wasn’t proof positive that he’d had them both in his hands at the same time. But we had more than that to look at.

“If your story is true, your fingerprints and Nick’s should have been on the bill in your pocket, and your prints should not have been on the one in Nick’s pocket. And if Nick’s story was true, his fingerprints and yours should have been on the bill in his pocket, and his shouldn’t have been on the bill in your pocket.

“So we checked. And we found your story matched the evidence, and Nick’s didn’t.”

Travis’s head was spinning trying to follow all that, and then he realized he didn’t have to understand, that the judge had said the evidence supported his story. Just why was too hard for him to understand and wasn’t important anyway.

The judge was continuing. “We spoke to Nick about this. Nick, would you like to tell Mr. Karcher about it?”

Nick looked at Travis. His eyes were very sad. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I needed the money. I didn’t hurt you. I tried to be as nice as I could, but I didn’t think about anything but that I needed the money. I’m sorry.”

“Nick, could you tell Mr. Karcher about why you needed the money. I think he deserves an explanation.”

Nick dropped his eyes from Travis’s and looked into his lap. He paused, then spoke in a very small voice. He didn’t look like the boy Travis remembered, the boy very much in charge in that basement room. Now, he sat hunched in a chair that was larger than he was, looking down, his voice soft and shaky.

“My father took off. He thought I was going to go to the police on him, so he took off, and we’d been staying with a friend of his, and once my father was gone, I couldn’t stay there. He would have been worse than my father. I had no place to go. I’ve been on the streets for a month. I’ve been living in that house you were in with me. I was finding ways to get food, but the last couple of days I didn’t get any.”

He stopped, and the judge told him to go on. His voice was sympathetic.

“One of the ways I was getting money for food was to go with guys in their cars. They’d pay me. I didn’t like it; I hated it. It was scary and I felt awful doing it. But you do things when you’re hungry you wouldn’t do otherwise. You do whatever you have to, and liking it or not didn’t make any difference.

“Then, last week, an older boy caught me and forced me into an alley and told me I had to pay him protection. He wanted half the money I made. He threatened me real bad, then told me I could go, but I had to pay him from then on or I’d get hurt.

“Well, I went somewhere else so he wouldn’t see me working and so I could keep all my money. If I gave him what he wanted, I’d have had to be getting in cars every night. I couldn’t do that. So, I started looking for cars somewhere else.

“But, Baston Street turned out to be the only place where men came looking for boys. No one picked me up anywhere else, so I had to go back. I did, and he found me. I’d just got out of a car, and he was waiting. I tried to walk away, but he grabbed me by the arm. He pulled me into an alley. He hit me in the face, knocked me down. He told me he needed to be paid for the days I’d stiffed him. He said I owed him $200, and if he didn’t get it, he’d break my leg. He told me I had two days to get it.

“While I was still lying there, he pulled an old baseball bat out from behind some junk that was in that alley. He showed it to me. Then he pretended to swing it at me. He stopped the swing, but said he wouldn’t stop it, next time. He said he broke kids’ arms or legs that didn’t cooperate with him. He said he owned that street, and if kids worked his street, they had to pay him, and if they didn’t, he fixed it so they couldn’t work anymore by beating them with his bat. That way, that kid wouldn’t be there again, and some other kid could take his place, and he’d get money from him.

“After he told me that, he stepped over to an old wood crate, made sure I was watching, and swung the bat at it. It broke. The wooden sideboard he hit just smashed in half. He said to me, ‘That’ll be your leg. It’ll break just like that, then I’ll leave you here, and by the time they find you, if they do, it’ll be too late to fix it. You won’t be able to walk right the rest of your life.’

“I thought he’d leave then, but he didn’t. He yanked me up, hit me in the mouth, knocking me down again, then said, ‘Two hundred bucks. You got two days to get it. I don’t care how. Steal it. Do more tricks. Whatever. But get it.’ And then he walked away, still carrying his bat.”

“I couldn’t go to the cops. I’d been told what happened when kids like me go to the cops. Another kid had told me about something called Child Protective Services. He said when they put you in there, the older guys gang up on you and initiate you. They hold you down and each one of them gets on you and does it. I’ve been on the streets but that’s something I’ve never done.

“I didn’t know what to do, where to go. The only thing I could figure out was, I’d be hungry again, and I had to do what I’d been doing, and Barston Street was the only place I could do it, so I had to find a way to make a lot of money, fast. $200 was way too much. The most I ever made in one night, getting in cars, was $25. So, I came up with my plan.”

He stopped.

As mad as Travis had been, the kid’s story affected him, and he felt some pity for him. Thinking about it, he realized, Nick really hadn’t hurt him, and had been apologetic the entire time he had him taped up. As desperate as Nick had been, as determined to go through with the kidnapping and collect the ransom, he’d taken pains not to hurt Travis, and he hadn’t asked for more than $500. And perhaps most important of all, at some risk to himself he’d come back to see that Travis was all right.

The room was quiet. Everyone was looking at Nick, and he was looking down, not meeting anyone’s eyes.

It was Bunny who broke the silence. “What will happen to him?” he asked the judge.

“If you press charges, Mr. Karcher,” he replied, looking to Travis, not Bunny, “he’ll probably go into our juvenile justice system. His crime is quite serious.”

“Well of course I’ll press charges.”

Bunny twisted in his seat and looked at Travis. Travis returned his gaze, and didn’t like what he saw. Travis fidgeted a bit, then faced the judge. “Well, just hypothetically of course, but what if I didn’t do that?”

“Well, that gets complicated. We know what happened, and should press ahead even without your help. The problem with that is, if you became an uncooperative witness at trial, a conviction would be difficult to obtain, given Nick’s age and appearance. He’s told me what happened, but he didn’t have a lawyer advising him, so that would almost certainly be thrown out.”

“So, if I don’t press charges, the DA might decide not to prosecute?”

“That’s possible. Of course, he also might, and the prosecution might prevail even without you, in which case Nick’s future would not be bright. And there’s something else to consider, something that would have an effect on all of this.

“We’ve started a search for Nick’s father. He has a significant criminal record, and he’s vanished. We’ve spoken to Nick, and he doesn’t want to go back to him even if he’s found. So Nick’s status is compromised, whether he’s tried for kidnapping or not. What would mitigate his circumstances would be if he had a place to go, a foster home, perhaps. Of course, he doesn’t have that.”

The judge stopped, then looked at Travis before switching his glance to Bunny.

“Karch?” Bunny said it in a very plaintive tone of voice.

Bunny had always spoken about fostering or adopting. He’d always wanted a kid. He’d told Travis that not being able to raise a kid was the only reason he’d ever regretted being gay. Where they lived, however, the state made it almost impossible for gay men to adopt kids, and even discouraged allowing gay men to foster them. The exception was if the child was also gay. Then there were still hoops to jump through, but it was at least legal.

Travis thought about Nick. The first time he’d seen him, he’d found the kid attractive. The kid had fooled him pretty good, but he hadn’t really hurt him. And he could have. He could have asked for a lot more money, but he only asked for what he needed, with a little extra so he wouldn’t need to get in any more cars quite as soon again. He could have just abandoned Travis in that basement once he had his money, but he didn’t. He came back to make sure Travis had got loose. He was smart, and seemed to care about other people. Maybe he hadn’t been on the streets long enough to lose that.

And maybe the juvenile correctional system wasn’t the best place for him.

But the other side of the question remained. The kid had taken Travis off the street, tied him up, frightened him, humiliated him even, then made him work as hard as he had ever had to do in his entire life to get free. Then he’d tried to make the cops think he was a child molester, which would have ruined his life! No, no matter how much he could feel for the circumstances the kid was now in, they were of the kid’s making, not his. He just couldn’t warm up to this kid.

The kid should pay for what he’d done.

Bunny was talking, and Travis broke out of his thoughts to hear him ask the judge, “Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t foster Nick, could we?”

The judge frowned. “Not in this state. Not unless the kid is gay and makes a written statement asking for that placement and a social worker signs off on it.”

There was quiet in the judge’s chambers then, broken by a soft voice.

“I am gay. It’s why my father beat me that last time. When I told him that.”

Travis slumped back in his seat. Damn! But he wasn’t going to change his mind.

Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ

The judge told Travis he was free to go, He’d spoken to the DA and there would be no charges against him. Bunny asked what would happen to Nick. The judge told him that he’d have to talk to the DA’s office, find out what they wanted to do, and in the meantime, Nick would be sent to the CPS facility, where he’d be kept until it was decided whether he’d be tried for kidnapping, or kept in the CPS system and made available for foster care. Adoption seemed impossible as the father hadn’t relinquished his rights at this point, and it would take time and money and court proceedings to get those rights abrogated.

Travis was looking at Nick, and when the words ‘CPS facility’ were spoken, he saw him cringe, saw his face go slack and lose color. Travis thought of what Nick had said he’d heard about that place, and what happened to new boys there. Travis wondered if he was thinking about what would happen to him when he was sent there, and was sure he was by the boy’s face and posture. Nick had been able to control what happened to himself so far, even in the cars. He hadn’t done things, or had things done to him, only because he’d been able to take care of himself, talk his way out of things, exert some influence on what was happening to him. Now, Travis could see he knew everything would be different. When he was thrown in with older boys at the CPS facility, especially if it was their practice to initiate new boys, if in fact it was encouraged by some of the staff as had been suggested to him by a boy he’d met, he had to know it would happen to him. And that was where the judge said he was being sent.

The judge motioned to the bailiff who’d stood silently throughout. The judge spoke softly, but everyone in the room could hear him.

“Take the boy out to the holding room. Call CPS, have them pick him up and hold him till a decision is made whether to charge him with kidnapping or not.”

The bailiff turned and looked at Nick. “Okay, kid, let’s go.”

Nick stood, a little shakily. As he stood, Travis saw the fear in his eyes. The boy he’d met on the street and the boy standing here now looked much different. Nick looked desperate now. He looked at Travis with fear and pleading in his face. The determination he’d once had was long gone. He looked like a scared little boy, and he was looking at the judge, then at Bunny, but always back at Travis.

The bailiff took hold of Nick’s arm and led him to the door. There, Nick stopped and turned to look at Travis one last time. He looked like he wanted to say more, but in the end, he only said, “I really am sorry, sir.”

And then he was gone.

Bunny was very quiet on the ride home. Drama queen he might be, but his moods influenced Travis. Travis loved the man, and hated it when he got quiet. And this time, he was afraid it was partly his fault.

After they’d been driving for a half hour and were almost home, the silence finally got to Travis.

“Come on, Bunny. What was I supposed to do? The kid brought it on himself. You weren’t the one taped up, you know.”

Bunny’s reply was soft and sad. “I know, Karch. I’m sorry. I’m not mad at you. I’m just thinking of what’s ahead for the poor kid. All he did was the best he could to survive. He’s 11 and all by himself and really up against it, he has to prostitute himself to eat, he gets beat up, he gets threatened with a baseball bat, he learns the cops won’t help him and will even make things worse, he finds out there’s no place he can turn, and then after doing what he can to not get his leg broken, he gets caught and sent to the place where he’s going to get raped. Probably gang raped. And did you see how he walked out of that room? He was scared to death.

“I can’t help it, Karch. I just feel like everyone’s let him down, and he’s not a bad kid. If he was, he’d have never come back to check on you in that basement, and coming back is what got him caught. You can just tell he’s not a bad kid. The world’s a bad place, sometimes, but he’s coping the best he can, and his spirit hasn’t been broken yet. But I understand where you’re coming from. I do. I’m just feeling bad, that’s all. I’ll get over it.”

Travis didn’t reply. He just sat there. When he looked at what the kid had been through the way Bunny had listed it all out, he realized there was more than his own perspective to think about. Looking at it from Nick’s point of view, he shouldn’t be angry with him for doing what he’d felt he’d had to do, really he should admire the kid, and in fact, he was surprised to find all vestiges of his anger were gone.

He had such ambivalent feelings about Nick! He started to think about Nick leaving the room with the bailiff, just seeing him again as Bunny had described it. And he pictured the kid stopping and apologizing to him once again. He was being taken where he was afraid to go, and he stopped on the way to apologize to Travis.

Did he really want a kid in his life? Surprisingly, he realized that the thought of Nick being in it wasn’t that objectionable. There was something between the two of them that he couldn’t start to define, but he could feel it was there. The thought of Nick in that place, being raped, bothered him as much as it did Bunny. He just hadn’t been letting himself think about it.

“Bunny, do you think, well…you know, maybe we could take a chance on helping the kid. I think—“

But that was the furthest he could get with that thought. Bunny had been driving, but when he heard that, he swerved to the curb, yanked the transmission into Park, and grabbed Travis so tightly he couldn’t breathe, let alone continue speaking.

“Oh, Karch, really? Oh my God, Karch! My God! But we have to do it quick. I don’t want Nick in that place even one night. You heard him. He said he’d been told they’d initiate new kids. We have to get him out of there. We have to go back and talk to that judge and get him out of there right now!”

“Bunny! It’s too late today. And it’ll take forever to get all the permissions and papers signed, and we’d have to be approved as foster parents and who knows how long that would take even if it could happen.”

Travis looked at Bunny, and saw from the light in his eyes that he wasn’t going to be able to quash his need for immediate action. Still, he continued on. “We can go home and call the judge today if you insist, and if he thinks we could have a chance to get Nick as a foster kid, we can get the process started tomorrow, and if we’re really lucky, maybe in a couple of weeks we can go see him, maybe even get him released to us then if they’ll do that. I’m sure all that stuff he said he’d heard about the CPS facility was an exaggeration. He’ll be fine.”

Bunny was listening to him, but was also pulling away from the curb and turning the car around. When Travis had finished, Bunny said, “We can’t wait. We’ve got to get him out of there tonight. Whatever it takes. We’ve got to save him, Karch.”

What had taken them 30 minutes going east now took 17 going west, with Travis wearing a wide-eyed expression all the way and frequently jabbing his right foot forward to where he wished a brake pedal was located. Bunny pulled up to the front of the courthouse, parked against the curb between two No Parking signs, and was out of the car before Travis could unbuckle his seatbelt.

The clerk in the judge’s outer office was explaining to Bunny how he had to have an appointment to see the judge, and next week was the earliest time he had available, when Bunny simply walked past him and knocked on the judge’s door. The clerk jumped out of his seat and had hold of Bunny’s arm when the judge opened his door, took one look at a wild-eyed Bunny and a slightly vacant looking Travis, and told the clerk to let them come in.

The judge had them sit down, and they did, with Travis deep in his chair, Bunny on the edge of his.

“Your honor,” Bunny began, “we want to foster Nick. Both of us. But that can come later. We need to save him, to get him out of that CPS facility. Even if what he said is exaggerated or totally false, he thinks it’s true. He’s in there scared to death, and we have to stop that. You can do that. You’re a judge. Please, your honor, I’m begging you. Whatever it takes, whatever you need from us, you’ve got it. But we need to get that little boy out of there tonight. Right now. If that means we have to pay for a hotel room and a babysitter to stay with him tonight, we’ll do that. If he can’t come home with us, I understand, but please, we have to get him out of there now! For his own mental peace and maybe for his real safety, too. Please, your honor!”

The judge looked at Bunny, and a small, wry smile formed on his lips. He looked at Travis then. “And do you feel the same way, Mr. Karcher?”

Travis pulled himself up so he was sitting straighter. Bunny was looking at him as well as the judge. He sort of felt he was on stage.

“Your honor, I do. I was thinking about myself and letting my emotions make decisions for me. I let my anger get away from me some times. Nick looks like a really strong and smart kid who needs a break, and I’m embarrassed I acted like I did. If you can get him out of that home tonight, someway, any way, I’ll do like Bun—uh, Mr. Benson—said. Anything at all. Nick doesn’t need to spend one more night worrying about every single thing in his life.”

The judge smiled. “Let’s go get him then. I can write up a quick warrant and sign it, and I’ll go with you so there won’t be any hold ups. I really had a good feeling about that boy. He has a lot of fortitude, and I’m delighted you’re taking this step. I had you both investigated as a background to the case, and I have no problem at all letting him stay with you tonight. I’ll get CPS to grant an emergency fostering permit while we’re there. Now, let me get this warrant signed, and we can go.”

The ride to the CPS facility wasn’t quiet. Bunny was effervescent. He was asking questions and not waiting for answers, which was all right because neither the judge nor Travis had any idea what the answers were.

When they pulled into the parking lot, the judge told them to allow him to do the talking. He said some of the CPS operators could be a bit imperious, and it would be better to simply let him deal with them. Bunny scowled at that, and Travis laughed sympathetically at his partner. “Calm down, Bunny. You’ve almost got him. Just take it easy.”

“I can’t, Karch. I can’t.” But he broke into a big grin, and stopped talking for a bit.

At the front desk, Travis could see the man sitting there wasn’t prepared to be helpful. According to what the judge had said outside, employees of CPS frequently had a built-in superiority, grown from having the final authority over their charges. They took orders only from those above them, and those above them were rarely interested in what went on below them.

There was a name placard on the desk identifying the man as Michael Steward, CPS Counselor. The judge told the man they’d come for Nick. He handed him the warrant.

“Mr. Steward, could we collect Nick now? He’s only been here about an hour and didn’t bring anything with him. He should be able to just come with us with no fuss or delay.”

Michael Steward looked at the judge without speaking, then glanced at the paper before dropping it on his desk. “I’m sorry, we don’t release our charges this late. They’ve just had dinner and are probably in the showers now, and will soon be getting ready for bed. You can come back in the morning. We can begin the release process then.”

Bunny pushed forward, but the judge stopped him with a glance. Then he turned to the supervisor.

“Mr. Steward, I’m sorry, but we’re here to pick him up right now. I’ve given you the warrant releasing him to these gentlemen. Please escort us to his room.”

The counselor sat up a little straighter. “I’m sorry. That’s impossible. Tomorrow. 9 AM, after he’s had breakfast.”

The judge smiled at him. “You do like to exert your authority, don’t you, Mr.—” he glanced at the placard on the desk—“Mr. Steward.”

“It’s my job to take care of these boys,” he replied, a little loftily, and then with a smug smile directed at the men in front of him, leaned back in his chair and repeated, “Come back tomorrow.”

“Then may I use your phone, Mr. Steward? Just for a moment. It’s a local call.”

“Uh, no, I’m sorry—”

“Thank you,” said the judge, and reached and picked up the receiver and hit some buttons rapidly. Mr. Steward stood up, looking like he was wondering if he should grab the receiver away from the man, but hesitated. Then the judge was speaking.

“Sergeant Gaines? Judge Pelsom. Could you send a car to the CPS facility on Vine Street right away? I want a man taken into custody. Yes, interfering with a court order. Immediately, yes. I’ll be here. Thanks.”

He handed the receiver to Mr. Steward. “Thanks. They’ll be here for you shortly. They have a car in the area and it should be here in only a minute or two. Now, will you tell us what room Nick is in? We’re in a hurry, and further delay will only result in more charges against you for obstruction of justice and delaying the service of a court order and interfering with a court official and even child endangerment. Which room?”

Mr. Steward had gone a little pale. He started to speak, and the judge silenced him. “I don’t want to hear anything from you but a room number. Only that. Anything else, and you’re in even worse trouble than you are right now. The room number?”

While the two men were looking at each other, Bunny couldn’t wait. He pushed past the two and rushed to the door the led into the facility. He turned the knob, but then stopped. The door was locked.

The judge saw this, and told Mr. Steward they’d need the keys, too.

There was indecision in the counselor’s eyes, but tradition was simply too strong. He’d always got away with being obstinate before, and we wasn’t going to change now.

At that point, a squad car pulled up in front, and two policemen came inside.

Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ

Nick was standing with his back to the wall in the showers, naked. The showers were on, filling the room with heat and humidity and enough noise that it was difficult to hear. The showers were running, but no one was in them.

In front of Nick were four other boys, also naked. The youngest of them was 15. They were all larger and more muscular than he was. Nick raised his fists. The leader, a tall boy of 17, looked at him and laughed.

“Look, he thinks he’s going to stop us.” He spoke directly to Nick then. “Look kid, trying to resist just makes it harder on you. Makes it hurt more. We all went through this. Just let it happen. It’s going to, no matter what you do. Screaming won’t make any difference either. The guy on duty tonight likes little boys, so even if he could hear you, he’ll still wait till we’re finished. After that, after we’ve softened you up, he’s going to come in here and get you and take you back to his room, pretending it’s to take care of you. Then he’ll say he’s going to clean you up, and when you’re relaxed and trusting him, he’ll do what he wants. That’s the way it works.”

Nick kept his fists up. He looked small compared to the boys facing him. “Maybe it does,” he said, “but I’m not making it easy for you.”

“OK, if that’s the way you want it. Let’s get him, guys.”

The leader stepped forward, Nick took a swing at him and the leader grabbed his arm, swung him around and slammed him painfully against the tiled wall, forcing his arm behind his back so hard Nick cried out and went up onto his toes.

“OK guys. Jorge, you take his arm from me, you others, get him down onto the floor and hold him. I’m going first.”

The other boys were in the process of getting Nick onto the floor, with him trying his best to avoid that and not have his arm broken at the same time, when the shower room door crashed open. They looked up, momentarily frozen in what they were doing.

Nick was squirming, trying to get some pressure off his aching arm. The boy holding his arm let go when he saw three angry men and a police officer walking toward them. Nick scrambled to his feet.

“Nick,” shouted Bunny, and then Travis was there too, with a towel he’d grabbed from a cart near the door. Nick quickly wrapped it around himself, his face changing from fear and pain to a glow full of a hope he hadn’t shown in weeks.

The policeman told the other boys to line up against the wall. They were standing there, looking variously worried, scared, and defiant as Nick was being escorted by Travis and Bunny out of the shower room. Nick stopped before he reached the door, then turned and walked back toward them. When he was facing the ringleader he didn’t say a word but hit the older boy as hard as he could in the stomach.

Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ Ξ

“Why’d you come for me?” Nick asked, sitting in the front seat next to Bunny as they drove home. He was turned so he could see both Bunny at the wheel and Travis in the back.

Bunny had a smile a yard wide on his face and kept turning to glance at Nick, a look of wonder in his eyes. Travis had a look of wonder in his, too, but it was confused wonder, happy but not quite understanding how this had all happened so fast. He still wasn’t sure about this kid. In the back of his mind, there was this nagging doubt about how he’d get along with a kid who was smarter than he was. And he couldn’t help but worry whether having a kid in the house would affect his relationship with Bunny.

Bunny answered the question. “Nick, we were so worried about you, and we thought it was time you caught a break. We decided we wanted you to come live with us. Both of us do. It’ll take some time for the three of us to get to know each other, but we will. We only have one rule to start with: you have to talk to us about what you’re feeling, about anything that’s troubling you, and we’ll do the same. We all have to commit to that if this is going to work, because it’s the only way it can work. We’re all going to have to adjust to this. It’s going to be as new to us as it is to you. But we really want you to be with us. We want you. That has to make a difference, doesn’t it? I hope you want to be with us, too.”

Nick was quiet. Travis wondered what he was thinking. For once, the kid looked as uncertain and vague as he himself often felt.

He wasn’t sure he should say anything, jump into this, his own feelings were a bit of a jumble, but he owed Bunny. He had to try to do his part. So, trying to speak from the heart and not sure he really meant it, he said, “Nick, I’m happy to have you too. You look a little lost right now. Don’t be worried. You’re safe now.”

Nick smiled at him. Travis wished he wouldn’t do that. He was trying to keep an emotional distance between himself and Nick, and that damned smile never helped. It made him want to hug the boy.

“It’s a lot, what’s happened”, Nick said after simply looking out the car’s window for a time. “Everything feels so strange. I feel so, well, it’s difficult to put into words what I feel right now, but I do feel good, I know that, and I’m so thankful to you two. When I saw you in the shower room, I knew you were coming for me, I just knew it, and I can’t begin to tell you how good that felt. It felt...uh....” He stopped and there was a long pause before he went on, a pause in which he simply looked down and shook his head. “And now you guys want me to talk about how I feel. I can try. I haven’t been talking much lately, and I’ve never told people what I was really thinking and feeling. It’s scary to try to do that after living inside my head all this time, keeping everything to myself, but maybe it’ll make me feel better if I do it. I sort of want to try. I’ve never had anyone else care what I was feeling. That’s so different for me, and it takes some getting used to.

He paused again. Travis could see in his face how hard he was working to gather his thoughts and put them into words.

“This is what I’m feeling right now. I want to get off the streets. I want to have a home. My mother died about five years ago. I was only six then, and I don’t even remember her all that well any more. I remember she loved me. I remember being hugged and feeling safe. I’ve been scared ever since, I think. And she’s getting harder for me to picture in my head.”

He paused for a moment and looked at Travis and Bunny separately, as though gauging their reactions. Then he began again. “After my mother died, I lived with my father. He hadn’t really been with us when I was little before that. He just showed up about once or twice a week. Now he had me and I was living with him. He didn’t seem to like me much. He drank a lot. When he drank, he got mean. I learned to stay away from him then, but that didn’t always work. If he could catch me, he’d hit me.”

Bunny reached out and put a hand on Nick’s arm. Travis, in the back, watched Nick get a look he’d never seen him have before. It appeared that some of the hardness that was always on Nick’s face was fading, softening, right before his eyes.

Still looking at Bunny, Nick continued. “My father got really drunk about a month ago, and I wasn’t paying much attention, which was a bad mistake. He caught me, and started really going after me, shouting that I was the cause of all his problems. He always seemed to need someone to blame things on, and when he was drunk, I was convenient. This time, he really hurt me. I was lucky, I guess, because he finally passed out. I was in bad shape, and I knew I had to leave. I gathered up what I could carry, then took what money I could find. The last thing I did was take the money out of his wallet. He only had $55, but I took it, then threw the wallet back at him.

“That woke him up. I was already heading for the door. He stood up, and I got scared, but he was very wobbly. I had the door open, and I said to him, ‘I’m going to the cops. I got the proof you’ve been abusing me. I hope they throw you in jail.’ Then I left.”

“I had no idea how to survive without someone providing food and a place to sleep. I found out. It was really hard, but I was making do. Until the money ran out. That’s when all my problems started, ‘cause when I ran out of money and got hungry, then I had to get in those cars.

“You already know about that. After that skinny kid in the sweatshirt told me I had to get him $200, the only way I could think to do that would be to steal it, and I didn’t know how to do that, or beg, and how could I get $200 begging? Then I thought about kidnapping someone to get some ransom money. I’d seen a movie about a kidnapping once, and that’s what gave me the idea. I planned it out, and then—”

He stopped. He looked at Travis, then at Bunny, and asked, “What should I call you? Should I call you Mr. Benson and Mr. Karcher?”

Travis thought that was a pretty good question. Bunny answered it. “I’m going to call you Nick. You can call me by my first name, Bruce. I think that would be better than either Mr. Benson or Bunny. Karch, what do you want him to call you?”

Travis thought, then an evil grin came on his face. “I think Sir would be good.”

Nick looked at him, then matched his grin. “Yes, Sir!” he said, and the grin made Travis think he might have made another mistake. He didn’t like the teasing light in Nick’s eyes. He could imagine him abusing that title, and using it in places where it might be embarrassing. Still, he didn’t like backing down to the boy.

Nick continued. “I was saying, I planned the kidnapping. I got everything ready, even the rocks. Then I started looking for victims. And I saw Sir walking around sort of aimlessly, and thought he might be perfect. You know the rest of how that went.”

Travis started to remember, and started to feel some of his anger returning. Nick seemed oblivious and went on with his story. “I liked Sir right away. He helped me with the bags when he didn’t have to, and even though I could see he had second thoughts, especially when we came to that house, he didn’t quit.

“Then, a couple of times, he got angry, but I was used to that. No matter how angry he got, he never acted like my father did. He could have hit me in that basement before the cops came. He didn’t.”

He turned to look directly at Travis. “You didn’t. I liked you during the kidnapping, and I liked you afterwards. I’m sorry I had to do what I did. I’m sorry for trying to get you in trouble afterwards, too, although I told you to let it all go, and you did promise. So that was your fault as much as mine.”

“My fault! Why you little—”

“Karch! Settle down. We have to be able to talk and tell the truth without anger. Now stop it.”

“But—”

“No! Nick, please go on.”

Nick was looking at Travis, and not grinning now. “I really am sorry,” he said, “I do want to stay with you guys. I hate what I’ve been doing, how I’ve had to live. I want a home and to go to school and to have friends. I want to come home from school and crash in front of the TV set. I want to have a room with books in it I can read while lying on my bed. I want to be able to grab a snack from the refrigerator when I’m hungry. I want to feel safe. I want to stop worrying and being afraid.”

He stopped then, and while the two men were still thinking about what he’d just said, added in a very small voice, “I want to be able to be 11.”

He stopped again to regain his composure, and then, before either of the others could speak, said, “And I want to stay with you. I don’t know why, really, but I feel something with you, Sir. It’s as though there’s a connection of some sort. I don’t understand why or just what it is, but I feel it. With you, too, Bruce. I feel safe. I think, with you two, I can stop being afraid all the time. But it’s more that just that. I don’t know how to say it, but it’s like there’s something personal between us. I doubt you two can feel it, but I do. I felt it with Sir even before we got to that basement, and I felt it with you, Bruce, in the judge’s chambers.”

Bunny’s smile got even bigger. “Nick, I feel something as well, and I know Karch does. That’s why he agreed with me to come get you. And what you said, about being 11? You can. That’s what we want for you. And we want you living with us. This is going to work. It just might take Travis a little longer to warm up to it all the way, but he will, and you’ll find out how a good man he really is.

”Travis is complicated, Nick. He’s the guy who gets angry about things that don’t mean much, and then he’s the guy that ultimately does the right thing. He’s the guy that got really upset when you cut his hair, but he’s also the guy who carried your rocks for you. He’s the guy who called the cops on you, but also the guy who told me we had to go back to the judge and get you out of that CPS home. Travis is complicated, but in his heart, he’s good, really good. Sometimes you have to be patient and wait for the good, but it always comes. Once he knows you, it’ll be fine.”

Travis wasn’t sure about that at all. And then he thought of something else to worry about. Rather than stew about it, he asked Nick, “You’re not going to mind at all that we’re gay, and we, like, kiss and everything, are you? And cuddle together while watching TV? You won’t mind that, will you? At least you’re gay, too.”

“Well, uh, actually, I just said that. I was hoping you guys might want me, might take me in. I thought being gay might make that easier. I might be too young to know for sure about being gay, but I guess I could try to be. Right now, thinking about girls excites me a lot more than boys. I’m young, though.”

Travis sat up straighter. Why that manipulating little snot, he thought.

Bunny laughed. Nick smiled then, and asked, “Is that what you meant by talking about things?”

“Exactly!” said Bunny. “If we tell each other the truth, there’s nothing we can’t work out.”

“So I can tell Sir I like his new haircut? It’s shorter and looks better on him.”

Bunny broke into laughter and seeing him, Nick did too. It wasn’t mean laughter from either, but in the backseat, Travis worried. He was sure the kid was just teasing him, in fact the kid seemed to tease him a lot, but the fact Bunny was laughing too was bothersome, as though the two already had an understanding that excluded him. He worried how this all was going to work.

Travis mumbled something, and Bunny asked what he’d said.

“Nothing,” grunted Travis.

“I heard him,” Nick said, giggling. “He said, ‘Stupid kid.’” Bunny looked at Nick, Nick at Bunny, and they both started laughing again.

In the back seat, Travis just grunted and looked out the window. No, he was very unsure how this was going to work out. Bunny and the kid seemed to be getting too friendly. Where would that leave him?

Dammit.

Stupid kid.

The End