Daniel, Colby, and Bobby enjoyed Christmas at the Dowling house and Todd Farm more than any previous one any of them could remember. They got lots of presents, including cool clothes and phones and games to play on the sets in the rec room. They had lots to eat, and a warm place to sleep each night. Most of all, no one was taking advantage of them, using them, beating them, or threatening them. They were safe. After Christmas, they even enjoyed spending some time on the Farm and riding, and Bobby learned what it meant to muck out stables. They returned to Clifton on January 5 because Brandon felt he needed to attend the faculty meetings the next day at the opening of the spring semester, along with Zip Todd. They also took in the Epiphany celebration at St. Rose on Tuesday morning. By this time, all three boys were pretty accustomed to attending the Catholic services, either at St. Rose in Clifton or St. Francis of Assisi in Westbrook.
On Wednesday, as Brandon had no advisees, he devoted some time to his boys’ education. By this time, all three boys had been tested, and found to be woefully behind their age cohort in basics. Given their life thus far, that was not unexpected. So, Brandon began by giving them exercises in basic English grammar, spelling, and writing, as well as in arithmetic. He also tested their computer knowledge, and found that, while it, too, was lacking, it was not as far behind as other skills, so he put that to use, both expanding their knowledge, and using what they did know to help further their education. He did not keep them at it all day, as it was, after all, the Christmas holidays, but now he found them hard at work when he checked on them on Wednesday morning. The comment about spending their lives lifting garbage pails had sunk in.
When Brandon entered the library and asked how they were getting along, he received a chorus of “okays.” Then Daniel gave him a searching look. “Why are we doing this?” he asked.
“We talked about that,” Brandon replied. “You need to at least finish high school so you will have a decent chance later on.”
“But how do we know we’ll get the chance to finish high school?” Daniel asked.
“Oh, I see what you mean. We haven’t talked about how long you guys will be staying here, have we?” Brandon realized.
“Well, Chris and I talked about that some just last night, so I guess it’s time to clue you in some. Unless things really go bad some way, how would you like to stay here until you finish high school?” Brandon proposed.
“Really? You mean it? We can stay here, and, kind of, keep doing what we’ve been doing for the past month or so?” Bobby eagerly asked.
Brandon grinned. He loved it when he could help kids who responded so well. “Yeah, I mean it. That’s a few years, so you’ll have time to become accustomed to our peculiar ways,” he joked.
“Peculiar is okay, after what we went through, believe me!” Colby chimed in.
“Well, we don’t have all the details worked out, but we can take things as they come for now. There are a couple of things Chris and I talked about. Let me run them by you. In addition to the school work you’re doing, we will talk to some of our friends about tutoring you, so I don’t have to do it all myself, for one thing,” Brandon began. “And eventually you will be going back to school.”
“Yeah, we kind of thought that could not last,” Daniel said, with a hint of regret. “We kind of like the way you teach, Dr. Dowling,” he grinned.
“Thanks. And I appreciate you guys, too. But there are other things I need to spend some time on, like my class and the Farm, and I think Chris is getting jealous of you guys” Brandon grinned.
“As if” Daniel complained, with a longing look at Brandon which provoked laughs from the other guys.
“We’ll get tutors who will be just as good. But another thing is, we need to do something to get you guys into better physical shape. We kind of think horseback riding and soccer will help, but you probably need to work out on a regular schedule, too, to kind of build yourselves up after being on the streets for so long,” Brandon added.
“That sounds good. Will we get to be hunks?” Bobby asked.
“Already thinking of attracting the girls, are you?” Brandon teased. “I don’t know about hunks, but you can develop yourselves a lot. But you have to take it easy. If you overdo it, you can hurt yourselves, and then you’ll be worse off than before. After lunch, we’ll take a walk over to Mike’s Gym on the Pike, and kind of give it a trial run.”
“Sounds good,” Daniel echoed Bobby.
“Then, I want Colby and Bobby to think about church. Like I told you at the outset, there will be no pressure, but you have been going with us each Sunday and special holy day. What do you think so far?”
“I don’t really know what’s going on a lot of the time, but nothing is, you know, scary or a problem, like I thought from what I remember from my Mom’s church,” Colby answered.
“Yeah, no problem. Some of it is interesting, and it makes sense of some things you run across all the time, you know, like talk about Jesus and the like, so at least I have some idea of who that dude is now,” Bobby agreed.
“Okay. I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but we’ll start with some religious lessons along with the other things. Maybe tomorrow. So, let’s see how you’re doing this morning,” Brandon said, and got down to specifics with each boy.
After lunch, they all bundled up and began the walk to Mike’s Gym. Brandon noticed that the house next to his was empty. It had been inhabited by an elderly man who had not been at all friendly, so he had not paid much attention to it in the past. But the curtains were missing, and all the shades were pulled. He would have to find out what that story was. At Mike’s place, they found very few other patrons in the early afternoon, so Mike Jenkins, the proprietor, was able to pay personal attention to the boys. Brandon explained that he wanted memberships for all three as well as himself. Up to now, he had been utilizing the campus fitness center, but with the boys he would need to accompany them to Mike’s, at least for a while. Mike tested each boy, and got him started on some simple exercises to build up arm and chest muscles. Even though in their eyes Mike was an old man at 36, he had impressive muscles. They liked the idea of looking like that. They spent about an hour on this first visit, not wanting to overdo it.
On the way back, Brandon noticed a realtor placing a For Sale sign in the front yard of the house next to his, at 1322 S. Chestnut. He sent the boys ahead, and stopped to talk to the man. He found that the misanthropic neighbor had actually died a few days after Christmas, and none of his heirs were interested in the property, so it was for sale. Brandon immediately asked about having the property inspected, and, sensing a quick sale, the realtor agreed. He knew of the reputation of David Harvey, head of Harvey Brothers Construction Co., and agreed that he would be more than acceptable as an inspector. To his surprise, Brandon led him across the street, where he asked whether Uncle David were home yet. David Harvey was married to Sandy Todd’s Aunt Irene, and so known to those in the family as Uncle David. As David was withdrawing from the business in favor of his son, he often came home early, especially on slow days like those in January, which proved to be the case that day. David readily agreed to give the house a quick look over, and a more thorough one tomorrow. And so it was, after a reasonable time, Brandon found himself with a new acquisition, needing some updating, to be sure, but like most of the houses in the Neighborhood, essentially sound. Just how this would fit into his project with the boys was not clear at this point.
Of course, nothing remained static. It was while they were on their way home from Mike’s Gym a month later, on Wednesday, February 4, that the next acquisition took place. They were just crossing the Pike when a very scruffy boy literally ran into them.
“Whoa, whoa. Who’s this?” Brandon exclaimed.
“Hey, we know him,” Colby said. “That’s Mike.”
“Lemme go! Lemme go,” Mike yelled.
At just that time, Roman Mookerjee ran up. “Oh, you caught him. Good.” Roman was a grandson of the proprietors of the Olympia, a Greek and Italian restaurant a little way in town from where they were standing. His mother was a Zaharis, and the Zaharises were related to the Todds.
“What’s the story here, Roman?” Brandon asked, keeping a tight grip on the boy.
“I’m afraid he’s in trouble. We caught him trying to steal some stuff from the kitchen. Snuck in the back door, and when no one was looking helped himself to a couple of handfuls of Romano cheese off a counter. One of the workers saw him, but he got away before anyone could catch him. Lucky you were here,” Roman narrated.
“Sounds familiar,” Bobby said.
Brandon grinned. “How much damage do you figure the boy did?” he asked.
“Don’t know yet. I took off after him. I guess Mom is figuring it up back at the restaurant,” Roman said.
“Let’s go see,” Brandon suggested, and so the whole cavalcade, with Mike firmly in tow, made its way north on the Pike a block to the Olympia Restaurant. They went around, and in the back door directly into the kitchen. There, they found Roman’s mother and others. After some preliminary exchanges, Brandon asked again, ”How much damage do you figure the boy did?”
“Well, the actual cheese is not that much,” Helen admitted. “But he got mud on some other stuff, and the disruption caused us to miss a customer, who got angry at the wait and huffed out.”
“All together?” Brandon pressed.
“Probably under a hundred,” Helen figured.
“How about you release him to my custody, and I’ll cover the cost?” Brandon proposed.
“Well, sure,” Helen agreed. “That will save us a lot of trouble with the police. It’s not the cost, so much as the disruption, and the violation of our kitchen that’s the problem, though.”
“Okay, your name is Mike, right?” Brandon addressed the boy in his clutches.
Seeing a ray of hope, especially with boys he knew along with this guy, Mike nodded agreement.
“Well, you heard the lady. Now, you apologize for all the trouble you’ve caused,” Brandon instructed him.
Not quite sure what was going on, but encouraged by the other boys, Mike said, in a country drawl, “Sorry, Ma’am. I didn’t mean to cause so much harm.”
“Here, run this through. Make it an even hundred,” Brandon said, handing Helen his credit card.
“Brandon, we don’t really need ...” she began.
“No, do it, so this guy knows he owes me,” Brandon insisted, shaking Mike some and noting how thin his arm and shoulder were.
Helen departed to the front of the restaurant, where the credit card machine was kept, and returned a few minutes later with a slip. Brandon signed, returned the card to his wallet, and then they took their leave.
“What’s going on?” Mike questioned.
“You just ran into some great luck,” Bobby said. “Just like I did in December.”
“Do you trust these guys?” Brandon asked Mike.
“Yeah, sure,” he answered.
“Then, if I let you go, you will come with us and not run off, okay?”
Talk on the way was voluble, but not very organized, with the three boys going on and on, but Brandon saying nothing. They got back to the Dowling residence, noting that some preliminary work was being done on the house next door.
“Take Mike upstairs and get him cleaned up. Find some of your things that will fit him for now,” Brandon instructed the other three.
Brandon, along with Daniel, Colby, and Bobby, had showered at the gym after their workout. Four boys trooped upstairs, still talking a mile a minute. Half an hour later, they trooped down again, with Mike looking a great deal better than he had. They found Brandon and Aunt Luisa in the breakfast room. Although it was mid afternoon, she had prepared a generous plate of sandwiches, which sat on the table.
“Help yourselves, but remember, boys, Mike is your guest, and probably hungrier than you, so leave him something,” Brandon instructed. “After you eat, we’ll talk.”
Later, in the library, all four boys gathered.
“Well, Mike, are you willing to answer some questions?” Brandon asked.
“These guys say you’re okay, and I’m cleaner and fuller than I’ve been in a long time, so I guess so,” Mike replied.
“First of all, I guess Mike, or Michael, is your real name,” Brandon began.
“No, it ain’t,” Mike unexpectedly answered. “I’m not real sure, but I think my real name is something like Clinton Grass. I ain’t used it in a long time, so I’m not sure. I just like the name Mike.”
“Just like Daniel and Colby. Well, we’ll have to work on that. I don’t suppose you have a Social Security card, then?”
“How old are you, Mike?” Brandon pursued.
“Not real sure. I think I’m about ten,” the boy answered.
“I don’t remember.”
“How long have you been on the streets?” Brandon tried again.
“I’m not real sure of that, either. A long time. Let’s see, this is the fifth winter. I hate winters,” Mike answered.
“You have had a rough time of it, Mike. With so little to go on, it will take some time to work things out, but how would you like to stay here with Daniel, Colby, and Bobby?”
“I’d like that fine. Anyplace its warm. And, ... well ... uh ... Daniel says I don’t have to ... you know ....” he trailed off.
“No, Mike. No sex. No one will make you do anything like that,” Brandon assured him. “I guess, like the other boys, you had to put out while you were on the streets.”
“Yeah. I hated it, but I didn’t know what else to do,” Mike was near crying.
“Things are getting better for you. Did the boys tell you about what they do?” Brandon asked.
“It was kind of jumbled together, and I’m not sure I understand any of it, but there was something about horses, and a gym, and school, and don’t tick off Aunt Luisa,” Mike replied.
“Sounds like you got the highlights. We’ll take it easy. About school, how far did you get in school?” Brandon enquired.
To his amazement, Mike replied, “I never gone to school.”
“Wow, that’s unexpected. Will you tell me how you ended up on the streets in the first place?” Brandon asked.
“Okay. Like I said, it was a long time ago. I was living with my mother in a trailer. Some dude would come by from time to time and fuck her, and leave us some money. I guess it wasn’t much, cause Momma always bitched about how cheap he was. Sometimes other guys would come, too, but they usually never came back.” Mike paused and was clearly trying not to cry. Brandon patiently waited. Mike resumed, “Momma got real sick. The regular dude came by, and Momma could not get out of bed. She told the dude to take care of me. He cussed up a storm, but took me and left. We got in a really nice car and took off. But a little while later, he stopped at a place with an ice cream stand. This was summer, you know. He got me an ice cream, and told me to sit on a bench. Then he left. I never saw him again. I didn’t know where I was. I waited a long time, but next day I started to look for Momma. It was a long time later when I finally found the trailer, but there was somebody I didn’t know there. A guy at the next trailer told me Momma died. So, I’ve been on the streets since then.”
“That is sad, Mike. We’ll take better care of you than that dude, that’s for sure,” Brandon promised. “Now, I called while you were taking a shower, and we have an appointment for you with some doctors. How about it?”
“They kind of told me that would happen. I guess it’s okay, but I don’t remember ever seeing a real doctor before,” Mike said.
“Let’s go see one, then,” Brandon said, as he ushered the boys out. “Bobby, get Mike one of your coats,” he ordered, as he donned his own winter gear. Thus attired, they made their way to the Todd Medical Clinic. After a variety of tests, Kayla O’Malley told Brandon she had never seen anyone so young with so many problems. He had worms, lice, fleas, he was badly undernourished, he probably needed glasses, etc. etc. But none of the problems were life threatening or incurable. They made a beginning with treatment for the lice and fleas, leaving him shorn completely. Mike did not like that. They stopped at the pharmacy and picked up a whole bag of medicines, and began to apply them as soon as they got back to the house. After dinner, which Mike ate ravenously, they all went out to the mall, and he was outfitted. He fell asleep as soon as they got back.
Brandon went across the street to consult with Zip Todd. There were very few clues as to Mike’s identity, but Zip loved a puzzle, and promised to get on it. Before he could come up with anything, the boys got an added experience.
The annual Saddlebred Summit, officially called the ASHA Convention and Youth Conference, was held in Lexington from February 12 to 14 in 2009. As Chris was on the program, and Brandon had intended all along to accompany him, they decided to take all four boys. It would be a good experience. The boys were definitely impressed, both by the exhibits of horsemanship, but especially by the other kids their age doing things they had never even imagined. And they experienced Chris at his best as he put on a performance for the attendees.
On February 22, all four boys took part in the Carnival party at the O’Malley home before Lent, and came to know better some of the kids of the Neighborhood, with many of whom they had been playing soccer and otherwise enjoying the outdoors.
It was two days later when Zip asked Brandon to stop by after his class. Given the paucity of clues, it was amazing he found anything, but he did have something at last. He showed Brandon a newspaper story – just a brief notice, really – of the death of a woman named Molly O’Shea in a trailer park in south Clifton on 21 July 2004. There was little more than the terse statement that she died of tuberculosis, and then the notice that there was a son named Quentin who was missing, and anyone knowing of his whereabouts was requested to contact Child Welfare. Then, Zip had a death certificate for Mary Anne O’Shea, age 27, who died on that same date in Clifton. No family was listed. He also found a Social Security number for her, but had as yet been unable to find anything for a Quentin O’Shea. It was confusing that Mike thought his name was Clinton Grass. Quentin sounded enough like Clinton to be creditable, but Grass was nothing like O’Shea, and, when questioned, Mike did not recognize the name O’Shea.
Things were seemingly at a standstill for the next month. By the end of March, work on the house next door was essentially complete, with only a few minor things to be done. Brandon had spoken with Zip, but was still uncertain about exactly how he was going to utilize this facility, but in some way he thought of it in terms of a youth home for the boys. Chad Pennington, a lawyer friend of the Todds and of Brandon, seriously advised Brandon to see him about legal safeguards. Consequently, Brandon went to the offices of Pennington, Pennington, and Rafferty in the Todd Office Building to do just that. Chad advised Brandon that he was putting himself at considerable risk, taking in these boys, not from the boys, but from possible legal liability. He could even be accused of kidnaping. With Chad’s help, Brandon established a legal corporation called Brandon’s Boys, Inc. for the purpose of helping boys who had been abused and abandoned. Until something more definite was worked out, the house next door remained in Brandon’s name, but was leased to Brandon’s Boys, Inc. On Chad’s advice, Brandon also made unofficial contact with Stephanie Williams, the head of the Child Welfare division of the City Welfare Department. She searched the files, and found the record of Colby, but the others had never been in the system. That led to some investigation of possible abuse of the system, but she did nothing about Colby or the other boys for the time being. What she did do was certify Brandon as a potential foster father, and advise him on what would be needed to make the house next door into a youth home of some sort.
It was through Aunt Luisa that Brandon acquired the services of Barbara Menendez. She was the widow of Mauricio, who died the previous year, leaving her okay, but by no means affluent. He had been an auto mechanic, and not terribly good with money. Barbara had at one time worked at a child care center, but had allowed her license to lapse, then recovered it recently, thinking she needed to get a job, but found no one hiring a 54 year old woman who had not been active for the past ten years. With Brandon’s help, her license was updated, and she was also certified as a foster parent. Then it was time to talk to the boys.
They knew something was coming. They were not sure what, but Brandon had been hinting, and they had been introduced to Stephanie Williams and Barbara Menendez. On the Tuesday of Holy Week, Brandon called all four boys into the library for a serious discussion. He explained the problems of having them without any kind of legal grounds, and then proposed his plan for a group home next door. Barbara was already living there, but most of the house was unfurnished.
“You guys know that money is not an issue with me,” Brandon reminded them. “I will furnish the house any way you like, as long as it’s safe and legal. But I don’t want you thinking I’m abandoning you. I’ll be right next door, and so will Chris and Aunt Luisa.”
“What about the welfare system?” Colby asked, having been abused in the system he was always leery of that.
“You’ve met Mrs. Williams. I did not tell you at the time, because I did not want you scared off, but she’s in charge of child welfare for the City. I’m certified as a foster parent and so is Mrs. Menendez. There will be no problems there. I’ve checked it out thoroughly,” he assured them.
“And we can stay there?” Mike asked.
“I promised I’d take care of you until you’re finished with high school. That still goes,” Brandon said.
“What if we say no?” Daniel asked.
“Then you stay here,” Brandon replied.
“Then why should we move next door?” Daniel continued.
“Okay, here’s what I have in mind. I’m sure you four are not the only boys who need some help.” At that all four nodded agreement. “What I have in mind is taking in more boys. But to do that, I need more room. That’s why I thought the house next door could be used as a group home for all you street kids,” Brandon explained.
“But if we stay here, there won’t be enough room for many more boys. Is that it?” Daniel asked.
“Can we talk this over?’ Colby asked.
“Sure. Take as much time as you like. Then come tell me what you decide,” Brandon said.
It was Tuesday afternoon, after Brandon’s class, so he knew they would not take long, as dinner was coming soon. Boys never wanted to miss a meal. Sure enough, after about 20 minutes, they came to tell him their decision.
Daniel was evidently chosen as spokesman for the group. “We decided it would be selfish to stay here and not let other boys have a chance like we have, so we decided to go ahead with the move.”
Brandon hugged all four of them.
Of course, the following days were taken up with furnishing the house next door. Not unexpectedly, the boys were much more interested in the rec room in the basement than in the parlor on the ground floor. There, at their ‘suggestion’, Brandon installed a large screen high definition television, a top of the line computer, and a game box, with comfortable chairs and couches. There was even a small refrigerator for snacks and soft drinks. But there were four similar computers in the library, with shelves full of school books. The boys were expected to continue their education. By this time, a variety of friends were showing up each day to help with the tutoring, but Brandon was hoping to get them into St. Rose or Baltimore in the fall. Mrs. Menendez had her private quarters on the ground floor. The boys would have rooms on the second floor, but did not want individual rooms. Daniel and Colby were gay, and had a nice partnership going. They definitely wanted to continue to room together. Bobby and Mike were straight, but wanted the companionship, so they wanted to continue to room together as well. They were all allowed to select their room furniture and decor. There were also rooms on the third floor for future expansion.
Of course, as this was Holy Week, they took in the services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. Following each day’s service, they discussed what it was all about. On Easter Sunday, they went to the Community Center at Wallaces Point, and took in the Easter Egg Hunt and the story telling by an Easter Bunny. Brandon did not expect the boys to take part in the hunt, but he thought they should have the experience. They evidently loved it.
On Monday, they made the move next door, marked by a welcoming lunch prepared by Mrs. Menendez, who was fast becoming Aunt Barbara.
It was after dinner on Thursday, April 16. Brandon had been spending mornings on the Farm, but afternoons and evenings in town, mostly with his boys. Zip called and asked him to come over. When he did, he found Zip in the library.
“I think I’ve found something at last,” he told Brandon.
He presented Brandon with a record from Clifton General Hospital of the birth of a boy on 14 September 1998. The boy’s mother was listed as Molly O’Shea, but the boy’s name was given as Quentin David Grice. A second document was a birth certificate with this same information, but listing the father as Dr. Holley Grice. Zip had no doubt that it was the late Dr. Hawley Grice which was meant. Dr. Hawley Grice had been the proprietor of a clinic called ‘A Woman’s Choice,’ which provided abortions on demand, and which had left Dr. Grice very well off. When asked whether he recognized the name Hawley Grice, Mike thought, then declared, “That’s the dude who dropped me in that park. I knew he had a girl’s name. What kind of guy is named Holly?”
An unresolved question was whether this connection would be confirmed by the heirs of Dr. Grice. Brandon consulted Chad Pennington. Chad composed a letter to Lorene Grice, Hawley’s widow, in which he outlined the situation, and asked that Brandon be allowed to visit to discuss it. He made abundantly clear in the letter that no financial issues were at stake. Brandon insisted on this, saying he did not need financial help raising the boys, but wanted to establish a firm family background for Mike.
A week later, Chad received a letter from a fellow lawyer, Stephen Grice, who had been retained by Lorene to deal with the matter. A meeting of the two lawyers was proposed. Chad felt confident that Stephen, whom he knew well, would facilitate matters. So it proved. Once Stephen was fully convinced that Brandon had no interests in the inheritance of the late Dr. Grice, but solely in establishing the boy’s paternity and family connections, he arranged for Brandon to visit the Grices in Balaclava, an exclusive neighborhood.
Brandon met with Lorene on Tuesday evening, April 28. He brought copies of the hospital report and the birth certificate, as well as photographs of Mike. After reviewing these materials, Lorene declared herself satisfied. She in turn produced a couple of letters from Hawley Grice to Molly O’Shea on his office stationery in which he acknowledged paternity of her son Quentin, but he objected strongly to giving the boy the family name Grice. They were in a file marked “Personal and Confidential” sent on from the clinic after Hawley’s death. Lorene asked about the boy’s background. Brandon related the story first told him by Mike, including being left on his own in a public park by Hawley, and never having been to school. Lorene had tears in her eyes at this, commenting, “That’s just like the bastard,” but she was referring to Hawley, not Mike.
The following Saturday, Brandon took Mike to meet his father’s family. For the event, not only Lorene, but other relatives, Verna, Stacey, Rick, and Sarah were present. It was not a long visit. What does a ten year old boy have in common with those older folks? But they accepted him. On the way home, Mike told Brandon, “I don’t know about going back. I want to stay with the other boys. But I’m glad to know they’re there.”