Two boys relaxing in pool lounge chairs


Cole Parker


Wednesday, May 24

James Wegler was sitting at the breakfast table with his head buried in the morning paper as usual.

Jane was talking to the twins. “I expect you two to clean your room today when you get home from school. Before anything else. Anything at all. Do you understand?”

She didn’t intend to sound mean. Strict, maybe. No nonsense. No wiggle room. But still motherly. She adored her twins, even while despairing about having such little control over them. Bringing them up was her largest responsibility, she knew. Her most important one. But they were boys, and, well . . . they were boys. Boys need discipline. Especially 12-year-olds!

Mark nodded and Michael continued to eat his cereal. James didn’t notice. He wasn’t one for strict discipline, and he loved the spirit his boys displayed. In his view, allowing them to be themselves was more important than rigid rule following.



Many would have been fooled by his seemingly innocent confusion. Jane had dealt with him his entire life. She wasn’t naive at all when it came to her sons. “Don’t you ‘what’ me, young man. You heard what I said, and I want a verbal response, one of agreement. Now.”

Michael grinned. “I can’t. Clean the room? Most of the stuff’s Mark’s and he won’t let me touch it. He’s going through a possessive stage. He’s started worrying because he’s realized he’s the lesser twin. He sees he’s only a shadow of the real thing, lacking substance. Not really real; that I, Michael, am the real one and he’s only an afterglow. That’s him worrying, not me. Anyway, what’s an afterglow?”

James finally looked up from his paper. Looked up at Jane. He grinned before lifting the paper again. She heard a mutter that sounded like, ‘And she said she hoped they’d be smart!’ but it was said so softly, and Mark was talking so she wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly.

“Lesser twin?” Mark sounded outraged. “Are you out of your mind? And I only said not to touch my shirt. You’re always swiping and wearing my stuff because I’m better looking than you are, and you’re jealous of how I look in my clothes. You’re trying to copy my stylistic superiority.”

“Boys! Your room! Right after school. Now I want to hear, ‘Yes, Mother.’ I want to hear it in duplicate!”

Michael threw Mark a glance, and they said, in perfect unison, “Yes, Mother.”

They were about to leave the table, both of them taking two of the remaining donuts from the box of a dozen for later when their father stopped them. “Boys, you need to hear this.” He read from the front page of the newspaper.

“Police reported today that Tyler Harris, a 12-year-old boy who attends Barnheart Elementary, was reported missing by his foster parents. No other details have been released at this time. Anyone knowing the whereabouts of this boy is encouraged to contact the local police department.”

He stopped and raised his eyes to them. “Do you boys know him?”

The boys took another quick glance at each other. Jane had seen them do this many times before. When asked a question, they somehow decided which one would answer or if both would, just by a simple glance. This time, unsurprisingly, Mark answered.

“A little. He’s not in our class. He’s in Mr. Buchanan’s.”

“You don’t mingle with him at recess?”

Michael answered this time. “Not really. I mean, we know who he is, but he doesn’t seem to mix with the other kids much. He stays by himself, doesn’t shoot baskets or throw a football around or anything. Mostly he just watches. He probably has friends in his room.”

Jane said, “You boys be alert. If there’s a child molester in this town who likes boys . . . well, be careful.”

“No worries,” said Mark. “We have superpowers.”

Jane’s mouth dropped. “Mark! This is serious!”

Mark laughed. “Maybe he’s rich, like we are, and was taken for a ransom!” While Jane was thinking what to say, the boys got up, took their bowls to the sink and ran off, wanting to avoid more maternal concerns about staying un-kidnapped being poured over them or to listen to their father claiming they weren’t rich, just well off, his usual disclaimer.

They stopped on the stairs, however, to hear what their parents would say once they’d left the room.

Jane was worried, as they’d expected she would be. “Kidnapping! James! We shouldn’t let them out of the house, but you know how they are. They’ll want to be gone all day every day this summer! And we’re both away all day working. No one’s here to supervise. What are we going to do?”

“Jane, slow down. The paper doesn’t say the boy was kidnapped. Boys that age run away. Especially fostered kids, I’d imagine. Maybe that’s all this is. We need to know more before panicking. He’ll probably turn up today, but I can call someone. Our lawyer knows people, and we can get a little more information than the paper has.”

“It would kill me if something happened to one of our boys.”

“Let’s wait till we know more before getting hysterical, okay? We’re pretty safe here. If you want to tell them to stay inside the gate until we know more, I think that’s fine. It’ll piss them off, but they do listen to you.”

“Okay, but find out today! I’m concerned.”

The boys continued up to their room to finish dressing for school.

“Perfect,” Mark said. He was the younger twin and also the more verbal of the two. Michael did talk, but Mark more or less talked all the time. He wasn’t the better looking of the two, however. They looked so much alike even their parents had a hard time telling them apart, unless, of course, they were together and one was talking and the other mostly silent. Recently, Mark had started combing his hair differently and having it cut a little shorter than Michael’s. Beginning to look for his own identity, his parents decided.

Both had medium-brown hair that always lightened and showed red highlights in the summer under the sun. Their faces were oval rather than triangular. They were a mixture of cute and handsome, as many 12-year-olds are: slim bodies, thin arms and sparkling dark eyes. They were athletic and fun-loving, and their dad often thought they were too smart for their own good.

“Yeah, but that was the easy part. The next, doing the dishes, that’ll take some subtlety. Uh, that means being clever.” Michael wasn’t entirely successful in keeping the humorous sarcasm out of his voice. He had much the same vocabulary that Mark did, but he liked to pretend his was much more sophisticated.

“Duh,” Mark responded. “Anyway, I’ll leave that up to you. And you know what she said about it killing her if something were to happen to one of us? That was me she was talking about.”

Michael shook his head. “As if,” he said, trying to sound contemptuous as he moved to his dresser.

Neither boy was the leader of the two. They were as tight as any two competitive young boys could be. Tighter even than that. But they did have separate, if unvoiced, roles in their partnership. Michael was the more solid, more grounded and patient of the two, and if a plan needed to be arranged for them to accomplish something that would take more than just a request made of their parents, if it were something that would almost certainly get a negative response, Michael was the one the plan would come from, with a little agreed upon tweaking if needed by Mark.

Mark was the more outrageous one—not that he was wild. It was just that he didn’t always think things through. While both were derring-do 12-year-olds, Mark took that to a degree that was off the charts. ‘Think it, do it’ was Mark’s way; Michael tended to look at possible consequences.

They needed to effect their dishes-doing plan today. Michael was still refining how to go about it without raising any suspicions, suspicions which would be normal with parents who knew their boys well. Their parents knew that the twins resisted chores as ferociously as most boys their age, and also knew their boys were scheming devils who had carefully constructed reasons for most anything they did. At least if Michael was involved.

The room wasn’t all that messy, and Mark began picking up his things, not wanting to wait till after school. Much of the mess was indeed his. Neither of the boys was a neat freak, but Mark was the one who hadn’t yet realized the hamper in the room was there for a purpose. While Mark was doing the lion’s share of the job, Michael was in the en suite bathroom getting his hair perfect—combed, but still messy. Thinking about his reason for doing the dishes, he kept muttering, “Has to be believable.”

When Mark finally joined him at the sink and picked up a comb, he saw Michael in the mirror and the sudden smile on his face. “Got it,” Michael said.

Finished with their hair, they returned to the bedroom and flopped onto the bed. Their parents had asked them several times if they wanted twin beds or even separate rooms, and Mark had told them their queen-sized bed was fine and they preferred sleeping together. “What’s ‘got it’ mean?” Mark asked.

Michael told him.

- o 0 0 o -

After dinner that evening, when they were all rising from the table, Michael turned to Mark and said loudly, “Ahem.”

Mark looked aghast. “You weren’t serious!”

“You know I was. Don’t try squirming your way out of it.”

Jane bit. “Out of what?”

“This damn son of yours,” Mark whined, “dared me to put my dirty clothes in the hamper for a week. If I missed, I had to do the dishes for a week. If I won, he had to clean the room by himself for a week. I forgot.”

“He’ll clear the table, too, Mom. You get a week off!” Michael grinned. “I’ll stay in here and make sure he does the job right.”

“Oh, no, that wasn’t part of the bargain,” Mark protested.

“Wasn’t not part, either. Get busy!”

Jane was laughing as she left the room. After making sure both parents were out of sight, Mark raised his hand and Michael slapped it. This time Michael was the one to say, “Perfect!”

Friday, May 26, two days later

School was finally, finally ending. Closed for the summer vacation! The boys would move into seventh grade next term. It would be the first time they’d be moving from class to class instead of having the same teacher all day and staying put with him or her. Their teacher in 6th grade had been Mrs. Todhunter. They’d liked her. She’d put up with a lot but still commanded the classroom. Her sense of humor, a saving grace for anyone bold enough to teach 6th, was something that endeared her students to her. Both boys told her on the last day that they’d miss her. She told them she’d miss them, too, and to come back and visit her from time to time to let her know how they were doing. She said that with their intelligence, good manners and high spirits, they were among her all-time favorites.

And now, school was letting out for the summer with a roar of preteen shouts and cheers. Paper from desks was thrown about in a storm of oversized confetti; there was shouting and running and unbridled childish exuberance. Mrs. Todhunter just sat at her desk smiling. It was her last day of the term, too. She’d done all her grades and year-end reports the previous night. The janitor would be busy cleaning each classroom for the next two weeks, but he wouldn’t be in a rush. There were months to come before school would be in session again. Time to pick up all the paper in the school, polish the wood floors and sanitize the lockers and restrooms.

Michael and Mark raced home. Neither parent would be there, of course. First, they would get rid of their school clothes, the last time they’d ever be worn, they expected. At twelve, they were ready and waiting for the growth spurt they’d been promised was coming. Then, more comfortably dressed, they were off to their basement, Mark yelling, “I’m starting up Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright. I get to be Phoenix, you can be Edgeworth.”

The family was rich by most people’s definition. They lived in a gated community in a 3,800-plus-square-foot house that was considerably larger than needed for the four of them. It had a finished basement with a game room, laundry room and two storage areas, and on the top floor there were five bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. The ground floor had a den, a living room with a large fireplace that actually burned wood, a dining room and a modern kitchen along with a breakfast nook. The property included a spacious front yard and a backyard with a patio and pool. The pool equipment was in a small building that they called a dressing cottage as it had bathroom fixtures and a room where swimmers could change.

One of the boys’ chores was to keep both yards mowed, but as they had a riding mower, there was usually a fight over who would get to do the job if the task wasn’t specifically assigned to one of them in order to maintain the peace. They didn’t have to take care of the pool yet. Their father had told them he’d continue paying a pool service to do it till they were 14. At that grand age, they’d be assigned to do it themselves.

The two boys were looking forward to a summer of fun, swimming, playing and all the things 12-year-old boys without a worry in the world can imagine doing. They also were facing a challenge they had no experience dealing with, but both of them loved challenges.

Tuesday, May 23, three days earlier

“What did you do?” Her voice was both pissed off and curious with a top note of excitement. She was at her dressing table, fixing her face while looking at his reflection in her well-lighted mirror. Looking fine was important to her, and she spent much of her time fussing with her face and hair; much of the rest was shopping for clothes and shoes and accessories.

“Nothing, Mae. Nothing at all. I told you last night it was okay to call the police to report he was missing. Would I have said that if I’d done something to him?”

“You might have. It’d be suspicious if we hadn’t called them when he didn’t come home. And it would be just like you to get rid of him if you’d make a pretty penny doing so. Everything’s all about money to you, isn’t it? That’s all you care about.”

“This again? Back off, Mae. I’m not only about money. I’m about living well, too, and of course achieving it without working too hard. Brains, not brawn, that’s me. Smarter than the next guy and proving it all the time, every day. Anyway, you’re just as bad as I am about money, maybe even worse. You’re just lucky I’m around to provide it.

“You care what the other women around here think of you. Dumb! Who cares what they think? Your problem is you came from nothing and now want to strut because you can. You’re all about showing them they were wrong about you, that you have class and money. You want them to see you deserve respect. You crave it like a swimmer craves air. And most of all, you love rubbing those other women’s noses in it.”

He paused to light a cigarette. “If I didn’t have money, you’d drop me in a second as long as you had someone else on a string who did. So, sure, I’m always on the lookout for paydays, and I’m pretty good at finding them, but you’re right behind me pushing for it so you can spend it. Don’t say you’re not!”

“You’re full of shit, Gus. To you, money’s the only reason you do anything. If there was no money in it for you, you wouldn’t cross the street to help someone who was on fire. You’d let them burn. Money’s the way you prove to yourself how smart you are. And it’s how you keep score.”

Gus laughed. “Why do it if all I’d get out of it would be burned hands? Put up a reward, then it’s different. If there’s no reward in putting out a fire someone’s got himself into, then let ’im burn!”

She was touching up her eye makeup, moving slowly, delicately with a tiny, fine-haired paintbrush. She lengthened a line, then said, “But you say you didn’t do anything with Ty, yet he’s gone. I have to wonder: what did you do, and how much money did you get?”

“I told you. It wasn’t me. Why would I want to get rid of him? He’s a steady paycheck. We’re making good money from those pictures, and that could go on for years. Even more when we start pairing him up with another kid. Boy or girl, maybe both. Yeah, three together at this age. Lots of money in that. And you’d get off watching them.”

Mae said, “Yeah, but you couldn’t know if it would have lasted, and you’re a bird-in-the-hand sort of person. Take what you can get when you can get it. You don’t look ahead to the big score but take the little ones and move on if there’s any possible trouble brewing. Yeah, I’d have loved having a hand in with what he’d do with multiple partners, but he was already fussing about just posing for the pictures. There was always the threat of him telling someone at school. I know, I know; you threatened to cut off his dick if he ever said a word to anyone, but kids talk. I can picture what might have happened: he told you he’d squeal if he had to do any more pictures, and it scared you. So, you reacted. What did you do, sell him? Kill him? I know whatever it was, you made a score somehow; there had to have been a payday in it for you.”

“You think I killed him? You sure don’t seem too upset with the idea.”

“It’s just I don’t know how careful you were, doing it. You’re not all that good with details. You should have discussed it with me. I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t do well in jail. If that’s ahead of us, I want to know well in advance. The food’s terrible there, the company’s even worse. I wouldn’t mind the sex with other women, but my looks! I have to take care of my skin, and the food would make me gain weight and—no, I’m not going to prison. If you killed him, or sold him, tell me. We’d have to get out of here. I’m not one to be sitting around waiting for the cops to come calling.”

“Are you suggesting you might rat me out, take a plea for a lighter sentence or no sentence at all? Is that what you have in mind?” Gus’s voice had taken on a menacing tone. He sat up straighter.

“No, I wouldn’t do that, lover. You know that. We’re in this together for the long haul. You could throw as much dirt at me as I could at you. Remember that blonde bimbo? You can tell where she is now, and I’m sure some of my DNA, maybe even a fingerprint, is there with her. No, I just want to know what you did to Ty so I can be prepared and, you know, plan what we need to do. Alibis and such.”

Gus slipped back down. “I didn’t do nothin’. Can’t say I haven’t given some thought to maximizing our possible return on investment with him, but the future earnings we can make from him outweigh a single payment now, and either of your suggestions, selling or killing him, would come with the threat of blackmail afterwards if someone had a suspicion. They wouldn’t even need proof; just squealing to the cops wouldn’t be good for us. So no, I didn’t do anything. Either someone took him, or more likely, he’s run away.”

Mae set down her mascara brush and turned to look at him rather than at his mirror image. “You’d better be telling me the truth. If I find out different . . . I’ll just leave it there: it had better be the truth.”

“It is, but look, I’ve been thinking. There’s money in this. First we have to convince the police we didn’t have anything to do with his disappearance. That’ll mean using some of those fake tears you’re good at and setting up some solid alibis for the time he went missing. But after that, think of what’s possible. Like appearances on shows like the ones Oprah and Ellen had. GoFundMe. Magazine articles. Other TV deals. All of this with money coming to us. What do you think Oprah alone will pay? This could be our biggest scam yet!”

Mae was quiet, thinking, then said, “I could wear simple clothes on TV. Can’t look too stylish when we’re basically in mourning. But I could try on various suits and ensembles in the dressing rooms before going on air, then tell them what I want to keep, that I’ll need some good clothes for the funeral and can’t afford to buy any, and when they see how sad I look, they’ll come across. So we can charge a fee for being on the show and collect loot, too. Just think of all the makeup products they’d have—good stuff, too—and maybe jewelry. Think of how jealous all these noses-up-in-the-air, snooty bitches around here will be!”

Gus nodded and said, “Now you’re thinking. We should charge a fee for every appearance we make, even for talking to newspaper people. Tell them we need money to hire a private eye. And lawyers. We make enough off this, we can retire.”

“Retire?” Mae snorted. “We’ve just stumbled on the end-of-the-rainbow pot of gold. No, we don’t retire. What we do is foster another young boy like we did Ty and then play the game again. We might have to relocate, change our names and all, get some fake IDs, but you’re good at that. I don’t know how this new one would disappear, but Ty did, and it’s looking good. If we have to do something with the new boy, if he doesn’t get stolen or doesn’t run away, we can figure that out then. Lots of time to think about that.

“But we do this right, we can move out of this dump. Get a bigger place, maybe in a gated community. I’d love that. All those high-class bitches living there, and I’d be right there with them, joining their clubs, having coffee mornings. We could have a pool and a spa. We could invite the neighbors, the right kind, for nightly swims and fun in the spa. We’d have rules for attire, of course—or lack thereof. I’ll bet we’d have full crowds every time.”

Gus sat up again, clearly excited. “I like it! We didn’t start grooming Ty for this early enough. I didn’t think of it back then, just the money we got for fostering him. I only thought about the naked pictures when he was 10, and he never did like doing them. With a new kid we can start when he’s much younger, have him naked all the time he’s in the house, not like Ty who only does it when we insist. Tell this new kid it’s a house rule. We can be naked around him, too, all the time, so it’s just all natural with him. When he sees us having sex, sex will be no big deal with him, unlike Ty who won’t look. And the pictures and videos that include this kid will make us the big bucks. We should have thought of it sooner with Ty, but that’s water under the bridge. Can’t go back but we sure can go forward.”

“You like the idea of a better house, better neighborhood, better class of people around us, Gus?”

“You know, I really do. I like how you think. Except how you say I’m only about money. And you’re not? Hah! Anyway, talking about the idea of having Ty in with a couple of other kids for photos has gotten me hot. C’mere. I’m going to show you how money isn’t the only thing I’m passionate about.”

“Only if you tell me what you did with Ty,” she said, but at the same time, she got up and sashayed toward him.

As she was only wearing panties and he was on the bed wearing even less, propped up against his pillows, she was the only one with something to remove before they got it on.

When they were done, Mae said, “I just had a thought. What if he did run away and then comes back?”

“Yeah, you’re right. We need to talk about that. He really doesn’t fit into this new idea at all. But that’s for later. And Mae, I’m not only into money. I’m into sex, too! Way into it!”

- o 0 0 o -

“I hate this kind of case,” Detective Sergeant Barb Starger said. Her partner, Detective Ken Roberts, handed her the cup of coffee he’d brought her and set his own on his desk. “When a kid goes missing, especially an 11- or 12-year-old, there’s almost always a tragic ending.”

Ken didn’t respond. He took a sip of his coffee instead. Talking relieved some of his partner’s angst that he knew she was feeling. She had a weak spot for kids and needed to express her worries.

Sgt. Starger drank her coffee, then stood. She was a middle-aged woman with short brown hair and a thin figure. She had a hard face, her normal expression a scowl, although those who knew and worked with her found her pleasant. “Might as well get to it. The school first, then the parents.”

“Foster parents,” Ken reminded her. Ken was over a decade younger than his sergeant. He’d only recently been promoted to detective. He was fair-haired, slightly overweight, and short. His horn-rimmed glasses gave him a nerdish appearance, which was misleading.

Barnheart Elementary School was located in an upper-middle-class residential area in town. It was a sprawling set of single-story buildings with a large, fenced-in asphalted playground behind it. Det. Roberts parked in the staff lot in front of the school and the two detectives went to find the principal. Found, he checked the student roster and told them Tyler Harris was in Mr. Buchanan’s class. He said he’d watch the class while they spoke to Mr. Buchanan.

They met Mr. Buchanan in the teacher’s lounge. Mr. Buchanan was a slight man of about thirty with a small, tidy mustache and slightly too long hair. He asked them if either would like coffee and poured a cup for himself.

Sgt. Starger waited for him to sit down, then asked, “Mr. Buchanan, we’re looking into the disappearance of a boy in your class: Tyler Harris. We’d like you to tell us about him, who his friends are, whether he’s the sort of boy who’d run away, whether he was happy, anything that might put us on the path to locating him.”

Mr. Buchanan shook his head and looked sad for a moment. “Tyler. Yes, he’s in my class. He was at school yesterday. He didn’t show up today. Now, you’re here, and I’m very concerned. Tyler isn’t a happy boy. I really hope nothing dreadful has happened to him—either from someone else or self-inflicted.”

He stopped for a moment, turning to look out the window. When he spoke again, his voice was more emotional. “Tyler is something of a loner. I don’t think he has any friends here. I’ve never seen him even talking to anyone. Even at recess. he doesn’t mix with the other kids. In class, he hates being called on and has difficulty speaking loudly enough to be heard, and often stumbles over his words. I can see him during class trying hard not to be called on, and I don’t do so very often just because I can see how he hates it. He’s a boy who always appears uncomfortable.”

“Have you spoken to him, tried to find out if anything’s bothering him, here or at home?” Det. Roberts inquired.

“Yes, I’ve tried. He won’t look me in the eye when answering, and he says as little as he possibly can. I ask about his home, and he doesn’t really answer, just fidgets. Would you like an opinion?”

“Certainly,” Sgt. Starger said.

“Although Ty’s behavior is more pronounced than anyone I’ve had in my class before this, I’ve seen something like this in a few other boys. In my experience, boys who act like Tyler usually do so for one of two reasons. One is that they are in the process of realizing they’re gay and thus different in a significant way than their classmates. Two, they’re being abused. Which one of those is true for Tyler, or if perhaps both are true, I don‘t know. He’s neither said not done anything to make my suspicions enough to report them to the principal. But not mixing with the other kids and being pretty much shut off from the world suggest both those as possibilities to me. Have you spoken to his foster parents? I’ve never met them. They’ve never come to any events here.”

“No, but that’s next on the list,” the sergeant confirmed. “Do you know anything else that might help?”

“I wish I did. I feel great compassion for Tyler. I’m gay myself and see in his face some of the worries I went through when I was 12, though I might be guilty of some projection.”

“Projection?” Detective Robers asked.

“The less recognized brother of transference, which you’re more likely to have heard of,” Mr. Buchanan said, and there was no condescension in his voice at all.

- o 0 0 o -

Mae and Gus Drunds lived in a small but well-kept house not far from the school. They were listed in the school records as the foster parents of Tyler Harris. The Drunds were both in their late 30s.

They were both home when the detectives arrived, which the pair thought unusual for a workday. What was most common when the police were looking to interview adults during the day was to find no one home.

The two were invited into the living room and offered coffee, which they declined. “You reported Tyler missing late yesterday, Mrs. Drund. Could you tell us about him?”

“Call me Mae, please. That’s much friendlier than Mrs. Drund. And he’s Gus. Anyway, Tyler didn’t come home from school yesterday. We thought he was just stopping at a friend’s house after school, but when dinnertime came and passed and still no Tyler, we began worrying, and I finally called you people.”

“Does he have a cellphone?”

“No, he’s way too young and not responsible enough for his own phone.”

“I see.” Sgt. Starger turned to Mr. Drund. “Mr. Drund, Gus, what can you tell us about Tyler?”

“He’s okay. Just a kid. Twelve. Nothing at all special about him.”

“Do you feel he’s run away, or had an accident, or was possibly kidnapped?”

“I have no idea. He had no reason to run away. We get along fine. No problems. I called the hospitals but they have no unidentified children and no Tyler Harris. I guess someone could have taken him. He’s not very big or strong, so he’d be an easy snatch, I guess.”

“Can we see his room?” Det. Roberts asked.

Mae took him to the room. Det. Roberts found it very spare. No computer, no desk—just a bed and a dresser. Linoleum on the floor without a throw rug. The closet contained one shirt with a collar and one pair of nice trousers. The dresser had underwear that looked well worn, a few tee shirts and some socks. Utilitarian and nothing more, Ken thought.

In the living room, Sgt. Starger wasn’t getting much of use from Gus. Mr. Drund didn’t know Tyler’s friends; he didn’t know where he might hang out after school; he didn’t know of any interests Tyler might have. He didn’t seem to know much of anything about Tyler.

“What do you do for a living, Gus?” she finally asked.

“Work from home, various jobs, nothing regular. Mae does the same. We get by. Always looking for the good opportunity, you know? Chances come by and we’re ready. We’re doing okay.”

“The foster payment for having Tyler, that helps?”

“Helps, sure. But that money goes for him, not us.”

“I see. Well, if he comes back, be sure to let us know immediately. It’ll be an open case till then.”

“I hope you find him soon,” Mae said. “I’m worried sick about him.”

“We are too, ma’am. Say, before we go, do you have a current picture of Tyler we could borrow?”

“No, we don’t. Sorry.” Somehow, in Ken’s opinion, Mr. Drund didn’t sound sorry at all.

In the car, heading back to the police station, Ken looked over at his sergeant. “Something in there stinks, Sarge. Something’s off.”

“You think? We’d have an awful time proving it. We don’t even have a good way to investigate it. No leads at all. I’ll see what I can find out about his and her backgrounds, but Child Protective Services already did that to approve their fostering license. Still, what else is there? I’ll do that. Maybe you can interview some of the kids in Buchanan’s class.”

“Have to get the parents’ okays on that. What a mess. But yeah, I’ll get phone numbers from the principal and start making calls. If Tyler never spoke to anyone, though, this is probably a dry well.”

Friday, May 26, three days later

Michael and Mark sat next to each other on the couch, now comfortably dressed, each with a game controller in his hand. They had turned on the game when they heard a voice.

“Did you forget something?” The tone of the voice was both shy and accusatory at the same time, and Mark started giggling. Michael dropped the controller, stood, and said, “We had a bet. Mark said you’d yell at us for not coming to get you right away, and I said you’d never do that, you’re too polite. Mark said shy, not polite, but I corrected him. Anyway, the bet. I think we both won.” Then he stepped forward and gave Ty a hug. “Sorry to tease you. That’s all Mark’s fault.”

Mark was grinning. “You have to learn that he lies all the time, Ty. He did balk at first, didn’t think you were up to teasing, but when I made it a bet, and he thought he could get some money from me, his innate greed won out.”

Michael ignored his twin. “In any case, we didn’t forget about you. You must be starving. I keep telling you, help yourself to the refrigerator. They’ll never miss anything, and if they do, they know Mark is more stomach than anything else and blame it on him, and I’ll back them up.”

Tyler stated with little emotion, “I couldn’t eat anything at the Drund house that they didn’t give me. I wasn’t even allowed to open the refrigerator or cupboards. It‘s hard for me to unlearn that. I guess I have to accept that it’s okay here, but I just can’t unless your parents say I can.”

Tyler was the same age as the twins but shorter and thinner. He had very blond hair, and though no one would call him cute, he had the look many boys his age did, like he was waiting to develop as he grew older. He had the sort of face that would grow to be handsome rather than cute. Both his body and face were on the verge of change.

“And that isn’t possible, huh?” Mark, instead of laughing again, looked sad.

“Not yet,” Michael agreed. “We have to figure out a way that you can be safe from the Drunds and CPS. Now that school’s out, we have more time together. Mom gets home around five and Dad around six, as you know. But now that we’ll be here every day, we have time to work together on this.”

Mark said, “Michael’s really good at that kind of stuff. Well, he’s good at thinking up plans and then getting me to do the dirty work.”

“You love the dirty work, Mark!”

“Well, when you’re right . . .” He grinned again.

Michael said, “Okay, first off . . . well, let’s start from the beginning. Tell us again what you want.”

“No, first off is feeding me.” Ty immediately looked shocked. It was the first time in about forever he said something forcefully.

Michael opened his eyes wider, then said, “Oops. Had to happen though—that was Mark rubbing off on you!”

- o 0 0 o -

Ty hadn’t thought about much else but the bind he was in. He couldn’t go to the cops about how the Drunds were treating him because they’d quickly turn him over to CPS. CPS would probably just send him back to the Drunds; that had happened before when he’d complained of being beaten.

Running away had saved him temporarily, especially because he’d been so lucky as to find a couple of saviors. Without the twins’ help, he thought he’d probably be in a really bad situation now. He wasn’t the type who could survive on the streets.

If CPS didn’t return him to the Drunds, which he thought was what they’d do, they’d probably put him with other wicked foster parents or in a group home where he’d be bullied and maybe even made to do the sort of sexual things he’d seen and been threatened with by Mr. Drund.

He just didn’t see a way out. And he’d been thinking of little else while hiding at the Wegler house. He again told the twins in detail all that had occurred when he was with the Drunds. Just how horrible it had been. Why he’d had to run away.

He went over this with them again while eating a tuna-fish sandwich and chips. He had already drunk one glass of milk and was halfway through a second one. There were chocolate-chip cookies waiting for him when he finished the sandwich.

When Ty had finished talking, Michael said, “So there is more than one problem. First, I think we have to deal with the Drunds. With that done, with no more worries you’ll have to live with them again, then we can worry about what comes next. But dealing with them should be our first concern.

“I agree with you, Ty, that if it’s your word against his, people will tend to believe him simply because he’s an adult. That means we need some sort of way to convince people that what you’re telling them is true. And that they should look into it so they don’t only have your word to go on.”

Mark said, “I thought CPS was supposed to investigate when a kid says he’s being mistreated badly, especially if anything sexual is going on. Can’t you, or we, go together and talk to someone there who wasn’t the caseworker who didn’t help you?”

“Maybe,” Ty said. “But we can’t depend on CPS paying attention to us. They might just hand it back to the same caseworker. We’d have no guarantee of what would happen, even with the three of us there. I’ve dealt with CPS before, and they never seem to care what I say. Like they’re the adults and I’m the kid, and what I say or think doesn’t matter at all. If that’s how they are, then going to them would be a huge mistake. I don’t want to take that chance.”

Ty looked very sad, which Mark couldn’t stand. He said, “Then we have to find a way so no one can just ignore you. How can we do that?”

None of them spoke for a short time, and then Michael said, “Well, I know what might work. Actually, I’m pretty sure it would work. But it’s dangerous.”

Mark’s eyes brightened. “Dangerous?”

Saturday, May 27, the next day

The night was dark, which suited the boys well. It was late for them, after 11 PM. The Wegler parents were already in bed as they both had an early Sunday morning setting up for a church fete. The boys had waited in bed till they’d been checked on, something their parents did every night when they retired, then waited longer till all lights were off in their bedroom. They got dressed in dark clothing before quietly leaving their room with pillows substituting for bodies in their bed. They collected Ty who was dressed and waiting and ready to set out.

“Wait,” Mark said. Michael could see he was excited, perhaps too excited. “We forgot the face paint!”

They’d agreed to put dark face paint on hands and faces, making them even less visible. They had a jar of water-soluble paint they’d used for Halloween the year before, and there was plenty for all three boys. With their exposed skin now blackened and wearing black clothes, they appeared to be no more than shadows to anyone looking in their direction.

It was too late for boys their age to be out on the streets alone, so they’d planned to walk or jog through back alleys and in any shadows thrown by streetlights as much as they’d be able to; they were fairly sure they wouldn’t be seen.

They left their gated community and made their way through the city. Ty’s house wasn’t that far from the Wegler house—which was why all three boys attended the same elementary school—so they had only a ten-minute walk. The Wegler twins knew how to leave their secure community without going through the manned front gate, a way a few of the kids living there knew and used. The kids who had found it had been keeping it a secret almost from the day the gates had gone up. It was too small to allow even an average-sized adult woman to pass through. Slim 12-year-olds had no problem.

They arrived at the place Ty had told them about, a spot from which they could watch his house without being seen. There was a tall, bushy hedge with soft branches between the Drund house and its neighbor to the west, with about twenty feet of lawn between it and the house. The boys crouched at the base of the hedge and then wiggled their way back into it slightly. In their dark clothes, they were almost invisible. All three were breathing quickly. Nerves.

It was near midnight when they arrived. “You said they’d come at or just after midnight,” Michael said. “We have a few minutes. Should I go now or wait?”

Ty shook his head. “I don’t know! It’s dangerous both ways. Normally people come shortly after twelve, but maybe someone could come before that. I just don’t know.”

Ty was scared; that was obvious. Mark and Michael glanced at each other, and Mark said, “You don’t want to be here, do you, Ty?”

“I hate it. If we’re caught—” He shivered, then said, “He’s beaten me before and locked me in the basement. What he’d do to the three of us . . . I don’t want to think about it.”

“You’ll be able to do your job, won’t you?” Michael asked, keeping his tone neutral. “We’re counting on you. We’re a team.”

Ty nodded. Michael glanced at his watch. “It’s seven minutes before midnight. I only need one or two. I’m going now.”

“No, I am.” Mark grabbed the spool from Michael. “You can’t have all the fun. Your plan, so I get to do the next part. Then we’ll see.”

Michael knew Mark, knew his tone of voice, and what he was hearing was stubbornness. They could argue till it was too late to act, and Mark might get loud doing so. As this wasn’t the really, truly scary part, only the somewhat dangerous one, he nodded, and Mark ran to the house, keeping bent over, his upper body parallel to the ground.

This part was scary, even for Mark. He was exposed to the windows on that side of the house while running. He tried to minimize his fears by thinking how hard it would be to see him, black against a black background, and that he’d only be exposed for the few seconds it took to get to the house. Besides which, these windows were dark.

He came to the side wall of the house and pressed his back to it, then paused long enough to take a couple of deep breaths to calm himself and for anyone who had seen him to come to the door or turn on a light.

Nothing happened, so staying against the wall, he made his way to the back corner of the house, peeked around the corner, saw no one, and then snuck to where the door leading into the back porch was located, keeping low, his heart pounding perhaps a hundred beats per minute.

At the same time, Ty left the protection he had in the hedge and jogged to where the hedge began near the street. He stopped there and pressed himself back into the leaves. He’d be invisible there even if car lights flashed over the hedge, but he could see the street through the leaves. If he saw a car coming, his job was to hoot like an owl—hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo—a soft sound that would penetrate far enough to reach Michael. Then he’d remain hidden in the hedge until it was safe to join the other boys.

Mark was now at the back door of that porch. The porch was screened in and had two doors: the outside one where Mark was crouching that led from the enclosed porch to the backyard, and another inside the porch that led into the house, directly into the kitchen. There were lights on in the kitchen, but the porch itself was mostly dark. Some of the light from the kitchen was bleeding onto the porch and into the backyard. Mark lay down on his stomach to make himself as invisible as possible. He quickly discovered he couldn’t work that way; he had to get up onto his knees. He did, and working fast, he pressed a thumbtack into the wood at the bottom of the door, then used a small hammer to tap the thumbtack into the door so that the head of the tack was tight against the wood.

Attached to the thumbtack was a knotted loop of thin, black fishing line. It was entirely invisible in the dark. Ty had told them that the porch light was never on when the people would come on Saturday nights. They didn’t want their faces to be seen by any nosy neighbors. Without the porch light on, there was little worry about anyone being identified.

The dark backyard was important to Mark because it was needed not only to keep him invisible, but also to make sure the fishing line lying on the ground wasn’t detected. Even with the light on, it was most unlikely the line would be noticed, but in the dark, they knew it would be safe. Now, Mark was worried. Ty had been wrong: there was some faint light from the kitchen.

But before he could run back to the hedge, the light went out. Now it was pitch black. Much better for Mark’s escape, and for keeping the fishing line concealed.

Mark spooled the line out on the ground loosely as he ran back to the hedge. He pushed himself back into the leaves till he was with Michael. Then Michael hooted softly, and they were soon joined by Ty.

“I saw a car coming, way down at the end of the street. Then you hooted, and I scooted.” Ty giggled. It sounded like nervousness.

“Two cars?” Mark asked.

“There should be two. Four people in one, two in the other. That’ll make eight adults inside the house. That’s how it’s been before.”

Just then a car pulled into the driveway. The house had a detached garage in the back. The driveway led straight back to it on the side of the house away from the hedge. The car drove all the way back to the garage, killing its lights just before it stopped. People were just getting out of both the front and back seats when another car pulled into the driveway. Its lights were switched off quickly when the driver saw they were illuminating the people exiting the first car.

Six people walked to the back porch door. They knocked.

“Just like I told you,” Ty whispered. “Mr. Drund always keeps that door locked. He keeps all the doors locked all the time and the curtains closed, too.”

Michael and Mark knew this. Ty was simply explaining it again, unnecessarily, but for the same reason he’d giggled. Mark was enjoying this, Michael was accepting the risk because it was necessary, and Ty was scared out of his wits. He knew what to expect if Mr. Drund caught him. His friends had no idea! His frayed nerves were expressing themselves verbally. Michael shushed him. Quietly.

When they’d decided they needed to get into the house surreptitiously, they’d questioned Ty for details about how secure the place was in order to learn if there was any way to get in without being seen. Ty had told them about how the doors were kept locked and about how when people came on Saturday nights, they always came into the house through the back.

It was like pulling teeth, getting all the small details they wanted because Ty wasn’t a very talkative kid in the first place, and he didn’t like having to answer questions, even from his friends. But he did eventually reveal that the back porch door didn’t have a knob on the outside, just a handle like one on a desk drawer. The door had to be opened from the inside when it was closed because from the outside there was nothing that activated the latch. The handle was meant to allow the door to be pulled open when it wasn’t latched. And, according to Ty, latched was how Mr. Drund always kept it.

The door also had a self-closing mechanism like many porch or screen doors do. That mechanism closed the door so it wouldn’t stand open and let flies in. The boys’ problem was, when the door closed, it latched and couldn’t be opened from the outside. And by far, the safest way of getting into the house undetected seemed to be through this door.

While they were in the planning stage, Mark had said, “Okay, then, some other way. A basement window, a ground floor window, a ladder to an upper-floor window. There has to be something.”

They’d all looked at each other, and then Michael had smiled. “The porch door,” he said. “Ty said all the outside doors are always locked. He also said the door into the kitchen from the porch isn’t locked; it doesn’t need to be, so they don’t bother. We’ll go in through the porch.”

“Yeah, sure,” Mark said, sarcastically. “Just how?”

That had resulted in a discussion that led to the purchase of a spool of black fishing line. Ty had said the door was wooden and old, so they’d thought the thumbtack and a hammer would be all they’d need. They’d tied a small loop at the end of the line, and they’d brought the fishing line, thumbtack and a small hammer—the kind that had several sizes of small screwdrivers nestled in the handle—to the house with them.

They waited till the last of the visitors had entered the house. The last person through had let the closing mechanism shut the porch door behind him. Michael was holding the fishing line, and he quickly pulled in the slack till he felt pressure on the line. He let the door continue to close, then stopped it just before it was completely shut. Mark had been sneaking toward the house again as the door was swinging shut, and with the door still a half-inch open and being held steady in that position, he slipped a small wedge into the crack at the bottom. Then he snipped off the fishing line at the tack using his Swiss army knife scissors, watched the door close against the wedge, and hurried back to the hedge.

“We all agree? Continue just like we planned?” Michael asked.

Mark nodded. Ty looked scared.

“Ty, this is up to you. No pressure at all from us. We go in like we planned or we go home and forget it. Maybe come up with a different plan. We don’t need to do it this way. This will work if we’re careful; it’s a solid plan. No way you’d have to come back here, no matter how smooth a talker Mr. Drund is or how indifferent to your complaints CPS is. But I don’t want to push you. Neither does Mark. Do we go in, or not? Your say.”

They went in. Ty was scared to death, but he knew they were doing this for him and that they needed his help for the plan to work. The twins didn’t get anything out of it for themselves. He knew that better than any of them.

He knew what to expect inside. The adults would all have drinks in the living room, and after a half hour or so, they would start getting loud. That’s when he’d always had to come in. After that, they’d all become louder.

So, drinking in the living room, they’d be busy and noisy and not very alert. The three boys could get inside through the back. The kitchen door would be unlocked as expected. There was nothing stopping them now but their own fears.

Before entering, the boys peered through the window to make sure the kitchen was empty. Ty had told them that once the adults were in the living room, they stayed there. All the bottles and ice and lemons and such were on a side table with them. He guessed none of them wanted to leave the room and miss any of the action.

Mark opened the door into the kitchen and held it while the other two entered, then quietly closed it again. There were two doorways out of the kitchen into the house, one to a formal though small dining room; the other to a hallway that led past a bathroom and another door—to the basement, per Ty—and then to the stairs going up and to the front door, in the process passing the living room.

They’d debated where it would be best to watch. Ty had drawn a sketch of how the rooms were laid out downstairs. He’d said they’d be safe in the basement and could get there from the hall without being seen. Michael had asked how they could see anything from there, and Ty hadn’t answered. Not being caught seemed Ty’s major—maybe only—concern.

Mark had said the dining room would be best. It opened into the living room, and they could see everything from there. They’d have an unobstructed view. Michael had said that being on the stairs looking down would be better. They’d have an overhead view of the entire room and everything that was going on and more concealment. However, there’d be more risk of being seen while getting up there.

They’d gone over it and over it and finally decided. The decision hadn’t made Ty happy. But with him being in the house again, nothing really would have done that.

They opened the door to the basement and went down. The stairs were carpeted and noiseless. Ty told them they probably had at least 20 minutes, probably 30, till it was safe to go back upstairs.

He was right, as it was a half hour later when the voices got really loud. Lots of laughter, too, lots of voices speaking over each other.

They waited another five minutes, then Ty nodded. They all crept up the stairs, checked the hallway was clear and moved out. Ty went back to the kitchen and remained there. His job was to help with a fast getaway if it was needed, opening the rear door and then turning over chairs and switching off the light as they all ran out. Mark headed for the kitchen and then the dining room. Michael crept down the hall, past the stairs, and when in place, got flat on the floor and peeked around the corner into the living room.

Sunday, May 28, the next day

It was what Michael was expecting but still shocking. All eight adults were naked. The men were aroused and the women active in keeping them that way, though some of the men were on the floor making them happy as well.

Michael hadn’t seen porn on his computer. He hadn’t had much interest in sex until a few months ago, and then, adults having sex hadn’t interested him at all. He had found himself starting to look at other boys. He found them much more attractive than girls and in ways that he’d never felt before.

He and Mark had talked about it. Mark told him some of the boys at school had told him they were jerking off. Mark didn’t know what that was, nor did Michael, so they looked it up on Wikipedia. That didn’t seem to be something Wikipedia knew anything about; searching for that just gave them an article about some TV show. So, they tried Dictionary.com and got no further clarity. Then they tried the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, and it had a listing saying it meant masturbating. So, with a new word, they went back to Wikipedia and tried again.

Bingo. Not only did it have an entry for that, what they read there was very much like an owner’s manual. They read it, and both grew hard. That led to their first explorations of themselves. While this had only been a few months earlier, by now they’d had a great deal of practice in the art. And knowing now what he did, Michael’s fantasies about cute boys in his class had taken on a new meaning.

The two boys both knew boys in class they found exciting, and they talked about them. Neither of them was interested in his brother that way, and Mark was just as interested in girls as in boys, but they did still sleep in the same large bed and so would jerk off at the same time, usually right after going to bed.

Michael was interested in sex but not sex between adults, so seeing naked aroused adults doing things he’d never imagined and had no desire to do himself wasn’t arousing. It actually was upsetting. Still, he watched. That’s why they were there.

It turned out that they hadn’t needed to be so stealthy. The adults were entirely wrapped up in what they were doing. Mark was watching from the dining room, also lying on his stomach. They’d discussed this and thought that if any of the adults were looking around to be sure they were alone, they wouldn’t look at floor level; they’d look about at the height of an adult human head.

After watching for several minutes and seeing things that totally grossed them out, both boys slipped backwards out of sight, rose to their feet, and went back to the kitchen. When he saw them, Ty immediately opened the door and they all went out. Ty closed the door silently. Within a minute, the boys were through the backyard into the one behind the Drund house, then onto the sidewalk in the front of it. They navigated their way through the night back to the gated community, through their secret gap in the fence, and made it into their house undetected. They all went into the basement.

- o 0 0 o -

Mark couldn’t restrain himself any longer. They hadn’t talked on the way home, wanting to make as little noise as they could. Now, the reins were off. “Did you see that? She had his thing in her mouth! Her mouth! It looked like he was pumping, and then another guy got down behind him, and . . . and, I can’t believe where he was sticking his tongue!”

Michael was grinning as well. “They were licking the women down there, too, and the women were wriggling around like they had ants in their pants, except there weren’t any pants. And one of the guys had another guy’s thing in his mouth. Uggggh!”

Then Michael looked at Ty, who was entirely quiet. In fact, he’d gone pale and had tears in his eyes.

Michael went over to him and put his arm around him. “I’m sorry, Ty. We shouldn’t have been so excited. I guess, uh, they wanted you to be involved in that, too?”

“They’ve made me watch. I had to get naked and come in and watch. The adults all enjoyed seeing me there! They acted like they were showing off for me; they seemed to get more excited because I was there watching them. I’ve seen different groups of them do this three times now. Mr. Drund said next time, I’d be joining in, but it was fun and I’d enjoy it. Well, no way. That’s why I ran away. But I already told you that. I’m glad you got to see it for yourself. See I wasn’t making it up.”

Mark came over and gave Ty a hug, too. The boy was shaking. Just thinking about having to do any of that, being forced to do it with adults, was too much for Ty, and Mark was thinking it would be too much for him, too.

“Now we have to decide what we still need to do and how to do it.” Michael was always the one to settle things down and get to the important stuff. “We have a lot to decide. The thing is, we’re kids, and as soon as we talk to adults about what we’ve seen, we’ll lose control, and most likely this won’t end like we want it to. We need to talk about this. Figure it out so we can stay in charge. This is going to be hard, but with three of us thinking about it, well, there’s got to be a way.”

“And it isn’t telling the cops or CPS,” Mark agreed. “You’re right; we have to decide what we want to happen now and then make that happen.”

“But we’re kids!” Ty exclaimed. “That’s been the problem all along. We don’t have any way to argue against adults.”

“Uh, maybe we do,” Michael said, and he grinned enigmatically. “I think we can be subtle, and with a little nuance, we can be successful.”

“Sometimes you sound like a college professor,” his twin said. Mark often got peeved at Michael’s ability to figure things out before he was able to, and also with planning things, and how he frequently forgot about having fun.

But Mark was also glad Michael had thought of something. He himself had no idea how to go from where they now were.

It was late, and they still had to clean all the paint off themselves and get to bed. Maybe when they heard Michael’s latest idea, they could make it work. They’d discuss it again in the morning.

- o 0 0 o -

They did. While the Wegler parents were out helping with the fete, the three got together in the basement Sunday afternoon. Michael told them what he’d come up with and they began chewing it over. It was just an idea, not nearly a plan. But then Ty said something that led to more discussion and a plan began forming. They worked on it, tweaked and built it till they had a doable plan they were happy with. It had lots of ways it could fail, but if everything went right . . .

They’d just have to do what they could to keep things on track. It was possible. That’s the best they could do.

And all Ty had said to kick it off was, “At some point, I need to be found.”

Monday, May 29, the next day

“Sandy Shores Police Department. How can I help you?”

“You’re the police?” It was a young voice, trembling.

“Yes, this is the police department. Could I have your name, please?”

There was silence for a moment, and then, “Can I talk to a policewoman named Starger?”

“Can I tell Sgt. Starger what this is about?”

“No, I think she wants to talk to me. But she’s probably busy. That’s okay. This was a bad idea. I’ll hang up now.”

“No, wait. I’ll put you through to her. Hold on.”

There were some clicks before Mark heard anything else. “This is Sergeant Starger. Who is this?”

“I . . . I read in the paper that you were looking for me. I’m Tyler Harris.”

“Tyler! Oh my god! Where are you? We’ve been looking all over for you. Are you all right?”

“Right now I am. But I won’t be if we meet. I know what’ll happen then. You’ll take me back to CPS, and they’ll turn me back over to the Drunds. I’d rather be dead than that. I’m going to . . . I’ve been thinking . . . anyway, before that, I . . . I want someone who cares to know how bad those two are. Then, when I’m gone, you can maybe investigate them, and they’ll maybe go to jail. That way, no other kid will be sent to them. No more foster kids getting what I got. That’ll mean at least I did some good while I was alive.”

“Tyler! You don’t want to hurt yourself!”

“What choice do I have? I don’t want to go anywhere near those people again. I’ll be better off dead.”

“I can help you. I can make sure you don’t get sent back to the Drunds.”

There was silence for a moment, then, “How? You can’t mess with CPS! They call the shots for kids. I read it in the paper—read about you looking for me. That’s why I’m talking to you. In the paper, you sounded like you cared about me. Were worried about me. CPS doesn’t.”

“I do care! Tyler, I do! But I can’t help you if you don’t come in or tell me where you are.”

“Well . . .” Mark paused for effect. He wanted her to think he was considering what to do. After a long moment, he said, “I hate this, what I’m doing. Living on the street is awful, and I’m always scared. I have to eat thrown-away food when I can get it. If you promise me something, then maybe I’ll come out of hiding. In the meantime, I think I’m going . . . no, I can’t tell you. But someplace safe, at least for a day or two, till I’m seen. But you need to promise me something. Promise you’ll arrest the Drunds and put them on trial. Then I’ll come testify.”

“But we don’t have anything to arrest them for!”

“That’s what I thought. Even if I could testify, people would believe them over me. Uh, maybe, well, instead of a trial for all the things they’ve done, what if there could be some sort of, a, what are they called? A hearing. Don’t they have to have a license to be a foster parent. So could there be a hearing about them losing their license? I read in the newspaper a few weeks ago about a hearing to take away a foster parents’ license because they weren’t giving the kid enough food. Could that be done with the Drunds? Could they lose their license? They didn’t give me much food, but also did awful things, even worse things. If they had a hearing, maybe I could testify at that. No one should be sent to live with them! No one should have to put up with what I did.”

“Why don’t you just meet with CPS and tell them you want to be given another foster parent? I’ll come with you, make sure you’re okay.”

“Wouldn’t do any good. They never listen to kids, only adults, and even with you there, they’d still do what they want. I know how it works. I did complain once to my CPS caseworker about how I was being treated, being hit, and she spoke to Mr. Drund. He smooth-talked her and I was left there. Then he hit me some more and locked me in the basement with nothing to eat or drink for a day. I’m not taking a chance with CPS again.”

“Well, I’m not sure what I could do, then. You’re right; we have no authority over the CPS.”

“That’s what I thought. At least you’re honest. They’re not, the people at CPS. Well, goodbye then. I’ll do it where my body can be found, and I’ll have a note saying how bad the Drunds are and that I did it because no one would help me. I’ll bet that’ll get an investigation started.”

“No! Tyler! No!” Look, let me try. I know a judge who hears family-law cases. I’m sure I can talk to the judge, talk about you, talk about saving your life. Judges can arrange hearings. CPS won’t like it that someone went over their heads in a matter that’s in their jurisdiction, but I’ll try. This judge is very pro kids. I’ve testified in that courtroom in the past. You’ll be supported there. Give me a number that’ll reach you. I’ll call you when it’s time.”

“Then you’d trace the number and come get me. I’d be sent to CPS for sure. Look, I think you care and maybe I can trust you, but—” Mark made a half-sobbing noise, then said “—well, I can’t go back, so, goodbye.”

“Wait! Tyler. I can’t trace your cellphone. I promise you I won’t try. But I need to call you to tell you about the hearing so you can attend. Please, give me your number. You can trust me, Tyler. I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

Mark was quiet, waiting for her to speak again. She finally did. “Tyler? Are you still there?”

Mark answered without any more pause. “Yes, but if you trace me and I’m picked up and returned to CPS, as soon as I get a chance after that, I’ll do it, I will.”

“I won’t trace you. I won’t even meet you until the hearing.”

“Okay. Here’s my number.” And he read it out to her, then disconnected.

“See? I never could have done that,” Ty said. He looked like he was trembling, shaky from just listening.

Michael was sitting next to him and put an arm around his shoulders. Both the twins had grown very fond of Tyler—and protective, too. They didn’t understand being so afraid of almost everything, but they hadn’t lived the life he had and they realized that. He’d told them some of it. It was terrible.

“It wasn’t hard,” Mark said. “It went just about how we thought it would.”

“I think we should tell Mom and Dad now,” Michael said. “It’s time.”

Mark shook his head. “Not until the hearing’s set. Then we’ll have to. But not yet. It still could all fall apart. Our parents are good guys, the best, but they’re still adults, and they don’t look at things the way we do. You know that. They always want to follow the rules. We said we were going to make this happen our way. Nothing’s changed yet.”

Michael turned to Ty. “You okay with staying in hiding another week? It’s summer. You have to be fed up with staying inside and out of sight all the time.”

“I can go out at night if I feel I have to. I liked when we were out before, even if I almost had a heart attack a couple of times. Do you mind keeping me another week?”

“Not at all. Okay, one more week. I sure hope that policewoman comes through.”

Mark agreed. “She did sound like she cared. I think the threat we made will make the difference. I bet we’ll get the hearing.”

Friday, June 2, four days later

They didn’t have to wait a full week. It was only four days later when Mark answered his phone, the disposable one with the number he’d given to Sgt. Starger when pretending to be Tyler. He received the news that a hearing concerning the Drunds’ foster license would be held the following Wednesday; the judge didn’t want to wait when it appeared a life was in danger, and the meeting was scheduled over the protests of CPS; the agency wanted more time to prepare.

There was no way around it. The time had come for the twins to speak to their parents. Michael was nervous. He thought what they’d done was the right thing to do, something to be proud of, even, but knew adults often didn’t see things the way kids did, and there was no doubt, he and Mark were still kids.

Mark was looking forward to this. He was proud of what they’d done, too, and he’d managed to talk his way out of anything serious throughout his life with a mixture of cuteness, charm and deceit. He felt confident this would be no different.

The boy most nervous was Tyler. So much depended on this. The adult Weglers could very well call the police, and that would be that. He didn’t have many possessions. He’d been wearing the twins’ clothes since being with them. What he had of his own was a toothbrush—a gift from the twins—and the clothes he’d worn when he’d run away and a few bits and pieces in his backpack: a favorite book; a small stone with narrow bands of different colors that he’d found and liked; a shirt he didn’t want to lose; an old Swiss army knife no one knew he had. He gathered it all together in his backpack. If things went badly, if the Weglers called the cops, he’d run again, and he needed to be ready. He so hoped that wouldn’t be necessary. They’d planted the idea with the cops that killing himself was a possibility. That idea had already been in Ty’s head before the twins had come up with it.

Michael told his parents over dinner that they needed to talk in the living room after the meal.

“Why not now?” his dad asked.

“Because no one would finish their meals, and I’m hungry. You’re supposed to have a last meal, a good one, before being hung, aren’t you?”

“You think we’re going to hang you? Just you, or Mark, too?” His mother grinned. No way she was taking him seriously. What made that obvious was she hadn’t stopped eating.

“Well, mostly Mark, I guess,” Michael replied with a grin. Best if they were both relaxed, he decided.

“No surprise there,” his dad said. “What’s he done now?”

“All shall be revealed at its proper time,” Michael replied, quoting the dialogue from a TV show he’d recently watched.

They finished dinner, the boys both dodging questions with grins and misdirection, and then the boys attacked the dishes. That was something they’d continued doing after the week’s period of what they’d said was their bet; to their surprise, they’d discovered they didn’t mind doing the dishes at all—rather enjoyed it, even—and it continued to make it much easier to get away with supplying surreptitious food for Ty.

They went into the living room where their parents were waiting. They drew up chairs to face the couch where their parents were sitting.

Michael started, knowing Mark would jump in when he had the chance, and then he probably wouldn’t have to say another word unless he was asked a question.

“You probably won’t be happy with us, with what we’re going to tell you, but it’ll be much better if you listen to everything instead of jumping in with questions or comments. You won’t like some of it, but before you start with the lecturing and hair-pulling—your hair, not ours—you need to know everything. Believe me, we understand the things you’ll be complaining about. But you need to hear us through. So, please?”

James gave Jane a quick look, then said, “We’ll try. No promises.”

Michael nodded. It was what he had expected. “Okay, I guess the place to start is at school. You know we still had recess in the 6th grade. Next year, in 7th, we won’t. But this year we did. All the boys tended to shoot baskets or throw a football around. Some played soccer. A few liked running and circled the vast field; it usually became a race. The girls, well, I didn’t pay much attention to them, but I knew all the boys at school, and they all liked to be doing something physical at recess.” He paused, rather dramatically he thought, and then said, “All but one.”

Another moment of silence and he continued. “That boy’s name is Tyler Harris. You’ve heard of him. We even mentioned him over breakfast. He went missing. He’s still missing, and the cops and CPS are still looking for him. You asked if Mark or I knew him when he was mentioned in the newspaper. I told you we knew who he was, but that was all. And it was the truth. Well, very close to it.”

His dad opened his mouth and Mark jumped in. “Dad! You promised! Well, sorta. Michael’s just getting started. This is going to take some time, and if you interrupt every time you hear something you want to scream about, we’ll be up all night. We understand you’ll not be happy when you hear some of this, but please. Let him talk. You can take notes if you want.”

Jane just smiled and shook her head. James closed his mouth.

“We didn’t know him,” Michael continued, “just like I said. But then only a couple days before you asked us about him, just before he went missing, he came up to me in the cafeteria. I’d come in late and was the only one in the line, and he came up behind me. He was very scared. Ty seems scared all the time about almost everything. He didn’t ask which twin I was; that was very unusual. No one can tell us apart, but he could, and we’d never even spoken to him before. Anyway, he used my name and asked if he could speak to me in private. I’m making it sound like a normal conversation we were having, but with him stopping and looking around and looking like he was going to faint or run away, just asking me that, those few words, took longer than you’d think possible.

“I felt sorry for him. I always feel bad for kids who don’t have any self-confidence. I tried to be kind and open to Ty and said sure, we could talk. I asked him when and where.

“We met after school. I’d asked him if it was okay if Mark came with me. He didn’t like that and looked even more worried but then nodded. I guess I should just tell you guys about this without all the detail. If you want that later, I can give it to you. This is taking way too long.”

He inhaled and exhaled and continued. “So, condensing this to what’s important, Ty told us he was being abused by his foster family and couldn’t stay there any longer. That he was going to run away. But he said he was scared to be out on the street and had nowhere to go. Then he surprised me. He said he didn’t have friends at school because his foster dad beat him if he talked to anyone at school. But he watched all the other kids, and in the whole school, he watched me the most, and he thought if he had to ask for help, I was the one he’d ask. And that was why he’d wanted to talk to me, to ask if I would help him.”

Michael stopped. Thinking about this, about a scared boy coming to him out of desperation, to him, always got to him. He wasn’t telling his parents everything Ty had told him and Mark. When Ty was asking Michael if he could help him, Ty had also told Michael that he was probably gay, and one of the reasons he’d come to Michael was he’d had a crush on him all year at school, and maybe because of that, or maybe it was just because he’d seen how nice and kind he was to all the other kids, he trusted him. Thinking about this, how a shy kid he didn’t know at all could tell him all this, could have such faith and trust in him, made him realize just how desperate Ty must have been. Every time he thought of Ty doing what he had made Michael feel emotional to the point he was about to tear up.

Mark had witnessed this before, and seeing it now, he jumped in.

“I was there, too, after school, and after listening to him, I told him of course we’d help. How could I do anything else: when he was asking for help, he had tears in his eyes. Michael agreed; Ty could come home with us. He told us we couldn’t tell anyone—and why. If the police found him, they’d give him back to CPS, and he’d already told CPS about the abuse, and they’d paid no attention to him. They’d only listened to his foster dad. Ty had just been left there in that house, and he’d taken another beating because he’d told. Ty insisted that no one could know where he was.”

“But—” James said, and this time Michael stopped him. “There’s a lot more, Dad. Please!”

James took a deep breath, then settled back on the couch.

Mark continued. “We had to figure out how to make him safe. Michael wanted to tell you two that Ty was here, but we were both sure you’d think the right thing to do would be to turn him in. In the adult world, that’s what you do. But that would have been the wrong thing for Ty. We had to find a better way. And, in the meantime, we had to keep him secret. He’s been living in the pool cottage and in the basement all this time.”

“He’s still here?” Jane asked.

Michael took over. Mark somehow knew he wanted to and let him. Michael didn’t answer his mother’s question, however. “We had to keep him safe and away from CPS and his foster family and the police.”

He had been looking back and forth at his mother and father. Now he met and held his dad’s eyes. “We knew we couldn’t keep him hidden here forever, but we figured out how to get Ty the help he needed. We’ve done that; we’ve made arrangements. We’re keeping him safe till Wednesday, and then there’ll be a hearing about his foster parents’ license. You can come to it with us. We hope you will. It’ll be so scary for Ty, and having you guys there as support for him will really help. But you have to promise you won’t tell anyone he’s here before then, and that you’ll take the three of us to the hearing. I know you want to call the police. We already have. We did it on our terms. It’s because of them that the hearing has been scheduled. It’s only two days away. Please. Please don’t call the police before then.”

“But, but—” James was at a loss for words. Michael was staring at him, wanting a promise James didn’t think he should make. Certainly, if he knew where a runaway boy was, James should call the police. That was obvious. But Michael was asking him not to, to promise not to. And his son was looking for him to do what he thought was the right thing. Actually, it was being presented to him more like a mandate that he trust his son and go along with what the boy had arranged.

If James refused, what would the consequences be? He’d be telling his son he didn’t trust him. And he’d be telling Michael that he could no longer trust his dad. Michael had always been honest and dependable. To deny him this would be wrong.

James rose to his feet. “I promise. You know where he is?”

- o 0 0 o -

Ty had been standing in the kitchen, listening. Now, hearing what Mark was saying, he started moving toward the door that would take him outside. What was Mark thinking?! This was awful. He was at the door when he heard Michael speak again, asking his father to trust him. Then he heard a man’s voice, saying he promised.

Ty stopped. He didn’t want to run. Maybe, maybe he wouldn’t have to. He’d have to trust a man he’d never met. But he trusted Michael and Mark.

Ty heard Michael say to his father, “You want to meet him?” Then louder, “Ty, you can come in.”

He did.

Wednesday, June 7, five days later

The hearing was held in Judge Findlayson’s small Family Law courtroom. It had been planned as a hearing in chambers, but the number of attendees had grown, and so the venue had cbeen hanged to the courtroom.

Judge Clarence Findlayson and the bailiff and a court reporter were in their places. Four separate groups sat before them: the Drunds and their lawyer; the CPS caseworker who’d handled Tyler’s placement plus a CPS lawyer; Detective Sgt. Starger and Detective Roberts of the police; and Ty, accompanied by the Wegler family.

Sgt. Starger had made a point of meeting Ty before the hearing began. “I’m happy to see you looking well, Tyler. So often when a child goes missing, there isn’t a happy ending. I hope we have one today. My greatest wish is for you to forget you ever considered hurting yourself.” She patted him on the shoulder and smiled at him encouragingly.

Ty looked scared, as usual, but he had the courage to thank Sgt. Starger and even to ask her a question. “The judge is a woman. Didn’t you say her name was Clarence?”

Sgt. Starger grinned. “Her parents wanted a boy. And her parents were strict Catholics. Many nuns have male names. Her parents were hoping that would be a life she’d choose. She went into law instead. She has three kids, all boys, and none of them are interested in the priesthood.”

After the judge was seated, the hearing began. “I want to keep this as informal as possible,” she stated. “This is simply to consider the license the Drunds have enabling them to foster children. I will conduct this hearing and make a final judgment. Of course, my decision can be appealed. None of my decisions to date have been successfully appealed, however.

“The way we’re going to do this today is this: I’ll take testimony from Mr. and Mrs. Drund, from the CPS, and from Tyler Harris. I’ll ask questions. If an attorney has a problem with what I ask, they can object, but our purpose here is to determine if a license to foster a child should be revoked, and objections to my questions that limit the finding of information that bear on that determination should be few. We’re here today to protect the safety of a child. Though I hope we can keep this all as informal as possible, testimony will be given, and honesty is required. Accordingly, I will now ask that an oath be given by all who might testify today.”

The bailiff had everyone who might be called to testify to stand and swear to tell the truth. That included Mr. and Mrs. Drund, Tyler’s CPS caseworker and Ty. Additionally, Ty asked the judge in his timid voice that Michael be sworn in, too.

Michael and Ty had discussed the hearing, and Ty had told Michael he wanted him to be able to speak. Ty knew it would be difficult for him to maintain his composure, and that he’d most likely stumble over his words and make a very poor impression.

Michael had agreed. He’d told Ty if it became necessary, he’d try to support Ty as well as he could. Michael also had a another reason to testify. For the boys’ plan for the hearing to work, they wanted it to go in a certain direction, and they felt Michael could lead it that way more easily than Ty could. And so, Michael stood with the others to take the oath.

With everyone sitting down again, the judge said, “I have looked into this matter and done some research with the help of Sgt. Starger who is in the courtroom today. I’ll give a brief background of my understanding of the alleged facts of this case. We have a boy who claims he was abused in his foster placement; that he notified his CPS caseworker of the abuse but was left in the home with the accused abusers. We know the police tried to find the boy when he went missing and the two police employees here with us today were unsuccessful. The boy who claimed he was abused is here today to testify and has been joined by friends, one of whom has been sworn in and may testify. Does anyone have a quibble with any of that summary? No? Then I think I should start with testimony taken from the boy, Tyler Harris.

“Tyler, you can remain sitting where you are. You look worried, but there’s no need for that. You’re safe here, and all you need to do is tell the truth when I ask you questions. Are you able to do that?”

Ty took a deep breath. “I’ll try, ma’am.”

“Good. Now, tell me how you were abused.”

“Mr. Drund hit me, then locked me in my room or the basement on occasion for long periods of time. He told me not to make friends at school or tell anyone what occurred in that house, and if he found out I had, he’d break my arm. They—” He started to break down.

“Please continue, Tyler. Even if this is difficult, we need to know what happened in order to protect you. It’s fine if you become emotional. You have friends here. We’re here for you. Please continue.”

Tyler wiped his face. “This is very hard, but, they made me be naked in their house. They took pictures of me that way.”

Judge Findlayson stopped him. “They took naked pictures of you?”

“Yes. I heard them talking about it together. They were selling them and making money from them.”

The judge turned to Sgt. Starger. “Did you know about this?”

“First I’ve heard about it, your honor, but I’ll get our techs on it when we’re done here.”

The judge looked back at Tyler. “Sorry about the interruption. Please continue.”

Ty wasn’t feeling any better, but the short break has allowed him to take a few breaths. Now he took a deep one and continued where he’d left off. “They sometimes had sex together and made me watch. I hated it there. Mrs. Drund would touch me, you know, down there. I’d get hard. I didn’t want to. I just did. And then she’d laugh at me. It felt awful. But Mr. Drund said I had to get used to it because I’d be at their next sex party, and he wanted me aroused for everyone to see. He said I’d have to do things with them.”

He shuddered, closed his eyes for a moment, then said very softly, “That’s why I ran away.”

The judge’s eyes seemed wider than before. “They had sex parties?”

“Yes, every week on Saturday night. They’d have friends over, different ones each time, and they’d all get drunk and naked and, and . . . I don’t want to say all the things they did. I don’t want to remember it. He made me watch.”

“Thank you, Tyler. You’re doing fine. Now, did you tell your CPS caseworker about this?”

“Some of it, yes. About the hitting. I didn’t want to talk about the rest. It was too much for me to talk about. She had to come and see things were okay at the house occasionally as part of her job. Inspections, she called them. One time she came just after I’d been beaten. Mr. Drund had asked that day if I’d talked to any of the kids at school. I told him no, I hadn’t. Well, this time, he beat me anyway, saying he didn’t want me to forget about not talking to anyone, and this was a reminder not to do it. He kept punching me in the body, my ribs and stomach and back, even when I was on the floor.

“Miss Cantridge, my caseworker, happened to come to the house soon after that, the same day. I was sore all over. I think he didn’t hit my face so it wouldn’t show. That day, I thought maybe he’d broken a rib because it hurt so much to breathe. Miss Cantridge took me to my room to talk privately and asked how things were going. I was scared but hurting, and I told her he was hitting me. She had to realize something was wrong because I couldn’t stand up straight. She said it was too bad he had to punish me, but maybe I should try harder to do what he wanted me to do.”

“That’s all for now, Tyler. You did very well. I may have more questions for you, but you can sit back and relax for now.” She turned and looked at the two CPS employees.

“Miss Cantridge, did Tyler tell you he’d been hit?”

“Well, he might have said something like that, but he talks so softly and hesitantly, almost like he’s scared of me, and he lies a lot. That time, what he said didn’t make much sense because we’ve never had a problem with the Drunds, and Tyler looked fine. No sign of any hitting. I figured he made it up. He’s probably lying now.”

“I see. But he did tell you. You just testified to that. Isn’t that right?”

“Well, yes, your honor. But—”

“That’s sufficient. Now, I’m knowledgable of CPS regulations. One is that when someone reports abuse of this sort, you are to inspect the child for signs of it. Did you do that with Tyler?”

“I could see he looked fine, yes.”

“Did you undress him, or have him undress, so you could see more than what he was showing with his clothes on?”

“No. It would have been improper for me to see a boy his age naked. Of course I didn’t.”

“Even though you know it’s in the regulations for you to do so? Even though you could have had him leave his pants and underpants on? Just removing his shirt would have sufficed.”

“It would have been improper.”

“You could have taken him to the CPS offices, of course, and had a male employee look at him. Did you do that?”

“No, I had no need to as I felt he was lying.”

“Even though he couldn’t stand up straight and was having trouble breathing, you thought he was lying.”

Miss Cantridge opened her mouth, then shut it. The judge hadn’t really asked a question, so she decided she didn’t need to answer.

The judge continued. “The regulations also say you are to report abuse claims in writing. Did you write such a report?”

“I don’t have to report lies.”

“So, you made no report?”

“I just answered that.”

“I need a yes or no answer, Miss Cantridge. And I need it right now.”

“No. I didn’t.”

“Thank you. You disobeyed two regulations that are in place to assure your client’s safety. You took an oath when you accepted the job as a caseworker. Ty may have been lying, but that isn’t your job to determine. Your job is to protect your charge and follow agency procedures you swore to follow. You did not do that. There will be actions taken due to your malfeasance. I think Sgt. Starger will want to talk to you when we’re done here. Do not leave until that conversation has taken place.”

Judge Findlayson paused to gather herself, and the CPS lawyer used the pause to speak. “May I address the court?”

“You may.”

“As the purpose of this hearing is to establish if the Drund couple’s license to foster should be retained or revoked, and as Miss Cantridge’s actions, what she did and didn’t do, have no bearing on their license, and because she has now been accused of not performing her job according to CPS regulations and possibly having committed a felony, it is apparent she should have had counsel here to protect her interests; she did not. I work for the CPS and its interests and not for Miss Cantridge. I am not her lawyer. I ask that you strike her testimony and your remarks to her.”

“I will consider it. Moving forward, I will now address Mr. and Mrs. Drund. Who is representing you?”

Their counsel, Mr. Freedmark, rose. He was young and eager. He was tall and slender with sparkling blue eyes, freshly shaved with well-brushed hair, and his entire appearance suggested he was looking forward to this. “I will speak for both of them.”

“You won’t speak at all if you stand up. And I want to hear from one of the Drunds, or both, but not from you. You’re free to object to any questions I put to them and to justify your objection. That is the limit of what you may say. Is that clear?”

‘Yes, but I do have another point to make. Your first testifier, Mr. Harris, made accusations against my clients. By rights, and in all fairness, I should be able to cross-examine him. Taking his testimony as fact and preventing counter argument is against all rules of jurisprudence.”

“Point taken. When the time comes for that, you may question him if you agree to recognize the boy’s age and disposition. I will stop you the moment I hear browbeating, shaming, distortion of his testimony, and anything that goes beyond a gathering of fact. But first, I will talk to Mr. Drund. Both of the Drunds have been accused of serious misbehavior; I’ll speak with him first as he did the most physical damage.”

“Your honor! I object! How can you be fair and impartial if you’ve already accepted the boy’s testimony as being true, that Mr. Drund did what the boy accused him of?”

“Sorry, I misspoke. I should have said, what he’s been accused of is the more serious of the crimes. Is that acceptable, counselor?”



“I mean, yes, your honor. Thank you.”

The judge stared at Mr. Freedmark for several seconds. She had gray hair in a tight bun and a severe countenance, and she struck a commanding presence. Mr. Freedmark had a difficult time meeting her eyes. Eventually, he looked down at his notes. Judge Findlayson turned to look at Mr. Drund.

Tyler had been scared almost speechless when testifying, yet he was simply telling what had happened. Mr. Drund was accused of crimes that would send him to jail, and he appeared entirely relaxed.

“Mr. Drund, did you ever strike Tyler or lock him in his room or deny him food and water?”

“Absolutely not. Nothing he said was true. He’s always been a very difficult foster child, but we’ve treated him well even with that. He lies proficiently, and he’s told us that he’ll get even with us when we’ve had to send him to his room to think about how disrespectful and untruthful he’s been. Send him to his room, not lock him in. We’ve never done that. I would guess that’s what he’s doing here: getting even with us.”

“And did you and your wife perform sex acts in front of Tyler? Do you throw sex parties at the house where Tyler would witness them?”

“That’s absurd! The answer is no. You can see from how ludicrous that testimony is that he’s lying. What he’s claiming never happened. It’s all just a young boy’s fantastic imagination.”

Judge Findlayson took a deep breath, then spoke to Mrs. Drund. “Mrs. Drund, was Tyler forced to be naked with you, and did you touch him improperly?”

Mrs. Drund managed to look flustered. She was dressed inappropriately in an evening gown, her hair had been professionally arranged, her makeup appeared to be perfect, and she had a fur piece over her shoulders. She looked like she’d dressed for a fancy dinner out followed by attendance at an opera, not for a court appearance.

“Tyler was a most difficult boy. He spent a lot of time in his room, though it was almost always his choice, not ours, and his door was never locked, at least not by us. Sometimes, he would come out naked. But that too was his choice. I think it was done to shock us. We’re very upright, moral people. He came out and flaunted himself, often aroused. I think he’s mental, if you want my opinion. But I never touched him. When he’d show himself like that, I’d quickly go to my room and close the door.”

She wiggled in her seat. “I don’t like being accused of such outrageous things. In any case, it’s his word against ours. We’re honest people and have a good name in this community, and he’s a foster child and a runaway and no one should accept his word over ours.”

Mr. Drund had more to add, and he did so without asking for permission to speak. “If you wish to remove the boy from our home, you won’t get any argument from us. We did our best with him, but he never accepted us. But removing our license because of a bunch of lies, unproven and unprovable, would be wrong.”

Judge Findlayson glared at him. He looked back stoically. She turned to the bailiff, then back to the group in front of her. “We’ll take a ten-minute recess, and then I will allow counsel to speak to Tyler.”

She rose and left the courtroom.

- o 0 0 o -

Tyler was scared, and Michael could see it. “Ty,” he said softly, “you know what we talked about. It looks like I should testify, now that you’re going to be cross-examined. You remember what we said you should do?”

“Yes. I’ll try. I might screw it up, though. I can barely keep from throwing up.”

“Good! Use that! But do what we talked about. You practiced it. Just do what you practiced.”

Ty sighed and lowered his head into his hands.

Judge Findlayson returned to the bench, and the bailiff called the court back into session.

“I will now allow Mr. Freedmark to question Tyler, with the repeated admonition to keep it simple and non-accusatory. You’re simply looking for clarification of testimony. You may proceed, Mr. Freedmark.”

“Thank you, your honor.” He turned in his seat to look at Tyler, then rose to confront him.”

“Oh, no, counselor. From your seat.”

“Your honor, I can barely see him from here.”

“All right, move your chair so you’re facing him but stay seated after that and keep your chair at least eight feet from him. You can see him fine from that distance.”

After settling down in front of Ty, Mr. Freedmark asked, “May I call you Tyler?”

“Yes.” Tyler’s voice was shaky, and he looked paler than usual.

“You’ve claimed the Drunds did some terrible things to you, but they say you tell lies and wanted to get even with them. That makes more sense—”

“Mr. Freedmark, one more accusatory statement like that and I’ll hold you in contempt. You are to be questioning the witness, not judging him or preaching or moralizing at him. Ask him specific questions, or stand down.”

Mr. Freedmark nodded to the judge then made a face when he’d turned his head away from her and back toward Tyler. “Do you understand, Tyler, that you’re saying one thing and the Drunds are saying another, so it’s simply your word against theirs?”

“Yes, I know. That’s why my friends came—” Tyler stopped quickly and turned to the judge. “I wasn’t supposed to say that. Can I take it back?”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way, Tyler. It’s only fair for the Drunds to hear your words.”

“But I think I’m going to faint—or throw up. Anyway, I was about to talk about why it isn’t their word against mine, but my friends were with me and they can tell you exactly what I was going to say. They know everything I know about it, and firsthand, too.” Saying that, he dropped his head into his hands again.

“Judge?” Mr. Freedman asked.

She considered for a moment, then stated, “As our aim here is to gather facts, and as these boys know what Tyler knows, and as Tyler is obviously indisposed, I’d suggest you question one of those boys; they appear to be twins.”

Mr. Freedman nodded. He looked at the twins who were sitting on either side of Ty and said, “Who would like to speak?”

The boys glanced at each other, and Michael said, “I’ll do it. I took the oath. I’m Michael Wegler.”

Mr. Freedmark again had the floor. He asked, “All right, Michael. How well do you know the plaintiff?”

“Who’s the plaintiff?” Michael asked.

“Yes, I’m interested in knowing that too, counselor!” Judge Findlayson said, sarcasm obvious.

“Beg pardon, your honor. Michael, how well do you know Tyler?”

“Very well. He’s a very close friend.”

“So, how can you help him in that it’s just his word against those of the Drunds so far?”

“We talked. He thought no one would take his word against that of an adult. He thought if it were three kids’ word against that of the adults, maybe he’d be believed.”

“And what were you supposed to testify about that the three of you saw?

“He asked us to come to with him to the Drund’s house to witness a sex party.”

That took Mr. Freedmark back a bit. He had to collect himself before asking, “Uh, Michael, did that excite you? Were you looking forward to that? Maybe thinking about it, imagining it, and possibly your imagination ran away with you a little?”

“No. Not what you’re implying. Ty needed grounds to not be fostered by the Drunds any longer, and we thought witnessing a sex party would make it unlikely he’d have to stay there. There were three of us, and while Ty’s word alone hadn’t been enough for the CPS, we didn’t think they could ignore all three of us quite so easily.”

“Ah, so you went there intending to get the Drunds in trouble, and now you’re doing that. And you’re relying on the fact there were more than one of you. But it’s still a few kids, one who’s already been labeled a habitual liar, against upstanding adults. And all of you had the intention to smear the Drunds, which is, of course, a good reason to lie about what you say you saw. Too bad that’s all the evidence you have.”

Michael managed to look a little sour, and he sounded defensive when he answered. “I didn’t say we didn’t have other evidence.”

“Oh, you do? Well, what is it? Bring it out, let’s look at it.”

Michael smiled. He relaxed in his chair and then turned to the judge. “Your honor, if he asks for evidence, from what I’ve seen on TV—I watch Law and Order—then I can present it, can’t I, and he can’t call it inadmissible?”

Judge Findlayson gave him a questioning look, and then grinned. “Michael,” she asked, “tell me, did you just set him up? Did you just get him to ask for the evidence that you thought would be objected to otherwise?”

Michael couldn’t help grinning, but said, “Do I have to answer that?”

“Never mind. But yes, you can show the evidence he asked you to provide. Should he object to it, I’ll decide then whether it’s admissible, remembering he was the one who asked for it.”

Michael smiled. “I am glad he asked to see it. The evidence is on my phone, and Mark’s. Can I show it to you?”

“And me,” the lawyer insisted.

“Fine. Bring the phones forward.”

Michael brought up the video on both phones, then walked to the judge’s bench. “We weren’t sure our word would be enough,” he said. “You heard the lawyer just now say it wasn’t. That’s why we decided to record what we saw. I hope it’s okay if I don’t watch it with you. We all think it’s pretty awful stuff. We only looked at part of it once to be sure the recordings worked.”

The judge and the lawyer watched the videos in silence. When they were done, the judge asked the lawyer, “Do you agree it is your clients in the video?”

“No comment, your honor.”

She then called the CPS lawyer, who was still watching the proceedings. “Mr. Cabot, would you come up here?”

She played the videos for him, then said, “That lady looks exactly like Miss Cantridge, though not having seen her naked myself, I can’t be positive. I think I recognize the man she’s with as well, also a CPS employee who’s been in my court before. Do you agree?”

The lawyer nodded. He had things to do at the office. Urgent things. Things needing to be done to protect the agency.

- o 0 0 o -

When the Drunds had been given their Miranda instructions and taken into custody for investigations into various offenses including perjury, child endangerment and child abuse, and their license to foster children had been ordered to be revoked, the judge had ended the hearing. Sgt. Starger came over to speak with Tyler and the Weglers.

“That worked out well, Ty. However, now’s the difficult part. You’re officially a runaway, and my duty is to return you to CPS. But I told you not to worry about that. Now I have to worry. I don’t suppose, as clever as your friends turned out to be, that you guys figured out a way to avoid this dilemma.”

“As a matter of fact,” Mark said, speaking for Ty, “we have. We had to tell our parents we’d been keeping Ty for a couple of weeks while we figured out how to get him away from those Drund people. We talked about it as a family. Ty doesn’t have any relatives to take him or he’d not have been up for fostering in the first place. And we got to like Ty a lot. He’s kinda scared, but I would be too if I’d had to live like he’s had to. He’s comfortable with us now, and won’t be if he goes away with strangers again. So we convinced our parents they need to foster him.”

Sgt. Starger looked at the adults, who were smiling. Jane spoke. “We generally let Mark do the talking when there’s something to say. Easier that way, and this way he won’t burst a blood vessel trying to break into the conversation. But they did convince us, and we applied for an emergency fostering permit. It was granted today. So, Ty’s coming home with us.”


Wednesday, June 14, one week later

“You’ve got to tell them!”

“You don’t like it that it’s so calm around here. You just want a ruckus. Screw you, Mark!”

Mark laughed. “You don’t know me at all, Michael. I’m looking out for you. It’s much better to go to school next year with a boyfriend already established than to come out when school’s already open. Coming in gay, no one’ll have a problem. But you definitely can’t have a boyfriend without telling Mom and Dad you’re gay.”

“But what if they get mad? What if they kick me out? Kick Ty out! They’ve always liked you better than me. You’re happy and adventurous, and I’m quiet and a stick-in-the-mud. I overthink things!”

“True, true, you do have a lot of faults. But being chicken isn’t one of them, and there’s no way Dad and Mom won’t accept you. This is the 21st century. If you’re gay, you’re gay. Ty didn’t make you that way. He might have helped you to realize who you are, but that’s all. And they love him. They may even love him more than they love me! He’s so needy. Neither of us are, and Mom loves that, fussing over him, hugging him. You’ve seen that. It’s disgusting.”

Ty was reading on the bed. He was used to the two sniping at each other. They never meant anything serious by it. But Mark’s ‘disgusting’ remark—Ty wanted to throw a pillow at him but didn’t. His self-confidence was growing daily, but it had only been a week, and he wasn’t quite ready to make such an aggressive gesture. He knew the twins liked him—even their parents did. That made a huge difference. But throwing things at Mark? No, that would come, he knew it would, but not yet.

Michael had another point. “Right now, we’re all sleeping in the same bed. Yeah, they bought us a king-sized one, but they thought it was okay because Ty wanted to be close to us; he told them he felt safer going to bed that way. But if I tell them I’m gay and I like him and he likes me, what are they going to do? Kick him out, or, if not that, make him sleep in another room? I don’t want that. I like sleeping next to him. It’s best if I don’t tell them.”

“They won’t do that. They’ll want to discuss it, sure. And they’ll probably want to ask me what’s going on. And I’ll tell them the truth, Michael. That nothing’s going on, certainly not in bed. That you two aren’t even showering together.

“But, you know, they’re aware we jerk off. Knowing that, they still haven’t prevented the two of us from sleeping together. So they don’t mind if we’re experimenting. If—no, when—you tell them you’re gay and like Ty, it’ll be very much the same thing. They don’t care if young boys do what young boys do. You’re making too much of this.”

“They know that we jerk off?”

Mark snorted. “Come on! You think that oversized box of Kleenex keeps appearing by magic? You think that lubricant just happened to end up on the nightstand? Of course they know, and they probably were expecting us to begin. And it’s okay with them. They’re intelligent, 21st century parents. They know that at 12, boys start getting horny. Some do earlier. It may be a surprise that you turned out queer, but I know they won’t be upset. I don’t even think they’ll be disappointed. After all, they like me better, so would prefer that I be the one to give them grandkids.”

Michael leaped onto Mark, and they wrestled. It was always a matter of luck and leverage which twin won these battles. This time, Michael won because Ty got off the bed and joined in on Michael’s side. Mark’s ticklishness cost him another fight.

- o 0 0 o -

“Another family meeting? Hey, wait a sec. Last time we had one of those, we ended up with another son. This time, what, you guys have another one?” Jane was teasing, and the boys knew it. “If so, no way he’s sleeping in that bed with you guys. Three is pushing it. Four’s too many.”

“Nope,” Mark said, “that’s not it at all. But let’s go into the living room.”

James lowered his newspaper. “I can finish my toast, can’t I? It can’t be that urgent.

“I can wait, but I’m not sure Michael can.” Mark nodded toward Michael, and James saw him fidgeting and only playing with his eggs. He noticed Ty was more silent than usual, too, and looking nervous again.

“You can bring your toast and coffee with you,” Mark said.

“Okay, okay. Jane?”

Jane was already up and headed for the living room. James had a last gulp of coffee and, leaving his toast, followed her.

When all five were seated, Mark said, “I’d like to do the talking, but this is Michael’s moment.” And then he shut up.

Michael, looking nervous, said, “Best just to say this without beating around the bush. Mark and I left out part of the reason I was the one Ty came up to when he asked for help when he was going to run away. He told me he was gay, he had a crush on me, and from watching me as closely as he had, felt he could trust me.

“He is gay, or at least thinks he is, and he still has a crush on me, and, well, I have one on him, too. I think I’m gay, too. I’m much more interested in and think about boys than girls. Neither of us has done anything with another boy. I haven’t with Mark; he’s not into that. I’m not interested in him that way, either. I love Mark in a much different way than what I feel for Ty. I am interested in Ty that other way.”

He stopped, needing to take a couple of breaths. His eyes were going back and forth between his parents, reading them. He wasn’t seeing anger or disappointment, the two emotions he most feared. He wasn’t seeing anything but what he always saw when looking at them. They were just watching him, and Jane’s eyes were showing love.

“I had to tell you. Mark and I don’t like to keep important secrets from you, and you have a right to know this. We three are all sleeping in our bed, and I didn’t want to continue doing that if you didn’t approve. I hope you don’t object. I like sleeping with both of them. I still feel like I share a part of Mark. He feels the same way about me. This isn’t quite as strong as two years ago. That feeling is fading a little, but it’s still there. We like being together when we sleep. Well, all the time, really, but especially when we go to bed.”

“That’s all Mom’s fault,” Mark said, breaking in. “All that womb time. Her fault we like sleeping together.”

Michael gave him a sour look and rushed on before anyone else could comment. “I like sleeping with Ty next to me, too. I’m falling for him hard. But we haven’t done anything—uh, sexual, I mean. He’s not ready, and I’m not going to push him. I don’t mind waiting. I like him as a person, and the rest can wait. Uh, I’m not planning on telling you when we do begin to do things, though.”

Michael blushed, and Mark laughed. He was the only one not feeling the tension in the room. The idea that Michael would tell their parents when he and Ty started getting sexy together was just too funny not to respond to.

Then Ty spoke, his nervous voice returning. “I hope it’s okay if I still stay here. Since I’m gay. Please?”

Jane jumped up and went to him. She reached down and hugged him. “Of course you aren’t going anywhere, sweetie. We both love you. So what if you’re gay? That doesn’t change the way we feel about you. Knowing about Michael doesn’t change anything, either.”

James stood up and walked over to Michael and Ty and hugged them both. “You’re pretty much a perfect son, Michael, and this changes nothing. And I’ve grown very fond of you, Ty. Boys do fall for boys at your age, so it’s possible this will change in time. Either one of you could, or both. Or maybe not. Whatever happens, Jane and I will be here for you to give you a shoulder to cry on, or a hand to high-five. I hope it’ll be for sharing your joy, not your broken heart.”

“And, as this is a family meeting, Jane and I have something to tell you. We’ve had several discussions with CPS. There’s been a big shakeup there. New management, several new caseworkers, new procedures. As we’re now foster parents, we’ve been in on discussions on what’s new and how it affects us.

“During those meetings, we got to know some of the people there very well, some of the new caseworkers, even the one now assigned to you, Ty. Very nice woman. And persuasive, too.

“While talking to her, it came up she’ll be doing inspections here, and you need to have your own room. That merely means we have to make one of the bedrooms look like you’re sleeping there. That’s all. She’ll see that and talk to you, and unless you sell us down the river, we’ll all pass muster.

“So, that’s that, but we have more. Jane?”

He stopped and looked at Jane. She was smiling. “I’ve always wanted a daughter. Someone to balance the holy hell it is having two boys. Now three! Heaven forbid. But your new caseworker, Ty—we really like her, by the way—is looking to place a girl. She’s 12! I know something about raising boys that age; how much different can it be with a girl? We’ve got room, and . . . and, she’s a girl! We met her and I want her. So does James.”

The boys were all looking at each other. “A girl?” Mark finally asked. There was no ring of approval in his voice.

“You’ll be meeting her today. In an hour, actually,” James said. “If you hadn’t called the meeting, I would have, to tell you about this. Your mom and I both have met her. She’s feisty, so will work out fine with you three hooligans. She’ll hold her own. But you guys have to approve. If even one of you has a problem with her becoming part of this family, we’ll turn down the placement.

“What we hope is for you all to say it’s okay.”

The doorbell rang an hour later and Mark jumped up to answer it. A middle-age lady and a girl Mark’s age stood on the doorstep.

“Hi,” the lady said. “You must be Michael or Mark. I’ve seen pictures of Ty and you’re not him. I’m Mrs. Sands, and this is Rosie.”

“Come on in,” Mark said. He didn’t introduce himself. He was looking at Rosie. She had black hair cut short in a tomboyish cut, incredible eyes, and was about the cutest girl he'd ever seen. She had on jeans and a tee shirt and sneakers.

By then James had arrived and took over the formalities. He led them into the family room where everyone introduced themselves.

Mrs. Sands told Tyler she’d meet with him soon just to get to know him, and after that would make occasional inspections to see that he was still happy living with the Weglers.

“I’m very happy here,” he assured her. “This is the best place I’ve ever lived. I never want to leave.”

She nodded. “That’s wonderful. Now, Rosie, why don’t you tell the boys about yourself, and then anyone who has a question for Rosie, you can ask it.”

Rosie wasn’t a bit shy. She explained how she’d been living in a foster home with three boys, one older, two just a bit younger. That the mother had been a druggie and Rosie had ended up doing way too much mothering, and with a new caseworker, she’d been moved out and was now looking for a new placement.

At that point, Mrs. Sands had a phone call, took it, and said she had to leave—an emergency with one of her other cases. She asked Rosie if she wanted to stay and talk or come with her. Rosie said she wanted to stay.

With just the boys there doing the talking, questions flew back and forth. James had been right: Rosie had no problem answering everything thrown at her, and throwing some hardballs back. Eventually, the boys showed her around the house and property. When they were back in the living room, Jane asked her if she was interested in moving in with them.

“I’d like it a lot. I can see you need a hand with these guys, Mrs. Wegler, and I’ll be happy to help straighten them out.”

“Hey,” said Michael.

Ty had something else to say. “You should know. Michael’s mine. We’re gay. So, hands off.”

Rosie laughed. “The older boy where I lived was gay. I know all about gay boys. Straight ones, too. Oh, I was wondering. You have a pool. I love swimming. If I’m here, I’ll be in it every day. But, uh, well, I guess you’d already figured out I’m pretty plain spoken and take things in stride. I’m just wondering, so I’ll ask. You’re all boys, and your backyard is private, and, so . . . I’d guess you don’t bother with swimsuits in the pool?”

Ty looked at Michael, and then answered. “No. I guess we can with you here, though.”

“Not on my account,” Rosie said quite assertively. “I used to live with three boys, and the mom was drugged out most of the time, and the boys were used to doing whatever they wanted. No discipline at all. I saw them naked often. They saw me, too. We only had one bathroom and no one was shy. They weren’t, I wasn’t. So seeing boys naked in the pool wouldn’t bother me at all, and them seeing me wouldn’t either, and it would be too bad if you to had to stop doing something you liked just for me. So if you don’t mind, I don’t either. I’d really like it if I could swim that way, too. I’m still a kid. I haven’t started any developing yet. Maybe when I do I’ll get shy, but I’m not now.”

She looked over at Jane and raised her eyebrows questioningly.

Jane just smiled. Maybe raising a girl, this girl, wouldn’t be that much different from raising boys. She looked at James and he nodded. “Sure, Rosie, as long as no one has a problem, and it doesn't become one, we don’t either.”

There was a moment of silence, and then James said, “Boys, let me hear from you. Yes or no.”

Ty said, “Yeah; she’s cool.” He smiled at Rosie, but then growled and said, “As long as you keep your mitts off Michael.” Then he smiled again.

Michael said, “Like I’d be interested. I’m into boys. Well, one special one.”

Rosie laughed. Then Michael said, “Sure. I think this is neat. Add some spice to the group. Welcome aboard, Rosie.”

“Not so fast,” James said. “Mark?”

Mark was just staring at Rosie. He hadn’t said a word since she’d entered the house.

“Mark?” James asked again.

Michael started laughing, at first just a chuckle, then much harder. When able to speak, he said. “Look at him! I never thought I’d ever see Mark at a loss for words. Tongue-tied! This is the longest he’s ever been quiet. Hey, Mark!”

“Huh?” Mark said vaguely, his eyes still on Rosie.

“Oh, no,” James moaned.

Jane wrinkled her forehead. “What?”

“I’m going to have to get a lock for Rosie’s door! Or for Mark’s.”

The End

Cover picture by Kindel Media, free usage from Pexels.

Thanks to my intrepid editors for their fine work. Believe me, you wouldn’t want to see one of these without their efforts.

Thanks to Mike as always. His site remains the best. Please help as much as you can to keep the site from falling into the hands of the bill collectors.