Not as it seems

by Benjamin J. Conner

Chapter 3

Peter woke up in the middle of the night and heard some noise. It took a couple of seconds before he was able to understand what his senses were picking up on. There was a constant rustling sound from the other room and sometimes a weak groaning was also noticeable.

It sounded as if the boy in Ethan's bed was having a hard time getting any sleep; no wonder after what he had experienced. So Peter decided to check in on him; the clock showed 2:33am.

The man sat up on the edge of the bed, rubbed his eyes and walked over to Ethan's realm where his ward was trying to valiantly fight off the smothering dark night.

The floor lamp in the hallway produced a dim light inside the musky and warm room. It was the usual dirty scent of a boy's room - a mix of sweet and sour. Something a loving parent would never describe as a good smell, but would always miss it when it wasn't there - the odor of their own cub.

Peter squatted down next to the bed where the young lad was tossing and turning around. His head moved frantically from side to side as he was caught in the grip of a nightmare. A little light made its way through the door and on the boy's forehead which was covered with beads of sweat.

He softly stroked Michael's cheeks and tried to calm him down with a gentle voice when he noticed something on his pajama shirt. It was a dark spot right in the middle of his chest. He couldn't identify it and shoved down the bedspread a bit. The spot got bigger and bigger - it was all over the boy's belly.

"What is this?" He whispered to himself as his fingers made contact with the spot. It felt wet and warm - a little bit viscous. Still not having any idea what it was, he turned on the small lamp on Ethan's nightstand and jumped up in shock.

"OH MY GOD!"

It was blood - all over the boy and the bed. Almost as fast as he had stepped back he returned to wake him up so that he could see where the boy was hurt.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH" Michael screamed in a loud, high pitched voice as he sat straight up with eyes wide open. It was like seeing a character in a horror movie.

Peter was so shocked that he also began to scream....and woke up. His eyes snapped open to see only the darkness in his room. He looked at the clock which read 2:33am; what a coincident.

"Gosh, what a nightmare." Peter realized as his breathing slowly returned to normal. He immediately thought to check on Michael and was about to jumping up from his bed when he felt something warm and soft on his chest; but Ethan wasn't home.

After turning on the small lamp on the nightstand he saw the little one he had wanted to check on lying next to him. The youngster's head was buried in the pillow with one arm around Peter's chest. He stroked along the boy's left cheek, closed his eyes and exhaled with relief as he heard the rhythmic breathing next to him.

That was a sign of trust and a small step towards getting the boy to open up. Although he knew that he couldn't let him get too close - he needed some professional distance or the therapy was in danger. But this was still a good sign and for tonight it was ok. Making himself comfortable again, he turned off the light and put one hand on Michael's arm. It was difficult enough to get some rest after this, but he finally found sleep once more.


It was 7:20 in the morning when the two boys in the neighbor's house finished their breakfast and were ready to go. Ethan remembered that he had to get his backpack from home. He agreed with Vivian to just jump in quickly and get it as fast as possible without disturbing anyone. Afterwards he would join her and Matt in the car, so she could drive them to school.

Opening the kitchen door he listened for a moment to see if anyone was awake but didn't hear anything. "Dad's probably still sleeping." Ethan thought and carefully walked upstairs to grab the needed backpack. He wondered why his bed looked used and whose clothes were hanging over his desk chair. The connection to the case his dad was working on and the boy in it, who was probably sleeping here, was not on his mind at the moment.

Before he left for school, he wanted to say good bye to his father, even though he was still asleep. It was more a matter of checking to see if he was there and ok - just a little bit of normal kid's separation anxiety.

When Peter's son opened the door to his dad's sleeping room, he found him lying there with another boy who seemed to be snuggled up to him; just the way Ethan was doing most of the nights. Peter's son didn't know what to think about what he saw. Was it jealousy, was it fear, or was it sadness - a confusing moment for the little fellow, because something inside his body told him, that what he saw wasn't right.

Now he had a little problem - how could he leave for school and be able to focus on anything the teacher wanted to instruct with these feelings inside. It was impossible. He wanted to wake up his dad and talk to him about it. But instead Ethan slowly walked downstairs and without a word silently closed the front door and got into the car with Vivian and Matthew.


An hour later Peter and Michael woke up, got washed and dressed and had a hearty breakfast together - the only one talking was still the grown up. But the boy seemed a bit happier this morning and moved around a lot more than yesterday. He somehow appeared to be relieved - more open hearted. There was even a reserved smile visible in his face as Peter burned one of his fingers on a hot pan and swore like a trooper about that damn thing.

But the best of this morning was a call from Carol who had gotten up early and found a family for Michael to live with for as long as it took to find out where he belonged. That was the easy part - the difficulty would come with trying to explain it to the boy.

Peter could see the disappointment in his face when he told Michael about the plan to drive him over to the Milligan family. They had already taken another kid for the Promises Childcare Services last year and had taken good care of the child.

No sooner said than done!

Of course it wasn't easy for Peter to leave him there just like that, but if he had let the boy stay with him, he wouldn't have been able to keep the emotional distance required to work on this case with impartiality. So he tried his best to cope with the situation and to show Michael that there was no reason to be afraid of anything. Peter promised that they would still see each other every day before he jumped into his car and drove off waving to Michael.

On the way back home an emptiness began to settle in and Peter knew that it hadn't been a good idea to leave Michael just like that. He had become so close to him in only two days. But as a professional social worker, he convinced himself to get on with his work so that he could concentrate on taking care of his own boy again.

Once back in his living room, Peter watched the recorded video of the interrogation yet again and stopped it several seconds before Michael got sidetracked. Nothing was visible on the screen, so he turned up the volume and played it again. Then he heard it, something in the background that he couldn't identify; probably from the hallway in the childcare services center. Michael must have heard something that caught his attention.

Peter grabbed his mobile phone and speed dialed Frank's number.

"Hi Frank, it's Peter."

"Hey Peter, how's it going?"

"Well, Michael's now with a good family. He has slept here last night and I guess he enjoyed it."

"What about you?"

"Me too, a little bit too much I guess. He really is a sweet kid and so much like Ethan without the big mouth."

"(Laughing) I can imagine that. What can I do for you? I don't have any news, but wanted to call you anyway to ask for the report?"

"Yes Frank I got it, but that's not why I called. I recorded the interrogation with Michael yesterday and at some point he got conspicuously sidetracked. I guess there was something in the background that got his attention - a noise or a call or something like that. I can't hear it clearly and I wondered if you know some guy with audio skills who could help me with this problem?"

"Of course I know somebody, but he doesn't work for free Peter."

"Oh come on, doesn't he owe you a favor?"

"I'll see what I can do. We can meet in my office in...let's say an hour?!"

"An hour is great - thanks Frank, see you then."

"Bye."

After meeting at the police station and handing over the tape, Peter continued on to his own office in order to complete several hours of paperwork he needed to catch up on. There were a number of forms and documents he had to fill out so that he would be able to continue with his work on this case and not neglect one of the other ones which also were a part of his duties. Granted they weren't as serious as this one, but it was still his job and he always tried to give his best for the kids he took care of.

There was only one problem; no matter how much he tried to focus on his work, he couldn't get Michael out of his head. There was something about him, something that he couldn't explain.


At 2pm Peter left the office to pick up his son at school. Matthew had a computer class in the afternoon and therefore had to stay longer than Ethan.

The boy opened the door of the car, threw his backpack on the floor in front of his seat and jumped in.

"Hey buddy, how was school?"

"Good."

A moment of silence.

"Okay, and why was it good?"

"No reason."

"Did anything happen today?"

"No."

"Are you hungry?"

"No."

"What's wrong with you? You got something on your mind?"

"No, it's nothing!"

It was an awkward situation. His son was very silent, the complete opposite from the norm - something was in the air, but Peter didn't know what.

While they drove home, Ethan stared out of the side window and didn't say a word, neither did his father. He again was thinking of Michael.

Once back home Ethan dropped his backpack in the corner next to the stairs and walked upstairs. He seemed to be sad or angry or a mix of both. Peter felt the need to do something about it - it was an unacceptable situation for him since they only had each other for part of the day and he couldn't stand any conflict between the two of them.

"ETHAN? Can you please come down?!"

"Why?"

"I wanna talk to you, please!"

"Okay."

Both sat down on the couch in the living room which was lit by the sun. It was warm in the house - not too warm, just alright. Ethan wore only a pair of shorts and no shirt; an adorable look. He sat there with arms crossed and looked a bit bored.

"So what do you wanna talk about?"

"Ethan, I'm here for you always and you know that. Something happened today, I can read it in your eyes. What's wrong? Did somebody bully you at school?"

"NO, of course not."

"So what is it? Please Ethan, talk to me!"

Peter gave his boy some time to think about it and to find the right words while he came closer and gently stroked the boy's bare knees and his muscular calves.

"Who was the boy in your bed?" He finally asked.

"What? When did you see us?"

"I needed to get my backpack before we drove to school and I wanted to say good bye to you, and....."

"You found me in bed with a strange boy."

"Yeah. Dad, who is he and what was he doing in your bed?"

"Okay, now I understand. Ethan, he's the boy I told you about - the case I'm working on."

"But what was he doing in your bed? I'm supposed to be there with you, not him."

"I know and I'm sorry you found us like that. He got scared during the night and climbed into bed with me while I was asleep."

"And you let him sleep there with you? I mean, he had his arms around you."

"He's a frightened boy who has had some really horrible experience recently and I didn't notice him crawling into my bed, I swear. Besides, it means nothing. You are my son Ethan, and I love you more than anything in the world."

"It didn't look like that to me."

No matter how much Peter wanted, he couldn't find the right words to explain what he felt.

"Come here son, please!"

At that moment Peter's cell phone rang. He so much wanted to show Ethan how much he loved him, but needed to answer it in case something important had happened. So he made a gesture towards his boy to hold on for a second.

"Hello?"

"Peter, it's Frank. I just got the tape back from the guy I told you about. He isolated and enhanced a voice from the background, the one Michael reacted to. It's a woman's voice and she's obviously called for someone."

"And? Who did she call?"

"She called a name of a boy."

"God Frank, what name?"

"Darryl or something."

"She called out the name Darryl?"

"I'm not sure. We'll have to watch the video. What do you think?"

"I don't know until we.....listen Frank, it's an inconvenient time now, can you come by later on?"

"Sure, What time?"

"Whenever it suits you."

"Ok, will be there at about 7 or 8pm."

"Thanks Frank, I owe you."

"Yes you do! Bye."

Peter hit the red button on his cell phone and put it on the table, turning back to his son.

"Was that about the boy?" Ethan asked.

"Yeah, I got something that just might help us find out the truth."

"What truth?"

"Where he came from and to whom he belongs. Ethan, this is all very complicated, but please believe me, nobody will ever come between us, no woman and definitely no boy. I love you so much and...."

The cell phone went off again. Peter got angry about the constant interruption from that little electronic helper.

"Damn it, can you all please leave me alone for just a few minutes!" He yelled to himself before he picked up. "BENNET?!"

Ethan got the message and as sensitive as he was at the moment, jumped up from the couch and ran upstairs with a hurt expression on his face.

"Ethan, ETHAN come back...can you hold the line please....ETHAN.....damn it....yeah what is it?"

"It's Mrs. Milligan. Mr Bennet, we have a little problem here with Michael, can you please come by?!"

"What kind of problem?"

"Michael is sitting in the corner of his room and is making grumbling noises. He doesn't respond to any of us and starts to scream when we touch him. We don't know what to do. Please?!"

"Yeah, I....I'll be there as fast as I can."

"Excellent, thanks."

"Bye."

He hung up and nearly threw the cell on the table.

"Great day, fucking great day!.....ETHAN?"

He didn't respond, so the man walked upstairs and knocked on his door. Ethan lay on his bed staring at the ceiling. Peter sat down on the bed next to him and put his hand on the boy's left arm.

"Hey buddy!"

"Hey."

"Listen, I know you're angry with me and you have every right to be. I shouldn't have let the boy sleep in my bed. But I assure you, it meant nothing - you are not being replaced or something."

"You promise?!"

"Cross my heart and hope to die!"

"He will never sleep here again?"

"No he won't. He's with another family now and...well they have problems and I need to get there. Please, I need you to be a strong man now and help me. The boy needs my help. He is feeling very alone right now and he has latched on to me as sort of a lifeline. Please, we need to support him. But that doesn't change anything between us."

"When will you be back?"

"I don't know, probably an hour or two. If you need anything ask Vivian, she'll help you and I'll be back as soon as possible."

"Okay dad."

"Thanks buddy, I love you."

"Love you too."

Ethan has never been a boy who remained angry with someone for very long - he was very forgiving, just like his mother.

They hugged each other both satisfied that they had overcome this little quarrel. Peter kissed his son on the forehead and left in a hurry to help the Milligans with Michael.


"Michael?! Hey buddy it's me, Peter Bennet."

Peter tried to be as careful as possible and sat down next to the boy who at the moment was facing the wall not saying a word. The social worker had been told that Michael had started sitting there right after he had left and didn't talk or move. He seemed to be in a trance or something. The Milligans weren't able to communicate with him and couldn't get him to sit down at the table. They felt inadequate to the situation. Now it was Peter's job to try to get through to the young lad.

"Hey Michael! I'm sorry that I had to leave you here. I told you about my son Ethan, right? He's about the same age as you and is also frightened at the moment that he might loose me. Just as you are. I know you are scared, but believe me, you're not losing me. I'll be here for you, whenever you need me."

The man gave the boy some time to respond before he continued.

"But I have to take care of my own life too. As much as I work on your case, I have to protect my son and he wouldn't understand it, if you came to live with us, just like that. Therefore I need you to be strong and to bear with the situation - only for as long as it takes us to find out where you came from.....if you could only tell us...."

Michael raised his head and with his piercing hazelnut colored eyes looked towards Peter. They were so full of hope, full of anxiety and full of longing for warmth and affection. He didn't want to stay here and without saying a word begged for Peter to take him home to stay with them.

After he sent this message through his eyes, he jumped up and threw himself into Peter's arms grabbing him as tight as possible, as if he never wanted to let him go again.

"Oh Michael.....guess we have a problem here."

Peter tenderly stroked through the boy's hair while his thoughts raced all around for other possibilities; about the promise he had given his son that he won't be staying with them, and about his duty to keep his distance from the kids he takes custody of and finally about what was best for Michael and his own son.

He felt hopeless about making the right decision - but was warmly touched by the boy's affection. This was Peter's weak spot. Since his wife's death he was unable to let kids suffer from anything - they all suffered enough from what they experienced. Perhaps he wasn't cut out for this job, but perhaps he was perfectly made for it - again not an answer to the current problem.

"Michael? Would you please let me go for a minute?"

No reaction - the boy still clung to him and wouldn't let him go.

"Oh man, I'm going to regret this" He thought to himself and continued aloud. "I promise to not leave you here alone, but you have to let go off me, so I can stand up!"

Michael backed up and sat down again facing the wall, while his savior talked to the Milligans and told them about his decision to take the boy with him again. It wasn't a big problem for them and they offered to be available whenever he needed them, for which Peter was very grateful.

A few moments later they left the house hand in hand, walked towards the good old dependable Chevy and sped off down the road.


It was about 5pm when Peter unlocked the front door of their house and began to search for his son.

"Michael, please sit down on the couch in the living room. I need to talk to my son before anything else. He needs to be ok with this or I'm going to have lots of trouble here. Don't move unless I come back and get you. I won't leave the house, promise."

Michael did as he was told and Peter walked upstairs hoping to find his son in his room. He was lucky - Ethan was sitting on the floor of his room playing a game on his PlayStation.

"Hey buddy, I'm back."

"Hey dad, how did it go?"

"Fine....but I need to talk to you about something important."

"Sure, let me just save the game, ok?!"

"Take your time!"

Both sat down on Ethan's bed. Peter had a serious expression on his face and didn't know where to start. So he grabbed his son and positioned him on his lap wrapping both of his arms around the front of his little beautiful boy's upper body.

"Well, the Milligans, that's the family who was going to take care of Michael, the boy in my case, had problems with him; or rather he with them. Anyway, I've become a person of trust for the boy and he communicates with me. Actually, at the moment I'm the only one who he communicates with."

"Isn't that good?"

"Yeah it is, but on the other hand it isn't. You know, I can't really expect this from you, but I need to ask you nevertheless."

"What can't you expect dad?"

"You remember my promise from earlier?"

"Yeah, I do."

"What if I can't keep it and..." His son jumped up and shook his head in anticipation of his next words. "Wait Ethan, please. I want to ask you, to help me help this poor boy. It's really important. Do you think he can stay here for a few days until we find out what happened to him, and where he belongs?"

"No way dad....sorry, but noooo way!"

"I know it's asking a lot, but....please imagine if it was you. What would you want? What if something happens to me? Would you want to be tossed in some family or would you want to be with someone you know and trust?"

"Dad please, that's not fair. Don't talk like that." Ethan said in a shaky tone of voice and close to tears.

"I know, but.....sorry son, you're right. That wasn't appropriate. Look, I'm just trying to do the best for this kid - as I would do for you. However, you're right. I'll drive him to the children's home."

"You mean, he's here?"

"Yeah, downstairs. I didn't know what else to do with him."

Several seconds passed while Peter stroked his son's hair affectionately, then got up and slowly walked towards the door trying to find a solution for his problem.

"Dad wait!"

"Yeah buddy?"

"He better NOT sleep in your bed!"

"You mean...?"

"Yes, he can stay, but he has to respect my stuff and privacy!"

"Ok, whatever you say!"

"AND, if he sleeps in my room, he uses the guest mattress no matter if I sleep with you or not!"

"Sure!"

Peter's heart filled with pride at the generosity his son exhibited, and how fast he had changed his mind effectively providing him with a good solution to this problem. He really was proud of Ethan and showed it by kissing his soft lips, forgetting that he shouldn't do that anymore.

"DAA-AAD!"

"Yeah?"

"No kissing anymore!"

"Ethan, you are wonderful; that's the right decision. I'm very proud of you. I'll go downstairs and tell our guest. You wanna come and maybe get to know him?!"

"I guess we don't have to rush it, right?"

"Right, thanks buddy, I love you...and sorry about the kissing."

"Ok, love you too - and dad?"

"Yes?"

"If I had asked for ten bucks, would you...?"

"Yeah, I would have given you a hundred!"

"Damn...I knew it." The boy said with a smile on his face and shook his head in disbelief.

Both laughed to this statement. Peter walked downstairs and told Michael about it.

Moments later, a thankful Michael was hugging him fiercely thought there were still no words spoken. But in his way he was communicating and that was getting better, day by day.

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