by Ivor Slipper

Chapter 7

Mr C grabbed my arm. "Get in the car, Adam. We'll drive around a bit and see if we can find him. Perhaps he's met a friend and lost track of the time."

I didn't think that very likely, but I wasn't going to disagree.

As I walked with Mr C to get into his BMW the stupidity of the last sentence I'd uttered hit me and I felt shivers of fear gripping me. Mr C wouldn't be here if Troy hadn't arrived and if Troy hadn't arrived that meant something had happened to him. Had he had an accident and been hit by a car I wondered? Then perhaps an even worse thought entered my mind – had he run into Mike Daubney and his pals? I could feel tears starting to form at the idea while a feeling of sickness grew in my stomach.

We drove back along the obvious route and didn't see any sign of him before going on a short tour along possible alternatives. It was possible he'd have gone back using one of the alleys or short cuts we sometimes used so I suggested to Mr C that he drive back to the park and I'd then walk home using those. He wasn't keen on me doing that so we just drive back to the house.

Once there I had to be introduced to Troy's gran and my presence explained. Mrs C did that by introducing me as a boy they had agreed to temporarily foster while managing to avoid explaining the reasons for that. It was neatly done, but I did think it was a pity she hadn't thought of that explanation earlier because if she had, Troy and I could have come back from the park together. By now I was convinced something had happened to him and I just wished whatever it was had happened to both of us.

We sat in the kitchen, the adults nursing cups of coffee while I had a soda. Nobody was saying much, we were all lost in our own thoughts. Gran did ask me a few questions, but I'm afraid my answers to her were fairly short. I knew she was only trying to make conversation, but I didn't want to talk. I think about half an hour must have elapsed and Troy's parents had just about reached the decision that they should call either the local hospital or the police, or both, when the doorbell rang. Everyone jumped and I saw a flash of fear pass across Mrs C's face as it did. We all knew it wasn't Troy and while it might be a down-on-his-luck door to door salesman working on a Sunday afternoon, that really didn't seem at all likely.

Both Mr & Mrs C got up and walked towards the front door. I also stood up and moved to a position where I could see outside the door when it was opened. As Mr C pulled the door open I could see the blue cap and jacket of a policeman. I heard him ask if they were Mr. & Mrs. Connelly and once that was established he asked if he and his partner, who turned out to be female, could come in.

Troy's folks led them to the family room and both Gran and I followed along. I guess the cops thought it was strange that I was going to be sitting in and the first thing the male one, who announced himself as Officer Perkins, asked was whether I was their son. It was explained that I was his best friend at which I noticed out of the corner of my eye, Gran do a double take. I'd suddenly changed from a temporary foster kid to a best friend, so it was hardly surprising she should wonder what was going on. The cop then asked if their son was named Troy and if they knew where he was. Mrs C had started to cry as those questions were asked. Mr C hugged her from one side while Gran moved over to sit on her other side and hold her hand. Once Mr C had confirmed that Troy was indeed their son and they had been trying to find him for the last hour or so, Office Perkins said to his partner "We're at the right house then" before turning to Troy's parents.

"Your son is at the hospital." he said.

Before he could say any more Mrs C started crying, so he raised his hand and continued.

"He was taken into the ER about an hour ago. He'd been beaten up quite badly, but his injuries aren't life threatening. He may even be out of the ER by now."

I was consumed by a feeling I'd never before experienced. I'd thought I hated my Pa for what he did to me, but the feeling I had for him was as nothing to what I felt for those who'd beaten up my Troy. I was sure I knew who had done it; if not all of those involved at least the ringleader and a couple of his accomplices. I vowed that somehow or other there would be payback. I was so lost in my thought of revenge that I lost track of the conversation for a couple of minutes until everyone stood up and Mrs C asked if I wanted to come to the hospital with them. There was a definite look of puzzlement on Gran's face when that question was asked and I was sure further explanations of my relationship with Troy would soon have to be provided.

We all put on our coats, or in my case a hoodie, and went out to the SUV. Mr C drove and we followed the patrol car to the hospital. There we were directed to a waiting area and stood around for some minutes until a lady in a white coat emerged from behind a set of doors. Having ascertained who we were she explained that Troy was about to be moved from the ER to an observation ward and that his parents would be able to see him shortly. She said that he'd been quite badly attacked but that apart from a couple of fingers on his left hand nothing seemed to be broken. However, because he had sustained some injuries to his head, they wanted to keep him overnight in case of concussion.

Both Mrs C and Troy's gran were tearing up as the details of Troy's injuries were disclosed while Mr C was trying to console his wife. As for me, I was sort of numb, but still angry numb if that made sense. I wanted to get Mike Daubney down a dark alley and beat the crap out of him for I was sure it was him who'd done this. The fact that he would probably beat the crap outta me didn't occur to me.

The doctor went away and we sat waiting for what seemed like ages but probably wasn't more than ten minutes before a nurse came and asked Mr & Mrs Connelly to follow her and they could see Troy for a few minutes. When they'd gone I went and took a seat next to the female officer who I now knew to be Officer Rudigger and asked the question that for some reason nobody had appeared to ask, at least not while I'd been listening.

"Officer, where was Troy found?"

She looked at me and smiled. "You're a good friend of Troy, aren't you?"

"A very good friend." I responded, hoping she'd pick up on the significance of the emphasis and not be a gay hater. By the way she smiled as she went to answer my question I could tell she had picked up and that she wasn't a hater. She put one hand on mine as she told me where he'd been found. It was a little lane that we sometimes used as a short cut on the way to, or from, the park. It sort of ran alongside a small piece of scrubby woodland that gave way to some fields. Normally it wasn't used much except by people who were out walking their dogs and it turned out it was the appearance of such a person, accompanied by a large German Shepherd, that had caused Troy's attackers to turn tail and flee the scene thus saving him from an even more severe beating. The dog walker had a cell with him and he'd called for an ambulance and they in turn had notified the police.

I asked her if they'd spoken to the dog walker and if he'd been able to identify Troy's attackers. She told me they had spoken to him but all he'd been able to say was that he'd seen three or four people, probably young, dressed in grey or black hoodies, blue jeans and sneakers. He had said they seemed well built and fairly tall, but as Officer Rudigger pointed out, that description fitted a lot of people. She added that they were hoping to be able to see Troy and find out if he could actually identify his attackers.

Well, I was darn certain I knew who the attackers were and Troy could probably name them, but would that do any good I wondered? Unless there was some physical evidence it would probably end up being his word against theirs.

Just then Troy's parents emerged. The officers stood up and were about to ask if they could go and see Troy, but Mrs C spoke before they could.

"Adam, Troy wants to see you. I warn you, he's a mess to look at and he's quite well drugged so he isn't making much sense, but he kept signing 'A' which I'm sure is you. Go and see him, but don't stay long."

Turning to the officers she said, "We did ask him if he knew who'd attacked him but he just managed to shake his head to indicate he didn't. I honestly think if you want to ask him questions you'll need to come back tomorrow by which time he should be able to talk. The doctor has said he needs to rest. Once he's seen Adam I'm going back in to spend the night either with him or at least here."

Mrs C told me where to go to find the room where Troy was. He'd actually been given a room to himself it turned out. When I entered he seemed to be asleep and I got fairly close to the bed before his eyes half opened – well one of them half opened, the other was covered with a bandage. He had a splint on a couple of the fingers on his right hand and another bandage round his forehead and his mouth and lips were bruised. He had a drip going into that arm and there appeared to be a tube coming from below his middle which went into a container on the floor. He sure looked a mess.

I went up to the side of the bed where his left hand was and took it in mine. Troy tried to smile as I did so, but it was more of a grimace accompanied by a groan. I was trying not to but I could feel tears running down my face. I was so angry.

"Was it them?" I asked. I thought I saw a slight nod, but I couldn't be sure. I felt him pulling my hand and it occurred to me that he wanted me to come close. I leaned forward bringing my face close to his. I heard him say two words, but they were two words that didn't make any sense as they sounded like 'Poem bish'. I had no idea what they could mean. I moved my head to find a part of his cheek that wasn't bruised and planted a kiss on it; he tightened his grip on my hand in acknowledgement.

A nurse came in and told me it was time to go, so I released Troy's hand and went back to join the others. When I got there first Mrs C and then Gran pulled me into a hug. Gran said "They've told me Adam. I'm a bit old fashioned in my views, but not totally so. He's going to be alright – and so are you." I was astonished that she seemed so accepting of us.

It was decided that Mr C would take me and Gran back to the house as Mrs C was going to stay at the hospital. When we got to the house Gran offered to stay and cook a meal for us, but Mr C told her we'd manage and that she ought to be getting home, promising to keep her informed of any developments. After she'd gone he asked me if I'd like a pizza which seemed like a good idea so I agreed and he placed the order. While we were waiting for it to arrive he called Tom, Troy's sort of foster brother, to let him know what had happened. From what I could overhear of the conversation Tom wanted to drive down to see Troy but Mr C told him there was nothing to be achieved by doing so and that he could well be home tomorrow, if all went well overnight, but that it would be a good few days before he was anywhere near back to normal. I thought that Tom's offer showed how what a great relationship he and Troy had with each other.

Shortly after that the doorbell rang, but this time it was just the pizza delivery. Mr C and I both did our best to eat some, but it was apparent neither of us was really in the mood for food. We cleared the table and went into the family room to watch some TV. Neither of us was in the right frame of mind for that either, but I reckoned we didn't want to be alone and the combination of being together and having something to watch served to keep our minds off other things.

It got to about 10pm and I decided to go up to my room and turn in. When I got there I just sat on my bed and all these dark thoughts started to swirl around in my head. Finally they all came together and I knew what I had to do. I went into Troy's room, something I would never normally do if he wasn't in it, and found his large backpack. I carried it back to my room stood it on the bed and then placed my own alongside it. I'd thought earlier about getting Mike Daubney down a dark alley and beating the crap out of him – how stupid was that! In any such encounter there'd only be one winner and it wouldn't be me. I was useless. What had I ever brought Troy except trouble and pain? I was weak and pathetic, why I couldn't even take a whipping from my Pa without crying my eyes out and then running away instead of staying and facing the consequences of being a faggot. I should never have called Troy that day, but just left – he'd have avoided all this misery and injury I'd brought on him.

I needed two backpacks now because of all the new clothes I'd been buying. At least I might look a little better wearing them when I was looking for someone who wanted a kid to suck their dick, although I knew they wouldn't look good for long. With my clothes and laptop packed I couldn't resist going back into Troy's room again and taking a little framed photo of him at a swim meet, clad in a speedo.

I hefted his pack over my shoulders and carrying my own in one hand, I opened the bedroom door. All seemed quiet and I guessed Mr C was either still watching TV or had gone to bed. I decided to go out the rear door which meant going through the kitchen, which as I expected was all dark. I had just put my hand on the handle of the door when a voice behind me caused me to almost jump out of my skin.

"Where the hell do you think you're going at this time of night, Adam? It's after midnight for goodness sake."

I heard Mr C get up from the chair in which he was sitting and walk over to switch on a light. Both our eyes took a second or two to adjust and then he spoke again. "And why have you got two backpacks?"

I turned and faced him. "I'm leaving Mr C. I'm no good – bad news. I should never have come here, never got involved with Troy…."

He cut me off with a shout. "Don't talk such fucking nonsense Adam."

I'd never heard him swear and it came as a shock.

"Take Troy's off, put yours down and then come and sit down. We need to talk. Do you want a cup of coffee or chocolate, or something cold? Are you happy to talk here or should we go somewhere more comfortable?"

I did as I was told with the backpacks. Decided that a cup of hot chocolate would be a nice idea as I hadn't had one in ages; told him so and walked across the room to pull out a chair to sit at the kitchen table. Mr C busied himself making my chocolate and another coffee for himself while I sat there with my head in my hands.

Suddenly my emotions got the better of me and I started to cry, softly at first and then increasing in volume. Next thing I knew Mr C had lifted me from my chair and was hugging me and making soothing noises. Slowly my crying stopped. Mr C found a box of tissues so I could blow my nose and clean up the snot and tears that were on my face. When I'd got myself under control I sat down again. He sat down beside me, put one arm round my shoulder and took one of my hands in his.

"So what has brought on all this nonsense, Adam?"

"Not fuckin' nonsense now?"

He chuckled. "Don't you ever tell Alicia I used that word – let it be our little secret."

I managed to muster a small grin. "I can blackmail you."

"I'll take that chance Adam. But what's caused you to do this. I'm thinking that if I hadn't been in the kitchen, you'd have run off somewhere. Why would you want to do that?"

I tried to gather my thoughts before I started to speak. "Like I said, I'm bad news. Since I've been here Troy's got beaten up twice; that wouldn't have happened if I wasn't around. He'll be better off without me. I've always been pretty useless, except perhaps in a classroom. I don't matter – what matters is Troy."

He turned my head so I was looking directly at him before he spoke

"And just there you have said four very important words Adam, but while you are right, you are also wrong."

I frowned and looked puzzled; I didn't understand what he meant.

"What matters is Troy, you just said. It does, and I can tell you that Troy would be totally devastated if you disappeared or anything happened to you, especially right now. We suspected a few years back that he was gay. Initially we were a bit disappointed as that ruled out the likelihood of grandchildren, but then we reasoned that he had been an unexpected gift anyway on which basis we had never been likely to have them anyway.

"He's a good looking boy and ought to have been attractive to girls, but he never showed any interest. He'd known Mike since elementary school and they'd always been close. After puberty struck we guessed they were doing things together and we were quite happy about that. The relationship ended suddenly though, just after Troy turned thirteen. We had no idea why, but Troy became a different kid and lost interest in many things. Finally we sat him down and had a long talk one evening. We told him we thought he might be gay and we didn't mind in the least if he was. He was amazed on both counts and was brave enough to tell us that he'd broken off the relationship because Mike wanted him to do things he didn't want to or feel he was ready for."

"Yeah, he told me about Mike. I hate his guts."

"But then you came along, Adam. I'll admit when I first saw you I was worried because of how you looked and the clothes you wore. You just didn't seem like the right sort of boy for our son. I wondered what he was doing."

"So did I Mr C when he first asked me to do that project with him."

"But Troy saw beneath the exterior, beneath what others saw. He saw, perhaps only a glimpse at first, of the real you that was there waiting; waiting for someone to spark it into life. After he split with Mike he might have given the impression at school that he was still the same happy boy, but he wasn't. He'd been hurt; he was lost and seeking something. In you he's found that something."

I was shocked to hear all this. It didn't make sense and I found it hard to believe.

Mr C paused for a minute to gather his thought before he continued. "The other thing to be clear about Adam is that this would have happened whoever Troy had developed a relationship with. Don't get me wrong, both Alicia and I are very glad it is you Troy loves – and yes, I do mean 'loves', but Daubney would have reacted the same due to his jealousy. I strongly suspect he is gay himself but daren't openly admit it for fear of losing his jock friends, so has decided to go in the other direction to prove to them he isn't one."

Slowly I was beginning to see the sense of what Mr C was saying. Maybe I had got it all wrong and the thing to do was 'stand by my man' as it said in that old song.

"It's late Adam. You're tired, I'm tired. Why don't we both turn in and try to get some sleep? Do you want me to call the school in the morning and let them know you're sick?"

I thought about it briefly. "No, I'll go in. If I stay here I'll only worry about Troy all the time so I might as well be there."

"So you're staying then?" said Mr C with a chuckle.

"Yeah, I guess. It's a bit late to hit the road anyway." He chuckled again.

We both pushed back our chairs and stood up.

"You may be almost sixteen, Adam, but if I ever catch you pulling this running away stunt again, I swear I'll put you over my knee and spank your butt."

I laughed. I knew he was joking – or at least I think he was.

"And if ever you do, I'll push my jeans down so you can do it properly!"

He pulled me to him and we hugged again. He gave my butt a swat saying "I mean it you know."

We stepped apart and I went across the room to pick up the backpacks. Mr C took one from me.

"I've got to leave early in the morning for work so I can't give you a lift to school, Are you going to take the bus or walk?"

"The bus takes forever Troy's told me. Reckon I'll take my bike, and then if I need to I can get here or to the hospital."

With that we went upstairs. I couldn't summon the energy to unpack and just took off my clothes and crawled into bed. I thought I'd have trouble going to sleep worrying about Troy but the next thing I knew Mr C was shaking me awake telling me it was time to get up if I wanted to get to school in time. I dragged myself out of bed, did the usual things in the bathroom and then found some clothes out of my backpack. It looked cold outside so it was blue skinnies, red polo shirt, blue sweatshirt over that and my grey hoodie, all with black Converse. Breakfast without Mrs C to do the cooking was a bowl of cereal followed by some toast with peanut butter and jelly. Before leaving I called Mrs C on her cell for an update about Troy. She told me he had slept a bit, but was pretty uncomfortable still. The doctor was due to see him later in the morning and she hoped he might agree Troy could come home later in the day. It seemed to depend on his kidney function.

Having made sure I'd got my cell with me, I left the house double checking all the doors were locked, got a bike from the garage and pedalled off to school. It was quickly apparent that news of the attack on Troy had got round as I had to answer lots of questions from concerned friends. I nearly threw up when Mike Daubney approached me to enquire how Troy was and what exactly had happened to him. 'How two faced can you get' was what I said to myself as I clenched my fists to try and control my feelings as he stood in front of me. Afterwards I could see why he'd done it – very cute to appear unknowing and concerned, and of course there was no proof he'd been involved.

I sat through Homeroom more or less in a daze, only remembering to answer my name when it was called for the second time. With nothing much else to think about, other than Troy, I was still trying to make sense of those two words he'd whispered to me last night. 'Poem bish' must mean something, but what? I'd obviously not heard them correctly, but what words could they be?

It was part way through the first lesson of the day – English Literature – that the penny started to drop. Could the second word have been 'Bush' I wondered? But we didn't know anyone called Bush, other than George W, and Troy was scarcely likely to ask me to contact him. Eventually the eureka moment came and I almost jumped out of my chair when it did. I managed to keep calm until the end of the lesson and then dashed out into the hall to call Mrs C on my cell. When she answered, after asking how Troy was now, I then asked, "Does he have his cell with him?"

"No, he doesn't. The police think whoever attacked him must have stolen it and perhaps that was why he was attacked."

I knew that almost certainly that wasn't the reason for the attack, but this wasn't the time to debate that with her. My thinking was confirmed when I went on to ask if he still had his wallet.

"Yes," she answered. "That was how they were able to identify him."

Yep, so if it had just been a robbery they'd have also taken his wallet. But what if those two words had been 'Phone' and 'Bush'? Perhaps somehow Troy had been able to take a picture or two before he was attacked and then had the presence of mind to throw his cell into the bushes alongside the track? In which case it might still be there waiting to be found.

I ended the call with Mrs C and headed off to collect my bike. I was about to do something I'd never done before, skip school, but I didn't care – I simply had to go and find out if my idea was right. I pedalled out of the school gates and headed for the track. The place where the attack had taken place was easy enough to spot as most of the track there was blocked off with crime scene tape, leaving just a narrow portion for people to walk on. There was nobody around, so I got off my bike and laid it down on the edge of the track next to the taped off area. It occurred to me that the police might already have searched in the bushes and long grass, but if they had they couldn't have found anything was my logic. I also thought Daubney and his pals hadn't been here looking, as apart from the immediate area outside of the tape the grass and bushes didn't look to have been trodden down.

I had decided that if Troy had taken any pictures it would be logical for him to have been standing where they caught him rather than take them elsewhere and then run here. It still though left a large area of possibility depending on which direction he'd thrown and how strongly. But there was no point in standing around, I just had to go look. I found myself a sturdy piece of branch and started to poke and prod around. After about fifteen minutes all I'd succeeded in doing was falling over a couple of times and getting my jeans and hoodie filthy. I'd also got a tear in the knee of my skinnies which although fashionable meant that I wouldn't be able to wear them to school again – only seniors were allowed that privilege. When I managed to rip the arm of my hoodie I swore loudly, stood up once more and walked back to the path for a breather. Finally a thought occurred to me. I went over to my backpack which I'd left by my bike, pulled from it my cell and dialled Troy's number! Almost instantly I could hear it ring. The sound was coming from an area that was quite close to where I'd been searching, but one I'd considered less likely. Guided now by the ring I forced my way into the undergrowth again and after falling over once more I stumbled on it.

Picking it up I made my way back to the track, took a deep breath or two to try and calm myself, and then turned on the phone to check for pictures. The phone Troy had given me a while ago was only an old basic model which didn't have a camera, but he'd shown me how to take and display pics on his so I knew what to do. Even so my fingers were shaking a bit as I started to press buttons because I certainly didn't want to accidentally erase any. It did cross my mind that if there were any pics the police might say I shouldn't have handled the phone because of possible fingerprints. I dismissed that thought virtually as soon as it arrived on the basis that if whoever had attacked Troy had handled the phone they'd have made sure it wasn't left lying around to be found later.

So now came the moment of truth as the last picture Troy had taken appeared on screen.

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