The Bully and the Bullied

by Sean English

Part 11

The Fragility of Life

As he returned to the van, Austin was perplexed. The teen he thought he saw had indeed been Jeremy Riddle - THE Jeremy Riddle. The friend Austin had hung with for the better part of their lives since grade school. At first, he had been ignored, but Austin thought that of no consequence. Perhaps he hadn't been recognized in the busy exchange, or some other reason. He hurriedly moved, though, covering the distance between them quickly, only to find his friend had suddenly disappeared. After glancing about, Austin became confused, thinking maybe he had been mistaken. He was about to give up, when a set of hands grabbed him from behind and pulled him down between two rather large vehicles. Turning, he found the familiar figure motioning to him for silence, so he complied.

More disturbing, however, was the cryptic message Jeremy delivered afterwards. "Listen, I don't have any time to explain, okay? I know, you're wondering what the hell is going on, but man, trust me, please? Just go! I promise I'll call you, or something, just as soon as I can." Austin heard the plea and saw the face observing him closely. There was something there that made him understand that something urgent was happening, so - in deference to their friendship - he nodded. As soon as he started leaving, Jeremy quickly rose to his feet and shuffled away out of sight. Austin waited briefly before rising to his feet and walking away. Covering the distance back to the van quickly, he caught up with the rest of the family and climbed in.

Although the family was loaded and waiting for him, upon taking his seat he slowed and paused, staring out the window. Not far from them, he saw a car turn onto the highway, and in it he thought he recognized a nurse and Jeremy, although the latter was hunched down in the back seat. Although he was curious, it wasn't that car which ultimately got his attention. Instead, something else struck him as odd and caused him to stop in mid-step, turn and stare out of the window. An old, weathered pickup truck, one which had clearly seen better days, pulled quickly from the lot onto the highway, turning in the same direction. 'Where have I seen that truck before?' Austin pondered, before it suddenly dawned on him. Stretching his neck, he looked after the truck as it roared down the highway. When it passed beneath a street light, he discerned a man to be behind the wheel - a man he had met few times, but had nevertheless recognized.

Rushing forward, Austin leaped between the two front seats and quickly addressed his father. "Dad - look! See that truck?" The elder Mathews, surprised, turned in the direction his son was pointing. The vehicle had accelerated by now and was almost beyond sight. "Dad, go! We need to follow it! Please!"

There was a sense of urgency in the voice, enough so that the man suppressed the retort he almost voiced, and instead quickly began easing the vehicle out to the highway. "What's going on? Who is that?"

"Dad... just hurry, don't lose him! You remember Jeremy Riddle, right?"

The elder man pondered as he began accelerating. "Isn't that the boy who got hurt and was in the hospital, the one you were telling us about?"

"Yeah, that's him. Uh, turn here, Dad, onto the bypass!" As the man complied, Austin continued. "Remember what I told you, about what happened to him? You know, about his Dad?"

The man furrowed his brow before nodding. "You said someone worked him over really badly in the, uh, hind quarters. Tore him up, damaged his guts and beat him pretty badly, if I recall. Didn't they start a massive search for his father or something?"

Austin nodded. "Yeah. As far as I know, the police are still searching for him. That's just it though, Dad. Listen, that guy I went running off to back there? It was Jeremy, but he was acting really funny. When I reached him, he shushed me away and said he would call me later. Didn't even let me get a word in or anything, just kind of pushed me away and disappeared. He looked all panicked and weird and everything." He paused, then pointed ahead. "Then as I was getting in the van, I saw a car leave that I thought I saw him in, but I wasn't sure - until I saw THAT truck pull out, too."

Austin's father looked confused. "I'm sorry son, but I'm not following you..."

"Dad, I used to go to Jeremy's house, remember? You even picked me up there once. Well, that woman – I think she's the mother of one of those kids you met that day, down in the emergency room. I thought I saw him riding in the back seat with her." When he saw the continued puzzlement, he rolled his eyes. "That truck, Dad - I saw it pull out and follow them! That truck, it looked like -"

"The one Jeremy's father used to drive," the elder Mathews filled in, finally connecting the dots. He accelerated even faster now, searching for the vehicle. "Where do you think they would go?"

"Well, the turn off for that lady's house isn't far ahead, so if they were heading home, they might be going there…" Austin's voice trailed off. His father suddenly nodded. In the time required to provide the given explanation, a good minute had elapsed, and their quarry was nowhere in sight. As they worked their way rapidly through traffic, Austin found himself getting excited, yet at the same time anxious, hoping he was wrong.

Kevin, who had sat quietly this whole time, peered around his brother. "Do you really think it was him? Was he following them?"

"I don't know Kev, I don't know - but if it was, it couldn't have been a good thing, you know?" Austin replied, concentrating on the vehicles ahead. "And the way Jeremy was acting a while ago, well…"

"If it was, and you're right, then yes – that boy may be in a heap of trouble," the elder Mathews interjected.

Mrs. Mathews suddenly spoke quietly to her husband. "Dear, do you think we should really be getting involved?"

The elder Mathews nodded. "I thought about that, but I think in this case we have to, honey. I heard some of the guys down at the construction site, talking about this just last week. The man damn near killed the kid, and in ways you don't want me to have to describe - especially in front of a certain 12-year-old boy in the back seat there."

Kevin scoffed, wedging himself forward. "I'm old enough! Besides, I already know what happened!" he retorted, causing his mother to look back and glare at him. He withered under her gaze, slipping back into his seat, defeated. "Well, I do!" he added meekly, but knew the we'll-talk-about-this-later look when he saw it. Even Austin looked down at his little bro and winked, knowing full well that Kevin was as well versed as any of them about such things. Austin made a note to himself, to try and intervene later if he could, before returning his gaze anxiously toward their search.

"Is that it"? Mr. Mathews asked, as he suddenly began slowing down and easing them back into the normal flow of traffic.

Austin squinted in the dimming light before becoming excited. "Yeah, I think it is Dad!" He leaned closer, and then began emphatically nodding. "It's him, I'm certain of it!"

"I believe you could be right, son." He reached down and switched on a radio at his feet, pulling an attached microphone from the floorboard. Giving the unit a few seconds to warm up, he then depressed the button. "This is Kroger-One on broadcast one-seven, is there anyone out there? Please respond."

After a pause, the man keyed the mic and repeated the request. Within seconds, they all heard a response from the radio's speaker. "Roger Kroger-One, this is Tractor-Five, go ahead."

A grin crossed Mr. Mathews face. "Ed, is that you? Listen, we need some help here if you could."

"Yeah, it's me, what can I do for you? That's you, ain't it, Carl?" Ed replied, his voice with a musical accent.

"Yes, this is Carl Mathews. Listen, we need to get a message to the county sheriff pronto. Are you where you can do that?"

"Hey Carl, long time no talk to! Yeah, I got a phone right here. What's going down?"

"We think we've spotted a man on their radar, Ed. It's the one who beat the crap out of his kid here a few weeks back, and right now we're following a truck out of town on Highway 42, and we're pretty sure it belongs to him, with the man in it. We're about 2 miles north now, and if I'm guessing right, he'll be turning down Basil Ridge road very shortly. The man's last name is Riddle."

"Shit man, are you talking about the one who messed with and almost killed his kid?" Ed mused, surprised.

"Yes, the same. This one needs to be caught, Ed – badly."

"I'm with you, hold on a minute Carl." Silence fell as they each eagerly awaited the reply. Ahead, they saw the truck ahead began to slow, its brake lights lighting up and turn signal engaged, signaling a forthcoming left turn. Just then, the speaker blared again as Ed returned. "Message delivered to the dispatcher Kroger-One, reply forthcoming. She said they had a car in the area, and would be back to us pronto. Copy?"

"Copy Tractor-Five, we appreciate it. Not sure what we can do, but we're following them ATM," Mr. Mathews replied.

Just then, another voice announced themselves. "Breaker on station, this is ET-Niner on one seven. Can you pick up Kroger-One?"

"ET-Niner, this is Kroger-One, we got you. Go ahead."

"This is ET-Niner, Emergency Transport and Rescue, southbound on 42, now approximately 3 miles from town. Can you provide your current location where we might assist?"

Mr. Mathews began making the turn to follow the truck. "Uh, yeah. To your right southbound, is county road Basil Ridge, which I am turning onto now."

"Roger Kroger One, I think we just saw you turn. We will follow to assist. Deputy Sherriff is also nearby, ETA at 5 minutes." Both Kevin and Austin exchanged glances, and then turned to watch behind them. Within seconds, a large ambulance turned, following them in the distance.

Austin thought of something just then. "Dad, your lights, turn them off!"

"I don't know son, it's pretty dark out here now. I need to be able to see-"

"It's not far now, and there's a road right up there where you turn. Then that's about it. I don't know, their house is maybe a half mile or so out, or something like that." Austin would be the first to admit to anyone he was terrible at judging distances, but right now he was afraid of giving themselves away prematurely. Mr. Mathews looked at his son, then complied. There was just enough light left in the waning darkness the man could make out the road ahead.

Just then, the radio crackled again. "Kroger-One, this is ET-Niner, status update, ETA now 4 minutes on backup. Is subject still in sight?"

Mr. Mathew's turned to Austin, looking grave before replying. "Affirmative ET-Niner, we believe -" He paused, taking a deep breath before continuing. "My son and I believe that the man may be returning either home, or very near there."

- + - + - + - + -

Topping the rise, Jeremy saw - for the first time in his life - the two-story, white clapboard-sided cottage nestled in the alcove below. Unlike what he had been accustomed to over the years, the lawn appeared to be uncluttered and neatly trimmed. The house, although weathered in places, appeared sturdy and serene as they pulled up and stopped. Another vehicle was parked just ahead, indicating they were not alone. There was a quietness about the area, one that instilled a certain level of security not normally found. As Carolyn quickly got out, she moved around and helped him carefully exit the vehicle. Standing and looking, Jeremy quietly thought to himself, 'So, this is must be where they live.'

The teen leaned heavily on her for support, and he stifled a groan as they crossed to the porch and walked up to the front door. The ordeal had left him exhausted for some reason, his excitement and adrenalin spent from the effort of them getting away. Although he had made remarkable progress the last few days, he was still healing internally, and this adventure had left him weary with a return of the soreness inside. On top of it all, having been caught by Austin had contributed even more wear, as Jeremy had needed to squat and move quickly to leave his friend behind. He didn't blame Austin at all, noting that not only had he been changing in recent months, but so had the boy he had known for most of his life. He didn't want to push the teen away, but he had had no real choice. He had needed the stealth of the moment, in more ways than one.

Entering the living room, Jeremy noted with amusement how ordered and uncluttered everything was. No beer cans, papers, boxes, empty food containers - everything was neatly cared for and clean-looking. The walls were bright and adorned with various pictures and fixtures, and though the carpet had seen better days, it was clear of stains or debris. Bright curtains hung from the windows, all lit well by several lamps around the room. He thought to himself that it was cool how everything was organized, yet not so squeaky clean.

Linda appeared in the kitchen doorway and gasped when she saw the two enter. "Carolyn, what- what happened?" she exclaimed, rushing to their side to help. Between them, they maneuvered Jeremy onto the sofa, stretching him out. Michael and Thomas both heard the woman exclaim, and quickly came rushing down the stairway. Turning the corner, they also stopped in their tracks, stunned.

"Mom? What's going on?" Michael asked his mother.

Carolyn shook her head. "Not now, Michael. Go get a throw and pillow off my bed, quickly. Thomas, go around and shut these windows honey, it's getting cool in here right now." Looking up at Linda, she betrayed the concern in her voice. "He needs something to drink, like some juice. You think you could go out back to the freezer, and see if there isn't some frozen concentrate we can mix up?" Linda nodded and was gone in a flash. Carolyn returned her attention to the older teen. His eyes had closed during the exchange, and as she felt both his forehead and his pulse, she noted the teen was breaking into a sweat.

Reaching out, she removed the sandals and covers from his feet that she found for him earlier, tossing the dirtied clothes into an open trash can nearby. Carolyn then massaged his feet and ankles temporarily, causing him to open his eyes and smile weakly up at her. She returned it, asking "How about it, kiddo? How do you feel? Are you going to survive?"

"Oh yeah, I'm okay ma'am, promise. I'm just... really tired right now," he replied, weakly. "And cold."

"That's understandable. I would imagine your body has yet to adjust back to being normal yet, so that whole excursion probably keyed you up. When we get some juice in you, and then some supper afterwards, that'll bring some of your energy back up." Carolyn placed a hand gently on his lower stomach and felt around. Not satisfied, she whispered. "Is it okay if I…" Jeremy nodded, lifting his top up and exposing the skin underneath. Carolyn once again gently massaged and felt around the area. "What about in here? Do you have any discomfort or pain?"

Jeremy grunted and wrinkled his nose. "It - doesn't exactly hurt, just - I don't know. It just aches a lot right now, like it's really sore inside." He looked away embarrassed. "I still can't really sit up and shift a lot of weight there yet, not for very long anyway."

The nurse smiled reassuringly. "You will, I promise." Just then, Michael returned with a pillow and a light blanket, so she began spreading it over the older teen while Michael situated the pillow under Jeremy's head. Jeremy couldn't help but notice Thomas standing nearby, watching them curiously.

Staring into the blank eyes that met his own, it occurred to Jeremy that, if their roles were reversed, he wouldn't be too sure how he felt now either. Thomas had already made several strides in resolving their differences, but for all practical purposes, Jeremy was still himself: Jeremy Riddle, the kid who beat the crap out of him only months before. He tried to smile, tried to make some attempt in good faith on his own. "Hey," he said, again rather weakly.

Thomas tried to return the favor in return. "Hey," he said, but with a neutral voice. Michael had filled him in on the events that day at the hospital, and Thomas had shaken his head in disbelief. The reality was the boy before him had lived in his own personal hell, and it was hard for Thomas to comprehend that. Like Michael, he was equally as disgusted with the idea that the older teen felt it was his punishment, his duty to make amends to his father. No one deserved to go through what the older teen had, no matter who or what they were or had been.

Now as they were practically face-to-face, however, Thomas found his own attitude suddenly in question. Could he have been wrong about this bully? Could it be the bully had really been the bullied instead, creating the persona of the person they had known? Maybe Jeremy did deserve something better, something that would give him a second chance at being a better person. The last few months at school had certainly seen the menace change. Into what, no one knew or understood just yet. Or did they? Thomas realized that, maybe, some did. He glanced nervously at his best friend, who had now joined him at his side, searching for something - anything - to help him decide. Right or wrong, Thomas needed to forgive. Michael seemed to really have an uncanny ability, to see inside someone, and find that one thing they needed most. Thomas thought maybe that empathy was what he should trust in, too, because before him now he could see something in Jeremy's eyes. This was a completely different person now, compared to the one he met that fateful afternoon on the school bus.

Michael smiled in his most smug 'I-told-you-so' look, as if sensing the conflict. Jeremy noted the exchange between them, too, before sighing deeply. Just then, the reappearance of the other woman in the doorway distracted him. Linda stood holding a plastic pitcher in one hand, and a large wooden spoon with the other, constantly turning and working the contents inside. Looking up, Carolyn took a deep breath, and then began explaining the events of the evening as they unfolded to the others. Although she summarized parts in places, it was a fairly-detailed account of what had happened. The three listened intently, spellbound as the tale unfolded.

Carolyn also explained why she had made the drastic decision of removing him from the premises. Noting that things were sometimes not always as they were perceived, she wanted her family to understand her thinking. She had been a past participant when patients were transferred to other facilities, and she knew full well most were done during the very early morning hours. She initially thought it was to take advantage of the reduced activity around the hospital, thus making it less stressful on the patient. However, as Jeremy's story unfolded she began to feel uneasy about that fact, wondering if there might be other motives involved. She recalled hearing about unhappy parents and relatives both, coming in to find their loved ones suddenly whisked away without notice, for reasons unknown. Listening to Jeremy, and thinking back over those incidents, Carolyn was afraid something similar would happen, before she could get the appropriate people involved.

Linda listened quietly in astonishment. As the group fell silent, she mused aloud. "Maybe I should call Fred and give him a heads up," she said, referring to one of the county deputies with whom she worked. Carolyn nodded in agreement as Linda then turned to Thomas. "Go get me a cup, or a glass or something, honey. I think this juice is about ready to serve."

Thomas bolted toward the kitchen, eager to be of help. Upon entering, he crossed to a set of cabinets that held the glassware and china. He started to open the cabinet door, however, when he stopped and noticed a particularly sour odor coming from behind him. Frowning, he wrinkled his nose and turned, then noticed the back door to the porch was ajar. Thinking maybe his mother had left it open by accident, he thought nothing more of it then, turning instead and extracting a glass. After closing the cabinet door, however, he turned and suddenly stopped.

Standing before him holding a gun with its muzzle pointed straight at him, was a disheveled, unshaven old man staring down. Thomas gulped, recognizing the man from the day of the big fight - the only day he could remember having ever seen him before.

The man, holding the gun, was Jeremy Riddle's father.

- + - + - + - + -

Only three days before, the old man had been in a pub in Central City. It was a place so isolated from the rest of the world, you could easily pop in to just simply get away from things. Inside, no one cared where you came from, or what you did for a living. As long as you could pay your bill, and keep the noise to a reasonable level, anyone who wanted to get lost simply could do so. Law enforcement usually avoided the place, as it was small to begin with. Since it was run by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars group, officers tended to not get too involved anyway. Dull colors, Country-Western music, and thick, heavy smoke - all combined to choke one with an abrasive atmosphere. The owner, a retired veteran himself, couldn't care less in general. Provided he could pay the bills, there was little to trouble him while he whittled life away at his own whims.

It was on that night, however, that a keen incident aroused the old man. Jeremy's father was playing poker with some newly made acquaintances, people he had not seen around before. He was having a reasonably good night thus far - earning several dollars in a relatively short period of time. It always pleased him when he was on a roll, because the more he collected, the more bottles of hard liquor he could get hold of.

At one point, one of the men began talking to his partner. "You heard any more on that man yet? The one the police have been out dragging for all over the countryside, Will?"

"Nah, I haven't, Jesse." Will replied, staring at his hand and searching for some divine guidance about what move to make next.

A third fellow sitting at the table, scratched his head. "What's that all about?"

It was here that Mr. Riddle began paying attention, as Jesse explained. "Well, you know - the one they got the dragnet out on. That man who knocked his kid up real bad, and then left him for dead. Been a few weeks ago now, I think."

"Lordy be! No shit? I hadn't heard anything about that one!" cried the third man.

"Oh yeah, the kid was found in some old abandoned dump, I heard. Near dead for wear, too. Had his ass bludgeoned to crap and his whole private parts beaten to a pulp," Jesse explained.

While the other three talked, the old man's ears keened up with interest, as the third man studied. "When 'bouts was this?"

Jesse turned to his friend. "What do you think, Will? I reckoned two, maybe three weeks ago. That sound right to you?"

Will nodded. "That sounds about it, alright. There was a statewide manhunt for the kid's father, but they never could put together a picture or anything on the man. Way I heard, the kid was too far gone to provide much of a description, either. So, far as I know, he's still out there eluding the authorities and everyone."

Jesse grunted. "Fella down at the stockyards the other day said he heard that kid was still laid up in the hospital, and had been near death more than once, but somehow survived it all."

"You don't say?" Jeremy's father voiced as last, feigning surprise.

"Yep. The kid must have been pretty tough." Will furrowed his brow before releasing a big sigh, shaking his head. "I can't imagine some dipshit doing that to their kid, you know fellows? Every time I think about it, I get this big pit in the bottom of my stomach. It's one thing to abuse a kid, but to do it and practically kill him like that? It's – it's sinfully inexcusable."

Jesse and the third man nodded in agreement, as well as the old man as he played along. There was no question in his mind whom they were talking about now. Although his recollection of the events was hazy, like most things in his life, he sat there and contemplated the news as he took another sip of his beer. He grew restless afterwards, and it turned the tide of his luck. After losing the hand and the next two, he eventually rose from the table and bade the others a good night. Staggering to the bar, he paid his bill, but not before purchasing a rather large bottle of whiskey with what few funds he had left. He then left the pub lost in thought, all the while searching for and finding his truck before climbing inside.

He sat behind the wheel for a long time, going nowhere as he mused over the details. If there had indeed been a manhunt, then he considered himself damn near lucky to have avoided them this long. Not that it surprised him that much - he could barely remember anything in the fog of his memories as it was. Most days he spent walking or driving through the countryside, going from county to county and wandering about. He hated the idea of going back to the house, and everything the place stood for in his life. For him, it was an insufferable memory of the things that once were before the death of his wife, and of the things he was now forced to live with.

That included the boy, a reminder he was never rid of, especially in the way he favored his mother so closely. How she would see him now, he had no doubt. He could imagine the shouts and lectures, the constant nagging he'd receive regarding his now way of life. He winced, the thoughts more potent and painful than ever. Every time he had looked back at the kid, every time he had laid his eyes upon him, it brought back the anguish and suffering, and the reality that the one woman he had ever loved was gone.

"Shit," he swore to himself. He had tried to ignore the boy, tried to imagine he would just go away, but it had never happened. His son had become nothing but a huge nuisance in the old man's life - HIS LIFE! It enraged him to think that, now, everyone was so concerned about the boy's welfare. They pitied the runt surely, but what about HIS welfare? Didn't the old man deserve some semblance of peace as well, to be left alone?

The more he sat and mulled, the more enraged he became. "Now he's done it, gotten the fucking law after me, probably spawned more lies and shit than he can even count." The man couldn't recall the details, it was all such a haze. He knew though, in a sense, what he had done was finally get out of there, leaving that damned kid behind. The old man had lost control, blaming the kid for every little detail that was wrong in his life. He had wanted - no, needed - to make the little shit pay for it. He had tried everything he knew for years to demoralize and berate the kid, and in his eyes, he figured taking him to the lowest level of decent behavior he could think of, would be enough. Incest between a father and a son was about as bitter as it comes. Yet, the old man had found a perverse, bittersweet pleasure in it. He had dominated over the kid, and the kid knew it.

Perhaps now though, it was time to rethink it all. He knew it would only be a matter of days now before he was caught. Once everything became public - and he was sure it would - the man would truly have nothing left to live for. His life was over. All these years, the booze and binge drinking had left him with nothing more than a damnable thirst he could never satisfy. There was no pleasure, no rest, no joy in life at all anymore. Thanks to that damned kid, there was nothing left for him to look forward to. The kid had been a pain in his ass since his first day of birth, and now some 15 years later, he was still a pain!

Sitting there, the old man came to a decision - one he knew would cost him dearly. In his mind, however, he figured if it was going to cost him misery for the rest of his life, then why shouldn't the kid live with it, too? "Why not?" he asked himself. He wondered, why not make the little shit pay, and pay dearly. He had tried to shaft the fucking brat, and demoralize him as low as possible, but had obviously failed.

A failure he would soon rectify.

He started the truck and drove off toward the lake, knowing he could find a decent place to pull off to sleep and clear his head... and to make his plans.

- + - + - + - + -

It had taken almost two days for the old man to make his way back to town, partially because he now traveled by night to avoid attention and make a more discreet return. There in the early morning hours, he parked a couple of miles away and slept until dawn broke the next morning. Then alighting from the vehicle, he worked his way across the fields to his old homestead. When he arrived he found, to his disappointment, new padlocks had been placed upon the doors, but noted with wry amusement the absence of any law enforcement watching the house. He gained entry at his bedroom window, however, shattering the glass and reaching through to the lock. Once inside, he wasted no time looking into various drawers and boxes scattered about the room, until he found a key, which he took to a nearby chest.

Inside he retrieved a lockbox and opened the lid. There, he extracted a handgun and ammunition, tucked away in the bottom. It was the only possession he had left that was truly his, left by his father before him. He grinned wickedly at the thought it would never be passed on to his own son, enough so he laughed out loud. Seeing an abandoned jacket nearby, he grabbed it and then exited the house in the same manner he had entered.

The way he figured it, the boy had to be in the only hospital around, so finding his stakeout took little effort. The older series of buildings were disjointed in an odd configuration, leaving many of the parking lots small and spread across the complex. Along with the various buildings and support structures, he found an easy spot near the entrance where he could park out of sight. His only problem now, he realized, was that he had to wait. He looked at the half-empty bottle of whiskey, and then shook his head. He needed to be sober and keep his wits about him, he told himself, so for the time being, he refrained.

Somewhere, someone would come along and give him what he needed – an opportunity. He had no idea what the security - if any - would be like inside. Nor did he know how long he would be able to loiter there in the lot, though he was decently obscured from view. He would wait until dusk if needed, however, before making his move.

It was a long day, one with reasonable weather for the time of year. The nights were still somewhat cooler, but the daytime temperatures over the last few weeks warmed steadily. In the truck it was hot, however, even with the windows down, and the occasional breeze making its way across the lot. Still, the old man watched, and waited. He grew hungry, but he ignored the sounds his stomach was giving him. He was on a mission, and he wasn't going to squander it. He did finally open the bottle of whiskey a few times, and purposefully took only small sips, since he feared a relapse into something he might regret.

It was toward dusk that evening when, with a start he awoke from an unintentional nap. Looking at the sky, he decided the time was getting near. To hell with opportunities now, he would just get out and enter the place, finding the little fuckers room and finishing it. He stowed the bottle away from sight, and sat up straight, rubbing his eyes and gathering his senses about him. He was about to open the door when he suddenly froze, listening to a voice from just beyond, over near the entrance. "Hey, Jeremy! Over here, it's me, Austin!"

Instantly the man was wide awake. He noted the voice was one that seemed familiar, so he listened intently, trying to catch more of it. Sitting quietly, he gazed at the building only yards away, until his eyes focused on a teenager crossing into the parking lot not far from him. Looking further ahead, his eyes grew wider in astonishment. Not 60-feet away stood the very target he sought to find, dressed rather awkwardly in some foolish hospital garment! He noticed also the boy's effort to hide and melt into his surroundings. Even the teen who approached got pushed away, rather hastily, after a few words were exchanged. "What's this, boy? Are you running away now?" the old man sneered to himself.

He was about to get out of the truck, but then noticed the boy had disappeared again. Glancing around, he suddenly focused on a young woman hurrying through the lot toward them. Somehow, she also seemed familiar to him, but he was at a loss now as to where from. As he watched her reach and enter her car though, he was delighted to see his shitty son enter as well from the opposite side - with her help! "Oh, I see! So, you got some good two-faced bitch helping you now, is it?" He watched as they started the car and made their way through the lot, before turning out onto the highway.

It couldn't have been more perfect! Not only was the boy getting away from such a public location, he was doing it as discretely as possible! The old man quickly started the old truck's engine and began to follow, oblivious to all else around him. To his surprise, they headed back toward the homestead, turning down the road as expected until they reached a long dirt driveway that topped a rise, not unlike his own. Slowing down, he watched them disappear before driving past and then quietly easing off to the side of the road. There he parked and killed the engine and lights, gazing about the countryside. He waited a moment, then exited the old truck and began walking up and across the field. When he topped it, he was able to gaze upon the house nestled below. With an excited anticipation building, he headed toward it. His brat was inside, he knew it! And now, it was time to teach him, teach all of them, the price of messing with the old man.

He found the back door unlocked, so he entered as silently as he could. Crossing the porch, he found another door that opened inside, and pushing through he suddenly arrived in the kitchen. Getting his bearings, he saw a sudden movement in the dim lighting, and watched another young brat retrieve something from one of the cabinets, oblivious to anything around him. That is, until the old man stepped out and forward, with the gun tightly clasped in his hand.

- + - + - + - + -

Thomas stood very, very still. Partially from surprise, but also from fear as he observed the man with the gun. When the man motioned, he slowly stepped backwards toward the living room, dropping the glass he had been holding. The dull thud awakened his senses, however, as he went through the doorway. The old man briefly paused as his eyes adjusted to the change of lighting. Thomas heard his mother grunt. "Where's the glass, son?"

Thomas didn't hear her, however, and instead interrupted. "Uh Mom? Mom…"

Linda looked up then, startled when she first saw the gun, and then Jeremy's father walking through the doorway. She gasped, just as the others in the room fell silent. All eyes fell on the man, realizing simultaneously they were no longer alone. When Jeremy noted the sudden silence, he opened his eyes and sat up partially on the couch, looking back over his shoulder. There he met a set of bloodshot eyes which initially struck fear inside the teen, before turning to anger. "You!" he declared, as the elder Riddle stared down at him.

"Oh yes, you little bastard, me," the old man replied with a smirk, before wiping his brow with the back of his hand. The other hand pointed the gun haphazardly toward the group, never dropping below their line of sight. The man suddenly stared at the group of women and teenagers, nervous and unsure of himself. For an instant, his mind flashed back to an image of his wife, and the young man before him now as a baby - all at a time where they had laughed with a joy and peace that had since evaporated.

He was brought back to reality, however, by a movement when Thomas rushed to stand beside his mother. The nurse, still in uniform, also moved, putting herself between the boy on the sofa and the man in the doorway. "Get out of here!" she cried aloud. "You've done this boy enough damage already, you filthy stinking asshole!"

It was then the old man roared, and a certain wildness returned to his eyes. "Shut up, you bitch? Stand aside!" When she refused, he swung the gun down on her hard, clipping her brow with the muzzle. She shrieked and fell to the floor in a heap. "Mom!" Michael cried out as he rushed to her aide. Linda instinctively grabbed her Thomas, pulling him closer as she intently watched the figure in front of them.

In the interim, Jeremy sat up slowly on the couch, assessing the situation. His eyes narrowed before focusing intently on the other man. The elder Riddle had an empty, passive expression, but there was a semblance of madness behind his eyes that betrayed rage. Though Jeremy had only seen it a few times over the years, it was a look he knew all too well. "Leave them alone," he said, rather stronger than he felt, as he stood up.

The old man returned the boy's glare, before replying in an icy coldness. "Don't worry - it's you I have come for, not your girlfriends..."

When he made no further move, Jeremy began to realize what the man meant. His anger turned to fear, as he watched the gun slowly take aim upon him.

Michael saw the transition between the two, and immediately sensed what was about to happen. The rage and hostility in the old man had culminated to a point of insanity, and the young teenager knew the man intended to pull the trigger. Glancing at Jeremy, he saw an undeniable fear masked in the teenager's expression. Michael couldn't stand the thought the teen was standing there all alone, and it became clear to him finally why he liked Jeremy. Although the bully had made life hell for so many people, and for so long, he was no different than he or Thomas. In his own world, Jeremy was the one being bullied, too - but in his case, he was alone.

At that thought, Michael found a courage to cross the few steps to the couch, and stand between the two just as his mother had tried. "Leave him alone," he replied, his voice deathly quiet. "He's done nothing to you, you creep."

Both Carolyn and Linda gasped, but before either could respond, a pair of arms grabbed Michael from behind and shoved him out of the way toward his mother. Carolyn had already been trying to rise from the floor, but then stumbled as she barely caught her son in time to keep him from falling dangerously. Both fell back to the floor in a tangled heap.

Jeremy now stood face-to-face with his father, with only a few feet now separating them. "This is between you and me, but make sure you go fuck yourself when you're done," he announced quietly. His tone was sure and final, as if he accepted what was about to happen. "And when you make it to prison, I hope there's a whole line of queers and assholes that take you to town, you faggot!" He stood quietly and waited, knowing he had no strength left to fight the man, not without endangering all their lives. No longer would he have to live in fear anymore, though. No longer would he have to be the brunt of the abuse and neglect, and worst of all - the shame. It was all about to be over. In a sense, he accepted his punishment, and the emerging realization left him with a strange feeling. Now having to face down his own father, the man with the gun that had only one purpose at that moment, it left him with a feeling of relief. "Go on," he whispered. "Get it over with."

The old man's eyes became unfocussed as he hesitated, gazing harshly at the boy. He had not expected the teenager to face him so bravely, or so calmly. Glancing around at the other figures in the room, he realized something was not right. These people did seem to care, and that puzzled him. He returned his attention to his son in surprise. His son - the one whom it was his responsibility to care for - not theirs. He had already cared for him, now for over 15 long and insufferable years. Suddenly, he couldn't think, as he asked himself - what was so insufferable? Why did he hate this kid? Was it hatred? It had to be … right?

He staggered back a step. The gun in his hand wavered, but still pointed at the boy's chest. It was ready to fulfill its owner's desire, should that decision be made. But before the old man could pursue that thought any further, there came a sound from the window. A tiny pop, followed by a quick tinkle that gave way, just as a hole opened through the thick glass of the old house. No one noticed the more distinct sound that came from outside, whereas another set of similar noises followed, each distinct.

In the middle of the room, however, there was a change in the old man. He suddenly felt something touch his chest and push him backwards, as if by an invisible force of some sort. When it was followed twice more, he looked down to see three holes suddenly appear in the dirtied shirt he wore. Dirty, but now rapidly changing in color to that of a bright crimson red. The new wells began to swell and expand outward, surprising him as he raised his eyebrows. Realizing now that that invisible force was suddenly very real, he staggered again.

He looked up into the eyes of his son, noting with painstaking accuracy that the teen was just as surprised as himself. The old man's strength suddenly began to seep away, and within seconds he slowly fell to his knees. The gun, once tightly held in his clutches, now dropped to the floor while his other free hand clutched at his chest. As the scene unfolded, everyone in the room was suspended in shock around him. The man then slowly began to slip backwards, leaning heavily against a nearby end table.

Just then, the front door suddenly burst open, followed by one of the sheriff's deputies. Holding an outstretched gun before him, he pointed directly at the old man as he approached. Seeing the fallen gun on the floor, the deputy then relaxed and moved over, kicking it out of the way. Keeping his attention focused on the floor and the figure there, he called out loudly. "Is everyone okay? Is anyone hurt?"

Nobody answered immediately, shock and suspense gripping them. The old man looked up at the young deputy, a blank expression at first, then a look of understanding before a peace crossed over him. His chest, now giving up copious amounts of blood, was a testament that the organs inside were quickly shutting down around the damaged tissue. His last act was to gaze at Jeremy with a surprised calmness. To his son, he uttered the last words he would ever speak in this life. "See? It's … it's finally over, boy. It's finally… over." There was an audible gasp, and then the man became motionless, his hands falling to his sides.

Jeremy was startled, being caught off guard. Perplexed, he watched his father die as two paramedics suddenly appeared and moved to the man's side. His energy suddenly drained, Jeremy dropped to his knees, and would have collapsed completely if it were not for the arms of Michael suddenly grabbing him. Thomas tore away from his mother and joined the two, and both of the younger teens helped the older one up and back onto the sofa. One of the paramedics turned his attention to Jeremy briefly, searching for any signs of obvious injury before finding none.

Carolyn took a deep breath, fighting her own emotions with shaky hands. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she finally rose to her feet and moved over to the boys, hugging each of them tightly as she closed her eyes and silently cried. Michael heard her, and returned her embrace. "It's alright, Mom. We're all okay," he told her. Suddenly, Linda was at their side, joining the brood as the lot looked down at the older boy on the couch. As the paramedic pulled back and looked up, he gave Carolyn a nod, indicating everything was indeed fine for the moment. With that, the woman then knelt and embraced Jeremy as close as she could, holding him dearly as she felt the teen suddenly collapse in her arms.

Jeremy did not cry or make any sounds at first, looking over her shoulder at the still motionless figure on the floor. As they continued to hold each other, that changed as he buried his face into her shoulder. It was several minutes before Carolyn quietly released him. Still in shock, he looked up into the faces of first Thomas and then Michael. Both boys were openly weeping, and for the first time the realization struck home - it really was over now. Just as his father had said with his dying breath, the end had finally come. Jeremy had expected to die, but by some means, he had suddenly been saved. He turned and glanced at the old man lying on the floor across the room yet again. His own tears began to well up, not in pity, but in unfiltered anger. With a tremendous effort, he arose from the sofa over the protests of the others around him, and stumbled across to stare down at his old man. Everyone fell silent and watched him, as he stood over the man momentarily, before bringing his right foot back and launching a kick.

The teen could say nothing, but the emotions raging within him ranged from hatred to sadness, then to anger and pity. Both Michael and Thomas slowly walked up to his side, but stood still as Jeremy struggled, coming to terms with the reality of the moment. His eyes were clouded from the tears that let loose like a storm, as he stood in surprising anguish before turning away. He looked at his friends before grabbing them both into a hug, which they willingly returned.

There were now two paramedics and two deputies in the room, restoring order as best as they could. In the doorway, however, stood another man and his son whom Jeremy recognized immediately. Breaking away, he crossed the short space and embraced his longtime friend, surprising the other profoundly with one of the fiercest, yet sincerest hugs he had ever given anyone. Austin looked on, bewildered at first, but then graciously accepted and returned it.

One deputy looked to the other and whispered, spreading his arms wide. "I have a funny feeling this is going to take a while."

Linda, who was nearby, grunted and replied, more to herself than anyone else. "You got that right."

- + - + - + - + -

*** "In other news tonight, an armed man sought on charges of child molestation and abuse, came face to face with Butler County authorities last night. Police say the man gained unlawful entry to a local area residence and attempted to hold members of that residence hostage. Officials from the scene then reported that an ensuing stand-off occurred, before it ended in tragedy. The intruder, Russell J. Riddle, was shot by county deputies - who arrived on the scene within moments of the altercation. It was reported that Riddle came within seconds of firing at individuals presently in the home." ***

*** "Listeners may recall that Riddle was a fugitive on the run, when it was first reported last month. He was wanted in connection to a variety of charges, including unusual neglect and abuse of children under the age of 18. One teenager was hospitalized with severe and critical injuries following an incident, thus prompting authorities into action. A statewide manhunt was initiated, but then failed to locate the man in the days that followed. Late yesterday, however, Riddle was spotted in Butler County and followed by local citizens. The Butler County Sheriff's Department and Butler County EMS personnel were notified and joined the pursuit, ending in a confrontation at the residence. Butler County officials report that no other injuries were sustained otherwise, and that the victims in the incident are doing well." ***

As the news anchor launched into another story, Michael turned the TV off before reeling himself back into the bed next to his best friend. It was late, following an intense day of activity for the whole family. Both he and Thomas had been taken to the courthouse that morning, to give statements and interviews regarding what happened. It had taken quite a while to iron out the various details, and by the time they were done, both of their mothers agreed there was no advantage in returning to school. It was the last day before spring break, so the upcoming week of vacation was anticipated and welcomed by all. The rest of the day had been spent cleaning the living room, replacing the broken glass, and generally recovering. Although young as they were, both boys were exhausted by evening, and had retired to their bedroom earlier than usual.

As Michael settled in, Thomas rolled over to observe his friend. "Mike?"


"What do you think is going to happen? To Jeremy, I mean?"

Michael paused a moment, looking thoughtful. "I don't know, really. I think we need to go see him tomorrow though, you know? Right now, he's got to be feeling pretty alone and stuff."

"Yeah, I know." Thomas hesitated. "Mike?"

Michael rolled toward his friend. "Yeah?"

"I'm sorry I doubted you. I mean, about him being changed and all. I know it's kind of late, but I wanted to tell you anyway. I mean, Jermz - he seems okay. I guess, if you just learn to push the other stuff aside, he really isn't the same person we knew before. I kind of feel sorry for him, you know? Having to live with that - that..."

"Asshole?" When his friend nodded, Michael continued. "I wasn't so much right bro, he just - I don't know, it just hit me weird, that's all. I'm like you, I never thought I could care for someone like Jermz, but - I guess I just saw a lot of us, a lot of you and me, in him – in a weird way. Does that make any sense?"

Thomas scrunched his nose up. "He's always had people to hang out with though, always-"

"But he didn't, not really," Michael interrupted. "Jermz really had no one to be a real friend, because everyone - us included - were just afraid of him. The ones who did hang out with him, I think did it so they wouldn't get on his shitty side. If he had, then maybe it would have been different for him. As far as I know though, the only real friend he ever had was Austin, but he never trusted him - not like you and I trust each another anyways. Not until last night."

Thomas thought about that before he slowly agreed. "I think I see what you're saying, yeah. I know I avoided him because he was such an asshole, but, yeah..."

Michael nodded. "He was just as much alone as you and me were, except he had it worse." Thinking back, a question hit him. "Thomas, do you think maybe, I don't know, maybe I went too far?"

"How do you mean?" his friend asked.

"Well, I don't know, like - maybe I said too much. Do you think I got closer to him than I should or something? I mean, don't get me wrong bro, you're my best friend. I love you, and you know that by now. I wouldn't ever do anything to hurt that, or us, but..."

When he didn't continue, Thomas replied. "You think you're getting too close to him, is that it?" He giggled. "I don't know, Mike. I mean, damn, you've seen his dick and practically went to bed with hi - UMPH!" The latter was in response to the pillow that suddenly hit him in the face, making him laugh out loud. "Hey!"

Within seconds, Michael was on top of Thomas, pinning him down into the bed. The wide smile on his face, however, betrayed the amusement he felt. Instead of wrestling with his friend though, Thomas decided to just embrace him. "Okay, okay - I surrender!" he declared, snuggling up. Grinning, Michael melted into the teen, staring into Thomas's eyes until his friend wrinkled his nose again. Returning to the seriousness of the moment, Thomas offered his own opinion. "No, you did fine, Mike. Jermz needed someone, just like I did."

"Like we both did, bro" was Michael's whispered reply.

"Yeah, but you found it inside of you to open up to him, when others wouldn't, or couldn't," Thomas intoned.

"You did, too," Michael whispered.

Thomas shrugged. "I don't love him, Mike. Not like I love you at least. I do care about what's happening to him though, I really do."

Michael nodded. "I know you do, Thomas," he whispered. They enjoyed their close quarters for a few moments, wrapped up with each other, before Michael added, "Jermz will never take your place, Thomas. I swear it."

"He better not!" Thomas exclaimed, giggling. "I know he won't Mike. You and me, we have something special."

Michael giggled as well. "Damn right we do!"

- + - + - + - + -

The following morning, several adults were gathered in one of the old, musty rooms of the county courthouse basement, along with Thomas and Michael sitting in the background. Some were annoyed at having to assemble in the dank place, especially given that the weekend had already begun, but they had been subpoenaed by a judicial order. Judge Miller had insisted on it, however, as he sat at the head of the long, polished oak table, and ignored the various glares from the group when they initially entered. There were too many people to fit around the table comfortably, and thus the rest made the best of the situation by filling benches and chairs along the walls with the teenagers. They had already spent the first half-hour, discussing the situation and voicing their concerns – and annoyances.

"Okay, let's try to be civil about this here," the Judge declared, attempting to maintain a semblance of order. To his left sat both Carolyn and Linda, along with Dr. Riddle, and another individual from the hospital administration staff. Both women were clearly agitated at the individual sitting across from them, who was the psychiatrist, who had continually interrupted and sneered at them the entire meeting thus far.

"I don't understand why we're even having this meeting, your honor. Clearly, this woman violated hospital practices, broke a dozen rules that safeguard the integrity of the patient and the staff, abducted-" the psychiatrist ranted, until the judge rapped his gavel.

"I said, THAT'S ENOUGH!" the judge barked. "If you cannot be civil and watch your mouth, I'll order it taped shut, as well as hold you in contempt." When the man glared in return, Judge Miller wagged his finger pointedly. "And don't think I won't do it! Do not, in any way whatsoever, get the idea that you are in charge, or are going to run this meeting. We may not be in court sir, but I sure as hell can make it that way if need be."

The man was in a foul mood but would not let the issue go. "With respect, what I don't understand, your honor, is why these basic facts are even in question. I treated that boy, or rather attempted to do so earlier this week, and-"

"Is that what you call it? Treatment?" Carolyn hissed. Turning to the judge, she addressed him directly. "I'm sorry your honor, but if my kid had to endure the amount of belittling and constant, demoralizing behavior this so-called doctor was dishing out-"

"Calm down, madam, please." The old judge sat back in his chair. When the psychiatrist was about to retort, he held both hands up. "I've told you once, do not test me on this. Please, no more. This is not the time, or the place, for you two to battle this out. I must say doctor, and you know this as well as I, your frequent appearances here as of late have already brought up numerous concerns about your practice. Your so-called motives and objectives are well known in this community now, so I would tread lightly if I were you." He gave the person sitting next to the women a side-long glance. "I assume the hospital's administration will have their hands full."

The psychiatrist's anger deepened. "May I REMIND his honor, that if the patient had not been removed from the facility to begin with, NONE of these events and their subsequent outcome would have occurred to begin with!"

The old judge frowned. "NO, you may NOT remind me of such details in THAT condescending, impertinent tone of yours, sir. I swear on my bible, sir, if you raise your voice to me again, I will order your mouth taped shut! Now, I said, ENOUGH!" The Judge then turned to one of the officers in the room. "Go find Deputy Billings and have him report here with a roll of duct tape." The officer grinned wickedly as he left the room.

Addressing the psychiatrist again, Judge Miller lowered his voice to a more casual tone. "As to these events, I'm not so sure about your conclusions at all. For one thing, I doubt the boy's father was in the hospital parking lot biding his time until his son came out of the door. I believe if things had not transpired as they did, he would probably have gained entry to the hospital, and at that point there is no telling how bad the situation might have become, or the collateral damage we'd have to deal with in its aftermath." He sat back and sighed. "There are plenty of other facts here, that also don't add up to things being quite right. In any case, there is no more second guessing going to take place here on what might, or could, have been a better choice of action. The facts are simple: this young lady here felt there was a perceivable threat to the care of Jeremy Riddle, a threat being undermined by you, sir. Given his situation, I believe she acted in the best interests of the patient, with the full intent to get the necessary details worked out in the aftermath. I do not find her at fault in that thinking, either, and I'm ready to declare she be freed from any questioning regarding the matter. You sir, were non-successful, because she knew how to fight the system and make the general care of her patient – one which, remind you, was in no shape to travel to begin with, by order of the young man's own doctor. I assure you, if the youth had left the care of that facility in the manner you attempted to engage, I would have had you brought before me for formal charges forthwith. So, if anything, she saved him from your attempts to illegally circumvent the system. A system," the judge paused, turning and staring directly at the hospital administrator, "which seems to be party to a fair amount of neglect, it seems. Especially with practices in treating patients without parental consent or oversight."

The administrator withered under the stare of the judge. He did not, however, waver from his position. "But surely, your honor, as you can see, this young man had no parental supervision-"

"That does not matter. It was your responsibility, or rather that of the hospital facility, to oversee his well-being in this case. From the details we've laid plain here this morning, it would appear you did not exercise that responsibility to a reasonable extent. I'll say it again, his doctor never released the boy from your care, never cleared him for transport of any kind. Yet because of certain actions that took place, and certain safeguards that were ignored, one of your own employees felt the need to intercede. Perhaps it was in contradiction to the rules, but she certainly did so out of concern for the welfare of your patient, and to safeguard his best interests." The judge held up his hands again. "These are points, as I will again remind you, which are not relevant here today. But from the attitudes depicted by you two here, I am inclined to believe she acted in a far more reasonable and sensible manner than the rest of you put together!"

He stared at each one in the room in silence, before turning to Carolyn and sighing. "Madam, if you have any backlash over any of this, be sure to bring it to my attention, alright?" Carolyn nodded, relieved. Judge Miller then began addressing the other people in the room. "Understand this, people: right now, we need to turn all of that aside, and address the immediate needs of the minor. Is there anyone here who does not understand that? It is up to us to decide what should be done in the short term. Dr. Riddle, I understand you have consulted with and have been assisting in monitoring Jeremy's progress. Is it true that he may be sufficiently recovered and eligible for release from the hospital, perhaps in the next two to three days?" When the man nodded, the judge continued. "Does that mean he will be fully recovered?"

"Oh, heavens no!" the doctor replied. "He will require physical therapy and constant monitoring, in my professional opinion, for another 2 to 3 weeks. Physically, he has been mending extraordinarily well, although there is a considerable amount of discomfort and fatigue present. All of which will dissolve, I believe, as he continues to regain his strength, and gets integrated back into a normal, daily routine."

The judge nodded. "Then the question is, where do we keep him while this recovery continues, correct?" He turned to address another lady sitting at the far end of the table. "Marissa, I take it social services also have an issue to be addressed by this?"

The woman cleared her throat. "Yes, your honor. We believe it would be more beneficial for Jeremy Riddle to remain in the custody of the hospital administration for this period. After going through the boards late yesterday, we have no vacancies or fostering ability available that can directly handle monitoring his recovery - especially for any extended amount of time."

Judge Miller scoffed. "Really? If you can't handle him now, then tell me, how do you expect to handle him when he is released completely, but still requires psychiatric counseling for the months to come, hmm?" When the woman remained silent, the judge sighed. "Ladies and gentlemen, what I have been listening to for the last hour, is a group of people - except for the presence of this nurse and her friend - making excuses. It's enough to give me the idea that none of you, nobody, wants to be involved in caring for this young man's well-being. I am beside myself, really. Here we are, faced with something that IS our responsibility, and none of you are even willing to lift a finger toward its resolution." He paused and pointedly jabbed his finger onto the tabletop repeatedly. "There are vast consequences surrounding the future of this boy now who has no next-of-kin, no relatives to speak of, and who is now utterly being abandoned by society. On top of that, have any of you considered the fact he is now alone? Is it that none of you even care to consider that for fact?"

"I disagree, your honor," Linda interrupted. The judge, surprised, sat back again and smiled at her. It was encouraging, so she continued. "All of what you said is true, other than for the fact about being alone. In recent weeks, we – I mean, Carolyn and I, and our sons - have gotten to know him much better. He has pretty much become a part of our family, at least insofar as someone whom we've befriended." She blushed. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to speak out of place, but to say he is alone, well - that just isn't necessarily true."

The judge regarded her kindly. "From what I have heard and understood in this matter, you two ladies have been exceptionally kind to this young man, so I do stand corrected. Still - there is the matter of deciding what we can do with him from here on out."

"Your honor, can I say something?"

Everyone in the room turned to see Thomas, who had been sitting quietly, stand up. When the judge motioned for him to come forward, Thomas hesitated before moving until he stood beside his mother and Carolyn. "Well, sir, I was just thinking. Right now, would it not be kind of bad for Jermz, I mean Jeremy, if he had to be moved somewhere that was kind of strange and all? I mean, his Dad was just shot and killed, and I don't know about him - but if I were in his shoes, I'd be really scared right now."

Turning to the psychiatrist, Thomas continued. "I know too, sir, with all due respect, he doesn't want anything to do with you. You hurt him, because you never listened to him, which seems to me an important part of what it takes to help somebody with anything. You know, learning to listen. Whether you did or not, Jeremy never felt like you did, and that's what caused a lot of the trouble between you two. So, no matter what's decided, I don't think you would ever be able to gain enough trust to help him again anyway. He's never had anyone to trust, or to look out for him, since his Mom died. To me, that's what he really needs more than anything." He returned his gaze to the judge. "I'm sorry, sir. I just, I mean - he needs people right now he can trust, doesn't he?"

Judge Miller nodded, but then looked puzzled. "What is it you're proposing then, son?"

Thomas nervously looked down at Linda, and then Carolyn. "Wouldn't he be better off with us? At least, for a little while, maybe until summer?" His voice was a whisper, but it was clearly heard by everyone seated at the table.

Linda smiled at him, but slowly shook her head. "Honey, that's not something we can decide, and you know that. We don't have that right."

Carolyn, on the other hand, spoke up. "No, he has every right to ask. I cannot say it isn't something I wasn't already considering."

There was an audible gasp in the room as Michael stood and made his way forward. "Mom? Seriously?"

Although Carolyn smiled at her son, she focused her attention back to those sitting around the table. "I agree with Linda. Everything that has been said here is mostly true, regarding Jeremy's situation. I cannot deny that there would be a certain benefit if we could take him in, if the court would allow it. My working at the hospital would certainly be convenient for getting him in and out when he needs to be there - especially if…" Carolyn paused, glancing at the hospital administrator. "If we could adjust my hours to allow that convenience, at least for the short term." She sighed before turning back to Judge Miller. "I guess, assuming the court would consider it, your honor, my only reservation would be in the cost. Right now, we have very close quarters, and I'm sorry, but even if Linda and I pooled our resources, I don't-"

The social worker interrupted her. "The boy is officially a ward of the state now, no matter what decision regarding his outcome is made." Noting the confusion on several faces surrounding her, she continued. "That means, the cost of his care would now come under our discretion. Quite frankly, I can't see why he would be treated any differently from other foster children in our care. At least not until he reaches the age of 18."

The judge nodded, thinking very slowly. "If I understand what your implying then, would social services have any problems if these arrangements were made, and the decision postponed in favor of this evaluation?"

The woman looked thoughtful. "I'll grant that it is a bit unusual, but I think I could persuade my superiors to make an exception." Addressing both Linda and Carolyn, she explained. "That is, you understand, you would both have to submit to background checks and follow certain procedures to qualify for accepting the placement. But…" The woman sighed before sitting back in her chair. "Based on what I've heard this morning, however, I can't think of a better solution. It's not that we would not find a place for him, your honor - we would do so, without question. It might take a couple of days, but that would not be insurmountable. Still, where he was placed most likely would be very detrimental for the boy. Social services are under an extreme load right now, as always, but now seemingly more than ever. We're barely keeping up with the kids in the system as it is. If-" She paused to wave her hand. "If Jeremy were placed in the care of this nurse and her family, and they could at least meet the minimal requirements, then..." She left the comment unfinished.

The judge turned to Carolyn and addressed her very quietly. "I think the question now, is are you certain? No one at this table, save perhaps one," he paused, glaring at the psychiatrist, "questions your resolve and charity. You're to be commended for it, in my humble opinion, at the least. I'm asking, however, to set those aspects aside and look at what you're proposing. Are you're certain? This change will affect you and your family, at least for the short term, no doubt. It is unorthodox, but not unheard of. I will support this measure, it if you tell me to do so. It's obvious from these boys," he indicated the two, standing close to them, "that all of you have taken a liking to the youth, and from what the doctors have noted under the given circumstances - I honestly can't think of a better outcome. Ultimately, however, it appears this decision has to be yours."

Carolyn sat back bewildered. Looking over at Linda, she saw the woman smile encouragingly, but remained silent in deference to the moment. Peering into Thomas's eyes beside her, Carolyn could see the hope as he stood behind his mother, both hands firmly grasping her shoulders in anticipation.

She turned around until she could find her own son, and found it amusing that Michael only grinned at her. They stared at one another for a long moment, before he leaned down and took her in an embrace, whispering in her ear. "Do it, Mom. We know you want to, and so do we. It's like you always say, we'll figure it all out as we go."

Carolyn's eyes moistened at those words, before she turned back and nodded. "We'll do our best, your honor."

The old man smiled at her. "Somehow, I suspect, you will do a lot more than that." There was a collective sigh around the room as various individuals smiled with relief. He turned to the psychiatrist and the administrator again. "I want this heard now, plainly, with no room for exception, by the two of you. Doctor, I had better not ever, even once, see you in these chambers or this courthouse again, on matters of patient negligence or mistreatment. I cannot instruct any aspect of your employment particulars with the administration that chooses to retain your services, but I am giving you and your superiors fair and complete warning: you've adopted courses of action that far outweigh the best interests of your clients, and I have tolerated the last blatant abuse of privilege from you that I am going to allow. Come before me again, and I will order the State Board to suspend your license indefinitely, and I may even bring you up on charges myself."

The psychiatrist sat back in shock. "Your honor-"

"Don't 'your honor' me, sir. I have said my piece, and you have received your warning. Take heed of it, effective immediately. And be careful, I see that roll of duct tape has made it into the room back there," the judge observed with a stern resolve. "I am clearly not afraid to order it's use, so don't push it." He turned to the administrator. "I am also going to order a review of all cases that have any questionable content, that this man has overseen for the last 10 years. See to it that competent, accredited and independent professionals oversee this task, even if you have to acquire outside services in order to keep an unbiased opinion in the matter. I want a report of their findings made to me personally, and I want it completed within the next 90-days. If I find even a single instance of mistreatment, or deferment that is questionable, then I would suggest your institution be prepared for the aftermath. Do I make myself clear?"

The administrator turned pale, but slowly acknowledged the order.

- + - + - + - + -

Carolyn, Linda and the boys entered Jeremy's room, now situated in the third-floor wing, a totally different area of the hospital than he had previously resided. The teenager was sitting up in his bed, his knees folded and grabbed to his chest again while gazing out of an open window overlooking the parking lot. When he turned to see them enter, his face visibly lit up. "Hey!"

Both Thomas and Michael returned the greeting, all four of them smiling as they walked over. "How are you doing today, kiddo?" Carolyn asked, as she leaned in and gave the teenager a quick hug.

Jeremy shrugged. "Better, especially now that you guys are here." Although he smiled, a certain absence could be detected. The darkened shade beneath his eyes indicated he had not slept well the night before.

Michael broke the silence. "So, you're doing okay, really? Honest?"

Jeremy let go of his knees, extending them out underneath the covers. "Yeah, I guess so." He looked up at Carolyn. "I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry, ma'am, about everything. I didn't mean to bring all this down on you guys, honest."

Carolyn pushed a finger up to his lips, effectively shushing him. "You didn't do anything, Jeremy. This wasn't your fault." Searching his eyes, she added, "You do understand that, don't you?"

Jeremy studied her. "Maybe, but it still got you into a lot of trouble, I'm sure. I'm sorry, I never wanted any of that to happen."

Linda moved to the other side of the bed, and in an uncharacteristic change for her, she sat down next to him. "It's true honey, there is nothing for you to be sorry about. You were a victim, just like the rest of us. This had nothing to do with you."

"I just wish..." Jeremy started before hesitating. "My Dad, I just wish he had gone away and never came back."

"There is nothing to go back to right now, though," Carolyn spoke up. "It's over, and what's done is done." She paused. "You know, I'm sorry it happened too, but your father may have just been waiting. Remember what he said at the end? 'Finally, it's over.' It's almost as if he had been waiting for this to end, too. Like he was driven in some way to make it end." Carolyn smiled at the teen. "It doesn't matter, really. Mind you, I know he was your father, and I don't disrespect the dead as it is, but I think - I think perhaps in the end, he knew what was going to happen. I think he just accepted it."

Jeremy grunted, looking down at his feet. "I guess so," he replied listlessly.

When he offered nothing more, Linda cleared her throat. "We, uh, all came in here to ask you something, if you feel up to listening to us for a minute."

Jeremy looked up. "You did? Sure, what's up?"

Linda nodded. "Honey, you know you're getting out of this bed, and out of this place soon, right?"

Jeremy stared at her before replying, nodding his head. "Yes ma'am. Doc told me this morning it wouldn't be long now."

Carolyn took over at this point. "That's what we heard, too. We were wondering, if you had any thoughts about what you might like to do when you're released."

Jeremy shrugged. "I figured I would have to go to an orphanage or something. I mean, I don't have any family or anything."

Carolyn nodded. "It's true, most teenagers and young adults do get placed in foster care or an orphanage - especially those with circumstances like yours. Although, we also know you've practically taken care of yourself already these last few years. For the most part though, you're still a little too young to be turned loose on your own. Plus, you're going to be going through some more therapy and treatments for a while, too." She watched the teen visibly grimace at that thought. "Don't worry, I don't think you'll have to worry about Mr. Nut Case upstairs anymore. We'll find you someone with, ah, a little better sense than the horse manure stuffed between his ears."

The others in the room laughed, and Jeremy had to smile at the humor. He waited though, trying to see where this was going. When they fell silent again, however, it was Michael and Thomas who spoke up. "Jermz," Michael began. "We've been thinking, and well, we were all wondering what you might think of coming to live with us for a while."

Jeremy stared in disbelief. "Serious? No way!"

"Yes way, seriously," Thomas chimed in.

Jeremy started to smile, but then quickly shook his head. "There is no way they would ever let me. I mean, I don't - well - I mean..."

Carolyn cleared her throat this time. "Don't be so sure about that. Linda and I would have to undergo some scrutiny, and a few things would have to fall into place - but it isn't that impossible. The thing is honey, we don't want to do this without knowing how you feel about it, first."

Jeremy's gaze shuffled from one individual to the next, before he finally settled on Thomas. "You, too? Would you want this? I mean, I beat you bad man, and - and - I'm sorry about what happened and all, but still..."

Thomas nodded. "I know Jeremy, but… yeah. I think it would be cool." He rolled his eyes around, teasing. "Besides, it might be good to have a bodyguard around, once you're healed up and all!" They all laughed again as Linda smacked his butt playfully.

Jeremy laughed before becoming solemn. "I don't think you guys will ever have a bullying problem again, to tell the truth."

Thomas glanced at his Mom before stepping up closer. "Okay, seriously, I'm not good with words like Mike and everyone else, so just hear me out for a minute, okay?" When the older teen nodded, he continued. "It's like this. You need somewhere to go, with people who will respect you and everything. You know, be good to you for a change. You've never really had that I guess, at least since your Mom died, and I think it makes a lot of difference sometimes having people around you that you feel you can trust and everything. As for you and me, I always sort of just saw you as being the big bully and all. I mean, that one day maybe I was just your latest victim, right? But, you know something? I think we all know now who really was the one being bullied. Like somebody said before, you were the bully, but you were also the one being bullied. And, well, that makes a difference, I think. To me, and to us."

Jeremy's expression was blank as he tried to consider what the teen said. As Thomas hesitated, he looked at his mother who smiled at him encouragingly, before taking another deep breath. "Everyone saw you the one way, Jermz, but the truth was no one bothered to see you outside of that. That's something I think I need to apologize for, really. It doesn't make you so bad after all, you know?"

Before entering the room, the group had decided to be as upbeat about everything as they could. Thomas was feeling guilty now, however, about having broken that promise. Michael, on the other hand, walked around and put a hand on his friend's shoulder, before whispering. "Well said bro - that was really cool."

Hearing the exchange, Carolyn agreed. "Honey, sometimes I think you are better with words than you give yourself credit for." She turned to the older teen and smiled. "Don't kid yourself, Jeremy. Honestly, I think it will be rough going for a while. You'll probably have to sleep on the couch for a bit, but - I think it could work kiddo. If you'll be patient with us, we'll be patient with you, and then who knows? There might be something in it for all of us afterwards!" She said the last, looking up at Linda and exchanging knowing glances.

In the silence that followed, all eyes were on the older teenager. Initially he sat there expressionless, before they all saw a tear appear and slide down his cheek. Michael knew there was a lot more going on inside Jeremy's head than he let on, however. Moving in closer, he hopped onto the bed, positioning himself halfway into Linda's lap. All of them giggled as they watched the two adjust and make room. Once settled, he spoke softly.

"Jermz? You've got to know something else, too. This is something we WANT to do - all of us. We WANT you to come live with us. It's not like you have to, or like you don't have any other choice. But man, we WANT you to come, honest. All of us."

Jeremy almost lost it, his face screwing up. "I honestly don't know what to say."

Linda grunted. "Then just say yes."

Jeremy looked up, and then in turn made eye contact with the rest of them before the hint of a smile appeared. Through tears of happiness, he whispered, "Okay, then… yes!"

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