SOMEWHERE THERE WAITETH

 

The intercom next to the wall clock crackled to life, interrupting the class. "Mr. Nelson, would you send Carey Schrock to the office, please?"

Carey started and looked around guiltily. Every eye was on him as he rose slowly from his seat. At the door, he lingered, listening as two of his classmates resumed their argument over what exactly had caused the Civil War.

He resented the intrusion; American History was his favorite class and Mr. Nelson was the best teacher he'd ever had. He didn't even mind when his students disagreed with him as long as their opinions were carefully thought out and supported by facts.At last, Carey tore himself away and followed the worn brown linoleum down the hall and around the corner to the administrative offices. The principal was waiting for him and Carey felt a moment's uneasiness at the woman's somber expression. What could possibly be drastic enough for him to be called out of class?

"Sit down, Carey," Mrs. Kenshaw invited kindly. Her expression had softened to one of sympathy and Carey felt suddenly cold. He lowered himself gingerly into one of the chairs facing the principal's cluttered desk and waited.

"Your uncle called," Mrs. Kenshaw began slowly. As she paused, Carey was torn between wanting to drag the words out and wanting to cover her mouth, as if preventing the words would erase whatever bad thing had happened. And if his uncle had called the school about him, it had to be bad. Carey pressed his palms together and squeezed them between his thighs.

"Your mother's had an accident," Mrs. Kenshaw continued. "She's been taken to the hospital in Decatur."

Carey closed his eyes; he felt as if he were drowning, suffocating. Only this morning, his mother had mentioned going into Decatur to do some shopping. She hadn't said so, but Carey was sure she was going to buy a present for his sixteenth birthday, only two weeks away.

"Is... will she be okay?" he heard himself ask.

"I don't know, Carey," Mrs. Kenshaw answered gently. "Your uncle didn't seem to have any information on her condition."

No, Carey thought bitterly, he wouldn't. He probably doesn't care.

He knew, of course, that the man Mrs. Kenshaw referred to wasn't his uncle at all. Henry Schrock's brother Dale had been his mother's husband, but he had died more than two years before Carey was born. People insisted on referring to the man as Carey's uncle, but Carey had always been secretly glad that he wasn't really related to that stiff-necked, narrow-minded man.

"Don't worry about him, honey," his mother used to say. "He can't help what he believes. Just remember I love you and your father loves you. Henry can rant and rave all he wants, but he can't change that."

"I'll drive you to Decatur." Mrs. Kenshaw's voice seemed to come from somewhere far away. Carey rose on legs that wobbled and, in a daze, let her lead him out of the office. They made a stop by his locker, where he stashed his books and pulled on his worn denim jacket. A few minutes later they were driving down Highway 133 in Mrs. Kenshaw's elderly Ford.

A steady drizzle fell from the relentless gray skies; Mrs. Kenshaw drove with deliberate care on the slippery road. Grateful that she didn't speak, Carey stared mindlessly at the flat, unvarying landscape. Spring was only a few weeks old and already the fields were green with new growth but Carey didn't notice.

Please, God, let my mother be all right, he prayed silently. I know there must be hundreds of people praying right now, and there's no reason why you should listen to me instead of them, but please, God. Let her be all right. Please.

The fervent prayer went round and round, echoing silently inside his head. It took forty-five agonizing minutes to reach St. Mary's Hospital in Decatur, but at last they pulled into the parking lot.Numbly, Carey followed Mrs. Kenshaw into the emergency room. A harried nurse directed them to a waiting room on the second floor, where another nurse informed them that Rebecca Schrock had been taken to emergency surgery because of internal bleeding.

Feeling hollow and disconnected, Carey found a seat on a worn green naugahyde couch near the window in the small surgical waiting area, really only a niche in the hallway. Mrs. Kenshaw spoke to the nurse a little longer before making a phone call. A few minutes later Carey looked up to see her standing before him.

"Carey, I'm sorry. Something's come up and I have to get back to school. Your uncle should be on his way. Will you be all right for a half-hour?" Her eyes and voice reflected her concern and compassion; Carey squared his shoulders in an attempt to reassure her.

"I'll be okay. Don't worry."

"All right." She pressed a slip of paper into his hand. "If you should need anything, don't hesitate to call me. My home number's on here... Oh, Carey, I'm so sorry!"

She looked as if she wanted to cry and Carey felt the need to be strong for her. "It's okay," he said, standing. "The roads are slippery so you'd better get going. Be careful; you don't want to have an accident."

Somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind he heard the echo of what he had just said. An accident. My mother had an accident and now she's in emergency surgery. Dad, where are you?

For a moment he feared the sudden, frantic thought showed on his face, but Mrs. Kenshaw appeared not to notice. "I'll pray, Carey," she said. "Goodbye."

"'Bye," Carey answered. He was already sinking back onto the cold, stiff upholstery of the couch, staring out at the unceasing gray rain.

At the sound of footsteps he turned back, thinking Mrs. Kenshaw must have forgotten something. A man in blood-spattered surgical greens was coming down the hall and the coldness Carey had been feeling all afternoon sent icy tendrils of near-panic racing through him.

"Mr. Schrock?"

"I'm Carey Schrock."

"I think I'm looking for a Henry Schrock," the doctor said.

"My uncle. He isn't here yet." The doctor began to turn away and Carey seized his arm. "Please, sir. How's my mother?"

The man regarded Carey steadily. "I think we'd better wait for your uncle," he said.

Carey refused to release his arm. "Please," he said again. "I'm not a child. She's my mother! Tell me!"

The doctor's cool blue eyes assessed the boy for a moment before he relented. "I'm sorry, son. We did all we could. Your mother passed away about ten minutes ago."

"No," he whispered as the iciness spread, making him feel heavy in a disjointed sort of way. "No."

"I'm sorry, son," the doctor repeated. He patted Carey's shoulder awkwardly.

"Can I see her?" the boy asked, still whispering.

The man hesitated. Carey met his eyes firmly, willing him to see a strength and maturity he didn't feel, and the doctor nodded slowly.

An impassive nurse took Carey down the hall, pushing through a double set of swinging doors marked "Surgery." Another, smaller steel door was on their left and she pulled it open, gesturing Carey inside. The room was small, floors and walls tiled an ugly shade of turquoise. A stainless steel counter ran along one wall and a wheeled stretcher was pushed against the other. Carey didn't notice when the nurse left him. Slowly he moved across the floor toward the motionless figure on the gurney. A green surgical drape was pulled over her from neck to feet, but her face was uncovered and Carey's throat was tight as he looked at her. A smudge of dried blood streaked her cheek, but her eyes were closed and she looked peacefully asleep.

"Mom?" he whispered. "Mom?" Gingerly he reached out and touched her cheek with one trembling finger. Her skin felt cool and natural under his hand. He watched her, waiting for some small sign of life, something to prove the doctors wrong. But no matter how hard he stared, she remained motionless.

At last he whispered, "I love you, Mom." He bent and pressed his lips against her cheek. "I love you."

He backed away slowly, turning only when he felt the door frame against his back. His body felt as if it belonged to someone else as he pushed through the heavy double doors and somehow found the stairs. Holding onto the handrail to keep from stumbling, he made his way to the first level. Glass doors at the end of a long corridor showed the way outside and a moment later he was leaning against the side of the building, breathing heavily. He was barely aware of the cold rain soaking him, plastering his dark hair against his skull and running in small rivers down his neck.

He saw his uncle Henry's red Chevy pickup pull in on the other side of the puddled parking lot and, without thinking, he shrank back, easing around a nearby corner, pressing himself flat against the wall.

If there was anything he couldn't bear right now, it was his uncle sanctimoniously proclaiming that Rebecca Schrock's death was retribution for her sins; Carey knew quite well that his uncle counted her illegitimate son as the most prominent sin.

When he was sure his uncle was inside the hospital, he sprinted across the parking lot and down the street. He ran until he could run no more, finally stumbling to a stop. Head down, hands braced on spread knees, he gasped for air.

When his frantic lungs began to make up some of the oxygen debt he'd incurred, he raised his head, slowly making out his surroundings. He had run well over two miles and something, instinct or sheer good luck, had guided his path. He was on the outskirts of Decatur on U.S. Highway 36.

Resolutely turning the collar of his denim jacket against the rain, he started down the highway toward home, twenty-five miles away.

People who lived in farming communities were usually less wary of hitchhikers than their city counterparts and it wasn't long before a car pulled up alongside Carey as he trudged along. "You, boy! Don't you know it's raining? Get in!"

Gratefully Carey accepted the invitation, seating himself gingerly on the worn velour upholstery of a small white van.

The driver was a small, middle-aged man wearing mud-spattered jeans and boots."There's a blanket in the back," he said genially. "See if you can get some of that water off of you."

"Thanks," Carey said, reaching behind him for the blanket. Using a corner, he toweled his hair vigorously before folding the blanket and working its folds between his soggy clothes and the already damp fabric of the seat.

"Don't worry about that, son," the man advised. "You can't hurt this old car. Where are you headed?"

"Arthur," Carey replied. The farm was actually a couple of miles from the tiny hamlet of Arthur, Illinois, but it was the nearest town and Carey called it home.

"I'm not going that far, but I'll let you off at Lovington. It'll save you a few miles walking, anyway."

"Yes, sir," Carey agreed. "I appreciate it."

He hadn't walked more than a mile out of Lovington before a shiny new pickup pulled up beside him. Nell Gregory, a big, rough woman who helped her husband farm their acres on the other side of Arthur leaned out and shouted, "Carey Schrock! You get in this truck this minute! You'll catch your death walking in this rain!"

Mrs. Gregory wasn't someone you argued with and she had to go right past the Schrock farm to reach her own so Carey climbed up into the cab of the truck quickly.

"What in the world are you doing way out here?" she asked suspiciously. "Your mother's probably worried to death, wondering where you are!"

"I guess," he said, turning to look out the window. He didn't feel able to contend with Mrs. Gregory's sympathy right now.

"Been to Decatur?" Nell Gregory asked. Carey shrugged and she let out a booming laugh. "Don't you worry, Carey. I'll not tell your mother you've been to town instead of to school. You just be more careful about the weather the next time you decide to hitchhike all the way to Decatur. It's not fit for man nor beast out there."

The rain was falling more heavily now and Carey merely nodded his agreement.

They fell silent as Mrs. Gregory concentrated on following the rain-slick road in the gloom. Carey watched the passing fields and tried not to think of his mother. The truck's heater was pouring out hot air and he was beginning to dry out and feel warm again when Mrs. Gregory stopped in front of the Schrock mailbox."Thanks for the ride," Carey said as he opened the door.

"You get yourself inside, now, and get into some dry clothes. You'll be lucky if you don't catch pneumonia," Nell replied gruffly. "Tell your mother I said hello!" she added before he closed the door.

"Yes, ma'am." Carey couldn't help but smile as she put the truck in gear and roared away. His smiled faded though, as the red taillights disappeared in the wet, gray afternoon.

Automatically he went to the mailbox, pulling out a small handful of envelopes and brochures. He trudged up the muddy driveway, leafing through the mail as he did so, but the hoped for letter from his father was not there.

Letting himself in through the back door, he left his muddy shoes and dripping jacket on the closed-in back porch and went into the kitchen. Out of habit he made himself a sandwich, took one desultory bite and laid the sandwich on the table next to the neat stack of mail.

Feeling lost and empty, he moved restlessly from room to room, looking for something he couldn't identify. When the phone rang, he jumped. Cautiously he answered it.

"Carey!" His uncle Henry's wife sounded relieved and flustered. "When you weren't at the hospital, we didn't know what to think! How did you get home?"

"Hi, Aunt Emily," he answered. "I walked and then Mrs. Gregory gave me a ride."

"In the pouring rain!" Aunt Emily sounded shocked. She was a kind-hearted woman, but living under Henry's constant disapproval had made her excitable. "You stay right there, you hear? Uncle Henry's going to bring you here. Don't worry about a thing, Carey," she added more kindly. "You'll always have a place with us."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied dutifully. "I know." And in that instant he did know that he would never be allowed to stay on the farm alone. He would be expected to live with Uncle Henry and Aunt Emily and suddenly he knew he couldn't bear it. He didn't remember hanging up the phone before he found himself stumbling up the stairs.

In his room, he shed his damp clothes and changed into dry ones. Taking a small canvas duffle bag his father had left after one of his visits, he began to stuff it with clean socks, shirts and underwear. Rolling up a pair of almost new blue jeans, he wedged them in, too. In the bathroom he added his toothbrush, toothpaste and a comb.

All he needed now was money. Leaving the duffle bag in the hall, he slowly pushed open the door to his mother's bedroom.

It looked as if she had just left it. The bedspread was rumpled where she had sat on it and her nightgown was tossed carelessly across the pillows. The book she had been reading lay face down on the nightstand and her closet door stood slightly ajar.

Taking a deep breath, Carey steeled himself against her memory and crossed to the closet. His mind knew his mother was gone but his heart hadn't accepted it yet and now there was no time to wrestle with it. He had to get out before his uncle came.He pulled a square metal file box from the back of the closet. If his mother had any spare cash in the house, it would be here. The box was full of dog-eared file folders, envelopes and loose papers. An envelope marked "First National Bank of Decatur" was on top and he picked it up. It felt thick and he opened it as quickly as his cold, clumsy fingers allowed. As he had hoped, there was money inside - twenties, tens, two fives and a few ones. It wasn't a large sum, but it would get him away from Uncle Henry.

Laying the envelope aside, he shuffled through the box's other contents. A vague memory of a discussion he'd had with his mother last summer, shortly after his father's last visit, prompted his search. Now he wished he'd paid more attention to what she'd said. Something about an envelope his father had left... a letter from him to someone who could help if something happened and he couldn't be immediately found. Swallowing back a sudden rush of pain, Carey pulled out a manila folder and peered at the heading.

His mother's filing system, or lack of one, had been a long-standing joke. Everything was filed under exasperatingly generic headings that told nothing about their contents. Carey pulled and set aside several fat folders before opening a file marked "Important Papers." Finding the long, slim white envelope sealed and addressed in his father's hand, he drew it out slowly, turning it toward the window, trying to read the address in the dim light of the room. It was too dark to make it out, but Carey was sure this was the right envelope. Now that he saw it, he remembered his mother had shown it to him.

As he moved to replace the file, another envelope caught his eye. This one was clearly marked in large black letters, "Carey's birth certificate." It was a document that was important to Carey, in part because it identified his parents as Rebecca Schrock and Gilbert Talley. Dale Schrock's name did not appear on it, confirming the fact that Carey and Henry Schrock were not related. For some reason, that had become very important to him over the years. On impulse he added the birth certificate to the envelope of money and his father's letter before stuffing the rest of the files back into the box and shoving it into the closet.

Picking up the three envelopes, he started out of the room, pausing beside his mother's dresser. A framed 8x10 black-and-white photograph stood on the corner and he looked at it, remembering the day it had been taken, almost two years ago when his father was home for a visit. They had been horsing around outside, passing a football back and forth and wrestling playfully. His mother had come outside with her camera and started taking pictures.

This was her favorite, a closeup of him and his father, dusty and disheveled, their arms around each other, laughing at the camera. Surrendering to another impulse, Carey picked it up. In the hall, he opened his duffle bag and worked the picture down between the soft folds of his clothes where it would be protected.

Removing the money from its envelope, he placed it in his wallet. The other two envelopes went inside his shirt where he could feel them, stiff and scratchy against his skin. Later he'd find a better, safer way to carry them but for now there was no time.

In his room again, he raided his own private stash of money, adding the few bills to the ones already in his wallet and wishing he had time to go to the bank for the money in his savings account. A sound outside made him jump - surely his uncle couldn't be here already?

A cautious peek out the window showed the yard and driveway empty, but the scare made Carey conscious of passing time. Pausing in the doorway, he wondered if he needed to take anything else. A sudden thought made him go back and grope under the bed, pulling out an old, battered shoebox. Inside the box, neatly tied with string, was every card, letter and postcard his father had ever sent him. Sometimes months would go by without word, but he always wrote eventually and Carey treasured every contact, no matter how small.

Pulling out a shirt and two pairs of socks to make room, he wedged the box into his duffle bag, closing it tightly and slinging it over his shoulder. Downstairs in the kitchen he packed a bag with food that would travel well... a loaf of bread, a package of processed cheese, a jar of peanut butter and some apples.

A set of keys hung on a hook near the back door and Carey picked them up on his way out. On the back porch he pulled on his damp shoes and took a warm, dry jacket from a hook. With a last look around, he shouldered his duffle bag, lifted his food bag in his other hand and went out, closing and locking the door behind him.

An old white GMC pickup was parked next to the barn and Carey went to it, tossing his gear onto the floor of the cab as he slid behind the wheel. He didn't have his driver's license yet, but like most farm kids, he had learned to drive years ago. Because it was mainly used around the farm, the pickup wasn't in the best of shape. Carey changed the oil and filters more or less regularly, but it didn't run exactly right and its tires were all but bald. He had no choice, however. His mother had been driving the car...

Pushing that thought away, he used the key from the kitchen hook to start the reluctant engine, coaxing it with a gentle, practiced foot on the accelerator. "Come on, Max. Don't let me down."

As if in response to the affectionate name, the truck's rough choking idle settled into a more even rumble and Carey put it in gear and headed east, away from Decatur and his uncle. A few miles down the road, when he was sure he was safe, he stopped to fish his father's letter out of his shirt. Using the truck's dome light, he turned the envelope toward its dull glow and read the address neatly printed there.

"New York, New York," he read aloud. "Who does Dad know in New York?" It was a silly question because his father seemed to know someone practically everywhere, but who in New York did he know well enough to trust with the sort of responsibility this letter would demand. Well, it was a question that wouldn't be answered sitting here. With a sigh, Carey carefully placed the letter and the envelope containing his birth certificate into an inner pocket of his jacket, put Max back into gear and began his trip to New York City.

He stuck to back roads, partly to avoid traffic and partly because he was afraid his uncle might be looking for him... worse, he might have alerted the police to look for him. Upon reaching Indiana, he felt safer. The gas gauge was rapidly dropping toward the empty mark, so he stopped at a convenience store/gas station in the town of Cayuga.

A steady drizzle was still falling, wetting the roads. Because of that and the state of the tires, he had driven with extra caution. Between his caution and wrong turns caused by navigating unfamiliar roads without a map, it had taken him nearly three hours to travel what was probably not much more than fifty miles. He was glad of a chance to stretch his legs as he filled the truck's tank. Inside, he added two soft drinks and a map of Indiana to his purchase, parting with some of his precious store of money.

In the truck again, he studied the map, quickly learning that the sprawling metropolis of Indianapolis lay between him and New York. Most of his driving experience was on the dirt roads of the farm and the few times he had been permitted to drive down the county blacktop was to a neighboring farm; traffic was something he wasn't accustomed to dealing with and the mere idea of transversing a huge city like Indianapolis terrified him.

With a pencil, he marked out an alternate route, one that would take him well north of the city. It would probably cost him a hundred miles in extra distance travelled, but it would be worth it.

Five hours later he was driving slowly down a lonely country road in rural Indiana when the steering wheel began to tug at his hands, pulling to the right. A moment later he heard the characteristic flapping sound of a flat tire. Muttering in irritation, he pulled the truck onto the muddy shoulder and climbed out gingerly to examine the damage. Sure enough, the right front tire was flat.

With a sinking heart, Carey remembered exactly where he'd left the spare tire... leaning against the side of the barn back home. Frustrated and angry at his own lack of foresight, he hammered the side of the truck with his fist. There wasn't likely to be any traffic along this particular road at two in the morning so he was stuck here until after daylight. His hand ached from the punishment it had taken against the sheet steel of the truck and he cradled it against his body as he climbed back into the relative warmth of the truck.

Once inside, he thought of two other things he should have brought along but didn't... a towel and a blanket. Here he was, dripping wet and shivering in a rattletrap of a pickup with bad tires and a heater that barely worked with no way to dry himself and no way to keep warm. Gritting his teeth in annoyance, he pulled a t-shirt out of his duffle bag and used it to absorb the worst of the moisture from his hair and jacket before spreading it out over the dashboard. Hopefully it would dry there so he could wear it later. Arranging the duffle bag against the passenger door, he curled himself as best he could on the seat, head pillowed on the rough canvas of the duffle bag and feet wedged under the steering wheel. Pulling his lined denim jacket around him more closely, he stared unseeing into the darkness. He had been running on adrenalin ever since leaving the hospital, afraid to stop moving for fear he would remember things he didn't want to remember. It had been a very long day, full of events which had exhausted him mentally, physically and emotionally. Slowly his body began to relax and the rigid hold he had held on his mind began to slip. Before he knew it he had fallen asleep.

The rising sun woke him from a garbled dream of his father and, clinging to the last traces of the dream, he enjoyed a brief moment of pleasure before reality set in. Stiff from his cramped position on the truck's seat, he worked his way into a sitting position, rubbing at his gritty eyes.

The rain had stopped. The sky was still largely overcast, but the sun was managing to thrust a few rays through the thinner veil of clouds to the east. Carey allowed himself to hope that things were looking up.

Climbing out of the truck, he stretched before going around to inspect the right front tire. No genies had come in the night to repair it, so he dug the jack out from behind the seat and set to work. The muddy ground worried him, but he worked the base of the jack down into it and braced it with some rocks he found in a nearby ditch. When he felt it was as secure as he could reasonably make it, he jacked up the truck and removed the wheel. Rolling it around to the driver's side, he waited for someone to come along so he could hitch a ride to the nearest town.

He didn't realize how bedraggled and muddy he looked, standing forlornly by the side of the road and it was nearly two hours before a farmer stopped and motioned him to toss the mud-caked wheel into the bed of his pickup.

It was fifteen miles to town and the farmer was kind enough to drop Carey off at a full-service gas station, but it was another hour before a mechanic got around to repairing Carey's tire.

"Sure you don't want a new tire, boy?" the man asked, wiping greasy hands on an equally greasy rag. "This one's in pretty bad shape."

"Can you fix it?" Carey asked anxiously.

The man considered, examining the worn tire carefully. "Yeah," he said finally. "But it probably won't last you long."

"How much would a new tire cost?"

The man named a price and Carey did some fast mental calculations involving distance left to travel, price of gas, and Max's average mpg. The cash in his wallet, which he'd thought more than sufficient when he left home, now seemed woefully inadequate."I only have a few hundred miles to travel. You'd better just fix the old one," he decided.

The mechanic gave an indifferent shrug and bent over the tire. Because he was also tending the cash drawer and had to stop each time someone bought gas, it was nearly an hour before the repairs were completed.

It was afternoon before Carey got back to his truck. He had walked more than three miles, rolling the tire beside him, before a boy about his own age offered him a ride. Returning to the truck, Carey found it listing badly, its axle buried in mud.

Together, he and the boy, Scott, managed to disentangle the jack and reset it securely. After getting Max jacked up again, the hub had to be cleaned before the wheel could be remounted. Both boys were a mess when they finally lowered the jack and the truck rested firmly on all four wheels again.

"Thanks for your help," Carey said gratefully.

"No problem," replied the other boy. "Listen, why don't you come home with me for a shower?"

Carey hesitated.

"Come on," urged Scott. "My parents are at work. Nobody'll see you."

Carey's face felt stiff and unnatural. "How..?"

"A lucky guess," Scott replied. "You look like a runaway. Or at least somebody who needs help and is afraid to accept it."

Carey managed a small, abashed grin. "A shower would feel great," he said, following Scott to a farmhouse a few miles away.Once clean, he felt considerably more human, but refused Scott's invitation to stay for dinner.

"I need to get going. I've wasted most of the day already," he motioned in the general direction of the setting sun. "Thanks for everything."

"No problem," Scott said genially. He watched Carey pull out of the farmyard and waved until the white truck turned onto the blacktop road.

The brief contact with a friendly face bolstered Carey's spirits and restored a little of his faith in other human beings. He drove into the gathering dusk with a lighter heart.

He had just crossed into Ohio when the truck began to shudder and again, the steering wheel tugged to the right. With a violent curse, he guided the truck onto the road's shoulder and got out. This time, even Carey knew the tire couldn't be repaired; it had simply shredded and long strips of rubber hung loosely on either side of the wheel. Hauling out the jack, he set to work. What was left of the steel belts inside the tire scratched him when he pulled the wheel. Dropping it, he examined the long bloody furrows left on the inside of his forearm by the ragged steel wires. Wiping the blood onto his shirt, he picked up the tire more carefully and began to roll it back the way he had come.

He was sure he remembered seeing a tire store not more than a mile back and its lights had still been on; he hoped that meant they were open.

The wheel didn't roll well and Carey's back ached from bending to push it; his hands were scratched and sore from the steel belts. As he reached the tire shop, a man was just turning out the lights.

"Sorry, son, we're closed," he said, pulling out a thick ring of keys.

"Please," Carey begged in desperation. "I need a tire tonight. Please."

Looking at Carey's tired face, streaked with blood where he'd rubbed his hand on it, the man relented. "Okay," he said. "Bring it in."

Carey followed him into the shop, rolling the contrary wheel with him.

"What sort of tire did you have in mind?"

"I don't know," Carey answered, remembering the price quoted to him only that morning. "Do you have, maybe... something used?" It was what he should have asked when he had the tire repaired, but it hadn't occurred to him until much later.

The man looked from the shredded tire to Carey's face. "Yeah, I might." In a corner of the garage was a pile of discarded tires and the man sorted through them, tossing the heavy circles of rubber aside easily until he found what he was seeking. "Here you go."

It was obviously worn but it had a little tread left. It was certainly better than the tire it was replacing and Carey nodded gratefully.

With a few smooth, practiced motions the man removed the old tire and replaced it, filling the new one with air. Carey handed over some of his precious cash and prepared to leave. When he realized Carey didn't have a car, the man insisted on driving him to the truck but Carey refused any further assistance, waving until the man's taillights disappeared around a corner. It required only a few minutes to replace the wheel, tighten the lug nuts and lower the jack before Carey was on his way again.

He managed another hour of driving before weariness caught up to him. Pulling into a roadside rest stop, he found a parking place away from the two big trucks and few other cars stopped there and got out to stretch his legs. The muscles of his lower back, strained from rolling his shredded tire into town, had stiffened during his drive and now screamed protest at his every move. Feeling like an old man, Carey limped to the lighted restrooms, where he did his best to wash off the dirt and blood accumulated in the last few hours. A little cleaner, he limped back to the truck, forced down a dry cheese sandwich, curled himself up on the stiff vinyl seat and went to sleep.

By morning, the temperature had dropped and it was raining again. To top things off, the truck wouldn't start. Wondering if he was wandering around under his own private black cloud, Carey popped the hood and stiffly got out to take a look. After tinkering for a few minutes he persuaded the engine to catch, but it sounded terrible and kept threatening to die. Back in the cab, one foot gently patting the accelerator, he pulled out his newly acquired road maps as he allowed the engine to warm up.

It didn't look like much more than six hundred miles to New York. Of course, he admitted wryly, it had taken a day and a half to travel three hundred miles. But he had a decent right front tire now and the left front wasn't too bad. The engine wasn't happy but if he babied it, it would get him there... he hoped.

The next big city he wanted to avoid was Columbus, Ohio and he plotted a route that would take him slightly south of it.Stopping in the next town for gas, he treated himself to a cup of coffee, drinking it behind the wheel, small sips interspersed with bites of the peanut butter sandwich that was his breakfast.After an hour, the truck began to wheeze pitifully; Carey slowed, treating it as gently as he could, but it finally coughed painfully and died just outside of Zanesville, Ohio and nothing Carey could do would induce it to start again.

"I'm sorry, son," a reluctant mechanic told him much later. "I can fix it if you want, but it'll take three or four days just to find the parts. To be absolutely honest, it would cost more to fix it than this old truck's worth."

Carey was dismayed. It had taken half his cash just to have poor old Max towed. If he didn't have the truck, he didn't know how he was going to get to New York.

"If you want, I'll take it off your hands for you," the man was saying.

Carey looked at him sharply. At not quite sixteen, he couldn't legally own or sell the truck; surely the man knew that. This new aspect of the mechanic's character made him rethink everything that had been said.

It was true that parts for Max were hard to come by and for several years his mother had been threatening to get rid of it for just that reason. Carey was no mechanic, but he knew enough about the workings of an internal combustion engine to know that this particular one was just about done for.

"The bus station's about five blocks that way," the man went on, pointing. "You can catch a bus to wherever you're going."

It made good sense and, reluctant as he was to part with Max, who had been a member of the Schrock family since well before Carey was born, he made a deal, accepting less than the truck was worth because the man would pay him in cash. After carefully counting the few bills, he pocketed them and went to get his gear from the cab of the truck. Somehow, poor Max looked forlorn, standing grimy and mud-streaked in the lot beside the repair garage. Feeling foolish, Carey rested his hand on the dash for a moment. His mother had always contended that Max ran better if you patted his dash and talked to him. Carey had a niggling suspicion that, had he done so, Max might have gotten him safely to his destination.

"Oh, come on," he told himself aloud. "It's only an old pickup truck. It can't hear you."

Max has feelings, too, he heard his mother say. He saw himself, perhaps six years old, sitting in her lap while she permitted him to steer down the bumpy dirt lane that edged one of their corn fields. Don't forget to talk to him. She was whimsical sometimes and liked to encourage his imagination. It was she who had named the truck Max and his father had enjoyed teasing her about it.

His throat suddenly tight, Carey flung himself out of the truck cab, shouldering his duffle bag and marching off without a backward look. By the time he reached the bus station he was soaked through by the steady drizzle and beginning to shiver from the cold, but he had hold of himself again and knew he wouldn't cry.

At the counter he inquired about a one-way ticket to New York City and was informed that one bus had just departed and the next would not leave until five o'clock that evening. By now, Carey was used to bad news and didn't even flinch. "How much?" he asked, and slid the required amount through the little opening in the grille. Tucking his ticket safely in his wallet, he turned away, acutely aware that its purchase had left him with less than five dollars in his pocket. The trip to New York, he had learned, would take more than twenty hours.

In a corner, he found a seat and took stock, realizing for the first time that, in his haste, he had left the plastic sack containing what was left of his food supply in the pickup. He considered and immediately discarded the idea of going back for it. The truck was part of his past, and he wanted to look forward, not back. Resolutely, he determined to make his five dollars last, eking out the food he could afford to buy with it. A little voice inside him reminded him that five dollars wasn't going to go very far, but if he didn't find the person he was looking for when he reached New York tomorrow, it wouldn't matter anyway.

He bought a chocolate bar just before he boarded the bus, breaking off small pieces and allowing them to melt in his mouth before he swallowed. In this way, he made the candy last more than an hour and was left feeling not too terribly hungry. Candy wasn't very nourishing, however, so when the bus made a longer stop later that evening, he allowed himself to purchase a cup of vegetable soup at the bus station snack bar. The price was appalling, but he knew he needed to eat.

After the first hour, the bus ride was incredibly boring and Carey found his mind wandering to his parents. Thinking of his mother alone still made his throat uncomfortably tight, but thinking of his mother in conjunction with his father comforted him.

When he was little, it seemed perfectly natural that his father should show up from time to time with little or no warning.Knowing he wouldn't stay long, Carey and his mother would alter their lives to surround him. There was always an emptiness when he left, and as Carey grew older he began to question it, resenting the fact that his friend's fathers stayed home and his did not.

"Your father is what he is," his mother would explain gently. "He can't help it. Dale had some of that restlessness, too, but he was a farmer at heart and that helped keep him home. Your father is a wanderer. If we tried, we could probably keep him here, at least for a while, but he would soon become unhappy and that would make us unhappy. Isn't it better to know that when he's here, he truly wants to be here?"

"No!" a young and selfishly thoughtless Carey had cried. "I want him here all the time!"

He suspected his mother had said something, because the next year, when Carey was ten, his father stayed all summer and into harvest season, helping on the farm and making Carey the happiest boy in the world. But in the end, even Carey's youthful, exuberant joy couldn't block out his father's restlessness. When Carey asked when his father was leaving, he had given tacit approval for his father's departure. Somehow, knowing his father would give up his freedom made the actual surrendering of it unnecessary.

In the past couple years he had become more aware of the relationship between his parents. As a child, he hadn't questioned his father's erratic visits or the casual way he would take up residence in the master bedroom. Carey had only recently noticed that his father always left his gear in the living room, allowing his mother to carry it upstairs. It had finally dawned on him this was his father's way of allowing his mother a choice; if she put his things in her room, he was welcome there.

Carey was quite sure that if his mother had ever put his father's things in the spare room, he would have slept there without a word of protest, but it had never happened. Though his parents loved each other in their own way, it wasn't the kind of all-encompassing love he read about or saw in movies; it was a comfortable kind of camaraderie demanding nothing of either partner. More of a romantic, Carey had begun to wonder if he could ever sustain a relationship as detached as theirs. A large part of him believed in the once-upon-a-time, happily-ever-after kind of love and wanted it for himself someday, while another, more pragmatic part insisted that such a thing was for fairy tales, but at not quite sixteen, he was too young to be worrying about love and marriage anyway.

The motion of the bus as it traveled through the night was soothing and he closed his eyes, drifting back and forth between memory and reality.

The story of how his parents met was one it seemed he'd always known. His father and his mother's husband, Dale Schrock, had become friends when Dale had been indulging his own restless spirit with a little global wandering after college. Carey didn't know the details of how they had met, but it had something to do with polo ponies in Argentina.

Five years later, his father had been passing through southern Illinois and had decided to visit his old friend Dale. Arriving unannounced on the Schrock farm, he learned that his friend had been killed the year before in a farming accident.

Rebecca Schrock had been struggling to run the farm alone when her hired man quit, right at the start of planting. Introducing himself as Gilbert Talley, Carey's father stayed the summer, working alongside Rebecca, planting and cultivating the fields. Carey didn't know when his father moved from the small apartment behind the barn to the main house, but it must have happened sometime that summer or Carey wouldn't be here. Driven by his restless spirit, his father found a new hired man and left just before harvest. When his mother learned she was expecting a baby, Gilbert Talley was nowhere to be found.

It was this, as much as anything, that made Dale Schrock's brother Henry sovocally contemptuous and harshly judging. The mere idea of his brother's widow "carrying on" with another man a year after her husband's death was a desecration of Dale's memory, according to Henry. Rebecca's audacity in brazenly bearing the other man's child, and worse (in Henry's eyes), allowing the boy to carry Dale's name was beyond forgiveness.

Two years later Gilbert Talley returned and Carey's mother enjoyed describing his reaction to the chubby little dark-haired, dark-eyed boy who toddled toward him, diaper drooping, a pull-toy chattering behind him.

"It was priceless, Carey. I could see him trying to count back. There was no way he could deny you, though. You look too much alike."

"I would never deny him, Becky. I was just hoping he was mine," his father spoke up in his own defense.At this point his mother generally threw something in the direction of his father's head and the discussion came to an end.

As the gentle swaying of the bus stopped, Carey šPis eyes. Outside the window, he saw a small cafe/bus station and he was surprised to look east and see the sky faintly streaked with pink; he must have fallen asleep. Some passengers were stretching and getting to their feet while others slept on, undisturbed.

In a quiet voice, the driver announced a half-hour stop and Carey entered the cafe. It didn't take him long to determine that he could barely afford to purchase one order of toast. He counted coins carefully, sliding them across the chipped formica counter in exchange for the toast and glared at the four pennies remaining. With a sigh, he picked up a slice of toast and began to eat. He left the four cents as a tip... he hoped the waitress wouldn't be insulted, but it was all he had and it wasn't doing much good in his pocket.

Just after two in the afternoon, the bus rolled into the Manhattan terminal. Carey climbed down slowly, his bag balanced on his shoulder. Now that he was actually here in New York he felt a pressure, a cold sense of dread, weighing on him. Pushing it resolutely aside, he found the men's room and spent a careful quarter-hour washing and changing into clean underwear, socks and shirt. He spent another five minutes on his hair, wetting it down and combing it in an effort to convert the unruly mop into something presentable.

Finished, he was resigned to his appearance. Looking in the dingy mirror, he smiled, pretending he couldn't see the barely controlled panic on the pinched, scared face looking back at him, before making his way uncertainly to the street.

Scores of people hurried along the sidewalks, all of them seeming to know exactly where they were going. Ineffectually, Carey tried stopping someone to ask directions. He had the address on the letter memorized, but no one paused long enough to listen, much less tell him where to find the street. He was appalled by the casual rudeness as he was bumped, pushed and ignored. Finally he backed into the comparative backwater of a doorway to catch his breath and orient himself, watching the ebb and flow of humanity as he did so. While he was standing there, wondering what to do, it began to rain.

Setting his bag at his feet, he watched the drops falling steadily and the tide of people beginning to scurry. Surprised by a gentle touch on his arm, he looked down to see a boy of about twelve, dressed in a manner that made Carey think of a street urchin from one of Dickens' novels.

"Are you lost?" asked the boy.

"Sort of. I mean, I know where I've been but I don't know where I'm going." With more hope than faith he mentioned the street and the boy's face brightened.

"That's the Upper West Side," he explained. "Near the park. That way." He pointed.

Having a general heading to follow gave Carey heart and he lifted his bag to his shoulder. "Thanks," he said, meaning it, and stepped out into the rain.

His jacket, it seemed, had been damp for days. The only times it wasn't was when it was dripping from the latest rain; he turned his collar up in fatalistic resignation. He seemed destined to be rained on.

Tramping for blocks, he splashed through growing puddles, learning how to dodge impatient traffic. As he went, he read street signs, looking for the one familiar name.

After a mile or two it occurred to him to look for a phone booth. He passed two before he saw what he was seeking... a phone directory. Wedging his bag between the booth's supporting pole and his feet, he paged through the listings, running his finger down a long column of names. The one he sought wasn't there and, disappointed, he let the directory slip back into its slot. He wasn't so backward that he didn't know what an unlisted number was, but he had hoped that the person he was looking for didn't have one. He refused to entertain the small, nagging fear that the person his father's letter was addressed to didn't exist, or had moved, or would slam the door in his face.

He was soaked clear through and his legs were chafed and sore from the friction of wet jeans when he spotted trees. Lots of trees. Breaking into an impulsive half-run, he timed the light at the corner, darting across the street and into the welcoming green of Central Park. Finding a bench in the lee of a huge tree, he swiped away the worst of the water puddled on it and sat down, for the first time conscious of how tired he was. His legs ached, his feet and back were sore and he was beginning to shiver from the cold. He suspected he'd found the park the urchin boy had referred to, but he had no idea that a park in the middle of New York City would be so immense.

After a short rest he trudged back to the other side of the street, noting with interest he was crossing the famed Fifth Avenue. Patiently he walked the circumference of the park looking for a street name. He made a few more attempts to ask for help, but each met with a terse rebuff and finally, stung one too many times, he gave up. Three or four times he crossed back into the park for a short rest. Strangely enough, sitting on wet park benches in the middle of a steady spring rain seemed comforting and each brief respite gave him the tenacity to travel a few more wet blocks.

The afternoon gloom had deepened to dusk when he finally found the street he sought. Staring dumbly, it took a moment for his sluggish brain to interpret the symbols carefully arranged along the length of the sign. His heart leaped with mixed hope and trepidation as he left the park behind and started down the side street. Gradually the towering apartment buildings gave way to rows of townhouses three and four stories tall. The dark stone facades helped Carey to identify them as the vaunted New York brownstones and he viewed them with interest. The idea of living in a house sharing common walls with its neighbors was intriguing, but it was in diametric opposition to farm life and Carey found it intimidating. As he moved along, he noted the traffic on this comparatively quiet residential street was light by New York standards. As he walked the perimeter of Central Park, he had wondered how people slept at night with the noise and the lights, but along here it wouldn't be too difficult.

Wrapped up in his musings, he almost passed the house before he saw its number. It was across the street from him and he paused a moment to assess it. Not the slightest crack of light escaped from between heavy drapes and the house had a closed, shuttered look. But above, soft light glowed through three high, arched stained-glass fanlights on the second floor. The warmth and welcome of the colors gave him a fleeting courage. Before it could slip away, he crossed the street, hurried up the wide cement steps and rang the bell.

His heart was pounding wildly and he dragged in a deep breath of air, trying to steady himself. The heavy front door was framed with small rectangles of stained glass and he stared at the one beside the bell, trying to make sense of its colorful pattern. He had begun to half-hope, half-fear that no one was home when a shadow fell across the colored pane of glass and the locks began to click open.

A tall, blond boy about his own age stood in the open doorway. "Yes?"

"Is... does Catherine Chandler live here?" Carey stammered.

The boy looked him carefully up and down before nodding.

"I need to see her, please. I have a letter..." He reached inside his jacket, fumbling for the envelope tucked carefully away.

The boy seemed to ponder a moment before opening the door wide. Carey stepped past him into a small, square vestibule. The boy was at least six inches more than Carey's own five-ten with shoulders in proportion to his height, carrying himself with an unconsciously proud bearing, his innate grace apparent even in the simple actions of closing and locking the door.Involuntarily, despite his weariness, Carey straightened, squaring his own slim shoulders firmly.

"Wait here," the tall boy said. He went through an inner door, closing it behind him.

Carey remained still, uncomfortably aware that he was dripping a copious amount of water onto what looked like an expensive, if somewhat worn, oriental carpet. Shifting from foot to foot, he felt a cold, sick knot in his stomach that wasn't entirely caused by the temperature outside or his wet clothes. Staring at the neat panes of frosted glass in the closed door in front of him, he allowed himself to speculate for the first time on what he would do if this woman couldn't or wouldn't help him; his cold fingers twisted together in agonized impatience and, after what seemed to be years, the door opened.

The woman who faced him was older than his mother had been and the slight frown she wore as she studied him gave her a formidable look. Carey gulped.

"I'm Catherine Chandler," she said, not unkindly, and Carey felt a tiny flicker of warmth.

"My name's Carey Schrock," he said, speaking quickly. "I think you know my father."

She was still looking at him intently and it made Carey feel faintly uncomfortable. "What's your father's name?"

"Gilbert Talley," he answered, and was dismayed by the slow, doubtful shake of her head. "My mother called him something else, though," he offered quickly. "Devin."

The shock of recognition in her eyes was unmistakable and the boy who had answered the door and was now hovering protectively in the background made a small, sharp movement of surprise.

"Devin!" the woman repeated. "I knew you reminded me of someone." She was beginning to smile an incredulous smile. "Trust Devin!" she said, shaking her head.

An icy rivulet from Carey's hair ran down the back of his neck. He shivered and she seemed to notice for the first time that he was dripping on her floor.

"You're soaking wet," she exclaimed. "Evan, find him something dry to wear... it had better be something of Jacob's, I think."

The tall boy hesitated an instant before turning to bound, two steps at a time, up a wide flight of stairs.

"Leave your things here... your jacket, too," the woman instructed, sounding just like a mother as she helped him peel off the clinging denim of his jacket and waited while he rescued the plastic bag containing the precious letter from its inside pocket. His hands trembled slightly as he hung the jacket on the hook she pointed out.

"I have a hundred questions to ask you," she said. "I hardly know where to start. But I suppose you'd better come in first."

As she spoke, Catherine Chandler led him into the house proper. A wide hall ran past the stairs and a sliding door at the end of it stood ajar an inch or two. Opening it more fully, she guided him into a large, cozy room dominated by a huge oak dining table flanked by six chairs. Five of the places at the table were claimed by the remains of a just-completed meal; she showed him to the sixth chair at the far end of the table.A boy, or rather a young man, about Carey's size and only a little older, stood in another doorway; a girl sat in one of the chairs, playing with a crumpled napkin as she stared at him with open curiosity.

The woman... Carey didn't know quite what to call her in his mind... put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"Carey," she said, "this is my son Jacob and my daughter Vicky. Evan went upstairs to find you some clothes. This," she announced, "is Carey Schrock. He's Uncle Devin's son."

"Uncle Devin!" the girl called Vicky exclaimed. "Really?"

Uncle Devin? Carey's thoughts echoed silently. He felt suddenly adrift in a vast sea of uncertainty. "Is my father your brother?" he asked Catherine.

Her amusement seemed out of proportion to the question and Vicky laughed out loud, answering, "My father's his brother. Sort of." The last was added with a cheerful shrug that could have meant anything.

"Foster brothers," Catherine clarified briskly.

Jacob had gone into the kitchen and now came out with a steaming bowl, which he set in front of Carey's chair. "You look hungry," he explained.

Looking at the thick stew, Carey remembered the toast he'd eaten more than twelve hours ago... the only food he'd had all day and suddenly he was starving. He made a move toward the table, but stopped when Evan came into the room.

"I tried to find warm things," he said, offering a loose bundle. "They're yours, Jacob," he told his brother in an aside. "Nobody else's will fit him."

"It's okay," Jacob said easily.

"Here, Carey." Catherine gestured for him to follow her and showed him to a tiny half-bath tucked under the stairs. "You can change in here."

Inside, Carey began to strip out of his soaked clothes. The bundle of clothing included a large towel and he used it gladly, finishing by rubbing his hair briskly. Evan had remembered underwear and socks and Carey pulled them on, topping them with faded jeans and a bright red sweatshirt. The jeans were a little too big, but the shirt fit and everything was dry and warm; he couldn't ask for more. He used his hands to smooth his hair before folding the towel carefully and placing it beside the neat pile he'd made of his own clothes.

Shyly, he went back into the dining room, conscious of Vicky's eyes on him as he took his place. As he picked up his spoon, she leaned forward in her chair.

"Where did you come from?" she asked eagerly. "Where's Uncle Devin?"

"Let him eat, Vicky." Catherine chided her daughter gently. "Why don't you help clear the table?"

Vicky wrinkled her nose in disdain, but dutifully rose and began to stack plates. Running water and the sound of dishes clinking together could be heard from the kitchen and a moment later Evan came in.

"Oh, you're getting them," he told his sister. "I thought it was my turn."

"It is," she informed him, dumping a pile of dishes rather unceremoniously into his arms. "I'm just being helpful."

"That's a switch." Evan threw Carey a quick grin and went back into the kitchen with an armload of dirty dishes.

Carey was forcing himself to eat slowly, trying to remember all the manners his mother had drummed into him. He watched the sibling interplay with mild interest; he'd sometimes wondered what it would be like to have a brother or sister.

Vicky followed Evan into the kitchen with the remainder of the dishes and in a moment shrill voices of dissent could be heard.Exhaling sharply, Catherine rose from her place next to him and went to the kitchen door. "Evan! Vicky! That's enough!"

The clamor from the kitchen died down and she came back shaking her head. "I'd like to say that's an uncommon occurrence," she said wryly, "but it isn't."

Carey grinned. "I wouldn't know. I'm an only child."

"Me, too. Your mother's a wise woman." She raised her voice slightly for the benefit of the teenagers who were coming through the door. "Only children are vastly underrated. There should be more of them."

"Aw, Mom, you don't mean that," Evan said, grinning. "Think how lonely you'd be without us."

"If you were the mother of an only child, you wouldn't have me!" Vicky tossed her head, preening in an overtly obvious manner.

"You see, Mom, you should have stopped with me!" Evan said.During this cheerful conversation, Carey had finished his stew and Jacob had quietly refilled his bowl. Now he finished the second helping and pushed the bowl away, his appetite sated."Come on," Jacob told his younger siblings when he returned from the kitchen. "Let's go upstairs."There was good-natured grumbling as Evan and Vicky followed their brother out of the room.

"All right, Carey," Catherine said when the sliding door was securely closed. "Tell me why you're here."

"My father left a letter... in case something ever happened. My mother was supposed to send it to you. I guess I was scared sending it wouldn't be good enough, so I brought it myself." As he spoke, Carey extracted the now limp and smudged envelope from its plastic wrapping and slid it across the table.

Her eyes on his face, Catherine picked it up. She studied him a moment longer before turning her attention to the letter. Carey hardly dared to breathe as she slowly opened the envelope and unfolded the damp sheets of paper inside.

She read it slowly, smiling once or twice as she did so. When she finished, she sighed, laying the papers on the table and sliding them back to him.

"Go ahead," she nodded. "I'll wait."

Cautiously, Carey picked up his father's letter and began to read.

 

Dear Chandler,

This is one of those letters that is left behind in case anything happens. If you're reading it, then I guess something's happened. There's a woman in Illinois. You'll find her address and phone number at the end of this letter, but first I'd like to tell you about her. She's wonderful, Chandler. Brave, intelligent, determined. In short, everything I'm not! I love her, but I guess not enough because I can never stay very long before my feet start getting itchy. She deserves a lot better than me, but you've probably already figured that out.

The most special thing about her, though, is that she's the mother of my son. Bet that surprises you! Looks like me, too, though you'll be glad to hear that's where similarities end. He's a great kid, smart, polite, dependable.

I need you to take care of them for me, Catherine. I know you'll do it because that's the kind of person you are. Love to you, Vincent and the kids.

Devin

 

Carey's head remained bent over the letter for a moment. When he looked at Catherine again, her head was tilted slightly as she regarded him with quiet sympathy. "Where's your mother, Carey?" she asked gently.

"She died. On Monday." With the words, the wall Carey had so carefully constructed around that terrible knowledge began to crumble, and he put his head down on his arms and started to cry.

It was some time before he became aware that she had left her chair to kneel beside him and stroke his hair. Taking a deep breath, he swiped at his wet eyes with his sleeve. "I'm sorry," he apologized, mortified.

"Don't be. Don't ever be sorry about grieving for someone you love."

He tried a watery smile. "It just hurts so much," he whispered.

"I know. I know it does. Don't fight it." After a moment he felt fully in control again.

"Thank you."

"If you need someone to talk to, or just to be with, I'm here."

He nodded his understanding, grateful for her quiet compassion. "Do you know where my father is?"

"No. I'll ask, but I don't think anyone's heard from him in two or three months." She regarded him with a small frown. "Doesn't he keep in touch with you?"

Carey looked down and shook his head. "Not very well. We get letters and postcards sometimes, but..." He shrugged. "He mostly just shows up."

To his amazement, she laughed. "That's Devin. Don't worry, Carey. We're sure to hear from him sooner or later."

"But what'll I do about Uncle Henry?"

"Who's Uncle Henry?" she inquired.

Haltingly, he told her about Henry Schrock, and with a few gentle questions, she extracted the entire story of his trip east. "I don't have any money left," he finished, eyes fixed on his clasped hands. "I don't have anyplace to go."

Her hand covered his. "You're a part of our family, Carey. You'll stay here."

He looked up, hope flaring. "But what about Uncle Henry?" He asked the question again, visions of his uncle coming to drag him forcibly back to Illinois dancing through his head.

Her mouth tightened. "Don't worry. I'll take care of Uncle Henry." Her determination was such that it never occurred to him to disbelieve her.

"You're exhausted and I've kept you up talking," she added as he stifled a yawn. "Let me show you where you'll sleep."

She took him to a bedroom on the third floor. "This is my son Charles's room," she explained, turning on the light. "He's away at school and won't mind if you sleep here."

Quickly she pointed out the other three bedrooms on this level and showed him where to find the two bathrooms. "Please make yourself at home, Carey. If you need anything, just ask." She hesitated. "If you need me, my bedroom is on the second floor, to the right as you go down the stairs. I'll send one of the boys to find you something to sleep in."

"Okay." Carey hesitated. "Excuse me, but... what should I call you?"

She gave a small laugh. "Your father once told me he answered to just about anything. I'm beginning to feel the same way. My husband calls me Catherine, my friends, Cathy. I have a boss who calls me Radcliffe and your father never calls me anything but Chandler. Choose whatever you'll be most comfortable with."

He had grown up in a slightly formal family and the idea of calling someone old enough to be his parent by her first name made him uncomfortable. He ducked his head shyly. "Is Aunt Cathy okay?"

She smiled. "Aunt Cathy is fine." She came close and kissed his cheek. "Goodnight, Carey."

"Goodnight, Aunt Cathy."

She went out, closing the door behind her and Carey turned to assess his surroundings. The room was large and high-ceilinged. One tall window in a corner looked toward the back of the house. Twin beds, neatly made, stood against one wall. A nightstand with a lamp stood between them; against another wall were a dresser and bookcase, while a desk occupied the third wall. Each piece complemented the others, creating a pleasing atmosphere.A tap on the door made him turn. "Come in," he called.

"I brought you some pajamas," Evan said, placing them on the foot of one of the beds. "Mom says to let you get some rest, so I'd better not stay, but my room's right over there if you need something."

"I know. She showed me. Thanks." Carey found himself liking Evan's casual friendliness.

"No problem," the other boy said. "Goodnight." He started out, then seemed to remember something and turned back. "It's only fair to warn you, since you're in this room... you will never, ever be able to use this bathroom." He pointed to the room next door. "Vicky uses it. For hours on end."

"I do not!" Vicky's indignant voice loomed out of the darkness behind Evan.

"Two hours this morning."

"I suppose you were timing me!"

"Rigged a gizmo yesterday," Evan agreed.

"You did not!" She looked past Evan. "Goodnight, Carey. See you tomorrow."

Carey grinned in spite of himself. "Goodnight, Vicky." She went into her room and closed the door a little too firmly. "Did you really fix up something to time her?" he asked Evan.

"Nah. Too much trouble. I could if I wanted to, though. Goodnight."

"'Night."

Carey knew he was dirty, but he was also bone-tired from three days of travel with only a few scattered hours of tense, fitful sleep. Feeling vaguely ashamed, he decided to wait until morning for a shower. Changing into the pajamas Evan had left, he opened the drapes on the single window and slipped under the covers of the bed nearest it. After he switched off the bedside lamp, he lay stiffly, suddenly wide-awake despite his fatigue.

At home, the night sky was inky black, lit only by the stars and moon. Here, the city itself gave off a glow that illuminated the trees behind the house and reflected off the low-hanging clouds. The hypnotic movement of the tree branches and the soothing sound of raindrops brushing the window screen lulled him and soon he began to relax. I like it here, he thought drowsily.When his eyes opened again, the room was filled with sullen light. Raindrops still spattered the window and the skies outside were the same leaden gray they'd been all week. Carey stretched languorously, feeling the stiffness that was becoming almost familiar. He lay quietly for a moment, listening, but the only sound was that of the rain beating against the roof. Silently, he stole out of bed and went to the door, which stood a few inches ajar. There was still no sound of life from the house beyond. Turning, he spied a white sheet of paper on the dresser.Dear Carey, the note read. The kids have school and I have to go to work, so you're on your own for the day. Please make yourself completely at home. You're welcome to anything you find in the kitchen. There are books in the study, a TV and VCR in the parlor. Here's a housekey in case you want to go out. Please lock the house behind you if you do. If you need me, I can be reached at 555-7817. Love, Aunt Cathy.

Replacing the note on the dresser, Carey picked up the brass-colored key that lay beside it. He gave a rueful glance toward the window. "Thanks, but I think I've had enough of walking in the rain," he said aloud. Someone had left more clean clothes, and, after a much-needed shower, Carey dressed and ventured downstairs.

He went to the kitchen first. The note had been quite specific about making himself at home so, feeling only a little out of place, he scrambled eggs and made himself some toast. Choosing to sit at the small table in the kitchen, he ate his breakfast quickly, washing his dishes and stacking them to dry before beginning a cautious exploration of the house.

He found the parlor right next to the dining room and went in to examine the promised television set. He ran his finger along the selection of videotapes, which included a number of old movie classics and thought he might try one or two later, after he'd seen more of his surroundings.

He stuck his head into the living room, but its somewhat sterile furnishings didn't appeal to him, so he went up the stairs to the second floor. Unlike the hallway on the third floor, which ran for several yards in each direction and had, by actual count, six doors opening off it, this hall was no longer than the stairwell, with a solitary door at each end. The one on his right, to Aunt Cathy's bedroom, he remembered, was closed, but the one on the left stood invitingly ajar and he went to it.The room beyond was large. The stained-glass windows he'd seen from outside the night before were here, and just as magnificent from the inside. Two desks stood opposite. The larger one, closest to the door, was meticulously tidy. The other one, while neat, had three or four fat volumes stacked on one corner with a not-quite tidy sheaf of papers next to them.Carey wandered around the perimeter of the room, examining an occasional book title, but not removing any from the shelves just yet. A small arrangement of framed photographs hung on a wall and he stopped to study them, recognizing Jacob, Evan and Vicky at different ages. Another boy appeared in many of the pictures and Carey guessed that was Charles.

As he looked at the pictures one by one, he came to one that made him stop. His father was in the middle with one arm around a much-younger Vicky and the other across Aunt Cathy's shoulders. All three were laughing. Carey experienced a quick, unreasonable stab of jealousy. He stifled it quickly, feeling ungrateful to the family who had so readily taken him in and disloyal to his father, who loved him. It was absurd to resent him loving anyone else.

He turned away from the pictures and an exquisitely fashioned chess set caught his eye. It was beautiful, each piece hand-carved and rubbed to a fine finish. Carey picked up the white king to examine the detail of the carving. Replacing the king on his dark square, he rubbed a finger over the glossy surface of the board itself. It was so finely crafted, he couldn't even feel the seams where the dark and light squares of wood intersected. Lined up in their rows, the pieces looked rigid and on impulse, he slid the pawn in front of the white king forward two spaces. The board looked less austere with a game in progress. Maybe tonight he could persuade Evan to play him a game.

Going back to the history section of this extensive private library, he chose a volume on the Civil War and settled down to read.

By mid-afternoon he was tired of reading and had moved to the parlor. He was stretched out on the comfortable sofa there, watching an old movie when he heard the front door open. He found the remote control, fumbling a little at its unfamiliarity before he managed to hit the pause button.

"Hi," Jacob said from the door. "What are you watching?"

"'Driving Miss Daisy,'" Carey answered.

"Oh, yeah, that's a good one," Jacob agreed. He had a zippered nylon bag slung over one shoulder and a brown paper shopping bag in each arm. Carey rolled off the couch and went to take one from him. "Thanks," Jacob said. "They were getting heavy."

Carey followed him into the kitchen and set the bag on the counter.

"What did you do today?" Jacob asked as he began to put the groceries away.

"Not much. I read for a while and watched some TV."

"You probably feel a little strange here."

"Yeah. What's really different is that there's nothing I'm supposed to do. It feels weird."

"I'll bet." Jacob was silent for a moment. "Carey, I'm sorry about your mom."

Carey looked down. "If you don't mind, I'd rather not talk about it." To his vast relief, Jacob let the subject go, turning the talk to other, more casual things.

Vicky arrived home a little later and barely had time to say "Hi" before disappearing up the stairs. After a while, Evan came in carrying muddy baseball spikes and a damp glove.

Last home was Catherine, arriving just as Jacob was setting dinner on the table. He directed Carey to the chair he'd occupied the night before. "It's Charles's place, really, but you can sit there for now. We'll figure out something else when he comes home."

Carey wondered a little at the necessity of 'figuring something out,' because the chair at the opposite end of the table was conspicuously empty. It was even stranger because Carey was almost sure a place had been laid there when he arrived last night. Shaking it off, he took his seat. Catherine, after hesitating a moment, sat beside Jacob. Plates were served and, for a moment, the only sound was the chink of stainless steel on earthenware. The quiet didn't last long, however, and Carey was content to simply listen to the varied conversations that went on around him. When the meal ended, he offered to help with the dishes but Catherine shook her head and drew him aside.

"Carey, I talked to your uncle today."

Carey felt his face go white.

"It's all right," she assured him quickly. "He's agreed to let you stay here for a while, if that's what you'd like to do."

Carey was almost limp with relief. "I think I'd like that," he whispered. "I can't go back there now." He didn't know how she'd gotten around Uncle Henry's determination, but he was glad she had.

"Carey." The quiet way she said his name, her voice full of sympathy and regret, frightened him. "Your mother's funeral was this morning."

Carey's gaze shifted from her face to a point somewhere beyond her left shoulder. He didn't wait for me, he thought bitterly. Aloud, he said only, "It doesn't matter. I said goodbye to her at the hospital."

He looked back and was surprised to see the grim set of her mouth. "It does matter, Carey, and I told him so."

"It doesn't matter," he repeated doggedly.

She studied his face for a moment and touched his arm. "All right."

The phone rang and she went to answer it. Carey stood in the hall, dazed, until Vicky came through and took his arm. "She's talking to Uncle Joe. She'll be hours yet," she explained with an airy wave toward her mother. "Come on."

Upstairs in the study, she threw herself gracefully, if a bit dramatically, on the leather couch. Evan followed more sedately and arranged his impressive height rather casually in a chair.

"What'll we do?" he asked. "Play a game? Dad..." he broke off with an anxious glance at Carey.

"I don't feel like a game," Vicky answered. "Think of something else."

"Why do I always have to think of something?" Evan demanded irritably.

"'Cause you're the brain with all the ideas. Come up with one!" his sister commanded.

Jacob had accompanied them from the first floor, but had gone on to his room above. Now he poked his head in from the hall. "Where's Mom?"

"Still on the phone downstairs," Vicky answered languidly. "Are you going... to see Amanda?"

"Yeah."

"'Bye." She waved in the general direction of the door. Evan didn't even bother with that small courtesy.

Vicky smiled at Carey impishly. "Jacob has a girlfriend."

"A lady-love," Evan added.

"A woman for whom his heart beats more quickly," Vicky declaimed, placing a dramatic hand over her heart. She giggled. "He and 'Manda have been in love since they were eleven," she added to Carey.

Catherine's entrance brought an end to this interesting, if somewhat confusing, exchange. She regarded the three teenagers with a little frown creasing her forehead. "Why don't you kids go downstairs for a while," she suggested. "I have some work I need to do."

"What?" Evan seemed surprised and Carey saw Vicky administer a furtive kick to his ankle.

"Okay, Mom," she said agreeably. "Come on, guys."

Catherine closed the study door behind them and Carey heard the distinctive snick of a lock being turned. That's funny. Why would she lock the door when nobody's here but us three kids?

Downstairs in the parlor, Evan lit a fire in the fireplace and stretched his considerable length along the hearth. Vicky usurped the couch and Carey made himself comfortable in a large overstuffed chair. He liked these kids, and enjoyed their spirited verbal battles. He was half-hoping they'd start another one, but instead, Evan looked down and said gravely, "I'm sorry about your mother, Carey."

"Me, too," Vicky chimed in softly. "Mom told us last night. I guess we didn't know what to say."

Carey shook his head. He had a sudden vision of his mother's funeral with no one there to mourn her but Uncle Henry and Aunt Emily. No one who loved her, he thought in sudden agony. I'm sorry, Mom.

He bent his head, choking back sudden tears. It was a hard battle, made more difficult by the gentle hand placed on his shoulder and a minute passed before he was able to wipe his eyes. It was a mild shock to learn that the comforting hand belonged to Evan. For some reason he had imagined it to be Vicky's, but she was sitting, head down, stiffly motionless on the couch.

"It's okay to cry, you know," she said suddenly. Carey was astonished to see that her eyes were wet.

"I know that," he replied with dignity. "I'm not ashamed of crying for my mother. It's just embarrassing to keep doing it in front of people."

"We aren't just people, Carey. We're family." With that gently profound statement, she threw herself back on the pillows arranged at one end of the couch. "Tell us about where you live."

Accepting the change of subject thankfully, he began to tell them of the farm. Inevitably his father was drawn into his stories and finally Carey spoke of his mother.

"She had to work really hard because of the farm," he said, lying on the floor and staring hard at the ceiling. "It didn't make a profit... family farms are really a thing of the past, but I think she liked the challenge and she had some money from when her husband died. My father sent money sometimes, too, but she always used that for me.

"The hardest thing," he went on, voice trembling, "is that I can't remember what I said to her that last morning because I was in a hurry. She always used to say "I love you," last thing before I went to school, and I don't think I even said goodbye." For a moment no one said anything.

"It's late," Evan said finally. "Let's go to bed."

 

* * * * *

 

As if to make up for the week of wet gloom, Saturday morning was clear and bright. Carey woke early and went downstairs quietly, trying not to wake anyone who might still be sleeping. To his surprise, he found Vicky already up, rummaging indiscriminately through the refrigerator.

She greeted him with a frown. "Hi. Any ideas for breakfast?"

He blinked. "No. What do you usually have?"

"Cereal. Toast. On Sundays when he's here, Jacob makes bacon and pancakes and all sorts of good stuff, but today's Saturday."

"I know." He looked over her shoulder at the refrigerator's neatly packed interior. "Lots of stuff in here. We ought to be able to come up with something."

"Can you cook?"

"Not very well. I can do eggs and stuff, though."

"You're on!" As if someone had thrown a switch, Vicky shifted from grouchy slow-motion to vivacious energy as she thrust a carton of eggs into Carey's hands.

"What else do you need?" she asked, obviously prepared to assist.

"A pan. Some butter... How do you like your eggs, anyway?" he inquired, a little taken aback.

"Scrambled. Sunnyside up. Over easy. Benedict. You cook 'em, I'll eat 'em."

"Over easy, then," he suggested gingerly.

"Great. Here's the pan Jacob always uses."

Carey placed a bit of butter in the pan. When the butter began to sizzle, he broke four eggs into it. "Can you make toast?"

"Toast I can handle," Vicky promised.

"Where is everybody?" Carey asked a few minutes later, as they ate.

"Sleeping, probably. Mom's idea of heaven is staying in bed 'til nine o'clock and she doesn't get to do it very often, and Evan's a night person. He's never up this early unless he has to be."

Carey nodded his understanding. "I like mornings," he said.

"So do I. My brother Charles and I are always the first ones up. And Daddy."

Carey had been wondering about that. "Where is your father?"

Vicky looked past him, thinking. "Not here," she said after a moment.

"Is he coming back soon?"

"Oh, sure. Do you want that last piece of toast?"

Carey declined and she began spreading it with raspberry jam as their talk turned to other things. After breakfast they did the dishes, laughing because they kept getting in each other's way. At last Vicky closed the dishwasher door and hung a damp dishtowel on a hook. "I'm going to my friend Cassie's," she announced. "What are you going to do 'til everybody gets up?"

Carey pondered. "Read, I guess. That reminds me, I was reading a book yesterday and I left it in the big room upstairs... the study?"

She nodded and he went on. "Anyway, when I came down, the door was closed. Do you think it would be okay if I went in and got it?"

"Sure. The door shouldn't be locked. Just be quiet so you don't wake my mom."

"I'll be careful. Goodbye."

"'Bye!" Pulling on a jacket, Vicky went out the front door, leaving Carey alone. Conscious of every small sound he made in the silent house, he crept up the stairs. The study door opened easily under his touch and he entered quietly, crossing to the table where he'd laid the Civil War book. It was still there and he picked it up.

As it had yesterday, the chess board caught his eye and he paused to admire it. The white pawn he'd moved had not been replaced; instead, someone had moved the black king's pawn out to challenge.Carey grinned and moved his queen's knight, at the same time wondering which of his cousins he was playing with.Going up to the third floor, he stretched out on one of the beds in Charles's room and opened his book. He spent part of the morning reading and part of it keeping Evan company while he ate breakfast.

"Do you like baseball?" Evan asked as he devoured cold pizza, washing it down with a can of Seven-up.

"Sure," Carey said. "Why?"

"I have a game this afternoon. Want to come?"

It sounded a lot better than spending another aimless afternoon alone. "Okay."

Catherine came in then, looking rumpled and sleepy. "'Morning, boys," she greeted. "Didn't anybody make coffee?"

"I don't drink it," Evan answered brusquely, pushing back his chair. "I'm going upstairs."

Torn between going with Evan and staying, Carey finally opted to stay. Catherine's sigh as Evan left made him think... well, he wasn't sure what he thought, but she had been nice to him and he didn't want her to think he didn't appreciate it.

"I can make coffee," he volunteered.

"Can you? That would be nice, Carey," she said a bit absently, gazing after Evan.

"Would you like me to fix you some eggs?" Carey offered shyly.

At that, she looked fully at him and smiled. "You do that and I'll be eternally grateful."

While the coffee brewed, he dug out the pan he'd used to fry his and Vicky's breakfast and produced two more perfect over-easy eggs. "Toast?"

"Are there any bagels?"

He brought them to the table, along with the eggs and a cup of fresh coffee. "Carey, you're wonderful. Were you this much help at home, or are these your company manners?"

He grinned guiltily. "A little of both, I guess," he admitted. "My father liked to surprise my mother with breakfast and I learned by watching him; it got so I'd surprise her sometimes when he wasn't even there."

"Jacob used to do that," she said between bites. "He spends so much time... elsewhere now, he doesn't often do breakfasts any more.

"How do you like New York so far?" she asked as he refilled her empty cup.

"I don't know yet. The only place I've been is here."

She looked surprised and then laughed. "I guess it is. We'll have to get you out and show you the sights."

"I'd like that. I like it here," he added reticently. "I like your kids."

She gave him an appraising look. "You and Evan seem to have hit it off."

"Yeah. He's nice."

She grimaced. "Nice isn't necessarily a word I'd apply to Evan," she said, "but basically he's a pretty good kid. He's just a little wild sometimes. Maybe you'll calm him down some."

"Maybe," Carey agreed. Evan didn't seem at all wild to him, but then he hadn't known him long. He started to carry the dishes to the sink, but she stopped him.

"You cooked. I'll clean up."

It was what his mother had always said and he grinned. "Sounds fair to me."

Upstairs, he found Evan's door closed. Hesitant to disturb the other boy after the abrupt way he'd left the kitchen, Carey went back into Charles's room and picked up his book.

Nearly an hour later, he heard a door open and rose to investigate. Evan was changing into his baseball uniform.

"May I come in?" Carey asked hesitantly from the door.

"What? Oh, yeah, sure." Evan brushed some books and papers from a chair. "Sit down."

Carey traversed the room with caution and took the offered seat. He'd glanced into Evan's room yesterday and was astounded by the complete and utter disregard for order that reigned. This was the first time he'd been inside. He couldn't remember ever seeing a mess quite this extensive... obviously Evan never bothered to pick anything up or put anything away. The only thing approaching orderliness was a corner of the desk, where a camera bag, two lenses and a few rolls of film sat in such a way that Carey was sure they had been gently placed there. Everything else in the room appeared to have been tossed, thrown or dropped.

"I'm almost ready," Evan said, kicking at a pile of clothes in a corner. Eventually, a dark blue baseball cap worked its way to the surface and he bent to pick it up. His baseball glove was on the bed and his jacket on the floor, and Evan swept them both up in one smooth movement. "Let's go."

Getting his own jacket from Charles's room, Carey followed Evan down the stairs. As they reached the door, they met Vicky coming in. "Going already?" she asked. "Wait a minute and I'll come with you."

"'Kay," Evan agreed, a bit sullenly.

Halfway up the stairs, Vicky stopped. "Is Mom going?" she asked over her shoulder.

"I don't know," Evan answered.

Heaving an exasperated sigh, she turned around to face him. "Does she know you're playing?"

Evan shrugged. "I guess. I gave her a schedule at the beginning of the season."

"Did you remind her?"

"Why? She wouldn't come anyway. She's always too busy." Evan's tone was fraught with resentment.

"God, you're such a jerk sometimes!"

"She never comes anymore," he said resentfully.

"She does, too," Vicky challenged. "She came to a game a couple of weeks ago."

"When?" Evan seemed genuinely surprised.

"A couple of weeks ago," Vicky repeated. "On a Wednesday. The case she was trying recessed early and she stopped by for about four innings. She was late leaving for a meeting with Uncle Joe because she waited to see you bat."

"I never saw her," Evan said, uncertainty creeping into his voice.

Vicky threw up her hands in despair. "Evan, when you're playing ball, you wouldn't see the Queen of England if she walked through the infield complete with crown and scepter, unless she got in your way."

"You really think she'll come?"

"Evan, you are so stupid!" Vicky spun around and marched upstairs, shaking her head in overt disbelief.

"Are you going to get your mom?" Carey asked after a moment. He wasn't sure he understood the conflict behind this particular conversation, but he did see a flicker of uncertainty in Evan's eyes."Do you want me to ask her?" Carey offered.

"If you want to," Evan shrugged.

Carey trotted upstairs and paused between the two closed doors. Finally, because it was nearest, he tapped on the bedroom door.

"Yes?" Aunt Cathy's voice floated out to him.

"It's Carey," he answered. "Evan has a baseball game this afternoon..."

He heard the lock click and the door swung open.

"I think he'd like it if you'd come," he finished lamely.

She was dressed casually in running shoes, jeans and a sweater. "I know," she said. "He did give me a schedule and I did look at it, so I was planning to come even before he and Vicky held their shouting match on the stairs."

Carey grinned.

 

"What position do you play, Evan?" Carey asked a few minutes later, as they walked to the game. The field wasn't far and in New York, Catherine had explained, driving a car wasn't time efficient unless you were going a long way. "Nine blocks is an easy stroll and we'd never find a parking place anywhere near."

"I'm pitching today," Evan answered, flexing his left shoulder. "Feels like a no-hitter."

When they reached the field, Evan flung a sketchy goodbye over one shoulder and jogged off to join his teammates. Carey went with Vicky and Catherine to the bleachers, where Carey was introduced to more people than he could possibly be expected to remember before the game finally started.

The no-hitter Evan had predicted didn't come about, but he did pitch a shut-out, and drove in the winning run. Carey, Vicky and Catherine all cheered lustily.

After the game, Evan, surrounded by teammates, waved Carey over. "My cousin," he said.

Some of the other boys acknowledged the casual introduction with smiles or nods. "Hey, Chandler," a boy Carey recognized as the center fielder shouted from the other side of the group. "We're going for pizza! Coming?"

"Bring your cousin," the second baseman suggested.

"Bring Vicky," chimed another boy Carey couldn't see.

Hoots and whistles followed. "Bring Vicky," someone mimicked in a high-pitched voice.

Evan grinned and waved his hand in a derisive gesture before turning to Carey. "Want to come?" he invited.

Carey glanced over to where Catherine was speaking to another mother."Your mom's here," he pointed out.

Evan followed his gaze. "So?"

Carey stared at him. Evan's attitude toward his mother encompassed a wide range, from casually offhand to utterly rude and Carey couldn't understand it. Learning to accept his father's need to wander had taught him that parents were people too, and the terrible loss of his mother had reminded him of the fragility of life. Suddenly, out of his own pain, he felt a rush of anger toward this boy who had so much and didn't appreciate it.

"How can you treat her like that?" he hissed through clenched teeth. "Don't you know how lucky you are to have a mother? I'd give anything, anything, if I could see mine one more time, and you just throw it away!" His voice broke as he strangled the tears that threatened. In his fury and his pain, he put out his hands and shoved the bigger boy in the chest.

Instead of retaliating, Evan absorbed Carey's rage, placing a steadying hand on his shoulder with a look of mixed surprise and realization.

"My mom's here," he told the other boys, most of whom had missed the quietly angry exchange. "Maybe next time. See you guys on Monday!" More subdued than Carey had ever seen him, he went to stand beside Vicky and, heart pounding in reaction, Carey followed.

"Aren't you going for pizza with the guys?" Vicky asked, with a curiously sideways glance at Carey.

"No," Evan answered. "But you're invited," he added in a valiant attempt to lighten the atmosphere.He expertly dodged the elbow she threw at him.

Her conversation ended, Catherine turned toward them, a trace of surprise crossing her face when she saw Evan. "Aren't you going with the boys?"

"Not today. Are we going home?"

"Actually," she smiled, "I thought we might walk across the park to Fifth and see if we can't find Carey some more clothes."

Evan made an agonized face. "Shopping!"

"Pizza, too," his mother promised. "I'll buy."

Because Evan claimed to be starving, they stopped for pizza first. As they waited for their order, Evan looked down at his hands. "Mom?"

She turned from what Vicky was saying. "Yes, Evan?"

"Thanks for coming today. I really like it when you're there."

She put a hand on his. "It may surprise you to hear that I enjoy watching my son, the star athlete."

Evan ducked his head. "...I'm sorry I act the way I do sometimes. I love you, Mom."

 

Carey settled comfortably into the Chandler household during the next few days. He liked Aunt Cathy. She always found a moment to speak to him and make him feel he was wanted here.Evan was rapidly becoming a friend and Carey spent as much time in Evan's disaster of a room as he did in Charles's. The Chandlers, Carey learned, liked classical music, and when Evan found out that Carey didn't know much about it, he took it upon himself to educate him, setting aside his other musical favorites - rock groups that even Carey, who liked most rock, found gratingly weird - for Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven and Grieg.

Catherine commented on it one morning as she left for work. "Anyone who can get Evan to play Bach and Mendelssohn instead of the stuff he usually listens to has my undying gratitude."

Carey wasn't sure about Vicky. She blew hot and cold... sometimes she was friendly, even seeking him out. Sometimes she hardly seemed to notice he was there. Evan advised him to write her moods off to the vagaries of femininity and, reluctantly, Carey decided he was right.

Jacob he hardly knew, seeing him only at meals and in passing on the stairs, but he seemed nice enough.

The only mystery seemed to be Aunt Cathy's husband - his father's foster brother. At first, Carey had assumed he was away, perhaps out of town on business. One evening, however, he had gone up to his room for something and as he came back down, he heard voices behind the locked study door... he recognized Aunt Cathy's, though he couldn't make out the words. He wouldn't have even paused except that she was answered by what was clearly a man's voice.Uncertainly, he teetered on the bottom step, not wanting to eavesdrop, though he really couldn't anyway because the words were indistinct, but baffled because he knew the voice did not belong to Jacob or Evan and he knew of no one else in the house.

A day later, he heard the voices again, and this time Evan was with him. "Who is that?" he asked.

"What? Oh, that's my father." Evan was offhand about it, not even breaking stride. Carey stumbled along in his wake, thinking that something was very queer.

The chess game continued. Every day, Carey went into the study to find that someone had moved one of the black pieces and every day he made a counter-move with the white. He suspected Evan of being his mysterious opponent until the evening when Evan paused by the chessboard and asked, "Who's playing?"

"I am," Carey admitted. "I don't know who's playing black, though. I thought it was you."

Evan snorted. "If it was me, you'd have lost already," he said, studying the board.

"Modest, aren't we?" Vicky inquired.

Her brother ignored her. "Not Mom... you'd have beaten her by now."

Carey thought Evan had said that mainly for Catherine's benefit because she had just entered the room. Evan had been treating her much more carefully since Carey's outburst, his showing his affection through light-hearted teasing.

"Thank you very much," she said with a smile.

Evan grinned back. "Hey, I love you, Mom, but you're a lousy chess player."

"Funny. That's what your father tells me."

"Yeah, well, he's definitely getting a better game out of Carey," Evan said.

"I'm playing your father?" Carey asked in surprise.

"Have to be," Evan said. "I recognize his game." He squinted at the board. "I see how to get him, though. Want me to tell you?"

Carey looked at the board. Six moves into the game, it was fairly even and he had been pondering his next move off and on all afternoon. He needed to decide soon, because, if she followed her usual pattern, Aunt Cathy would soon be asking them to leave the study. Evan's offer was tempting, but...

"No, thanks," he answered at last. "It's more fun if I do it myself." Feeling slightly awkward under Evan's amused scrutiny, he reached out and moved one of his bishops. It was the move he'd been leaning toward, and, while he wasn't sure it was right, it was the best one he saw. Looking up, he found Evan nodding in agreement.

"Not what I'd have done, but not bad," he said. "You've got a shot at him. I'll bet Dad's enjoying this. Nobody else around here plays so close to his level."

"He makes Evan spot him a rook," Vicky added, coming to peer at the game in progress. "The rest of us are too easy for Daddy and he has to play without his queen. Charles gives him a good game but he's hardly ever here."

"Okay, kids, that's enough. Out." Catherine broke up the conversation and somehow, Carey never did get to ask the questions he wanted to ask.

For the most part, Carey thought he was coping fairly well with his mother's loss and his father's continued absence. During the days, he found things to keep his mind occupied and did not allow himself to dwell on his circumstances. No one said anything about how long his visit would last or when he would have to return to Illinois and he resolved to take each day as it came.

Only late at night, after everyone was in bed, did his grief and anxiety surface. He fought it as best he could, his determination waging war against the dreadful emptiness inside him. One night, as he battled his sorrow alone in Charles's darkened room, Vicky tapped on the open door. "Carey?"

Carey turned his head. "I thought you were asleep. It's late."

"Are you all right?" she whispered.

"I'm okay." Furtively, he dashed the tell-tale tears from his cheek. "I was just thinking about my mom."

Coming a little way into the room, she stopped uncertainly. "I know. I felt it."

He looked up, a trace of curiosity pushing his grief aside for the moment. "What do you mean, you felt it?"

Vicky sighed and curled up on the other twin bed, her bare feet tucked beneath her. "Do you know what empathic means?"

"No. Well, sort of. It has something to do with feelings."

"That's close. I'm... empathic. I can feel other people's feelings."

"You're kidding." Totally distracted, he sat up straight and stared at her.

"No. Sometimes I wish I was. It's not an easy gift to have. My father has it, too."

Carey was intrigued. He thought he even believed her. "How does it work?"

"It's different for different people. A lot seems to depend on physical and emotional closeness."

"For instance..."

"For instance, if I'm in the same room with my mother, and I try, I can feel most everything she does. If she's feeling something very strongly, I can sense it from farther away... maybe the next room. With my brothers or my friends Cassie and Nathaniel, I'm less sensitive, but I can pick up most emotions if I'm close to them. With people I don't know, I only get very strong feelings and I usually have to be touching them, or at least right next to them."

"You weren't right next to me," Carey said quietly. "You were in the next room."

"I was two rooms over," Vicky corrected him, sounding troubled. "You forgot the bathroom."

"How could you feel me?"

"I don't know."

"Maybe it's because we're cousins," Carey suggested. There was something disturbing about the idea of someone else feeling what he felt.

"Not real cousins," she reminded him quietly, not meeting his eyes. "But I can feel Uncle Devin pretty well. Maybe it's because you're his son."

"Maybe." He stared out the window, working up the courage to ask a question. "Vicky, when am I going to meet your father?"

She looked at him sharply. "I don't know."

"Why not? Why is everyone so secretive?"

She sighed deeply. "It's partly because we don't know if you're going to stay or go back to Illinois. And partly because we didn't want to..." she waved her hands, groping for words. "...hit you with too much at once, I guess."

"I don't understand. Why would meeting your father be too much?"

She sighed again. "My mother would kill me if she knew I was saying this," she said at last. "But I can feel you, Carey, and I know you can be trusted. She can't and it's harder for her. She's torn between keeping my father safe and giving him the life she wants him to have."

"I don't understand," Carey said again, bewildered.

"My father is different. You've never seen anyone like him. Ever."

It seemed a rather dogmatic statement and Carey challenged it. "How do you know? My life hasn't been all that sheltered."

"Because there isn't anyone else in the world like Daddy. He's unique."

"Everybody's unique, Vicky. Even identical twins."

"I don't mean unique as in individual. I mean sole. Single. One of a kind."

Carey still didn't understand, but he sensed that she wasn't prepared to go into any further detail. "Will you stay and talk to me?" he asked after a moment. "I don't think I'm ready to go to sleep and I don't want to be alone."

"Sure," she agreed readily, her voice gentle. "What do you want to talk about?"

Carey didn't know. He didn't want to talk so much as he didn't want to be alone, so he waved his hands expansively. "You choose."

"Okay." She shifted positions, stretching out on her stomach and propping her chin on her fist. "Tell me some more about what it's like to live on a farm."

He started to, and for a time he was transported back to Illinois. Warm memories came first, and Vicky listened as he related small incidents that demonstrated some of the differences between city and country life.

Slowly, inexorably, his thoughts were drawn toward more recent events. He had given Catherine only the spare details of his mother's death, unwilling to relive any of it, but now he found himself reciting an emotionless account of that cold, gray Monday less than two weeks ago. Vicky listened quietly until he reached the part about running away from the hospital.

"Why? If he's your uncle..."

"Don't call him that!" he burst out. "He's not my uncle! He's not any part of me! I hate him, and I hate having his name!" Suddenly, helplessly, he began to sob.

He felt her tentative touch on his arm, but it was quickly withdrawn. "I can't," she said, distressed. "Daddy..."

A moment later a strong arm circled Carey's shoulders, pulling him against a wide chest, and a deep, masculine voice offered gentle words of comfort. Surrounded by so much love and compassion, Carey finally surrendered himself to his all-encompassing grief.Much later, he became aware of Catherine's voice. Through eyes blurred by tears, he saw Evan and Jacob hovering anxiously in the doorway. Catherine stood nearby, her arms around Vicky, who was sobbing quietly. Carey himself was still in the hard, comforting embrace of...

With a deep, shuddering breath, he pulled away and looked up into a face that was, as Vicky had promised, unique.

 

It was a week later, and Carey looked out at the wispy tendrils of clouds that reached out to touch the airplane's silvery skin. The ground, far below, was barely visible through the patches of white as the plane winged its way west, toward Illinois.

Someone sat down in the seat beside him and he looked up, smiling.

"Scared?" Catherine asked.

He shrugged. "I've never flown before, but I know it's safe."

She nudged him impatiently. "That's not what I mean. You're spending too much time with Evan."

He ducked his head and grinned. "Yeah, I'm a little nervous. Going back home, knowing my mother won't be there... seeing her grave... it's painful."

"You know, you can still change your mind. No one is forcing you to do this."

"I know. And I know the Gregorys would take me, so I wouldn't have to live with Aunt Emily and... him. But I like New York." He looked at her solemnly. "I feel as if I'm part of your family, and I like that feeling."

She squeezed his hand. "We're glad to have you, Carey. You are a part of our family." She gave him a sideways glance. "You're certainly good for Evan."

"Evan's okay," Carey said, brushing aside the compliment. He grinned in sudden excitement. "He must have told me fourteen times to be sure and pack my ball glove."

"You pack whatever you like. We'll have it all shipped home for you."

"And the rest goes in the estate sale," Carey added, a little sadly.

"The house and the land will still belong to you. When you're eighteen, you can decide what to do with them. Meanwhile, your... Henry Schrock is willing to lease the land for a fair price."

Carey nodded. Facing Henry Schrock was something else he had to do, and it helped, in an unexplainable way, to know that he no longer used the man's name. It had been Vicky's suggestion that he change his name, and once she heard the reasons behind it, Catherine concurred. "It isn't difficult to do it officially," she said. "I'll help you. Meanwhile, it's legal to use any name you like as long as you don't plan on breaking any laws or committing fraud."

Smiling, Carey touched the pocket where his plane ticket rested. It was in his new name... Carey Wells.

 

THE END