My Flock

Chapter 1

Yes, it's Friday! I'm free! I told the steering wheel of my truck as I turned out of the parking lot. God, what a week, I'm ready. What a week it had been too. Not only had my boss been on vacation all week forcing me to do both her job and mine too, but spring had sprung with a vengeance at home. Between Little League tryouts, this year for three kids, practices for the boys' different roles for their school's Easter Program, and a million other things, my home life as a single parent was starting to seem to be another full time job, that of a professional chauffeur.

Damn, it's Miller time! I decided as I parked in my driveway and happened to notice my watch. 3:45, this sucks. One of the perks of my job, a computer network administrator at one of the local military bases, was that I usually left work at noon on Friday's, but not this week, not with my boss being off. The weight of the extra files I had stored on my laptop, projects I needed to finish up this afternoon made my laptop case somehow feel heavier as I carried it inside.

After jumping into a pair of shorts and tee-shirt, I grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, climbed into my recliner and perched my laptop on my legs. I spent a couple of minutes organizing my thoughts regarding the first of several reports I had to complete when the doorbell chimed. I started to set my laptop aside and get up, but when I heard the door burst open I didn't bother, knowing who it was.

"Damn, are you playing hooky, or did CPS finally figure you out and fire your ass?" I shouted over my shoulder.

"I wish! Actually, I'm still working," Tim Young, my best friend and across the street neighbor boomed. After a brief pause I heard the refrigerator door open. "What's this shit, you only have a twelve-pack chilled? What are you going to drink?" he asked.

I was trying to think of a comment that would be a good retort, but when he joined me in the family room his face told me not to. Tim and I were both old bikers (pot smoking motorcycle riders) that were forced into adulthood by marriage and family, but Tim showed his biker days much more than I did. Today his normally hard, expressionless face showed a stressed look I had rarely seen.

"One of my workers called me a few minutes ago, and I think we have a problem," he said as he sat down.

My stomach instantly tightened into a huge knot. Tim was a high ranking supervisor with CPS (Children's Protective Services), and over the Christmas holidays had been instrumental in first allowing my youngest son, Carl, to stay in my home as an emergency foster care placement, and later making the thirteen-year-old a permanent member of my family. Although I was fairly sure that the adoption proceedings for my little angel had been finalized, the thought of CPS intervention scared the life out of me.

"About Carl?" I risked.

"I don't think so, well I hope not," he answered. His face tightened a little more, scaring me much, much more. "But, speak of the Devil," he groaned. When I followed his gaze out the window I wasn't sure what to think when I saw the covey of kids bailing out of my Dad's van, now parked in my driveway.

I barely had time to set my laptop on a nearby table before Jerry, one of my fourteen-year-old twins, hopped on one arm of my recliner and leaned into a hug. "Hi Dad!" he bubbled. Jeff, the other of my twins bounced onto the other arm as Carl sprang into my lap. I caught a glimpse of Timmy, Tim's son, rushing to his dad through the mass of thin heads pushing against my face.

"Hi guys," I grunted, hoping there was still enough air in my chest to talk and breath. "How was school?" I ignored their 'dumb parent' glances as I enjoyed their cuddle for a couple of more seconds.

"I'm hungry!" Jeff announced. With the perfect coordination only identical twins could achieve both boys dove off the recliner's arms and bolted out of the room, their shoes skidding like a drag-racer's tires as they fought for traction on the carpet.

Carl hopped out of my lap and started behind his brothers, but turned back and darted to Tim and pushed into a quick hug against the big man.

"He's come a long way, you've done an unbelievable job with him," Tim commented as the boys rushed to the kitchen.

God, has he ever, I thought. I had to blink my eyes to keep from crying as I thought back to the freezing night Carl appeared on my door wearing only a light jacket, having survived in an unheated house on cold beans and potato chips for two days after his parents abandoned him. I took a long swallow of beer to fight back the load of nausea I felt coming as I remembered what we learned had been done to him before he came here; the two years or so he had served as a sex slave rented out by his father, and the frightened animal he was when he came to me. I found my thoughts even seemed to sob as I tried to silently offer God a quick thank you prayer.

"Christian, , , Christian!" Tim's deep voice snapped me back. "I need to talk to you, let's go outside."

I intended to get a fresh beer on our way through the kitchen to the patio, but had second thoughts as I watched my refrigerator rocking side to side, four pair of long thin arms robbing it of what seemingly was the majority of its contents. Thankfully one of the boys distracted everyone's attention, announcing his discovery of a new package of cookies, and I managed to grab a couple of cans without my hands being seized and used as sandwich makings.

"Have you heard from Mike in the past few days, or has Carl?" Tim asked after we stepped onto the patio. When I indicated we hadn't he continued, "I think we have a problem, a serious one. My worker had the feeling Mike's parents have been putting her off all week as she tried to arrange a routine home visit. Earlier today the worker visited Mike's school, and learned that the last time the boy attended classes was Tuesday. When she confronted his parents they finally admitted that he had gone missing, 'a day or two ago', were their words."

My heart sank into my groin as I digested his words. Mike was another boy forced to participate in the sex for hire ring Carl's biological father was a part of. In many ways the youngster had a much harsher time than Carl had, if that was possible. Mike had been kidnapped and held captive in a locked room for the better part of a year until, after Carl's rescue, my new son provided enough information to the FBI that they could recover him.

Besides the psychological trauma the lad had suffered while in captivity, things were rocky, to say the least, when he was returned to his parents. Although they seemingly loved him, both of them, but especially Mike's father, had major concerns about the boy; somewhat thinking of the boy as damaged goods. He was all but convinced that his son was homosexual because of what had been done to the lad.

Tim's staff had worked extensively with the family since their reunion, even getting me involved; Mike had been a frequent weekend visitor in my home. There had been no doubt Jack, Mike's dad, seemed to be coming around and appeared to be reestablishing a loving relationship with his son, until now.

I took a drink from my beer. "You know of course, I had an hour or so of homework to do before beginning a carefree weekend, until you showed up," I commented. "What happens now, what can I do?"

"I wish I knew," Tim began. "First off, we have to find Mike, or try, I hope we can. The Snyder's are also of concern, if we can find the boy they have a lot of explaining to do before I place him back in their home. Like I said, you had best restock your frig!" He paused a second or so before asking, "How sure are you that Carl hasn't heard from him?"

"I'm sure he hasn't, every time they email or talk on the phone I hear all about their conversation at least two or three times," I answered. I wasn't sure if Tim's eyes or the how many thousand dubious adventures my boys, like all teenagers, had been involved in made me question the accuracy of my answer.

A quick glimmer of reflected light from the patio door distracted me, and I twisted around just in time to see a pixie little face and tuft of blond hair disappear from the door's glass. "Jerry, Jeff, may I see you out here please? RIGHT NOW please," I barked after rushing over and jerking the door open.

A couple of seconds later my red faced twins shuffled out the door. Their embarrassed, guilt ridden expressions provided an answer even before I asked, "Were you two listening to our conversation?"

Like all identical twins mine had always had what had to be a telepathic ability to communicate with each other, but my sons had managed to expand on this capability, they, I was sure, could read my, and other's minds.

"Were you, how many times have we talked about this?" I asked the almost quivering youngsters.

"We weren't Dad, we weren't!" Jeff whimpered. They both blushed through several tones of white and ashen as I glared at them. "Well, maybe we didn't mean to. . . Well, but we are worried about Mike!" he admitted.

I was about to let them off the hook when Tim asked, "Have you guys heard from Mike," "No sir!" they answered in unison.

"Has Carl?" Tim pushed.

They glanced at each other, I would almost swear I could see invisible little antennas pushing out of their heads as they remained silent for a brief second. "No sir, ah, he was gonna write him tonight." Jerry said. "He wants Mike to come here for, , , ah, nothing sir," he groaned, cutting himself off in mid-sentence.

"Thanks guys. But, not a word of this to Carl, right now," I said. "Please, let us tell him, okay?" I added extending my arms. Instantly I had a double armload of kid pushed into a tight hug. I enjoyed their cuddle for a couple of seconds before telling them, "It's Friday, you guys go have some fun outside."

They gave my shoulders a quick squeeze before turning and starting inside. "Right after you put on your antennas!" I snapped, referring to the orthodontic headgear they wore as a part of their treatment.

I was trying to ignore their dirty looks when Tim barked, "Timmy too!"

"And Carl," I injected as they shuffled inside.

Tim was quiet for a couple of seconds. His voice sounded a little uncharacteristically tense when he asked, "How comfortable are you with, that Carl has not heard from Mike?"

"You know the twins,"

He looked away from toward the back yard. "Can you still get into his email, do you still know his password?"

I clinched my jaw as I digested his request. "I do, but I would never use it, not without talking to him first."

His face told me he didn't like my answer. "I need to talk to him, too," Tim responded.

"What's going on?" my Dad asked as he stepped out the door. "From your faces you looked like you need these," he added, handing us fresh beers.

His face tightened with concern as I filled him in on the situation regarding Mike. A widower like me, besides being the twins biological, and now Carl's adopted grandfather, Dad had assumed the role of nanny for the boys since he moved in with us after I lost my wife and oldest son several years ago.

"Damn. Mike and Carl are close, that is going to be hard on him. He is just settling in, finally feeling secure here, in a normal family," he responded. After glancing at Tim and I he asked, "What are you going to do, how are you going to tell him."

"I'm not sure," I mumbled. I looked around, hoping for suggestions, but received none. "Well, let's go talk to him," I told Tim.

The kids were in the middle of a heated soccer scrimmage with some of the neighbor kids when we stepped outside. I debated in calling Carl inside where we would have more privacy, but wanted to keep our conversation as casual as possible, and lowered the tailgate on my truck. Tim and I sat down on it and sipped our beers as we watched them play.

After a couple of minutes someone scored a goal. We cheered the goal for a second or so, and I caught Carl's attention, motioning for him to join us. He gave me a somewhat indignant look, that quickly changed to one of concern as he shuffled toward us.

"I know you want to play, we won't keep you long. I just wanted to talk to you about something," I said, gesturing for him to sit on the tailgate next to me. He gave me a timid grin and shuffled his feet as his only response. "Come on, I won't bite," I said, slipping my hands under his armpits and lifting his thin body between us.

"I didn't do anything," he told his shoes. "Well, did I? I mean I didn't mean to do it, I promise!" he whined. I put my arm around his shoulders and was about to answer when he added, "Well, Jerry and Jeff made me!"

Hmm, if I let him talk, how many crimes can we solve? I told myself. "You're not in any trouble, I promise," I answered, trying to keep from laughing. "We were just wondering if you have heard from Mike lately, we were wondering how he is doing."

He seemed to relax a little. "Oh, I guess he's okay." A second later I felt his neck tense as he looked up at me. "Oh, ah, I was gonna tell you later, I meant ask you later, before I did anything. I really was Dad, I promise!"

It was my turn to tense up, and I tried to ignore Tim's prying eyes. "What were you going to, , , talk to me about?" I risked.

"Well, ah, , , Mike really wants to, , , I mean I wanted to, , ," he fell silent for the better part of a second, concentrating as if he was preparing an earth shaking statement. "Can Mike come here for spring vacation? He is out of school the same time we are and everything, and he really likes it here," he spat out. "Please Pop, please?" he added, casting a pleading look at me, complete with the sad puppy dog eyes his brothers had taught him to use.

"Well, let me think about it," I replied, trying to buy myself a second or so to think. "It doesn't sound like a bad idea, how long have you and Mike been planning this?" I decided to try.

"Ah, a couple of weeks I guess. But I didn't invite him or nothing! I was gonna ask first, I promise!"

"Thanks, I'm proud of you for that," I told him, giving his bony shoulder a soft squeeze. "I tell you what. When you guys come in to get ready for supper, why don't you email him, and tell him to ask his parents. When we hear back, we'll work out the details, okay?"

"Wow! Thanks Dad! I wanta write him now!" he hooted as he turned and pushed into a hug against my side.

"You go have some fun, , , I'm sure he is outside playing right now so he wouldn't get it until later," I suggested. He gave me a disappointed look when our eyes met, his face changing toward one of his trademark liver-lipped frowns.

With seemingly perfect timing the kids in the street distracted us with a loud series of cheers and cries, announcing another goal had been scored. "Besides, I think your team needs you!" I proclaimed, gently pushing him off the tailgate.

He glanced between me and the street a couple of times. "Thanks Dad, I love you!" he exclaimed before he pushed his facebow into my chin, gave me a quick kiss, and darted back to the game.

"Why didn't you tell him?" Tim asked a minute or so later.

I didn't answer for several seconds, somewhat asking myself the same question. "I'm not sure, but something doesn't seem right here," I told the kids I was watching more than Tim. "You know how much Mike likes it here, I don't picture him running away a week before he might get to visit," I said after another long pause. "Besides, if he is on the run, and gets somewhere where he can check his email, he might decide to contact us. I'm not sure what, but something is awry here."

We stared at each other for what had to be two or three minutes. "I need to go make some phone calls," Tim announced as he stood and started across the street to his house.

Our evening was surprisingly calm. I managed to finish my homework before supper, despite my mind drifting back toward Mike's dilemma between every paragraph. Carl fired his email off to his friend. I found myself wondering if I would get a complaint call from our ISP as he checked for a response what seemed like every five minutes, but they seemed to understand. The boys argued briefly when I sent them to bathe and get in bed about ten o'clock, but their busy day, and the busier schedule they had for tomorrow won, and after tucking them in I wasn't far behind them in climbing into my bed. I think I was asleep before my head landed on the pillow.

Who the hell is this ass hole? I wondered as my eyes focused and I read a unfamiliar name and number on my caller ID. Two-fifteen? In the morning? I didn't know the phone system was awake at this ungodly hour! I thought. I was sure someone had mis-dialed, and seeing it was a different area code than mine, that the poor bastard was paying long distance charges to place it, I decided to ignore it. I rolled back over and closed my eyes for a couple of seconds. When the phone refused to stop ringing I tried to stare it down briefly, but finally answered with little more than a grunt.

"Ah, Pop?" what I thought was a female voice whispered through the phone's earpiece. Still half asleep I mumbled something asking who the girl was trying to call. I snapped almost awake when she softly answered, "Mister Miller? It's Mike."

"Yes, it's me Mike, it's Pop, are you okay?" I answered as I tossed my blankets off and sat up in bed. "Where are you, are you okay?" I tried. My mind went into hyper-drive as I listened to the silence on the other end of the phone.

"Ah, sorta sir I'm scared."

"Where are you? Do you need help?" I risked.

"Ah, sorta, sir. I, well, I, , , I hate it here, they're mean to us a lot and stuff and I didn't mean to do nothing I really didn't." he whispered.

My stomach knotted as I tried to digest what he had gotten himself into. "Where is here, do you know where you are?" I asked.

"At this weird house with some crazy men. My dad said I gotta live here now but I hate it! They yell at us all the time and lock all the doors all the time and it's like when I was with, , ," he fell silent.

Holy Shit! What is going on? I thought. I punched the recall on my caller ID, 'Abtal, Mohamad' it read.

"I'm just getting a drink sir," he seemed to shout before the line went dead, replaced by a dial tone.

I stared at the phone's hand-piece for a second or so, I guess trying to convince myself I was dreaming before I remembered to hang it up. Wow, that was not real, was it? I wondered. I glanced back at the caller ID hoping against hope it wasn't, then picked the phone back up and punched in Tim's number.

"I just heard from Mike, and I think he's in trouble," I said when my still sleepy neighbor answered.

"You damn right he is," Tim groaned. "Christian, it's two o'clock, what's up?"

"Get over here, you're not going to believe this shit. Hurry too," I answered.

I climbed into a pair of shorts, unlocked the front door's deadbolt, and booted my computer. I had just finished running the area code and phone number Mike had called from on my Department of Defense (DOD) site, learning it had been placed from a small town called Mountain Ridge, about two hundred miles away, when Tim burst in without ringing the doorbell.

He all but gawked at me with a lost expression for what had to be two or three seconds after I filled him in on Mike's call. "Shit, and I thought he was a runaway. You were right," he mumbled. He hesitated, seemingly in deep thought briefly then added, "We have a Resident Worker in Mountain Ridge, if we can find her on a Saturday I can have him check this out first thing in the morning."

"I'm flying up there tonight, are you coming?" I announced. (As a hobby I was a private pilot)

"Christian, if you went to Mountain Ridge, where would you start to look? It's going to take some time to get a location, and,"

"It's right there, a little over two miles north of Mountain Ridge on what looks like a small rural property," I interrupted, pointing at my computer monitor, and the DOD map I had brought up.

He glanced between me and the computer screen, his face developing a slight grin. "Is that legal?" he all but snickered.

"Do you really care if it is?" I countered. I didn't wait for an answer, and called my FBO (Fixed Base Operator, about like an airport terminal but for private aircraft), then woke my dad up, filling him in.

Tim woke his case worker on the way to the airport and directed she to meet us at a small landing strip just outside Mountain Ridge. After performing my pre-flight check (the careful inspection pilots are required to perform on their aircraft before each flight) at record speed, we soon were in the air. I praised myself for choosing a Mooney, a high performance aircraft with a very fast cruise speed, when I purchased my plane several years ago as we quickly closed the distance to Mountain Ridge.

Using the plane's GPS (Global Position Satellite system) I located the house, on what appeared to be a small farm before flying on to the airstrip. As I began my final approach I was a little surprised to see three cars waiting for us. As I taxied toward them after landing it became clear two of the cars had police insignias on their doors.

I had to bite my lip when we introduced ourselves to what turned out to be the County Sheriff and three of his deputies. Tim's worker earned a death glare from her boss as she presented Tim to the officers, then turned to me apologizing for not knowing my name and asking me if I was with CPS. Tim didn't miss a beat, and before I could reply answered, "Mister Miller is with the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, who has an interest in the boy."

The expression on the officers' faces was priceless as they looked me over, then glanced at my aircraft. The sheriff was the first to somewhat recover. "We will be honored to offer any assistance we can, but I think I should tell you, the people at this residence are very reclusive. If they refuse to let us into their house, I'm afraid, based on what we know, we don't have the authority to force our way inside to see if the child you are looking for is there. And I'm sure they are not going to invite us in. We don't know for a fact he is."

"I have the authority, the child is in the custody of CPS, and we WILL enter the house," Tim announced in his best biker voice.

"And we have it on good authority he is," I added.

The sheriff blushed slightly, then turned to one of his deputies. "Have two more cars meet us there, wake someone up if you need to!"

"You bastard, you know you scrambled those cops minds," I quipped after Tim and I climbed into his worker's car.

"Well actually mine too," the case worker injected. "Just who is this boy, that the Federal Government, the Army is involved?"

"Actually, Christian is one of our foster parents, that happens to work for the Feds. I just didn't want any crap from your local yokels," Tim answered.

"I just hope we were legal back there," I replied.

"Do you really care?" he countered. Oh well, I told myself, remembering my shady use of DOD computer files to locate Mike so quickly. We both ignored the worker's questioning looks as we exchanged perfidious grins.

By the time we reached the farm we had six cars in our procession, including a state police car. After the officers cut the lock securing the gate entering the property, I found myself praying Tim's worker wasn't going to kill us as she tried to keep up with the other vehicles charging toward the house, but thankfully we survived.

I was a little hesitant, but followed Tim's gesture to join him, the sheriff and the two cops as they walked to the front door. I don't think I like this place, I told myself as the moonlight reflected off the iron burglar bars covering the windows and doors. After they pounded on the door several times lights began to show through the windows, and soon an olive skinned man with a long, full beard slowly opened the inner wooden door and peered out at us through the steel barred outer door.

"Sheriff's Department, we would like to ask you a few questions about a runaway child that is reported to be here." the sheriff began.

"We have no children. If you have no warrant leave my property," the man snapped in a thick accent as he began to close the inter door.

My eyes bugged as much as I'm sure everyone else's did when Tim reached between the outer door's bars and grabbed the man by his beard. "Children's Protective Services, open the fucking door," he snarled as slammed the man's face against the metal, pulling his beard and chin through the space between two of the bars. A ruthlessness I had only seen in Tim's face many years ago, in a few bar fights we had been in resurfaced as he skidded the man's face up and glared at him. "Now!" Tim spat into the man's saucer wide eyes.

The man whimpered something I couldn't understand, and a second or so later another hand appeared from the doorsill and used a key to open the door's lock. The beard's owner let out a scream as Tim used it as hairy door handle and jerked the iron door open. The poor man squirmed as we rushed past him, his face wedged between the bars.

The two of the cops rushed inside detaining two more bearded men as Tim and the sheriff began searching the house, cautiously opening one, then the next interior door. "Christian, come here, quick!" Tim's voice rang from the hallway a couple of seconds later. "There are three boys in here," he announced.

I was completely shocked when I followed his voice and stepped into the room. Although clearly designed to be a bedroom, it was devoid of any furniture save several thin rug-type mats on the floor. A boy I was sure was Mike and two other teenage boys, all of them with shaved heads and clad only in knee length white nightshirts were on the floor cowering tightly against each other in the far corner of the room, all of them softly whimpering as they covered their heads with their hands.

"It's okay Mike, it's Pop," I exclaimed as I rushed to them. "It's okay, it's Mister Young and I," I tried as I knelt in front of them.

The boy jerked and gasped when I reached out and softly stroked the top of his head. After a second he moved his hand slightly and seemed risk a quick peek at me between his fingers. An instant later he risked another quick glimpse, then let out a wail as he hurdled himself against my chest so hard he knocked me over.

Somehow, despite the ninety or so pounds of kid that was locked around my neck and chest in a death grip, his face buried in my neck, I managed to struggle to a sitting position on the floor and perch the boy in my lap. "Try and relax Son, you are safe now," I whispered as I cupped the back of his head and stroked his thin back. "Calm down Son, Pop's here." He pushed his face more tightly against me and squeezed me even tighter.

I held him trying to comfort him for probably a couple of minutes before I glanced around. Tim and his worker each had one of the other boys tucked under their arm softly talking to the still sobbing youngsters. My mouth dropped agape when I noticed both of the boys had what looked like thick leather collars around their necks. I had to close my eyes and hold my breath to keep from vomiting when I slid my hand down from the back of Mike's head and felt a piece of stiff, thick material tightly cinched around his long thin neck.

"Is he okay, are you okay?" Tim's voice snapped me back.

I groaned an answer and hugged Mike again before climbing to my feet with Tim's help. At first Mike continued to cling to my neck, but only resisted slightly as I pried his hands free and tucked his thin body under the nape of my arm.

The sheriff and another officer stepped into the room a minute later. I stared at them in disbelief as the filled us in or what they had learned from the three men. Immigrants from India, they claimed they were operating a legitimate 'religious school for troubled youth', that all three boys had been 'enrolled' by their parents and that they were completely legal. I clinched my jaw to keep from vomiting when they said there were two more rooms like the one we were in, apparently for about twenty boys.

"This isn't a school, it's a prison," Tim countered, touching one of the boys collar. "It's clear all the boys are being held against their will, but that one is in state custody," he said, pointing to Mike. "Since they don't have my permission to hold him here, that's one count of kidnapping." He looked at the room's barred window before continuing, "I'm sure they would not be able to get out of the house if there was a fire or such, I believe that's called Child Endangerment, three counts of it. I'm sure we can come up with several more charges as we get to the bottom of this." "You guys get dressed, we are getting you out of here," he said to the kids.

All of the adults exchanged wide eyed glances when the boys informed us that they were only allowed to wear the night shirts they had on, that all of their other clothes and possessions had been taken away when they arrived at the home. Tim was out the door in a flash, and seeing his expression I followed close behind.

"Where are the boys' clothes?" he asked the three men now seated side by side on a couch. "And the keys to those collars?"

"We will say nothing, we want lawyer," one of them answered in a thick accent.

My big friend moved so fast he was bent over in front of the man who had answered the door earlier before anyone saw him move. "Where are the clothes?" he snarled. "And the keys?" he added, grabbing the man's beard.

"In the closet, in the closet," the man cried, his eyes wide as saucers. He whimpered something to one of the others, who quickly dug a key ring out of his robes.

"We're going to take the boys back with us, I'll call for shelter arrangements and we will interview them later this morning," Tim told his worker as we waited for the youngsters to get dressed. ""I'll have an investigative team out here in a couple of hours to help you. I want these assholes hung by the balls, be God Damn sure you dot all the 'I's and cross all the 'T's, " he added. I was a little surprised when the female worker responded with a respectful 'Yes Sir', but her face very clearly told me she wasn't nearly as concerned about her boss's language as she was about crossing him right now.

"Mike is going home with me," I announced.

"Christian, not now, don't fuck with, , ," Tim barked. "I'm sorry I snapped," he continued in a much softer tone. "But he needs to decompress, and we have to debrief him, and he is going to need a lot of help to get over all this. He's better off in a shelter, at least for now."

"Didn't you say that once before, about Carl?" I countered. I ignored his dirty look as I added, "What's a dumb fuck computer tech now, compared to a couple of MSW's!"

"Okay, you got him, at least for now" he continued after looking me over for a couple of seconds.

Ten minutes later I found myself performing one of the most challenging pre-flights of my ten years or so of being a pilot. Inspecting an aircraft on an unlit, isolated airstrip with a flashlight and what little light came from the headlights of the two cop cars that had driven us to the plane, and with a still scared skinny teenager glued to my side wasn't covered in flight school, but eventually I was able to convince myself the craft was at least somewhat flight worthy.

"I might need some help flying home, I'm a little tired. Will you be my right?" I asked my thin appendage as we walked to climb aboard (The right seat in an aircraft is the copilot's position).

Mike stopped dead in his tracks and stiffened, almost pulling out from under my arm. "But, I don't know how or nothing!" he answered, his voice rising in pitch with each word.

"You've done it before, a couple of times," I countered.

"But, Carl and Jerry and everyone was there! And its all dark and everything!"

"Well, I guess I could ask one of the other boys," I countered. He's not completely traumatized, I thought as I watched his teenaged ego take over his face. "You'll do fine," I said with a hug.

I thought I might have to put my foot against Tim's backside to help wedge his big frame onto the backseat of my aircraft, but somehow we managed to get everyone into their seats, and shortly I found myself trying to look relaxed as I taxied out to the pitch dark runway. I took a minute or so to relax after leveling off at my cruise altitude before looking over at Mike.

"You have the aircraft Son, keep us on heading two-seventy," I told him, pointing at the instrument panel's compass. "And keep your nose level," I added as I pointed to another instrument. I casually slid my right hand onto my thigh, only a couple of inches from the critical flight controls mounted between us and grasp my yoke with two fingers, allowing me to instantly resume control of the airplane if I needed to.

"Yes sir, heading two-seven-zero, altitude six-five-zero zero!" he crispy answered, his alto voice offering all the confidence only the best of fourteen-year-old first officers, with two or three hours of flight, time could have. He blushed somewhat when the boys in the rear seat began mumbling about him flying the craft.

"Someone's been practicing!" I teased, reaching over and giving his bald head a quick rub. I found myself distracted from watching the aircraft's instruments for a second or so as I enjoyed his wide smile, the first time I had seen any life in his face all night.

He didn't argue when I took the controls back just before we landed. As I taxied to my FBO I began wondering what was going to happen next as I noticed four adults waiting for us in the pre-dawn darkness. Mike seemed to pick up on my concern, or the crowd on the tarmac, and crawled back into his frightened animal shell such that I had to lift him of the aircraft's wing.

He pried his way under my arm as soon as I sat him down, the other boys walking next to Tim. As we walked toward to meet the group waiting for us Mike whimpered something I couldn't understand, but wouldn't repeat it when I asked.

Tim was beginning to introduce everyone when one of the ladies in the group interrupted him. "Hi Mike, it's good to see you again, I'm glad you are alright."

"Hi Mrs. Tracy," the youngster mumbled pushing more tightly against my side.

"Thank you for remembering me!" she bubbled. The boy let out a soft sob when she reached out and gave his forearm an affectionate squeeze.

Tim introduced the others, three of them as caseworkers, then explained that Mrs. Tracy was an assistant director at one of their emergency shelters. More toward the boys next to him than the rest of us he explained that the boys would be going to the shelter to get something to eat and some rest, then the case workers would be talking to them later in the day.

"I know you guys have been up half of the night, let's go get you comfortable," Tracy suggested.

I felt Mike take a deep breath he didn't release. When I looked down at him he was looking back up at my face with a sad, and pleading look. Before I could respond he muttered a weak 'yes ma'am' and started to slip out from under my arm.

"Wait, you're going with me," I said, grabbing his thin shoulders and pulling his back against my stomach. He gave my forearm a quick hug, then jerked upright, his whole body seemed to spasm before he spun around and looked at me with a completely bewildered expression. "Well, if you want to that is," I added.

Although he was only a few inches from me, he slammed into my stomach so hard I had to take a step back to maintain my balance. After I stroked his back and shoulders for several seconds he just slightly relaxed the death grip his long thin arms had around my waist. "Can I take this as a yes?" I quipped, poking him in the ribs. All I got as a response was a soft whimper and another squeeze from his arms.

Somehow I managed to maneuver his thin body next to me. Although the youngster stayed glued to my side so tightly I felt like I was in a three-legged race, I somehow managed to limp over to the FBO's line crew and ask them to hangar my aircraft for me, then to my truck. I didn't argue when Tim gestured for me to give him the keys and he climbed into the driver's seat.

After I coaxed Mike between us in the truck seat and buckled him up he leaned into my chest and seemed to relax, I could all but feel the tension draining out of his shoulders and neck. Tim had entered the expressway toward home before the boy began looking around between us. "What am I gonna tell my dad? He's gonna be pissed , , I mean mad. He told me he'd kill me if I left there," he informed his shoes.

"Don't worry about your dad," Tim responded. He developed a hint of an sinister grin as he added, "I'm going to talk to him, I don't think he will be mad at you after we talk. I'd like you to stay, to live at Mister Miller's house for awhile. Would that be alright with you?"

"Wow, with Pop? Do you think he's gonna let me? Please, please, tell him I'll be good and stuff!" the youngster exclaimed.

Tim's face told me his discussion with Mike's dad wouldn't include asking where the boy should live for the present. "I wouldn't worry, I bet we'll have a good time while you are here," I announced getting a wide smile and a hug from Mike as a reward.

He leaned against my chest for a minute or so before reaching up and running his hand over his bald head. "What about, well, I look sorta dumb and stuff," he groaned. My attempt at saying he didn't fell on deaf ears. "Do I gotta tell everyone I was bad and stuff? And I got sent away for doing dirty stuff?" he all but pleaded.

"How were you bad? Did your parents send you there?" Tim asked before I could answer. His face told me the professional side of him was asking, and not to interfere.

"I wasn't! My dad just got all crazy cause Maria kissed me and he saw!"

The cabin of the truck was so silent I would have sworn the engine stopped running as Tim and I tried to digest his statement. "Who's Maria, why did your dad get angry?" Tim finally risk.

Mike pushed further under my arm and remained silent, as silent as the rest of our little world for a second or so. "She's a girl at school," he whimpered. "Dad thinks she's a boy, , , well she sorta looks like one, she don't look like a girl much" he told my stomach. "I even told him I don't like her, I don't like girls, but he, , , well, , ," he fell silent.

"What did he do?" Tim prompted. "We have to talk about it sooner or later Mike."

"He called me a bunch of stuff and made me go to that sucky school. I don't wanta go back there, please!" he cried. The tension in his thin shoulder muscles told me to back away, especially since we were about five minutes from home, and Mike having to face my sons, his friends.

"You don't have to, I promise," I interceded. I took a deep breath, somewhat to keep from vomiting and somewhat hoping Tim wouldn't crush the steering wheel of my truck as I glanced at my neighbor. "Hmm, let's see," I said, stroking the youngster's head. "I'd just tell Carl and them you are molting!"

My jest seemed to work, he stiffened his back and thin neck, then looked up at me as confused as a baby at a topless bar. "Well, all birds molt, and it looks like you are one of my turkeys now!" I exclaimed, poking his ribs. The silly giggle I got as a response was worth a years pay.

To Be Continued…