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Chapter 11: Sanctuary
I was considering going to bed because I was falling asleep in front of the TV. Not because it was late, but because I had just finished another highball of bourbon. That stuff always made me sleepy, though it wasn't really a soporific. It made me feel drowsy right now, but as I knew only too well, it was more likely to keep me awake later on.
I flipped off the TV and reached for the bottle of bourbon on the coffee table. I poured myself another. As I did so, the doorbell chimed. It startled me. It was a series of quick, curt bursts as well, with a note of urgency to them. Sometimes you could just tell from the way someone sounded the doorbell what the nature of their business was. Sometimes you could pinpoint it even to a single individual. But not this time. I couldn't think who it was. For one thing it was late - gone ten - and to make it even more unlikely, it was raining pretty hard. I took a quick swig of my drink and left it on the coffee table, then went to open the door, anxious and already expecting something untoward.
Opening the door onto the vista of the rain-drenched porch, I was confronted by the sight of Ben's lean, diminutive figure, standing there in the doorway, dripping wet.
"Ben! What are you doing here?" was all I could think to ask.
I even stepped out onto the porch and looked both ways down the street as though looking for the departing taxicab that had just dropped him off - more a gesture of hope than of expectation.
Ben just stood there and looked straight at me, expressionless, probably aware that he didn't have to say anything. The sight of him turning up unexpectedly at my door was enough to know that something serious must have happened. I had never seen him like that. He was standing on the doorstep in the rain, his clothes soaked through, thoroughly saturated, like he had been swimming with his clothes on. He didn't volunteer an explanation, just looked at me plaintively, his eyes pleading.
"How did you get here?"
"I walked," he croaked, feebly.
"Oh yeah, I forgot, you like taking walks in the rain," I joked.
That would have been clever sarco-humor had it not been for the gravity of the situation. But no sooner had I said it, I realized what an inappropriate remark it was. Ben didn't reply, just stood there looking eerily blank and impassive. It only took a few moments for me to realize that there was something very, very wrong.
"Ben? What's wrong?"
At that point, Ben's demeanor switched instantly. He reached out for me, raising his arms in supplication, his face distorted into a tortured grimace, appealing to me for my aid. He fell forward defeatedly, clutching at me in desperation and exhaustion. I caught him in my arms, propping him up against me, and I held onto him tightly in a type of bear-hug to stop him collapsing into a heap on the doorstep.
"Dear boy!" I exclaimed, and the sudden gravity of the situation filled me with such pity for the boy that I couldn't help but to kiss the top of his head in sympathy and succor, almost as I would have done for Joey.
Ben reacted to my kiss by clutching at my clothing, and burst into tears in my arms. He buried his face into my chest, sobbing profoundly and clearly in some distress, but perhaps now assured that he had found sanctuary.
"Oh Julian!" he sobbed plaintively.
He was too distraught to formulate any kind of coherent explanation. He tried, but his appeal came out as a series of plaintive vocalizations that were strangled by his tears.
Alarmed by his anguish, I guided Ben inside, shut the door, and brought him into the drawing room. He was stiff, wet and cold, and seemed quite disorientated. I guided him over to the fireplace to warm up, and lowered him down to sit on the raised step of the stone hearth. He crouched there facing the fire with his hands tucked between his knees, the tears still flowing. I poked the fading fire a little to revive it, causing a little shower of sparks to fly out. The embers glowed bright orange. Ben was shivering and sobbing and shedding little droplets of rainwater, so that a sprinkling of splashes started to accumulate around him on the hearth where he sat. I scooted down onto my knees just next to him and gently stroked his head.
He couldn't look at me. He was too distraught.
"Why are you out on a night like this?"
"It's my mom," he sobbed, "She threw me out."
He looked up at me, with the tears still flowing from his gray-green eyes. His pretty face was so greasy with wetness it was difficult to distinguish the rainwater from the tears.
"Julian, please help me... I don't know what to do."
"It's okay," I reassured him, "Just tell me what happened."
"Oh Julian, it was horrible..." he cried, and the rest of the sentence was unintelligible, drowned out by an agonizing howl and a renewed fit of crying.
I scooted over and hugged him, soaked and bedraggled as he was, just to offer the boy some comfort. He looked so forlorn and abandoned crouching there by the fire. And again I kissed the top of his head. My natural fatherly instincts all kicked in, and I so wanted to relieve his turmoil. It was heartrending to see him in such anguish.
"It's okay," I said again, in a soft, low tone, "You're safe now."
"She was so angry..." he blubbed, "...I've never seen her like that."
I understood that there had been some kind of altercation with his mom that had brought things to a head. But I couldn't get a clear idea of exactly what had transpired because Ben was so distraught, and I could only distinguish the odd word from his tearful lament.
"...she never wanted me... poor Petey... all my money..."
Clearly there had been a big confrontation, and quite an ugly exchange.
"It's all ruined!" he sobbed.
"It's over," he went on, "My life is over."
Inwardly I smiled at that. My experience as a teacher and a father had taught me to recognize the shortsightedness of youth, which often ascribed things to be far more serious than they really were, and had a tendency to classify things as terminal when they were really just blips. But right now, to Ben, it was a major trauma that I knew I had to help him overcome, so I just talked to him in a calm, even, reassuring tone.
"It's not over, Ben. Whatever's happened, we'll sort it out."
"But what am I going to do?" he demanded, with a note of helplessness.
"You can stay here tonight," I proposed, taking control of the situation, "and tomorrow I'll help you get everything straightened out."
That idea seemed to frighten him.
"I can't go back home!" he exclaimed, wide-eyed with fear at the prospect of having to contend once again with his feckless mother.
"Let's not worry about that right now," I assured him.
He seemed content with that. So I let him sit by the fire for a bit, sniffling and giving the odd involuntary shudder of grief, until he had cried himself out. Then, when his tears had mostly abated, finally he was quiet. But he was still very introverted, still probably in a state of shock and quite clearly traumatized. Despite the warmth of the fireplace, Ben started shivering. His whole body seemed to lapse into a state of extreme trembling. His shoulders were shuddering, his hands shaking uncontrollably. Even his teeth were chattering, and I knew I had to warm him up quickly.
"C'mon, let's get you out of those wet things."
He looked up, apparently acquiescent to that, so I took his little hand and gently led him up to the bathroom. I sat Ben on the edge of the bathtub and knelt down to remove his sneakers. Even they were wet through from where he had splashed through the puddles on his flight through the rain-lashed streets. Ben just sat there, the bright halogen lights of the bathroom almost blindingly bright, but at least it was warm in there. Still shaking, he watched me blankly as I eased his sneakers off. I smiled to myself when I saw that Ben had odd socks on. Despite the circumstances, I thought that was actually quite cute. Both socks were completely mismatched, and it reminded me so much of Joey. I wondered if, like Joey, Ben had moments of distraction when he got dressed in the mornings. I knew from experience that such things were not necessarily an indication of a boy being scatty or inattentive, but rather simple boyish impetuosity. Knowing what I did about Ben, he probably had rather more to think about that morning, with the responsibility of looking after his little brother, it was easy to forgive such an oversight on his part.
I rolled his sopping socks off and tossed them into the empty bathtub with the sneakers. They too were soaked right through to the toes. His feet were cold and clammy and the pads of his little toes were wrinkled. Then I stood Ben up in the centre of the tiled floor and started to remove the rest of his wet clothes. He was shivering so much, and was so uncoordinated, whether from shock or cold, that he barely seemed able to undress himself. His fingers were so numb with cold that he couldn't undo his buttons. The poor boy must have felt so ineffectual. So I helped him, guiding him as to what he had to do. Ben was stiff and guarded as I helped him undress. He was quite a shy boy and I knew that ordinarily he would have been somewhat reluctant to allow anybody to undress him, but he didn't resist. He was so traumatized and beaten that he didn't seem to care anymore. As I unbuttoned his shirt and peeled the front open, I thought Ben's reticence was quite unjustified, because he was actually more beautiful than he realized. Gradually, I could feel him relaxing and he let me strip the wet shirt from his back. I just reassured him with calm and gentle gestures and what I hoped was a kind and encouraging tone. I tugged off each sleeve and threw the heavy saturated shirt into the bathtub with the other things. Ben's skin was very clammy and cool to the touch. Then I reached over and unthreaded his belt. I got down on my knees and took down his pants. He let me. He even lifted each leg for me to pull the wet pants off his feet. Finally, Ben was divested of all his clothes and was standing there in only his underwear. Even his boxer briefs were wet through, so that they were stuck to him like a second skin. At this point, giving way to discretion, I handed Ben a big bath towel and left him in the bathroom to take off his soaked underwear, leaving the door open just a crack so he could call me when he had finished. Meanwhile, I went into Joey's room to prepare the bed and turn up the heating in there.
When I went back into the bathroom, Ben had tied the big bath towel around his waist, like a sarong, and was standing there dolefully with his hair still dripping wet. He was still cold, but at least he had stopped shivering. Then I took his little hand, and silently led him into Joey's bedroom. I remembered very clearly the last time that we had both been in here, during rehearsals for the school play, the day that Ben had wandered into this room and had asked me about Joey, the first time I had ever spoken about Joey to anybody. I sat Ben on the edge of Joey's bed while I took another towel and dried his hair. He perched there obediently and braved my vigorous toweling as I ruffled his thick black hair into damp little spikes. At that moment he reminded me so much of Joey, and it brought back strong memories of the little things I used to do for him. It had been such a long time since I had had a boy to care for.
Abandoning the towel on the bed, I turned away from Ben for a moment to find him some dry clothes. Since we had already established that Ben was going to stay the night, I searched for a pair of Joey's pajamas. Joey's things were all still exactly as he had left them, clean and pressed and neatly folded in the closet and drawers. Joey was only a little slip of a boy, and Ben was very slim, slightly small for his age, so I was pretty sure that Joey's clothes would fit him. At this moment it seemed a stroke of good fortune that I had never sought to get rid of them.
When I turned around again, Ben was sobbing silently. His sorrow had overwhelmed him once again and he was trying hard to hold back the tears. I had to comfort him, so I sat on the bed next to him and wrapped my arms around him. He melted in my arms, his tiny frame heaving with grief, and I knew that the deep, almost guttural sobs he was crying into my chest were the manifestation of just how acutely this child had been hurt. The depth of his wounds suddenly became tangible to me when I tried to encompass the utter rejection and abandonment he must be feeling from having been rejected by his own mother - thrown out onto the street like so much worthless trash. What a cruel blow for such a delicate, sensitive boy to endure. I found myself sitting there with this half-naked little bundle of grief in my arms, holding his cute head against my chest. He cried so much that his little body shuddered violently, so deep was his sadness. Ben cried for a long time. As a teacher, I had seen many boys cry, whether from pain or sorrow or disappointment, or just from sheer frustration, but I had never seen a little boy cry so many tears, for so long and so deeply as Ben did that night. He cried so profoundly that it was clear he had been severely traumatized, and I cursed the circumstances that had caused this sweet boy so much heartache.
I sat there patiently and let him cry himself out, all the time stroking his smooth back and nuzzling his sweet head until the tears gradually subsided. I held him until he had no more tears left. I held him so tightly and for so long that my arms ached. Eventually, his sobs became quieter and more stifled. His sadness gradually faded into gentle shudders and then petered out altogether, until every now and then his shoulders would shudder involuntarily. As the streaks of his tears dried on his face, I wiped the hot, salty liquid away with my thumbs, and he brightened up a little. For the moment he just stayed curled up like that, nestled in my arms, staring out silently, not thinking anything in particular. He stayed totally immobile, safe and comforted in my embrace for a good long time.
We both sat there deep in our own thoughts, for the moment not feeling the need to say anything. Eventually, he stirred, shifting sluggishly in my embrace, and looked up at me with an expression of wonder and curiosity. I smiled down at him comfortingly. He bravely attempted a smile, and I knew the worst was over. At that moment, in such close proximity to him, I was profoundly overawed by his beauty. His complexion was so clear and smooth. It almost had the texture of porcelain - a stark contrast to his raven-black hair and those striking almond eyes of his. He was an exceptionally good looking boy. I felt very drawn to him, and at this moment very protective of him. As he was looking up at me, his big gray-green eyes were almost supernatural, still awash with the remnants of his tears, they were like transparent little crystals, glinting with love and affection, making him look at the same time so worldly and yet so innocent.
When Ben's anguish had subsided, I gave him my thick toweled bathrobe to wear. It was too big for him, so that his diminutive frame was swaddled in its folds, but it was soft and warm and he seemed to gain some comfort from snuggling into it. Then, with the immediate crisis over, with Ben feeling a little more composed, I took him down to the kitchen and sat him down on one of the high stools by the central island.
"Are you hungry?" I asked, hovering by the refrigerator, already poised to fix him something to eat.
Ben sat on the high stool with his head down, still looking miserable and dejected. He nodded slowly.
"I didn't have any dinner," he said, sadly.
The poor boy had not only been thrown onto the street in the rain, but had probably not eaten since lunchtime. He must have been ravenous. So I made him a big bowl of hot soup and a sandwich. But when I put them down in front of him, he didn't show much interest. He took one cursory nibble from the corner of the sandwich, then put it back on the plate. He was so profoundly in shock that he sat motionless with the bowl of soup steaming away on the counter. He stared into his soup for ages, not moving, not saying anything, his little hands just peeping out of the oversized sleeves of my bathrobe, as he curled his fingers around the bowl.
I took a moment to retrieve my unfinished glass of bourbon from the coffee table in the drawing room. The unforeseen and rather unsettling events of the evening seemed to justify another drink. Bringing the bottle with me, I set it down on the counter and took another sip of the copper-colored liquid in my glass. Seeing that, Ben looked up at me curiously, his eyes still reddened from his earlier tears, and uttered a quite unexpected remark.
"You shouldn't drink so much," he said, sounding uncharacteristically bossy.
I smiled, amused by his impudence, and perhaps a little touched at his concern.
"I try not to," I replied, with a chuckle.
There was another short silence, during which I wondered why Ben wasn't eating his soup. After another long pause, he looked up again.
"Aren't you going to ask me what happened? Why my mom threw me out?"
"No," I replied, emphatically, "I'm going to let you tell me in your own time. When you're good and ready."
He nodded vaguely, but didn't reply. Then, after another pause, he took a deep breath and started up again.
"There's something I need to tell you," he announced.
"What's that?" I enquired, a little unprepared for such an ominous sounding proclamation.
"I think I..." he started to say, but couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence, then he looked down and closed his eyes, his courage having failed him.
"What is it Ben?" I coaxed, gently.
He sat staring blankly into his soup, for the moment totally expressionless, almost distant. Then, without looking up, he spoke, this time in a rather more mundane tone that made it sound almost inconsequential.
"I think I... might be gay," he said, hesitantly.
Now that he had said it, it didn't come as a complete surprise to me. In fact, a lot of things suddenly made sense. I had known from the beginning that Ben was harboring some kind of personal issue. It was almost an anticlimax now that he had finally said it. The funny thing was that once he had enunciated this thing which had clearly been on his mind for so long, he finally felt able to pick up his spoon and make a start on his soup.
"Is that what caused all this?" I asked, at last making some headway on the root of his predicament.
He nodded disconsolately, at the same time swallowing big spoonfuls of soup in strained gulps.
"Yeah. Worse than that, my mom thinks I abused Petey," he murmured, "As if I would ever do anything to hurt Petey."
I could detect the machinations in his head, contemplating the awful implications of that even as he was focused on finishing his soup.
"You already knew, didn't you?" he asked, between mouthfuls.
"I knew it was a possibility," I confessed.
Ben looked almost disappointed by that, as though ashamed, maybe wondering if something in his demeanor had given him away.
"Julian? Does that mean there's something wrong with me?" he asked.
"No Ben, you mustn't think that!"
"You mean, you don't mind?" he asked, putting his spoon down again.
I let out a little laugh of ridicule.
"Mind? No, of course not. It makes no difference to me."
The relief in Ben's demeanor was tangible. Then, for the umpteenth time that evening, Ben looked up once again and the magnanimity of what I had just said seemed to overwhelm him. My expression of kindness and acceptance just made him emotional, so that his tearfulness returned. He burst into tears again, screwing up his eyelids tightly. He hung his head down and howled in an agonized effusion of emotion.
"Oh Julian... Why couldn't I have had a dad like you?"
I let him cry. This time it was only a short bout, and he quickly regained his equilibrium. He dried his eyes with his little fists and sat there for a while just sniffling. Then, after another short pause, he looked up apologetically.
"I can't eat any more," he announced.
Before getting up, he pushed his bowl away politely, indicating that he was done.
"Thank you," he said.
Although he had only managed to swallow about half of his soup, and the sandwich remained mostly untouched, he still had the presence of mind to express his gratitude. Such a thoughtful, well-mannered boy.
Then he looked up at me once again, his face contorted slightly, as though he was in some uncertainty, sensing an unfamiliar discomfort.
"Julian? I don't feel so good."
"Then let's get you to bed," I suggested.
I took Ben up to Joey's room. I had left Joey's pajamas on the end of the bed for him. Ben put them on while I peeled back the bedclothes and rearranged the pillows. He stiffly got into bed and snuggled under the comforter so that only his head was showing. He smiled with gratitude, for the moment reassured, and he gave a rapacious yawn. The poor boy was exhausted.
"Sleep here tonight and tomorrow we'll sort everything out. Don't worry about a thing."
As I hovered there by the bed, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the bizarre set of circumstances that had conspired to bring about this strange situation - here I was caring for a young boy once more, putting him to bed just as I had done countless times with Joey, and despite the sorry state of affairs that had brought it about, it felt good.
Ben looked meekly up at me from the pillow, and this time he addressed me with a tone of curiosity.
"Julian? Why did you kiss me before?"
I let out a little chuckle, remembering my almost instinctive gesture when I had soothed his distress earlier, and most of all taken aback that he should not only remember it, but consider it worthy of enquiry.
"I don't know Ben. Just instinct I guess."
"Did you do that with Joey?"
"Yes," I nodded, "Probably more times than I can remember."
He nodded, apparently satisfied with my reply. Then he was silent for a while, no doubt contemplating that.
I went to the door and was about to turn out the light, but Ben piped up once more.
"YOU don't believe that I abused Petey, do you?"
I shook my head.
"No. I don't think you even know what that means," I confessed.
"Thank you," he said, reassured by my concurrence, "I could never do anything... you know... like THAT."
"No," I said, "I don't believe you could."
He didn't need to convince me. Unlike Joey, who became sexualized at a very early age, Ben was still very innocent. He may have been astute enough to recognize his attraction to other boys, but he was still a long way from being sexually active, and puberty was still some way off for him. No, Ben was not capable of being an abuser. I rather suspected the allegation was more the result of his mom's reactionary, bigoted, narrow-minded view, that in her system of values showing a preference towards your own gender meant you were automatically amoral, sexually permissive and a child-molester. Which was ironic, since she was the one who was given to beating and threatening her own children. It was she who was given to mistreating them through her neglect, her psychological spite and her emotional cruelty, and yet she had the temerity to label Ben an abuser? No, there was no doubt in my mind who was the real abuser here.
* * * * * *
I started feeling unwell even as Julian was fixing me something to eat. I was only sorry that I couldn't finish it. I felt slightly nauseous and my appetite had deserted me. I was so exhausted that all I wanted was to go to sleep, to shut out the memory of this beastly day and put these terrible events behind me. I was aware that tonight my life had entered a state of transition. It was a watershed, and nothing was ever going to be the same again. The traumatic events of the evening had left me profoundly shaken, and I was still worried about Petey, but I couldn't think about that right now. I was just too tired.
Julian let me sleep in Joey's bed. By the time he pulled back the covers for me, and tucked me under the thick comforter, I was so exhausted from my ordeal, that I could barely keep my eyes open. The muscles in my limbs were sore and weak, and my eyelids were heavy. I had cried so much, my eyes were red and stinging. The combination of shock and cold, and my panic-stricken flight through the streets, had drained all my energy. The weight of my fatigue overtook me so swiftly that I was asleep as soon as Julian turned out the light.
Julian woke me when he came in to bring me my clothes in the morning. He had washed and pressed my clothes from the night before and left them in a neat pile on the end of the bed. He had even dried out my sneakers. He said he would start making enquiries about what happened. In the meantime I could have my shower and get dressed. But I found I couldn't get dressed. I couldn't even get out of bed. I had slept, but it was delirious and fitful, a restless and feverish kind of sleep that had me tossing and turning all night, lapsing in and out of consciousness so that by the morning I was weak, cold and exhausted. As it turned out, the combination of cold and shock had taken their toll in a most unexpected way. I had developed a chill. I was achy, lightheaded and shivering. I was soaked in a cold sweat. I was burning hot. My nose and eyes were running. I had an excruciating headache, and my whole body was stiff and sore. I certainly couldn't eat or drink anything. There was no question of me getting up. I was so unwell that perhaps by some strange twist of fortune I was too ill to go to anywhere.
On seeing this, Julian immediately felt for my forehead. He said my temperature was high and called the doctor right away. The doctor arrived shortly afterwards with a big black metal briefcase. He was a tall man, with silvery hair and big round spectacles. He made me sit up in the bed and examined me with a stethoscope that felt quite cool against my chest, in contrast to his warm hands. He took my temperature and confirmed that it was high. Then, with a very grave tone, he turned and congratulated Julian on his quick thinking. The doctor confirmed that I had contracted flu, and said that it was good that we had caught it so early. He took a swab from inside my mouth, which he sealed in a special polythene bag. He said he would take that back to the lab for analysis. It was just a precaution to determine what type of flu it was, and to rule out any other underlying issues. Then he prescribed some very strong antiviral drugs. He instructed that I was not to go outside. I was to stay in bed, drink plenty of fluids and keep warm.
After the doctor had gone, Julian came back in, still clutching the prescription that the doctor had left, and he stood by the bed looking down at me with a sympathetic and benevolent stare. He said he would collect the medication from the pharmacy later. Then he set about smoothing the sheets out and plumping my pillows for me and tucking me back into bed. Despite my symptoms, I was happy. Secretly I was jubilant because, for the moment at least, I got to stay with Julian, and I couldn't remember ever having had this much attention lavished on me before.
I was uncharacteristically tired and quickly found myself wanting to sleep again. I think I must have fallen asleep for a good long while, because it felt much later in the day when I came to again. The quality of the daylight streaming through the bedroom window was somehow different, and I wondered how long I had been asleep. Joey's bedroom was so quiet, except for the occasional rush of a car passing by in the street below. It was such a peaceful neighborhood, a tree-lined street with grassy verges and well-maintained houses that had their own plots, with gardens and picket fences and three car garages. It was such a contrast to the impersonal stack of apartments of the shabby, inhospitable, run-down tenement building that I lived in.
I realized that I had been awakened by conversation that was just about audible. The bedroom door was slightly ajar, so I could hear Julian downstairs on the phone, with the faint reverberation of his deep voice just filtering up the stairs. I couldn't make out what he was saying, but he was on the phone for ages, with pronounced pauses in between. It sounded like he had made several calls.
Julian came into the bedroom afterwards carrying a drink of juice with a bendy straw stuck into the glass. He put it on the night stand and bent over the bed to check on me. Seeing that I was awake, he softly brushed his hand through my hair, stroking my head in the most caring and affectionate way. Then he gently sank down onto the edge of the bed.
"How are you feeling?"
I wriggled out from under the thick comforter and sat up in the bed.
"A bit better," I said, still husky with sleep.
Julian propped my pillows up for me, smiling benevolently.
"I called the school," he explained, "I told Principal Perkins what happened."
I nodded, attempting a small sip of the juice. It was sweet and cloying and it cooled me slightly as I siphoned off a couple of mouthfuls through the straw.
"In the light of last night's events," Julian went on, "Principal Perkins has graciously given me the day off work to look after you."
"So I can stay?"
"For the moment," Julian replied, "At least until you're better."
"Great," I said, more relieved than anything.
"I also called Petey's school," Julian confessed.
"And?" I enquired, anxiously.
"He's okay," Julian assured me, with a nod of affirmation, "He got a lift to school with his friend Mikey this morning. I spoke to Mikey's mom too, and she agreed to let Petey stay with them for the next few days."
I was surprised but relieved that Petey had gone to school as normal. Good old Petey. He was a clever boy and knew exactly what to do. But I wondered just how Julian had managed to ascertain quite so much information, even going as far as to contact Mikey's mom. I don't think I had ever mentioned Mikey to him. Julian's resourcefulness impressed me a great deal, and I secretly admired his perseverance and the way he was taking control of the situation. It was comforting to know that Petey was safe, and apparently unaffected by last night's events. Despite that, I knew he would be wondering if I was okay.
"I passed a message that you were staying with me," Julian went on, almost as though he had read my mind.
"Can I see him?" I asked.
"I'm afraid not," said Julian, "You could be contagious. We don't want Petey catching flu too."
I looked down, disappointed but not about to argue. I understood.
"But don't worry, we'll call Mikey's mom after school and you can speak to him on the phone. Okay?"
I nodded, reassured.
Then Julian began another conversation. Apparently he had much more to tell me.
"I've also reported your whereabouts to the Department for Children and Families," he went on, "Which I'm legally obliged to do if any child absconds or goes missing."
I thought that a little strange because I had not absconded, and I wasn't really missing. Julian knew where I was.
"But my mom threw me out," I said, correcting him.
"I know," Julian said, "But she can't really do that. You're still a minor. She can't just pass that responsibility to someone else. You are still her responsibility unless the Department decides that your interests are not being served by her."
My initial thought was that, as far as I was concerned, my interests had never been served by her.
"Once this is reported to the Department, they have to investigate," he explained, "and if they find evidence of abuse or neglect, they have to take action accordingly."
"What sort of action?" I asked.
"Removal," he said, making it sound like some kind of painful surgical procedure, "That means placing you in care."
"But why can't I just stay with you?" I asked.
"It's not as simple as that," Julian explained, "I have no authority to take care of you."
"But why not?" I appealed, "I know you. I trust you."
"The fact that I am your teacher makes it an even more precarious arrangement," he said, "It isn't enough that we know each other. This is not something we can just decide between ourselves. Any child who is homeless becomes the responsibility of the Department. They decide what happens, not me."
That sounded more serious than it felt. I gave a derogatory sniff, unconvinced.
"I'd rather go back home," I stated, "At least I can still be with Petey."
"You can't do that."
"Don't you see Ben? You're being abused."
It sounded so grave when he phrased it like that, and it was frustrating to be told that I had no say in what happened to me, like it didn't matter what I wanted. I was beginning to realize that I had set into motion a chain of events that was irreversible and now out of my hands. I began to wonder whether coming to Julian's house was the right thing to do, and whether I shouldn't have just gone back home. Maybe I could have returned when my mom had sobered up and we could have carried on as before.
"But... I don't understand."
"Abuse is not just physical or sexual, you know," he went on, "there's psychological and emotional abuse too. Don't you see that the way your mom treats you, that is abusive."
The implications of all this were just starting to crystallize in my mind.
"But what about Petey?"
"If they decide that abuse has taken place, they will more than likely take Petey into care too."
The repercussions of my actions hit me like an icy spear. I was suddenly shocked and saddened by the prospect that Petey's world was about to be torn apart. And it was all because of me. Poor Petey. It was all such a mess. I looked at Julian, appealing for some answer, some solution.
"Isn't there anything we can do?"
Julian looked into both my eyes and I could see the love and empathy he had. His intentions were honorable, but I knew that even he couldn't really dictate what was going to happen now.
"Well, there is one thing," he said, tentatively.
Julian thought for a moment, and I could see that he was contemplating the wisdom of his proposal.
"It's a long shot," he speculated, "But there is one person who might be able to help us."
"Who is it?" I asked.
"The only person I know that I can call upon in these situations," Julian explained, "My friend Sandra."