The director sat at his desk, staring disconsolately at the two files open before him. He nibbled at a fingernail, disturbed by two of the boys the home served. The first file contained a number of pages, an accumulation of years. This case he could understand, for the boy's features were so unbelievably ugly that he achieved a near exotic handsomeness. Perhaps, he thought in retrospect, it was the boy's waspish disposition that gave him such an unfortunate physical aspect.
He had been brought in by the police at age eleven. Over the years he had grown inward, retreating from comments often made in jest. Yet, even he, the director recalled in shame, had slipped in exasperation over the failure of the re-frigeration unit on the milk dispenser and accused the boy of being so ugly that his face had curdled the milk. He regretted the words even as they were spoken, but it was too late. He saw the boy's eyes widen, then go dark and brooding as he trudged away without eating. He had run after the boy, but his hand on the boy's shoulder had been shaken off before he could apologize. He watched the boy disappear into the woods on the back campus. When the boy was not seen to leave with the others on the school bus, half the staff combed the woods, yet, at three-forty-five the boy stepped off the bus, his face as expressionless as always.
After dinner he called the boy into his office. The summons was not refused, but when he tried to apologize the boy gave him a searching look and left without a word. Indeed, some of his staff insisted the boy was unable to speak, but he knew better, though he could count the words he'd heard from him on the fingers of one hand.
In six years the boy had given no trouble, spending his time in reading and study, when not attending to his assigned duties. Only once had he raised his fists with his antagonist spending a few days in the infirmary. He'd submitted to the discipline stoically, but after that time a mere menacing glance was sufficient to quell any further teasing by the other boys.
The boy endured holidays with the same stoic quality, for he was never invited into receptive homes, nor did the staff include him in outings. At the urging of his staff but against his better judgment, the director let the boy move into a small private room opening onto a short hallway just off the dormitory, a room with a bath, intended for a staff member in more affluent days. It was here the boy remaimed unless disappearing into the woods whenever there was free time in his schedule. When he had first shown the boy the room, the boy looked at him with a slight smile, thanked him, and immediately moved his few possessions. The room was not subjected to the weekly inspections, for it was never less than as spotless as the boy himself.
As the director had feared, the privacy of the room became the final closing of any breach in the boy's isolation. He should never have permitted the move, but once done it was easier to leave the situation as it was. Truthfully, he admitted to himself, he always felt uneasy around the reticent boy.
He shifted his gaze to the second file. This was the boy that worried him most, and he would not repeat his mistakes with this one. The child had been brought in by social services only a month before, having miraculously survived the accident that had taken his parents. A beautiful, diminutive eight-year old, his features were too exquisite for a boy, such golden hair, deep blue eyes, tiny bones, pink cheeks belonged to a girl. This one would suffer equally as much as the older boy from the comments his looks would draw, not to mention the ease with which huge tears welled up and spilled over. He seemed incapable of doing anything right, even to getting to meals on time. The other boys his age immediately tagged him 'baby' and banished him from their play.
The director agonized over what he should do in the child's behalf, for he'd seen the child look longingly toward the only boy on campus who seemed oblivious to his existence.
A light drizzle that Saturday morning was more a heavy fog. Winter's coming, he thought as he raised his eyes from the files and gazed out of his office window. With few exceptions, the boys sought diversion in the recreation room, but he noted the child seeking puddles in the yard, jumping into them with both feet, laughing delightedly at the splash. He saw the child seek out a larger puddle closer to the building. Instantly, he knew what was going to happen, but before he could open the window, the child leapt once more, the descending spray drenching two seniors standing under the overhang, talking.
One muscular arm darted forth and jerked the child clear of the ground, bringing him close to the menacing face. "Damn you, baby! Why don't you grow up? I gotta good mind to bust you one."
Tears of fright welled up; the child began to sniffle.
"Quit blubbing," the senior yelled, "or I'll give you something to blub for."
As the sobs became audible, the senior holding the child brought his hand smartly across the child's cheek. The wail that followed penetrated the closed window. The director started to turn to go to the child, but a sudden smashing blow left the senior prostrate in the mud.
"Pick on somebody your own size, you bastard." The older boy stood glaring down, his eyes glowing with anger.
The fallen boy scrambled away from the personified fury.
The older boy picked up the child, caressing him gently until the sobs ceased, then asked, "What's your name, kid?"
The child wiped his face with the back of his hand. "M ... Mark, sir."
"They call you Baby, don't they?"
"But my name's Mark."
"Quit acting like a baby, then." He lowered the child to his feet and walked away, unaware that in that moment he had become a god.
The child maneuvered for several days before he learned the name of the older boy Mike. Now each mannerism of the older boy was emulated to the increasing alarm of the director, but more immediate pressures prevented the planned talk with the child.
The bell for dinner had rung, and though the older boys were forbidden to enter the dorm for the younger ones, Mike often dared use the fire door as a shortcut from his room to the stairs, knowing everyone would be in the dining hall. As he crossed the dorm to the short hall, his eyes caught a sudden movement at the end of the room. He peered into the gloom. "Who's there?"
"M ... me." Mark shuffled toward him.
"Why aren't you at dinner?" Mike demanded sternly.
"I ... I was sleepy." The blue eyes gazed up at him, lips beginning to tremble.
"Come on, Baby." Mike's hand closed on the tiny shoulder, propelling the child before him down the stairs and into the dining hall.
The boys working the serving line looked scornfully at the latecomers. When the child passed his tray along the line, the first server dipped a scant spoonful of corn on to the tray, and dipped another, equally as scant, for Mike.
A dark scowl crossed Mike's face, a huge hand grabbed the server by the collar as Mike hissed, "None of that, damn you." He passed the child's tray back and then his own.
By the time they had reached the end of the line, the child's tray held a meal in proportions he'd never before had, but his elation became boundless when Mike pointed to a small table and sat across from the child, an act without precedence.
Mike glowered across the table. "Do those guys always give you that little?"
The child nodded. "They said I couldn't have any more because I'm always late."
"You're going to meet me five minutes before the bell from now on. If you're late, I'm going to boot you in the tail. You understand?" Mike growled.
The child only nodded, unaware of the threat.
When they returned their trays to the scullery, Mike headed for his room, the child tagging at his heels. Suddenly, Mike whirled about and grabbed the child by the shoulders, holding him at arm's length, studying him.
"You're scruffy." Go get some clean clothes and your towel and come to my room."
"Kids ain't allowed on the senior hall."
"Do like I told you," Mike snapped. "Now move it."
More fearful of Mike than of some abstract rule, the child ran to his dorm. When he came back, Mike looked about, then dashed quickly through the fire door with the child behind him.
Mike closed the door of his room firmly, then, after the child had stripped, thrust him into the steaming shower. When Mark failed to bathe to suit him, Mike grabbed the soap and cloth and began to scrub the child over the wails of protest.
Damn lazy staff could at least make sure the little ones stay clean, he thought, as he pulled the child out and toweled him roughly.
"Okay. Beat it," he growled.
After the child had disappeared through the door separating the dormitories, Mike changed into old jeans, a heavy sweatshirt, and worn but polished engineers boots. Taking a favorite book, he slipped down the stairs and out into the lingering fog. The child quickly followed him, pulled by ambivalent feelings for this older boy, who, despite his rough treatment, was the only one who seemed to care, yet he followed secretively, fearful of the wrath that could occasion an outburst from Mike. His footsteps were silent on the wet leaves as he hurried to keep pace with the older boy's stride.
With a sudden turn in the fogshrouded woods, Mike disappeared from sight. Search as he might, Mark could find not a trace. "Mike?" He called shyly.
A few moments later, stumbling in the unfamiliar area, a deeply disappointed Mark made his way back to the dorm. For a few minutes he watched several of the other boys playing a game from which he was consciously excluded, then went to his bunk, tears welling up.
The ringing of the bell for dinner awoke him. He opened his eyes to a room deserted, save for the glowering figure of Mike leaning over him. "You were supposed to meet me five minutes ago."
"I ... I forgot."
Mike lifted the child from his bunk. "Move it."
One of the boys on the serving line watched their approach until they were close enough to hear, then remarked to the boy next to him, "Here come Beauty and the Beast."
With one leap, Mike landed a telling blow. The boy crumpled to the floor, clutching his bloodstreaming nose. The other boys shrank from the silent fury. A staff member spun Mike around. "Go to your room and stay there!"
Mike stalked from the dining hall, rubbing his knuckles, his face contorted with wrath. The child stood uncertainly until the staff member pushed him toward the serving line. He ate at the small table alone, unaware of the curious looks of the others.
The door to Mike's room crashed open, the staff member glaring down. The tongue lashing began.
That he was denied off-campus privileges for a month bothered Mike not a bit; it was unlikely he would have gone out anyway. The staff member was aware of this, but, tied by the rules, he could give nothing more in the way of punishment, though his hand ached to strike the placid countenance before him.
"You leave Mark alone. The last thing we need in this place is another like you."
This parting assertion disturbed Mike more than any punishment that could have been handed out. He was realist enough to know that Mark needed help which he was unlikely to receive from the overworked staff.
"Fuck you," he whispered under his breath at the departing back. "Somebody's got to help the kid." Where he had been cautious to remain uninvolved, he now became determined.
He took an apple from the shelf above his desk to assuage his hunger and lay back on his bed, thinking. There was a soft tap at his door, then it opened slightly and the child slipped in, holding out a candy bar.
"I'm sorry you didn't get no supper." He laid the candy bar on the desk and slipped out as quietly as he had come.
For the first time, Mike shed tears. He wiped his eyes with his fists, the emotion disturbing.
The child awaited him as he came down the stairs a few minutes before the breakfast bell. Mike smiled slightly as he took the child's hand and they walked into the dining hall. The servers warily filled the trays; the two boys ate without speaking at the small table, but the look of adoration in the child's eyes filled the silence.
After the noon meal, Mike lengthened his stride in the cold air towards the woods. He knew the child tagged behind him and was loathe to reveal his hiding place, fearing the child might brag to others, but if the kid could find him, so be it.
Mark followed, determined to find Mike's hidy-hole. He gave no thought to the possible punishment that would follow his intrusion; he would know that he'd been where no one else dared.
Mike disappeared with suddenness. The child hurried to the spot. It was empty. He climbed to the top of the rise and looked around. A slow movement caught his attention. He watched in fascination as an old piece of tin downspout rose a few inches above the earth, a thin trickle of smoke begin to rise from it.
He ran down the rise and began to poke along the base of the berm. He squeezed between the earthen wall and a thick bush, then stopped. At the end of a short tunnel he could see a small fire. "Mike?" He called. Receiving no answer, he crawled into the small cave.
Mike leaned lazily against the back wall, arms around his knees, gazing into the small fire. He looked up at the child. "You satisfied, now?"
"Then keep your trap shut. This is my place. I don't want anybody else knowing about it."
"I won't tell." The lips quivered.
"See you don't. Now come over here and get warm."
The child sat beside him, basking in the warmth and looking around. One wooden crate held a battered saucepan, a couple of cracked mugs, and a few provisions, all carefully spirited away from the home's kitchen whenever Mike worked in it. Another held a few paperback books, a small kerosene lamp, and two old blankets.
"This is neat," the child said, an aura of romance surrounding this world created by his idol.
"Do you ever stay out here at night?"
"Then why you got all this stuff?"
"Don't ask so many questions," Mike snapped. But a look at the woeful eyes made him add, "I'm goin' to leave some day. I'm puttin' everything I want to take in here."
"You're goin' 'way?" Tears welled up.
"Yeah. I've 'bout had it with this place. Soon as I save a few more bucks, I'm gone."
"You gonna be 'dopted?"
"Nobody wants me. And you can't be adopted neither, 'cause you got a dad someplace," Mike added with calculated cruelty.
"I wanna go with you."
"What makes you think I want be bothered with a kid? When I split I'm moving fast, 'cause I don't intend to get sent back."
"Please." The child's petition ended in a wail.
Mike looked at him, softening. "It must be hell for you, too. Maybe. But only if you do what I tell you."
They sat side by side before the fire, savoring the warmth of the glowing embers. Mike pulled an apple from his pocket and cut it with his pocketknife, handing the larger half to the child. As the sweet juice trickled down his throat, he became aware of the strange feeling again. He had saved the apple for himself, yet seeing the child eating with joy seemed to make his own piece grow larger, sweeter.
He wiped his hands on his handkerchief then passed it to the child. He threw a handful of loose dirt over the few glowing embers. "It's time to go."
"Can we come back tomorrow?"
Over the next few weeks Mike saved every penny of the allowance he was granted. Added to what he had already saved for a book, it was almost enough for bus tickets. Though he had told Mark to save his allowance, he knew the child would accumulate only a dime or two. He'd have to carry both of them.
After study hall, he separated his things, setting aside a minimum. The old canvas backpack he used to carry his school books would be less obvious. It would be easier if they could leave from school, he thought, but the high school he attended was across town from the child's school and his class day two hours longer.
As they walked back to the dorm after dinner the next evening, Mike said, "Bring your clothes and money to me after study hall."
"We goin'?" The child's voice raised in surprise.
"Sssh, damn it." He pushed the child toward the dorm and ducked into his own room.
With the door to his room open as required during study hall, Mike sat at his desk lost in thought. It wouldn't do to try to hide out in the cave because it was far too cold and inside the fence. Besides, the snow had begun again. But it would hide their tracks. If they could get to the highway, maybe he could hitch a ride to the next city, at least. It would be better if they could get further away, but maybe they wouldn't get caught before he could earn enough to travel on. I'll beg or steal it if I have to, he thought.
"Mike?" The whisper cut through his thoughts. Mark stood in the doorway holding a small bundle of clothing. He dropped a few nickels on the desk. "I'm ready."
Mike closed the door behind the child and began to fold the child's clothing neatly, stuffing it into the pack with his own. He looked around his room once more with a pang of regret, then slipped quietly down the stairs. Mark waited at the bottom, eager.
They stepped out into the raw night air and swirling snow. It's a good night, Mike thought. Nobody's likely to be around in weather like this.
The main gate was closed, locked. Mike stopped in confusion. He'd never known it to be locked before. The berm over the cave was the only place high enough to get over the fence. Carrying the child, he pushed through the drifting snow.
Mike lifted Mark over the fence, holding him until his feet found purchase in the wire mesh. When the child stood on the ground, Mike dropped the backpack over and scaled a low tree limb that hung over the wire, dropping to his feet beside the child. "Okay, let's spl ..."
The battery lantern blinded them.
"I thought you might try it here." The director's voice cut as chill as the wind whipping them. "Get in the car."
With the child huddled beside him, Mike stoically endured the ride back to the home. Only after Mark had been handed over to his counselor did the director face the older boy.
"Why, Mike? Why now, and why make it so serious by taking that child with you?"
"He's not getting what he needs. Somebody's got to look out for him."
"You think you can do a better job than the staff?"
"I don't know, but I'm sure as hell gonna try."
The director shook his head. "No, Mike, you're not. I have to accept some of the responsibility for not stopping your association with Mark earlier, but you're not going to see him again."
"He needs me!"
The director looked at Mike sadly. "You're the last person he needs."
"But he does!"
"You're incapable of feeling anything for anyone other than yourself. What do you think you could gain from that child?"
Mike's selfreliance vanished; he fought the overwhelming sense of loss. For the first time, he looked directly into the director's eyes.
"Love," he whispered.
Mike staggered back from the force of the blow. The reddening imprint of the director's hand spread across his cheek. "Have you touched that child?" The director screamed.
Mike staggered back. "Oh, my God," he whispered as the impact of the words hit him. "No! No! I swear."
"Get out of here. People like you make me sick."
Mike stumbled up the stairs to his room in a daze. Over and over the words of accusation rang in his ears, ceasing only when he pulled the pillow over his head and cried out, "No! Oh, God, no. I didn't. I wouldn't."
The next morning, the senior counselor opened Mike's door as he was about to go down for breakfast. "You stay in here 'til I come for you."
The dining hall was deserted when Mike was finally escorted from his room. A lone tray of food that had lost all semblance of warmth awaited him at the small table. Mike managed to force down a few forks full. As he passed the tray to the boy in the scullery, the boy leaned through the opening. "I hear you like Baby."
Mike dropped his head and shuffled toward the waiting counselor without replying.
"Go to your room and stay."
"What about school?"
"You're being withdrawn today. I doubt you'll be going to school where they're sending you," he replied with a smirk.
Lying on his bed, Mike began to plan. There had to be some way to finish school, everything depended on it. But to do that, he had to get away before. He knew about the other home. One or two of the guys who had gotten in trouble had been sent there. It was a correctional centre. If he got sent there he would have no hope of a future.
What if they sent Mark there? He shuddered at the thought of the child actually enduring what he had been accused of doing to him. Why wouldn't the counselor tell me if Mark's okay? If only there were some way to get a note to Mark. In desperation, he considered every move. By dinner he had conceived a plan.
For two more days Mike endured the seclusion thrust upon him and constantly reviewed his plan mentally. By the time he finished his breakfast the third morning, he was certain. This was the day the director always held staff meeting. They wouldn't be watching too closely, so if all went well ...
Once the counselor had ascertained his presence in his room and had gone down the stairs, Mike waited to hear a distant clock chime nine times. Knowing that the director's meetings started promptly, he cautiously slipped across the hall in his stocking feet, and into the younger boys' dorm. He remade the rumpled bunk tightly and pushed the note under Mark's pillow, smoothing the blanket.
The most challenging part of his plan awaited. Still in his stocking feet, he eased down the stairs, tiptoed quickly and unseen past the director's open office door and into the infirmary. Taking a key from the desk drawer, he opened the medications locker and searched among the bottles. Knowledgeable from his chemistry paper, he opened a bottle and poured as many of the capsules as he dared into a vial. He replaced the larger bottle and closed the locker. With the key replaced in the drawer, he slipped back up the stairs to his room as the meeting broke up.
He lay on his bed, feeling the vial beneath him when his door opened and the counselor scowled down at him.
As he was being escorted to the dining hall that evening, he glimpsed the child. The wave of the tiny hand brought him hope.
Mike stayed awake, trying to guess the hour. The heavy chime of the bell in the nearby church tower sounded twelve times. He slipped from his bed, pulled on a heavy shirt and jacket, and gathered the backpack once more. Carrying his boots in his hands, he worked his way to Mark's bunk. He shook the sleeping child gently, covering his mouth with one hand.
"Mike." Mark whispered joyously and threw his arms around Mike's neck.
"Sssh. Let's go."
He dressed the child, led the way through the silent dorm and down the stairs. By the side door, he helped the child put on his heavy shoes, then drew on his boots. With the child's hand in his, they walked through the blinding snowfall to the cave. Mike knew it was unlikely they could be tracked if the snow kept up.
The oil lamp lighted, the fire blazing from the remaining dry wood spread warmth around them. Mike gathered snow in the old saucepan and set it on a couple of bricks at each side of the flames. When the water came to a boil, he removed it and mixed in his last two packets of instant cocoa. He poured it into the two mugs, adding his scant store of sugar to the one he would give the child.
He leaned back, waiting for the cocoa to cool enough to drink, taking pleasure in the child's delight.
"This is like camping out. Why didn't we do it before?"
"Because ..." Mike stopped. 'Because,' he thought, 'it never got bad enough before and I didn't have the guts.' Nothing had really mattered until now.
He pulled the child next to him and draped the old blanket over their legs. He felt the child snuggle closer, knew, without seeing, the adoring look. Did he dare? "Mark, I'm splitting."
The child's lips quivered. "You goin' to leave me?"
"Do you want to come with me?" He looked into the anxious face.
"You promised you wouldn't leave me ever." In silence, tears began to trickle.
Mike put his arm around the child and drew him closer. "I won't leave you. I couldn't."
He fumbled in his jacket pocket for the vial, pouring the capsules in his hand and calculated what was needed in each mug. After the child had drunk his cocoa, Mike gulped his down and set the empty mugs aside.
The fire died to glowing embers, the lamp guttered and smoked as the last of the oil was drawn up the wick. His eyes felt heavy, he no longer felt the chill. He hugged the drowsy child to him.
"I love you, Mark."
"I love you too, daddy." The child's arms closed around his neck, his head rested against his shoulder. Mike kissed the contented child, wrapped his arms around him, as their eyes closed.
Somebody loves me was Mike's last thought.