Cary snapped awake in the total darkness of his isolated home, sensing another presence in the room. He reached up to switch on the lamp, but his wrist was grasped firmly.
"Don't turn on the light." The voice came softly.
He sat up quickly, throwing his arms about the young man he knew stood next to his king-size bed. The crushing hug was returned, and a few moments later his son lay down beside him.
"I'm so glad to have you home, son. Are you staying for a while this time?"
"I may well stay permanently."
"Thank God! What happened to change your mind?"
"Let's talk about it in the morning. I'm tired. I need to feel your arms around me, to sleep without fear."
"Then sleep, my son." He kissed him on the forehead and tried to sleep again, but relived the past instead. He closed his eyes seeing the young man beside him as he had the first time.
He skipped the closing banquet with its ubiquitous chicken and over-cooked green peas, to reward himself with a fine dinner in celebration of the reception his paper Plot Development in Fiction had received. Replete, he ambled along the street, enjoying the cool mountain air.
A slight figure detached itself from a utility pole and sidled toward him. "For twenty bucks I'll come with ya and do anything ya want."
He walked a few steps further, then stopped and turned. In the pool of light spilling from a display window, he saw the torn jeans and grubby T-shirt, all the boy wore despite the chill. Sooty hair hung below the boy's shoulders.
"Is this a proposition, young man?"
"You pay, you call the shots. Only I don't do no rough stuff." There was a certain pride in the statement.
"Dear God, son, don't you know the danger you're putting yourself in?"
"Hey, if you don't want me, I can find another mark."
"No, wait," he said impulsively, as the boy started to turn away. "If you're hungry I'll buy you something to eat, but I have no desire for sex with you, if that's what you're offering."
"Yeah. I don't like it, but how else is a kid gonna eat? If ya mean it, there's a place around the next corner."
"Good. Let's go."
As he followed the boy down a poorly lighted side street, Cary began to regret his impulsiveness, wondering if he were about to be attacked and robbed. Then he saw the lights of a shabby diner.
The man behind the counter opened his mouth, but when he saw Cary behind the boy, he closed it without speaking. Instead, he watched the boy slide into a booth as the well-dressed man gingerly took his place across the greasy table. He walked over and slapped two stained menus down. "What'll it be?"
"Coffee for me, if it's fresh," Cary said, "and anything the boy wants."
"Burger all the way, fries, and coffee."
Once the counterman had returned to his grill, Cary looked into world-weary obsidian eyes framed by broad high cheekbones, saw beneath the layer of grime lightly tanned skin with an all but imperceptible reddish tint. The boy's sharp features combined into an unexpectedly pleasing aspect, though his frame was little more than skin and bones.
"How old are you, son?"
"Near 'bout fifteen, if it's any of your business."
"Dear God! Why would you be on the street at your age? Surely you have a home."
"You a do-gooder? You sure ask a lot of questions."
"I'm a teacher; I'm used to asking questions. Aren't you in school?"
"Hell, I ain't been in school fer near a year. Don't got no home, so I gotta hide out from the cops and sleep during the day, if I'm gonna work the street at night." He looked at his hands. "I gotta wash."
When he returned from the restroom, his face and hands were cleaner, his hair wet from being combed back.
The counterman slammed the plate down in front of the boy, and carelessly slid the heavy pottery mug toward Cary. Cary grimaced and wiped at the slopped-over coffee with a paper napkin; the boy already wolfing down his burger.
Eats as if it's his only meal of the day, Cary thought, and it probably is. He tasted the weak coffee and shuddered, his eyes never leaving the boy. There was something strongly appealing about this kid.
The burger finished, the boy ate the greasy fries more slowly.
"Have you a name?"
"Damn, more questions. If I'd known this I'd on kept walking, 'stead of coming here with ya."
"Sorry, but I am interested."
"Call me Kirk, if ya gotta call me somethin'."
"I like Kirk. It's a name I think I've heard only once before. I'm Doctor Barton."
"You a real doctor?"
"Not the kind you're thinking of. I'm a teacher, as I told you."
"Yeah, I remember." The boy swallowed the last of his coffee and belched loudly. "Let's get outta this dump."
Cary paid and walked with the boy back to the main street, where the boy paused. "Thanks. You been nice. If you want, I'll go to bed with ya for free."
"That would be pleasant," Cary answered, a half-formed plan in his mind.
The boy stopped as Cary was about to open the hotel door.
"I thought you were coming with me."
"They ain't gonna let me in there. Marks usually take me to that hot pillow joint down there." He pointed toward a sleazy building down the side street across from the hotel.
"You can't possibly think I would enter a place like that."
"I guess not. But I tell ya they ain't lettin' me in this place."
"I stay here on occasion, so they are acquainted with me. Come along."
As they crossed the lobby toward the elevators, the desk clerk cleared his throat. "Dr. Barton, if I might have a word, please."
"Of course. Wait here for me, Kirk."
"I'm sorry, sir, but we can't have that sort of thing here." The clerk said softly.
"What, may I ask, are you implying?"
The clerk's face flushed. "I that's a street hustler, sir. I "
"I have no intention of using that young man for sexual purposes, if that's your implication." He replied coldly. "I shall pay him what he has asked, but only to interview him to obtain background for my next novel. If he wishes, I will permit him to bathe and perhaps get a safe night's sleep for a change. My room is a double, as you well know. I'll certainly pay for him if he stays."
"Of course, sir. I didn't think a man of your reputation would " His voice trailed off.
"I should hope not."
"My apologies, Dr. Barton."
"Accepted." He answered crisply, then walked to where the boy waited by the elevator, and pressed the call button.
"How'd you do that?" The boy asked as the elevator rose.
"I told you they know me. And if anyone should ask, you're being interviewed for my next book."
The boy's face lit up. "You write books for real?"
"Yes. I hardly think you would have read any of them, though. My audience is adult."
"You might be surprised. I read a lot."
"You do?" Comic books, he added to himself.
"Yeah. The library's the only warm place I can go when it's cold. I got a corner where they don't hardly ever go, so I sneak in when they ain't looking."
Cary opened the door to his room and pointed to the bath. "Go take a shower, young man."
"Why? I ain't got nothin' clean to put on."
"Because you need one badly. There's a robe behind the door. You may wear that for the rest of the evening. Now get to it."
When the boy was in the shower, Cary gingerly picked up the boy's ragged clothing between his thumb and forefinger and dropped it atop the old backpack the boy had left near the door, then picked up the phone. Moments later a small bellhop he knew from previous stays knocked at the door.
"I hate to ask this of you, Billy, but do you think you could possibly come up with some underclothing, socks, jeans, and possibly a sweatshirt the size of these rags?"
"Sure, Doc. You care if they've used?"
"As long as they're clean and in good condition, I could not care less if they're used or new."
"They for that kid you brought in with you?"
"Looked like we're about the same size. No store's open now, but I got some clean stuff I keep in my locker to wear home. You can have that, if you want."
"I do. Thank you, Billy." He handed the boy a fifty. "Will this cover it?"
The bellhop grinned. "More 'an enough, Doc. I'll bring 'em right up. Want me to get rid of them rags for you?"
"Thank you, but no. The boy will want to go through his pockets first."
Kirk came out of the bathroom wrapped in the robe. "That felt good. I hope you don't mind I used that little bottle of shampoo."
"Not at all. You look remarkably better." In fact, he looks younger than he said.
The boy flopped down on one of the beds and threw open the robe. "I'm ready, man. Just none of that rough stuff."
Cary flinched at the nonchalant attitude. "Sit up and cover yourself. I told you I'm not interested in sex with you."
"What 'cha want, then?"
"Answers to some questions."
"Oh, shit, I shoulduh known. I guess you can ask a few, but I ain't promisin' nothin'."
"Before we start, I want a cup of decent coffee. Would you like some?"
Cary flipped on the small coffee machine provided, then took a seat facing the boy. "From your looks I surmise you are part Native American."
"My mom was Indian, if that's what you mean. My old man was white. Mean old son of a bitch. I was glad when he croaked."
"That's a dreadful thing to say about your father."
"Well it's true. If he hadn't croaked I was gonna run away. Got tired of 'im beatin' on me all the time when he was drunk, and he weren't never sober."
"What about your mother?"
"She kicked off 'bout eight months ago. That's when I hit the streets. Hell, I weren't gonna go to the place the tribe runs. They're stricter 'an hell. Them kids can't do nothin'. I woulduh liked to kept on in school, cause I was goin' in the ninth grade and woulduh gotten to play ball and all that good stuff."
"How were your grades?"
The boy smiled for the first time. "I ain't no dummy. They could of been A's if anybody'd give a damn. Why you care?"
Cary sat looking at the boy without speaking, then got up and poured two cups of coffee, pondering his idea.
"Kirk, I want the truth. Would you like to get off the streets and quit hustling?"
"I done told you I hate dirty old men touching me. You wouldn't believe the nasty things they want me to do to 'em, too. Damn right I want out, but ain't no other way for me to make it and not get busted by the cops. They'd send me away somewhere."
"If I offered you a decent home, would you go to school and not give me a lot of static about it?"
"Come on, man. A white guy like you ain't gonna take no ragged assed Indian home with 'im. 'Sides, what in it for you?"
"Maybe the satisfaction of seeing a nice looking young man turn his life around and make something of himself. To put it in your words, I'm not a mark you can hustle for a few bucks. I happen to like young people, otherwise I wouldn't be in teaching."
"Yeah." There was disbelieving scorn in the boy's voice. "What's your wife gonna say when you drag home a half breed?"
"I'm not married. If you decide to come with me, I want you to leave off your disparaging remarks about yourself. I am tired of hearing them, and that is certainly no way to enhance your self-pride."
"What makes ya think I got any?"
"If you had no pride, you wouldn't have spoken of what you would not do in a sexual encounter. I have a two bedroom flat, one of them is yours if you wish to come with me."
The boy's face held a look of incredulity. "You mean it, don't you?"
"I would not have taken all this time with you if I had not thought you were above the life you've been leading. It's your decision. Oh," his hand slapped his forehead, "I must be insane."
"To think I could get away with this. If you come with me and the school writes for your records, as they will have to, there will be no end of trouble, especially at your age. The only good thing is no, wait. Perhaps I can get you in the learning lab at the college where I teach. They'll test you and start you off accordingly. No, damn it, they'll have to know why you're not in a regular school."
When he looked back at the boy, he was grinning. "Don't got to write for no records, I got 'em."
"When I run away from the rez, I busted in the school office and swiped 'em. They was already to be sent to the high school, so they're official and all."
Cary's mouth dropped open in surprise at the boy's resourcefulness. "How did you happen to think of that if you were running away?"
"Cause I was hopin' somebody might want me some day and I could go back to school. I knew what would happen if I didn't have 'em, cause one of the kids was gonna be adopted by some Anglos. When they wrote for his records the tribal council wouldn't let 'em take him. Said he was Indian and weren't gonna grow up white. Don't guess they'd say much 'bout a half-breed like me, but I wasn't gonna let 'em screw up a good thing if I found it."
"Are you saying that you'll come home with me and go to school?"
"I'll give it a try if you really want me, but I ain't promisin' nothin' long term."
"I can accept that. The conference is over, so I plan to leave early tomorrow morning. Have you anything you need to collect before we leave?"
"Got it all with me. Ain't nothin' but what's in that ol' backpack. I sure wish I had some clean clothes."
"Those on the other bed might be a bit large, but they will do until we're home." Cary pointed to the bundle Billy had delivered. "We can get you some new things when we're there."
"Where'd you get 'em?"
"The bellboy is about your size. He let me have them. Now go to bed."
"Okay, pop," Kirk said with an impish grin.
During the five hour drive home, Cary often glanced at the boy whose alert interest in the passing landscape never waned, but the turmoil in his own mind increased. I've been a fool thinking I could take a boy off the streets and reform him into the vision I had of him.
After opening the gates with his encoded card, he parked in his allotted space in the ground level garage. "Here we are. Get your things and we'll go up." He used the card again to activate the elevator, then to open the door to his flat.
"Why you gotta have a credit card to do all this stuff? They charge you every time you park or ride the elevator?"
"It's not a credit card; it's an electronic key. This is a high security building."
"Why? Everybody here so rich they 'fraid of gettin' ripped off?"
"Not at all. It's much less expensive than having to pay a security service for twenty-four hour protection. This way, we have no trouble with undesirable people."
"Yeah? Wait'll your neighbors see me." Cary looked at the boy, but from his grin he knew he had been subjected to the boy's humor.
The boy looked around the flat. "Great crib!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"A crib is a bed for infants. Why do you refer to my flat as a crib?"
"Hey, it's just a word. Anywhere a street kid can doss safely for a while is his crib."
"I assume doss refers to sleeping?"
"You got it. I thought you was an English teacher."
"I am, but I've had no reason to learn street language."
"Uh, oh. Guess I better start speaking better, or my stay here's gonna be short."
"Quite. And you may call me Cary. Pick up your things and I'll show you to your room."
While the boy was putting his few belongings away, Cary made two brief phone calls, gratified at the immediate appointments, then called the boy.
"We're going out."
"We just got here."
"We have several hours before the stores close and you need some clothing, unless you plan to wear what you have on for several days."
"No way. Feels good to be clean. Real Indians wash every day. You know why?"
Cary shook his head. "No."
"So animals don't smell us when we hunt. If we don't get nothing, we don't eat."
"That's an interesting bit of folklore. I imagine its roots are based in fact."
The boy grinned. "Yeah. My granddaddy taught me lots before he died, like how to walk without making any noise."
The Wal-Mart shopping cart was piled high with inexpensive but serviceable clothing when they joined the checkout line. Cary knew it would have to be replaced when the boy began to fill out after a few weeks of nourishing food.
"Wow, man, I ain't never had so many clothes all at once before. Thanks, Cary." The boy said when the purchases were spread out on his bed.
"You're welcome, son. Now go change into those slacks and one of the good shirts. We're going to have to go out for dinner."
"I got time for a shower first?"
"Of course. Go ahead, then I'll take one."
Cary was astounded at the change in the boy's appearance. You picked a winner in looks if nothing more, he thought as patrons of the restaurant where he ate often stared at them while they walked to their table.
If the boy would get a haircut. His hair hung below his shoulders, but he had protested loudly when Cary suggested it. "No way! A real Indian has long hair, man. It's a religious thing. I ain't getting' it cut."
"I wasn't aware you are religious."
"Not the same as a white man's religion, but it's important to me."
"Then I shall say no more about it. I'm trying to improve your lifestyle, not do anything that violates your culture as you understand it."
"Thanks. You're okay."
On Monday, Cary took the boy for a physical, relieved to find the boy was in good health. Despite the way he had been supporting himself, he had contracted no communicable diseases, just being severely undernourished. An hour later Cary's dentist cleaned the boy's teeth and filled one small cavity, recommending he drink milk regularly.
"Milk's for babies," Kirk said scornfully as they walked back to the car.
"It's a source of calcium which builds strong bones and teeth. I drink a large glass every day and so will you."
"I suppose you're gonna make me?"
Cary missed the grin. "If it comes to that, I will. Your eating habits are going to change as well."
That afternoon, Cary took him to the learning lab, relieved when the boy's records were accepted without question by the director.
"Good heavens!" Cary exclaimed when one of the supervising teachers he knew well dropped by his office the next morning with the results of the boy's tests.
"I feel the same, Cary. He said he was about to enter the ninth grade, but he's capable of work at the eleventh grade level or above. He needs a little instruction in the basics of English, but his reading and comprehension levels are off the top of the chart, and his math skills are almost as good. If he attends full days, I'll have him working at the eleventh grade level and beyond within two months."
"He will. He'll be following my schedule which is eight to three."
"Excellent. I'll have him assigned to me."
"I appreciate your interest, Mark."
The boy settled into Cary's life and routine easily. I'm glad I brought him home with me, Cary thought one evening, watching the boy putting the dishes in the washer. He's turned out far better than I had thought he would. He's quiet and respectful, if only he didn't walk so softly. Kirk never ceased to startle him with a tread so quiet it was as if he walked on the air above the floor.
He also quickly learned that when the boy was in his room with the door shut, he was meditating. He had opened the door the first time to see the boy sitting cross-legged on the floor, his hands out-stretched, palms upward in supplication, and mumbling in a language he did not understand. A pinch or two of dried herbs smoldered in a large ashtray, scenting the air with a sharp but pleasant freshness.
Some eight weeks into the semester, Kirk walked into Cary's office during his free hour and pointed to the coffee maker. "Can I have a cup?"
"You know you can, son."
The boy poured himself a cup and sat in the chair across the desk from Cary just as a commotion broke outside. Cary swiveled his chair to look out of his office window, seeing several campus security men running to the edge of the street where a crowd of students were gathering around a young man writhing on the ground.
"Do you know what that's all about?" He asked Kirk.
"I'll tell you later." He set the cup down. "Thanks for the coffee. I gotta get back to work."
"Want to tell me what that commotion on campus was about, son?" Cary asked over dinner.
Kirk looked abashed and defiant at the same time. "I like living with you, Cary, and I ain't gonna never lie to you for that reason, but you'll likely throw me out if I tell you."
"I doubt that. You may do something that displeases me, but I would never do anything so drastic as tell you to move on."
"I like the way you call me son, Cary. Can I call you dad? 'Cause you registered me in class as Kirk Barton."
"There's nothing that would please me more, Kirk. Now, what was your part in that disturbance?"
"You may as well read about it." Kirk got up from the table and returned with the evening paper, handing it to Cary and pointing to a small article near the bottom of the front page.
Security officers at Coastal College discovered a twenty-two year old alleged drug dealer had been attacked and injured in front of the campus this morning. Both of the man's arms sustained compound fractures. A quantity of illegal drugs was discovered on his person by police. He was unable to identify his attacker, but said he was told that if he appeared anywhere near the campus again, it would be his neck broken the next time. The investigation continues.
"It's about time someone did something about drugs on campus." He looked at Kirk. "Well?"
"I did it."
"It couldn't have been you, son, you've just turned fifteen. That man is a lot larger than you. In any case, what motive would you have?"
He was surprised to see tears rise in Kirk's eyes. "I seen what happened to kids on the rez when they got on drugs. I mean little kids. I want to kill every son of a bitch sells drugs. Cops don't do nothin'. Even if they do, them bleedin' heart lawyers get 'em off easy."
"I know your heart is right about this, son, but you can't take the law into your own hands. Our legal system may not be perfect, but it preserves individual liberty, despite occasional failures. Vigilantism is dangerous to the freedom you enjoy."
"You don't even know how many kids on campus take drugs, do you?"
"I'm aware there are some, but I doubt it's widespread."
"That's all you know."
"How do you know so much about it, then? I never see you associating with other students."
"I can see in their eyes, smell it, too."
"Oh, come now."
"It's true. If I was blind, I could still tell where you are from fifty feet or more."
"You smell like Lever 2000 soap, Crest toothpaste, Scope, and the stuff the laundry does your shirts in. I can smell Surf when you do the wash at home."
"But you know these are products we use. You must imagine you smell them."
Kirk shook his head. "When you come back from lunch with that guy yesterday, I could tell you ate beef, a baked potato with sour cream and chives, and a salad with Thousand Island dressing. You didn't have any dessert."
"That's precisely what I had. How did you develop your sense of smell to such an extraordinary degree?"
Kirk smiled. "My grandad. He said people stink. When he took me hunting, he buried everything we wore under leaves in the woods for three days before so we would smell like the woods instead of a man. We always came back with something to eat, too."
"You are becoming an extraordinary man, son. I'm proud of your skills and ability, but you must never again harm anyone, unless you are in personal danger."
The boy's face turned hard. "I love you, dad. You took me from the street and gave me a chance, but I will not make a promise to you I cannot keep, nor will I ever lie to you. Except for my granddad, you are the only one to ever have my complete trust and love. I will never hurt you, or allow anyone else to, but if you ever betray my trust I will kill myself, not you."
"Dear God, son! Do you understand what you've just said?"
"I understand it and I mean it. If it's easier for you, I'll say 'don't ask' when you ask me something I think it better you not know. I expect to have a life you cannot share in many respects. If you really love me, you won't try."
Cary sat stunned at the maturity of thought, the independence asserted by a boy of just fifteen. When he did not reply, Kirk got up from the table and stood behind him, his arms around Cary's neck. "I love you, dad," he said, then returned to his place.
Cary began to notice an emerging pattern. Every time Kirk closed the door to his room for an hour or so in the evening, he would come out dressed completely in black and leave the flat without speaking. He always returned grim faced and silent. Cary stopped asking, for the answer was always the same - 'Don't ask.' Invariably, the morning paper would report that an alleged drug dealer had been mysteriously attacked and injured to the extent that escape from the police was impossible. The investigating officers always found ample drugs on his person to make a solid case and obtain a conviction.
For several months Cary agonized over what he should do, but he was certain Kirk would not hesitate to take his own life and his love for the boy had become too strong. He shoved the problem to the deepest recesses of his mind.
The boy asked for only two things for his sixteenth birthday: a dinner with Cary at some place special, and lessons at a certified driving school, to include a course in defensive driving of the type taught chauffeurs of prominent wealthy people. He quickly passed both courses with top grades and proudly drove Cary to their dinner together.
"Have you made no friends among the students, son?" He asked one evening.
"I have you, dad. I need no one else."
"We all need friendship with others. It hurts me to see you so alone, trusting no one."
"This way I am at peace with the Great Spirit and myself. I know it's difficult for you to understand, dad, but your love is sufficient for me. What little I have to give anyone is given to you. You have let me become a man who follows what he believes to be true, and provided the means for me to achieve that end. I can ask no more."
Cary wiped his eyes, knowing his son would be distressed at his emotion, for Kirk had told him a true Indian believed outward signs of emotion revealed weakness. Only within the bond of complete trust was it permissible, yet his only display was an occasional hug.
The new semester began three weeks after Kirk's birthday. Cary sat looking over the rosters of his classes when Kirk's name arrested his attention. There has to be an error, he thought, and picked up the phone, calling the registrar's office.
"Don? Cary. What is my son's name doing on my English one-o-one roster?"
He hung up the phone, stunned. He would have been notified if Kirk was doing poorly, but the boy never mentioned his school work. When Kirk stopped by his office a little later, Cary kicked the door shut for privacy and hugged him.
"I'm so proud of you, son. Why didn't you tell me you had received your certificate and signed up for a degree program?"
"I thought you knew. Haven't you known all along what my progress has been?"
"I've never asked for reports on you, son. I trusted you to make your own decisions. I knew I would have been told if you were doing poorly, but you are far more mature at sixteen than most of our students are at twenty or more."
He was seized in a hug. "That's why I love you, dad. Your trust means everything." He released Cary and poured mugs of coffee for them both. "May I use your car for a couple of hours on Monday, Wednesday, and maybe Friday evenings?"
"You know you can. Why?" He smiled at Kirk. "Or shouldn't I ask?"
"I want to use the membership you have in that health club you almost never go to, so I can use their equipment. Come with me, it'll do you good."
"It's been so long it would probably kill me now. I don't know why I keep paying the dues, when all I ever do is swim once in a while."
"Swim, then." Kirk grinned. "It's good exercise for you old men."
Cary threw an eraser at him. "Get out of here. You know damn well I'm only fourteen years older than you."
"Yeah. I'm gonna start calling you old man instead of dad."
"Do, and you'll find your ass out on the street again."
"Is that a nice way to talk to your son?" The grin disappeared. "Gotta go to class."
Cary savored this rare moment of childish behavior of Kirk.
At the beginning of the semester just after Kirk's seventeenth birthday, Cary was summonsed to the academic dean's office.
"Have a seat, Cary. I know the young man who calls himself Kirk Barton has been living with you for just over two years now. Have you adopted him?"
"Only informally, but he uses my name. What's he done?"
"We've never had a student of such outstanding ability in the history of this institution. Are you aware of the fact that he will graduate summa cum laude at the end of this semester?"
"Ordinarily it would be, but he's challenged most of his courses by examination. The boy is the first true genius I've ever seen. He'll complete four years of work in a year and a half. I know you're proud of him, I would be, too, but there's the problem."
"Yes. He refuses to attend graduation if there will be any pictures taken of him. There's no way we can ban parents from taking photographs or videos of the ceremony, and videos are made of the entire occasion every year by the public relations department. You know our policy says a student must attend graduation in order to receive his degree unless there is some exceptional circumstance to prevent it. We would like to have Kirk's picture in the yearbook, also a picture and write-up for our alumni newsletter and the newspapers. Can't you convince him to cooperate with us?"
"Kirk long ago established his independence, and I never attempt to influence him. In his case, a photograph of him, even taken in secret, would be a serious violation his religious beliefs. I'm sorry, but I will never permit that."
"I had no idea that a photograph was forbidden by anyone except the Amish."
"My son practices and believes strongly in the old Indian faith in which he was raised as a child. In some ways he is more mature at his age than I am now. I would love to see him receive his degree with the others, but not at the expense of losing his trust or having him forfeit the degree to which he's entitled. I'll petition the board for an exception in Kirk's case because of his religious beliefs."
"I will recommend your petition be accepted, of course. And I can guarantee it will be, because of the religious aspects. However, I hate to see Kirk not receive official recognition for his work, and you disappointed at not seeing him graduate. Do you think he would come to a private ceremony in the board room with just the president, the chairman of the board, and us present?"
"I'm certain he would if he's assured there will be no photographs. It's kind of you to offer."
Eighteen weeks later Cary paused to wipe his eyes during the brief ceremony, seeing the slim muscular boy standing proudly in his robe, hearing the words of fulsome praise. When it was over, he and Kirk went home.
"I've never had a more wonderful moment in my life, son. I can't find words to tell you how proud I am of you."
He was grabbed in a crushing hug. "It's only because you are of such good heart that you had compassion for a little Indian boy selling his body on the street to survive, and the wisdom to guide him with a gentle hand toward manhood. You may not be of Indian blood, my father, but you are in spirit. I wish there was something I could give you as a token of my love."
"Son, it breaks my heart to think of it, but I have a feeling you will be leaving me soon. I would never ask you to violate your beliefs, but though I carry a vision of you in my heart, I would cherish a picture of you."
Kirk pulled away and regarded Cary solemnly. "Is there a friend of yours that you trust implicitly who might take that picture?"
"You know Tom Hastings at the college?"
"I've seen some of his work. He's an excellent amateur photographer. He does his own developing and printing in a darkroom in his cellar."
"If he will take one picture of me and let me stay with him until he has made one print only, then gives me the entire roll of film to destroy, you will have your picture of me, father. You may keep it beside your bed if you wish, but no one but you must ever see it. Once more, I ask that you don't ask why I place these restrictions on such a simple request when I owe you life itself."
Cary impulsively kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you, son."
The sitting was arranged and after near an hour of various poses, Kirk relaxed enough to remind Cary of the youth he had first seen. He nodded and the single picture was taken. Kirk accompanied Hastings to his home, returning two hours later.
He handed Cary the five by seven colour print in a sterling silver frame, then hugged him. "My father, this is to remind you of the little boy your love has transformed into a man. I must leave you tomorrow morning, and it will be several months before I see you again. I will carry a picture of you in my heart only, but know my love for you is eternal."
"Where are you going, son?"
"I've enlisted in the army."
"How? You're under age and I've not signed permission."
Kirk smiled. "Don't ask."
"But my God, why? You have a brilliant future ahead of you in any area you choose."
"It provides me with the opportunity to learn new skills for survival. I considered the marines seriously, but I refuse to accept the group is better than the individual, or that I would be above to all others simply because of a uniform. I am already assured of airborne training, then ranger school. Their survival techniques are superior. I need to learn them."
"You are a man, son. I may not agree with your choice, but I respect it as your decision."
"As I knew you would. I have one request, father. Please find a secure message drop to become the place from which you will receive all mail from me. If you are successful, I shall use it as my official address."
"There's no need for this obsession you have for secrecy."
"There already is to some extent, as you know, and it will become greater. I will not have you put in danger because of my actions. Please do as I ask, my father. I will call you from a secure phone in a few days to learn the address. All will be in the name you know me by."
"As you wish, son.
Thank you, my father. Let me say farewell, now."
"No, son. I'll be up to see you off."
"That will only make our parting more difficult." He hugged Cary and, for the first time, kissed him. "Let the Great Spirit watch over you, my father, and fill every moment we are apart with my love."
Cary returned the hug and kiss. "And God go with you, my son. I love you so."
When he awoke, his hands still clutched the picture. He looked at it seeing the mischievous look of the boy who had given him nearly three years of unalloyed joy. The emptiness of the flat now crushing, he dressed and drove toward the college, but suddenly parked in front of an Anglican church. He opened the door and walked the side aisle to the rack of candles. He dropped a few coins into the box and lit a candle before dropping to his knees to pray. Comforted, he left to meet his classes.
Within two days he located a message service run by a young paraplegic from his home. The man was eager for his custom and guaranteed anonymity for anything sent in a covering envelope addressed to the service, the guarantee backed by bond. Better, from Cary's point of view, was that his mailbox service was under contract with the Postal Service and covered by the same laws of confidentiality. Kirk was pleased when given the information, but said nothing more than, "I love you, dad," before breaking the connection. I wonder what he's doing now, Cary asked himself.
He was disappointed when Kirk did not come home on leave, nor send any message after his eight weeks of basic training were over. As he had for years, he spent the summer teaching, with assurance of a week or two of release time to be taken whenever Kirk returned home.
A stalled Bermuda high gave mid-January unusually mild temperatures. He had spent the Christmas holiday compiling his research, then began writing. About two one morning, he heard a soft snick over the faint whir of the cooling fan in his computer. Heat, he thought, and continued to write. He sprang up from his chair with a sharp intake of breath when arms suddenly closed tightly about his neck.
"Son!" He spun around and hugged the man who held him. "Why didn't you let me know you were coming home?"
Taller now than he by several inches, Kirk grinned down at him. "We normally have leave after basic, but I went straight into advanced basic for small weapons training, then into the infantry. I have a week before I report to airborne."
"I can't believe how you've grown! You're so strong you almost strangled me. You look wonderful, Kirk. Your hair!" He realized Kirk's hair was a short crew cut.
"It'll grow back. I've learned to compromise to get what I want for the moment." He glanced at the computer screen. "You're doing another book."
"Damn the book! You're home and I'm promised time off. What would you like to do?"
"Go someplace away from everybody so I can spend the time with you and restore my spirit. Any ideas?"
"You remember Tom Hastings, don't you?"
Kirk smiled. "The picture man."
"Yes. He has a cabin up in the mountains he rents to friends when he's not using it. I know he'll let us have it."
"Great. Let's get some sleep and then you call him."
"It's nearly noon, dad. You going to sleep all day?" Kirk stood over him, clad only in a pair of bikini briefs.
Cary looked at his sculpted body, then smiled. "You're a beautiful sight for a man to see when he awakens." He ran his hand down Kirk's rippled abdomen. "You know, son, if you were to proposition me now, as you did that first night, I would be hard put to resist."
Kirk grinned. "Don't tell me you've gone gay in your old age."
"Gay, hell." He swatted his son with a pillow. "Get dressed and we'll have something to eat."
"And show some respect for your elders, young man."
"Yes, sir." Kirk tossed him a snappy salute and turned toward the door.
They picked up the key to the cabin from Hastings and Cary settled back to enjoy the ride, happy to have Kirk driving.
Several hours later, the convertible toiled up a rough mountainside track, then stopped in front of a weathered log cabin set in a grove of firs. Cary could hear the rush of water nearby.
"How on earth did you come here so unerringly, son?"
"Navigation skills are one of the things we're taught in basic. But remember I'm Indian. My grandfather was a noted tracker in his day. He passed his skills on to me."
"You've never gotten lost?"
"Only in the city where there's much confusion."
"I'm glad you're with me, son. I doubt I could even find my way back into town."
In the evenings, they stretched out on a blanket before the fire and talked of the new book. Cary was glad he had less than half the first draft completed, for Kirk offered numerous suggestions for improvement.
"You've saved me hours of research and made your suggestions superbly graphic with your words. I would like to use your words because they add realism. How can you know so much about my work when you haven't read it?" He had asked.
"From the one screen I read I could see the direction your book is taking. Besides, I've read your others; I know how you think. As for the graphic words, you depend on research. I've lived it in one form or another."
"With your experience, you should be writing, also. The two or three short stories I managed wring from you in my writing class are superb. If you would do several more, I'm certain I can get them published."
"I enjoyed your class, dad. It's the only one I stayed in for a whole semester."
"I know. Why didn't you exempted it as you did the others?"
"Because it was yours. You taught me to enjoy writing."
"Then you'll do more?"
"If I can find the time. They keep us busy, you know. Even if I do and you should think my stories worth publishing, have them published over Kirk Barton."
"That's your name, son. I intend to dedicate this new book to you and acknowledge you for all the ideas you've given me."
Kirk rolled over and hugged him. "Your heart is good as always. Thank you for the dedication, I'll know the love you send with it. No one else where I am will know it's for me."
"Why? Are you using another name away from home?"
"I am always Kirk Barton for you, my father, and to the school. To the rest of the world I have become this man." He reached over for his billfold and passed his driver's license and Army ID to Cary. Each carried the name Michael Graywolf. The pictures on both bore only the most vague resemblance to Kirk. He smiled as he took them back. "Wonderful how poorly official pictures turn out."
"Those pictures are not of you."
"They are, but a few artful changes with make-up and the carelessness with which they are made make one unrecognizable."
"Why all these changes, son? Is Michael Graywolf your real name, or is it Kirk?"
"I'm Kirk. As for the rest, it's better that you don't ask, father."
As Cary turned the key in the lock, he couldn't believe five days had passed since he had unlocked the cabin door for the first time. He felt wonderfully refreshed, but weary, for Kirk had kept him in constant motion, canoeing and walking in the woods, while trying in vain to teach him how to walk swiftly and silently.
Kirk drove them homeward. "I shall remember this time with you with much joy, my father." Cary became instantly alert. For each time Kirk referred to him as 'my father' the words became a portent of the future.
When he awoke the next morning, Cary sensed Kirk was gone. The unwelcome, but familiar emptiness crept back over him. He looked at the picture beside his bed thinking, Oh, son, why couldn't you have chosen a better life so that I could see you more often? I love you so."
Some ten weeks later, a call to his office sent Cary by the message service on his way home from school. The owner handed him a small padded envelope with no return address. In his flat, Cary eagerly ripped open the flap and withdrew two floppy disks. He pushed one into his computer and called the file up. Frustration overcame him when he saw the window asking for the password. After several failures he typed in 'Michael'. The file opened. Kirk's stories! He began to read, so entranced by the work that when he glanced at the clock on finishing the last story, he saw it was past midnight. He felt dismayed by the brutal element in most of the stories. After he lay in bed, he looked at Kirk's picture before switching off the light. What talent you are wasting, son. I pray your stories are not a reflection of your real life.
During his office hour the next morning, he called his agent asking him to read the work of an unknown, promising to send him the work on a floppy to which he would add the three stories Kirk had written in his class.
Four weeks later, he used his power of attorney to sign the contract presented eagerly by his agent. For a few moments he felt envious; his own work had never been accepted so swiftly without revision, nor granted a rush into print. The publisher was so excited he pushed the work into print to make his spring catalogue. His only complaint coming when Cary refused to give him a picture of Kirk for publicity, or biographical information to use on the dust cover of the book.
During spring break, Cary thrilled to hold an advance copy of the book in his hands and read the name Kirk Barton on the dust jacket. He looked at Kirk's picture. "I wish you were here so I could share this moment of joy you don't even know you have, son," he murmured.
He carefully clipped the reviews of Kirk's book which began to appear, the reviewers commenting on the gritty realism of each story, and placed them in page protectors in an album on which he'd had Kirk's name embossed in gold.
He longed to tell him the good news, but he had no idea of how to contact him. He knew, too, that Kirk would be angry if he tried.
The major glared at the lieutenant standing in front of his desk. "Goddamnit, you should know! He's your sergeant."
The lieutenant squirmed. "Sergeant Graywolf is unpredictable, sir. All I know is when the exercise began the blue team managed two kills with only three injuries, then Graywolf disappeared. Five hours later the referee confirmed the entire red team wiped out."
"How the hell did he manage that!" The major exploded. "Your trainees were up against experienced men."
The lieutenant wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. "He's an Indian, sir. He doesn't always play by the rules."
"He may not, but he's damned effective. You should have him teaching."
"He refused, sir. Just as he refused OCS."
"Damn! We don't get men like him these days. It's unheard of for anyone to make sergeant so quickly, and look at these marksmanship scores. He never misses."
"I agree, sir. But on the other hand he's something of a loose cannon. That could make him dangerous."
"He refuses to operate as a team member?"
"Pretty much, sir. He begins well, but he gets impatient, then goes off on his own."
"How do his men get along with him?"
"May I speak frankly, sir?"
"His men are scared shitless of him. He makes me uncomfortable, too."
"Like I said, he's Indian, sir. He always observes military courtesy, but I've never seen a man with colder crueler eyes than his. There are times when he looks at me I get the feeling he's thinking about taking my scalp. His men never step out of line when he's around."
"Isn't he about to complete Ranger school?"
"This is his last week, if I'm not mistaken, sir. He should have one field exercise left to complete before he graduates." The lieutenant passed Graywolf's folder across the desk.
The major scanned the pages rapidly. "Outstanding man. He completed airborne training with top marks and the Rangers reports are outstanding. Someone else has noticed him, too. I've been ordered to advise him to transfer to Delta Force."
"From the way he acts, I should think he would fit well."
"Never happen. They like initiative, but the team comes first with them. As you've said, Graywolf is a lone wolf. Besides, I want to try to keep him with us. As soon as he returns to your unit, I want to see him. Have him report to me soonest."
"Sir." The lieutenant saluted and left.
Two weeks later, Cary's intense concentration was interrupted by the phone. He snatched it up and snarled, "Yes?" In seconds he was in his car speeding toward the message service.
"Sorry to have bothered you at home at such a late hour, Doctor Barton, but the message was just delivered here."
"Thanks. I'm sorry I was so abrupt on the phone."
Cary waited until he was back home to read it. He collapsed in his chair for a few moments, then snatched up the phone and called the dean of the college at home. He booked a seat on the next plane out, and packed his bag.
The early morning commuter flight was short, but he would have given the plane supersonic speed if he could have. As soon as they landed, he rented a car and drove directly to the military hospital. An orderly led him to a bed at the far end of the ward. He pulled a chair closer and grasped the hand lying on top of the sheet.
Instantly dark eyes opened and bored into his. "Dad! What are you doing here?"
"Damn it, Kirk, couldn't you have at least told me you'd been hurt? I would have been here sooner."
"I told them not to tell you. It was probably that meddling chaplain."
"Then I'm thankful he did. Did you think I wouldn't care?"
"I didn't want you to worry."
"I always worry about you, son."
"Speak more softly, dad, and don't call me son or Kirk. I'm Sergeant Mike Graywolf."
"I know. Without thinking, I asked for Kirk Barton downstairs. It was only when I was told there was no one here by that name that I remembered. I'm sorry."
"It's not that important here, but it might be someday. That's why I didn't tell you where I was. I don't want you hurt because of me."
"You're the one hurt, son. How badly?"
"Just a little set-back. In a few months I'll be good as new, but it's the end of the army for me." He shrugged. "I was going to leave after my tour was up anyway. I've learned what I wanted."
"What will you do?"
"I'm not sure just yet. If you could you go with me, I'd really like to go back to Hasting's cabin for a few weeks while I learn to walk again. I'll have to depend on you for a while."
One thought flashed through Cary's mind. If he needs me badly enough to ask, it's more serious than he's said. "What's happened to you, son?"
"I received my jump wings, some field training, then went to the rangers. I got my ranger tab," he added proudly. "What happened on my last exercise was a freak thing."
"We were on simulated war games in a mined field. The mines were supposed to just pop harmlessly and emit smoke if stepped on, but I hit one that was overcharged somehow."
"How badly are you hurt?"
Kirk slipped his right leg from under the sheet. Cary looked at it, stunned. The bandaged stump ended just above where the leg should have joined the ankle. "Oh, dear God. No!" He turned his face away and fumbled for a handkerchief.
"Is it that repulsive?" Kirk asked softly.
Cary grasped his hand again. "No, son. It's the shock. You've always been so active. I I'm thankful you have your entire leg. A good prosthetic foot, and "
"I know. It'll take a while, but I'll be good as before. Go back home, dad. I appreciate the visit, but you can do me no good here. See if you can get the cabin and time off for when I come home. And don't tell anyone about my foot. That's between you and me."
"Of course. I've some good news for you, son."
"Not now, please. Save it until I'm home. Oh, I meant to tell you. That book you were working on when I was home is great."
"Thanks to you. Without your input I would have had several errors damaging the creditability of the story line."
"I doubt it. You always research thoroughly. Please go home now, dad."
"Isn't there something I can do for you?"
"Only what I've already asked."
"Let me know in the usual way when you can come home and I'll drive down for you."
"It'll be a while. Please go now, dad. I love you."
"I love you, son." Though he longed to hug Kirk, Cary saw several of the other patients watching. He composed himself, squeezed Kirk's hand, and left.
Not a day of the next seven weeks passed that Cary didn't have to squelch a desire to pick up the phone and call to see if he could speak with Kirk. The key to Hasting's cabin on his key ring and an indefinite leave of absence from the college, arranged to begin on Kirk's return home, seemed to add urgency.
He had filled a cup with coffee and was returning to his computer when he heard the soft snick of the lock releasing. The door opened and Kirk swung in between his crutches.
"Son!" Cary rushed to hug him. "Why didn't you call me as I asked? I'd have driven down to pick you up."
Kirk returned his hug. "I was sick of that place. Told 'em I'd get my own foot if they'd let me out. They said no, but the bureaucrats screwed up. My discharge came through. They gave me a plane ticket and here I am. I took a cab from the airport."
"Sit down, son. You should rest."
Kirk grinned. "Rest is all I've done. It's good to move around. The cabbie put my bag in the lobby for me. Would you get it, dad? I'm not too good at carrying things with crutches to manage."
"I'll get you a cup of coffee first. Sit."
When he returned with Kirk's duffel-bag, the boy was at the door to his room. "In here, dad. I want to change into something comfortable."
Cary set the bag down. "Please, son, let me look at you. Do you realize this is the first time I've seen you in uniform? You're very handsome."
"This is the last time you'll see me in it as well."
"I'd be happy if you'd wear it to dinner tonight. I had planned on eating out."
Kirk put his hand on his father's arm. "Sorry to disappoint you, dad, but I don't want anyone to see me in uniform. To anyone knowledgeable it would give away more about me than I want them to know. The army insisted I wear the uniform for travel home and I had no civies to wear. The crutches will be bad enough."
"I'll make reservations at a place we'll be unlikely to run into anyone who knows us, if you want."
"Thanks. I'll be out in a few minutes."
"Can you still wear your clothes? You look larger now than when you left."
"I could wear them when we went to the cabin. It wasn't that long ago and once I started therapy I lost the weight I'd gained."
"All right, son. Call if you need any help."
Cary was putting down the phone when Kirk returned to the living room wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
"I could use another cup of coffee, dad. Yours is the best anywhere. I've missed it."
Cary smiled at him. "So that's why you were eager to get home. And I was hoping you'd missed your old man."
Kirk's familiar mischievous grin appeared. "Well, maybe just a little."
When he held his favorite Snoopy coffee mug, Kirk said, "You working on another book?"
"When am I not? I think you'll like this one even better than the other. I have an ," he glanced at emptiness below Kirk's jeans leg. "One of the characters in this one is an amputee. I'm sorry, son. I started him before I knew."
"Don't be afraid to talk about it with me, dad. My foot's gone and I've made my peace with it. Maybe I could help you develop this character now that I'm speaking from first hand knowledge."
"You'd do that?"
"Hey, I'll do anything to be the first to read your new book. Besides, I'll be sitting around a lot for a while. This will give me something to do. I better warn you, professor, I'm a tough critic."
"That's for damn sure. Oh, I forgot the most important thing!" He took a volume and the album from the bookshelves and handed them to Kirk, sitting down beside him on the sofa. "I'm proud of your work, son. It got rush treatment from the publisher and a lot of publicity. I've saved it all so I could share it with you."
Kirk laid the album aside and looked at his book with wonder. "I know you must have chosen the picture on the dust jacket, dad. It's perfect with the content of most of the stories. But I thought you were kidding when you told me you could get them published."
"I might joke with you occasionally, Kirk, but never about good work. Surely you must have seen your book in a shop when you had weekend passes."
"I never went into town. It was time I could be alone and use constructively for myself." He picked up the album and scanned the pages, then closed it, seeing his name on the cover. "I'll read this stuff later. Thanks for not giving the publisher anything personal to use on the dust cover."
"That's one of the things that'll keep you busy for a while. On your desk are quite a number of what appear to be fan letters our publisher has forwarded. I had him answer all invitations to make public appearances and talks in the negative, saying that you were too busy."
"One small problem remains."
Kirk raised an eyebrow. "And that is?"
"Our publisher wants a full novel from you. He's been on me about it constantly."
"I don't think so. Not just yet at any rate."
Cary opened a small wall safe behind a picture and took out an envelope. "There's also this, son. I opened the account in your name as you asked when you left home."
Kirk opened the top bank statement and whistled. "I can see my army pay, but where'd all this other money come from?"
"The advance and royalties on your book. It's done well."
"I can hardly believe it. Since I'm going to be around for a while, maybe I should try to start one, but I don't have any ideas."
"Then help me with my book. I can certainly use it with the amputee. He's flat. Nothing I do seems to bring him to life. With your recent experience you can make him live. Even better, work on it all with me and we'll publish it together."
"I'd like that. You have great ideas and plots, dad."
"And your eye for graphic setting and realistic action will make it unbeatable."
"We'll take both lap-tops to the cabin. I can make changes to what you've already written while you write more."
Cary was delighted at the animation in Kirk's face. "Done! When do you want to leave?"
"Give me a day or so. I want to go out tomorrow morning about ten. I'd like you with me, if possible."
Kirk remained in the car while Cary asked the dean to begin his leave of absence immediately.
"Don't you want to drive?" Cary asked when he returned.
"You trust a guy with one foot?"
"I trust you, son."
Kirk drove swiftly to a small office complex, parking by the last door on the side of the building. The discreet sign read, Coastal Prosthetics.
Cary followed Kirk to the examining room and sat in the corner, listening intently to the conversation between his son and the prosthetist who was examining Kirk's stump. "Going to be a little tight fitting you comfortably. This looks like it was done by a general surgeon."
"How can you tell?"
"By the formation of your stump. Surgeons who are not specialists in amputation sometimes leave stumps hard to fit. I can try for you, but if it isn't comfortable, you'd be better off having your stump reformed by a specialist. I can give you a couple of names."
"I've had enough already. I don't have the time or patience, so let's get with it. I know about the process of the mold and all that, so take the impression now and give me something temporary, preferably today. I'm planning a trip."
"Not so fast, guy. I'll make the impression, but it'll take me the rest of the day in the shop to make a pylon for you to use temporarily. You can have it tomorrow. The foot's going to take several days to make for a stump like yours."
"Then do it." Kirk sat impatiently while the technician took a mold of his stump.
When he removed the mold, he studied it intently, then smiled. "Looks like I got a good one on the first try."
"Good. You through?"
"With this, yes. Put your jeans back on, then we're going to have a show."
"For what? A fake foot's a fake foot." Kirk snapped.
"Kirk," Cary admonished, "you can listen to what he has to say, unless you think you can do better yourself."
"Sorry. But this has been bugging hell out of me."
"I understand. A lot of first time clients are impatient. What I'm going to show you are the options you have. We have stock components, but from the look of you, you're an active man and I want to give you the best. You need to see what I can offer and give some thought about what you need according to the kind of activities you engage in. Let's go in the office where it's comfortable."
Cary pulled his chair up next to Kirk's as the technician brought up the computer.
"Look at the size of that screen, dad. It would be great for your work."
"It's a thirty-two inch, too big for comfortable word processing. I prefer nothing larger than a seventeen or twenty, unless I were doing desk-top publishing."
The screen sprang to life showing a young man running easily, then the picture stopped, the camera focused in on a black flattened Y shaped object attached to flesh coloured plastic covering the man's stump.
"That's the Flex-Foot. It's carbon fiber which gives a springy action similar to a natural foot. I recommend it to anyone who's active physically." He hit another key and the picture showed the same man walking normally on a foot covered by a shoe. "This is the Sure-Flex III made by the Flex-Foot people. It has some of the same spring action as the other, but is for normal use." He pressed the key again. The same man wore a simple plastic covering with a rod attached to a foot. "This is a basic pylon. Because of its lower cost, it's most useful for growing children where frequent replacement is necessary. Since you're in a hurry and your stump is so long, I'll make you one without the foot to use while you decide what type of foot you want."
"I already know. Both of those."
"Two complete units are going to be expensive."
"I can afford it."
"It'll take an extra week for me to get both. The feet are patented units I've no way of making."
"Good enough. I can make it with the pylon."
"I should have it ready by noon tomorrow."
At Kirk's insistence, they went to dinner early. There were two young couples in the restaurant when they entered. Kirk walked smoothly between his crutches, quickly taking his seat at the table and sliding his crutches out of sight. They discussed the plot of the novel they would work on until the meal was served, then ate in silence, the enjoyment plain on Kirk's face.
"This is excellent, miles above army food. We should have come here more often."
"It's your fault we haven't."
"When have you been home enough? At least now I'll have you for while."
Kirk smiled. "And you'll be glad not to have the distraction when I leave."
"I never see enough of you, Kirk. I'm on leave of absence for as long as you're here, and you can't be a distraction if you're working on the book with me."
"Ah, ha. If you're on leave of absence for as long as I'm home, then if I stay permanently you'll be broke in no time. Good enough reason for me to move on."
"I'd gladly accept poverty if you were with me."
Kirk's hand reached across the table and lay on top of his father's. "I know you would, dad. I would do the same. Let's not speak of this again."
The waiter placed coffee and a liqueur before them, both having refused dessert. Kirk looked around the now crowded room. "I wish I could get out of here without anyone seeing me."
"Oh, son, you're not still obsessed with secrecy, are you?"
"More so now than ever. Please, don't ask."
When they got up to leave, Cary watched with dismay at the way Kirk, head down, dragged himself along on his crutches, instead of the straight proud way he had walked in earlier. Only when they were in the darkness of the parking lot did Kirk again walk tall.
They packed and loaded the car the next morning, then Kirk insisted on returning to the prosthetics shop though it was only ten. Within a few minutes the pylon was fitted to his stump.
"Try a few steps and see how it feels."
Kirk walked across the room and back. "Not bad. It'll do until you have my foot ready."
"Are you sure? I'd rather have you on crutches than risk injury to your stump."
"Well, I wouldn't. When can I have it?"
The technician consulted his calendar, then set a date three weeks later. "I know it's a little longer than I told you, but I want plenty of time to do the job right. I'll need to see you for at least two or three consecutive days when you use each one to see what adjustments have to be made."
"If you have to," Kirk replied impatiently.
"Come on, guy, cut me some slack. I'm trying hard for you."
"Thank you. He'll do as you ask," Cary promised. He made a note of the date in his pocket calendar. "Bring your crutches, son. You may need them."
Kirk grinned as he tossed them into the backseat. "Good riddance. I feel a man again, even with this stupid peg for a foot."
"You are a man, crutches or not. Dear Lord, son, it just dawned on me. Your birthday's coming up and you've been gone so long I can't remember how old you'll be."
The familiar mischievous grin appeared. "I swear, I believe you're getting old, dad. No wonder you write everything in that pocket secretary you always carry."
"Old, hell!" He quickly subtracted fourteen years from his own age. "I'm not so old I can't turn you across my knee and paddle your behind if you don't begin showing some respect, young man."
Kirk lifted one hand from the steering wheel and flexed the arm, the muscles rippling. "Think you're man enough? Remember, I've got two legs again; no way an old man like you can catch me if I run."
Cary laughed and held his hands out, palms toward Kirk. "I surrender."
"Good. I don't take prisoners."
They stopped in a small town a few miles from the cabin and bought enough food and supplies to last two weeks.
"We don't have to buy the place out. It's not that far." Cary argued, when Kirk piled more into the cart.
"Waste of gas. Don't want to come back."
When everything was put away, Kirk reappeared wearing a pair of running shorts and a track shoe on his foot. "Going for a run, dad. Be back in a while."
"You just got the pylon this morning, son. Surely you should take it off and give your stump a rest."
"Need to run. If it's worth a damn, I'll find out fast."
Cary watched him set out at a moderate pace, then ground coffee beans and started the maker. After a few minutes, he took a mug of coffee and sat on the porch steps, glancing at his watch.
Three quarters of an hour later, Kirk ran up the path to the steps and stopped, looking at his watch. "Two miles in twenty minutes," he said in disgust. "I'm really out of shape."
"I'd say that was excellent time when you're using a peg-leg."
"Nah. I was running a mile in six minutes when I got hurt, and that wasn't even pushing." He pointed down to the pylon. "I won't be satisfied until I can do as well with this damned thing. I'm going for a shower."
Cary saw him wince slightly as he climbed the steps. He shook his head. Still pushing the limits, never satisfied. I hope he doesn't injure himself.
"Get me a cup of coffee, dad, and I'll join you." Kirk called.
"Put on something warm; it's a little chilly."
Cary filled a mug for Kirk, refilled his own and took them out on the porch. When Kirk joined him, he was wearing a sweatshirt and bush shorts, and on his crutches. "Guess you were right in insisting I bring these." When he sat on the step beside him, Cary saw how abraded and inflamed Kirk's stump had become from the run.
Kirk noticed. "It's nothing, dad. It'll toughen up in a few days."
"Why be so hard on yourself, son? You have plenty of time. That must be painful."
"This is nothing. You should have seen my feet after my first twenty-mile hike in basic. Now that did hurt." He grinned. "I think I had blisters on top of the blisters. Took me nearly a week to get them toughened up."
"You're not going to use that thing tomorrow. If I even see you looking at it, I'll throw it on the fire."
"You just like seeing me on crutches, don't you?"
"I like seeing you any time, but I'll not have you risk injury to yourself through some stupid notion that nothing has changed." He smiled. "Besides, if you can't run away, maybe I can get some help on the book out of you. While you were driving us here, I had time to think of several twists in the plot I think will fit in well, and seeing what you've just stupidly done to yourself, I have another idea for the amputee."
"Then I wasn't so stupid if I helped you with the development of the character, was I?" He put his hand on Cary's shoulder. "Okay, dad, I'll be good tomorrow, but I'm not promising a thing beyond that."
"I know you want to get back to normal, son, but remember what the prosthetist said about stump injury."
"I will. I just wanted to see how far I have to go to get back where I was before this. Where're you going?"
"To see if I can find something to bandage your stump with."
"It's okay. I put some Neosporin on it to help it heal faster. Works better if it's left open to the air. Feels better, too."
Once their breakfast dishes had been washed, Cary brought their lap-tops to the table, and down-loaded what he had written thus far to a floppy. He handed it to Kirk, then began writing rapidly. Some time later he looked up at Kirk who was slowly shaking his head and going, "Tsk, tsk, tsk."
"Grammatical error. Shame on you, professor."
"Don't rub it in, you juvenile delinquent. I'd have caught it in editing."
"Yeah. Sure you would." He held out the mug. "What about a refill?"
"Get it your se . Sorry, son, I forgot for a moment."
"Good. That's the first sensible thing you've done since I've been home."
Cary refilled both mugs, walking around the table to set Kirk's in front of him. "Here you go." He ran his hand across Kirk's lengthening brush-cut. "Got to take care of my poor little cripple boy."
"Bull shit!" Kirk responded with a grin.
After a lunch of salad, Kirk worked out for over an hour - sit-ups, pushups, chinning himself on the doorframe. When he finished, he said, "Good. Haven't lost as much as I thought." He reached over and patted Cary's flat stomach. "Getting flabby, old man. You need to work out with me."
"It's warmed up enough for a swim, if you want. That water's going to be cold, though."
"Good. I can still out swim you, even with one leg."
"Told you," Kirk teased as they walked up the path from the lake to the cabin.
"Not by that much, wise guy."
"Would have if you'd given me a couple of points handicap."
"Why should I? You're the one insisting everything's like before."
"It will be. Just got to get back in shape."
They settled into a routine of writing in afternoons and evenings, Kirk spending the morning in exercises and lengthening runs. He would not accompany Cary back to the market for fresh supplies, but asked him to get some powdered alum.
Just before they settled in for an evening's writing, Cary watched Kirk dissolve a quantity of alum in a little hot water, soak a rag in it, then wrap it around his stump.
"Is that safe, son?"
"Sure. It's an Indian remedy. My granddad used alum to cure hides. He used to wrap my feet like this so they would be tough. After that first hike I told you about, I remembered. It worked great. After that I had no more trouble with blistered feet. If it worked on them, it ought to work on my stump. It won't hurt anything to try."
Cary shook his head. "I hope you know what you're doing."
"I do. Now let's get to work or we'll never finish this book."
"We have to go back home for a few days, son," Cary said over dinner some nights later. "We'll leave sometime tomorrow morning."
"Your foot should be ready for fitting."
"I'd forgotten." He held the pylon out. "Since I got my stump toughened up this thing is comfortable enough I don't even think about it."
"Then I hope your foot fits as well."
Kirk smiled. "That guy is good. I wish I hadn't been so hard on him."
"Then you might apologize. He was trying his best for you."
"I know. Thanks for reminding me."
"It's so peaceful here I hate to leave, even for just a few days." Kirk said, as he drove the tracks leading to the rural road. "You ever think of getting away from the city and finding a place out in the country?"
"It may surprise you, son, but I have. The city's growing and getting noisier. It sometimes disturbs me when I'm writing."
"Good. I think it's time we moved. I wish Hastings would sell us this place."
"Too far from the college, son. At the end of this year I'll be half way to retirement, so I plan to keep teaching until then. I have enough income from the books to live, but the retirement benefits at the college are too good to throw away."
"Mind if I checked with a realtor or two while we're in town, just to see if anything's available?"
"Of course not."
While they were dressing to go out to dinner that evening, Cary noticed how fit Kirk had become. Though his twenty-first birthday was still a few weeks away, he now looked completely mature. His face had grown more angular, the sharp features gaining a masculine beauty.
Kirk suggested they return to the restaurant at which they had dined his first evening home. Pleased, Cary called for reservations. When they walked in, people stared at Kirk with smiles.
"You seem to have attracted quite a few admirers, son."
"Good. They'll remember me as I am now and not recognize me if they see me later, especially with two feet."
"I doubt they've even noticed the pylon, you walk so well with it. But I'd recognize you anywhere."
Kirk shook his head. "I doubt it, dad. You've never seen me in disguise." He lifted his hand from the tabletop as Cary opened his mouth to speak. "Don't ask."
"I'd hoped that was finished, son."
"It'll never be finished, even when I'm dead."
Cary reached across the table and grasped Kirk's hand. "Please don't speak of that, son. You're not twenty-one, yet. Your life is just beginning."
"I wouldn't have if I had thought," he said contritely. "I'm sorry I upset you, dad, but you know death is no respecter of age. An Indian who believes as I do has no fear of death. To be trite, it's entry into the happy hunting ground."
"I've often wondered why you were so fearless, Kirk, even as the boy I found."
"That was an early maturation process for me. My survival depended on it, otherwise I would have never hustled the streets." He squeezed Cary's hand. "But something wonderful came of it."
"I can think of nothing even remotely good coming from selling your body."
"Can't you, dad?"
"No. I saw how young you were when you ."
Kirk smiled. "Exactly. I found a father by offering my body to a stranger."
Cary pulled his hand away and fumbled for his handkerchief, turning away as he wiped his eyes.
The next morning Kirk smiled at Cary, then at the technician as he put his full weight on the Flex-Foot and bounced up and down on it a few times. "You're right, this thing does have spring to it. Looks like hell, but it feels good."
"Glad you like it. Sit and let me put the other one on." He exchanged the Flex-Foot for the cosmetic foot, then put the matching shoe on it and tied the laces. "Give this one a try."
Kirk waked the length of the room and back. "Feels awkward. Doesn't have the same feel of the other one."
"Would have been better if your stump was an inch or two shorter. Most surgeons try to save as much leg as possible, but that isn't always best for fitting a prosthesis. You'll get used to the feel. Just remember it's important to have new heels put on your shoes when they wear down, or it will affect the way you walk. Want me to get rid of the pylon for you?"
"No way. It feels good, so I'll be using it from time to time."
He picked it up and examined the end. "I made this to use crutch tips, and you've gone through this one already. Get a few new ones. I'm surprised at how quickly your stump has toughened up. What have you been doing?"
"Exercising. I guess the running I did did it."
"Want to go with me to the realtors?" Kirk asked as he drove back to the centre of town.
"Take me by the service and let me pick up our mail, then drop me off at home. I've a few things to take care of. And please try to find something within easy commuting distance of the college."
Some four hours later, Kirk burst into the apartment, his eyes glowing. "Found the perfect place, dad. One small problem, though."
"No house. I guess that lady showed me a dozen places, but there wasn't a damn one came close to Hastings' place. I told her what I wanted and she took me to a piece of property that's perfect. Ten acres of woods with a good sized pond. It's only nine miles from the college and best of all it's tied up in an estate settlement, so the price is lower than I expected. I'll take you out to see it tomorrow morning. You'll love it."
"I wasn't planning on having to build a house. That'll take a while."
"Nah. If the weather stays good it won't be more than two months or so until we can move in."
"I think you're being overly optimistic, son. This is an area where neither of us has any experience."
Kirk smiled. "I started doing some research after we went to the cabin the first time." He pulled a coupon torn from a magazine from his billfold and picked up the phone. When he hung up, he said, "Catalogue'll be here day after tomorrow. The company I called makes homes from cedar logs. They last well and are very energy efficient. The catalogue shows a few stock plans, so if we can agree on one, they can ship within a week or two."
"I hope you know what you're doing. This isn't something we should rush into without a lot of thought and planning."
"I know, dad. But it'll be wonderful to have a place of our own."
Cary looked at his son, seeing his rare excitement, but doubts began to grow when, early the next morning, Kirk pulled off the unpaved road onto a track even rougher than the one to Hastings' cabin.
"Don't worry, dad. We can have this graded a bit and it won't be so rough," he said, as though he read Cary's mind. "I don't want it too good, though, because it might attract people, especially kids wanting a place to park. By the time we move out here, you ought to think about trading this thing in and getting something with four-wheel drive."
"A new house and a new car at the same time would bankrupt me. I was planning on keeping this for a while yet. It's four years old, but it only has thirty some thousand miles on it."
Kirk grinned. "And get stuck the first time it snows. It's fine in town, but not out here."
"Quit rushing me. I haven't agreed to anything yet."
"You will when you see this place."
Cary stood on the edge of the pond, looking around. "You were right. This is a beautiful spot, but it's so isolated."
"What I need, dad. Don't ask." He said as Cary was about to speak again.
"If you feel you need the isolation, son, and you think the price of the land reasonable, let me go with you when you talk with the realtor. There may be some question about financing because of your age. I would also like to assure myself this is the bargain you feel it to be."
"Don't you trust me, dad?"
"You know I do, son. But it's others I don't trust. You have to remember a realtor works for the seller, not the buyer. If she's had a hard time selling it, perhaps we might get the price lowered if I offer them cash."
"You're right. But when I first saw this place I was so happy to find one this beautiful I guess I got carried away."
"I can see why. I'm glad you wanted me to see it before you made any commitments."
"I can't do this alone. I need your support."
"And money as well. Even if you had enough, I don't want you to deplete your account. Always keep a reserve ample for your needs, son."
Two days later they opened the catalogue of homes and looked through it. One simple floor plan immediately attracted them both.
"Two bedrooms, a bath." Kirk pointed, "this small kitchen," his finger moved a bit, "and this one big room. That's all we need."
"I'd like the main room a little bigger. There should be room for your desk as well as mine. And I'd like a garage - two car, so there'll be room for yours, when you get one."
Kirk flipped to the back of the catalogue. "Easy. They work with four-foot modules, so the main room can be as big as you want. They do a matching garage, too."
"What about site preparation? We'll have to have a well and a septic system."
"They'll recommend a local contractor they've worked with before and give us a turn-key job, if we want. We'll need an auxiliary generator for power outages, and I want the power and phone lines underground from the road to the house."
"Why? That'll be quite an expense considering the distance."
"So no one knows there's a house up the track."
"All right, son. Give the company a call and tell them what we want, so they can give us a quote."
"Okay. But don't you think we'd better have that piece of land first?" Kirk looked at his watch. "We've got time to see the realtor. Let's go."
Three weeks later, Kirk sat in his open Jeep and watched the bulldozer clearing trees from the site of the house with moist eyes. Though he knew it was necessary, he hated to see any tree felled. Moments later he was out of the Jeep, waving his arms and screaming at the driver of the bulldozer as he approached a huge spreading oak.
"But it's in the middle of where the septic field is supposed to go," the driver argued.
"They can go around it. This tree stays, damn it."
One look into the cold dark eyes, and the driver quickly reversed his machine, wishing he'd never taken this job. He felt something akin to fear every time this guy looked at him.
Kirk reluctantly agreed to go with Cary to a faculty party held during spring break, after Cary insisted that several faculty members had expressed a desire to see him again. He was not worried about Kirk's manners, for he had been at care to instruct the boy from the first, finding that, once told, the boy never forgot. His one failure came when, after Kirk's first leave time at home after joining the army, he never let anyone other than him touch him. He refused to shake hands with anyone, and one occasion moved quickly back so that a close woman friend of Cary's kissed only the air.
"Ah! Our two favorite authors," the chairman of the English department announced as he greeted them at the door. He held out his hand. "It's good to see you again, Kirk. You've grown into an imposing man." With a slightly chagrinned look he dropped his unshaken hand. "Come in."
Kirk made a polite response, picked up a glass of wine from a tray, and quickly moved to a quiet corner of the room. Cary began to notice that people were attracted to Kirk, attempting to make conservation with him until they looked into his eyes. After an hour of seeing his son's unease, he suggested to Kirk they leave. Kirk set the still full glass of wine down with a sigh of relief.
"I'm sorry, dad, I shouldn't have gone. I kept you from enjoying the party."
"Forget it. I see that bunch every day at school."
After they were at home and Kirk had relaxed, Cary asked, "Why do you have such an aversion to being touched, son? You're so cold toward others."
"I'm sorry, father. But every time I'm touched, I again feel the hands of dirty old men pawing my body, desperate for sex as a substitute for love. The touch of others takes something from my spirit." He reached over and took Cary's hand lightly in his, seeming to draw comfort from the contact. "The love in your touch restores, it does not destroy. You're always here for me, father, the source of my strength. I neither need nor trust anyone else."
"There's nothing I wouldn't do for you, son, but you've been touched by doctors and the man who made your foot."
"I allowed it because I could feel their willingness to help when I needed it."
"But no one else?"
"If he still lives, there is a man in Central America who at this very moment looks at his arm and regrets using it to touch me."
"It was hostile environment and this man was leading them. Though I warned him not to touch me, he pushed me roughly. It was the last time he used that hand for anything. The machete I had left it on the jungle floor. Had I killed him, his men would have turned on me like jackals, but they had heard me warn him in his own language. One of them started toward me, but when his eyes fixed on mine, he could see I had no fear. He and the rest slunk away dragging their leader."
Cary pulled him closer. "Please, son, give up this insane life you lead and stay here in your home."
Kirk's arms encircled him. "I have much yet to do. But until I'm ready, I am here with you."
The air grew crisp. The woodlands blazed with colour when they moved into their new home. After a couple of students recruited from the college had helped them pack their furniture in a rented van, Cary paid them for their labor and sent them on their way, for Kirk refused to let them see the location of the new house. "No, dad," Kirk said as he drove. "It's our secret place, a sanctuary for me. I want no one to know where it is. That's why I set up that dummy corporation to hold the property when we transferred title to the land. I know you need a phone, so I arranged to have it moved with the same number, but no address. I have another line with an unlisted number for our computers and my use. Did you change your mailing address to the service as I asked?"
"Long ago. Since I had to pick up your mail there anyway, it was easier to let Jerry handle it all."
After a week to arrange things the way they wanted, they finished the book and took a few days for relaxation before starting another. By Thanksgiving, Kirk expressed his feeling of fitness. "I'm well and better than before, dad." He thrust out the pylon he still used when not going out in public. "Even with this. With the Flex-Foot I surpassed the best time I've had running."
"I'm happy for you, son." Cary said, though he was not, knowing the boy had grown restless. "I know I promised to stay home with you, but there's been an unprecedented jump in mid-year enrollment and they need me. I have to return to my classes when spring semester begins. I'm sorry."
"You have been with me, my father, and it's meant more to me than you can ever know. But now I can return to my work without worry." He saw the look of disappointment that crossed Cary's face. "I will stay and work with you on the book until you return to your classes." He smiled. "I wish I had time to sit in and hear you lecture again."
"You know you're welcome. I would love to have you lecture to my students on developing a keen sense of observation and it's value to realistic description in writing."
Kirk laughed. "You're the professor, dad, not me. I'd be scared witless standing in front of a class."
"Nonsense! Even from the very little you tell me, I know you've been in life-threatening situations, so there's no way you could be afraid of a bunch of college students."
"They'd terrify me. Talking to them I'd be exposing my soul. Action I can take, but my thoughts are mine."
"And you don't think a writer exposes his innermost feelings every time he puts pen to paper?"
"I suppose. But if a book is done well, a reader has no way to discern between fact and fiction. That's why I don't mind helping you put thoughts down on paper."
Memory of the past exhausted, Cary finally slept until the sun shining through the window on his face awoke him. He turned his head on the pillow to reassure himself he had not dreamed it all, that his son lay beside him. He sat up slowly to avoid waking Kirk, knowing his need, for any time Kirk felt stress and it was possible, he slept beside him, seeming to find comfort in being at his side.
He had accepted Kirk's missing foot, but as he looked at him with affection, he gasped aloud at the changes the past two years of absence had made. Kirk's hard muscled body now bore several vicious scars, the little finger and connecting portion of his left hand completely missing, replaced by an ugly ridge of red tissue. His right forefinger now a one joint stub. Cary looked away, taking the time to compose himself, then slipped from the bed.
He was standing at the door looking out over the pond, when Kirk joined him, holding his Snoopy mug. "I'd almost forgotten how much I love this place."
"It's been two years since you've seen it, son. Two long years for me. What's happened to you in that time?"
Kirk's old crooked smile returned. "Remember don't ask?" He slipped his arm around his father's shoulders. "What about some breakfast?"
As they lingered over another cup of coffee after eating, Cary again asked. "What has happened to you these past two years, son? I could accept your foot, but your hands and the other scars you bear came as a shock."
Kirk looked at him wistfully. "I know, father. There are times when I wish my Indian faith permitted confession as yours does; it would be good to shrive my soul. I have killed other men to benefit the young. I haven't failed, because in a small way I have made a difference. But the job's too big for one man, and I have become weary of it all."
"You know I am always willing to listen, son."
Kirk reached across the table and laid his hand atop Cary's. "As you have always been, but I will not give you knowledge which might place you in danger. A few ruthless men will search for me for a while, but they will soon forget when I am not found, and form other allegiances. There are others who take the place of those I have eliminated, but as I told you, no one seems to care. Even their governments protect them. I realize now the futility of my dream."
"I'm sorry, son. I've watched what little news reports on drug cartels we get and guessed that you might in some way be involved, but I've never known to what extent."
"Whenever I have killed, I have seen in my mind's eye the small addicted children on the reservation. What I have done has been done for them."
"You have sacrificed yourself for others, son. In my faith and, I hope in yours, that is what's required of us. You have acted when most do not. Find solace in knowing that you have saved at least a few from a living hell."
Kirk smiled, "As you saved me, father. I would save them all if I could."
"You have done more than the rest. I am proud of you."
"Thank you, father. Through it all I have lived with the hope you would feel that."
"You've packed a dozen lifetimes into your twenty-three years and bear scars I wish I could have protected you from. Now, I thank God you've returned safely. Rest. When you feel better, think about your future. It will be your decision, but I hope you will remain here."
"I have decided, father. I've come to think that perhaps in teaching you reach more lives in a positive way than what I've done will." He held up his mutilated hands. "There is blood on these hands, but none of it innocent. Now, I shall try it your way. I'll give some lectures to your students, if you like, or if there's a position open in your department at the college, I'll take it. Perhaps in teaching I can show students first hand a side of life they will never perceive from papers or television. I also want to write with you as we've done, but my work will be realistic, almost biographical."
"Won't that expose you to more danger of being discovered?"
"Not all that much, for most of what I will say can be found in news reports. But if it helps save another child, I will risk it. Will you share that risk, my father?"
Cary walked around the table and pulled him up into a tight embrace.
No other answer was required.