It was the middle of the afternoon, and McD's was nearly empty. There was no reason not to let Kelly go ahead with his story.
"I don't think anybody will be looking for me," he began. "At least they never have before."
"You mean this isn't the first time you've run away?"
"I didn't really run away this time. But I have before. The other times they never even tried to find out where I was. As long as the checks kept coming, they didn't give a shit."
"Kelly, I'm getting lost here. What checks? And who are 'they'? Your parents?"
He gave a great sigh and his shoulders sagged as if they were carrying a forty pound weight. "I don't have any parents," he said. "My mom died when I was born. When I was about two years old, I guess, my dad got married again. A real bitch. I hate her. Then when I was eight my dad got cancer and he died. I remember that day I wanted to go to the hospital, but The Bitch wouldn't let me. She made me go to school. They had to get me out of class to tell me he was dead. About six months after that she married this asshole Frank. He was banging her already while dad was in the hospital." For a nice kid, Kelly certainly had some vocabulary. We could work on his foul mouth later, maybe. Come to think of it, he really didn't have a foul mouth. He saved all his dirty words for talking about his stepparents. I couldn't take away his anger, so I would let him have his outbursts.
"I'm sorry to hear about your parents, Kelly. So that left you living with..."
"My stepdad and my stepmom. I'm not actually related to either one of them."
"Has either one of them ever adopted you?"
"Hell, no. They have kids of their own. They're just my, I don't know, guardians or something. That way the state pays them the same as it would if I were a foster kid. If they adopted me, they'd lose the money. They actually have other foster kids, too. They spend all the money on their own kids. She has two daughters, spoiled bitches both of them. He has a son. He's seventeen. He's big, he plays high school football, and he's a dumb jock if there ever was one. He's the one who... I mean, he's a bully, too, always pushing me around. You know what's kind of funny?"
"Their name is Foster. Can you believe it? Mr. and Mrs. Foster, the foster parents."
"You don't use the Foster name, I guess."
"No. They tried to make me, but I won't. My dad was Walter Grayson, so I'm keeping his name. I'll always be Kelly Grayson."
By this time my head was spinning. One thing I've learned from working with people this age is that you have to let them tell their stories in their own way. Usually they have not had time to put it all together in any kind of logical order, so they pour out a lot of disconnected details. You have to work to get it all to make sense. So far, this was sounding like a male version of Cinderella, a young kid replaced by his wicked stepsisters, and in this case a stepbrother. Kelly didn't seem like a whiner to me. I sensed that there was a lot more to this story.
"Kelly, don't tell me you ran away because your stepsisters got treated better than you."
Clearly that was the wrong approach. Kelly crossed his arms, slouched down and sat in stony silence. Time to try another tack. "How many times have you run away, Kelly?"
Kelly bit his lower lip. He bit it hard. I couldn't tell whether his expression of pain came from the bite, or from the memory he was struggling with. "I don't think I can tell you," he said finally.
"It's that bad?"
"Yeah. It's bad."
"Is it bad for all the kids?"
"Most of them. Especially for... it's bad."
There was a pause. "Do you want to tell me any more?"
Another great sigh. "Their real kids have their own bedrooms upstairs. Me and the foster kids all have to share two rooms in the basement. There's one bathroom for all of us. We do the dishes, we do the laundry, we mow the lawn, we do everything, and their own kids just sit on their fat asses and do nothing."
This time I knew enough to remain silent. Once Kelly's pity party was over, he might get to what was really bothering him. "But that isn't the worst part," he said. "The worst part is..." Again the melancholy look, the hard bite on the lower lip. "I can't tell you."
I decided to sidestep the issue. Instead I asked, "Does anybody ever check up on you and the foster kids?"
He gave a contemptuous snort. "The stupid case worker comes around once in a while."
"Can't you tell her what's going on?"
Kelly was becoming agitated. "It a him, not a her, and no, I can't tell him."
"Because the fucking case worker is his fucking brother-in-law, okay?" He was shouting now. An elderly woman with blue hair three tables away glared at us. The restaurant manager started around the end of the counter. I made a placating gesture, and she backed off, but her look clearly said, "One more outburst and you are out of here."
"Kelly," I said, "I know you're angry, and that's okay, but I hate to hear you using that kind of language. And we're in a public place. If you do that again, they'll kick us out."
With his anger vented, though, Kelly was returning almost to normal. He sat back down and stared out the window, morose and sullen. I decided to try one more time.
"What happened the other times you ran away?"
"I stayed with friends - with a friend. They never even tried to find out where I was."
"Yeah. They knew I didn't have any place to go. As soon as my friend's parents got tired of my being there, I'd have to go back."
"And is that what happened?"
"Yeah. I was gone about three weeks the first time. The second time they put up with me for six weeks. I was afraid to go back. But I had to."
Something pretty traumatic had happened to this kid. There was a lot of fear, and there were things he just did not want to tell me. Maybe there would be time for those things later, maybe not. Right now, I just had to make sure that my ass wasn't going to be in a sling. "You say you didn't run away this time, Kelly."
"Then what happened?"
"He threw me out."
"Your stepfather told you to leave?"
"No, he threw me out. He picked me up by the belt and threw me out the front door onto the lawn. I'm just glad I landed on the grass instead of on the sidewalk. About one minute later he threw out my backpack. I'd kept it packed after the last time I slept over at my friend Freddie's house, so I had a few clothes in there."
"Did he say anything?"
"He said, 'Get the hell out of here and go stay with one of your faggot friends'." A look of horror came over Kelly's face and he went suddenly white, then flushed a deep red. He stared down at his hands, then shakily got to his feet. "I'll leave now," he said, and started toward the door.
I beat him there and blocked his way. His hands came up, defending against the blow he obviously expected. Instead I gripped his arms just below the shoulders. "It's okay, Kelly," I said. "I don't care. It's going to be all right."
When I was a child I had a toy, a little horse made of beads held together by a kind of elastic thread. The horse was on a small pedestal, and on the bottom of the pedestal was a button. When you pushed up on the button, the elastic went slack and the bead horse collapsed. That's what happened to Kelly. He went suddenly limp, and I was barely able to keep him from falling. I pulled him tightly against my body to keep him upright, and after a moment his arms locked around my waist, and he held on for dear life. He didn't cry, he didn't whimper, he just held on like a drowning man clinging to a life preserver. The old lady with the blue hair did not approve.
When Kelly's knees began to work once more, I shifted my arm into a protective circle around his shoulders. "Come on, champ," I said. "Let's get back on the road."
I helped Kelly up into the cab of the pickup. His legs were still wobbly, and he nearly lost his balance. As I reached forward to give him a boost into the cab, I suddenly found my hands cupping the cheeks of his slim butt. He looked back over his left shoulder and suddenly found enough energy to grin at me. This time it was my turn to blush. I let go as quickly as I could, but my hands carried a kind of tactile memory. As I walked around to the driver's side, I could still feel the warm firmness of his rounded ass. For a moment I thought I was going to get hard again, but the feeling passed, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Once behind the wheel, I found myself staring at my cell phone. "Kelly," I said, "I need to make a couple of calls." He looked apprehensive. "If you've been telling me the truth, and I assume you have, this won't be a problem," I assured him. I picked up the phone and called 411. "Wyoming state police, non-emergency number," I said when directory assistance answered. I saw the panic on Kelly's face, and realized how stupid I had been. "Don't worry, Kelly," I said, reaching out to pat his hand. "Just listen. It will be okay, I promise." I had patted his hand, but he was holding on. The touch of his hand in mine was delicious. I discovered to my surprise that I did not want to let go. "Yes, you can dial that for me," I said. What would that cost, an extra buck? In a moment I found myself talking with a Patrolman Herbert.
"My name is August Wilson," I said, the first name that popped to mind. Kelly looked up at me in surprise, and I winked at him to show it was a deliberate lie. I hoped the patrolman didn't go to the theatre much. August Wilson was the author of the last play I had seen before leaving Portland. "I'm a tourist from Seattle, and I'm a little bit worried about something. This morning outside of Casper" (Casper was a hundred and fifty miles in the other direction) "I gave a kid a ride between two rest stops. He was a teenager, really. He had a good reason for being there, I guess, but I started wondering if he might be a runaway or something. His name was Kelly something, Graham I think, or Grayling - no, that's a fish - Grayson, that was it, Kelly Grayson. Because if he's been reported missing or anything... Okay, I'll wait... Well, I'll give you my number in Portland, I check for messages every day. It's 503-829-5414. Thank you, officer."
I pushed the 'end' button on the cell phone, and stared impassively at Kelly. Finally I couldn't hold the serious look any longer and I broke into a wide grin. "Well, the cops aren't looking for you."
"Told ya," Kelly replied, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
"I know, I know." My expression turned serious again. "Now comes the tough one. I'm going to need the Foster's phone number." Kelly looked like he was about to cry. "Did I do all right when I was on the phone to the cops?" I asked. He nodded dumbly. "Then trust me on this one, okay?"
He reluctantly gave me his stepfather's number, and once more I picked up the cell phone. What ensued was not a pleasant conversation. The stepdad said some very nasty things about Kelly, ending with, "Tell the little faggot that if I see him again there'll be a boot up his ass instead of a dick." By the time I hung up I was in a state of mild shock. One thing was clear: the Fosters would not be reporting Kelly missing. The boy was holding my hand again, squeezing so hard that it hurt. Finally I realized that I had not yet told him what I learned.
"We're in the clear," I said at last. Relief was written all over his face. "I hate to say it, but they couldn't care less what happens to you. I think that gives us enough time to figure out what to do. Now, let's get this show on the road."
We didn't talk much the rest of the way to Cody. It was a two-lane highway so I had to concentrate on driving. Kelly held my hand most of the way, and I didn't want to let go. I did find out a few more things about him. He really was from Cheyenne, and had somehow managed to hitchhike to the rest stop outside of Sheridan. He was vague about the details. He was fourteen years old, and going into ninth grade. His grades were good, though he had never had much time to study, and he was worried that freshman year would be a lot harder. We avoided talking about the future, and he still was not ready to talk about what had really happened with his stepparents.
I learned one more thing as we approached the city of Cody. "I knew a kid named Cody once," he said. I waited. "Well, I didn't exactly know him. I read about him on the Internet." He blushed, and fell silent. Aha, thought I. The Nifty archive, no doubt. I did not mention my suspicions to Kelly.
I had phoned in a reservation to the last RV park before the Yellowstone east entrance. Although it was the height of the tourist season, the park was less than half full. At the registration desk, which served for both the RV hookups and a small restaurant, the friendly desk clerk ventured that the high price of gasoline was keeping the tourists away. That was fine with me. Yellowstone was always too crowded anyway, from what I had heard. But what did I know? I had only been there once, and that was long before, when I was Kelly's age. And speaking of Kelly, I realized I had to explain his presence somehow, so thinking fast but none too clearly, I introduced him as my nephew, Kelly Grayson. I should have said he was my son, but Kelly didn't miss a beat. "Come on, Uncle Art," he said. "Let's go set up the camper."
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