The boys were outside of their cabin when Sue trotted over, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail revealing her delicate ears decorated by a number of piercings. Jason realized for the first time that she was more than a little attractive. Her beauty was understated, almost unnoticeable. He saw that North had noticed, a fact that wasn't lost on Jonathan, who didn't look pleased. Oh, crap, Jon, don't get overprotective of Annie's interests. As happened more frequently the longer they were together, Jon looked at him with a frown as if he had overheard the thought.
The runners exchanged one-word greetings, and Jason thought the way Sue regarded North showed that she wasn't trapped in the gravity-well of attraction that often affected women around North. No idol-worship with her.
No snow had fallen overnight, and the ground was now a patchwork of brown and white. North was wearing a pair of standard running shoes, as was Sue.
Like most trained runners, North didn't use static stretching before running. He either started at a slow pace until his muscles were ready to go full out or did dynamic exercise like old-fashioned jumping jacks. Today he had decided to start at a jogging pace.
Since he had run the trails the morning before, he led off, with others following. Jonathan was clearly the least- experienced runner in the group, and eventually he fell behind the others until Jason slowed a bit, the group separating into two pairs of runners. Sue had no problem keeping up with North, and Jason now thought that she might be a runner in North's class. He was amused by the pendular rhythm of the two ponytails, blond and brunette, in front of him as they swung in opposition to leg movements. He was fine with the slower speed that Jon preferred and happy that Jonathan set his own pace, a pace that permitted conversation. "Spill it, Jon. What's wrong?"
"She's exotic, and North's horny."
"Exotic? You're kidding, right? You think he's going to tumble for someone he's just met?"
"I suppose not, but he's less anxious than he was before yesterday. I need to check in with him."
"Okay. If I can, I'll distract Sue when we take a break so you can talk with him."
"Have you or I ever been able to distract a female interested in North?" Jon asked.
"Hey! We're not so bad. I know how distracting you can be."
"To the horde of extremely hot guys always crowding around me, maybe. But, not to Sue."
"I don't know. She said you were handsome." They both smiled at that.
They were a couple of miles into the run and had started heading back toward the Flying L. Sue stopped with North to rest on a trailside bench. After a few minutes, Jonathan and Jason arrived and rested with them. North looked at Jason quizzically as his friend grasped Sue's hand and pulled her off the trail into the woods. "Think you should be worried?" he asked Jonathan.
"No. You know very well what he's doing."
"Jonathan, what's on our mind?"
"Besides Jase, you."
"You're interested, aren't you?"
"In Sue?" Jonathan nodded. "She's not interested in me, even if I were."
"Not interested? Were you rejected?" Jon asked, getting testy with his best friend.
"No. Believe it or not, I can tell when a girl's interested, and she's not. She's bright and well-read, and she's polite enough to behave like I have a girlfriend — which I do, Jonathan."
"Okay, sorry. I just know that you haven't had any female attention lately, and …"
"Hey, you're the one who can't seem to go a day without getting laid. Not that I blame you. Jason's special."
"They're coming back. We haven't had much time since we've been here to talk about what's up between you and Annie, so I was trying to check in."
"Well, thanks. Maybe my conversation with the cougar helped. Annie's not yours to lose, Jon."
Sue and Jason returned, and the run resumed. When they neared the cabins, North and the girl decided to run a second loop while the Js went to the cabin for hot chocolate and each other. After they had changed and showered together — to save water, of course — they sat under a blanket on the living-room couch leaning into one another. Jonathan had never imagined that his love life would be so settled and that North's would be so upset. He was almost freaked at the thought of his friends ending their relationship.
"So, what's up with the North?" Jason asked.
"I can't tell. He seems passive, and I don't like that one bit. And, now he's out there with her."
"Did you ever think they might just be running?"
"I'll be really unhappy if that girl disrupts the fragile balance that North is trying to maintain."
"I know you don't want to hear this, but maybe North and Annie need time apart."
"You should follow your first inclination. I don't want to hear that."
Jason leaned his head onto Jonathan's shoulder while Jonathan stared at his cocoa.
The winter school break was hastening along between Christmas and New Year. Jonathan and Annie were in Portland with their families, but Jonathan would be back for the holiday weekend. Annie would remain in her lonely exile.
Jason was returning home after a peaceful run with Steve. He was distracted about the upcoming trip to Seattle planned for the end of January until, as he approached the drive to his family farm, he made out a small figure waiting at the entrance. From a distance, he realized he knew that small, lone child.
Jason checked his phone — no message from Frank. He picked up his pace, and when he arrived at the driveway, the child threw himself at Jason, who could only hug the boy. When they parted, Jason felt such mixed emotions: happiness at seeing Lucas and concern about why and how the boy was in Goldendale. "I'm glad to see you, Luke. But, how did you get here."
"Someone dropped me off."
Jason's little internal alarms started violently sounding, and he felt queasy. "Who dropped you off, Luke?"
"A friend." Lucas was dressed in a light jacket over a T-shirt and jeans over his slight frame. He didn't have enough muscle to create or maintain much heat, and Jason worried that he might be hypothermic, but Luke wasn't wet, and he wasn't shivering. Luke's hair was shorter than when Jason had last seen him at the Center. Darker-than-chocolate eyes looked expectantly into Jason's from under dark but delicate eyebrows. "Let's go inside and talk," Jason said. As Jason turned to walk up the drive, Lucas followed. "Where's your stuff? Did you bring a bag?"
"No. I don't have enough stuff to put in a bag, if I had one." There was an overtone in this statement: people accustomed to having more are unable to understand people who have less or nothing.
Jason was frankly worried with what Lucas had just said. "So, who was the friend who dropped you off?" Jason asked as casually as he could as they walked up the drive.
"You don't know him. Can I see a horse?"
"Why don't we go inside first? Then, you can see some horses."
Lucas stopped and said pointedly, "I'd rather see the horse first. Please?"
Jason turned, and something in the plea helped him decide. "Okay. We'll go to the horse barn before we get you something to eat."
The boy smiled. "Thanks, Jason."
As they reached the end of the drive, they rounded the farmhouse and walked to the barn where the horses were kept. Jason hoped that none of the hands was there, and when he and Lucas went through the end door, they were alone with the animals. Lucas passed by the stalls with a look of wonderment that Jason, who had lived with the animals his whole life, couldn't understand. The boy took a deep breath, inhaling the odor of horse sweat and horse shit, and rather than recoiling, smiled even more broadly. "Holy shit, they're beautiful."
Jason reached for his phone and speed-dialed North. "Hey, can you come over to the horse barn? It's important." There was a pause as Jason listened. "Okay. Thanks."
Lucas wheeled around, looking accusingly at Jason. "Who'd you call?"
"Remember the day we met when I told you I had a friend who was good with computers? He's my best friend except for Jonathan, and I want you to meet him."
Lucas stared at Jason, deciding whether or not his friend was lying to him. He decided not. "Good. Can I touch one?" he asked, turning back to the horses.
"Let's get one out of her stall, and you can help me brush her."
Lucas acted as if he had been given a great treasure. Jason took a halter from a peg on the wall and, murmuring to the horse that Jonathan had first ridden, slipped it over her head. Opening the stall door, he handed the reins to Lucas. "Gently," was all he said to the boy, who guided the horse from the stall without further prompting.
Lucas's head came up to the top of the horse's shoulder. He bent his head backward to look the animal in the eye quietly. The mare lowered her head and pushed her muzzle into Lucas's chest, producing carefree, musical laughter from the boy, a sound that seemed to please the animal and almost brought tears to Jason's eyes.
"This is Sally, the first horse that Jonathan rode." He walked to the wall across from the stalls and picked a carrot from a burlap bag. Jason broke the carrot in two before handing it to Lucas. "Give her this. Keep it in your palm and stretch your fingers back so she doesn't nip you."
As Lucas fed the horse the carrot, Jason turned to see North at the barn door with a clear question on his face. Jason shrugged and with a head movement invited North in. "Lucas, this is North."
Lucas reluctantly broke his communion with the animal and turned to see the new face. "North? That's a funny name."
North held out his hand to the boy and answered, "I agree. Lucas is a much more normal name. You'd have to know my fathers to understand."
The boy took North's hand. "Fathers?"
"Yeah. I have double the usual number." By now, North was laughing at the boy's confusion, but not meanly.
"North is adopted and his fathers are like you and me — gay."
"No shit! They let two guys be your fathers?"
North smirked. "More like, they punished them. For some reason, my dads wanted me, and they fought for me."
Lucas looked down and then back at North. "You were really lucky."
During the conversation, Jason had retrieved three brushes and began to show Lucas how to brush Sally. North joined the effort, and they worked for twenty minutes until Sally was quite content. "Put her away, Lucas."
The boy reached up and took her by the halter, leading her back into her stall. He closed the stall door behind him as he left. Sally turned in the stall to look at the boy, who went to the bag for another carrot. Jason sat on the bench against the tack wall, and North sat at his feet. After Sally ate, Lucas came over and dropped onto the floor beside North. The sky was darkening rapidly and the temperature outside dropping, but the barn was gently lighted, and the metabolism of the horses made them giant space heaters.
North rose and secured a horse blanket for Sally before returning to sit by Lucas. After a few minutes of silence, Jason dropped from the bench to join the other two on the floor, kicking up straw dust as he sat. "Luke, who dropped you off here? No bullshit between friends."
The boy started to give Jason more BS, but his face finally assumed a look of resignation. "I hitched."
"I got a ride from the Center out I-84 to the truck stop at Troutdale, and a trucker gave me a lift the rest of the way. Well, he let me off on the highway in Goldendale, and I went to a restaurant where they told me how to get to your place."
"I should kill you!" The boy flinched at Jason's outburst.
North put his hand on Jason's thigh and quickly interjected, "He's gotten good at being an older brother. He's just worried about what might have happened to you."
Looking at Jason, the boy asked, "How do you think people like me get around?"
Jason was barely if at all contained. "People like you? You mean twelve-year-olds?"
"Jesus, Luke. What if something had happened to you?"
"Then it would have happened. I can't see that it would have made much difference."
North saw Jason looking as if he might start shaking Lucas until he begged for mercy. "It would have made a difference to Jason."
The boy looked abashed. "I didn't think about that."
"And, what about Frank? Did you think about him?"
North interrupted Jason's rant. "What were you thinking, Lucas?"
Looking at the floor and playing with a stalk of straw he had picked up, Lucas finally said, "I wanted to see your home. Since you came to the Center, it's all I think about. The others tell me I'm stupid and that I can never have what you have. Well, at least I'm going to see what it's like."
Jason was stunned into silence by the raw revelation. His anger dissipated in empathy. "Does Frank know where you are?"
"No, he doesn't." The three of them turned to see Vi standing in the barn doorway. "He just called, and he's frantic. He thought that young Lucas here might try something like this."
"Lucas, this is my mama, Mrs. Johnson." Lucas looked at her and nodded.
"You can call me Vi." She turned and punched some keys on her phone. "He's here, and he looks okay." She listened for a few moments, then said, "Good," and ended the call.
"You told me I could come for a visit," Lucas said to Jason.
"After Frank had set it up, Luke. I didn't say you could just take off like this."
"I got tired of waiting, and Frank wanted me to wait too long."
Vi could see that Jason was getting wound up, so she suggested, "Why don't we let Lucas see what he came to see. I'll bet the three of you are hungry. North, do you need to call your dads?"
As Vi led them from the barn toward the back of the house, North answered, "Yes, ma'am."
Lucas, under his breath, echoed, "Dads." The word sounded right to him.
When they were through the mudroom and into the kitchen, Vi sent the boys to the dining-room table. The boys passed through the kitchen as Vi started to fix a snack for them. Jason was suddenly aware of his hunger, and he asked Lucas, "When's the last time you ate?"
Vi came out with turkey sandwiches and chips. When she put the plate of sandwiches on the table, Lucas waited. "Lucas, you need to eat. Are you warm enough?"
"Yes, thank you." Lucas grabbed a sandwich and attacked it until he looked up at the others watching him, realizing he needed to slow down. North wondered if the boy had eaten this morning. The others took sandwiches and began to eat as Vi brought glasses and a pitcher of milk.
As Lucas inhaled the food, Vi motioned to Jason to come to the kitchen. Lucas was so concentrated on his meal that he didn't even notice his friend leave the table. North talked to Lucas between bites. In the kitchen, Vi told Jason that Frank was on his way, even though he couldn't get here until after midnight. "Dr. Gerard is not happy with that young man. What he did also raises serious legal problems for the boy."
"He's not a criminal, Mama."
"No, but he is a ward of the State, and he's in foster care."
"Did his foster parents report him missing?"
"I don't know. I think the best thing is to have Frank and the boy stay here tonight. They can leave in the morning. How anyone could have left that child on his own, I'll never understand."
"I can't either, Mama."
"You need to let him know what's going to happen."
When Jason returned to the dining room, Lucas looked up and realized that Jason had been away from the table. He glanced to the kitchen where Vi was tidying up. He wiped his mouth with his napkin after taking a big slug of milk and asked, "Can I see your room?"
Jason almost reflexively gave the boy a lesson about the difference between can and may but fortunately restrained himself. "Sure." He looked at North, who got up and started up the stairs. Jason indicated to Lucas that he should follow North and then brought up the rear.
Lucas's eyes scanned Jason's room as North moved to flop on the bed. The boy took in the books, the computer, but spent most of his time looking at the photographs. "Is that your father?"
"Yeah. That's the man."
Lucas knew from his conversations with Jason to leave it at that. He then saw a photograph on Jason's night stand. North had snapped it when they had rafted the White Salmon during the summer. The enlarged picture showed Jason and Jonathan with their wetsuits pulled down to their waists before they changed. Lucas looked at Jason with a big smile and nodded. "Nice!"
North cracked up in laughter as Jason blushed. Jason looked crossly at North and finally said, "Yes, the subjects are nice, but I'm not sure about the photographer."
Walking up to the tall bookcase, Lucas looked at the spines of all the books, roughly organized by subject. "Poetry, science, and fiction—just what I expected."
Jason pulled out his desk chair and waved Lucas over to sit. When the boy was seated, Jason sat on the floor at the side of his bed. "Frank's coming out. He won't be here 'til late. I wish you had waited until Frank had arranged a visit."
"You know what it's like to have to wait for people to okay your every move? I live in a foster home and at the Center; that's my world. I got tired of it. What's the worst they can do?"
Jason sighed. "You have people who care about you, and you're safe, aren't you?"
"You see me once in a while, and Frank sees me because I'm sick. Other than that, I take crap from the other kids at the foster home. And the foster parents do nothing about it." Lucas's voice announced his bitterness. "Sometimes I feel like I was better off on the street. At least, I was paid."
North frowned in shock. Jason started to contradict Lucas, but stopped. "Lucas, did anyone hurt you on your way out here today?"
"You mean, did I have to put out for a ride?"
"Not everyone wants something for kindness, you know. I know how to size people up. The ride to the truck stop was a kid, maybe a year older than you. He was a stoner and didn't give a shit that I was thirteen. The trucker was a nice guy who wanted to help a ‘stranded kid from Goldendale.' I can be persuasive."
"I'll bet you can," North said.
Lucas looked at North, but didn't find any judgment.
"What do you see happening now, Luke?"
Looking back to Jason, the boy answered, "I don't look too far ahead. I'd like to beat your asses at some video games before Frank gets here." Lucas nodded to the video game console.
Frank pulled into North's home a little before midnight. After a brief discussion with Tom and Jim, they all drove over to Jason's. Vi and the men had coffee. Lucas had eventually conked out and was asleep on the bed, seemingly undisturbed by the nearby conversation between Jason and North.
"That must be Frank. It sounds like your dads are here, too."
"So, what are we going to do?"
"We don't have much say. I'd like to get him out of his foster situation."
"Let's go down and talk to Frank."
Jason pulled the door to his room almost shut after covering Lucas with a blanket, and the boys quietly walked downstairs to join their parents and Dr. Gerard. Frank looked up from the discussion around the dining-room table when the boys arrived. "How is he?"
"He's okay. He's glad he came, and he's not apologetic."
North added, "I don't see what he had to apologize for." He looked at his fathers. "That could have been me if you hadn't saved me." Jim recognized the statement as a challenge and started to reply, but Frank jumped in.
"You're angry, North."
"Of course, I'm angry. No one should have to live like that. Besides, he could have been molested or killed coming out here, and he just doesn't worry about the danger he was in. He doesn't care, and that's what really pisses me off about the situation."
"I don't think your anger is misplaced, but anger rarely solves problems. Do you have a suggestion?"
"Let him stay here."
Tom and Jim looked at their son as if he had a screw loose. Tom asked his son, "Don't you think Vi and Jason should have something to say about that invitation?"
"I didn't mean it for Jason or Vi, I meant it for us."
That statement stopped the conversation dead. Frank looked at Tom and Jim, who both shook their heads. "North, we don't even know Lucas, and more importantly, he doesn't know us. Hell, you just met him today."
"How long did you have to know me before you made the decision?" He knew the answer because he had asked the question before, a long time ago.
Jim's face softened. "You can be a shit sometimes, young man. Two minutes, as you well know."
Lucas had awakened and moved toward the door. He walked down the hall and, hearing the others in deep conversation, sat down quietly at the top of the stairs to eavesdrop.
Below, Jason decided he had heard enough. "First of all, Luke came out here to see me, and I don't see how we can manage to have him here, legally, I mean."
Everyone looked to Frank. "You people are incredibly caring, but even if Lucas wanted to stay here, the hurdles are considerable. For one thing, the only people here who are approved for foster care are Jim and Tom and then only in Oregon, and they haven't been vetted recently." He looked at Tom and Jim, who could see where this was going, and continued, "I'm not suggesting a permanent placement, just something that gives Lucas and us time to make longer-range decisions. You know the problems of fostering teenage boys; it would be really difficult to find another placement in Oregon for Lucas. But you know I'll do my best to help him."
To Lucas, it sounded as if they were sealing his fate. He stifled a sob and quickly fled back to Jason's room where he buried his head in the pillow and cried quietly.
Downstairs, North and Jason looked at North's fathers. Jason said, "We can't leave him where he is. I had no idea it was so bad."
Tom stood up to stretch and looked at the friends around the table. "No, we can't." Jim knew what that meant. Tom had decided to unleash a pile of money for high-powered legal representation and a ton of effort on behalf of a child he had yet to meet. Jim was unsurprised by his husband's decision.
Vi finally said, "I don't think it matters which home Lucas ends up in, here or with North. Jason, what do you think?"
"I'd be happy either way. So, how do we keep Lucas from getting detained by the authorities?"
"Jason, would you go up and wake Lucas so we can take him over to our place?"
A sleepy, bleary-eyed Lucas soon followed Jason down the stairs. Before he got to the bottom of the steps, Frank stood and walked over to him.
"You scared the crap out of me, Lucas. I thought that you and I had made progress on your decision-making skills, but maybe not. You know, sometimes bad decisions aren't rewarded."
"I made a good decision — for me."
North said, "Lucas, how about you and Jason come back to my place. You can sleep in my room, and tomorrow we'll see what's up?" He looked at Jason, who nodded and then at Frank, who also nodded.
"I'll go back with you and help get Lucas settled," Jim said. "You'd better stay and help Frank where you can."
Tom nodded, walked over to Jim and kissed him lightly. Lucas beamed.
Frank, Vi, and Tom sat a moment before acting. Frank asked, "You know who to call?"
Tom replied, "Yep. I'll call now."
"Waking her up now will cost a fortune. We could wait until tomorrow morning."
Vi said, "Who're we talking about?"
Tom answered, "Sorry, Vi. We're talking about the lawyer who helped us with North. She was hell-on-wheels then, and she's gotten more skillful since." Then he smiled. "Jim and I have known her and her partner since they were undergrads. Like most women, she took a shine to North, and she still sends him birthday and holiday cards. I want her retained so that when Frank calls CPS he can mention her name."
Tom found her contact on his phone and, looking at the clock that read 1:45 a.m., pushed the button. "Julie, Tom. Sorry to bother you at this time of the morning, but I need your help… . No, no, nothing to do with North. It's another kid… . I want you to represent him… . No, I don't think there are criminal matters, except that he might be labeled a runaway. Here's the story …"
Ten minutes later, Lucas had a very good lawyer who routinely dealt with foster-care and adoption issues. "Her firm will find a judge in Oregon tomorrow morning to get her appointed guardian ad litem. She said there's no way CPS will contest the appointment, and she said that if they give you any shit about Lucas staying overnight or maybe for a couple of days, to call her no matter the time. She'll request a formal temporary placement with Tom and Jim tomorrow, and then she'll come down from Seattle to interview Lucas." He laughed. "I really think she wants an excuse to see North."
Frank made the next call to Oregon DHS-CPS. That call went surprisingly well, probably because Frank knew the case manager and the fact that he mentioned Julie Steiner's name. When she found out that Jim and Tom had fostered and adopted, she authorized a temporary stay even though the residence was in Washington. "Well, we have a couple of days to sort things out. The case manager will have someone from DSHS in Washington come out tomorrow. I'm stunned that they're sending someone out tomorrow — probably because Lucas will have an attorney. They'll share the results of the visit with Julie once she's appointed guardian."
"Very impressive, you two, even it's only the beginning of the fight. Frank, what's the deal with this kid?"
"I really can't say too much because he's my patient, but he's had a rough time, and his living situation isn't good. I've bitched to CPS, but they're overwhelmed, and when they do inspections, the home seems all right."
"Am I his foster parent now?"
"No. Nice try. I can't say much about his case until there's a formal change of placement. I'll just say that he'll be a handful but worth every gray hair."
Vi drummed her fingers on the table. "Jason and North will be home from school for the rest of the week. They can help tend to the boy. Let's get some sleep, then."
While Tom, Frank, and Vi set things moving, Jim drove back to the other farm with the charges. He seems very self-possessed, North thought of Lucas. I'd be scared shitless. They found their way in, and Jim dispatched the boys to North's room to sleep. North gave Lucas his bed. He and Jason would use sleeping bags on the floor.
"Who's this?" Lucas asked seeing the picture of North and Annie on the dresser.
Seeing North's hesitation, Jason answered, "North's girlfriend, Annie."
"He's not gay?"
"I'm right here, fry. You can ask me."
"As in small-. Not that it's any of your business, but I'm straight."
Lucas, with a very serious expression, said, "Well, that's a real waste." Then he laughed the same musical laugh that Jason had heard earlier in the evening at the barn. He hadn't heard that open laughter at the Center.
"I think you might be right, the way things have gone lately," North mused. "It's almost two. We should try to sleep a little. Are you worried about tomorrow, Lucas?"
"I don't worry about tomorrows. This is the best night I've had in I don't know how long. It's enough." I wish I could hold the day in my hand forever, he thought.
North thought of his own small problems, and, chastened, thought of his favorite passage from the the New Testament:
Consider the lilies of the field …
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
North slightly shook his head, went to the dresser, and then to his closet. He pulled out a pair of shorts and a t-shirt he had outgrown. "You're traveling light. Let me show you our bathroom. You can change in there. I'll give you a new toothbrush." He held his hand out to the younger boy, and smelling a little ripeness, added, "Take a shower while you're in there, please. Towels are out and the shower stuff is by the tub."
When they had all finished the night rituals and Lucas was in bed, Jason asked him, "Would you mind if I tucked you in?"
"I'm a little old for that. … But if it will make you feel better, okay."
"It will make me feel better."
North watched Jason tuck the covers in and lean over to kiss the boy on his forehead. I think I've given Jason and me a younger brother. I hope my dads don't shoot me.
Before flopping down on his sleeping bag, Jason turned off the light and began some soft music. Joan Osborne's voice filled the room:
sometimes I feel this earth is not my home
And everything I know is an illusion
So many dreams have been broken and it seems
So much time is wasted in confusion
But I don't know if pain makes me stronger
But if you're beside me tonight
Just as long as I'm in this world
I'll be, I'll be a light of this
Just as long as I'm in this world
I'll be, I'll be a light of this
Just as long as I'm in this world
I'll be, I'll be a light of this
Just as long as I'm in this world
I'll be, I'll be a light of this world
The small voice from the bed said, "Fuck, this is sweet." I wish it could last forever.
Lucas woke while the sun was barely up. He looked at the floor and saw North, softly snoring. Jason wasn't in the room. He needed to decide what to do. He would not go back to Portland, even with Frank. He quietly climbed out of bed and looked for his clothes. The bathroom. He left the room and tiptoed into the bathroom — no clothes, but he found his shoes. What did they do with my clothes? He left the bathroom and heard someone else awake downstairs. He decided to slip out the front door.
When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he checked and saw one of North's fathers in the kitchen. Fathers — that would be nice. He carefully walked to the front door and opened it as quietly as he could. Sorry, guys, but I know how this is going to end, and I'm not going back. He stepped out and felt deeply cold in North's shorts and t-shirt. He pulled the door closed and walked toward the road where Jason had hesitated the first day that North and his fathers arrived.
Jason slammed on the brakes of his pickup as he turned into North's driveway. "Where the fuck do you think you're going, Luke?"
"Oh, hi, Jason. Er, just for a walk."
"Get in, now," he said, opening the passenger door.
"Where were you?"
"Helping Mama and Ben with the cattle — where I am most mornings."
"You didn't sleep?"
"I got an hour and a half." He looked over at Lucas. "You can't keep doing this if you want people to help you."
"I won't go back to Portland."
"What makes you think you're going back to Portland?"
"I heard you guys talking last night. Frank said it would be hard to find a ‘placement' for a teenage boy in Oregon."
Puzzled at Lucas's statement, Jason asked: "How much did you hear?"
"That was enough. I went back to bed until you brought me back down and I got the tongue-lashing from Frank."
"You didn't hear the rest of the discussion?"
"No. I'm never going back to Portland."
Jason started laughing in relief. "Scoot over here. I'll tell you the rest of what happened." He reached over and hugged the small boy to him and proceeded to tell him the rest. Jason had never seen such joy in a person. It was as if Christmas, Easter and a birthday had happened at once. "Don't get too excited. There's lots that has to be done to make this all work. Okay?" Luke nodded. "You might have to go back to Portland — for a short while — till things get worked out."
Jason drove his pickup up the driveway to North's house. After climbing out, Jason put his hand on Lucas's shoulder and guided him back into North's house.
Jim looked up from the table when he heard the door close. He saw the state of Lucas's dress and formed the right conclusion. He's a runner. "Bit chilly to go out like that."
The boy frowned. "Just a little brisk, thank you." Jason shoved him gently. "I'm not going back, and if you force me, I'll just run again."
"No one's going to force you to stay here, but if you leave, it's not going to be on your own. Get that straight. Just because you're hurting, you don't get a pass to behave like a demanding, ungrateful little shit. You think I'm lying about trying to help you?"
Lucas looked at his feet silently. Jim walked over and said gently, "Look at me when we're talking. I wouldn't let North behave like this, and I'm not about to let you."
Looking up at Jim, Lucas finally said, "I don't know you well enough to believe you."
"You're a smart kid. It won't kill you to spend a couple of days here to see whether or not you can stay longer. I'm not going to promise something I can't deliver, and all I'm promising now is to try."
Why don't I believe you? Jim thought. He went back to the kitchen and returned with a neatly folded bundle of clothing warm from the dryer. "Here. Go back upstairs and change. Then, we'll have breakfast."
A sleepy voice from the top of the stairs said, "Can't you people let me get some sleep?"
Lucas dashed upstairs and as he passed North, smiled and said, "Not a morning person, are you?"
North just looked confused.
Author's note: A conscientious editor is a great gift. The editor of this piece fits that bill. Thanks to him for particular help on this chapter.