The judge asked the two women in his chambers, "Would you please identify yourselves for the recording?"
"Julie Steiner, attorney and petitioner."
"Angela McAllister for the Oregon Department of Human Services — Child Protective Services."
"Always a pleasure to see you, Ms. Steiner. Did you come down last night, and what's the emergency?"
"Thank you, your honor. I flew down on the early shuttle. Before you is a petition for my appointment as guardian ad litem for the minor Lucas Mervic, presently in foster care in Oregon, as well as a request for a temporary placement of Lucas with foster parents who are licensed in Oregon but now residing in Klickitat County, Washington."
"Are these foster parents considering adoption?"
"Yes, Judge, they are."
"And the present foster parents do not plan to adopt, Mrs. McAllister?"
"No, your honor," Mrs. McAllister answered.
"Have parental rights been severed?"
"Yes, Judge. The child identifies as gay, and the parents wanted nothing to do with him and have relinquished parental rights."
"Mrs. McAllister, does the DHS support Ms. Steiner's appointment?"
"I'll enter the order now. About the provisional placement — the request is unusual, but assuming DHS has no objections, I'll issue a temporary order, but more permanent placement will require implementation of the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children. Is that what DHS is contemplating, Mrs. McAllister?"
"Yes, your honor, we're in contact with Washington DSHS."
"For the record," the judge said, "that's the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. You're satisfied with the fitness of the foster parents in Goldendale, Mrs. McAllister?"
"Yes, your honor. They have already adopted one child and have been exemplary adoptive parents for twelve years. As you can see, they have the financial resources and the time to care for Lucas and, I believe, a sincere desire as well. Lucas's psychiatrist supports both petitions."
"That's Dr. Gerard? Frank Gerard, for the record."
"Yes, your honor."
"I'll enter the second order for provisional placement for no more than thirty days while the ICPC process is undertaken. Questions?"
Julie said, "No, your honor."
Mrs. McAllister repeated, "No, your honor."
"All right, then, I'm due in court. I hope this works out for the young man."
Julie and Mrs. McAllister left the judge's chambers and confirmed their next steps as they stopped by a bench in the hallway before Julie left for Goldendale.
Julie's GPS was accurate until she reached the area where she would have to turn off US97 to get to Tom's and Jim's place. Tom had told her to pull into Ayutla's parking lot where he would wait for her. After she had parked and left her rental and given a hug to Tom, he thanked her for rearranging her schedule.
"You never age, Tom."
"What possessed you to try this again?"
"Not what. Who? North. He feels very strongly about this boy, and so does one of his best friends, Jason. Sometimes, you just have to go along and try."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"Did it go well in court this morning?"
"Yes, as well as we could have expected. Fortunately, the DHS supervisor chose not to mention Lucas's unauthorized visit. The ball's rolling, and I'd like to meet the object of all this effort, not to mention to see the Blond One. I'll follow you."
Fifteen minutes later, Julie was walking up the steps to the farmhouse, shaking her head as she looked around at the empty, open miles around their house. "You two have lost your minds. North must despair."
"He's doing fine, although it's been a challenge. Young men need challenges."
The door opened before they reached it, and North walked out with a slender, younger boy in his wake. Julie dropped her briefcase and opened her arms. As North moved to hug her, she said, "Damn, you are a handsome devil, Mr. Underhill."
"Thanks, Julie." He stepped back and held his arm out to Lucas, who walked forward tentatively. Before North could introduce him, Julie said, "Hello, Lucas. I'm your lawyer. After I get a beer, I want to chat with you."
Lucas nodded, and the four of them went into Lucas's new home, at least in the interim. Inside, North introduced Julie to Jason, who had almost taken up residence at North's while Lucas was there.
"You want that beer, Julie?" Jim asked.
"Yes, but I won't have it yet. I've work to do."
After Julie briefly caught up with North and his fathers, she said, "Well, I'm on the clock, so I think I should talk with young Mr. Mervic. I'm sure he has many questions."
"Use the office, Julie," Tom suggested, pointing to the room where he holed up to write.
"Lucas, you okay chatting a bit?" Lucas looked from Julie to Jason, who nodded, and then he followed Julie into Tom's office.
Lucas regarded this stranger. He had never seen a woman knitted together as she was. Lucas thought she was chunky, but not fat, and he couldn't tell how old she was. He somehow knew that she wasn't used to losing and that she wasn't used to following. He wouldn't want to fight with her, in any sense. From what he could gather, if she were to help him, he would be in good hands.
Julie tried to get an accurate read on the boy. He was slight and restless. She would have to talk with Frank about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, although she didn't see any physical evidence in his face. She noted that Lucas's clothes were too large for him, probably some of North's older clothing. This was one worn-out kid, but he wasn't going to give in. The boy was very reserved, and she wondered how much truth she would hear from him. Lucas wasn't the first mistrustful child she had represented or faced. Her approach was to tell the truth and to be as objective as possible in describing a situation.
"What's going to happen to me?"
"For the time being, you'll stay here. Beyond that, the major factor in deciding your fate is what you want."
"What I want?" She's a nutcase; nobody cares what I want.
"Let's get my role straight. A judge in Oregon has appointed me as your guardian ad litem. That's a fancy way of saying that I'm going to act in your interests in the matter of your foster placement and possible adoption. I am also your lawyer. That means that my main focus is your interests and no one else's."
Lucas tried to make sense of what she had said. He was going to stay in Goldendale, for the time being. He had a lawyer. She had used the word adoption. His heart rate increased. "Adoption?"
"Since you went to so much trouble to get here, I assume you'd like to stay. I don't know what will happen, but I don't 5often fail in what I do. North and his fathers have offered you a place to live and a place in their family. My first advice as your attorney is not to screw them over."
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you." He could rest here — maybe it would be for just a few days — but for the first time, Lucas had genuine hope that he might have a decent home with people who understood him. "Why are you doing this?"
"Because, according to Frank Gerard, you're worth the investment, and because Tom, Jim, North and his friend Jason Johnson think you belong here."
"I can't pay you."
"Tom is footing the bill, but understand that I represent you, not him. Again, that means I'm obligated to look after your interests before Tom's or anyone else's."
Lucas felt light-headed and sat in a nearby chair. Don't screw them over, is what she had said. He'd never been in a situation where considering someone else's needs competed with taking care of himself. "Do you have to keep what we talk about secret?"
"Mostly, yes. This isn't a criminal matter, thank God, but if you tell me you're going to break the law or hurt yourself, I'll damn well be telling a lot of people. I know you are seeing Dr. Gerard, and I will discuss your treatment with him. Because Tom and Jim have become your foster parents and are trying to adopt you, Dr. Gerard will be able to discuss your case with them." She saw the look of concern descend over his face. "That scares you?"
"They don't know me. If they do, they might not want me."
"You have survived by being careful about whom you trust. I get it, believe me. Think about this: these guys are about to turn their settled lives upside down not only because they want to help you, but also because they think you will make their lives better. That's not something people do if they're not committed."
"What are they going to learn about you that would change their minds? That you're gay isn't a revelation. That you've been on the street isn't, either. You and I are going to talk about any past run-ins with the law, but short of you being a serial killer, I don't see them turning away from you."
"I know Jason and Jonathan, and I love the animals at his farm. Couldn't I stay with Jason?"
"Tom and Jim are licensed to foster kids in Oregon. For now, they're the only game in town. If you want to stay with Jason and his mother, we'll see about it later." Now she saw the first genuine smile break through the mask of concern on the young face.
Annie was walking in Delta Park, where she had first met Jonathan so many years ago. She was deeply unhappy – with herself and with her equivocation about continuing her current relationship with North. She was staring into the distance when she felt something brush her leg. She jumped a bit and looked down to see a medium-sized dog. The animal nervously circled her and whined. "What's wrong, girl? Where's your owner?"
The dog looked like a Corgi but very obviously not a purebred. She tentatively stretched her hand, palm toward her thigh, to the dog's pointed snout. The dog sniffed and then licked the proffered hand. She knelt, and the dog sat. "Good dog. You're trained." She heard a call from behind a stand of trees, and the dog took off, running halfway to the trees and stopping. An older man with white hair walked around the bend in the path, seeming to emerge from the trees themselves. He didn't walk so much as float without effort over the path. His dog waited until he was abreast of her and then heeled as the man came nearer to Annie.
"Hello. Did Victoria bother you?"
"No, sir. She's very well-behaved."
The man laughed and replied, "Most of us are well-behaved when they reach our age, right, Tori?" The dog barked twice. "She doesn't often get so far ahead of me."
"She's very friendly."
"Friendly to those she thinks friendly. You look pensive."
"Just out in nature to try to think."
"Ah, and, if I'm not being presumptuous, what are you thinking about?"
Annie just blurted, "Love."
The man smiled broadly and saw the question on Annie's face. "Oh, I'm just glad that I've done most of my thinking about love and that I don't have to do it again. Still, assuming you have love, not a bad subject for rumination. You'll figure it out." The man nodded and, with Victoria at his heel, walked back up the path to the trees from where he had appeared.
Annie had decided, and she was ready to talk with North finally. Walking back to the parking area where Jonathan had dropped her and would pick her up, she smiled. She thought that letting one person be the lodestone of your life was a perilous business.
Climbing into the car, she belted up and shivered slightly. Jonathan turned on the car's heater. He knew better than to try to open the can of worms he had picked at for a month now. "You cold?"
"No. I'm coming to Goldendale with you when you go out for the weekend."
"Don't go there, Jon." She leaned toward him and kissed his cheek. He felt his breath catch and a knotted feeling bloomed in his solar plexus.
On the first Wednesday following the New Year holiday the Goldendale School Board was conducting a work session prior to the board meeting to be held on January 19th. Only the board and the superintendent attended most of the monthly work sessions, although members of the public were welcome. At this session, four of the five board members were present along with the superintendent. The agenda included a discussion of bullying and harassment issues.
After reviewing the district's policy with school-board members, the superintendent raised the issue of increased instances of bullying. "We have fair and clear policies on bullying and harassment. If they're not being applied, maybe we need another education push."
The superintendent commented, "I am mentioning the issue because, as you may have heard, we recently had an incident involving a member of the varsity football team. In this case, the coach intervened promptly, and the problem seems to have been resolved."
"Did the coach file a report?"
"Did the conduct meet our definition of bullying?"
Here the superintendent paused. Finally he said, "Probably, but this was a judgment call, as the policy permits. The target student did not ask for help or file a report. I think the coach felt that matters might have been made worse if he had filed a report."
"You had to think about that answer. What was the nature of the incident?"
"I believe it resulted from the target student coming out as gay."
"Look, we have a policy, and if it's not effective, then we need to change it or retrain staff and students about it."
"I agree entirely. I'll develop a training plan and bring it to you next month."
The work session concluded with a discussion of the personnel-evaluation system, a topic that was enough to drive off any of the public who might have attended.
On the Friday of the first weekend in January, Annie and Jonathan made their way to Wishram on Amtrak. The regular Amtrak employees knew them by now, and Annie and Jonathan knew many of the workers by name. This time, Annie and Jonathan engaged in none of the lighthearted conversation that had marked past trips. Jon didn't want to push, and Annie wouldn't be pushed.
When they arrived at Wishram, Jason was waiting. As they rode the 20 miles up to Goldendale, Jonathan finally ventured, "North didn't want to come?"
Jason looked at Jon sharply. "I didn't ask." Looking back to Annie, he said, "He misses you, Annie."
"I miss him, too," Annie replied with a finality that didn't brook further inquiry.
Jason let the conversation go and happily chatted with Jon as they drove up US97 toward the farmhouses. Jason turned up the drive to North's place and stopped in his usual parking spot but didn't cut the engine. "Jon and I are going to head back to our place unless you need us to go in."
"No, that's sweet, but I'm not going to an execution, guys."
As she opened the rear door of the little sedan, North opened the front door and bounded down the steps. He raced over to Annie and instead of doing what he always had done, stopped and looked at her for a clue. She looked at him, and tears filled her eyes. She wiped her eyes with the back of her forearm. "No hug?"
North grabbed her and held on. Jon left the car and pulled her bag out of the trunk, leaving it by the couple's feet. Then, he and Jason left for home.
When the hug finished, North asked Annie, "Can we talk?"
"That's why I'm here. But, let's go in. I'm cold."
"Sure. You'll get to meet the new addition. He's very complicated and still a little uncertain about what's happening to him."
"Tom and Jim must have a screw loose to try this again after the disaster with you." She laughed and tickled North over his lower ribs where she knew tickling drove him crazy.
North waited for Annie to go through the door first and, carrying her bag, followed her in. Jim was still at the Cancer Center, but Tom was in the kitchen getting dinner ready. Beside him, Annie saw what she could only describe as a waif wearing outsized clothing that she recognized as North's hand-me-downs. She walked into the kitchen to a smiling Tom and before hugging him, hugged the small boy, who froze like a startled deer.
Releasing the boy, she introduced herself. "I'm Annie. Welcome to the zoo — or maybe soap opera is a better description. Just understand that once you join, there's no going back."
Lucas regarded her a moment and said, "If you were a boy, you'd be hot."
Tom looked up to the ceiling, and North laughed. "Trust me, she is hot."
After she hugged Tom, Annie shook her head. "Boys. Hormones and bravado."
"Annie and I have to talk. We'll be back down in a bit." The couple walked side by side up the staircase and into North's room.
"Talk! I'll just bet."
Tom told Lucas, "Those two have the kind of friendship I hope you have one day, because life alone is immeasurably hard. Believe him when he says talk."
As Lucas tried to help Tom, getting in the way more often than actually helping, he tried to puzzle out Tom's statement. He had acquaintances, but not friends of longstanding, and his sexual experience mainly involved barter, not love.
In North's room, Annie took the desk chair, and North flopped on the bed. They both started to say, "I've missed you," at the same time and stopped halfway through the sentence.
After a minute of silence, Annie started, "Thanks for giving me some time. Our friends haven't been exactly subtle about their feelings."
"I want you to take care of yourself. Dad always says that you can't take care of others unless you take care of yourself."
As Annie expected that he would, North waited for her to say her piece. "I love you. I can't remember a time when I haven't loved you, but your move out here has been hard … I don't mean missing you, although I do miss you. I've been more concerned at how comfortable I have felt on my own, and I've been trying to figure out what that means." She stopped to gauge his reaction.
"So, you feel better when we're apart?"
"No, I feel ambivalent … no, ambivalent is the wrong way to put it. I think we've been so close for so long that I began to feel that I was defined by us. You know how Jon is distressed by any trouble we have — our friends see us as a…we. Frannie corralled me for a talk, and she suggested that I needed to get off the dime. So, I have."
"Okay, where did you end up?"
"I want to spend my life with you, because you've always respected me as an individual. I sort of forgot myself, I think, but that's my problem. I hope my little journey hasn't been too painful for you. I think we can make it through college, even if we end up going to different schools."
"Anns, selfishly, I want you to tell me that your feelings for me haven't changed and that you'd like to go back to the journey we've been on for so long." He was teary-eyed.
Annie rose from the chair and sat by North on his bed. "That's what I want, too, Northy." She pushed him back on the bed until she was atop him. They shared their first kiss in a month or more, and she kissed the tears coursing down his cheeks. "I've been horny as all get out, too."
North giggled almost uncontrollably. She asked, "What?"
"Ask Jon about his assessment of my horniness. Tonight, I hope you — as an individual, mind you — and I can set the bed on fire. Now, I think we need to get back to the new brother, or I'll never hear the end of it."
They straightened their clothing, and then, after North blew his nose, they walked downstairs to find Jim home and the three other members of the household putting dinner on the table. Jim and Tom looked at North to see if he was happy or devastated, and his smile told the story.
"You know, I'm going to find out what went on up there." Lucas had an angelic smile decorating his face.
Annie didn't miss a beat. "I'll give you the play by play after dinner." Lucas decided that Annie was all right.
"I'm going to call."
"No, you're not. North or Annie will call when they get their situation discussed." Jason was just as interested as Jon in knowing what had happened, but he was restraining Jon as best he could.
"I guess if it was bad, we would have heard."
"You are an impatient soul, sometimes. There are times when I love your impatience, but we're going to wait."
Vi was in the kitchen after clearing the dinner remnants. "You two, earn your keep."
Jason and Jon busied themselves in the kitchen washing and drying the dinner dishes as Vi rearranged the contents of the refrigerator. "You need to grab Lucas and get him over here in the morning so he can begin to learn about farm work."
Jon and Jason exchanged a glance. "I don't know, Mama. He's probably still getting used to being at North's, and four in the morning is awfully early."
"If Jonny can learn to do it, anyone can," she said with a good-natured laugh. Jon blushed, remembering all the complaining he had done when Jason had insisted that he help out when he stayed over.
"He needs to meet Martin and begin to learn the horses."
Jason shrugged at Jon in resignation. "I'll see what I can do."
On the second Wednesday in January in the late afternoon as the sun was already setting, the Jansen-Underhill family, newly expanded by the addition of Lucas, gathered around the dining-room table along with Vi and Jason. The meeting had the air of a tribal council — a good deal of silence and reflection and occasional talk about strategy.
Tom was worried that his visit to the writing class would create problems for North's teacher or the principal. He wasn't thrilled to be shoved into the limelight of the culture wars and was decidedly unhappy that the public discussion might degenerate into a witch-hunt instead of remaining fixed on the value of guest writers talking to high-school students.
Vi and Lucas had been silent during the little confab until Vi told Tom, "You're seeing the roots of one man's animosity playing out in a public forum. You know how Jeremy overestimated his influence on his classmates? His father has the same mentality. The board won't for a minute think that the school system is the place for parents to enforce their misguided convictions. They're reasonable people, as a rule."
Tom listened carefully and then replied, "Jason is just getting his feet on the ground after being outed, and I don't want this issue to cause him any more grief than he's already been through."
"I appreciate that, but I'm not about to let Jeremy or his family publicly abuse people I care about so that I can be comfortable. I'm going to speak up if the loony fringe takes over the meeting."
Jim laughed. "Believe it or not, Tom can take care of himself, not that we don't appreciate the support. I'm with my man; this shouldn't turn into a discussion about Jason or any other student. Our approach should be to keep the discussion focused on the class visit."
Vi took her son's hand. "The town is conservative, but they don't like bullies, and Malcolm Foster, like his son, has always behaved like a bully. I suspect that he'll see the chickens come home to roost."
The Goldendale School District Board of Directors convened its regular meeting at seven p.m. in the primary-school library. Shortly before the meeting started, Jeremy's father had signed in with the Board Secretary to make a public comment on the recent classroom visit by Tom and Samuel Marshall. The audience for the meeting was much larger than usual, and Tom, Vi, and the boys, including Lucas, were there as was Jeremy.
After the flag salute, the secretary notified the chair that Jeremy's father and four other citizens had asked to make public comments to the board. The Chair then gave Jeremy's father the floor after asking him to state his name and address for the record. Jeremy's father, a compact man, much shorter than his son, stepped to the microphone and began, "Malcolm Foster, 480 NW Second Avenue, Goldendale." Lucas, sitting by North and Jason, recognized the tone of an adult bully in his loud and sharp voice.
"I have grave concerns that our schools are being used to promote unhealthy lifestyle choices. Before Thanksgiving, two men visited a writing class at the high school. Their presentation contained profanity and suggestions that alternative lifestyle choices are appropriate . . ."
One of the board members interrupted, "Is this the visit by the poets that you wrote the letter in the Sentinel about?"
"Yes, ma'am, it is. I am particularly concerned that these men are gay and were using the opportunity to convince our children that their lifestyle choice is acceptable. I've always supported our schools and the board, but if teachers and administrators are going to allow this sort of thing, then I'm going to have to reconsider that support."
North was nearly apoplectic, and Tom put his hand on the boy's shoulder. Jason looked over at Jeremy to see a broad, malicious smile.
A second board member interrupted, "I thought the presentation was about poetry and what it's like to be a professional writer." He looked at the superintendent, questioningly.
The board member asked Jeremy's father, "Did you attend the presentation?"
"No, but my son has friends who did, and they were uncomfortable with what was discussed."
The board secretary announced, "You have two minutes left to finish your comments."
"We have to be very careful to maintain the values on which our country was founded and to protect our young people from pernicious influences. I hope the board will admonish Miss Martin and Mr. Hen …"
The chair immediately slammed his gavel down. "Our policy is not to mention any individual staff or volunteers by name when making negative comments. I think we have the gist of your opinion."
The chair then called on the second speaker who had signed up to make a comment. Vi smiled as an older, white-haired man made his way to the microphone clutching a five-by-eight note card in his left hand. His right hand held a wooden cane, which he held close to a straight right leg as he walked. He was spare and wore his age well.
"I'm Jonas Sewell and I live at 33 Dry Creek Road." As he looked at his note card, Jason and North both feared a repetition of what Jeremy's father had said.
The old man glanced at his note card and then lowered it. "My grandson told me about these two writers coming to his class. From what he told me, the class had fun, and no one was upset. He told me that the only profanity was one use of the word, ‘hell,' and that none of the students thought it was a big deal. My grandson helped me look up these two men on the internet. I was surprised to see that one of them had been in the same war I served in. He won the Distinguished Service Cross for action in the Ia Drang valley in 1965. The DSC is second only to the Medal of Honor for soldiers of the US Army in combat. I also read that he is gay. I don't give a damn about his sexuality." He looked pointedly at Jeremy's father. "He saved the lives of many of his men under fire that day and was himself severely wounded."
Mr. Sewell looked at his card. "Part of his citation reads, 'During this period, Captain Marshall was seriously wounded, but refused first aid and medical evacuation until the troops were cared for.'"
Clearing his throat, as memories of his own time in Southeast Asia forty odd years ago arose, he finished, "I don't have much in common with Mr. Marshall, socially or politically. That said, I don't think the previous speaker has ever been under enemy fire in the service of his country, but I heard him mention our nation's values. I don't believe I could have done what this hero did; he was willing repeatedly to lay down his life for his men that day in that valley. I don't know much about poetry or writing, but I can't think of a better value. As a community, we should be honored to have such a man speak to our children. Period."
Mr. Sewell walked back to his seat beside that of his grandson, who took his hand as he sat. The room was still silent as he took his seat. Vi caught his eye and nodded to him. Jeremy no longer sported a smile, and his father looked downright angry.
When the secretary called on Vi, Tom, and the others who had signed up to make comments, they all declined.
The Chairman commented, "I have confidence in the principal and teachers at our high school, and I am happy that our students had the opportunity to hear from Mr. Marshall and Mr. Jansen, who lives in our community. I know that my daughter was especially pleased to have Mr. Jansen sign her copy of one of his books."
Tom cringed in his seat while nodding politely. The quite-usual business of small-community school boards consumed the rest of the meeting.
On the way home from the meeting, Lucas was quiet as the others described mild surprise at the outcome of the meeting — except Vi who had predicted what would happen. The younger boy now had many more questions about his new home and the people in it. Jason interrupted the boy's ruminations.
"Tomorrow night, how about you sleep over with me? You should meet Martin and begin to learn the routine with the horses."
North answered, "He helps run Vi's farm; he's like you."
"Is everyone with testicles around here gay except North?"
"He's not gay, Fry. He understands horses without having to try."
"Oh. Sorry." He looked at Jason. "How early do we start?"
"Holy shit! You're not serious."
"You wanted to see the farm."
"Okay." He tried to sound hesitant, but underneath, he was happy to have been asked, and he did love the horses. "But, not tomorrow, please."
Vi said, "No, not tomorrow morning. And, if you want to get along with Martin, you'd best clean up your language."
North finished a Skype session with Annie, who would be coming out over the weekend. They were working their way back to the easy, kidding relationship he had missed. He knew he needed to help Annie and she needed to help him work through this. He closed his MacBook, stripped off his sleeping pants and t-shirt and climbed into bed. Sleep came more easily now. With his homework behind him and thoughts of the school-board meeting fading, he began to doze.
He barely heard his door open and the padding of bare feet across his floor, but he wasn't alert enough to turn over. Then silence, until a voice asked, "North, are you asleep?"
That had to be the stupidest question invented by man. "No, Lucas, I am definitely not asleep. Are you okay?"
"I'm all right. I just have some questions."
North did what he always did with his friends and held up the covers. "Climb in."
Lucas climbed in and, looking down, realized that North was starkers. "Whoa, dude, you're naked."
"I was going to bed. If it bothers you, I'll put something on."
"No, no, it's okay, I guess."
Lucas couldn't help but admire North's body. Before, when he told Jonathan that North being straight was a waste, he had meant it. He also had no desire to piss North off or try something with a kid who might end up as his brother. Still, he wasn't going to avoid looking. "The guy that complained about Tom and the other guy coming to your school — what's his deal?"
North related the long saga of Jeremy and company versus Jason and Jonathan and, by extension, himself. Lucas was no stranger to bullies, and developed an immediate, strong antipathy toward Jeremy and his father. North didn't mention Jeremy's near assault on him and Brent. "The father is an asshole."
"Yes, he is, but that description should stay between us."
"What book did Tom sign for the board guy's daughter? I thought he wrote poetry."
North had to think about his answer. Tom didn't want everyone and his kid knowing that he was responsible for one of the best-selling, fantasy/sci-fi series in recent memory. He also knew that if Lucas was going to remain in the family, he would have to be trusted.
"Okay, he writes a series of books that's popular. I don't know if you've heard of Gyres."
"You're shitting me! They're my favorites. Tom writes them? I thought the author was Britt Phlebas."
"That's a pen name. It comes from a T. S. Eliot poem. Look, Tom doesn't want people knowing that he's the author. The place would be a madhouse, and he wouldn't get any work done. That's one of the reasons we moved here from Portland."
"If I bought copies, would he sign mine?"
"Fry, I'm pretty sure he would, since he's trying to have you live with us and eventually to adopt you. You might not even have to buy them."
"This is so cool. So, are you like a movie star or something? I mean what other secrets do you guys have?"
"Stay tuned, Fry. Now, let me get some sleep."
North noted Lucas's reluctance to leave. He probably doesn't have family he talks to. "If you want to stay, you better not snore."
North heard Lucas slip off his shorts and t-shirt and heard them drop to the floor. "Thanks, North."
The next sound that registered with the boys was North's iPhone waking him for school.
As January gave way to February, Julie Steiner was pushing Lucas's adoption process through the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children offices of both states. She had filed the Form 100A with Oregon's office, and Oregon and Washington were exchanging information. Julie's firm persistence resulted in Washington's Department of Social and Health Services beginning the home-study process, a very involved one. Both state ICPC offices had agreed to a longer placement of Lucas with Tom and Jim. Lucas understood that the process wouldn't be short, and he had made peace with what seemed to him an eternity of wrangling.
To North's surprise, on weekends, Lucas was staying at Jason's and rising with him at three-thirty in the morning to work with Martin tending to the horses. When with Martin, they often worked in silence as Martin showed Lucas how to care for the animals without telling him much. The boy came to worship Martin. One day, Lucas mentioned Jeremy and the school-board meeting to Martin. All Martin told the boy was that Jeremy was a mean one and that if Jeremy ever gave him trouble to whisper a certain phrase to the bully, one that Jeremy had heard from Martin's own mouth along a roadside not long ago. Martin liked the boy, and North took Lucas with him when he visited Martin's home on a couple of occasions, where Lucas learned about Martin's family.
Lucas's school situation had yet to be resolved. He was home schooling with Tom, Jim, and a tutor while being evaluated by the school district for placement. Jim had seen that Lucas received a thorough medical evaluation by a pediatrician he trusted in The Dalles, Jillian Zaner. Toward the end of February on a Thursday, Jim returned from the cancer center earlier than usual and Tom saw a stricken look on his husband's face. After a long conversation, they called Lucas into the office. Lucas was immediately aware that both the men were deeply upset.
The boy's heart clutched, and he asked, "What?"
Jim took Lucas by the hand and sat across from him in the office. "There's no good or easy way to tell you this, Luke."
Lucas was thoroughly alarmed, and began hyperventilating. "What? Tell me, please."
"Dr. Zaner did some blood work for you when you had your physical with her. At some point in the past you were infected with HIV. I had her run the test three times. This doesn't mean what it used to mean even five years ago. The situation is manageable, and we'll help you manage it. I'm so sorry. Please, understand that this makes no difference to Tom or me in terms of you staying with us and becoming our son."
Lucas was dizzy, sick to his stomach, and ashamed. Just as he was beginning to break free of a difficult past, the past was reaching out to hold him. He would have understood if the men had told him that they no longer wanted him, but he was so unprepared for this news that his only thought was escape. He dashed from the room and passed North returning from school as he ran out the front door. North looked at Jim in the doorway to the office. "Stop him, North."
North dropped his backpack and took off after Lucas. The boy was almost down the drive when North kicked into high gear. He didn't think about warming up or the damage that running full out might cause. The calm he normally felt when running was replaced now with disquiet. What the fuck is going on? Lucas was small and fast, but he was no match for North. Within five minutes, North was beside the smaller boy as he ran toward Jason's farm.
"Will you just stop for a minute?"
"Leave me alone." Lucas understood the futility of trying to run from North. Finally, as they approached the drive to Jason's place, he slowed to a fast walk, breathless. North stayed beside the boy. He sensed utter confusion in Lucas, not defiance.
"What's going on?" North asked as he reached for Lucas's shoulder.
Lucas twisted away and shouted, "Don't touch me!"