"Who knew there were so many same-sex couples in Chicago? They're driving me crazy!" Ray had to grouse even louder than usual to be heard over the din in the Vecchio kitchen.
"Calling the kettle black, are we, brother dear?" Francesca gave him a gentle slap on the top of his bald pate on her way to the sink.
Ray ignored her. "They're all coming out of the woodwork and landing on my head. I've had to put an extra man full time on . . ."
"Don't mix your metaphors, Ray," Maria put in without turning around from the stove where she was stirring sauce. Ray ignored her too.
". . . full time just on checking them out. They're coming out of my ears!"
"I thought they were coming out of the woodwork. Where else are they coming out of? The closet maybe?"
"What do you mean 'checking them out', caro?" Ma Vecchio inquired from the other side of the table where she sat icing a layer cake. Ma was not to be ignored. Any comment or question of the family's matriarch had to be acknowledged.
"They got a new policy at Children and Youth Services. They're letting gay and lesbian couples adopt kids. So when the couples apply, my department has to check them out."
"Your people have been doing that anyway, so what's the big deal?" Maria wanted to know.
Four years before Ray had transferred out of active detective work to an administrative post. "I'm talking volume here," he explained to his sisters, mother, and the assorted nieces and nephews that were around, "They're all applying at once."
"Well, they should save the babies for the women, if you ask me," opined Francesca.
"None of them are getting babies. They're getting older kids with problems. Kids the agency can't find other homes for."
"Well, I'm not sure I agree with the principle, but I suppose it's better for the children to have a non-traditional family than no family," said Benton as he entered the kitchen and circled around the table to kiss Ma's cheek before sitting down between her and Ray. The adult occupants of the kitchen turned to Benton in surprise.
"Wouldn't you want a child of your own, Benito? This way you and Raymondo could give me a grandchild."
"Michael's given you three, Maria two and Frannie six. Ma, that's not enough?" Ray spoke for the group.
"It's not the number, it's the distribution," his mother told him. "I'd like to be able to say each one of you gave me a grandchild. You and Benito aren't going to do it the normal way."
Ray said, thoughtfully, "We're probably too old. All the files I've been getting to check have been couples in their twenties and thirties."
"Ray! You wouldn't seriously consider this?" said Maria.
"No, he wouldn't," said Benton, under his breath but Ray caught it
"Now wait a minute, Benny. Maybe we should think about this. Don't you want to be a father?"
"You said it yourself, Ray. We're probably too old."
"Maybe. But maybe they've got a really screwed up kid that they can't place anywhere else? We could get him."
"That sure sounds like a good plan," Francesca snarked.
"Don't be cynical, cara. Two policemen for parents that might be good for a kid who has problems. You two should talk about this," Ma said with a finality that brought the conversation to a close.
Ray still owned the old family house, but ten years ago when he and Benton had declared themselves a couple, they had decided that it would be easier all around if the two men took their own sleeping quarters away from the nieces and nephews of the extended family. Uncle Ray and Uncle Benny never denied the nature of their relationship but both were old-fashioned enough not to want to burden Ray's sisters' kids with the details.
Ray and Benton drove the route from the big Vecchio house to their own apartment several times a week, so Benton wasn't staring fixedly out the window the whole drive home because of the scenery. Benny's in full clam-up mode, Ray observed. He won't even talk about it. Which was a shame. As much as he loved Benton, there was always a small part of him that missed the traditional family structure: father, mother, offspring. He had loved Angie then as much as he loved Benton now and occasionally wondered what would have happened if there had been children in their marriage.
Well, Ma said we should talk about it, so that's as good an excuse as any, Ray decided and took the bull by the horns when they were about halfway home.
"So, you don't think it's a good idea?" He began, not bothering to even pretend he didn't know what Benton was musing about.
Benton kept his gazed fixed on the familiar blocks of Chicago as they drove. "I'm not sure this is a project I could undertake successfully."
Alarm bells went off in Ray's head. Benny's detached wording meant he was truly troubled. "How do you mean?" he asked, cautiously.
"Raising a child is an enormous responsibility. Especially a child who already has a troubled history. Handled wrongly, things could . . ."
Ray had to interrupt. "Hey, we're talking a little kid here. Not some big federal project."
Benton finally turned his head. "You seem to have a mental picture of some pink-cheeked waif, climbing into your lap for a bedtime story. If we're given any child, and I doubt it given our age, he will be older and already beset with problems. I'm afraid to make a mistake and make things worse for him or her."
This was an angle Ray hadn't been expecting. "Benny. Nobody's a perfect parent. Your dad, didn't he make a few mistakes raising you?"
Benton harrumphed, "More than a few."
"And you turned out okay. My pop was a lousy father. And look at how great I am today," Ray smiled at his partner, hoping to get him to lighten up, but Benton turned back to the window, still pensive and serious.
Ray wasn't ready to let up. "Any stranger in the greater Chicago has a problem and you have to go interfere. You solve everything with a speech and a leap off a building or something. You telling me you'd turn down a chance to have a permanent influence on some kid who needs help. Benny, this is the ultimate interference. I'd have thought you'd jump at the chance."
Benton continued staring out the window as he answered. "Those are one-time occurrences with people who are, as you say, strangers. If I make a mistake and things don't work out, they're no worse off than before. Total responsibility for the welfare of a child, that's . . ."
"Yeah, that's what?"
Benton thought a little about how he should end the sentence before finally saying, " . . .daunting."
He has to be perfect or he can't live, Ray reminded himself. Mister Mountie is not allowed any mistakes or the sky falls on his head. Ray knew better than to try to get his partner to see that parenting and perfection never went together. You just muddle through as best you can. Ray had known Benton for fourteen years now, including ten years of being his lover. Benny wouldn't be Benny unless he believed everybody but himself had the right to make mistakes.
"Let's just think about it for a while, okay? Like Ma, said, we'd be a good influence on some kid."
"I'm not so sure," Benton said to the line of houses they passed.
"You mean we'll contaminate him? Like being gay is contagious?"
Again Ray's attempt at levity fell flat. Benton's answer was deadly serious. "No, I think that is probably genetic. I guess I don't know what I mean. I just have a bad feeling about the whole idea."
Ray tried some rudimentary reverse psychology, "Well, if you don't think you can handle it . . ."
"Exactly," was the Mountie's answer.
Benton surprised Ray when, ten days later, he remarked over dinner, "I guess there's no harm in filling out an application."
Ray looked up from his beef stew. "You mean it? You're considering doing it?"
"It's important to you to have a family. I'd be wrong to deny you what you want so much."
Ray went back to shoveling food into his mouth. "Everything's right or wrong with you," he muttered around a mouthful of meat and potatoes. "We have to do this because we both want it."
"Diefenbaker would have enjoyed looking after a child," Benton said, absently.
"You, Benny, you. Do YOU want a kid or not?"
Benton just looked at him blankly.
"Well?" Ray insisted.
Benton took the time to carefully convey a forkful of stew to his lips, spilling not one drop in the journey and then chewing the bite thoroughly and thoughtfully before answering. "I just don't know. But you DO know, so that tips the scales in favour of going ahead."
Ray felt himself tugged in two directions at once. Benny was plainly playing martyr and Ray hated to be manipulated by the Mountie's polished passive-aggressive tactics. On the other hand if he called Benny's bluff, maybe Benny would warm to the idea later. What could it hurt to start the process? Ray imagined a third face at their supper table, gazing at him, wide-eyed and admiring. We'd be such great parents, me and Benny. He'll come around. I just know he'll come around.
"I'll send Mrs. Cardinal an application tomorrow."
The life cycle of an application for adoption began and ended on the desk of Mrs. Lorraine Cardinal, chief of the Placement Department in Child and Youth Services. First a hopeful couple filled out an application. Mrs. Cardinal then perused it and if her first evaluation of what she read was positive, she would pass it to one of the social workers on her staff to check the references. Then came an interview in the couple's home and a written report by the social worker was discussed in a weekly staff meeting. If this gauntlet was successfully run, the next step was a fax to Captain Ray Vecchio's office at the Chicago Police Department, Community Liaison Branch. (It was a running gag with Ray and Benton that the bond between them was so intense that Ray had to become a liaison officer.)
Captain Vecchio, in his turn, assigned one of his officers to check the prospective parents out thoroughly. The officer's report came back to Ray and Ray, if he found that all was in order, signed the report and ordered it faxed back to the secretary at Mrs. Cardinal's office, who passed the fax to Mrs. Cardinal.
At this point, Mrs. Cardinal pronounced final life or death of the application. No amount of positive documentation could over-ride her decision if her nose, finely tuned by twenty-eight years on the front lines followed by five more years directing and correcting field workers from behind a desk, scented anything the least bit off.
Her secretary had long ago decided that the squad of social workers under her command was so much deadwood. Mrs. Cardinal could just as easily sniff out the good applications and save taxpayers' money by eliminating the middle-persons.
Mrs. Cardinal crinkled her nose at the application on her desk, trying to focus through her latest pair of glasses. Damn these glasses, no matter what they do with the prescription, I can't read properly. She gave up and shoved the offending spectacles onto the top of her head. The name she saw at the top of the form intrigued her and she wanted to be able to give it all the proper attention.
Captain Raymond Vecchio and Constable Benton Fraser. Imagine. Usually she could tell someone's sexual orientation no matter how much he or she dissembled but Captain Vecchio - he had her fooled all these years. Well, well, well.
And this Constable Fraser, she'd worked with him several times an eager volunteer in setting up this or that community project. Handsome fellow. She'd seen him and Vecchio together and hadn't caught the tiniest scent of their relationship. Remarkable. She chuckled to herself. This gives a whole new meaning to 'a Mountie always gets his man'.
Captain Vecchio's a fine man, she thought. Let's see what we can do for him and his partner.
She considered on: two police officers. Of course they'd be cautious for the sake of their careers. And yet they're going to come out of the closet for the sake of having a child. Warning bells went off in her mind. They'll have no distance, no sense of proportion. They'll be investing huge amounts of emotion into this project. Raising a problem child required a sense of humour and the ability to occasionally detach.
Maybe I'm reading too much into this, she thought. I've been working with Vecchio for years. I can't fault him on any score. Mrs. Cardinal bypassed her army and called Captain Vecchio to set up a home visit. She herself would do the visit and if there were anything amiss with this couple her thirty-three years experience would detect it.
Mrs. Cardinal sat looking around the Vecchio/Fraser apartment, studying her surroundings, all the while aware that Constable Fraser was studying HER. Well, she was used to that. Prospective parents usually tried to second-guess her and from what she knew of Constable Fraser, he was a keen observer.
Two walls of the living room in which they sat were devoted to family pictures. The wall with the larger available space was jam-packed with assortments of couples with children, several of an old woman surrounded by representatives from the other pictures, Vecchios and Vecchio-derivatives all shuffled like cards and arranged in a jumble of mismatching frames.
On another wall, on either side of a window were two lonely photographs, both very small. One was of a middle-aged Mountie, a head-and-shoulders shot, but not Constable Fraser. The other showed a man, woman and child all in shadow. Mrs. Cardinal studied the dim family, trying to make out their features.
"That's the only picture I have of me and my parents," Constable Fraser said, following her gaze. "The other one is my father, taken about five years before he died."
"So young-looking," observed Mrs. Cardinal, "What happened to him, if I may ask?"
She and Benton had been sitting in the living room alone, while Ray was in the kitchen preparing tea. It was always of interest to Mrs. Cardinal to see whether same-sex couples took traditional male/female roles between them. It had been Vecchio that went to the kitchen to prepare and fetch the tea, but he had also announced, on his way to the kitchen, that Constable Fraser had baked the cake that would accompany the tea. He had also said, jokingly, "I'll leave you two to get acquainted," as he had left the living room. So all she could glean on this subject so far was that both men were capable of some level of domesticity.
Now Captain Vecchio was coming back into the living room, carrying a tray with a tea service. The tray was of pine, the pot, cups and plates all of simple white china. The furniture in the living room was utilitarian and medium-priced. There was nothing in the household she had seen so far that wasn't perfectly ordinarily.
"It's an amazing story takes exactly two hours to tell," Captain Vecchio said as he came over to where the others sat, placed the tray on a coffee table and sat down on the sofa beside Constable Fraser. Mrs. Cardinal was in an armchair facing them. "Benny first came to Chicago on the trail of his father's killer."
"Your father was killed? I'm so sorry!"
"And my mother, but when I was very young. I was six when she was murdered," Constable Fraser was saying in a purely conversational tone while leaning over the coffee table to pour the tea. "Dad was out on the trail a lot when I was growing up. Mostly my grandparents raised me. They subscribed to the birch-rod system of child rearing." Fraser looked up from his pouring, "I'm assuming you want to hear about my family history. Would you also like to know my medical background? Heart disease seems to run in the family. Most of my uncles and a few of my aunts have suffered heart attacks. But in the case of my father, he was murdered before the age when . . ."
Constable Fraser put on a show of innocence in response to this warning word from Captain Vecchio. "But Ray, Mrs. Cardinal is going to want to find out all she can about us in order to make the proper determination," the Mountie said, blandly.
Captain Vecchio only frowned and shook his head.
"This isn't an interrogation, Constable Fraser, I'm just here to get to know you a little better." She tried to move the conversation into more mundane territory. "You certainly have a lovely home."
Ray jumped in. "Actually, we've got two lovely homes. I own the house where my mother lives with my sister and her kids. We spend a lot of time over there. Our kid's going to have a big Italian family. There's my sister and her six kids, my other sister and her husband and kids, and my brother's family."
"Captain Vecchio's brother is in prison at the moment," Fraser said conversationally and handed a teacup to Mrs. Cardinal. Captain Vecchio glared at him.
Constable Fraser is trying to make a bad impression and he's not being very subtle about it, thought Mrs. Cardinal. Is he not committed to adoption or is there something else going on? Whatever game he is playing, I don't think Captain Vecchio is in on it. I'm guessing he's surprised by what his partner's doing.
Her evaluation was soon confirmed when Ray said, "Come on into the kitchen, Mrs. Cardinal. I want to show you something."
Mrs. Cardinal rose and Constable Fraser stood when she did. Captain Vecchio motioned him to sit back down.
Once in the kitchen, Captain Vecchio whispered to her, "I don't know what's got into him. He's not like this. Can't you come back another day, when he's more like himself?"
Mrs. Cardinal tried to reassure him with a motherly smile. She was old enough and experienced enough to pull it off superbly. Captain Vecchio immediately relaxed.
"Constable Fraser is behaving more or less the way adoptive children do when they go to a new family. They misbehave as much as they can, show themselves in the worst possible light to test if the new family really wants them."
"So, you think Benny's just acting up because he's insecure?"
"It's possible. Rest assured I'm not going to take his antics at face value."
She pitied Captain Vecchio. What she hadn't told him was that she did sense a very real problem here. This couple wasn't ready for adoption. On the other hand there were so many youngsters in the group homes who needed placements and she knew just the boy she wanted to send to Captain Vecchio's care. She needed to think.
"It won't be necessary to come back. I've seen what I need to see," she said aloud, "But I would like to have a cup of tea and that cake does look yummy." She touched Captain Vecchio lightly on the arm and allowed him to escort her back to the living room.
Constable Fraser was sitting drinking tea and staring expressionlessly at the far wall while he sipped. Upon hearing the other two come back in, he got to his feet and stayed there until Mrs. Cardinal was safely seated again. The three talked about the weather and various municipal projects they had worked on together. All the while Mrs. Cardinal's was silently casting about in her mind for the best solution to this situation.
After a decent, distancing interval of meaningless conversation, Captain Vecchio drew a deep breath and said, "Okay, enough of this small talk. Are we getting a kid?"
The usual answer was to tell the prospective parents that they would be notified in writing after the deliberations of the staff committee but Mrs. Cardinal, having made up her mind at last, raised her eyes to meet first those of her colleague and then the Mountie.
"Captain, Constable, I'm not approving you for adoption."
She waited for the shock to register. Captain Vecchio threw himself back heavily against the sofa and turned to through a brief poisonous look at his partner. Poor Captain Vecchio was no doubt thinking that she had betrayed him after getting his hopes up in the kitchen. Her tactic would be to offer better news after bad news.
"Please let me explain. You're both police officers. I've had experience with placing troubled children with police officers. It seldom works. The policemen, it's especially the men, they expect too much of themselves and too much of the kids."
The look of pain on Captain Vecchio's face would haunt her for days. Time to put the rest of the plan into action.
"I have an alternative to propose, if you'd like to hear it."
Captain Vecchio, his hopes dashed, shrugged sadly. Constable Fraser was carefully suppressing any reaction. "I'm going to suggest a long term fostering arrangement instead of an outright adoption," Mrs. Cardinal said. "We place a child with foster parents with the intention that he will stay until the age of eighteen. In practice there's usually very little difference between this arrangement and legal adoption, except that if things are too difficult for the three of you, well, you'd have an out."
There was still no response from Constable Fraser but Mrs. Cardinal gave up on expecting any. Captain Vecchio, however, looked ready to consider her alternative.
"You're disappointed," Mrs. Cardinal tried to be soothing, "But I really think that given your professions and your ages, this is a better way to approach it. And, remember, a child will have the benefit of your love and care no matter which way we do this."
"And that's the most important thing after all. The kid's welfare. Not what I want." Captain Vecchio grimaced. "You know, Mrs. Cardinal, I almost forgot that."
"It's understandable." Now was the time to get a commitment from these two and secure a good place for young Dusty. She still wasn't sure about Constable Fraser but it was worth the gamble. "In fact, I have a boy in mind for the two of you already. May I tell you about him?"
Captain Vecchio shifted nervously, and then said, "Could me and Benny talk this over?"
"Of course. You don't need to make the decision tonight if you're not ready." She felt a little guilty, manipulating him like this, since she knew Captain Vecchio would jump at the chance to get a foster child to make up for his disappointment over being turned down for adoption.
"We'll just go in the kitchen for a minute." He jabbed his elbow into his partner's side. "Benny." Without waiting for the Mountie, he got up and went through the door to the kitchen.
Constable Fraser stood and offered a polite, "If you'll excuse us for a moment," before following him.
Mrs. Cardinal tried not to listen to the sounds of angry whispers from Captain Vecchio and the calmer responses of his partner. At length the two men returned.
It encouraged her that it was Constable Fraser who spoke for the two of them.
"Please tell us about the boy we're going to foster."
The die being thus cast, tension eased in the room. She could see that both men felt better now that definite action was going to be taken. There were certain things that just seemed to ride on the y-chromosome, whether a man was gay or straight, and one of those things was a preference for action over discussion. She helped herself to another piece of cake before telling them more.
"His name is Dustin Coldwell. Twelve years old. He's had some very bad shocks in his life so far. Until he was three he lived with his single mother. She had some drug problems and we believe it has had some physiological effect on Dusty. He may or may not have an attention deficit disorder. The doctors don't agree on it, but he does have trouble concentrating sometimes and definitely has trouble sitting still in school. He was on Ritalin for a time, but it didn't seem to help much."
"You were talking about some shocks." Captain Vecchio said.
"One day when Dusty was three, his mother didn't pick him up from the baby-sitter's. She just disappeared. The baby-sitter and her husband were willing to take care of him and undertook a fostering arrangement like the one you are going to have."
It was Constable Fraser who interrupted this time, "What happened to them?"
"Nothing happened to them, as such. They kept Dusty until he was eight, but the problem was that the husband couldn't cope with the boy's behaviour. Dusty was disruptive at school, always neglecting chores, rude when he was frustrated, which was quite often. The man had a very bad temper and I'm afraid he wasn't able to refrain from hitting the boy. Often and hard. We found out about it from one of the neighbours and did an investigation. One of my staff worked for over a year with them but in the end we moved Dusty to a group home."
Both men were frowning deeply now.
"It was heart-breaking. The couple had to sit an eight-year-old down and tell him he was not going to live with mommy and daddy anymore."
Captain Vecchio's eyes began to moist up, she noticed. Constable Fraser was pressing his lips together.
"I don't want you to get the wrong impression. The husband had the best intentions. He really did try to cope with Dusty, but aside from a violent temper in general, he couldn't deal calmly with Dusty's misbehaviour because . . ."
"Yes?" breathed Captain Vecchio.
" . . . he worked in a youth correctional facility."
"Ah," said Constable Fraser. For the first time since she had entered their apartment, Mrs. Cardinal saw his expression soften. "He was afraid."
"Yes," she agreed.
"Afraid of what?"
Captain Vecchio was left out of the loop, she saw. He didn't understand what was clear to herself and Constable Fraser. Mrs. Cardinal was pleased to have stumbled on the real cause of Constable Fraser's reticence.
Indeed it was Constable Fraser who answered his partner's question. "Afraid his own child would grow up to like the youngsters he worked with. Afraid Dustin would end up like them."
"God, Benny! Now I see what you meant before!"
"And here we are, two policemen. Are you sure it's in the best interests of the child to give him to us, Mrs. Cardinal?" The Constable's previous chill was gone. He's much more self aware than I've been giving him credit for, Mrs. Cardinal thought. What's more, he and Captain Vecchio really do understand each other. This might work.
"Yes I do, and I'll tell you why. Dusty has been in and out of group homes and foster homes for four years now. Over the last year he's been saying he thinks he is gay."
Two pair of policemen's eyebrows flew upward at that revelation.
"I'm not sure at this point whether this is a lifetime decision, but I do know we have to acknowledge the possibility. If he is indeed gay, I'd like him to have the right role models. I want him to experience life-style choices other than the kind he sees in the media."
"Two middle-aged cops," mused Captain Vecchio, "He'll learn that gay can be boring. Well, it'll lose the shock-value for him, that's for sure." He turned to his partner. "Well, Benny, what do you say? Do we need to go back to the kitchen?"
Constable Fraser didn't answer right away, but got to his feet and started to pace. He went from window, to kitchen door and back a few times before pausing beside the armchair where Mrs. Cardinal sat. Pensively he rubbed his right thumb along his right eyebrow.
Finally he spoke. "Mrs. Cardinal, I apologize for my behaviour this evening."
"Is that a yes, Benny?"
Constable Fraser smiled for the first time since Mrs. Cardinal had come into the room, a tentative half-smile in Captain Vecchio's direction. The Captain's eyes filled with tears, and so did Mrs. Cardinal's. "That's a yes, Ray."
She sniffed and reached down beside her chair to pick up her purse and extract a handkerchief to wipe her eyes. "I'll start the paperwork tomorrow."
"We're going to be the greatest parents ever," Captain Vecchio announced.
"And Ray criticizes ME for being a perfectionist," joked Constable Fraser. "
I promise you won't be the greatest parents ever," Mrs. Cardinal assured them. "You'll just muddle along and I'll always be a phone call away if you ever need me."
The kitchen of the group home was bustling in just about the same way as the Vecchio kitchen. Adults and children came and went, there was banter and bickering and cooking and washing up. An important difference was that the resident children were doing the cooking and washing and the adults were sitting at the kitchen table doing paperwork. Mark Vincent, the home's director, had a roll of paper towels at his elbow to wipe the odd bits of flour, from the pastry dough being mixed across the table, off the weekly report he was composing.
The kitchen window faced the street, and a girl of ten was peering through it. "Red Bird Alert! Cardinal's coming!"
"Mrs. Cardinal, if you please." Mark said, rising from the table and heading for the front door to receive the social worker.
"I wonder who she's coming for this time," said an eleven-year-old boy. Mrs. Cardinal usually arrived with news that someone in the home had been placed and would be leaving soon to join an adoptive family or be sent to a foster home.
By the time Mrs. Cardinal arrived at the front door it was already open and Mark was standing there with a half dozen children crowded behind him. She greeted them all with a smile, and then the children all fell back as she came into the house and moved directly into the renovated maid's room off the kitchen that served as the group home's office. Mark trailed after her and the children followed him.
Mrs. Cardinal stopped before entering the tiny room and turned around to face them all. "Very well. It's not as though it's going to be any secret." The children crowded around.
"I've got a foster family for Dusty. Long term until he's eighteen."
A short, skinny boy had his back slapped, his arms punched and his hair tousled while congratulatory shouts filled the home. The eleven-year-old boy shoved him towards the office, "Get in there, man. Get the lecture." Mrs. Cardinal and Mark had to laugh. This was indeed the usual procedure, to sit the child down in private and tell him about the family he was about to join.
The skinny boy had endured the barrage of well-wishing in silence. He now stood his ground and made no move towards the office door. "Don't want no fuckin' foster family. I want to stay here," he muttered. Mark and Mrs. Cardinal knew better than to dwell on this knee-jerk objection.
"Come in and listen, Dusty. I think you'll find this interesting," Mrs. Cardinal said, smiling and putting her arm around his shoulder. He shrugged her arm away, but condescended to enter the office anyway and Mark closed the door behind the three of them.
Mrs. Cardinal settled into the largest and most comfortable of the available chairs and reached over to pat the seat of the chair nearest to her, but Dusty remained standing. There was also a desk in the room and Mark dropped into the chair behind it. Then, thinking better of the matter, he picked up the chair and moved it in front of the desk so that he and Mrs. Cardinal were sitting side by side. With the third unused chair, a rough triangle was formed.
"I like it here. I don't want to leave." Dusty said, jamming his fists into his jeans pocket and slouching as he made this announcement.
"I know that, Dusty. It's been hard for you - living so many different places. I've been working hard to find you the right family."
"Mark's my family," said the child, "and Tina and Alfonzo and Tracy. Don't want another home. Every time I have a home somebody sends me away."
Mark and Mrs. Cardinal exchanged a look. The boy had pretty well summed up his own life so far.
"Dusty, just listen for a minute," said Mrs. Cardinal. "I'm placing you with a same-sex couple. Two men in their forties."
In spite of himself, Dusty was immediately interested. "Gay guys? Get out of town!"
"There are no other children in the house, which is good. You'll have their full attention. Now, have you ever heard of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police?"
"Mounties. Sure, like Dudley Do-Right."
"Constable Fraser is a Mountie. He's been working out of the Canadian Consulate here for fourteen years now and isn't about to leave soon from what anybody can tell."
"Haven't I heard of a Constable Fraser before?" Mark asked.
"Possibly. He's pretty well known. Benton Fraser."
Mark got up and opened one of the filing cabinets. After fishing around amongst some files for a while he extracted a very old copy of The Chicago Guardian's weekly magazine supplement. He held it up for Mrs. Cardinal and Dustin to see. "Is this the guy?"
Mrs. Cardinal held out her hand for the magazine and Mark gave it over. She and Dusty looked together at a picture of a handsome Mountie in his mid-thirties, in full red serge uniform.
Dustin emitted a low whistle. "That's going to be my new father?"
"One of them," said Mrs. Cardinal. "I'd forgotten all about this article. Look here, Dusty." She flipped open the magazine. "This tells about how Constable Fraser and his partner saved Chicago from a nuclear disaster. Now his partner is Captain Vecchio who's my contact at the police department. He used to be a detective before he started working at the community liaison office. I imagine between the two of them they'll have some interesting stories to tell you."
"No way! A detective!"
"Sounds like you'll be having a blast, Dusty," Mark offered.
Suddenly the boy remembered he was supposed to be objecting to these proceedings. "I still want to stay here."
"I know you do, Dusty, but that's not an option," said Mrs. Cardinal. She pronounced this with some finality but in fact all three of them knew that it was within Dustin's power to cause so many problems to his foster parents that very well might ask for him to be removed. If he played his cards right, he would in fact stand a very good chance of returning to the group home. It was a tactic he and many other children in his situation had learned one of the many ways to manipulate the system.
"Dusty, please sit down here and listen to me carefully," said Mrs. Cardinal.
Mark caught the boy's eye and inclined his head towards the single empty chair. Reluctantly, Dusty sat down.
"Captain Vecchio and I have been working together for years. I like him. And Constable Fraser, I've worked with him too. They're men I think you'll come to admire if you give them half a chance."
"Well, you know the routine. I'll pick you up after lunch on Saturday and you'll have the rest of the weekend to get acquainted. There's a school within walking distance of Captain Vecchio's mother's house. He's going to drive you his mother's house in the mornings and you'll be able to go to school with his nieces and nephews. So you don't even have to be alone in a new school."
"Hey, you'll have a built-in granny and ready-made cousins. You lucked out, Dusty."
"Are you going to be on that computer ALLLLLLLLLL night," Ray whined. I want to check my messages before I go to bed."
Benton looked up from the screen to where Ray stood beside him, hands on hips and frowning.
"What the hell are you doing? Surfing? You never surf."
"Research, Ray. On Attention Deficit Disorder."
Using Benton's shoulder to lean on, Ray bent down to kiss the top of the Mountie's head. "Internet research? You? Didn't you read everything about A.D.D. in your grandmother's library when you were three?"
"I couldn't read until I was four, Ray. And A.D.D. wasn't a recognized disorder at that time. I need current research, but hardly any of this . . ." he waved contemptuously at the screen, " . . . is from creditable sources. It's most disheartening."
"You know, Benny, Mrs. Cardinal said he was suspected of having the disorder but they're really not sure. Read between the lines he might just be difficult kid."
Benton closed the search engine window and stood up. "Check your messages, Ray. I think I've already found out what I want to know."
"Which is?" Ray asked while sitting down in front of the computer.
"Surveillance. Vigilance. Constant attention. These children have difficulty tuning out distractions. One-on-one attention and direction will keep him focused. You see it's not so much a question of these children being deliberately disruptive, but they have trouble controlling their impulses. You know, Ray. I'm beginning to think we might be able to help this boy a great deal."
"So, all it will take is paying attention to him twenty-four/seven to make him a good citizen."
"Well, Mrs. Cardinal did say he is only suspected of having this disorder. The Ritalin didn't help him."
"Meaning it's possible he's just a run-of-the-mill delinquent."
"Not under my roof," said the Mountie, and left the room.
Ray couldn't quite catch the expression in his partner's voice as this parting pronouncement was made. He got as far as placing his fingers on the keyboard, paused, let out a mild oath in Italian and got up again to follow his partner into the bedroom.
"Just hold it a minute, Benny," he said from the bedroom doorway, "We got to talk."
Benton took him literally, freezing in the act of stepping into his red long johns. He stood naked, holding the underwear out in front of him, balanced on one leg with the other leg poised to step into his sleeping gear. It was a fetching pose, and Ray's attention was distracted.
"Never mind those," he murmured as he approached. Ray lifted the long johns from Benton's hands and tossed them on a chair.
Benton dove for the clothing. "No, I'm getting so out-of-shape. Don't look at me."
Ray chuckled while Benton slipped his legs into the long johns. Before the Mountie had a chance to pull them over his chest and arms, Ray stopped him. "That's all the modesty you get. I want to see your arms. You've been wearing long sleeves all week and it's killing me."
"Getting flabby," the Mountie protested, but without much insistence. He held out his arms for Ray to come close and be encircled in them.
Ray gripped his partner around the waist and nuzzled his face into the inside of Benton's right elbow. "You smell so nice and Frasery in the evenings."
"You said you wanted to talk."
"I changed my mind."
The two men in front of Dusty were tall, much taller than the people he usually hung around with. The group home supervisors were mostly women except for Mark, the director, and Dusty didn't have to look up very far to look him in the eye. And of course Mrs. Cardinal was nothing but a little old lady no taller than himself.
But these gay dudes were tall. The one he recognized from the picture as the Mountie had his right hand in Dusty's face. It took Dusty a few seconds to realize he was inviting a handshake.
Dusty stood in the doorway of the Vecchio/Fraser apartment flanked by Mrs. Cardinal on one side and Mark on the other. He gripped one suitcase in his left hand and his skateboard in his right hand. He realized he'd have to drop the skateboard to take the Mountie's hand and, flustered, let the skateboard fall out of his hand to the floor. Everyone flinched at the clatter of the metal wheels hitting the parquet flooring, but nobody said anything about it.
Dusty tentatively put his hand into Benton's hand. Benton squeezed it firmly but not too hard and gave it a single pump before letting Dusty go. Dusty took the opportunity to use his now freed hand to brush too-long sandy coloured bangs out of his eyes.
"Hello, Dustin," the Canadian said.
The other man, the police captain, astonished Dusty thoroughly by dropping to his knees in front of him, placing both his hands on Dusty's shoulders and announcing loudly "Good to have you here, kid!" The captain peered into Dusty's face. The boy shifted his gaze away, uneasy with this direct eye contact. 'Hey, you got green eyes like me. Everybody's going to think you're really my kid. This is going to be great," he teased.
Fuck, a friendly one. That's all I need.
Mark and Mrs. Cardinal were smiling and making moves to go. Don't leave me with these dudes, Dusty appealed silently to them but knew better than to think saying it aloud would actually do any good. He was stuck with these tall guys, at least for the time being.
The adults all said good-bye to one another, Mark promising to bring over the rest of his stuff that evening. Mark and Mrs. Cardinal both gave Dusty a hug, then they left and Dusty was alone with his new foster fathers. They stood looking at him for a moment. Then the Canadian spoke.
"Why don't you put that skateboard here in the front closet, Dustin? Ray can show you your room and where to wash up while I make us a snack."
"I'm Ray and this is Benton. You don't call him 'Benny'. Only I do that. Got it?" The police captain told Dusty, who was already casting about in his mind for the best way to start showing these guys a hard time.
"Don't I call you guys 'Daddy'?" There, thought Dusty, that should get one of them going.
Neither man took the bait. "Only if you want me to call you 'sonny' and I don't think you want that, do you?" Ray said back, good-naturedly. "Come on, kid, your room's over this way."
Dusty followed after him and to the man's back said, "So, are you guys going to let me watch?"
"TV? Maybe later, I guess," said Ray. "I thought we'd just hang around and talk."
"No, I mean watch you two get it on."
Benton, already on his way from the vestibule to the kitchen by way of the living room, stopped in his tracks. Ray whirled around and stared at Dusty.
"Get. It. On?"
"You know, doing it."
Benton cleared his throat. "Dustin . . ."
"Benny, let me handle this."
But Benton wasn't listening. "Dustin," he repeated, "Are you suggesting that Ray and I would let you observe us having sex?"
Ah, this was working fine. The Canadian was starting to get into a snit.
Benton came over to him and stood so close in front of him that Dusty would have had to crane his head upwards to look him in the face. But instead Dusty was glancing around nervously.
"Dustin, look at me," Benton demanded.
"Yeah?" Dusty said belligerently, but he did look.
"Did any of your other foster parents allow you to do that? Watch them being intimate?"
"Hell no, but they weren't gay like you guys."
"So, you believe the average gay man is in the habit of having sex in front of children? What in your experience has led you to that conclusion?"
This wasn't the reaction Dusty was expecting. The Mountie dude was upset but not with Dusty himself, it seemed. The boy cringed a little under Benton's gaze but said nothing more.
Ray once again dropped down face to face with Dusty. "Did any men ever do that in front of you?"
"Well, no. I just figured."
Ray seemed to relax and got to his feet again. "You just figured wrong. Come on. Here's your room and the bathroom's across the way. You can put your stuff away and come into the kitchen as soon as you're ready." Ray opened the door to a room that had been a study but a single bed and dresser drawer had been squeezed in. "It's a little cramped right now but we'll be getting some of the stuff out of here in a few days and you'll have some more room."
Dusty noticed the computer. "There's no joystick on that."
"For games you mean? No, I guess not."
"What about on the TV? Haven't you got any games?"
"Sorry. Maybe we can get some. See you in a bit."
Ray closed the door on Dusty. The boy stood looking around the room, taking in the shelves full of books, the computer console, the pictures on the wall of snow-covered mountains and one picture of the Queen of England. This is going to suck, he decided.
Ray found Benton at the kitchen counter cutting cauliflower into small florets, all of a uniform size.
He came up beside his partner, lifted the knife carefully out of his partner's hand and placed the utensil on the counter. Then he gave the Mountie's hand a brief brush with his lips.
"Ray, not now!" Benton yanked his hand away.
"It's okay, he's in his room, probably trying to figure out the next way he's going to piss us off."
"You don't suppose he was really ever exposed to . . .?"
"I don't think so. Mrs. Cardinal would have told us. He's just trying to get our goat. He had you going pretty good there. Just remember what Mrs. Cardinal told us. They act up a lot at first to test you. To make sure you're really committed."
Benton resumed his kitchen work. He picked up the cauliflower bits and dumped them onto a platter that already held baby carrots, sliced radishes and strips of cut red peppers. Ray watched him arrange the vegetables in neat spirals.
"Cruditιs? That's your idea of a tasty snack for a twelve-year-old? Benny, you were sooooo raised by old missionaries."
"I wonder if we should take him for a haircut?"
"Naw, leave him be. I like that look, clipped short in the back and shaggy in the front. Makes me remember past glories," ruefully he ran his hand over his own bald head. "It's not fair you kept your hair."
"I'm grayer than you are, Ray. We're older than we used to be."
"Everybody's older than they used to be. Right this minute we're the oldest we've ever been."
Benton conveyed the plate of vegetables to the table. There, he paused. "I never thought of it that way. It's sobering." He looked at the healthy snack in the middle of the table. "I've got English muffins in the freezer. We could improvise some mini-pizzas."
"Close, but no cigar," Ray said with a laugh. He went over and took down a jar of hazelnut and chocolate spread from the cupboard over the sink. "This is what we need here. Nutella."
On Monday morning, Ray dropped Dustin off at the Vecchio house where his six foster-cousins were all finishing breakfast, washing, dressing, gathering lunches, and stuffing homework into backpacks. The early-morning chaos reminded him of the group home. He allowed the old lady, Ray's mother, to shove him into a chair and sweet sticky cinnamon buns appeared before him on the table.
"Eat. You have time before you leave," the old woman ordered and poured a large mug full of milk for him to use to wash the pastries down. "You call me 'Nona', like your cousins do," the old lady ordered him.
Dusty was just about to come up with some snarky response when three of the six Vecchio children converged on 'Nona', hugged and kissed her in turn, thanked her for breakfast and scooped up brown bags from the counter. Dusty concluded that this wasn't going to be a good audience for old-lady-hassling and resigned himself to pastry consumption which he discovered to be an activity almost as satisfying as the one he had renounced.
Dusty had been to many schools, some with larger classes and some with smaller classes, some well equipped with computers and new books, some crumbling, some with young teachers, some with crabby old geezers. For Dusty what they all had in common was that people expected him to sit in one place and be quiet. Sometimes he was allowed to talk while trying to work, which made things only a little more bearable and only for a short period of time. Inevitably he'd find he couldn't really stay interested and became overwhelmed with the fidgets.
As soon as he lost interest in whatever was going on, he did something else. If there was nothing fun at his desk he was in the habit of getting out of his seat and wandering to some part of the room that beckoned. It was fun to see all the different ways different teachers tried to stop him. Some were sweet and patient at first, others lost it right away. It was far more interesting that anything the teachers were actually trying to make him do.
Fore-warned, says the old expression, is fore-armed and Dusty's new teacher was well warned to expect a possibly A.D.D. student and well armed with volunteers to take him out of the class for special coaching.
A week before Dusty's arrival, Mrs. Cardinal had arranged a meeting among herself, Ray, and the principal of the Catholic school Dusty was slated to attend. Francesca's six children all attended St. Monica's, so Dusty was not going to be alone in his new environment.
"We have an unusually high level of parent involvement at this school," the principal had informed the captain and the social worker. "Many of the mothers in the neighbourhood come in to volunteer. Miss Vecchio is here herself three times a week," she said, with a nod in Ray's direction. "I don't think there's another school anywhere in the city with so many helpers. If Dustin needs special attention, I'll be able to assign someone."
The novelty of his new environment kept Dusty more or less interested through the morning and lunchtime of the first day. By the time lunch was over and a math lesson had begun, Dusty was at the end of his patience. He fell back on his usual routine and got up and strolled over to the window to see what was going on outside. The teacher said nothing to him but lifted the receiver of the wall phone that connected the classroom to the office.
Within minutes, there was a knock at the classroom door and a woman appeared with a couple of books in her hand.
"You can go with Mrs. Gondolfi now, Dustin," the teacher said casually. "She'll bring you back here at recess time."
Dusty paused and considered his options. Was going with this woman a privilege or a punishment? He couldn't tell. Not that there was anything going on in the class he worried about missing, but being taken out usually only happened after the teacher had lost it. Dusty was confused.
"New kid's in trouuuuuu-ble," a girl in the class sing-songed. Mutterings of agreement arose from the other children.
Dusty registered the fact that he was in trouble. At least it was a familiar situation.
"You don't need any books today, Dustin. You'll read what Mrs. Gondolfi brought." The teacher inclined her head towards the door where the woman still stood waiting.
The class was all silent and staring at Dusty. He was too uncertain of himself to refuse outright but to give in at once was unthinkable now that the terms had been defined. Although he hadn't conscious words for it, he was out of context here. Being sent out of the room was supposed to happen after a long tussle with the teacher. The tension that should surround the situation was missing, but if he was indeed in trouble without having been aware of getting there, he knew what to do. Still, it didn't feel right. He tried a tentative "Don't fuckin' wanna go," to see what would happen.
The response was instant and very satisfying. Everyone: students, teacher and teacher's aide, all froze.
"Yeah, fuckin' right," echoed another boy.
"Give 'er hell, dude" said another.
Mutterings at various levels of profanity rose up from the children. The teacher and the aide exchanged worried looks.
"Don't you want to come with me, Dustin, dear?" said the aide, in that sweet voice adults sometimes used, which always made Dusty cringe.
"I'm sure you'll have a good time reading with Mrs. Gondolfi," said the teacher.
"Let's go now, dear," said the other woman, shifting but not quite turning in the direction of the corridor.
Having a choice confused the boy. If ordered to go, he'd know how to handle it protest if he thought he could pull it off, otherwise acquiesce.
The other children, however, were getting into the mood of vicarious rebellion.
"You stay right here, man!"
"You show 'em!"
The teacher wrung her hands and tried a tentative, "Class, be quiet," which impressed the pupils not at all.
Dusty started to be lifted by the tide of audience support.
"Screw you," slipped out of Dusty's mouth and was greeted by cheers by the rest of the class.
"We should go," said Mrs. Gondolfi. She was now craning her neck towards the corridor and escape, tears beginning to well in her eyes.
"Dustin, I'd like you to go NOW, please." The teacher, having found cajoling to fail and alarmed by the mood of her otherwise well-behaved class, tried a sterner approach. It was unfortunate timing in that Dusty had been confused until now and his objections, for all their profanity, had only been half-hearted.
Now, however, the teacher had taken the role of authority figure in Dusty's eyes and he switched into "hassle-the-teacher" autopilot. He turned to look out the window. "Lemme alone."
Mrs. Gondolfi couldn't pull off "stern" as easily as the teacher. She added, "Dustin, come with me," but there was a pre-crying tremor in her voice.
"Bug off, bitch," was the boy's answer, delivered out the window.
A sob broke out of Mrs. Gondolfi and she fled in tears into the corridor and out of sight.
The teacher breathed a heavy sigh, returned to the telephone on the wall and after a brief conversation hung up again and addressed Dusty. Meanwhile the class had fallen silent in anticipation. Dusty, deprived of further input from them, had had his attention distracted by some robins pulling worms from the lawn outside the window.
The teacher's voice startled him. "Dustin!"
Dusty forced his attention back inside the room.
"Go to the office and stay there until recess."
A chorus of boo's rose from the children at this. But Dusty was on familiar ground now. Being sent to the office was par for the course and he could now strut out of the classroom proudly, a hero.
As he made his way along the corridor it occurred to him that although he had been brought to the office with the Vecchio children upon first arriving, he didn't remember where it was now. But he followed the sound of a woman's crying, figuring that this must be Mrs. Gondolfi telling her tale of woe to somebody in charge. His deduction was right and he found the school office where he was greeted by the sight of Mrs. Gondolfi sobbing into a handkerchief and talking to some other woman.
As Dusty came through the glass door that led to the outer part of the office, Mrs. Gondolfi wailed "That's him!
Within minutes, Dusty found himself seated at a desk and chair just outside the office door, left to his own thoughts. He was in the same kind of familiar trouble as in any other school but, as sometimes happened, the other kids were a bunch of wimps and he had become a hero. He'd managed to escape the boring classroom and that Mrs. Gondolfi had been shown who was boss. Oblivious to any thought that actions might have consequences, he enjoyed his glory for what would have otherwise been a very boring hour until the recess bell rang. At the sound of the recess bell, somebody stuck her head out the office door and told Dusty he could leave and go out for recess.
Dusty flung himself off the old wooden chair and out from behind the cast-off desk that was kept near the office for the use of wrong-doers. His skinny arms flapped as he trotted down the corridor towards his classroom.
Most of the children were already outside and only a few stragglers were still in the corridors, putting on jackets, chattering amongst themselves. At strategic intervals teachers stood observing them or talking to one of them. No one paid any attention to Dusty as he approached the hook where his own jacket was hanging.
Most days, getting dressed and heading outside was a conditioned response to the recess bell, but since there was no teacher to usher him along it occurred to Dusty that he might enjoy outwitting the powers that be by spending recess inside. It was an intoxicating idea, but it had the disadvantage of losing the opportunity of going out into the playground and enjoying the adulation of his classmates. And getting out in the fresh air and running around a little would also be nice.
As Dusty stood by his hook considering these conflicting desires, he caught sight of two larger boys leaning on either side of the door leading out into the yard. The boys stood as though guarding the doorway, watching each child as he or she passed by them into the schoolyard.
At length, one looked over at Dusty and called "Hey, over there" to his partner. Getting a better look as they both turned in his direction, Dusty recognized them. One was the largest of Ray's sister's kids. Dusty dug into his memory and found the name 'Artie'. The other boy was someone in Dusty's class. Dusty hadn't noticed, but this second boy had not joined in with the general enjoyment at the discomfiture of Mrs. Gondolfi, but had sat frowning during the whole incident.
The two larger boys exchanged a look, left their posts by the door and came over to take position on either side of Dusty, glaring angrily at him.
"This is Tony," Arturo Vecchio introduced his companion. Arturo, called "Artie" by everyone but Ma Vecchio, Benton and the priest, was named for Ray's father and could be considered an argument for nature versus nurture in that he had the same bullying ways as his grandfather. "Tony's my best friend."
"Yeah," confirmed Tony, being the more taciturn as well as the physically larger of the duo.
"I play at Tony's house all the time," Artie told his foster cousin. Dusty wondered why this should have anything to do with him but before he had a chance to ask, the two boys moved closer to him, each from the opposite side. The only way Dusty could manage to avoid eye contact with one or the other of them was to stare straight ahead. The boys took this as an attempt to ignore them and it didn't improve their mood.
"Look at me, asshole," insisted Artie.
Dusty did that, and quailed at the murderous look in Artie's face.
"Mrs. Gondolfi is Tony's mama. I play at their house all the time."
Dustin's head shrank down between his shoulders, which had begun to quiver.
"You son of a bitch. You made my mama cry," Tony snarled.
One pair of strong, meaty hands grasped each of Dusty's arms. Tony and Artie yanked him the direction of the door. Dusty went limp but it did no good, the larger boys were easily able to drag him out into the schoolyard. The other children stared as they hauled him, half walking and half sliding across the asphalt that surrounded the school and over to a grassy area beyond. A line of hedges sectioned off a corner of the schoolyard and hid it from general view.
Seeing that he was being taken to an isolated place, Dusty recovered from the shock of the sudden assault enough to start shouting for help. At Dusty's first yelp, Tony walloped him across the face.
Dusty buckled but the other boys held him firmly in place. Artie took his turn, jabbing his knee into the smaller boy's groin. Dusty howled. A punch in the jaw from Tony silenced him. With his arms still held fast, he tried kicking but that only brought him a kick in the stomach in return. His mind dimmed with pain, he could do nothing more but endure the beating.
At last the words " . . . my mama a bitch again and I'll kill ya . . ." swam through the buzzing in Dusty's head. Dusty knew from observing many schoolyard fights that such a verbal threat usually served as punctuation, signaling the end of the physical punishment. The boys let go of him and he sank into the grass.
"He's been WHAT!?!?!"
"Don't get excited, Benny. He's not hurt. No teeth missing. Nothing broken. He's just got a stomach ache and starting one doosy of a shiner."
"Ray, our child has been assaulted on his very first day of school!"
"Not exactly assaulted. Just a schoolyard thing. Not like somebody hit him with an otter or something. I'm driving him home now."
"I'm on my way."
"Benny, you don't have to leave work. He'll be fine." Ray lifted his cell phone briefly away from his ear and turned to give a rueful smile to Dusty who was enjoying a ride in a real police cruiser. "He's upset," he explained to the boy.
The Riv had long since given up the ghost and Ray usually borrowed a patrol car when he needed a vehicle at short notice. The Canadian Consulate had moved to a more suburban location three years ago, with an actual parking lot, so Benton now drove to work. When Ray needed the car, the Mountie reluctantly made use of one of the consular limos.
Dusty grinned back. Ray had been pretty decent throughout the whole thing. He had arrived at the nurse's office, collected Dusty with a minimum of fuss and led him to a police cruiser with a real red flashing light and everything.
"Benny'll be home before we get there. Wait and see," Ray told him as they drove along. Ray's mood was actually buoyant at hearing Benton say "our child". I guess it took somebody attacking him for him to go all mother-bear protective, he decided.
Before picking up Dusty, he'd had a talk with the principal and learned as much as the adults had learned: that parties unknown had beaten up Dusty at recess. Neither Dusty nor any other child would divulge the name of the assailant or assailants. And Ray was also told about the incident before recess with Mrs. Gondolfi.
That name tipped the ex-detective off to what had probably happened, given that he knew his nephew, Artie, was good buddies with the son of Ray and Francesca's childhood playmate, Sofia Gondolfi.
Artie would be dealt with at home, but Ray doubted any punishment his sister dished out would make an impression on him. He was a bully like Ray's father had been. As Ray and Dusty drove along Ray considered briefly whether Dusty was in any danger from Artie in the future. Probably not. Ray figured that Dusty had learned an important survival lesson about life in a closely-knit Italian neighbourhood be nice to EVERYBODY'S mother.
"You better get your story straight before we get home," Ray resumed conversation with the child.
"He's going to want you to tell him exactly what happened. And one thing I have to tell you, when Benny wants something he doesn't give up."
Dusty looked at Ray with alarm. Benton hadn't seemed the violent type.
Ray caught the look. "He won't hurt you or anything. He'll just nag you to death. Make you feel guilty."
"Big fat deal." Dusty looked back out the window, unimpressed.
"Hey, you got in trouble the first day at school. You disobeyed the teacher and you cussed poor Sofia, who happens to be my friend by the way. Sorry, pal, but that qualifies as a big deal."
"Whatever," Dusty muttered.
"When Benny says to you 'Dustin, I want you to tell me exactly what happened' what are you going to say?"
Ray gave a tolerable impression of his partner and the boy giggled.
"No, really, what are you going to tell him?" Ray pressed.
There was a pause before the child said, "I don't remember."
"You don't remember what your story is?"
"No, man. I don't remember who beat me up."
Ray pulled up to a red light and took the opportunity to look at the boy beside him. Slight, but wiry. Hair in his eyes. At once street-wise and innocent. The boy's no dummy, Ray thought as he looked over the boy who was peering back at him through scraggly bangs. He's knows he's safe as long as he doesn't squeal. He's been around.
"Well, if that's your story I guess you'll have to stick to it. But it's pretty lame," Ray opined.
Dusty considered this. "I'll say they hit me in the head and I lost my memory." He looked to Ray for confirmation.
"He'll never buy it. But if you stick to your guns I suppose he'll have to lay off eventually."
This has to be the last time I ever take sides with him against Benny, Ray thought. We got to present a united front. But if Benny finds out the truth there'll be hell to pay.
"It'll help if you say you're sorry," Ray went on.
"Like, I should bullshit him?"
Ray sighed. "No, you should BE sorry."
"And one more thing, Dusty. Language. Benny doesn't like swear words. Use them at home and you'll get a lecture that you really don't want to sit through. Okay?"
Poor Dusty. I guess he didn't take me seriously when I warned him not to cuss in front of Benny. Well, he's getting the lecture now, Ray thought as he watched the boy who squirmed as he lolled on the living room floor. Benton had been at him for half an hour already and was showing no signs of easing off.
Dusty, as his culminating tactical error of an eventful day, had described his teacher as a 'cunt' when relating his version of the day's events to Benton over dinner. Ray's warning in the car had been tossed off too casually to make an impression on the distractible Dusty and the boy was now reaping what he had sown.
" . . . and can you believe that word wasn't considered the least bit profane, even as late as the 14th century." The Mountie was enjoying himself hugely. The lesson on the history of bad language throughout the ages would last until bedtime and Ray was sure it would serve as a better deterrent to future foul mouthing than any scolding or punishment either man could have dreamed up.
Later that night, Benton lay on his back on his and Ray's queen-sized bed, with his arms crossed under his head and watched Ray get into his pajamas.
"You stayed so slim," the Mountie observed. "I can't believe how out of shape I've become."
"I like you all squishy," Ray got onto the bed beside him and snuggled his head on his partner's chest.
"It's not healthy, Ray. I bet I couldn't survive in the wild now if I tried."
Ray sat up and reached for the topmost button of Benton's long johns to unbutton it. "Who's asking you to try? You're a city mouse now."
"Ray, wait!" Benton took hold of Ray's hands and lifted them away.
"We can't do anything tonight. Dustin's just on the other side of that wall," Benton continued, barely audibly.
"Yeah. That's where his room is. So?"
"Shhh, lower your voice. He's standing right beside the wall between these two rooms, with his ear against a glass, listening to us."
"What? Why, the little . . . How'd you figure that out?" Ray dropped his own voice very low.
"I haven't lost my hearing, Ray. I can hear him breathing. And, just to be sure I looked at the wall in his room. Last night, Sunday night and tonight, he asked for a glass of milk to take into his room at bedtime."
"So, he did. I didn't think anything of it."
"I did. I looked in his room earlier and saw the milk stains on the wall where he's been holding the glass against it. If he holds true to pattern, he'll listen at the wall again tonight until he thinks we've gone to sleep."
"He wants to listen to us 'get it on'," Ray declared, still in a whisper.
"I think that's understandable, Ray."
"Well then let's give the little snoop something to listen to," Ray pounced again on the buttons of Benton's long johns.
Again, Benton pushed him away. "Ray!"
"Okay, okay, I'll be quiet. See, I'm not saying a word," and with this Ray kissed Benton on the mouth, only to be pushed off once again.
"Ray, this is a critical time in our relationship with the boy. For the time being I think we should refrain from sex."
"What!" Ray cried out and Benton shushed him.
"Parents have sex." Ray pointed out. "That's a fact of life. We're his parents. He's has to get used to it like all kids do."
"I never had to," Benton countered, haughtily.
"Your grandparents were old. Doesn't count."
"Ray, it should only be for a short time. Once he realizes he isn't hearing anything interesting he'll give up listening and go right to sleep. Until then, I think we shouldn't you know at least when he's home.
"Well, of all the . . ." Ray groused, and flung himself onto his back on the bed beside Benton. "I know one kid who's going to be sleeping over at his Aunt Frannie's a whooooole lot from now on."
After a pause, Benton said, soberly, "We'd better let things settle down between him and Arturo first. They're going to see each other every morning and afternoon on school days when they all go to school together. Arturo probably won't bother him again, but it's not fair to expose Dustin to more danger than is necessary."
"Oh, you figured that part out."
"I met the Gondolfi family a few times at the house. I may be losing muscle tone in my old age, but I'm not losing my deductive abilities, Ray. The thing is, what happened today just confirms the research I've been doing about Attention Deficit Disorder. Dustin only acted up after he first became bored, am I right?"
"That's what it seems like."
"Which only goes to show that he needs to be worked with closely to keep him focused. A.D.D. children are easily distracted. But, they can stick with their assigned tasks when someone works one-on-one with them to direct their attention. He'll go with the teacher's aides from now on, I would think. Arturo will see to that if the school authorities can't. And starting tomorrow I'll work with him on his homework. I suspect Dustin will prove to be very intelligent if we can just keep his attention from wandering."
The next morning, while Dusty was out of earshot in the bathroom, Ray and Benton discussed the wisdom of taking him back to the Vecchio's house to walk with Artie to school. Ray argued that as long as Dusty refused to identify who his attacker had been, he would be safe from Artie. Ray was right. Dusty had sufficient playground smarts to know that it was in his best interests not to name his assailants.
The morning started out with Dusty and Artie eyeing each other warily, each wondering if the other would make public mention of the events of the day before. When it became clear to Artie that Dusty was going to keep mum and when it became clear to Dusty that Artie appreciated that reticence, they relaxed with each other and by the end of the day there was no more tension between them. Artie respected the smaller boy for not tattling and after a few days became Dusty's buddy and defender.
As Ray and Benton did, Francesca and her mother also deduced what had happened. This raised the delicate question of whether Artie should be punished. Francesca was left in an awkward position. She hated to let Artie get away with beating up his foster cousin, but Dusty's silence protected Artie. Her son already had a problem with bullying and this one incident, Francesca sadly concluded, wouldn't have a great influence on this tendency one way or another. Artie's belligerence was a long-term problem.
Dusty was distractible but not stupid. The drubbing he received at the hands of his foster cousin taught him a valuable lesson and he took it to heart. Any woman at St. Monica's might end up being the mother of a fellow pupil and the fellow pupil might be larger and stronger than Dusty himself. The boy determined to be extremely polite to all the adults, just in case.
This resulted in Dusty finding himself in paradoxical situation. Unable to concentrate for long, he lost interest in class work, interrupted and wandered around the classroom just as he had done in his previous schools. But he was verbally so sweet and accommodating, and went out of the classroom with the teachers' aides so obligingly, that he developed a reputation as a 'good child'. This was a novelty. For as long as he had ever been in school he had been unable to sit still and remain quiet, earning himself the label of a bad kid. He adopted a bad kid's persona acting out, cursing, outright disobedience. But at St. Monica's he couldn't maintain his defiant attitude and remain excruciatingly polite at the same time.
Politeness won out, also, because it was reinforced at home. When Dusty first learned his new foster parents would be two men police officers at that he looked forward to a rough and tumble, earthy home life. A few days with Benton and Ray showed him this would not be the case. Benton rarely raised his voice and his politeness bordered on comical. Ray had a stereotypical Italian temper but years of living with Benton had taken the edge off his vocabulary. When he lost control, shouted or cursed, he perfunctorily ended the outbreak with "Sorry, Benny." After a few weeks with Dusty in the house he elongated that to "Sorry, Benny. Sorry, Dusty", implying that Dusty was just another innately polite person in front of whom Ray had to behave.
Life with Benton and Ray fell into a pattern. Weekday mornings they rose early and Dusty endured a healthy but uninteresting breakfast. Then he was driven to the Vecchio home and dropped off there for a second, more sugary feeding by Nona before walking to school with Francesca's six children as escort. After school they all walked back home together. Upon arrival they were all fed once again and then the Vecchio children did their homework.
In this, there was a bit of adjustment to be made. Nona and Francesca always insisted that homework be done right after school but Dusty was unable to concentrate when left to his own devices and there was no one available at that hour to sit with him. It had been established that Dusty did his homework after dinner back at Ray and Benton's apartment with Benton sitting at the other side of the kitchen table, alternately doing Consular paperwork of his own and talking to Dusty to keep him focused. This worked well enough for Dusty but posed a problem in discipline for the Vecchio children why did they have to do their homework right after school while Dusty did not?
Nona resolved that issue by recruiting Dusty for cooking while the other children studied. Just as Benton had suspected from his online research about A.D.D. children, Dusty was able to work for longer periods of time when he had one-on-one attention from some one else to keep him from wandering. Nona kept up a steady stream of chatter (no hardship at all for her) as she taught him to boil pasta, stir sauce, chop parsley, mix biscuits and grate cheese.
All in all, Dusty's painful lesson at the hands of Artie left him no long-term physical damage but served instead to steer him towards an entirely new way of behaving.
Ray and Dusty had their dinner alone at the apartment cannelloni that Dusty had made himself under Nona's watchful eye. For the fourth night in a row Benton had remained at the consulate into the evening hours for meetings.
Dusty had his eye on the clock: eight . . .eight-fifteen . . . eight-thirty. . . would Benton never come home? Dusty had a book report due the next day and for the last three nights he had been unable to write it without Benton there to move him along. Under the guidance of Mrs. Gondolfi the book had been duly read and Dusty was eager to prove himself by coming up with a top notch book report handed in promptly on the due date something he had been unable to accomplish in his previous schools. Benton's guidance was necessary for the writing but he had been unavailable to Dusty all week, and the boy was getting antsy.
A little after nine thirty, Benton arrived. Dusty didn't notice that Benton looked pale and tired, but Ray had been noticing Benton's condition for the last two weeks, without commenting. Both Ray and Dusty did notice the black satchel Benton had over his shoulder as he entered the apartment.
"That looks like a computer," Ray said as Benton put the object onto the kitchen table.
"I brought my notebook home. There are some reports I have to proofread and I didn't want to stay any longer at the office."
Dusty glanced at the clock. "It's getting late. What about my book report? It's due tomorrow."
Benton was unzipping the computer bag. "We'll work on it while I do these reports," he said absently.
"Now look, Benny. You started by bring work home from the office. Now you're bringing the office home from the office. You're a public servant. Act like one. Goof off."
Benton ignored him. "We can work in your room," he said to Dusty. "Each of us on our own computer. Won't that be fun?" He led the way to Dusty's room to set up. Dusty and Ray exchanged a look.
"He works late a lot. When I first came he used to stay home at night. I guess he doesn't like doing homework with me anymore," the boy said, sadly.
In answer, Ray shouted "Benny! Front and centre. Leave the infernal machine behind."
Benton emerged from Dusty's room, empty-handed, as Ray had requested.
"You're traumatizing this kid. He thinks you work late at the Consulate so as not to have to spend time with him."
"That's just silly, Dustin," Benton pronounced. He bent down to take the boy by the shoulders and steer him towards a kitchen chair, then sat down with him. "I'm short handed at the Consulate. My deputy is on maternity leave and Ottawa won't send down a replacement. I'm swamped with meetings. What else? The FBI is more paranoid than ever. They want three times the paperwork I used to give them for any joint project. On top of all that, Constable Parker can't compose a clear sentence to save his life. I have to redo everything he writes."
"It's tough being a cop," Ray said, dropping onto another chair to join them.
"You guys don't do any real cop stuff," Dusty complained, "You don't shoot people or chase bad guys or nothing."
At a sharp look from Benton, Dusty corrected himself Or anything.
"If we got shot, who'd take care of you? Come, to work," Benton told the boy firmly, rising from his chair. He stopped, winced and rubbed his upper arm.
"Maybe you should relax a little first. Have some of Dusty's cannelloni, said Ray.
"After we finish our work. Im really not hungry, Ray.
"You look worn out, Benny," Ray tried again, "You could go to bed and we'll write Dusty a note for his book report. Mrs. Marcotti will let him hand it in on Monday if we ask nicely."
Benton caught the look of alarm on Dusty's face. "I think it is a matter of pride for us to finish our book report and submit it on schedule. Duty calls, eh Dusty?"
"You may be right that I'm overdoing it," Benton said to Ray much later as they were preparing for bed.
"Did I say that?"
"When I used to patrol the north I never remember being as worn out as I am now."
"Riding a desk wears you out worse than riding a dog sled."
"Do I look very bad?" the Mountie asked.
"There's a mirror."
"No thanks, it's too depressing. These days when I look in the mirror I see a middle-aged grey-haired bureaucrat looking back at me."
"At least you still got hair. Benny, you need to take some time off. I'll write you a note to give to the Queen so she'll let you take a vacation."
"It's not a good time, Ray."
"We could take Dusty up north."
"In the summer, perhaps."
"How about if I do Dusty's homework for a little while to give you a break."
"Ray, you're missing the whole point. I don't do Dustin's homework for him. I keep him working on his own homework by giving him constant direction. He does the work himself I only provide him the means."
"And I can't?" Ray asked.
"You don't have the patience, Ray."
"That falls short of being a compliment."
"It wasn't meant to be. Only a statement of fact."
"Doesn't Dusty have to learn to do stuff himself some day?"
"Perhaps. But not today. Or this week. Perhaps not even this year. He has many years of bad experiences at school to overcome."
"Like you'll live out the year," Ray muttered. "Benny, this isn't about Dusty. You're fooling yourself if you think that. This is about you. Remember what we talked about before he came how you couldn't take it if a kid of ours was a delinquent? This is about sticking with him every minute of the day because if he misbehaves you wouldn't be able to deal with it."
"Ray, there are techniques that A.D.D. sufferers can use to keep themselves functional. I've read up on this. At the right time we'll introduce them into Dustin's routine. But for the time being, he needs is a long period of time experiencing success at school and at home to give him confidence."
"Hey, remember who you're talking to here. I know you. You need Dusty to be perfect and he's going to be perfect if you have to kill yourself to get him that way."
"Ray, lower your voice, he'll hear you."
"Good! He'll hear his parents fighting. That's normal."
Benton opened his mouth to answer but Ray forestalled him, "I know, I know, your grandparents didn't fight. Dusty doesn't have old missionaries raising him like you did. He's got one father that's Italian and that means he hears yelling in the house."
Dusty's homework for the evening was done, packed into his backpack and the backpack rested in the vestibule by the front door. Pinned to a corkboard set up on the wall beside the door was a note, in Dusty's handwriting, to remind the boy of all the things to have in his backpack before going out the door the next morning. There was a checkmark beside each of: science homework, geography project, memory stick, pencil case, wallet, library book. Lunch and snack remained as yet unticked. Benton had initiated this nighttime ritual of loading the backpack with all that was required for the next day and ticking off the items once packed (all but the perishables that would be loaded just prior to leaving). For the last month, Dusty had been having the heady experience getting through entire days without having to do without a forgotten item or explain to his teacher why anything was missing.
With Dusty's homework completed to Benton's satisfaction and the supper dishes long since dealt with by Ray while they were at it, the household settled into pre-bedtime, post-homework mode with all three of them sitting down in front of glowing screens. Dusty retired to his own bedroom to work on a Vecchio family website he was helping Artie put together. In the living room, Ray snapped in a cassette of a basketball game he had taped while at work. Beside him on the couch was Benton, not watching the game, but tapping away at the notebook on his lap. Between them was a bowl of popcorn.
"I shouldn't really be eating this," Benton said, absently, as he dropped a few kernels into his mouth.
"Getting sloppy in your old age, Benny? Butter all over the keyboard?"
Benton sighed. "No, I mean I really should watch the snacking. I'm getting so soft."
"We don't get enough exercise. I ride a desk. You ride a desk. Dusty's right. We don't go running around after bad guys anymore. You don't even stand outside the door like you used to."
"Nobody stands outside the door as I used to. It never was a good idea and I'm glad I did away with it." All the years that Benton had been Deputy Liaison Officer he'd been required to spend hours a week standing immobile outside the consulate door. First Inspector Moffat and then Inspector Thatcher after him had believed it enhanced the image of the consulate to have an officer in red serge standing like a palace guard by the entrance. Benton endeared himself to his staff by discontinuing the custom on his first day as Chief Liaison Officer.
"But you did look kind of hot standing there. I used to love to drive up in front of the Consulate and look at you." He reached for Benton's hand. "Dusty's going to be in his room for a long time. He's stuck on that computer. Don't you think we could go into the bedroom for just a little while? He won't hear anything, he's got headphones."
Benton squeezed his lover's hand, then released it and placed both his own hands back on his keyboard. "I need to finish these review notes for tomorrow."
"Take a break."
"Ray, we've discussed this."
"No, we didn't ever discuss it. You just announced it. No sex while Dusty's in the house. Except he's always in the house because you never leave him alone."
"I stay with him to keep him focused. You know what happens when he isn't supervised.We're parents now, Ray."
"Yeah, well I'm not buying it anymore. Just because I'm a parent doesn't mean I have to go the rest of my life without being able to . . ."
Dusty's voice interrupted Ray's nascent tirade. "Fuck!" He continued to rant in his room, and Benton breathed, "Oh dear."
Setting his computer aside on the couch, he rose and went towards Dusty's room. With a quiet curse of his own, Ray got off the couch and followed. They found Dusty seated at his computer, the apparent source of his displeasure was the index page of the Vecchio family website.
"This bites! I'm not doing this anymore! Everything I do goes wrong!" Dusty lapsed into normal language for this brief series of statements and then went on describing the situation in more colourful terms.
"Don't talk like that, Dustin" Benton said, sternly.
"Oh, yeah yeah. I know I was swearing."
"Benny means you shouldn't keep saying everything you do goes wrong. You're doing great at sticking with stuff. You've been at the computer working for more than half an hour and I bet you didn't even switch over to your games once, did you?"
"I didn't but I'm going to. This is just stupid. It won't save. It's all crap."
Ray squatted down beside Dusty so that his head was level with the boy's and they were looking at the screen from the same angle. Benton watched from behind.
"What do you mean it won't save? Show me," said Ray.
With a quick backward look at Benton first, Dusty described his computer problem. Ray was the one being sympathetic and had asked the question, but Dusty knew it was Benton that would have the computer expertise to help him if either man could.
"This is the index page of Artie's site. Here's where I put a link to a picture of Aunt Frannie. See?" He touched the screen to show a line of html coding. Benton recognized the layout of a common free website software. He was about to protest against putting Dusty's putting his finger on the screen but refrained.
"And it looks fine when I test like this." With a few keystrokes, Dusty demonstrated. Then he exited the software and went back into the site from a search engine. "Now look! The link's not there. I put it in and I saved it and it looks like it's there. Then we go back in I don't see it. It's all gone. I'm not doing this anymore. It doesn't work."
Ray turned and looked up to Benton for input.
"It's not gone, Dusty. And it's not stupid. It just needs cleaning."
"Yeah, yeah, I put my fingers on the screen."
"No, I mean you have to clean your cache. The browser remembers sites you've been on before and brings you back to them. When you call up the web page, the system goes to the version you were looking at before, because that's what it has stored. If we go over to another computer you'll see the new version."
Dusty popped up to run over to Benton and Ray's room, but Benton pressed him back down. "Cache comes from the French cacher, meaning to hide. In the north we would hide supplies . . ."
"Computer lesson now. Language lesson later."
"Thank you," Dusty mouthed silently.
"Very well. I'll show you how to clear your cache. Then you'll see the most recent version of the site. The one you just saved."
Dusty tried to slide out of his seat yet again, to allow Benton to sit in front of the computer. Again Benton pressed him back down.
"Open this list here," Benton said, pointing but not touching the screen. He bent closer to look at the screen over Dusty's shoulder while the boy followed his instruction.
Benton peered at the screen then said, briefly, "Dustin, would you leave me and Ray alone for a few minutes, please."
"What? This is my room. I want to see what you're doing."
"I know it's your room. Ray and I gave it to you. Go and do something else for a few minutes, please."
Dusty looked to Ray, who inclined his head towards the door. Grumbling, Dusty left the room and slammed the door. Benton took his place at the computer.
"What gives, Benny?" Ray whispered, impressed that Benton hadn't reacted to the door slam.
Without speaking, Benton opened a word processing program and typed a sentence for Ray to read. Then he placed a finger to his lips to enjoin Ray to silence. Ray understood. Dusty was most likely listening at door. Ray read the sentence.
I want you to see some of the websites Dusty has been visiting before we wipe out the history.
Benton re-opened the part of the screen that showed a list of recently visited web addresses. Ray touched the screen with his finger, to verify that he was looking at the area Benton had in mind. Benton slapped his hand away. He waited until Ray had taken in the names of the sites, all of which seemed to indicate pornographic content.
Then, Benton accessed one. Naked women in the most suggestive of poses filled the screen. He closed it and opened another. The pictures here were of men and women who had gone beyond the stage of suggestion. Benton opened porn site after porn site, while Ray looked on. Then he brought back the word processor and typed.
What do you make of these?
Ray typed a response.
Our little boy is growing up.
It's no big deal. You were a kid once. I didn't think you were till you showed me a picture, but it looks like you were a kid once.
Benton raised his eyes silently in appeal to the Heavens then typed.
Mrs. Cardinal told us that Dustin was questioning his sexual orientation. All these sites are heterosexual.
You're right. No question about what he's looking at.
I always thought Dusty was too young to be considering such things. Should we talk to him about it?
Instead of typing, Ray shook his head. Benton looked questioning at him.
Not we. Me.
Trust me on this.
Benton nodded, then shut down the word processor and went to get Dusty back.
Ray didn't have to wait long for an opportunity to be alone with Dusty. Benton worked late at the consulate again the very next night. Ray and Dusty stayed for dinner at the Vecchio house, then drove home by themselves. Ray was finding that the enclosed space of the car was an effective place for a tκte-ΰ-tκte with his foster son, since there were fewer distractions and the boy was out of range of the blandishments of television set and computer.
"So I guess you're wondering why Benny sent you out of the room last night."
Dusty needed a moment to remember what Ray was talking about. Ray could actually see the boy's expression change as he thought back to the previous night then suddenly the penny dropped.
"Oh yeah, I forgot about that. So what was it all about?"
"When we went into your cache we could see well, Benny could see I wouldn't have thought to look some of the sites you've been on these days. The porn, I mean."
Ray was pleased that the boy didn't try to deny anything, after having been caught out. "Aw, geez, Ray. All the guys do it." He seemed genuinely embarrassed. Ray found that all the more endearing. "Was Benton mad?"
"No, not mad. He was young once too, you know. And so was I. We didn't have the net when I was a kid. We used to have to sneak magazines. That was tough, let me tell you. My old man used to keep . . ." Ray caught himself wandering off topic. "No, Benny wasn't mad. But he was curious, and so was I."
"Curious? Why? You told me you used to be married. You could see anything you want any time, right?"
Ray refrained from chuckling. "I mean we noticed you only seemed to be looking at women."
"Well, sure. What else would I look at?"
Ray cleared his throat. "Well, uh, guys."
Without missing a beat, Dusty blurted out "Ewwwwww!"
"You think that's pretty disgusting, eh?"
Dusty became contrite. "I guess you don't think it's disgusting, being gay and all. Except, I don't really think about you and Benton being gay anymore. You don't, like, act gay or anything."
"You think it's all kind of gross, don't you."
"Hmm." The boy grunted careful acknowledgement.
"Which brings me to what we were curious about. One of the reasons you got sent to live with us is somebody thought you weren't sure about your - let's say orientation - if you know what I mean. They thought it would be good for you to see two guys in a stable relationship."
"Somebody said I was gay?" The boy's sudden outrage seemed genuine. "Who said that?"
"According to Mrs. Cardinal, you said that."
For the second time in the car ride, Dusty had to think back to reconstruct past events. Finally he said, sheepishly, "Oh, yeah. I did tell her that. But I was just yanking her chain. I always thought she gave me to you and Benton because you were cops and I'm a problem kid."
"But Dusty, you hardly ever lie. Why would you say something like that to Mrs. Cardinal?"
"All the kids tell the Red Bird stories. It's fun. She believes just about everything we tell her."
This made sense to Ray. He'd been a twelve-year-old boy himself and knew that no child of that age would willingly admit to homosexual leanings. But the urge to freak out an older authority figure, that he understood very well. This explained the mystery, but he certainly wasn't going to condone this kind of treatment of Mrs. Cardinal. He respected and liked her.
"It's cruel. Lorraine Cardinal is my friend. Not hang-around friend but a work friend. She's a decent lady and I like her.'
Dusty sat in chastened silence for a time before answering. "That's what she said about you too. She said you were her friend and I ought to be nice to you. I have been nice, haven't I, Ray?"
Ray couldn't hug the boy while driving, but some gesture of affection was needed. Ruffling the child's hair would have to suffice, so Ray did that.
The turned into the garage and Ray parked. As they walked towards the elevator Ray remembered there was something left over from the conversation that hadn't yet been resolved. "What was that you called Mrs. Cardinal? Red Something?"
"Red Bird. All the kids call her that."
"Uh, I don't know. It's what the kids in the group home call her."
"I bet I know why," Ray said. "I'll show you when we get inside."
Once they were in the apartment, they went to Dusty's room where he fired up his computer and, at Ray's instruction, called up a search engine. Ray took over and after a brief search he found up a close up photograph of a bird with bright red feathers.
"Here, look at this."
"It's a bird. So?"
"It's red. This kind of bird has bright red plumage. It's called a cardinal. Because human cardinals wear red robes."
"Human Cardinal. That some kind of super-hero or something?"
Ray sighed. "Cardinals are very high officials in the Catholic Church. One step down from the Pope. Really big shots."
"Oh, I get it. Cardinal. Red bird. Ray, I like it when you teach me stuff."
Ray noted the inflection when YOU teach me. The kid couldn't be faulted for a comment like that. Benny would have lectured him about ornithology for God knows how long. Ray changed the subject.
"I'd like you to be respectful to Mrs. Cardinal, Dusty. She likes you, you know. She wanted you to have the best possible father," Ray grinned, "which is me, by the way."
Dusty smiled back. "You like me, don't you Ray?"
"What do you think?" Ray was now enjoying himself hugely. This was the kind of sweet moment he'd imagined having between himself and a child of his own. He scooped Dusty up into his arms and clutched him in a bear hug.
Dusty's next words destroyed the mood for Ray entirely.
"Benton doesn't like me."
Ray dropped Dusty onto the bed, and then stood back, shocked. "How can you say that?"
"He doesn't like me," Dusty repeated.
"Are you kidding? Benny spends every waking minute with you."
"We're always studying or doing homework or talking about something to make me be good. He doesn't spend time with me because he likes me, Ray. He has to keep talking to me all the time so I won't be bad."
Ray dropped down on the edge of the bed beside Dusty. The boy's assessment of the Mountie's behaviour was a little too close to the truth for Ray to deny outright. "Benny likes you. He just has trouble showing it. I'll tell you a story about Benny and his own dad. We were hiding in this safe house protecting a witness: There was me, and the witness and Benny and Benny's dad and while I was out checking the area the two of them were talking about their relationship."
(Ray refrained from mentioning that at the time, Benton's father had actually been dead for a year and Benton had this heart-to-heart with a ghost.)
"Benny actually told me about this years after it happened. He told his father that he loved him more than anybody but he never, ever could say it. You know what Benny's father said? He said 'If you had said that, I'd have hit you.' You see how that kind of thing could mess somebody up."
The boy was unimpressed. "If you say so, Ray. Can I play my games now?"
"Okay, but if Benny's not home by nine, you'll have to do your homework with ME. Unless you want to try it on your own."
"I'll try it on my own." he slid off his bed and bolted out of the room.
I hate being the go-between, Ray thought, as he got into bed that night and Benton slid in beside him. I wish Benny would talk to the boy himself, instead of just talking at him.
"Dusty thinks you don't like him," Ray blurted out, without preamble.
Benton didn't look surprised. He did turn towards the wall that separated Dusty's room from their own.
"Never mind if he's listening. He already knows he's the one that said it."
Nevertheless, Benton kept his voice low. "It's understandable he might think that, Ray. He sees me as stern and demanding the one who makes him work and study. And he perceives you as the one to romp with. We're still playing good cop bad cop. After all these years nothing much has changed."
"You've changed. The Benton Fraser I first met got along great with children. Seems like every time I turned around you had some little kid under your wing. Made me crazy. But now we've got a child of our own, you're a cold fish."
"Those other children weren't my legal responsibility, Ray. I was just helping them as best I could."
"That's bull. You can show affection. I see you with Maria's and Frannie's kids. You've got a special problem with Dusty."
Benton started to sputter in protest but Ray cut him off.
"We talked about this before Dusty came, but I thought you got over it. Dusty's got problems and you still think it's your personal responsibility to make him behave."
"I think that because it's true. I'm surprised you don't see that, Ray."
"Benny, you can't stand over him his whole life. He's got to learn to cope on his own. He's a decent kid and he's smart. He'll learn to manage. We're not going to be around forever, you know. Especially not you, if you go on at this rate. One of the reasons we got a kid is so that we could enjoy him. You never loosen up and have any fun with Dusty. You lecture. You teach. You plan. You supervise. You can play with the nieces and nephews but you won't just relax and play with Dusty."
"Dustin has plenty of people to play with. I give him structure and focus. You're right. Someday he'll need to manage on his own. That's why we need to help him develop coping skills now, while we still have him under our control."
"Our control! Do you hear yourself?"
"Our influence, then."
"And another thing. Nobody but you and the priest calls him 'Dustin'. You've got to lighten up a little Benny. It'd be healthier for both of you."
"I'll try, Ray." Then, raising his voice, addressing the wall and the boy on the other side. "I said I'll try."
Ray and Dusty were diligently working through their weekday morning porridge. Benton had somehow internalized the belief that children should eat porridge for breakfast and Ray, in the interests of keeping his resolution not to take sides with the boy against his partner, supported the Mountie. But it only seemed right to Ray that he sit down with Dusty and endure the same fare.
Between them, by trial and error, they had managed to come up with a measure of the minimum amount of porridge they could put in Dusty's bowl before Benton objected that it wasn't enough. Before school at the Vecchio house, Dusty was assured of a second, much more palatable breakfast, so the feeding at home became an exercise in how little he could get away with eating.
This morning, Benton's own bowl sat neglected at the table. He was taking longer than usual to dress. As Ray and Dusty were finishing up he finally emerged dressed in red serge.
"Oh yeah, annual review time," Ray remarked casually, surprising Dusty by making no other comment about Benton's bright red tunic, yellow striped jodhpurs and high boots. Benton generally went to work in a business suit.
Benton explained further to Dusty. "Every year an RCMP Inspector comes to Chicago to inspect my operation and perform my annual review. I take the occasion to have my staff wear dress uniform."
Benton was about to sit down to his own porridge, then changed his mind. "I can't eat a bite or I'll bust out of my tunic. I must have put on weight since last year." He picked up his bowl, emptied the porridge in the garbage and put the dish in the sink.
Ray and Dusty exchanged a look. Had they but known Benton was going to eschew his daily porridge, they would have had an excuse not to eat their own. But it was too late now.
"That's a cool uniform," Dusty said, watching Benton as he went to the front vestibule and took a wide-brimmed hat with a leather band from the hall closet.
"Benny used to have to wear that get up every day. When I first met him, he had a permanent hat-line in his forehead. That was fourteen years ago," Ray said.
Dusty tuned out Ray's reminiscences, recalling memories of his own. He thought back to the day Mark and Mrs. Cardinal told him that Benton was a Mountie and showed him a picture of a red-clad man on the cover of the Guardian. Since then Benton hadn't done anything to connect him with the image of a Mountie Dusty had seen in movies and cartoons. "You look like a real Mountie!" Dusty exclaimed.
"I am a real Mountie," Benton said, settling his Stetson onto his head.
"Aren't Mounties supposed to ride horses? How come you don't ride a horse?"
"He used to," Ray said.
Benton stood waiting by the door. While Ray and Dusty put their dishes in the sink and fetched their lunches and jackets in preparation to leave, Ray went on to give a brief account of Benton's daring horseback rescue of Inspector Thatcher years before. "And he rode off with her on the back of his horse just like a knight rescuing a damsel in distress. He was a glorious sight."
Benton, waiting for them by the front door, rolled his eyes.
"She was my commanding officer. I was obliged to see to her safety," Benton said as the three left the apartment.
"Don't let him fool you, Dusty," Ray grinned. "Back then Benny had a thing going with his commanding officer. I used to call her the Dragon Lady."
Dusty came to a halt in the corridor. "With a woman?"
"With a woman," Ray confirmed. "Benny and I were both in thirties before we . . ." Ray looked up and down the hallway before concluding ". . . before we gave up on women."
When his superiors came down from Ottawa, Benton usually stayed late into the evening entertaining them. Ray kept the car in anticipation of once again picking Dusty up alone and the two of them spending the evening wondering when Benton would finally come through the door. At least he might be relaxing a little, not working himself to death, Ray thought from time to time during that day. The brass would expect to be wined and dined. So Ray was surprised when the Mountie called him around 4:00 in the afternoon to let him know that any time Ray wanted to come and pick him up at the Consulate would be fine.
"What happened? Why aren't you staying to make nice with the higher-ups?" Ray was tempted to be happy Benton was coming home but such a change in the annual ritual didn't bode well.
"Inspector Crothers dropped a bit of a bombshell on us all, Ray. He's suggested, and I must say I agree with him, that all the liaison staff be allowed to go home early to digest the news. I offered to take him out for dinner as I usually do, but he declined."
Ray had been slouching lazily at his desk when the phone rang, but at this he jolted upright in his chair. "Benny, what happened?"
"I'd rather discuss it later, Ray. I have some things to attend to. I'm afraid Constable Parker is on the verge of hysteria."
"Okay, Benny. I'll call you from the car when I'm on my way. We'll pick Dusty up right after he comes home from school."
"Fine. I . . ." here the Mountie broke off to address someone else, " . . . of course nothing is going to happen right away. If you need a ride home I can arrange . . . Ray, I'd better go. We'll talk about this when the whole family is together. Call me when you're on your way." With a definitive click, Benton was gone.
Ray decided to backtrack to the Vecchio house to pick up Dusty before driving out to the Canadian Consulate. Dusty wondered why he was being picked up earlier than usual and asked Ray about it as they drove.
"Something happened at the Consulate today. I want us to talk about this a little before we pick Benny up."
"What happened, Ray?"
Ray glanced on and off at Dusty beside him in the front seat as they drove. Despite Nona's constant feeding, the boy was as scrawny as the day he came to them. His bangs had been trimmed at Benton's insistence but they still hung down to Dusty's eyebrows and the child's most conspicuous mannerism was to brush at them up ineffectually. Push as the boy might, the bangs always settled like heavy curtains across the boy's forehead. And he still fidgeted constantly. Ray had been away from active detective duty for some years now, but he still had his investigator's skills. Ray scanned the child's face and body for some physical sign of any change that life with himself and Benton may have had on the boy, trying to see him with a stranger's eyes, as though he didn't see Dusty every day and every night. Despite the lack of outward change, Ray knew that the boy was doing well in school, seldom swore and had given up any attempt to be openly defiant.
Talking to Dusty before Benton got in the car was probably going to be useless. Still, there was no harm in trying.
"He wouldn't tell me, but I know it's not good news. Now, Dusty, you know Benny works at the Canadian Consulate. Do you actually know what a consulate is?"
Dusty was secure enough with Ray to shake his head, causing his sandy bangs to bounce about his forehead.
"It's something like an embassy."
As Ray suspected, the boy's expression remained the same. This information did not enlighten him. "They do official Canadian government stuff there. In the consulate there's a particular department that Benny is in charge of."
"The li-ai-son office," Dusty supplied, pronouncing every syllable to show Ray he could reproduce the word correctly.
"And do you know what that is?"
Dusty only grunted, "Something to do with Mounties, I guess," he muttered, having exhausted his knowledge of Benton's professional responsibilities.
"Benny and his staff don't work with the rest of the diplomats and consulate people. They're part of a department in the RCMP that co-ordinates with our American police the Chicago PD, the FBI, the CIA, the Coast Guard whatever. Whenever the Canadian police and the American police have stuff they need to do together. Dusty, that can get pretty stressful.
Dusty considered this. "That's why he looks all stretched out sometimes."
"All Benny told me so far is that something is going down, but he didn't tell me the details. He wants the whole family to be together when he talks about it. I know it's unfair to ask you to behave but . . ."
Observant as he was, Ray couldn't notice the effect of his words on Dusty. The boy tuned out what Ray was telling him for a while, thinking over these words: he wants the whole family to be together. Ray had said the words casually, but they pounded in Dusty's brain. The whole family. Ray thought of the three of them as a family.
Dusty tuned back into Ray's lecturing in time to hear him say, "And if for just a little while tonight you could maybe try to be quiet. I never bug you about it, do I? But I have a feeling tonight's going to be rough. If you don't settle down just a little, we won't be able to get him to relax. And he's going to need to, Dusty."
All his young life, Dusty had been hearing people talking at him about his behaviour. It was usually a two-part admonishment: if you don't behave, we can't go to the store. You have to be quiet or I can't take you to the movies. If you don't settle down, we'll never get any sleep. Well meaning foster parents, teachers and social workers phrased these things carefully in order to convey to Dusty that what he said and did had consequences. But to Dusty it was only so much nagging. The paired messages never linked in his mind. He knew he couldn't be quiet, couldn't settle down, couldn't fall sleep. All he absorbed was that he was kept from store, or movie, whatever, because he was noisy, jumpy, bad.
Neither Benton nor Ray ever said things like this. As he drove along with Ray, Dusty became conscious of the fact that he actually had the power to affect how Benton would feel. If he were good, Benton would feel better and if he were bad, Benton would feel worse. Adult after adult had, in the final stages of exasperation, had declared that Dusty was driving them crazy, but the words had never signified cause and effect. It was only something grownups said.
Ray was still talking, and at a certain point he demanded "Are you listening to me?"
"Yeah," Dusty lied. He wasn't listening to the actual words but he was absorbing a message. Ray and Benton were his family. If he were bad his family would suffer. Dusty physically cringed under the weight of this awful responsibility. Ray noticed him hunching down suddenly.
"I shouldn't have dumped all this on you. Sorry. Tell you what, let's not cook tonight. Let's pick up some barbeque. Did I ever tell you the story about how me and Benny went around tasting barbeque sauce all over the city? There was this stripper . . ."
When Ray judged they were about five minutes from the consulate he halted his tale, to which Dusty was not listening. Dusty had found the initial reference to a stripper intriguing, but the story failed to be in any way titillating so he quickly tuned out. Ray pulled out his cell phone to alert Benton that they were nearly there.
The Mountie must have been watching on the Consulate's security camera for them to arrive, Ray figured, because as soon as Ray pulled up in front of the building, Benton burst through the heavy gates surrounding the Consulate and poured himself into the back seat of the car with a groan.
Ray sped off. None of them spoke for several blocks. Finally Benton said, "It hasn't been a good day."
Ray turned to give a last look of appeal to Dusty, who vowed silently that he would be good for the rest of the night. No, for the rest of his life. Benton and Ray, who were so sweet to him and called him family, needed him to be good or something very bad would happen to Benton.
There was no predicting what talking style Benton might fall into on any given occasion, Ray had learned after years with the Mountie. In some moods he would lecture in a professorial tone, which Dusty had learned to fear as a punishment worse than a beating. At other times, particularly when in a delicate situation, he would babble. In a stressful moment he might put another person at ease by sharing a tender episode from his own life, telling personal things easily and comfortably. At certain times, Benton clammed up, his jaws clenched bulldog tight to keep any words from escaping to tell what the matter was. Even after ten years as his lover, Ray couldn't predict when one of these times would hit.
This evening was a bulldog evening. Ray wasn't surprised. But silence wasn't going to help the family situation so he pushed.
"Let me guess. They're closing down the liaison office. Everybody's got to go home to Canada," he said as they drove.
He and Dusty waited.
"Not entirely," Benton said, finally. "Headquarters wants to cut back the number of people we keep in the States. According to Inspector Crothers, so much is being done online these days that it's unnecessary to keep too much of a physical presence. It's not the nineties anymore, he says."
"All the liaison offices except Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles are going to be shut down within six months. Inspector Crothers is going to stay in the States, evaluating these last three locations. My people and I may be allowed to stay where we are. We may be redeployed to another American city. We might be recalled to Canada."
"It's going to be a fun six months then, while somebody else decides your fate. This sucks, Benny."
"It does indeed, Ray."
They drove on in silence for a while.
Then Ray said, "The thing is, we always had this hanging over our head. We went into this knowing you probably wouldn't get to stay in Chicago forever."
"I don't think I'd want to stay in Chicago forever. I like to think that some day I'll be home again."
"Well, we always said we'd deal with the situation if and when the time came. We'll figure something out. If I move with you to Canada we could get married."
In front passenger seat, beside Ray, Dusty twitched. Ray and Benton never acted like a couple around him. For all that Dusty ever saw, he might as well be living with two brothers. His foster fathers never acted affectionately in front of him and he had long since given up listening at the wall for the sounds of sex in their bedroom. Hearing Ray speak of marriage was unsettling.
Even more unsettling was the talk about Benton's job. Dusty didn't entirely understand what was going on but it was sounding something like the Mountie might be losing his job. Having a foster parent put out of work was nothing new to the boy. People got laid off, or fired, or they just quit. When that happened people went on unemployment or welfare or they just found money elsewhere: dealing, turning tricks. Rarely did anyone send Dusty back, since foster parents got money for keeping him.
Dusty had been told that the money Ray and Benton were getting for his support was being banked for him in a something called a trust account. He did recall hearing Benton one night declare that he wasn't about to accept money from anyone in order to feed his own son. Dusty knew he wouldn't see a dime until he turned eighteen, so he didn't pay much attention to the details of the arrangement.
But, what was this about moving to Canada? This was nothing Dusty had heard about before. He didn't even have a clear idea of where Canada was. Would they take him along?
Then Benton came out with something even more alarming. "We never did look into whether we would be allowed to take Dustin out of the country. That was a grave oversight on our part, Ray."
"Benny, there's time to talk about this. We don't have to sort it out right now," Ray interposed. He could sense Dusty tensing up. They might have some difficult decisions ahead. No sense in scaring Dusty too much before it was necessary. Benny must be pretty shook up himself to be so blunt in front of the boy, Ray thought.
"Inspector Crothers did have one suggestion, specifically for me. He brought it up while he was doing my performance evaluation. He said it might help me have more choice of postings if the Chicago liaison officer were to be shut down."
"Oh, and you were thinking of telling me about this when, exactly?"
"Please Ray, I've had a lot on my mind. Inspector Crothers says that given my experience, if I were to get a degree in police sciences I'd stand a good chance of promotion to officer rank."
"Geez, you'd surpass your father. Well, I'm here to tell you being an officer isn't so bad. Christ, you might outrank ME one day. Now that would be scary. The RCMP would give you time off to go to school, I take it."
"Sadly, no. I'd have to do it on my own time. It would feel odd to actually go to school."
Dusty hadn't been following much of the conversation but at this he had to interrupt. "You mean feel funny going BACK to school. You went to school when you were a kid."
"Not really, Dustin. When I was in Grade Four my grandparents lived in Inuvik and I was able to go to a school. Most of the time though, I was taught at home. My exams had to be flown in by bush plane."
"You went to Mountie school, though," Ray pointed out.
"True. But in those days RCMP training didn't involve much classroom time."
"So you'll go to school, study, all at the same time while you're figuring out how to dismantle your own department." And raising a problem child, Ray added in his own mind.
"According to the Inspector, Athabasca University is allowing experienced police officers to sit challenge examinations in lieu of taking certain courses. It's one of those 'distance universities'. I wouldn't have to physically attend. It's in Alberta."
"Isn't that just too too high tech? You wouldn't have to go to the school, just kill yourself studying."
"I'm hardly likely to do that, Ray. Dustin and I could study together he for his tests and I for mine." Benton leaned forward as far as his seat belt would allow, in order to be closer to Dusty. "Wouldn't that be fun, Dustin?"
"You're always saying stuff is fun when it's not," griped Dusty, glad to have something tangible to use to express his displeasure with the whole line of conversation. His home with Benton and Ray seemed to be at risk.
"You and Benny can help each other," Ray said, turning to look at Dusty, raising his eyebrows as he stressed the word 'help'. "Stuff's not so stressful when you help each other."
Dusty caught on, reminded of his pledge made only a moment ago, to be very good and to help Ray protect Benton.
Ray was already pulling into the parking garage of the building when he Dusty reminded him he had promised fast food for their dinner that night. "Oh, yeah, Barbeque, wasn't it?"
"I don't think I could digest that, Ray," Benton said weakly.
"It's not for you, it's for me and Dusty. You can have bark tea. Tell you what. You two go on upstairs. I'll go back out and fetch something from Moo-Moo Barbeque. It's just around the corner."
"You could order it in," Dusty suggested.
"Too slow at dinner time. It's faster to pick up. My boy is hungry." Ray turned the vehicle around carefully in the underground garage and headed for the door. Once they were back out and on the street he dropped Benton and Dusty off at the front door of the building then sped off.
Benton lay a comforting hand on Dusty's shoulder. "Don't be too concerned about all this, Dustin. Ray and I will see to it that our family stays together. That's a promise." He ruffled the boy's shaggy sandy locks and they went together into the building.
As far as Dusty knew, Benton never lied and Ray would have been the first to confirm that, if he had been with them instead of circling the block around Moo-Moo Barbeque, looking for a place to park.
Even so, Benton's statement didn't quite reassure Dusty who started imagining all manner of calamitous scenarios while the two of them crossed the lobby and rode up the elevator.
First Dusty pictured the big old building Benton worked in, the one with the security cameras and high iron fence. At the doorway a gang of men all dressed in those red jackets, puffy pants and high boots held Benton by the arms, while Benton struggled to get free. They all tussled for a while and then the largest of the other Mounties counted "one . . . two . . ." At three they heaved Benton out wide wooden doors, laughing raucously when he landed face down on the lawn. "And stay out!" the biggest Mountie called. Benton crawled across the Consulate lawn towards the gate.
More mental pictures formed: Benton tight-lipped, packed a suitcase in the bedroom. With no job in the United States, he had to leave the country. Ray sat in the living room, sobbing. Benton emerged from the bedroom, carrying one suitcase and stopped beside Ray where he sat. The two men exchanged a passionate kiss of the kind Dusty imagined but never saw, and then Benton walked out the door. He wasn't gone more than a few minutes when Ray, sniffing and wiping away tears, retired to his bedroom, pulled a gun out from under his pillow, and blew out his brains rather than live without the man he loved.
No. That wouldn't happen. Benton would not leave Ray. He would take him away to Canada, where all the cold weather came from, leaving Dusty alone, at the mercy of the next set of foster parents. Ray and Benton, dressed in matching fur-lined parkas, trudged through the hip deep snow, icicles hanging from Ray's prominent nose.
Wrong, wrong. Didn't Benton promise they would all three stay together? Yes, but he didn't know whether Dusty would be able to leave the country.
The three of them stood in front of the airport security guards. Timidly, Dusty held out his passport. He had never owned such a document, so in his mind it was a thick sheaf of papers. One of the guards, huge and threatening, leafed through these papers and then extracted one, brandishing it in front of the others. On the paper was printed in heavy black letters: Foster Child Not to Leave the Country. "Take him away," ordered the guard and burly security men dragged Dusty off. Dusty kicked and screamed. Shaking his fists, Ray shouted at them that he was a police captain, and they damned well better bring his son back. But the guards only laughed in derision as they receded with Dusty in tow.
Dusty decided, as he and Benton stepped out of the elevator, that it was his responsibility to prevent these disasters by being good. Had Dusty but shared these thoughts, Benton would have straightened out this twisted thinking, but Dusty held his own counsel, determined not to burden his foster father with any upsetting conversation. They proceeded along the corridor towards their apartment door while Dusty cast about in his mind for just what he had to do to be good.
Benton unlocked the apartment door. Before going inside, Dusty straightened up and made a silent pledge. Once I walk through this door, I'm going to be the best kid in the world.
Benton went in ahead. Behind him, Dusty paused on the threshold, took a deep breath, held it, and then, with great deliberation, took an exaggerated step into the apartment.
After putting his Stetson back in the hall cupboard, Benton spoke to Dusty for the first time since they came into the building. "There's no sense in starting our homework until you've eaten. I think I'll just rest until Ray comes home."
Dusty didn't notice that Benton was rubbing his left arm with his right hand, and that his breathing was irregular as he lowered himself onto the living-room sofa. He did notice that Benton had not gone to his bedroom to change, but instead dropped down for his nap fully dressed in his Mountie get-up. Both acts were out of character as far as Dusty knew the Mountie's behaviour. He always changed his clothes immediately upon coming home and he never flaked out on the couch. This realization reinforced for Dusty that Benton was messed up in some way, as Ray had impressed upon him, and that's Benton health depended upon Dusty's behaviour.
Dusty cast about in his mind for what action he should take at this point in order to qualify as being good. Get out his books and try to study something? No, Benton had said to wait until later. Benton was already spread out on the couch, eyes closed, offering Dusty no hint as to what he should be doing.
Dusty thought of setting the table for dinner. Yes, that was something good to do.
Benton lay with one arm over his eyes, unmoving, while Dusty fetched cutlery, plates and napkins and laid them out on the kitchen table. He knew the right places to put the forks, knives and spoons, having been schooled by Nona in this and many other domestic arts. He was about to call out to Benton to come witness his marvelous achievement, then thought better of disturbing him.
I'll just leave him alone and go play computer games in my room until Ray comes, Dusty decided. Remembering that Benton disliked the pinging, banging and short musical blasts, Dusty closed his bedroom door and fished his earphones out from under a pile of papers and CD's, luxuriating in virtuous feelings as he settled the earpieces on his head. Keep quiet in his room. Leave Benton to sleep undisturbed. Ray will be so proud.
When the crushing chest pains hit Benton, his call to Dusty for help went unheard through the closed door, earphones, and blasting game noises.
With no help coming from Dusty, Benton tried to make it to a telephone on his own, the nearest one being on the other side of the living room beside the front vestibule. But his breath was too short to keep him going and he crumpled halfway there. Ray flung open the apartment door a moment later, bearing a paper sack full of barbequed pork and chicken wings, and found him in on the floor in the middle of the living-room.
First he cried Benton's name and crouched beside him, letting the paper bag drop to the ground. With a policeman's practiced precision he checked for a pulse faint but present and breathing rapid and shallow. Then he flipped open his cell phone to call 911. As soon has he had summoned help, he straightened Benton out on the floor so that he would be in the right position for Ray to administer either mouth-to-mouth or CPR if Benton's breathing or heartbeat stopped before the paramedics arrived.
Only then did his self control slip. He screamed for Dusty, his piercing shriek penetrating the boy's earphones and the noises issuing from them. Hearing his name, Dusty slid off the earphones and came out of his room. The edge of alarm in Ray's voice didn't disturb him at first Ray often yelled.
In the living room he saw Benton stretched out flat and still on the floor with Ray huddled over him. Dusty froze.
"Where were you?" Ray screamed at the boy.
"I . . .I . . . " Dusty stammered.
"Didn't you hear anything? Why didn't you call 911?"
"But I . . ." Dusty tried to explain he had heard nothing at all from his room, but Ray was too out of control to let him speak.
"Four year old kids know how to call 911 and you just leave him here and let him die!"
It was worse than any calamity Dusty had been imagining. Ray was gone only a few minutes and now was Benton lying flat on the floor dead for all that Dusty could gather from across the room. And Ray was saying it was Dusty's own fault. Dusty took Ray's words at face value. He'd killed Benton. Dusty started to tremble and his legs nearly buckled.
"Now you get your ass downstairs to the lobby and hold the elevator for when the paramedics get here. You bring them straight up here. You got that? Is that something you can understand?" Ray fairly growled the instructions. "Wait, pick up that bag first, they might trip over it."
Dusty had to walk past the two men on the floor to get to the bag and the door. He took a couple of steps then stopped, too afraid to come near them.
Dusty held his breath and sidled along past his two foster fathers, one lifeless and ghastly white, the other livid. Still shaking, Dusty put the bag on the telephone table and then ran from the apartment to the elevator, the words "let him die" repeating in his brain.
He rode down to the lobby and stayed in the elevator, his thumb pressed against button to keep the door opened. A neighbour he knew to say hello to, carrying a tiny hairless dog in her arms, came strolling towards the elevator, Emboldened by panic, Dusty told her to go away. "I need this elevator!" he announced. The neighbour sputtered at this apparent insolence and was about to berate the child when two paramedics pulling a stretcher between them bolted into the building.
One of the paramedics was taller than his partner, younger and new on the job. "You waiting for us, kid?" he asked as he and his partner dragged their equipment into the open elevator. Dusty's answer was to jerk a brief nod and punch the button for his own floor. The younger paramedic gave Dusty a slight smile, enough to be encouraging without belittling the seriousness of the situation. "Is it your dad had the heart attack, kid?"
"My foster dad."
"We'll save him, son."
The older paramedic only rolled his eyes. "Fuck, Todd, you can't tell him that! The guy may have already croaked."
"Aw, Jake. I'm just trying to be nice to the kid." To Dusty he said, "Anyway we'll do what we can."
Their talk was cut short by the arrival of the elevator at their floor. The elevator doors slid open and the paramedics pushed out ahead of Dusty. The apartment door was hanging open so they went that way, with Dusty trailing behind feeling that he had added to his failure by not being the one to lead them, as Ray had ordered.
Coming to the opened door, Dusty saw the paramedics already crouched beside Benton while they talked to Ray, all of them speaking in clipped professional tones. There was nothing for him to do here.
He should have known something was wrong and called for help but now it was too late. Waves of horror and guilt seemed to well up and pulse out of the room to break against him where he stood in the doorway. He'd killed Benton. Ray hated him now and why shouldn't he? Now these men the nice one and the rude one - would take Benton away and leave him to endure Ray's anger. Dusty couldn't bear to stand there any longer. He turned and fled back to the elevator.
Ray's attention was focused on Benton. It didn't occur to him to that Dusty would do anything else but return to the apartment and wait. Once Benton was on the stretcher and they were almost ready to leave, it was the well meaning but inexperienced Todd who asked "Is the kid coming in the ambulance with us?"
Only then did Ray look about him and realize Dusty was nowhere to be seen. He yelled for the boy, but Dusty was already out of range of even Ray's loud voice.
"Damn, did you guys see him leave?" he asked Todd and Jake who were making the final adjustments to the straps that held Benton in place.
"Hey, we were kind of busy here, Mac." Jake said, without looking up from his charge.
But Todd, the younger man, glanced around. Then he went to the corridor and called out "Hey, kid!" causing his partner to snarl for him to get the hell back inside, they had to move this dude out right now.
"Are you coming?" Todd asked Ray.
"One sec. I need one sec." Ray tore through the apartment checking each room for Dusty and not finding him. Coming back to the living room he faced a wrenching decision. If he left Benny to be bourn away alone, he might never see him alive again. But to leave a child without knowing where he was and whether he was safe also unthinkable. And if Ray left the house and Dusty came back to find no one there, what would the boy do?
"Time's up, we're moving out," Jake declared, "Todd, get the elevator." Todd left and Jake took hold of the stretcher and started pushing. Ray grabbed his lover's hand for a quick squeeze before motion of the stretcher pulled the hand out of his grasp.
"Hey, what hospital are you going to?" Ray called after them down the corridor.
Jake called back to him the name of the closest emergency department. The elevator door opened. Ray couldn't stand it. "Wait! Wait for me!" he shouted and ran after the stretcher and the paramedics. He left the apartment door open. To hell with possessions, let the door stay opened in case Dusty came back. Thank God he didn't keep a gun in the house anymore. Ray squeezed into the elevator with the stretcher and the paramedics.
Ray was about to explain himself to Jake and Todd but thought better of it. What was there to say, really? He'd made his choice. Dusty was a street-wise kid, he told himself. As they rode down he called the Vecchio house on the cell phone he had returned to his pocket without thinking about it after calling 911. Somebody be home. Be home, Ma. Please be home. Or Frannie. Anybody. Be home.
Francesca answered and Ray shuddered with relief. All the while that Benton was being loaded into the ambulance Ray recited what had happened as briskly as he could to his sister.
Then he listened to her response while climbing into the ambulance. "You stay with Fraszh, Bro," she told him. "We'll cover it. Ma'll stay home in case Dusty comes here. I'll wait at your place. We'll send Tony and Maria and the kids out looking for him." Francesca then rattled off the names of neighbours and relatives she intended to enlist in the search. "Do you want me to call the station?" she concluded.
Benton was now inside and Ray climbed into the back with him. Todd was in the front seat ready to drive away and Jake remained with the patient in the back.
"You'll have to get off the phone," Jake told Ray.
"Hey, I know your kid's missing but the phone could interfere with the equipment."
"No, don't call the station yet. It's too soon. I'll tell you when," Ray told to his sister.
"Get me the number of that social worker. She might know where Dusty would go." Francesca said.
"You want to talk on the phone or you want me to keep your buddy alive?" Jake insisted.
The ambulance sped off, sirens whining.
"I'll call you back with the number," Ray screamed into the cell phone over the noise and hung up.
Dusty danced impatiently while the elevator brought him down to the lobby, then dashed out through the front doors of the apartment building. When he hit the sidewalk he skidded to a halt. Until that instant all he could think of was getting away, now he faced the problem of where he might run to. Still unclear on the exact nature of his misdeed, but reeling from its enormity, he faced the necessity of choosing a direction, forming a plan. Only briefly did it flicker into Dusty's mind that he hadn't actually done anything to Benton. He had been in his own room and couldn't hear anything. The thought was over-ridden by Ray's vehement exclamation that Dusty should have prevented whatever had happened.
A calm, mature person would have perceived the flaw in Ray's logic but Dusty could not be described in those terms even at the best of times. What he did know, and had known for some years now, was that he was bad, that he caused other people problems.
Where could he go? Turning to the right would point him in the direction of the Vecchio house. How warm and sweet and safe it would be to nestle in Nona's soft bosom. He gauged the time it might take him to get there by foot. An hour perhaps if he ran. No, don't even think about that, he told himself. What welcome could he hope to have in that house after causing the death of the man they all loved?
Turning left and going about a dozen blocks would bring him to a mall. He could hang out there for days. He'd done that in other malls when he'd run away before. There was always plenty of discarded food to scoop out of the trash, perfectly good if you grabbed it before it got covered with other garbage, and places to hide from the security guards late at night.
The thought of prowling about the mall all alone didn't appeal. Dusty yearned instinctively for human contact, people to support him. The group home. Standing outside the apartment, shivering a little in Chicago's brisk wind and ignoring the blaring traffic that went by, he thought about the friends he'd left behind. Mark, the chief worker, was someone he could trust. Dusty remembered that he had been happier at the group home than he had been in any other place he could remember before coming to live with Benton and Ray. But there was a problem. He knew the address but had no clue how to get there, even if he had any money in his pocket for a bus which he didn't.
Oh well. There were ways to get around the city without money that he'd heard about from kids at group homes. He'd never considered using them himself but this was an emergency.
Dusty stepped close to the edge of the sidewalk, nearly in the street and scanned the traffic looking for a free taxi. Three passed by and each time the boy was too scared to raise his hand to hail it. You have to either get one of those cabs or go back in the apartment, Dusty told himself. He straightened his skinny frame and clenched his small fists in determination. Lips pressed tightly together, he stared through his sandy bangs into street and when the next taxicab passed he thrust his arm out, hand still balled into a fist.
To Dusty's surprise the cab actually pulled up to the curb beside him. He'd half expected to be ignored because he was only a kid. Dusty paused, not sure if he was supposed to open the door of the cab himself, and if so the front or back door, or whether the cabbie would do it. He'd never been in a taxi before and whenever he had seen people get into taxis on television he'd never paid attention to such details. The problem was solved by the cab driver who reached over and pushed the front passenger door open.
Dusty remained on the curb, studying the driver. The arm that had stretched out to open the door was chunky and covered with coarse black hair. The man wore short sleeves that showed his arms. His watch was huge and shiny. The glint of it distracted Dusty momentarily.
"Well?" came a gruff, low voice and Dusty was jolted back to his present situation. The man's face was as thick and puffy as his arm. The inside of the cab smelled a little stale but not exactly bad. Dusty was still unsure where he was supposed to sit, but the front door was open in his face so he slipped inside the cab.
"You by yourself, kid? Or are we waiting for your mommy?" asked the driver. Dusty couldn't make out his attitude. But at least he wasn't throwing Dusty out of the vehicle.
"I don't have one. I've got two dads," Dusty blurted out.
"Uh hunh, so are they coming?" said the driver.
"No, I'm by myself," Dusty said, tentatively. His friend, Toby, from the group home was the one who had boasted of knowing how to get cab drivers to take you wherever you wanted and described the procedure in detail for the edification of his admiring friends. Dusty knew the group home's street address. While he didn't know how to get there, he figured that cab drivers knew where all the streets were. They always seemed to know on TV how to get from one place to another without any help.
"Well?" the driver repeated, patiently.
Dusty took a breath and began "I don't have any money."
The boy summoned all his courage and, fixing his eyes on the big, shiny watch, he blurted out "But I'll blow you if you take me to 335 East Lake."
Having pronounced the momentous words, Dusty waited, fearing what would happen next. He had a vague notion of what would be involved in keeping his part of the bargain, but was too unnerved to think much past the immediate moment. Toby's description had been quite graphic and Dusty and the other children had taken his story at face value, given that Toby was known to have lived for months on the streets.
The hand on the same arm as the shiny watch drummed its fingers on the steering wheel. Then more words came out of the puffy face, soft words that Dusty had to strain to hear.
"That where your dads are?"
Dusty hadn't the guile to latch onto the convenient story. He was used to acting on his impulses, not to thinking through the details necessary for plausible dissembling. "No, I'm running away. East Lake is where I used to live."
The cab driver wasn't moving the vehicle. It seemed to Dusty that something more was needed to get him in motion. Unskilled at deception, he came up with a clumsy lie. "They beat me up."
Apparently this was what was needed. With another "Uh hunh" from the puffy face, the man's hairy arm with the shiny watch slipped from the steering wheel to the gearshift and the taxi moved from the curb back into traffic.
This solved one of Dusty's immediate concerns would he have to blow the driver before or after the drive. Apparently he could postpone it until after.
Dusty noticed no details of the trip. His mind was occupied with rehearsing the mechanics of what he'd have to do to pay for his ride. So many details. Who would do the unzipping? Would the driver pull down his pants or let his dick just hang out. For all the boastful talk of boys his age, he'd seldom actually seen the genitals of a grown man. Would the dick be as hairy as the arm? That would be disgusting. Maybe when the cab stopped he could just run to the front door and get help before having to do anything. This guy was fat. Dusty could run faster than he could.
Not daring to look directly at the driver, Dusty darted glances all around, inside and outside of the cab as they drove along. The driver only addressed him once, to tell Dusty to put on his seatbelt.
The streets started to look familiar. When they turned onto East Lake, Dusty knew exactly where he was. His excitement at being close to home turf was overshadowed by his dread of what he had to do when the taxi stopped. He'd probably get it wrong. He got everything wrong. What would this big man do when he wasn't satisfied with his payment? Knock Dusty around, probably. But maybe it was worth it to get back to the group home. Mark would be there to take care of him. Yes, it was worth it.
The cab pulled up in front of the familiar suburban brick house. The moment of truth had arrived and Dusty could no longer avoid looking at the cab driver. The child turned to look at the man's face and waited for him to make the first move. By now Dusty was figuring that the driver would take the initiative when the time came.
The driver leaned back in his seat and seemed to be studying Dusty. "This the house?" he asked.
Dusty whispered that it was.
To Dusty's surprise, the man opened his own driver's side door and eased his massive bulk from behind the wheel and out of the car. Then he lumbered around the front of the car, came to the passenger side where Dusty was seated and yanked open the car door. He took hold of Dusty's upper arm, his huge hammy hand easily encircling Dusty's thin-boned limb.
"Out of the car," he said, gruffly, easily hauling Dusty out as he said this. There were hedges around the house and Dusty briefly supposed he would be dragged there to do his deed. Involuntarily he shrank away but the move was futile. The driver let Dusty keep his footing but pulled him along up the walk towards the front door. Still grasping Dusty with one hand, he used the other to ring the doorbell.
A young woman opened the door. Dusty didn't know her but she was too old to be a resident. A worker. But one he didn't know. Must have started after Dusty left. Dusty dared to be hopeful now that the driver had brought him towards the house immediately surely he wouldn't ask Dusty to blow him in front of other people. But Dusty had been expecting to see Mark, not some strange woman.
"Can I help you?" the worker said, cautiously but politely. Half a dozen children near to Dusty's age filled up the space behind her.
"Hey, it's Dusty!"
"Lookit! Dusty's back."
A clamour arose and the woman appeared unsure how to proceed. Dusty tried a wriggle to see if he could get free of the driver's grasp and found out it was hopeless. He could have kicked but it didn't seem right to do that. Technically, Dusty was still in this man's debt.
The children behind the female worker shifted position, making room for someone pushing his way through from behind. Mark! He elbowed his way to a position beside the woman's shoulder.
"I'll handle this, Sandy. Dusty? What are you doing here?"
Before Dusty could think of what to say, the cab driver spoke up. "Does this kid belong to you?"
Mark craned his neck to look past the pair on the doorstep, made out the taxicab parked outside, and deduced the profession, if not the identity of the man accompanying the boy.
"Um, yeah sure, driver." Mark dug into his pocket. "Does Dusty owe you anything?"
Dusty shrank where he stood, still in the cab driver's grasp. For the first time since seeing Dusty, the driver smiled, a barest of smirks crossing his lips.
"So you're going to pay me?" Then, to Dusty, "Should I make him pay instead of you, kid?"
Dusty let out an involuntary groan.
"What is this, some kind of home or something?" the driver asked Mark.
"It's a city facility, sir. But we're not open to the public," Mark replied with some formality.
"Well, this kid claims his foster parents beat him up. The city ought to do something about that." So saying, the driver propelled Dusty towards Mark, who caught up the boy in his arms. Dusty clung there, relief washing over him. He was back with someone he knew and the cab driver was letting him go without his having to do anything in exchange.
Mark wrapped Dusty protectively in his own arms. "We intend to, sir," he said, then added, "Are you sure he doesn't owe you anything?"
The driver eyed Dusty who was now weak and trembling from release of tension. Again he smiled, crookedly. "I'll let it go this time. My good deed for the day. You shouldn't ought to be putting kids in foster homes where they get hurt. I ought to call Child Welfare or something."
"We are Child Welfare or something," put in the young woman, now identified to Dusty as Sandy.
The driver reached out his bulging arm again towards Dusty, who shrank away. But all the man did was chuck the boy on the shoulder, saying "Don't go around making offers like that anymore, kid. You'll get into trouble one day."
With a wave at the group in the doorway he waddled off towards his taxicab.
Still hugging Dusty, Mark drew him into the house. Sandy pulled the front door closed.
"We'll talk alone," Mark said, bringing Dusty into the converted bedroom that served as an office and closing the door behind them. From beyond the door could be heard the cries of protest of the other children. Sandy's voice enjoined them to leave Mark and the new arrival alone.
So many changes had come to Dusty through this office. Here he had had his orientation to the group home upon first arriving. In the same room, Mark and Mrs. Cardinal had told him about his new home with the Mountie and the police captain. Dusty didn't want to sit down. It was nicer to just stand there and cling to Mark who was so much shorter than Benton or Ray. When he hugged either of these men he found himself gripping their waists, but with Mark he stood shoulder to shoulder. He'd forgotten how short Mark was. Then he remembered that Ray usually squatted to a kneeling position, to look Dusty straight in the eye whenever he had anything important to say. Dusty tossed his head to try to shake the thought out of his mind. Never again would he kid around with Ray or earn an A on his school project because Benton had helped him. Dusty clung all the tighter to Mark at this horrible thought.
Mark let the boy stay, clutching him in silence, until he seemed ready to talk. Finally Dusty eased away from him, standing a little apart. The child drooped and Mark shifted him towards a chair, then pulled up another chair beside him.
"Tell me what happened," he prompted.
Only then did Dusty start to cry. Mark let the worst of it pass, waiting until he had slowed down to intermittent weak sobs.
At last words leaked out from Dusty between teary gasps. "I tried so hard to be good. And Ray was screaming."
"Dusty, did they hurt you? Did either Captain Vecchio or Constable Fraser touch you?"
"No, no. It wasn't that."
"The cab driver said you said they beat you up."
"I was lying. I just wanted him to take me. I had to run away. I killed Benton. He's dead and it's my fault."
Mark shifted in chair. "Again, please."
"Benton was on the floor!" Dusty wailed. "And Ray said 'You killed him! You killed Benny!'" Dusty no longer remembered Ray's actual words but repeated the accusation as he remembered it, as it had been playing it over and over through his mind.
From beyond the closed door came a child's mocking voice calling "You killed Benny!"
Another voice answered "You bastard!" followed by snickering. Sandy was heard hushing them and ushering them away.
It took some probing and pointed questioning for Mark to get the bare facts out of Dusty. The boy couldn't really know whether or not Constable Fraser was dead, having bolted from the apartment before hearing what the paramedics had to say. Nor did he know to what hospital he would be taken. Dusty hadn't even thought of Benton's being taken to any hospital. He had been harbouring a mental image of his foster father being whisked straight to some morgue and immediately stowed in a metal drawer while Ray and the relatives (who had somehow materialized on the scene) all crowded around, wailing and wringing their hands.
Mark assured him that no matter what Ray or the paramedics thought, Constable Fraser would have to taken to a hospital to be examined by a physician. The only thing leading Dusty to believe that Constable Fraser was dead, Mark pointed out, was Captain Vecchio's angry accusation.
Dusty countered that Ray was a cop and cops were supposed to know if people were dead or not. They always seemed to know on TV, didn't they?
Mark pressed on. Was Captain Vecchio short tempered? Did he ever, in the heat of the moment, say things that weren't literally true? He was and he did, Dusty had to admit.
The hope that the Mountie may yet be in the land of the living calmed the boy a little. Mark decided it was time to ask Dusty a key question.
"Now Dusty, whether Constable Fraser is dead or alive, I guess you would agree Captain Vecchio has a lot to worry about right now."
Dusty did agree.
"So - now listen to me and think about this. Did you help him by running off?"
It was something Dusty hadn't thought of.
"Families are supposed to support each other. Instead of helping, you took off and now Captain Vecchio has to worry about you as well as Constable Fraser. How do you suppose he's feeling right now?"
Dusty shrugged and looked down at the floor.
"Do you like Captain Vecchio?"
Still avoiding Mark's eyes, Dusty nodded vigourously.
"And you didn't stop to think of the consequences to him if you went missing. He's your legal guardian. He's responsible for you."
"I didn't think about that."
"Think about it now. What are you going to do, Dusty? What's the right thing for you to do?"
"Go home, I guess. But, Mark, do I have to go back right away? Couldn't I stay here for a few days? I could just stay in my old room."
"Dusty, you don't have a room here. You live with Captain Vecchio and Constable Fraser. This house is a secure location. Technically, it's against the law for you to even be here now."
Dusty was crestfallen. He digested this information and then said, "I guess I'll have to go home."
"How will you get there? Sandy and I aren't allowed to leave the premises to take you and I can't have you offering sex to a cab driver again."
"I didn't offer him sex. Just a blow job," Dusty protested.
Mark wondered, sadly, if Dusty would ever be able to think through the consequences of his actions. He was so worldly and street wise in some ways and so innocent in others. "Have you got keys?"
"And do you really think Captain Vecchio will be home to let you in?"
"No, he'll be at the hospital with Benton. I guess I sort of messed up, didn't I?" Dusty said sadly.
"Let's start by letting Captain Vecchio know that you're safe and well."
"I'll call his cell. And he can tell me what happened to Benton."
"He'll have his cell phone turned off if he's in a hospital. But you can leave a message that you're okay."
"Right, and I'll leave the number here," Dusty looked hopefully to Mark, "and I'll tell him somebody can come and get me."
"Dusty, you forgot we don't give anybody except the residents and Children and Youth Services workers the phone number or address of this place. I'm going to have to call Mrs. Cardinal."
"Aw geez, Mark, do you have to call the Red Bird?"
"No, I could call the emergency number at CYS and they'll send over whoever's on call tonight. I thought maybe you'd rather deal with Mrs. Cardinal, since she knows you and she likes you. But if you're going to call her names and dump on her, we can certainly arrange to turn you over to a total stranger instead."
Dusty remembered Ray's admonition to treat Mrs. Cardinal with respect. And he certainly would rather go with her than with somebody he didn't know.
"Okay, you can call her."
"I will, but first you have to call Captain Vecchio and leave him a message that you're safe."
He reached over and shoved the telephone across the desk in Dusty's direction. Dusty was feeling dejected. He'd thought of the group home as a haven of safety, but things weren't working out as he had hoped. He reached for the telephone, but it rang before Dusty had a chance to lift it up and dial.
Mark snatched the telephone back and answered "Hello?"
He listened for a moment, then with a look at Dusty, said into the telephone: "Yes, he's here and he's fine."
There was another pause, and Mark said. "Okay, we'll be waiting."
Mark put the telephone down and said "Mrs. Cardinal's way ahead of us. Seems Captain Vecchio's sister called her."
"Aunty Frannie. She sticks her nose in everything."
"Mrs. Cardinal had a hunch you might come back here. She'll going to let this Aunt Frannie of yours know you're all right and leave it to her to tell her brother and all the rest of the family. The Vecchios are all worried about you. A little more than you worry about them, it seems."
"Did the Red . . . Mrs. Cardinal . . . say anything about Benton?"
"No. She's got enough to worry about with you." Mark was being harsh for the effect. He really had no doubt Mrs. Cardinal would get an update from this Aunt Frannie person, it there were any news to be had.
Mark decided it was time to let up, a little. Dusty was a well-meaning kid, and it wasn't his fault that he was impulsive. "So, have you had any dinner tonight?"
Dusty shook his head. "Ray brought barbeque but we never had time to eat it. Is, um, is Tuesday still spaghetti night?"
Mark smiled. "It is, and there's plenty left over. Go on into the kitchen and help yourself. You know where everything is."
Mrs. Cardinal found Dusty in the kitchen, simultaneously slurping up spaghetti and holding court among the young residents of the group home. He had much to tell his friends from the time he was living there as well as plenty of material to impress those who had arrived since he left. The other youngsters noticed Mrs. Cardinal's arrival before Dusty, who had his back to the door. Several called out greetings to her. She responded to them all before fixing her attention on Dusty.
"Finish eating, Dusty. Then come to the office so that you and Mark and I can have a talk," she said sternly.
"Benton. Is he alive?" the boy demanded.
"We'll talk in the office. Finish eating, please."
"I guess I'm done," Dusty muttered. As he knew to be the ritual, Dusty cleared his plate into a large garbage pail, rinsed his plate and utensils and placed them in a plastic bucket to be loaded later with the rest of the dinner dishes into the dishwasher. He and Mrs. Cardinal stopped off at the living room to let Mark know they were ready. Together the three of them went back to the office and Mark closed the door behind them.
"I've spoken to Miss Vecchio. Constable Fraser has suffered a heart attack but seems to have survived it. The doctor has ordered him kept in intensive care overnight and if he remains stable, he'll be transferred to the cardiac unit tomorrow."
Mark and Mrs. Cardinal waited for the news to have its impact on Dusty and for the boy to realize he was not a murderer after all.
"Ray's at the hospital now?" The boy asked, finally.
"Yes. He's planning to stay there overnight unless something else comes up for him to deal with." She looked pointedly at Dusty.
"He'll want to stay with Benton. He won't want to drive out here to get me." The adults were pleased that Dusty was now able to see the issue from Ray's point of view.
"Dusty, remember we talked about this," said Mark.
"Oh yeah. He's not allowed to come here," He looked pleadingly at Mrs. Cardinal. "Couldn't you drop me off at Nona and Aunt Frannie's house? If they're not home, I could go to Aunt Maria's."
Mrs. Cardinal was already aware from preliminary meetings before Dusty went to live with Captain Vecchio and Constable Fraser, that Captain Vecchio had a close extended family. She'd met Francesca Vecchio at Dusty's school and found her to be kind hearted and sincere, a pleasant woman once you got used to her annoying nasal whine. It pleased her to hear Dusty speaking of these people as his own relatives, and that he had so many of them.
"I wish I could, Dusty. But there are regulations. I'm not allowed to release you to anyone's custody except one of your legal guardians."
"I've got an idea. I'll go out to the corner so I'm not actually here anymore and Aunt Frannie can come get me."
"That's an interesting idea." Mrs. Cardinal was amused but didn't let Dusty see it. "Except that you are officially a runaway. I'm obliged to see that regulations are followed. I'll drive you over to the hospital."
"I don't want to see Ray. He'll be mad as hell. He's going to yell at me."
"I wouldn't be at all surprised," Mark put in. "You'll just have to suck it up, Dusty. You're the one who chose to run away." Seeing the boy begin to look scared, he added "And once he's given you proper hell, he'll hug the stuffing out of you. That's how it usually works."
Dusty looked to Mrs. Cardinal for confirmation.
"Believe it or not, that's normal. Come on, let's be on our way."
Dusty used to like riding in the front seat of the car. From there, he could see through the front windshield all around. Also in the front he got the best view of the dashboard. He could watch the dials and gauges move and the hands and feet of the drivers shifting around. And he could control the radio (until the driver invariably told him, angrily, to leave the buttons alone).
Lately, however, Dusty was finding that riding in the front seat, alone with an adult, wasn't as much fun as it used to be. The grown ups with whom he drove recently kept wanting to engage him in serious talks. It was annoying. Dusty had enough to keep straight what with the competing diversions of the view outside, the wavering speedometer and the shifting of the driver's arms and legs. All in all, he'd rather only have the radio going really loud and not have to put up with the jabbering of others in the car.
It was happening again now that Dusty was riding with the Red Bird in her car, on the way to the hospital. He wished she would just shut up. Dusty had already had a difficult day and it wasn't going to get better now that he was on the way to a hospital to face an angry Ray and a sick Benton. The Red Bird's car had a moving map on a screen that showed you where to turn and Dusty was engrossed with watching the lines move and the words flow across the screen. This enjoyment, together with the residual relief of finding out that Benton was alive could have made this a very pleasant ride he certainly could use a few minutes of pleasure on this awful day. But instead he had to listen to the social worker drone on and he had to say something when it sounded like she wanted an answer.
Finally a few of Mrs. Cardinal's words caught Dusty's attention. " . . . doing in school?" "Hunh?" he said, automatically, to get her to repeat her question. It was a simple device he used, allowing him to tune out most of what people were babbling at him and then getting them to stop and repeat anything he was interested in hearing. Benton made him say "Excuse me, would you please repeat that," whenever he tried to say "hunh" to an adult, but Benton was not present at that moment so he reverted to the old habit.
"I was just asking how you were doing in school," the woman repeated.
After the trying evening he'd been having, here was a subject it would please him to talk about, so Dusty launched in to a description about how well he was doing at St. Monica's. He passed every test, handed in his projects on time and rarely got in trouble. The social worker directed her questions to pull from him the reason for this unaccustomed success. Dusty, talking about a subject that interested him, answered in detail. Mrs. Marcotti let him take his tests verbally rather than making him sit and try to focus for a whole hour at a time.
While the rest of the class wrote their tests the normal way, at their seats, a parent volunteer took him out of the classroom, posed the questions and recorded his answers for marking. His homework and projects were consistently handed in on time - which until now had been unheard of. Questioning by Mrs. Cardinal revealed the reason for this was that Benton did schoolwork with him every night.
"He does your homework for you, then?" she probed.
"I wish," Dusty said, with a groan. "He makes me do it all myself. You'd think he'd do it for me. He's smart. He could whip it off in a minute."
Mrs. Cardinal chuckled at that.
"And I don't hardly ever get in trouble anymore."
"And why is that?"
"I get taken out of class a lot. Not for punishment, like before," he clarified, "Mrs. Marcotti sends me to read with people. Sometimes Mario's mother. Sometimes Tony's mother. My Aunt Frannie even reads with me some days. So I don't have time to be bad. That helps."
"You like your new school."
"Do I ever. And everybody knows everybody. My cousins go there." Dusty withheld the story of his beating at Artie and Tony's hands the first day of school. Nor did he mention that part of the reason for his good behaviour at school was that all the volunteers and a fair number of the teachers were mothers or aunts of his schoolmates. Being rude to any of the adults at St. Monica's was therefore risky. He might face retaliation from the children of these women, as he had that first day.
Mrs. Cardinal couldn't know all of this, but she had already been to Dusty's new school for a preliminary visit and had been impressed by the number of volunteers available. Again she noted how Dusty spoke of the Vecchios as his relatives. Yes, her decision to place Dusty with Captain Vecchio and his partner seemed to have been a good one.
"I just hope I get to stay there. Benton might have to go back to Canada. That would mess everything up."
Dusty related what he understood of the conversation in the car that afternoon and Mrs. Cardinal agreed that it was cause for concern.
"I'm not really their son. They didn't adopt me, or something. So if they went to Canada I might not be able to go with them."
"They're considering moving to Canada? Then, no, you wouldn't be allowed to go."
"Because they're not my real parents," Dusty said, gloomily.
Mrs. Cardinal wasn't sure whether Dusty needed to know that she herself had imposed the fostering arrangement on the men, rather than permitting them to adopt Dusty outright. At the time it had seemed the best course and even now she wondered whether the strain of having Dusty to take care of had contributed to Constable Fraser's heart attack.
"They did want to adopt you, Dusty, but they weren't permitted," she answered, phrasing the sentence so as to avoid saying who had withheld that permission.
Dusty accepted this, without pushing for more details. "Did you know guys can marry each other in Canada?"
"I've heard something about that."
"If they went up to Canada and got married, could they come back and adopt me?"
"The marriage wouldn't be recognized here, I'm afraid."
"Well, that bites."
To Mrs. Cardinal's relief, that seemed to be Dusty's last words on this subject. He turned his attention to her GPS screen and the woman could see it fascinated him.
She left off talking and drove in silence until they reached the hospital and she had focus on finding the entrance to the parking lot.
"Out of danger." Ray sat in the ICU beside his partner's bed and let the doctors' words tumble around in his brain. "Out of danger." Sweet, sweet words. There had been more words but these were the only ones that had registered.
As the immediate fear of losing his partner that very night eased, Ray began to doubt his decision to stay with the Mountie and not go after Dusty. The family was all out looking, sure, but he was a professional. He may have been riding a desk for the last four years but he was sure he hadn't lost his detective's skills. Ray consulted his watch. Nearly half an hour since he had checked in with Frannie. He should really go down to the main entrance of the hospital, out into the parking lot and check the messages on his cell phone.
The nurse was talking softly, so as to avoid disturbing the patients, so Ray did not hear her. He was lost in his own thoughts, as oblivious to the outside world as the sleeping Mountie beside whom he sat vigil.
The nurse jostled Ray's arm.
Roused, he looked up to see a fat, black woman in blue nurses' scrubs standing over him.
"Are you Mr. Vecchio?" she repeated.
"I have a message for you from your sister. She called the nursing station."
In the instant between these words and the woman's next bit of information, Ray accused himself. Dusty's hurt. Dusty's dead. I should have been out there. How will I tell Benny?
"She said to tell you. . ." the woman consulted a piece of note paper she held in her huge, pudgy hands, " . . .Dusty's okay. Mrs. Cardinal is bringing him. That's the message. She said it would make sense to you."
Ray was so weakened with relief that he felt as though every bone in his body had melted on the spot. "Thank you," he managed to whisper.
"I've been meaning to tell you that you can't stay here much longer. We don't usually allow visitors in the ICU for more than a few minutes unless they are immediate family. You've been here since Mr. Fraser came up from Emergency. I'm afraid you'll have to leave soon."
"I am family. He's my brother." Ray said, somewhat unsteadily.
"You're Mr. Vecchio and he's Mr. Fraser. Are you sure that's the story you want to stick with?"
Ray dropped his head into his hands. He'd been through enough this night. Announcing to this woman that Benny was not his brother but his life partner, the man he loved, wouldn't buy him the right to sit here. At least not in the state of Illinois. Through his hands, his muffled voice said "Just please let me stay. I promise you he wants me here."
The woman actually pulled one of Ray's hands away from his face. She squeezed Ray's hand briefly before dropping it on top of the Mountie's hand that was resting immobile on his chest.
"You stay here with him, then. I know how it is. My brother's boyfriend was in the cancer ward and they treated my brother like he was a stranger. The doctors wouldn't even talk to him. If anybody asks, you tell them I said you could stay. My name's Rachel."
"Thank you kindly, Rachel," Ray said softly.
"Is this his first heart attack?"
"Yes, his first."
"Then don't you worry too much. When they have their first heart attack this young, they usually learn a lesson and take care of themselves afterwards."
She leaned over and studied Benton's face from closer up.
"Yup, he sure is young. And handsome. Damn waste, that's what I say," Rachel said. Giving Ray a good-natured wink, she left to return to the nursing station.
Ray heaved an enormous sigh. Benny was alive; Dusty was on his way; some people were decent after all.
His hand was still resting where Rachel had placed it, on top of Benton's hand. Glancing about, Ray saw that nobody seemed to notice. It seemed that the ICU was a place where people were concerned with the life and death of their family, not on the doings of others. He tightened his hand around Benton's.
Two heavy doors separated the Intensive Care Unit from the rest of the fifth floor of the hospital. Mrs. Cardinal paused at this threshold and addressed Dusty seriously.
"You and I wouldn't normally be allowed to go right into the ICU and look for Captain Vecchio and Constable Fraser. But if you follow my lead and do exactly what I say, I can get us in. There's an advantage to being old, Dusty. If I march in there looking like I'm on serious business, I can probably work my way across the room without anybody stopping me."
"Do I have to go with you? Can't you go in yourself and tell Ray I'm here?"
"Leave you here unattended? Do you really think I'm about to risk that?"
Dusty looked down, embarrassed, and studied the dingy hospital linoleum. "I guess not," he muttered. Daring to look up at her face, he saw that the social worker was smiling. He smiled back, weakly.
It doesn't occur to him, Mrs. Cardinal was thinking, as she looked at Dusty, that she could just ask someone at the nursing station to get Captain Vecchio and tell him they were here. She wasn't going to be cheated. Having interrupted serving her husband dinner and foregone two Star Treks to fetch Dusty in person, there was no way she was going to miss Captain Vecchio's reaction when he first saw the runaway. She was entitled to enjoy the moment of drama, and it might prove instructive besides. She had been meaning to check the progress of this little family.
"So, here's the plan. You're not going to like it. Ready?"
Dusty straightened like a soldier (or a Mountie) waiting for orders.
"First: you hold my hand. You hang onto my hand and you don't let go until I tell you."
"Take it like a man, Dusty."
Dusty used all manner of pre-adolescent moves to show his embarrassment. He shrugged, swung his head about, grunted, groaned and kicked at the floor, reserving one good grimace for the moment when he actually took the woman's outstretched hand.
"Next . . ."
"Aw geez, there's more?"
"There's more," she said, firmly. "You don't talk. You don't say a word, even if someone asks you a direct question. Clear?"
"Yeah, I don't let go and I shut up."
"Good. We're on our way."
With the bravado of a gunslinger bursting through the saloon doors, Lorraine Cardinal pushed through the twin portals to the ICU, Dusty firmly in tow. To their immediate left was the nursing station. She strode purposefully past it, to the row of beds arrayed to their right. Each bed was separated from the ones beside it by a curtain of some nondescript institutional colour. As they walked along she noted the occupants: mostly older people - some with a worried looking loved one sitting beside them. She felt a flash of sympathy for the patients that were alone. If she were the one lying there, Carl, her husband, would be beside her and vice versa.
Six beds down the line she saw Ray, sitting and staring at the head of the bed where Benton must be. His look was as intent as she knew hers would be if Carl were in a hospital bed. Before calling attention to herself, she came to a halt.
Dusty, forgetting her injunction, said, "Ray?"
"Shush," the woman said, softly but sharply, and jerked the boy closer to her side.
Ray heard and turned towards them.
"Dusty!" he jumped up from the chair he had been sitting in, and spread his arms towards the boy.
Mrs. Cardinal left go of Dusty's hand and said, "Okay, go, but keep it down."
Dusty flew into Ray's arms and the two stood hugging for a long moment.
"I shouldn't have said that stuff. I'm sorry. It's not your fault," Ray choked, rocking the boy back and forth. Dusty squirmed around in his embrace to look pleadingly at Mrs. Cardinal. At her nod, he started babbling his own apologies to Ray.
When the mutual apologizing wound down, Ray added, "You came just at the right time. He's waking up. Come here where he can see you," An arm still around the boy's shoulders Ray steered him towards the bed. Mrs. Cardinal edged in behind them.
She was just close enough to see Benton open his eyes and then shut them quickly against the light. Ray placed his open palm in front of Benton's face, fingers together, shielding his partner's eyes. "It's okay now, Benny, I got you covered."
Mrs. Cardinal smiled at this inadvertently literal assurance.
"Open your eyes now. That's good. I'm opening my fingers a little bit at a time." Ray spread his fingers, held them for a few beats and then drew them slowly away from Benton's face.
As she stood watching, the social worker thought: I love Carl, but if he were the one in this bed, it wouldn't have occurred to me to do that.
"We're here, see. Me and Dusty, we're right here," Ray said, "Say something, Dusty."
"Uh, hi, Benton," Dusty said, uncertainly.
Only then did Ray acknowledge the woman's presence. "Mrs. Cardinal. Thanks."
"All part of the job, right?"
"Actually, no. Supervisors don't usually work individual cases, but I wanted to take care of you and Constable Fraser myself."
"I appreciate it. Dusty, anything you want to say to Mrs. Cardinal?"
The boy looked puzzled. Ray elbowed him and mouthed the words 'thank you'.
"Oh, yeah. Thanks, Mrs. Cardinal," he said without enthusiasm.
Ray shrugged at the woman as though to say 'I tried'.
Meanwhile, Benton's eyelids fluttered and he drifted away again.
"It's good to see him awake," Ray said with satisfaction, although it wasn't quite accurate to think of Benton's present condition as in any way wakeful.
Ray was too focused on Benton to notice, but Mrs. Cardinal saw that Dusty was beginning to fidget. She said, "Captain Vecchio, I was thinking that under the circumstances it might be better if I took Dusty . . ."
"No!" Ray shouted, suddenly, causing heads to turn all over the ICU. "Don't take him! Please, Mrs. Cardinal. Lorraine. Don't take him away from us! It's my fault that he ran away, but I'll be better. I promise. It won't happen again. Let us keep him," Ray rattled on, in a panic.
"I meant: should I take Dusty over to your sister's?"
Meanwhile a nurse, not Rachel but another nurse, was approaching to see what the commotion was.
"It wasn't me making the noise this time. I shut up like you told me. Didn't I?" Dusty appealed to Mrs. Cardinal while the nurse warned Ray that quiet had to be maintained or he would be asked to leave the ICU, and who were all these other people? Only one visitor at a time was allowed.
"This is our son," Ray declared and Dusty endured his hand being seized by an adult yet again.
"And I'm just leaving," Mrs. Cardinal told the nurse. To Ray she said, "Am I taking Dusty?"
"I want him here, but it may be easier for him back at the house. Okay, go ahead."
Mrs. Cardinal opened her purse and took out a notepad and a pen and Ray told her the address. "And . . . oh Jesus, we forgot all about Benny!" Ray spun about back to the bed "I'm sending Dusty home now, Benny. Dusty, say bye."
Mrs. Cardinal figured Constable Fraser was in no shape to acknowledge visitors, but it didn't seem polite to just leave without addressing him, so she sent a brief, "Good-bye, Constable Fraser. Hope you feel better soon," in his direction, before taking Dusty, this time allowing him to walk along with her without holding on.
It was only after they had gone that Ray remembered his intention to keep Dusty's escape a secret from Benton. He sat fretting for a time, wondering how he would be able to explain Mrs. Cardinal's presence to the Mountie. His worries were unnecessary, because Benton wasn't registering what was going on around him and didn't learn about the incident until Ray and Dusty told him days later.
Dusty's second ride of the night with Mrs. Cardinal was more pleasant than the first. As relieved as Dusty had been to know that Benton was alive and Ray wanted him back, he hadn't been entirely relaxed. He still feared Ray's anger. Having lived through walloping by larger foster fathers than Ray, his fear was not of physical pain, but somehow of losing Ray's affection.
He welcomed me with open arms, Dusty thought as he rode along once more with Mrs. Cardinal. He had heard that expression somewhere welcome you with open arms and that's just what Ray had done, Ray had opened his arms wide as soon as he saw Dusty at the hospital. Benton's possible anger was not to be worried about, since Benton rarely got angry about anything.
Now all was well with Dusty's immediate world, and he climbed into the front seat of Mrs. Cardinal's car with the happy knowledge that within minutes he'd be home the big-Vecchio house-home rather than the apartment-Ray-and-Benton home. But no matter, both were equally home for Dusty. Nona would squeeze him against her soft front so that he could hardly breathe, then release him and feed him. He could recount his adventures to his cousins and they might even have time to play on the computer. Ray probably wouldn't come home to get him until very late, if he came home at all. He might just sit up all night with Benton at the hospital, Dusty wouldn't be at all surprised.
The inside of the Red Bird's car was no longer diverting; he'd watched the GPS as much as he wanted to during the drive to the hospital. Dusty was feeling at ease and ready to talk. The Red Bird encouraged him, which was no surprise. Social workers always wanted to hear you talk about families.
"Ray really owns the house, but he doesn't live in it now. Him and Benton should live there, if you ask me. There's plenty of room and there's Nona and Aunt Frannie to do all the cooking."
Mrs. Cardinal smiled as she drove. "Nona is Ray's mother, right? And he grew up in that house."
Dusty outlined the Vecchio clan from his own perspective:
"Yeah. Nona's husband was Nono, but he died. He used to get drunk and beat up on everybody, but I'm not supposed to know. Artie that's my best friend cousin best cousin friend um . . . "
"I get the idea," said Mrs. Cardinal.
"He's named after Nono. His real name's Arturo. He's my most favourite cousin. Ray's sister, my Aunt Frannie, is his mother. She hasn't got any husband or boyfriend or anything, and she's got six kids and they all live in the house with Nona."
"What are their ages? It must be quite a range."
"They're all the same age."
"Six? All the same age?"
Dusty hadn't given this any thought until now. Having a baby took nine months, this he knew. It hadn't occurred to him to wonder how all Aunt Frannie's children could be the same age. There hadn't been a birthday celebration for any of them either, since he'd come to live with Ray. After confessing he had no explanation he lost interest in the question and carried on with his dissertation.
Lorraine Cardinal recalled having heard about a woman in Chicago who had sextuplets under unusual circumstances but hadn't paid much attention at the time. Perhaps this was the Aunt Frannie who had called her earlier. She made a mental note to do an internet search at home for details. These thoughts caused her to lose track of Dusty's speech momentarily and so she missed the names of the six cousins. By the time she tuned back in, Dusty was describing the family of another of Captain Vecchio's siblings.
"Ray's other sister is Maria and she has two kids, that's two more cousins. They live in another house and Maria's husband is my Uncle Tony. They go to a different school so I don't see them every day. Aunt Maria and Uncle Tony said they've been married for thirteen years. That's pretty good, hunh?"
Mrs. Cardinal reflected that to Dusty's perception it was a long-lived marriage indeed. Most of his foster homes had been 'blended families' or headed by single parents. In his experience, a thirteen-year marriage was a novelty.
"Carl, that's my husband, and I are coming up to thirty years next September, Dusty."
"Thirty years. That's like old people on TV."
"Sometimes real life is like TV. But not often, I'm afraid."
Mrs. Cardinal remembered something Constable Fraser said the first time she had visited him and Captain Vecchio at their apartment. He had spoken of a brother of Captain Vecchio's who was in prison. Dusty hadn't included him in his list so far. "Doesn't Captain Vecchio have a brother as well?" she asked.
"Uncle Michael. He's in jail. I'm not supposed to know what for, but my cousins told me."
Mrs. Cardinal steered her car onto a street that Dusty suddenly recognized. They were close to the Vecchio house now and he began describing neighbourhood landmarks to her. One by one he pointed to stores, closed for the night, as they drove by forgetting about Uncle Michael entirely: the butcher shop where Aunt Frannie used to work, the bakery where Nona shopped, the computer store where he bought memory sticks.
The woman didn't want to discourage Dusty, but they were nearing the house and the ride alone with the boy would soon end. "You were saying about Uncle Michael," she interrupted.
"Oh yeah. This happened a long time ago. Aunt Lina, that's his wife, threw him out of the house because he used to get drunk and hit her."
"The same as his father," Mrs. Cardinal said under her breath, but loudly enough for Dusty to hear.
"Yeah, that's true isn't it? Nono hit Nona and Uncle Michael hits his wife. That sucks. Anyway she got a restraining order against him. To keep him away from her and the kids and the house."
He's astounded by marriage that last more than a dozen years, but he's perfectly familiar with restraining orders, thought Mrs. Cardinal.
"But he broke into the house one night when Benton was there."
"Constable Fraser was with your uncle's wife?" Mrs. Cardinal was having trouble making sense of this.
"He wasn't fucking her," Dusty said matter-of-factly, then recalled this was language he wasn't supposed to use around adults. "He was over at the house talking to her. She was pretty upset and they were hugging. Uncle Michael came into the house even though he had an injunction not to. He was wasted. He got in and saw them hugging and, man, did he go ballistic. Stabbed Benton and tried to stab Aunt Lina. Artie says Benton nearly died. Ray arrested him. Tell me that's not freaky, arresting your own brother."
Mrs. Cardinal agreed it was freaky. "Captain Vecchio. . . Ray . . . . he doesn't drink, does he?" she asked, managing to sound casual.
"Nope. Well, wine with supper and sometimes a beer when he watches TV. But he doesn't get wasted. And he never hits anybody. Not anymore."
"Not any more?"
"He used to punch out bad guys when he was younger he says. That's the street. Turn here! Left! Turn left!"
Her time alone with Dusty was running out. She slowed the car and asked, "Do you know about Constable Fraser's family too?"
"Sure, but none of it is a secret." The boy sounded disappointed. "His mum got shot when he was six. Now that's strange. Usually it's the fathers that get shot. Anyway it was all over the news when it happened, Benton says."
Mrs. Cardinal shook her head silently over the state of affairs that made Dusty think it was usual for fathers to get shot, while Dusty continued talking.
"Benton stayed with his grandma and grandpa most of the time while his dad was out doing Mountie stuff. Then his dad got shot, but he was old when that happened. That was all over the news too. Anyway, that's how Benton and Ray met. Benton came to Chicago to find the guy that shot his dad. Wait, this is the house. This driveway here."
Lorraine Cardinal was deprived of any further details of Benton's story, which was a shame because the story was an intriguing one. She turned into the driveway hoping that she would be able to drop off Dusty and get home, but she also knew the hope was a forlorn one. Chances are she would be forced to remain and be fed. Well, the night was shot anyway. She might yet get more details about the Fraser family saga and the treats she would be served would likely be better than anything she baked herself. That is, if Nona turned out to be the stereotypical Italian mother, and everything she had heard so led Mrs. Cardinal to believe this would be the case.
A couple of hours later Lorraine Cardinal came through her front door. Carl was still awake, watching a soccer game that was happening in another time zone. She dropped a paper bag on the coffee table in front of him.
"What's in there?"
"Hey, don't bad-mouth me, I'm the one who stayed nicely at home while you went out chasing your delinquents."
"We call them clients now, Carl. There are no delinquents anymore." She dropped heavily beside him on the sofa. "Italian cookies, Carl. Pizzelle. And there's some biscotti in there too."
"Aw, you bought me cookies," Carl said in a mock-sugary voice, then opened the bag and helped himself.
"At this hour? Those are from the Vecchios. Nona made them herself. She's got her own pizzelle iron."
"And I bet you're just green with envy," he said around a mouthful of biscotti. Seeing her serious look, he hit the mute button on his converter and waited. Nothing pithy was forthcoming, so rather than let the commentary of the game be sacrificed in vain, he pushed her.
"I take it Dusty and his deviant dads were reunited?"
She remained pensive.
Finally she had something to say. "Carl, ask me which is stronger: nature or nurture."
"I'd have said nurture for sure before tonight."
She realized she hadn't taken her jacket off yet, so she rose and put it away, distractedly.
"Oh, I was thinking about Constable Fraser. You haven't met him. Carl, he's fifteen years younger than me and in way better shape. But he's the one who had the heart attack, not me. I remember when I went over to their apartment that night, he mentioned heart problems run in his family. So, nature wins over nurture."
"And this is a revelation to you?"
"But then there's Captain Vecchio. I found out tonight his father and his brother were abusers. But Dusty says he never lifts a finger to anyone in the family. He's broken the cycle of abuse that's a mark on the side of the nurture side."
"Wrong. He's gay, Lorraine. Score one for nature."
"That's a stereotype. You know better."
She sat down again beside her husband and snuggled against him. His left arm went automatically around her while the right arm reached for the remote and put the sound back on.
"You should have seen him, though, when I brought Dusty back." Mrs. Cardinal went on to describe to her husband, over the voice of the sports announcer, her impressions of the Vecchios in general and the picture she was forming of Dusty's life with them and Constable Fraser.
"Sounds like the kid lucked out," Carl observed during a commercial.
What was strange about sitting beside Benton in a hospital was that it wasn't strange at all. It was familiar, although they hadn't been in this situation for many years. Just something you remember how to do, Ray decided, like shooting straight or riding a bike how to sit beside your partner and hope that he doesn't die. In the old days when one of them was wounded the other always sat with him. Then there was that one time they were in the hospital together first Ray had shot Benny and then Ray had taken a bullet for him. The old days. Days of running around after beautiful women and getting shot, robbed, hit on the head for their troubles. Ray often said, half in joke, that when the two of them gave up chasing women, their life expectancy shot up.
There were a lot more flowers in Benny's hospital room now than there had been in the old days. No solitary bobbing helium balloon. On only his third day in the hospital - his second day in the cardiac ward after spending the first twenty-four hours in intensive care Benny had acquired bouquets and baskets from his own office, from Ray's office, from their old colleagues at the 27th, from a vast array of Vecchios, from FBI and CIA contacts and even from Mrs. Cardinal's office. It was like a florist's shop in Benton's room and it heartened Ray to know they had so many friends.
There was another important difference between then and now. Benny was in the cardiac ward and it hadn't been any no-good-nik that put him there. It had been his own body, or to expand the idea, the bodies of his ancestors who had created that gene pool that gave people finicky tickers.
Making comparisons was proving interesting. Ray continued the exercise.
"So, did it hurt more than being shot?"
He startled Benton out of some reverie with the question. Benton shifted his attention to his partner.
"Did what hurt more than being shot?"
"The heart attack, moron."
"Did it hurt?"
"More than being shot? More than being stabbed?"
"It's hard to compare."
"I've never been stabbed," Ray observed, "You have."
"And shot. We've both been shot, Ray. This feels different."
"So you said."
Having apparently nowhere to go, the conversation fizzled out. Benton turned his head on his pillow and lost himself again in thought.
"Benny." Ray didn't know exactly what he wanted to say, only that he wanted Benton's attention. He'd come close to losing the Mountie. At their age, that wasn't supposed to happen. They were too old to be killed in the line of duty and too young to succumb to diseases of old age. These were supposed to be the middle, boring years during which they both went to the office and came home to each other every night. It was a time for being in comfortable rut, and complaining about it while deep down being thankful for a good life.
"Yes, Ray." Benton answered, automatically.
"What are you thinking about?"
"Dustin," Benton said. "He wasn't the one that found me, you said."
"No, I found you. Dusty was in his room with his headphones on. That's the third time you asked me that, tonight, by the way."
"That's good. Not that I asked you three times . . ."
"I mean, it's good you were the one to find me. It might have been traumatic for him to find me half dead on the floor."
Ray chuckled. "It would have been more traumatic for him if I'd been any later and found you all dead on the floor."
"Yes, it would," Benton said, not picking up on Ray's light tone.
"But Dusty's a resilient kid, Benny. And he's smart. You know what I think? You're a lot alike you and Dusty."
"I don't see the resemblance."
"You both had a crappy childhood. You've both got brains. And you're both the product of the attention spans you were born with. You've got an attention span that can be measured in geological ages. You remember everything and you concentrate hard so everybody knows you're brilliant. Dusty's got brains, but he was born with the attention span of the average dust mite. He doesn't get to show the world how smart he is."
"There but for the grace of God go I, is that what you mean?"
"That's what Ma would say."
"My grandparents too, I imagine. But, Ray, I've also been thinking that you were right."
Ray leaned back on the uncomfortable vinyl hospital chair with a grin of satisfaction. "Well, good!"
"I haven't said what you were right about."
"I don't care. You think I'm right about something that's a novelty. I don't need to know why. I'm just going to enjoy it."
"Okay, okay, tell me what I was right about. I can take it."
Benton shifted his shoulders against the pile of pillows under him. He craned his neck forward.
"Use the button, Benny."
"Oh, I didn't think of it."
"That super brain of yours must still be oxygen deprived."
"That's not funny, Ray," Benton located the controls for his bed and moved himself to a sitting position. "You were right when you said I was too severe with Dustin."
"You still can't call him 'Dusty'," Ray observed.
Benton ignored that. "I've been thinking that if I had died, he would have gone the rest of his life thinking I didn't like him. My whole adult life I've liked the children I've met and they've liked and trusted me."
"You can charm them out of the trees, Benny."
"But with Dustin, I seem to freeze up, I suppose is the best way to put it."
"But you know why, Benny. You're like that foster father who worked in a juvenile detention center. You're afraid Dusty's going to turn into some kind of delinquent."
"And it will be your fault."
"I realize now, Ray, that isn't reasonable. Dustin's a well-meaning boy. He's basically honest and decent. And, if I had died, he would have had to find a way to get through life without my riding herd on him every minute."
"Except it would have been nice for you to come to that conclusion without scaring me and Dusty out of our wits first. Well, tomorrow's the first day of the rest of your life. You'll come home and get your chance to start a whole new system of laying off the kid." Ray looked around the room. "And I'm going to need to rent a truck to get all these flowers home."
"I was thinking you could take them down to the some of the other floors. The geriatric ward is pretty bare."
"I was thinking you could do that tonight, Ray."
Ray ran his fingers through his sparse hair and looked upward, appealing to the Heavens. "Can't I do that tomorrow? I promised Ma I'd get home early tonight."
Ray was lying. He hadn't promised his mother to be home early. Rather he had ordered a family conference at the Vecchio house, to begin at 8 pm sharp. His mother and sisters didn't see any real need for yet another pow-wow on this night before Benton came home. Every thing seemed to be arranged: Benton would rest two weeks at the house, under care of Ma and Francesca. Dusty and Ray would also stay there, for convenience. But if Ray needed them for yet another get-together, they weren't going to turn him down.
They gathered in the Vecchio living room, Ray in his favourite armchair, Maria and Tony side by side on the love seat, Francesca and Ma on opposite ends of the sofa, while children came and went from the living room as their interest in the discussion waxed and waned. Dusty was the exception. The discussion being about Benton, he would not be excluded, but demonstrated his distractibility by roaming from one adult to another: now lolling on the floor at Ray's feet, now sitting beside Ma on the couch, now hanging over the backs and arms of different pieces of living room furniture.
"What's this about, caro? Everything's under control," Ma spoke for them all.
"No, we've got the next two weeks figured out but I need to have a plan in place long term. Benny's heart attack was caused by stress."
"Partly," Maria qualified.
"Mostly," insisted Ray. "And when he comes out I don't want him stressed any more than I can help. I want a plan in place for six months from now in case he has to leave Chicago."
All the family members groaned in unison. Ma spoke for them again. "Don't borrow trouble, caro. You don't know what will happen in six months. Benito may be able to stay here and nothing will happen."
"I can't risk that, Ma. I want Benny to know that whatever happens we have a plan to deal with it. It will keep him calm."
"And drive us crazy," observed Maria, drawing a sharp look from her brother.
Ma said, "Raymondo, I think the best thing is to wait and see what happens."
"No, Ma. I don't want Benny fretting and worrying. I want to work out a scenario for all the different possibilities and you all can help me think it out."
"And me," said Dusty, whose present position was perched behind Ray on the high back of the armchair.
"Of course you," Ray twisted around and patted the boy's arm.
"Yeah, since he's the problem," said Clara, Maria's older child said, drawing stern looks from her mother, aunt, uncle and grandmother.
"Don't be cruel, Clara. No one person is the problem. It's just the situation we have to deal with," Maria said.
Ray took over. "Here's the situation. Benny might get to stay in Chicago, in which case nothing has to change. Benny might have to move to another city. Or he might have to leave the country. I can leave the country, but Dusty can't. I don't think I'm even allowed to take him out of state, because he's a foster child. Okay, options."
They spent several minutes trying to persuade Ray that it was far too soon to worry about what might happen half a year from now. And wouldn't Benito want some input himself?
Ray continued to dismiss all their objections. He was determined to protect Benton from any and all mental anguish.
"If you adopted Dusty outright, he'd be your son and you could move with him where ever you want," Tony said.
"They won't let us adopt Dusty, he's on a long-term fostering plan. We have to work within that."
"On TV when people want to stay in the country, they marry some American. Then they get to stay no matter what," Dusty said suddenly.
The children who happened to be in the room at that time Clara and three of Francesca's brood, whooped at that. A discussion amongst them ensued:
"Uncle Benton can't get married. He's gay," said one child.
"Doesn't mean he can't get married," said another.
"Yeah, we could pay some lady to marry him or something," Dusty suggested.
"Can't he get married to Uncle Ray?"
"They're not allowed, stupid. It's against the Church."
"No it's not. It's against the law."
"It's against both."
"Now, bambini, settle down," Ma said.
"No, Ma. It's not a bad idea. If Benton's married to an American, he can stay here if he has to and he can get a divorce if he doesn't need to be married anymore," was Maria's take on the subject. "It could work."
"Who could we get to marry him? He doesn't like women," Tony wondered. "It would have to be someone who doesn't really care, so they wouldn't mind getting a divorce later."
"That's dishonest," Maria objected.
"Boy, life is unfair. Ten years ago I'd have given anything to marry Fraszh, now we're planning to just give him away," Francesca pouted.
"That's it! Frannie, you got it," said Maria.
"What? What have I got?"
"You marry Benton. We keep him in the family."
Ma said, "That's not fair to your sister. She might want a real husband some day."
"Being married to a looker like Fraszh would increase my status at the PTA," Francesca said, considering.
"We're kidding here, right?" put in Ray.
"Well, not necessarily, Ray. If Francesca ever wanted to start dating again, she could get a divorce."
"No, an annulment. Francesca and Benito would never actually consummate the marriage," said Ma.
Tony was starting to get excited about the idea. "And! And! If Benton and Frannie got married, they could adopt Dusty. No social worker could have a problem with that. A married couple would be allowed to adopt. Everything's solved."
"I'd have a problem with that," said Ray. "Aside from the fact that having my sister marry Benny is just disgusting, Dusty belongs to Benny and me."
"He still would, Ray. He'd live with you two like always. He'd just be the son of Frannie and Benton on paper."
"Admit it, Bro. This could work," Maria summed up.
"No, it's insane," Ray slouched in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. "I'm not having Frannie and Benny get married. We need another option."
They all fell silent.
Then Francesca started thinking out loud. "Ray doesn't want Fraszh to marry me. So, instead of me he could marry somebody else we could trust. Somebody who would be in on the plan."
"Who could we really trust?" Maria asked.
Tony opened his eyes wide. "What about Ma?"
There was a general hoot over this, and the children in the room went "Ewwww" in unison.
"No, hear me out. Ma, you aren't planning to start dating any time soon. And we all agree Benton isn't going to have sex with whoever he marries. It's just for show."
"Is anybody taking this seriously? I need to know that nobody's taking this seriously," Ray said through gritted teeth.
"It would increase my status at the bridge club," Ma mused.
"If Ma marries Fraszh, he'll be our father. Ray, you'd be sleeping with your father. Isn't there something in the Bible against that?"
"There's already something in the Bible about him sleeping with Benton. He's doing that anyway so I don't think we have a problem there."
"Step-father, not real father. It's not so terrible."
"I don't believe this!"
"Raymondo, calm down. We're only discussing possibilities."
"It's called lateral thinking. We learned about it at school," Dusty put in, helpfully.
"Benito and I wouldn't . . . you know . . . and we could adopt Dusty. I could live with that," Ma concluded
"One thing for sure: I can't marry him. I'm already married. So it's Ma or Francesca. Ray, if it comes down to it, you can choose which one. Is that okay with you, Ma? Frannie?"
Francesca shrugged and nodded. All eyes turned to Ma Vecchio.
"To keep Dusty with us, I don't mind. Benito's been like a son to me and Dusty's like my own grandson. This would make Benito my husband and my son and Dusty can be my son and my grandson."
"And I'll be in the loony bin," muttered Ray, burying his head in his hands, "because you're making me crazy."
"You asked us for input, Ray, and we've solved the problem. You could say thank you," said Tony.
The next morning Dusty woke up with every intention of coming with Ray to the hospital to pick up Benton and bring him home. He was annoyed to find that Ray's intention was that Dusty would be dropped off at the Vecchio house, thence to go to school just as though today were like any other day.
No amount of insisting could get Ray to change his mind. Finally, in exasperation Ray shouted "Stop whining. I'm the king of whining around here. You're going to school and that's that. When you get home from school we'll both be at the house waiting for you. Now go bring your suitcase."
Dusty and Ray had both packed a few days worth of clothes to begin their two week sojourn in the big house. Benton's clothes and various personal hygiene items were already there waiting for him and Ray's plan was to come back to the apartment every few days to check things and get the mail.
Dusty, reduced to grumbles, complied and brought his bag from his room. It was the same suitcase he had brought with him the first day he had arrived to live with Benton and Ray, and was so threadbare that it hardly looked like it could survive the dragging across the living room carpet.
"I should buy you a new suitcase. I never noticed before how awful that one looks," Ray said, calming down in the face of Dusty's acquiescence.
"I haven't had it out since I came here."
"Which means me and Benny never took you anywhere. I ought to do something about that too."
This wasn't what Dusty was thinking Ray's response would be. He was thinking that Ray would say they hadn't been able to send him away anywhere since he came. Most of his previous foster parents had needed to send him away for one day a week, or sometimes a whole weekend, for respite care. They couldn't handle him for too long without some kind of break. It only occurred to Dusty now that Benton and Ray had never sent him off for a respite day. He began to think how much he liked these two men and how good his life with them had been. Then he caught himself thinking these icky thoughts and decided this mush had to stop. He quickly interjected something calculated to get Ray riled up.
"You two haven't been alone since I got here. I bet you want me to go to school so you can bring him home and get it on."
Ray, busy washing up breakfast dishes, whirled about to face the boy. "If I'd said anything like that to my father, he'd have walloped me good."
"Why? Was your dad queer too?" Dusty regretted saying this as soon as it had involuntarily slipped out of his mouth.
Ray stiffened and his fists clenched. He inhaled sharply and stood glaring. The muscles of his forearms tightened so that Dusty could see the veins. Soapsuds clinging to the man's hands and arms failed to mitigate the angry posture.
Dusty stepped back, never having seen Ray in this mood. Ray often lost his temper, as Dusty had confided in Mrs. Cardinal, but demonstrated it with a lot of yelling. Dusty, experienced at being able to detect when he was in physical danger, had never taken Ray's outbursts seriously. This quiet anger felt very different.
"Don't hit me," Dusty said softly.
Ray looked down at his own hands. With great deliberation, he unclenched them and started taking long deep breaths. Finally he looked across to Dusty.
"Did I ever hit you? Even once since you've been here? Did I ever raise a hand to you?" The tone in his voice was not what Dusty was expecting. Ray sounded hurt.
"No," said the child, very quietly.
"Then why would you say something like that?"
"I'm sorry I said your dad was queer."
The tension broke when the corners of Ray's mouth turned slightly upward. "That's not what I meant. Your Nono was a lot of things, Dusty, but queer wasn't one of those things." He wiped his hands on a dishcloth and sat down at the kitchen table. "Sit down with me here a minute."
Still not quite sure, Dusty hung back.
"I said sit. Or are you still afraid I'm going to hit you?"
The boy left his suitcase in the middle of the living room floor and came slowly through the archway that separated the living room from the kitchen.
"Sit," Ray insisted.
Dusty did, on the kitchen chair furthest away from Ray.
"Don't tell your Nona I told you, but your Nono used to drink a lot and he used to lose control a lot," Ray began.
"He used to beat up on Nona and you and Uncle Michael, didn't he?"
"You know that? How do you know that?"
"All the cousins know. But we're supposed to keep it secret. Don't tell anybody I told you, okay?"
"Well I'll be . . ." Ray paused, without elaborating on what he would be. "What else do you know about Uncle Michael?"
"He's doing time for stabbing Benton and trying to stab Aunt Lina."
Ray sighed. "Here I thought we were keeping this stuff away from you kids. Aw well." He dropped his face into his hands and was silent for a while.
"I'm going to be late for school," Dusty offered, uncomfortable with the silence.
"I'll write you a note. We have to finish this conversation, it's important. Dusty, all the time I was growing up, me and Michael always swore to each other that we'd never be like Pop. Nono. We used to tell each other that's we'd always be nice to our wives and kids, never touch them and never get drunk. Michael . . . well . . . it's a long story but he couldn't stay in control. You know about that, don't you, Dusty, about not being able to control what you do."
Dusty nodded. This was something he did indeed understand.
"I have to work hard at it sometimes, but I think I've been able to pull it off over the years."
"Aw, you yell all the time, Ray."
"Yes I do. I yell all the time. But did you ever see me do more than yell?"
"You bang the table sometimes."
"A living thing. A person. An animal. Did you ever see me hit anything alive?"
"No, never." Dusty thought about this. "Benton's always in control. He doesn't even yell."
"Well, Benny's another story. He was raised by people who hardly ever lost their temper. Hard to believe, isn't it? That's why he doesn't yell much."
"That's why he doesn't like me, I guess," concluded Dusty, sadly.
The return of the sharp, angry tone to Ray's voice surprised the boy. "Don't say that! Benny cares about you as much as I do."
"Before we leave this room, you have to get that through your head. And don't roll your eyes at me."
"Okay, Ray," Dusty said, concentrating hard on looking straight past Ray at the clock on the kitchen wall.
"When you get home from school this afternoon, Benny will be at the house and you're going to see a change in him. I guarantee it."
Ray's prediction was only half right. Benton was not at the house when Dusty and his foster cousins arrived home from school, nor was Uncle Ray nor was any of the luggage that Ray had brought for himself, Benton and Dusty to use over the coming two weeks.
Nona did not emerge from her kitchen to greet them. Instead, Francesca greeted her six children perfunctorily then said to Dusty, "Change of plan, I'm taking you to the apartment. Fraszh doesn't want to stay here."
If Francesca had any more information, she declined to provide it during the short ride over, but as soon as she and Dusty got out of the elevator, Dusty heard noises that showed which half of Ray's prediction was correct. There was a change in Benton, as Dusty could plainly hear. The sound of his voice, screeching in anger was blasting through the apartment door into the hallway for all to hear.
"Ray, this is unconscionable! Absolutely unconscionable!" Benton continued yelling more words that Dusty didn't understand but were clearly too long to be curse words. Dusty was stunned. He'd never heard Benton's voice raised in all the months he had been living with him. He turned and appealed to Francesca.
"Aunt Frannie, do I have to go in there?"
"I promised Ray I'd bring you right home." Francesca squatted down and looked the boy full in the eyes. "Frazsh is just a little riled up. He's not mad at you. Come on."
Francesca straightened up and took Dusty by the hand. With her other hand she rapped on the apartment door. "We're here," she called. Nobody came to answer, so she tried the handle and found the door open. They went through.
A sight Dusty had never seen greeted him. There was Benton, waving his arms, shaking his fists in the air and stomping about the living room. Dusty was transfixed.
"You will not make decisions about MY future without consulting me!"
"It's just a couple of weeks, Benny," Ray said, taking in his sister and Dusty briefly with his eyes.
"It's not the weeks, Ray. It's the idea!"
"I just wanted us all to take care of you. I wanted everything taken care of so you would be calm."
Even Dusty could see that the plan to keep Benton calm had backfired badly, though he didn't understand what it was the Mountie was angry about.
"CALM!" Benton shrieked the word back at Ray. "You try to decide where I should go, where I should live, even whether I should marry and . . . for the love of God . . . whom I should marry. And you expect me to stay calm!"
Francesca, after giving Dusty's hand a quick squeeze, eased herself backwards towards the door, as though afraid to turn her back on the raging madman. "Maybe I should take Dusty back to the house?" she asked.
Benton answered her before Ray could speak. "The child stays here! He's my son. Nobody else decides where he lives or where I live or with whom we live."
Francesca went bug-eyed and then slipped through out through the front door.
For Dusty's part, he was marveling at the scene in front of him. Angry, violent foster parents, he was well used to those. He came into the apartment expecting to see Benton to punch Ray, or Dusty himself, or the furniture or the wall. Instead Benton, though clearly incensed, hadn't uttered a bad word or an insult and hadn't brought his clenched fists down on anything or anyone. Raging and out of control, he was still saying 'whom'. The anger wasn't directed at himself, so Dusty was thrilled by the show.
"Benny, you're over-reacting. It's not such a big deal to stay a couple of weeks at the house."
"It's not the weeks! How can you even think it is about weeks! Ray, it is about your total disregard for my wishes."
"Be fair. I didn't disregard your wishes. I didn't know you had any wishes."
"Did you ask? You drove right to the house without even telling me what was going on. I had a heart attack, Ray, not a lobotomy. I'm capable of making choices."
Then Benton saw that Dusty had entered the apartment. He glanced briefly at the boy, taking time out from his ranting. "Look what we're doing. We're fighting in front of the child. I can't believe this is happening." Benton stomped towards the front door. Dusty watched wide-eyed. Benton never stomped. The Mountie snatched his hat from the shelf by the door and swept out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him.
Ray and Dusty looked for a moment at the closed door.
"He didn't want to stay at the house? Or he didn't want to marry Nona?" Dusty asked.
"I'm not sure," Ray admitted.
"Where's he going?"
"He's not going anywhere, he's just going to walk," Ray said. "I haven't seen him like this in years."
"What did he mean about fighting in front of the child?"
"You're the child, Dusty."
"I know that. I mean, everybody fights in front of their children, don't they? I don't get it."
"Neither did I, until I met Benny. People grow up all different ways."
"His grandparents never got mad?"
"Not in front of Benny. Crazy, hunh. Well, let me get you something to eat. There's not much here. I figured we'd be at the house so I didn't buy groceries. I'll see what I can scrape together."
"But I still don't get what he's mad about."
"Neither does he, Dusty. Yet. He'll figure it out while he's walking. This is what sometimes happens when people go years and years not getting mad."
"I can't imagine living like that," Dusty said, thoughtfully.
"Should you go after him, Ray?"
"No, he needs to be alone to think this out. He'll be back in a few hours and he'll be in control again. You'll see."
Ray's prediction, once again, was partly right and partly wrong. Benton did return, but not until the wee hours of the morning.
Dusty spent the first couple of hours of the evening fretting and trying to persuade Ray to go off searching. Ray declined, repeating in various wordings that when Benton was in this mood, it was best to leave him alone until he walked off his anger.
"Benny can go years without blowing, and then pow. I shouldn't have sprung on this all him so soon. That was my fault. He'll come home when he's good and ready. He's got to keep walking until he calms down. That's just his style."
"But, I'm worried, Ray."
"Are you? Good. So now you know what it feels like when someone in the family runs away."
Ray stubbornly refused to be distressed. The man and boy eventually settled down in front of the television to pass the time while they waited. Knowing that Dusty wouldn't fall asleep anyway, Ray didn't insist that he go to bed, even though eleven o'clock came and went with any appearance by the Mountie.
Eventually Ray, to Dusty's chagrin, fell asleep on the couch, leaving the boy curled up and disapproving on an armchair, watching an old black and white movie and wondering when he took a break from fretting why anyone bothered watching these boring old things. Dusty fought his tiredness. He stretched and twisted in his chair, getting up often for a drink of milk or juice, fighting to stay awake.
At a certain stage of exhaustion he began rehearsing the scolding he would give Benton upon his return. It was a heady feeling, to gear up to reprimand an adult. Not just talking back and being smart that was no novelty but really giving a grown-up hell for some misdeed. And that grown-up was the fastidious, always so calm, always so perfect Benton.
Shortly before two the door buzzer sounded. Dusty bounded from the chair to the telephone on the wall.
He picked up the receiver and barked "Yes!"
"Let me in, please," came Benton's voice from the lobby, "I don't have keys."
Dusty buzzed him in and then opened the apartment door and stood by it, waiting, his hands resting against his skinny hips. He watched Benton emerge from the elevator and walk towards the apartment. Dusty stood in the doorway to block his entry but the boy was so thin that Benton was able to pass right by him and come in.
"Where have you been? Do you know what time it is?" Dusty hissed, undaunted.
"Whispering carries farther than talking softly. Keep your voice at a normal tone and Ray should stay asleep." Benton placed his Stetson back on the shelf in the vestibule, "I walked out without thinking about my keys. Or my wallet. I'm starving. Let's go to the kitchen."
"Ray's been worried to death!" the boy declared, knowing this was not true but determined that Benton be made to show some contrition.
The sleeping Ray emitted a loud snort and twisted on his couch, sending his right leg over the other, so that his right foot hit the floor with a smack. He snuffled against a sofa cushion and fell silent again.
"He appears to have been resurrected," observed Benton, with a slight smile. "Come keep me company while I get a sandwich."
"You didn't take your keys or your wallet but you remembered your fucking hat," Dusty grumbled as he trailed after the Mountie.
"I never have sex while I'm wearing my hat," Benton said, mildly, not turning around, "I guess it seems strange to you that I'd take my Stetson and nothing else. The thing is, when I was young, living up in the north, I never really needed to take keys or a wallet when I went out. I never locked my cabin and there weren't any stores within walking distance. But a hat keeps your head warm. All right, I guess it's a habit. After so many years of wearing a Stetson, I don't feel dressed without one. Did you take any keys or money when you ran away?"
"Then you're in no position to criticize me, are you? Did you take any ID?"
"Well . . . "
"You should always carry identification, Dustin. You know that."
By now Benton had washed his hands at the kitchen sink and was bending into the open refrigerator, peering at the contents. Unlike Ray and Dusty, who rummaged with both hands in the fridge, pushing items impatiently aside, Benton only looked with his eyes. Then with surety and precision he withdrew a loaf of bread and a dish of butter, placed them on the table and then returned to the fridge for a load of packages wrapped in waxed paper. He constructed a sandwich while Dusty yawned, squinted and worked hard at keeping up his indignation.
"Want one?" Benton asked, holding up a finished sandwich on a plate.
"No!" Dusty said sternly, then remembered and added "Thank you. I want you to tell me why you ran away."
Benton sat down to his food. Dusty remained standing, returning his hands to his hips. Somehow he was going to make Benton understand how wrong it had been to walk out.
"I will if you tell me why YOU ran away."
"Aw come on, Benton. I'm a bad kid. I do stuff like that."
"I was always a good kid," Benton said around a mouthful of meat, bread and cheese.
Dusty was taken aback. Whenever he announced he was a bad kid, he could usually count on either Ray or Benton to protest. Benton must still be in a weird mood, if he didn't pick up on his cue. Nor had he admonished Dusty, the boy now realized, for saying 'fucking hat'. This was all definitely out of character for the Mountie and Dusty wondered whether heart attacks changed peoples' heads. His experience from television and movies was not clear on this point.
Benton went on, philosophically. "Hardly seems fair, now that I think back on it. I could have gotten away with a lot more if I'd just thought of myself as a bad kid and did whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I might have learned how to handle anger a little better. Although . . ."
He took another bite.
". . . when you get right down to it, we both did the same thing, didn't we? Why did you run, Dusty?"
"I . . . I . . . thought I killed you. I was scared."
"And I thought I was losing control of everything. First the RCMP comes up with plans for me, then my heart has plans of its own, then Ray and the family go making more plans. All without consulting me. I don't like feeling powerless. And I don't like feeling angry. I'm not used to it. "
"Ray said something like that. You don't know how to get mad because nobody got mad when you were little."
Dusty caught himself being diverted from his purpose. This wasn't going at all the way he had planned. He had one card left to play
"You and Ray are supposed to help each other. Do you think you helped him by running off?" he echoed Mark's words of a few days ago.
Benton looked up, suddenly fascinated. "Whose words are these?"
"Mine," Dusty said defensively.
"I doubt it."
"Okay, Mark's. The night you had the heart attack."
"And it seems like you learned something from them. That's good. Are you sure you won't eat something?"
Dusty had to give up. "Naw, I'm too tired."
"Let's go to bed then. No, wait. I'm going to turn the television off now. Watch: the change in noise level is going to make Ray wake up and he's going to say 'What, what, what'?"
Benton's prediction did come true, precisely as he described.
Gazing with affection as Ray sat up, rubbing his eyes, Benton said "We know each other pretty well by now."
Although she was acquainted with both men, Mrs. Cardinal thought of Captain Vecchio as her contact in the Vecchio/Fraser family. Accordingly she called his office to ask when he and Constable Fraser could make an appointment to come to her office some time at their convenience.
"With Dusty or without?" Ray asked her.
"As his guardian, I'll leave that decision to you. You might feel more comfortable talking without him there."
Ray promised to consult Benton and get back to her with a proposed time. Benton was coming home a little earlier than he used to. Although he wasn't slowing down enough to satisfy Ray or Dusty, he did manage to make it home for dinner some nights and did not go to the Consulate on weekends.
That same evening Ray and Benton waited for Dusty to retire to his room to immerse himself in one of his many online projects, before discussing Mrs. Cardinal's request. They agreed on a day and time that Benton could get away from the consulate during the coming week. Benton's answer to the question of whether Dusty would come along was vehement.
"He has the right to be there. He's had enough of people trying to decide his life for him."
"Benny, this is about Dusty, not you. Nobody's trying to make him marry anybody."
"Oh, Ray. That whole business about the marriage was just silly. What's killing me is to know that in six months my whole life may be turned upside-down and I may have no input whatsoever. Isn't it funny? When I lived in the north I never cared where I would be posted."
"Yeah, one iceberg is the same as another."
"Very funny, Ray. But this is about Dustin. He's been shuffled from one home to another all his life. Until now he hasn't been old enough to have any say. He may not have a choice now either, but whatever there is to be discussed, he should hear it. Ray, do you think Mrs. Cardinal is going to take him away from us?"
"I don't know. She didn't say what it was about."
Ray's people communicated with Mrs. Cardinal's people by fax and occasionally by telephone. Ray had never had occasion to see Mrs. Cardinal's office nor she his. Dusty knew the building that housed Children and Youth Services well, and proudly led his foster fathers to the right elevator, down the right corridor and around the right corner to where he knew Mrs. Cardinal would be found.
On the way, he described the different buildings where CYS had been housed over the years, whether they were easy to get to by subway, what fast food restaurants were nearby. Mrs. Cardinal, he explained, liked the buildings with parking but mostly his foster parents hadn't owned cars.
Benton and Ray let him prattle on but just before they reached Mrs. Cardinal's office, Ray interrupted and warned, "Just don't call her 'Red Bird' to her face."
"Aw geez, Ray. I never do."
"Ray is right, though. Please be careful what you say. Our life is in her hands, after all."
One of Mrs. Cardinal's underlings ushered them into her lair, and she rose when they walked in. She indicated a group of chairs, set up in a semi-circle in front of her desk and the family group arranged themselves in front of three of them. Ray and Dusty started to bend into their seats, then they both noticed that Benton was still on his feet, ramrod straight. Mrs. Cardinal was still standing. They straightened up immediately and waited for her to sit down first. Then the three males sank into their chairs all at the same moment.
"I don't see much chivalry in this office. It's a pleasant change, gentlemen. Thank you."
Ray, Benton and Dusty did not warm to the comment. They remained poker-faced, waiting for her to reveal what it was she wanted.
"Dusty, since you're here I'll begin with you. The system hasn't always been good to you. I've looked back over your file . . ." she indicated a manila folder on her desk " . . . and I see that more than once you've been placed with foster parents that never should have been allowed to have any child under their care."
Dusty squinted at her in puzzlement. Everybody knew most foster parents were assholes. Why was she saying this? It was no surprise to him, nor would it be to any of his fellow group home residents.
"The systems not perfect. We do the best we can with the resources we're given. Year after year my budget is . . . well, that shouldn't be your concern."
"Why are you telling him this, Mrs. Cardinal?" Benton interrupted.
"Because I think I know of a way to make things right for him once and for all. I have a family that I believe will be willing to adopt him permanently. That's what I want to discuss with all of you."
Ray jumped, outraged, out of his chair. "What kind of deal is this? We wanted to adopt him right from the start! You're the one that said we couldn't!"
"That's true. I did say that."
"Sit down, Ray," Benton said softly, "and let her finish."
"Thank you, Constable. Dusty told me about your problems at your office. I understand there's a chance you may not be able to remain in the United States."
"I won't know for some months. I may have to leave the country, or I may be transferred to another American city, or nothing may happen at all. It's too soon to know."
"That must be stressful for you. And even more so because a foster child isn't allowed to leave the state without permission. Dusty's flourishing under your care. It would be a shame to separate him from you."
"No argument there," Ray added.
"So here's our problem. Dusty should stay with you two. After all the horrendous households he's been forced into, it would be criminal to separate him from you now. He has a school in which he receives individual attention, an extended family, and excellent role models. He belongs with you. Constable Fraser is a Canadian national and is at risk of being transferred out of the country. That always was the case, but as long as Dusty was a foster child, it didn't interfere with our plans. But if we're talking about adoption, that's another story. I have no mechanism to allow an adoption of a ward of the state of Illinois by a foreigner. But I have an idea for a way around this problem."
Mrs. Cardinal took a breath before continuing. The men and boy hung on every syllable.
"I could make a case for allowing Captain Vecchio to adopt Dusty. Only him, not both of you. It's unusual but I occasionally allow a single person to adopt if they can demonstrate that the child would have a good quality family atmosphere."
"I've got lots of family," Ray put in. "They make up in quantity what they might be lacking in quality."
"I've spent time with them. I'm satisfied with the quality."
"What about me?" said Benton.
"There's no way for you to be involved, on paper. You and Captain Vecchio are perhaps the most stable couple I've ever had sitting in this office. But your being a foreigner prevents me from allowing you to adopt."
"However . . . " Ray prompted.
"However," she said, obligingly "if you and only you - adopt Dusty you have the right to take him anywhere you like, just as though he were your biological child. Up to Canada. To the moon if you can manage to get there."
"A lot of divorced fathers can't even do that, if they don't have custody. I'd be one up on them. Seems weird."
Mrs. Cardinal wasn't finished. "There's another complication. Once you adopt him, you lose all financial support. If he remains a foster child you'll continue to get payment until his eighteenth birthday."
"Ray and I are saving all our support payments in a trust fund for Dustin. This will cut down on the money he'll get when he turns twenty-five, but otherwise I don't see it as a big factor in our decision. Do you, Ray?"
Dusty shuffled uneasily in his seat. Benton noticed it and addressed him.
"Do you, Dusty? We're deciding your future, you should have your say."
"Can't I be your son and still get the money?"
Mrs. Cardinal chuckled. "No, it's one or the other. But you understand that legally you will be Captain Vecchio's son. You'd have no legal relation with Constable Fraser."
The adults all trained their eyes on Dusty. He shrank in his chair under their gaze, then quickly brightened.
"Unless we all went to Canada and they got married."
"That has nothing to do with this office. Same-sex marriage, even in takes place in a jurisdiction that permits it, is not recognized in Illinois. At least not now and it doesn't look very likely in the near future. I realize this isn't a perfect solution from Constable Fraser's point of view. At least it will allow Dusty to follow the two of you wherever you decide to go."
"I get to keep Dusty forever, in exchange for leaving Benny out in the cold," said Ray.
"I've spent a lot of my life in the cold, it doesn't scare me," said Benton. "I don't think there will be any doubt in Dustin's mind who his fathers are."
"Well, I imagine you'll want to think it over and get back to me," said Mrs. Cardinal.
They all sat looking at one other, until Ray broke the silence by saying "No".
The others stared at him. It was Dusty that said "What?"
"I said 'no'. We don't want to think it over. Once before, in my own living room you asked if I wanted to think it over and we gave you an answer right away. We wanted Dusty. Today's no different."
"Dusty, what do you think of this?" Mrs. Cardinal asked.
"I'd be Ray's son? For real?"
"Well, it's a matter of definition. There are some people who would argue that if you consider yourself my son, then the relationship is as real as any other." Benton fell into didactic mode, an indication to Dusty that he was getting to be more like himself again.
"I'd be one of those people," Ray said.
"Then, gentlemen, I think we have an agreement. I'll send the paperwork to your office tomorrow, Captain Vecchio. And congratulations. It's a boy."
Although it was only shortly after two in the afternoon, Dusty expected Ray to drive all of them back to the apartment. Instead, he pulled up in front of St. Monica's.
"Wait a minute. Who said I was going back to school?"
"Me and Benny have things to discuss. Git!"
Mumbling ineffectual protests, Dusty grabbed his backpack and slid out of the car with it.
As Ray drove off Benton asked him, "What do we have to discuss, Ray?"
"Nothing. I lied."
"Oh." After a pause, Benton asked, "Then, are you taking me back to the Consulate?"
"No, I'm taking you home. Look, Benny, I've been cheated and I want what's rightfully mine. Any other man, when he gets a son, it means he got to have sex first. Now, I haven't had any since we first got Dusty. I'm getting a little frustrated here."
"Your analogy doesn't work Ray. The sex comes, as you say, before the arrival of the child. But I'll waive that point. As long as Dusty is safely at school, we can deal with your frustration."
"Really, you mean it? Benny, that's great." Ray increased the vehicle's speed slightly, hoping Benton wouldn't notice. "Except. . . you're allowed, right? After the heart attack you're allowed."
"Yes, Ray. I'm allowed."
"Good. Well, Benny, seems we've made my mother happy and got her another grandchild. Not the way most men do it, I admit."
"We're not like most men, Ray."
"Say amen to that, Benny."