The boy slowly reached the summit of what he hoped was the final hill before his ultimate destination. Well, since his ultimate destination was Heaven after running away from the misery of the Hell-on-Earth he had recently called home, that wasn't strictly true. But he hoped that as he crested this particular rise in the road then he would at last be able to see below him the haven he sought.
He wasn't disappointed. Through the pine forest that stretched out below him he made out a glimpse of something shimmering in the mid-afternoon sun. As his eyes adjusted o the glare, he made out the shape of the lake with its island in the middle. It was a view he had memorized the moment he saw the photograph months before, a view which he was determined to one day call his own. It was a view that he hoped started the beginning of the rest of his life.
The boy stopped to rest his weary feet, reaching into his backpack as he sank down onto the verge with a heartfelt groan. He pulled out a bottle of water and drank several large gulps before carefully replacing the cap and packing it away again. He didn't want the rest of his few belongings to get wet, especially not the magazine. He pulled it out and opened it to the main feature that he had memorized word for word. Yes, the picture in front of him was exactly the same as the real panorama stretching out before him. The photograph must have been taken from almost exactly this spot.
The tanker driver he had hitched a ride with from the city had dropped him at the Green Valley turnoff from the Expressway eight miles back. The sign had said ten miles from there. The boy hauled his weary 5'6" frame to his feet and muttered to himself, "Not long now, bud. Not long now."
He had just started to descend the hill when some imported car swept past silently before coming to a rapid halt and then reversing back up the hill to where he was slowly walking down with his thumb stuck out, a pained expression gracing his face with each step of his blistered feet. The driver's window powered down and a jolly-looking bearded man in a peaked white sailor's cap poked his head out. "Hello there, young man. Can we give you a lift into town?" He had a funny accent that matched his foreign car, a Jaguar according to the badge. British. He must be the sailing instructor.
"Er, yeah...that'd be great. I'm going to Baysville."
"Perfect, then," replied the sailor. "Hop on board." He nodded over his shoulder.
The boy reached for the rear door and climbed onto the leather bench seat. "Thanks very much, sir. I've been walking for quite a while. It's been a long journey."
"Don't call me Mister. All my friends call me Ahab or Captain. Sometimes, when they're really posh, they call me Captain Ahab. But Phil here," he continued, indicating the boy in the passenger seat, "calls me Dad."
"Um, pleased to meet you both. I'm glad you stopped," said the boy as he closed the door and the car sped off.
Phil turned and spoke up next. He indeed looked about 15 and was kind of cute, just like the article described. If everything in that magazine about the population of this town was correct, this cutie must have his work cut out fighting off more than his share of attention. "Well, Glad-You-Stopped. Where in town do you want us to drop you off?" He giggled.
The hitchhiker blushed. "Oh, sorry. I didn't mean...er...My name's TJ. Anywhere near the town center would be great. Thanks."
"Welcome to Baysville, TJ," chimed father and son in unison a few minutes later as they passed a welcome sign at the town limit. It listed the population as 5287 - exactly four more than the six-month-old article said. The Jag slowed to a halt on the town square.
Baysville's newest arrival climbed out from the back seat. "Thanks for the lift guys. I, uh, I guess I'll see you around."
Captain Ahab looked back at him and smiled quizzically. "I'm sure you will." The car continued down the street towards the lakeshore.
TJ was left standing in the square. It was just the way it had been described in the Peeps Magazine he had taken from his Mom. He looked around to take a quick stock of his situation. The main street ran straight down to the water's edge. Cutting across it at right angles and making up a second side of the square was another large street. The street sign called it Glass Street. A few shops and small businesses were scattered haphazardly amongst what looked to be private homes which looked large, old, and well-kept. He continued down Main Street another block and saw the sign he was looking for pointing to his left on Potter Street. He turned onto Potter and headed up a slight hill, and very soon saw the Town Hall and Court House, an old brick building that said “Fire & Emergency Services” and the bus station. Having gotten his bearings, his next task was to secure gainful employment. He recalled that he had passed a likely-looking establishment just a few minutes before, so turned back toward Main Street. Stensiled on a large glass front was the logo “Bottle Bank” in large green letters. A powerfully built middle-aged man was taking a few minutes to merrily polish the outside of that windows in preparation for the evening crowd.
"Excuse me, sir?" enquired the boy.
"Hi there young man! What can I do for you?" replied yet another strange accent through a big smile. This accent he couldn't place.
"I was wondering if you have any work available? I mean, I'll take anything: even just washing dishes or something."
"I'm guessing you're not about to offer me a printed resume, no? How old are you? What kind of experience do you have?"
TJ looked at his feet. "I used to wait tables before I, er, moved here, but I'm only fifteen."
"Sorry little guy. There's not much we can offer you here. This is a bar, so neither the town elders nor I want to throw someone of your age in here on a typical evening. And trust me - it's not you. It's us. But," the barman winked, smiling goofily, "try the restaurant next door. They're always looking for people like you. Or there's the general store across over there," he indicated, pointing before he disappeared inside after another warm smile.
The boy continued to the restaurant next door (the sign said “Lusiad’s”, also in deep green) and pushed open the door. Although it wasn't locked, the place was deserted. "Geez, they must really trust each other around here," thought TJ as a door opened at the back and someone came swooping in. It was the barman from next door, who had obviously used some interconnecting door.
TJ smiled as he got the joke, and decided to play along with it. "Hi there, sir. A nice man who knows a few things said you might have a job going here for someone with experience. I'm TJ," he grinned hopefully.
The man opposite him held out a hand. "I'm Luis, one of your new bosses if you want the job. But when I'm pissed off, you call me Mr. Cam, okay? You're fifteen, so still at school once classes restart after spring break, no? Fine: your shift is three hours a night; six on Fridays and Saturdays, Mondays off. I'll pay you minimum wage plus your share of the tips. And a meal when you're on duty, plus staff discount when you're not."
"Sure thing boss. When do I start?" TJ beamed.
"It's half past four now. If I say be back for six, will that be enough time for you to get home and get ready?" Luis asked, already suspecting this boy didn't live locally, at least not yet.
"Sure,” TJ lied, staring at his feet.
"I'll make sure there's a uniform for you, okay? Ask for Chris, my partner - I mean manager - and tell him who you are. I'll tell him I hired you and he'll sort out your paperwork. Oh, one last thing... Do you want to be paid daily, or weekly? Cash or transfer into your bank account?"
TJ stared at his feet again, trying to hide his discomfort. "Um, can you start with cash daily?"
"No problem," Luis smiled, getting the whole picture for the umpteenth time since he moved to Boysville. "And by the way, welcome to Baysville!" he added with a knowing smile.
Luis went to dig out a suitably-sized waiter's uniform - black pants, white shirt, and a black bow tie - for the town's newest refugee while the boy in question stepped outside and had a look around for suitable places to sleep. He had put off his departure from home until the warmer spring weather so that he could sleep rough where he needed to, which had turned out to be everywhere. Bus stations had been kind to him, as had the odd park bench here and there. But he knew he couldn't go on much longer the way he had done. For a start, he hadn't showered in nearly a week, since that first night in a Motel 6 after he left home. It had been a big waste of precious money, and he had now virtually run out of the green stuff. But he had made it to Boysville, and had found a job. He knew the rest of his life was beginning.
TJ quickly went down Potter Street again, his goal the Bus Station. The sign posting in Boysville was excellent; the mayor clearly had his priorities right. Unfortunately, such a one-horse hick town couldn't support much of a bus station - it was little more than a row of benches with a roof fronting one large room. But it did have a bank of left luggage lockers that would do nicely until he got himself sorted out. He headed for the public restroom to relieve himself and run some cold water over his face. He realized he looked exhausted as he stared at his brown hair and blue eyes in the mirror. He was indeed exhausted: it had been a long and risky journey, and at times it had been downright frightening. Still, it beat what went before.
He still had more than an hour to kill before he had to report to the restaurant for work, so he headed the few hundred yards down Sixth Street towards the lakeshore. When he reached the water's edge he had a look out towards the island in the middle where he could see some small figures moving around, apparently setting up the campsite there for the summer season. Main Street continued right to the lakeshore, but there it split in a T-junction onto streets that skirted left and right around the lake. He muttered to himself, “Hmmm, Lake Road North…Lake Road South…sounds logical. Can’t get lost, bud. Kewl!” Off to the left, he could see a few houses whose yards apparently backed right down to the shore and, not far beyond those houses, a public beach, picnic area and boat access. Directly in front of the junction was a public jetty; to the right the road twisted and disappeared into a pine forest where the houses were further apart. The smell from the trees was intoxicating. He could just make out a few boats at a marina further along the shore, but the holiday resort he knew to be down there was wholly invisible.
As he walked to the end of the jetty, he had a look down into the water. Like everything in this town it was crystal clear: he knew it held no secrets, no fears, for him. He felt safe. He turned and looked back at the town, and realized for the first time what it would be like to be able to stand up and be counted for exactly the things he stood for. It felt good. "I'm the King of the world!" he shouted across the water in a wave of exhilaration, "and I am what I am!" He punched the air as the echo returned to him from across the water.
TJ arrived at work at a quarter to six. He didn't want to make a bad impression on his first day. He knocked on the door and headed inside the still-deserted restaurant. A cook was lighting a giant built-in charcoal barbecue by the entrance, and a youngish guy was sitting on a stool at the counter leafing through some papers and tapping the keys on a calculator. TJ cleared his throat before speaking first: "Excuse me. I'm looking for Chris."
The guy at the counter put down his papers and looked around the room. "Seeing as he's called Chef and there's no-one else in here, I'd say you found him. I assume you're TJ?"
The older man stood up and held out his hand. "Don't call me sir. I'm Chris, the manager of Lusiad's, this fine establishment. My domestic and business partner Luis owns both this and the dive next door. Are you ready for your first night?"
"You could have fooled me. You smell like you haven't met a bar of soap in a week. Did you give up bathing for Lent?"
TJ blushed. He knew he wasn't going to talk this one away. He decided to be honest and set himself free. "It's that obvious? Sorry, I've only just arrived in town."
"I know. Just yanking your chain. Look, go through that entrance at the rear and down my back passage into the house. The bathroom's the first on the left and we left your uniform there for when you finish. Clean towels are in the cupboard, along with fresh toothbrushes and stuff. Before you go, I'll need your full name and a contact address so that I can get my paperwork up to date."
TJ quickly scribbled down a name on a pad before sheepishly admitting that he didn't have a fixed address at the moment. "Is that going to be a problem?"
"Nah, it's fine, just update me when you settle in." Chris replied, with the Boysville-patented mysterious knowing smile as he looked at the pad. "You must have some set of parents to have saddled you with a name like this."
"That's why I like to be called by my initials."
"I figured. Now go and shower. I can't let you loose on my customers like that." Chris watched his new waiter disappear through the door before he stuck his own head into the adjacent bar and nodded at Luis with a concerned smile. The barman nodded back and reached for the phone.
A few minutes later TJ re-emerged looking a different person altogether. He scrubbed up well, and looked good in his uniform. He worked hard throughout the moderately busy Thursday evening, and even felt a twinge of excitement when three rather cute teens his age and a bedraggled-looking slightly older guy came in for a light meal. They were discussing their band. They noted him as being new in town, and all said hello, adding to the wonderful feeling of warm welcome he had already experienced. They left a nice tip too.
In the Bottle Bank next door, at about the same time as TJ began work, the sheriff was finishing for the day and walked in for a beer with the judge before heading home. Although they occasionally argued about the best way to enforce law and order in Boysville, Rich Restless and Richard Bondi were great buddies - or 'mates' as the judge would say. They were often known as the Two Dicks. A shot of Canadian whiskey and a bottle of Tooheys magically appeared at the counter just as they reached it.
Luis spoke first as he placed a bowl of nibbles in front of them. "Thanks for coming in at such short notice, guys. Help yourself to my nuts, since there's something we need to discuss. We have another new arrival. He's called TJ and is working next door with Chris who's keeping an eye on him for the time being. He's only fifteen and probably been sleeping rough for quite some time."
Rich responded, "Yeah, Cap'n Ahab already dropped by the station to say he picked up a hitchhiker on the way in. I've not had a chance to look around for him since I've had piles of damn paper-pushing to do today. What time will Chris let him go?"
The sheriff continued: "Okay, I'll have a quick look around town after then. If Chris spots where he's going, can you guys let me know?"
"Sure," replied the barman.
Richard spoke up next. "Chief Wolfe's on call for the fire brigade tonight and I need to go and show him a pump which needs a bit of work, then I need to get a bite to eat, so can you see about an emergency foster placement Rich?"
"Nice going sheriff, especially since you don't even have my court order yet. Look, I should really speak to him first, so meet me back here when you find this boy and if you can, er, satisfy me, I'll grant a residence order then."
"Fine, see you back here at nine or shortly after. I'm off home to get changed," replied Rich.
"Aw, you know I like a guy in uniform," chimed in Luis.
"Hah hah. Just don't tell fly-boy over there," the sheriff replied, pointing his thumb over his shoulder at the man shooting pool in a white shirt with captain's stripes on the shoulder. Rich got up and walked out with a grin after signing the chit for his drink.
Richard looked at Luis with a strange expression. "Yeah, don't let Chris hear you say that either. How are things with you two by the way?"
"Still on the rocks. We only speak to each other about the business these days. And of course helping out stray teens." Luis forced a grin.
"Streuth. I think you guys need a break. Why not book into Puerhaven for a night or two? I've heard Marc's 'Cave' bungalow is great for someone like you."
"You - an Australian - are calling me a Neanderthal?"
"Nah, mate, nothing quite so evolved. More like the missing link," Richard smirked as Luis could only scowl back. "I've gotta make tracks - appointment with a wolf, you see."
"Tell him not to bite!" Luis shouted as the judge headed out the door. He waltzed over to the pool table and started chatting to Bubba the pilot. He hated playing pool with Bubba because for some reason his butt kept getting pinched whenever he leaned over, but it beat sitting around twiddling his thumbs waiting for another customer. And he sometimes pinched back. Besides, Rich had nearly drunk his entire supply of cheaply-sourced Crown Royal and he needed to know when the pilot was next doing the Vancouver run.
A little over an hour later the door burst open and in walked Craigers. "Hey Luis!" he shouted, "Where do you and Chris keep finding those cute waiters? I think I'm in love again! Woo Hoo!"
The response came quickly in a matter-of-fact tone. "I'm sorry. They keep throwing themselves at me."
Bubba looked up with a glint in his eye. "You got a new waiter next door? I'm off for a bite. I mean, a bite to eat. Or maybe just a lick!" Bubba grabbed his jacket and cap, and dashed for the door before anyone could say another word. Luis and Craigers just rolled their eyes heavenward, making tut-tut noises, before Craigers was told to put his own tongue back in too.
A couple of hours later after TJ had finished servicing Bubba and the other diners Chris called him to knock off for the evening, handing an envelope of cash over as he did so.
Chris smiled: "Good work TJ - it's nice to see someone get into the swing of things so quickly. Your clothes are still back in the house if you want to go and collect them before you go."
"Thanks boss." TJ went into the house and looked around for the clothes he had left in a pile on the bathroom floor in his earlier haste. His jeans, T-shirt, and sweat top had been washed, dried, and neatly folded, and his jacket brushed down. TJ smiled as he put them back on and headed back into the restaurant to find Chris. "Uh, you didn't have to wash these things you know, but thanks anyway."
"I did have to. Had they been any dirtier they would have walked into the laundry by themselves. I will never figure out the teenage boy's mind."
"I don't know how to thank you. Do you want to take the cost out of my pay-packet?"
"Don't be stupid; I didn't even ask you. You can make it up for me some other time," came the smiling reply. A look of horror crossed TJ's face and he began to tear up.
"You mean you want... Favors?"
There was a stunned silence. "What? No! Nothing of the sort!" Chris now looked worried.
TJ was a mixture of distraught and delighted. "You don't want any tricks? I mean, every other person who has been halfway nice to me has always demanded, you know..."
"In Baysville we're not like that. I washed your clothes because they were filthy and I was doing some laundry anyway. I look after my staff - I don't exploit them. No one here does. No one hurts anyone in this town. Once you meet the sheriff and the others then you'll know that."
"What do you mean 'when I meet the sheriff'?"
"It's a small town, and we all look out for each other. You'll meet him soon. And everyone else. Trust me."
"Undoubtedly. But I gotta get going. It's been a long day and I'm tired. Same time tomorrow?"
"Sure," replied Chris. "I'll walk you to the door." The manager followed his charge to the restaurant entrance and watched him disappear up the street before he ran back to the phone, dialed, identified himself, and simply announced "bus station".
TJ meanwhile had arrived at an inviting-looking bench and wrapped up for the night, which was rapidly chilling after the heat of the day. Minutes later, before he had even dropped off to sleep, a police Bronco pulled up. A man hopped out and approached him, flashing a badge. TJ sat up, pleading: "I haven't done anything officer!"
"Apart from being a young man in need of a warm bed and a caring home, no you haven't, except that you're making my bus station look untidy." He held out his hand, grinning. "I'm Sheriff Restless, and I think I can solve both those problems tonight."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean find you a place where you are safe and welcome, and make the bus station tidy in the process. I will not have lonely kids sleeping rough in my town, not if we want to call ourselves a civilized society. Now get in the truck."
TJ had spent the last week or so being an independent young man, and hated it. He hadn't made the cut, because at fifteen he was still a kid who needed to be cared for. He realized it that moment, and began to shed a tear or two as a visible sign of his relief. He did as he was told and headed for the Bronco, grateful to be heading for a proper roof and being wanted. He would have opted for a police cell right then. "Thanks sheriff. What's gonna happen to me?"
"First, we find a judge to issue a temporary a residence order for you, then we find you a home. That enough for tonight?"
"Yeah!" gasped the boy, amazed.
"I'm not goin' to pry, but I'm guessing you've had a rough time recently," Rich enquired casually as he drove the few hundred yards back to the Bottle Bank.
"Kind of, but I'd rather not talk about it."
"That's exactly the way we operate in this town, son. There's no pressure. Take everything at your own pace." He parked up alongside a Commodore in front of the bar and peered in. "It looks like Judge Bondi has gone inside. Stay here while I go and get him." Rich disappeared inside, only to re-emerge a few seconds later waving at his charge to come inside.
TJ hopped out of the truck and strolled over. "Am I allowed inside?"
"It's TJ, isn't it?" Rich enquired.
"Yeah. Hey, how did you-"
"Look TJ," interrupted Rich, "I'm the town sheriff and the judge is inside. Around here we and the mayor make the law. Your future hangs in the balance right now: I think we can manage to overlook you being in there just this once, okay? We're an easygoing lot really. Besides, Judge Bondi is in the middle of a game and didn't want to forfeit his turn. Come on in."
Inside, a man in a fedora hat with corks dangling around the edge was leaning over the pool table about to take a shot. He missed before he took a swig of beer, belched, and sauntered over to where TJ was standing by the doorway. The man in the funny hat looked at TJ, and then spoke in yet another strange accent. "G'day! You're TJ, yeah?" He waited for a nod. "New in town?" Another nod. "And nowhere to go tonight?" A shake of the head this time. "You run away from home?" More shy nodding, just as another four shots thundered into the pockets on the table in quick succession.
A cry of "Woo Hoo!" punctuated the air.
"Flamin' mongrel!" retorted the cork-hat guy, before he turned back to the boy and continued. "Where is home?"
"A long way away," replied TJ.
"What does that mean?"
"I'm talking different time zones."
The Australian burped again, and then turned to Rich. "I've heard enough for now. Take him down to the house; I'll be around to formalize everything tomorrow." He turned to the trembling teenager in front of him, and addressed him. "TJ, I'm Judge Bondi, or Richard if you prefer, and it's my job right now to make sure that you are looked after according to your best interests. You understand that?" He waited for a nod. "Okay, Sheriff Restless here is going to take you to a registered foster family for the time being. They're a really nice couple, with a boy about your age, so you shouldn't find it too intimidating. If there are any problems then here is my card - give me a call."
TJ took the card, and offered profuse thanks.
"No worries mate," responded the judge. "And welcome to Baysville."
Baysville's newest resident followed Rich back out past the Commodore to the Bronco. "What kind of car is a Holden?" asked the teen.
"Some Australian GM thing. There's stuff from all over the world in this town - we're a truly global community, and we welcome anyone who wants to live with us. Even Australians. Now come on, it's only a minute or two to your foster home."
"Uh, sheriff," began TJ, "I think there's something this couple ought to know before they let me into their home. I don't want to begin with a secret or, worse, a lie."
"Oh?" Rich was unconcerned.
TJ knew he could trust the policeman, but he still felt the world was about to swallow him whole. He closed his eyes expecting nemesis. "I'm gay."
The sheriff's reply was instant. "That all? Jeez, here's me thinking you're wanted by the police in six states or something! Trust me, I don't think this particular couple are gonna have any problems with you being gay. I'm certain they'll still welcome you. But, I'm not gonna tell them what you just told me. That's for you to decide at your own pace, when you feel comfortable, and when you want to tell them. If ever. They'll know that it doesn't change you one bit, and they'll still care for you. Everybody that matters in his whole town will."
They arrived at the waterside house a few minutes later. A floodlight automatically lit up the driveway, allowing Rich and his charge to get out and walk up to the door and press the buzzer.
It swung open slowly. A rather handsome, if furry, middle-aged man with these devil-may-care eyes stood there. "Hi Rich, we've been waiting." The furry man - another Brit to judge from the accent - looked at the teen in front of him. "You must be TJ. Come in and meet the rest of the family." They stepped into the hall and Rich swung the door closed behind them. "I'm John by the way, and this is my partner-"
"We've already met," interrupted a voice from the doorway into the lounge. "How are you doing TJ?"
"Hello again Captain Ahab," replied an astonished teen. "I'm fine now." He broke into a big smile of relief, which in turn was interrupted by the thundering of feet on the stairs. Two more teens burst onto the scene.
Phil spoke first. "Hey TJ, you're moving in with us. Cool! This is my best friend Paul, he's around here quite a lot on sleepovers and stuff so get to know each other real well if you're planning on stayin'!"
"Actually, we've already met as well," continued Paul. "At the restaurant, remember? You served me and my music friends. Call me Mouse."
"Yeah, of course. Hi Paul, I'm TJ as you just heard." They shook hands as Paul looked intently into his eyes, searching for something. "How was your dinner?"
"Great! That place has the best barbecued chicken in the state!" They continued shaking hands, swimming in each other’s eyes.
Paul cleared his throat after a few more seconds and spoke. "Er, can I have my hand back, or do ya want to keep it?"
"Sorry!" TJ sprang back, turning bright red. "I didn't realize." He still didn't break his gaze. Neither did Paul.
There was an awkward silence, which Phil finally broke. "Why don't we show you to your room? I'm sure these old men have something important to discuss."
The three boys headed upstairs, followed by a shout from the sheriff of "And less of the old!"
TJ spent an hour or so chatting with Phil and Paul, both of whom seemed very decent people, before he admitted that he hadn't slept properly for days and needed to go to bed. Paul headed downstairs to catch a lift home from Rich, while Phil showed TJ where everything in the bathroom was. Suddenly, Phil got serious. "You ran away from home, didn't you?"
"Who told you?"
"Nobody did. But it's real obvious. If you ever want to talk, we're all here for you. The whole town is. What brought you here anyway?"
"I read in a magazine... I heard this town was friendly to people like me," TJ admitted.
"What exactly do you mean, 'people like you'?" Phil looked concerned.
TJ went very quiet. "Gay people," he whispered.
"What, you mean ordinary, normal, day-to-day people? Teej, I think it's time I let you in on a little secret... No one here gives a damn. I should know: I've got two Dads."
"Yeah, what's the story with that?"
"Some other time, TJ. For now, just concentrate on feeling respected for the things you choose to be, not the things you don't choose."
"Phil, can I tell you something?"
"Sure, fire away."
"I am so relieved to have found Baysville. It's like a dream come true: I'm in a community where I am recognized as a whole human being, and now - I hope - I'm in a home where I'm wanted. If the phrase didn't sound so, well, spoken-for, I'd say it was like A New Life. It feels good."
"Since you're a resident, you should call this place Boysville now. Heaven knows, everyone else around here does. And TJ?"
"It's good to have you in the family."
"Thanks." The boys were interrupted by a knock on the door.
"It's only me..." came the voice from outside as the door swung further open. It was the captain. "Phil, can you give me a few moments with TJ?" Phil disappeared. "I never got a real chance to welcome you to our home, but I want you to know that we're all here for you. In this house, indeed in this town generally, we're all on your side. If you're going to be staying with us, then naturally there'll be some house rules. We'll go through them later. First, though, there are only a few more days of spring break left, so we'll need to make an appointment to see Mr. Arnold to see about getting you registered for school. He lives here in Boysville so I'll get him to drop around tomorrow. And Richard - Judge Bondi - will want to hold a formal hearing tomorrow as well about your placement here. Can you handle that?"
"I know you've had a long day, and a long journey to get here. Try and get some rest. Goodnight."
TJ didn't argue. He was asleep the moment he hit the pillow.
Back at the Bottle Bank things were winding down for the night. Rich had returned to let Richard and Luis know that everything seemed to be working out for TJ. "Good call," he had concluded. As the various clients staggered out into the street, Luis asked if anyone had seen Bubba since his sudden departure for a meal. No one had, and Bubba hadn't signed for his tab.
The barman locked the door and cleared the last of the glasses and bottles from the tables before removing the nozzle from the draft beer tap and dropping it into a glass of soda water to soak overnight. He then moved through the interconnecting door into the now-deserted restaurant and had a final check on the doors himself. All was secure as he headed back into the house he shared with the man he loved. Or, at least, the man he thought he loved. Luis and Chris were going through a rough patch at the moment.
The house was dark. Chris would have already gone to bed, since he had the breakfast crowd to deal with in the morning. Luis trotted into the kitchen and grabbed a glass of water before he headed back into the lounge to power up the TV and catch the late news. The light from the set lit up an object on the coffee table that shouldn't have been there normally. It was a peaked cap. A pilot's cap.
"Oh Chris," he eventually managed to force out to the empty room. "Not Bubba, please. How could you?" He turned off the TV and headed for the bedroom.
TJ's first morning in Boysville dawned bright and sunny, although he had been so exhausted the sun was already high in the sky by the time he finally awoke. It summed up his mood entirely as he lay in bed and recalled the events of the previous day. He hopped out of bed and walked, in his boxers, along to the bathroom to shower before he headed downstairs to where noises were being made.
The door onto a verandah on the lake-facing side of the house was open, and there was a group seated at the table there drinking coffee and soaking up the warm spring sunshine. John was absent, but Ahab and Phil were there along with another man, showing few signs of his age.
The stranger spoke up. "You must be TJ. I'm Mr. Arnold; I work at the high school in the city and I've come to see about getting you signed up."
Phil stood up and placed a hand on TJ's shoulder before whispering, "Don't worry, he's one of those really great teachers you trust with your life, not just your education. I've gotta go to Mouse's place, but get Dad to give you directions or a ride over. We're waitin' for ya."
TJ sat with the two men while they discussed his educational abilities and needs. Being gay at his last high school had been an experience and a half, and he didn't want a repeat, but as he took a walk down to the private part of the shore to chat alone with Mr. Arnold, he somehow just knew that things would be OK, particularly if he stuck with the great friends he'd made already who all just seemed so cool towards him. Mr. Arnold was very good at reassuring him about his fears, and pointed him towards the positive side of what could be a traumatic experience: the chance to start afresh and set his own terms, and the chance to put any history behind him. Finally, as Mr. Arnold pointed out, he wouldn't be the first one to go through what he was going through, and the rest had lived to tell the tale, even prosper here in Boysville. He was actually looking forward to starting a new school the following Monday!
After Mr. Arnold left, the captain explained that since John was looking after the boating store for the day he was able to take him down to the courthouse for a quick hearing in chambers with the judge and then into the city to get things like a supply of clothes. TJ was disappointed that he couldn't spend the rest of the morning with Phil and Mouse, but he trusted Ahab and reluctantly agreed to go with him. Besides, he hoped to clear the ground for a man-to-man discussion about why he ended up in Boysville. He needed to be honest and upfront with this man who had provided him with a chance of a future for apparently no other reason than chance.
Earlier, Luis had heaved himself out of the empty bed and showered before dressing and heading into the restaurant where his partner was taking care of the few regular breakfast customers. He walked over to the coat rack by the door and very deliberately placed the errant pilot's cap on a hook before fixing Chris with a look and returning to the house at the back of the restaurant. He didn't utter a word. Neither did Chris.
That afternoon, as he returned from the city with his foster Dad, TJ was amazed to see a man on a ladder repainting the welcome sign to read "Population 5288". He grinned a big grin to himself as the Jaguar swooped past. He was already a member of the community.
Later that evening, after TJ had headed for work and Phil back to Mouse's, Ahab and John snuggled up together on the couch. "It's great having another one isn't it?" began Ahab.
"You don't want more, do you? Your wife or mine?" John giggled.
"He told me this afternoon when we were in the car that he ran away from home to come here after he read that Peeps Magazine article. He's the fifth 'refugee' in six months. If every single gay or bi kid in the country read that and felt the same, we'd be swamped, especially with summer coming up and family arguments coming to a head and so on. Remember how some of us joked a while ago about building a Shelter? It doesn't seem like so much of a joke now, does it?"
"Okay, I think it's about time we took the bull by the horns and got some action going about it," said Ahab, his fingers running through John's fur. "Shall we get some of the guys together and think about what's needed?"
"Okay, but that can wait. Right now, at least one guy needs some action right here, and the boys are out of the house." John slowly got up and opened his eyes wide, super-expressively.
"I'm right behind you, so to speak," yelled Ahab as he chased John up the stairs.