"Wouldn't it be great to have a mom like her!" chortled eight-year-old Marcus Reinhardt aloud as he scrolled through an Internet document titled 'Memories.'
"It'd be nice to have any kind of a mom," mumbled Galen Alexander, his cousin. His comment referred to the fact that, while he had a mother, he didn't really have a *mom*. He was eleven years old, and his parents had been divorced for nine of them. He had finally come along after they'd been married seven years, his mother having had trouble conceiving. They went to a clinic and got fertility treatments, then finally Sonya had gotten pregnant. When Galen Michael was born, they called him their 'miracle baby'; and he was, but ultimately his birth caused more problems than it solved, and Galen's parents divorced two years later. Since then she had involved herself in a paying job and charity work, leaving Galen to fend more or less for himself. More often than not he'd come home from school only to find the house dark and empty, and he had to fix his own dinner. Sometimes it was too much trouble to bother.
"Scroll back to that part where Teri gives the restaurant owner hell for threatening to throw those two boys out," Galen went on - "what were their names?"
"Rusty and Robby," answered Scott, Marcus's fourteen-year-old brother.
"Yeah, that was it. I *love* reading that part. I thought it was just so kewl when she told that guy he would do no such thing."
"Are you guys reading 'Clan Short' stories again?" came an amused voice from the den doorway.
All three boys' faces turned slightly pink. "Oooops!"
The owner of the new voice playfully pointed a finger at the three. "BUSTED!" he said.
As all three started to giggle, Galen said, "If there was a pool, would you toss us in, Uncle Kurt?"
'Uncle Kurt' was Kurt Wallace Farnsworth, brother to the boys' mothers. He was born in 1976, and was considered kind of a black sheep. At twenty-eight, he was still single. He was well-educated, having gotten a BS in social work from Penn State in 2002. Refusing to go any further in his education, he found a job at the York Center for the Developmentally Disabled. He claimed to be happy with the job; said it gave him opportunities for one-on-one contact with the clients, and a chance to see inside their heads, to what made them 'tick.' Some family members suspected he might be gay; no one ever remembered him becoming involved with a woman, but neither did he seem to have a lot of male friends, or even one or two 'special' ones.
"We-e-e-ll, I might," he answered his nephews, "if it wasn't late October in York, Pennsylvania. C'mon, Marjorie's got dinner just about ready." The four left the den and walked toward the dining room where Marjorie and Sonya were just setting the table.
"Well, nice to see you could make it," Marjorie sneered. "I could have used a little help earlier. But no, you had to go snoopin' on that froggin' Internet all morning, leaving all the work for me."
"But Mom," Scott protested, "we figured you'd want us out of the way."
Marjorie just glowered. "Yeah, well," she mumbled, then hollered, "GUS! It's time to carve the roast! Honestly, sometimes I don't know how I put up with that man. Here it is our anniversary, and all he does is eat, sleep, work; eat, sleep, work. Be nice if he'd at least acknowledge the fact that I cook his meals and clean for him."
Sonya put in, "I think he does, Marj; you just don't give him a chance to show it."
"And how would *you* know, Sonya Alexander? You couldn't even hang on to yours."
Sonya laughed. "Not that I wanted to, there at the end. Galen and I do well enough."
No one saw the pained expression that briefly clouded Galen's face.
"Okay, you guys," Marjorie said, "dinner's ready. You've just got time to go wash up while Gus carves the roast."
After they had all sat down to dinner, grace had been said, and platters of food had been passed around, Marjorie made announcement. "I got this letter that my kids brought home from school Tuesday."
"I got one too," put in Sonya.
Marjorie glared at her sister, then continued, "It seems that there's some problem with the heating system at the school, so they wanna close school all next week so they can repair it. Now granted, cold weather's coming on, and the kids gotta have heat, so better get it fixed now than in the dead of winter. But that means that us working folks have got to find some way of making sure our kids get looked after - or take time off from work, which nobody can afford to do *these* days. Sonya, as a single mom, you don't really have anybody, do you, that could look after Galen all day?"
"Oh, I could figure something out, if I had to. He's eleven, after all, and he's alone part of the time anyway."
"Ain't *that* the truth*!" he muttered somewhat bitterly.
"Well, Marcus is only eight, and there's no way he's gonna be left alone in this house for any length of time if I can help it! I've got a college girl that helps out sometimes, while she's home on vacations, but she's away at college now. And Dad barely knows his own name any more. So here I am, stuck between a rock and a hard place. If anyone has any ideas, I'm all ears."
"I may be able to come up with a solution to your problem, Marjie," said Kurt. "I've got some comp and leave time coming; I can call and get a replacement and take next week off, and take all three kids to Disney World."
Marjorie glared at Kurt suspiciously. "Why would you want to spend your leave time shepherding around three obnoxious kids?"
Kurt grinned. "Oh, they're not so obnoxious as all that. Besides, we have a lot in common. It'd be fun for all of us. C'mon, whaddaya say?"
"Well, I'll have to think about it. I'm not sure having my kids out of my sight for a whole week is an idea I'm entirely comfortable with, but it at least solves the problem. Oh, all right," she finally relented. "I guess they'll be in as good hands as anywhere else; at least I know they're with someone who's family."
Sonya commented, "Well, the Foundation's big fund-raiser is coming up in two weeks. I was afraid I was going to have to waste time staying home with Galen instead of working on plans for it. This'll get him out from underfoot. If you're sure you want the brat for a whole week, Kurtie, go ahead and take him."
A chorus of enthusiastic "Yea-a-a-a!'s" sounded from Marcus and Galen. Scott's beaming face showed he would have joined in, if it were not beneath the dignity of his fourteen years to render a childish cheer.
That night three excited kids and one young man were up late deciding what to take and packing for the trip. They were planning to leave early the next morning.
Kurt was up early, having slept over at Marjorie's, as had Galen, who had been ebullient at the chance. Sonya coldly dropped off a suitcase of Galen's clothes, then walked briskly to her car without a word to the boy. At 7:30 sharp, Kurt called the Admin. Office at the Center. "Gladys, this is Kurt. I'll be taking that comp. time. - Yes, dammit, it's 'use or lose'. I have to take it before New Year's. - Oh, today and all of next week. - No, I do *not* need your permission; I have leave time built up, and I'm calling it in. - Look, Sam, Jen, and Al are all on the schedule; you'll manage without me. - I'm *entitled*, dammit; look in the employee rules. - My family needs me; my nephews need caring for. - The school closure; just call the school district if you need proof. - Well, if you want to be that way, go ahead and take it up with Ivan. He'll be just *overjoyed* at the first valid employee grievance since he took over the reins, and make no mistake about it, it *would be* a valid grievance. - I'll see you a week from Monday, either on my job or in Ivan's office, your choice. Goodbye!"
"People like her are what give the term 'bureaucrat' a bad taste," Kurt groused to his sister.
"Don't be risking your job for those kids," Marjorie answered, pulling together the work she'd brought home on Wednesday.
"There's no risk," Kurt answered. "Ivan, my new boss since August, has been after me to take the comp. time I built up working overtime while we were shorthanded. He likes my work a lot. Gladys is just an officious little office clerk who thinks she should have been put in charge, and believes she could run the Center, and everyone else's life too, far better than they are capable of doing. I rather hope she does put me on report; it'll be a pleasure to see Ivan take her down a couple of notches. I may still be your baby brother, but I do know what I'm doing."
"I sure hope so," Marjorie sniffed.
Marjorie left for work minutes later; Gus had been gone since 6:30. Scott packed up changes of clothes for himself and Marcus, softly declining Kurt's offer of help. Marcus was as hyper as a grasshopper on a caffeine high, dashing through the house after his shower in only a towel. Kurt hid a chuckle when the towel fell down and Markus did an impromptu bump and grind to the perky wake-up song playing on 'the River,' the Harrisburg station on the radio. After swinging by Kurt's apartment to pack a few clothes, and the bank to draw down some cash and switch some savings into his debit card account, they were on their way.
"Turn on some tunes, Unk," Marcus requested as they merged onto Interstate 83 southbound. The radio was full of reports of traffic backups in Harrisburg's overcongested road system, and Kurt thought to himself that he was lucky to be heading south. Doing a quick estimate in his head, he was relieved to realize they'd miss most of Baltimore's rush hour.
"As 'the River' faded, Kurt scanned for a Baltimore station. Everyone seemed to be doing morning news; he finally settled on one station. "Controversy continues over the hotly contested election in Towson," the earnest-voiced newscaster intoned. Kurt mentally tuned him out of his consciousness, watching a big rig highball past him well above the limit. "In other news, the victim of a recent mugging is dead, an apparent suicide. The 14-year-old boy, whose name is being withheld, was reportedly beaten and raped by a gang of boys from his neighborhood last weekend." Galen, riding shotgun, wore an expression mixing grief and anger.
Scott, sitting behind Kurt, said, "That sounds like a story from that TV show, 'Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.'"
"It's unfortunately all too real, Scotty," Kurt answered. "Far too many people are more than willing to hurt others."
"That's not right," Galen said.
"No, it isn't, Gale," his uncle replied. "But unfortunately, in the real world, it happens too *damn* often." He hit the scan button and was rewarded by music.
The Baltimore Beltway traffic was fairly light, to Kurt's relief, and he swung onto Route 95 with a sense of relief. But a bit over an hour later, Murphy's Law caught up with him: the Capital Beltway was a five-lane-wide parking lot.
The boys were restless, even Scott, who manfully did his best to watch for gaps in traffic and drivers doing stupid things. Nor was the radio any help. WBIG's oldies seemed to have been picked out by someone with exactly opposite tastes than Kurt's or the boys', and again the news was depressing. "The veteran congressman denied allegations he had sexual relations with a ring of underage boy prostitutes," the newscaster reported. "Two boys are in critical condition in Sisters of Mercy Hospital. City social workers report that they had apparently been denied food by their caregivers for several days. Charges are pending."
"Somebody ought to get Clan Short after those people," Marcus said indignantly.
"They're just *stories*," his big brother said.
"I *know* that!" Markus retorted. "I'm not a little kid, after all. But somebody oughta do the sort of stuff they do, for real, to help those kids."
"You're right about that," Kurt answered his youngest nephew. "Unfortunately, what the laws allow mean that a lot of kids slip through the cracks, and don't get the help they need."
"Maybe the President oughta start up something like Clan Short, or FYS, to help 'em, then," Galen opined thoughtfully.
"I think his hands are tied, unless somebody breaks a Federal law," Kurt responded. "It's something the states have to deal with."
"Well, somebody oughta make 'em *do* it, then," Marcus interjected.
A SUV whose driver was busy on a cell phone chose that moment to interrupt the conversation, as it whipped into a space in the next lane that Kurt had been signaling to move into. "Son of a ... seapup!" Kurt shouted.
"I know what you were thinking," Marcus giggled.
"Yeah, but I'm not supposed to use that kind of language in front of you guys," Kurt answered, his anger dissipated by the imp's comment.
"Why not?" Galen asked. "It's not like we haven't heard it before."
They were distracted by Beltway Police moving down the shoulder, lights and sirens going.
"I will be ... blessedly ... happy to be out of this mess," said Kurt to nobody in particular.
An interminable time later, a white-knuckled Kurt gingerly negotiated the perpetual construction at the turnoff for Route 95 south. "We'll stop for lunch as soon as we clear the worst of the suburbs," he told the boys.
"It's already after 2:00," Scott said. "I'm hungry, all right, but maybe you might want to just buy a bunch of snacks at a convenience store and push on south until dinner time."
"That makes some sense," Kurt conceded. Both younger boys agreed.
After a quick stop for fuel and a supply of snacks, they headed south through Virginia. Dinner was a couple hours later at a truck-stop diner off one interchange, an unimpressive meal further spoiled by the obnoxious and bigoted foursome at the next table. The waitress was both surly and inattentive, to the point Marcus commented, "If she doesn't get here and take our order real quick, I'll be forced to go call 9-1-1 from starvation!" Kurt chuckled; Galen and Scott giggled.
The foursome got back into their car relieved to be out of that place, as the sun was dropping behind trees to the west. "I'll need to find a motel pretty soon," Kurt said. "You boys have any preferences?"
"If it has a bed, I'll be happy," Scott answered. Marcus claimed shotgun for this leg of the trip. Kurt enjoyed his commentary on things seen along the road until he started getting drowsy, uncharacteristically early for the sparkplug youngest boy.
"Go ahead and ask him; this is Unk, not one of the *grownups*," came Scott's sotto voce comment to Galen in the back seat a few minutes later.
"Unk?" came Galen's voice, laden with uncertainty.
"What, Gale?" he answered affably.
"C'n I sleep in with you tonight, in your bed?"
Kurt was taken aback. "I don't think that's a good idea, Galen. Some people would get the wrong idea."
"All right," came the reply, quavering as if Galen was holding back tears.
A few seconds silence.
"Unk," Scott said. "I don't think you understand."
Kurt took notice; though it was clearly his 14-year-old oldest nephew's voice, there was a different tone, a maturity, he normally didn't hear from him. "Hmmm?" he temporized, in a tone inviting Scott to explain.
"You've been working a lot, the last few months," Scott said. 'Wha'?' Kurt's thought ran. 'That's a fast change of subject.'
"I mean, you haven't seen a lot of us this fall," Scott continued.
"Okay, but what does that have to do with anything?" Kurt responded, beginning to get a sinking feeling about where this was going.
"Well," Scott continued, "when Gale sleeps over, we usually sleep in a 'puppy pile' like in the stories, all three of us."
"And ...." Kurt prompted.
"Because *that's the only cuddling and affection Galen ever gets!*" Scott said with an almost defiant air.
"My mom says I'm too old for that stuff. And when you're a grownup, the only times you can cuddle is if you're married to someone. And I'm too little to get married yet!" Galen was nearly in tears. 'Dear sister, we are going to have a serious talk when we get back from this trip,' Kurt thought.
"Little bug," Kurt said, deliberately using the small-child pet name that Galen, or more accurately his mother, had rejected several years back. "I would be honored if you would share my bed tonight. I just realized I need some hugs from a nephew who loves me - if you still do after that."
"*Ex*-cellent," Galen said, cheering up. "Thanks, Unk!!"
Realizing there might be issues, Kurt addressed his next question to Scott. "Scotty, you're old enough now that, um, well ...."
"It's cool, Unk. We all know what grownup guys' bodies look like, and we all get boners sometimes when we're sleeping. Nobody will think a thing of it."
"Yeah," said the now-awake Marcus. "Scotty's is *ginormous*!"
"Marcus Aurelius!" gasped an embarrassed Scott.
"I don't think Scott appreciated your publicizing that bit of information," chuckled Kurt.
"Well, it *is*," said an unrepentant Marcus, grinning.
Shortly afterwards, Kurt noted a chain motel, one with a sleeping duck for a logo, ahead. It proved to have a double room vacant at a reasonable price, and they checked in. Minutes later, Galen had occupied one bed and Marcus the other, and they were half-asleep or more. Kurt motioned Scott over by him. "Thanks a lot, Scotty. I was trying to do the right thing, but if you hadn't spoken up, I would have hurt Galen really badly without realizing it. Let's talk more about this tomorrow, okay?"
"You bet, Unk. And I needed to; nobody else seems to care about Gale."
"Somebody does now - always has but didn't know," Kurt replied. "And I plan on having a little talk with your oh-so-busy aunt."
"Good," said Scott, with clenched jaw and an appreciative nod. "I was afraid I was gonna have to, and I'd get bit... bawled out for sassing her."
"You probably would have gotten bitched out - but I have privileges you don't. By the way, you will not get bitched out by me for plain speaking when it's needed, including calling a spade a spade, or a bitchout a bitchout."
"Thanks, Unk," Scott smiled. "G'nite."
Kurt changed into the sleeping shorts he'd brought, and was shortly rewarded by a drowsy young body cuddled up against his side. He gave Galen a squeeze and drifted off to sleep himself.