"Everyone still want to hit church first?" Kurt asked the boys the next morning. Nods of agreement met his question. "Here's a St. David's Episcopal Church only two blocks from the motel. We can grab breakfast at the Waffle House next door, then head over for church, and leave right from there."
"I like that idea," Scott said. "I keep getting the feeling we are being told something, and aren’t getting it - something about helping them."
"Me too," said Galen. "It felt like I was being, you know, odd, feeling that way - like there are big problems happening somewhere, and *we* need to do something about them. I'm glad you said that, Scotty."
"It's called growing up, guys," Kurt said. "Taking responsibility for the needs of those around you. That's why they like my work so much at the Center. And some adults, by law at least, haven't grown up by that standard. I'm proud of you guys."
"I'm hungry," said Marcus. Everybody chuckled, packed up their bags, and proceeded to check out.
St. David's proved to be a fairly modern-looking building, with walls composed largely of clear glass windows and a lot of blond wood inside. The service began with what the boys considered a bunch of religious foofaraw, but things changed. The Scripture reading was from Isaiah 6, and concluded, "Then I heard the Lord's voice, 'Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?' and I said, 'Here I am; send me.'" The choir began:
I, the lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my children's cry.
Who will bring my love to them?
Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you send me.
I will hold your children in my heart.
The sermon carried on with that message: "When they asked Jesus what were the most important things in the Law, he said to love God with all that is in you, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And that means everyone: black or white, old or young, gay or straight - everyone. And that love has to be a practical love, one that actually acts when it sees need. For each one of us, sooner or later, we will hear, 'Whom shall I send?' And our answer has to be 'Here I am, Lord. Send me. I will carry your love to those who need your help.'"
All three boys and Kurt were stunned. It was like the preacher had been riding along with them, reading their hearts, and answering the questions they had been trying to put together and ask. Kurt noticed all three boys kneeling and praying, evidently quite fervently, at the time for prayers. And he himself asked God to guide him in helping them, and to honor their prayers and bless the boys he loved.
After the service, Kurt greeted the minister, commenting, "That was a deeply moving service. I think the choir and sermon spoke directly to these boys' hearts; I know it did to mine."
"Well, I hope we see a lot more of you," the minister responded warmly.
"Unfortunately, no," Kurt answered. "We're from Pennsylvania, traveling south to Florida, and just visiting for the day."
"Oh, I mistook you for members of the congregation I hadn't met yet. You see, this is only my third Sunday here. I just got called here from the Midwest last month."
"Oh, where were you before?" Kurt responded affably.
"A new little mission church in a Des Moines suburb, just helping them get started. St. Michael's Church, in Urbandale, Iowa."
On the road again, they picked up 95 and headed south. Near Brunswick, GA, Kurt noticed signs for a chain restaurant, and pulled off at the proper exit. "Lunch break," he announced. "Any disagreements?"
"Nope," said Marcus with a broad expectant smile. "I could eat a horse!"
"Okay, one horse for Marcus," Kurt agreed, grinning. "Scotty, Gale, you two more interested in normal food?"
A chorus of giggles agreed, and they proceeded into the restaurant.
"Well, that felt good," Kurt said as they got back into the car after a pleasant, filling meal.
"Yeah, they even let me have mustard on my hamburger. Mom says that's weird," Galen bubbled, smiling from ear to ear.
"It is a bit odd, by most people's standards,” Kurt answered seriously. "But what you guys need to pick up on is that you're privileged to have what you want, not what other people think is the right thing to do. If you like your hamburg with mustard, Gale, that's just fine - never mind that most people don't."
"Look," Marcus said, back in the front passenger seat again. "There's a kid hitching a ride, there on the on ramp."
"You gotta stop, Unk," Galen chimed in from the right rear.
"I don't know," Kurt said. "If I were by myself, I'd give him a lift, but I'm responsible for you guys' safety."
"If we don't stop," Scotty said seriously, "it'll be like we were ignoring all the stuff we heard, and what the preacher said in church."
"Well," said Kurt, braking to pull over near the boy, "we can at least ask and find out what we can do to help.
"Need a lift?" he asked as the hitchhiker dashed up to his car window. The boy seemed to be around 5'4", in his early teens. A narrow, fine-featured face bore an expression in which anxiety and hope were mingled. Badly worn jeans, a yellowed T-shirt, and cheap canvas shoes covered his slender frame.
"Yeah, if you'd be willing to help," the boy answered, looking abashed. His gaze went past Kurt to the three boys, first Marky in the front, then Galen, and then lingered on Scott.
"Where are you bound for?" Kurt asked.
"Orlando, if I can get there," the boy answered. "I'm hoping I can find help down there."
"Well, we'll give you a lift. We're headed for Orlando ourselves. But answer me one question honestly: are you in any legal trouble, where I'd get myself or these boys in trouble for transporting you?"
"No, sir, honest, less'n runnin' away is a crime. I just had to get away, and go find help."
"Okay, hop in. Galen, squish over and let this boy have a place to sit, will you?"
The back seat was a little crowded, with two teens and an 11-year-old sharing it, and Kurt resolved to switch seating arrangements around at the Florida welcome center, putting Marcus in back and giving one of the older boys some leg room.
The new kid allowed that his name was Jude, but did not volunteer any further information, and responded to the boys' efforts to draw him out with brief, uninformative answers. After 15 minutes of this, Galen announced, "He's afraid, if he tells us about himself, we won't like him, and will throw him out of the car, or worse, send him back where he came from."
Fear and panic came across Jude's face, and Kurt intervened. "No worries, Jude. These three have decided to make themselves into sort of the Boys' Rescue League. You're their first find. And I completely support their efforts.
"Gale, if you're going to suddenly develop E.S.P. powers or something, you've got to learn to be more subtle about it, and not scare the shit out of the guys you’re trying to help," Kurt joshed his nephew.
To his surprise, Galen looked hurt. "I can't help it, Unk. I get a sense of what's hurting people, and I feel like I need to help 'em. I learned not to say anything to Mom; she thought I was makin' stuff up. It's just Galen being, you know, *odd* again."
"Not to worry, little bug. Being empathic about other people's hurts is a pretty common trait in people. And it runs in our family; it has a lot to do with why you three reacted the way you did to all the news stories since we started this trip. I've got a touch of it myself; that's why I can do such a good job for my clients - I can get a sense of what's bothering them, and find ways to draw them out and do something about it. But it sounds like you've got a stronger than normal dose of it, Gale, and you probably got that from your mother."
"From Mom?!" Galen was stunned. The idea of his mother as empathic was as foreign to Galen's experience as if he'd seen a fire-breathing dragon in the fields holding up a sign alerting motorists they could get flame-broiled steaks at Gustav's Restaurant.
"Yes, from your mother. We used to be a lot closer when we were growing up, and she genuinely cared about how I felt." The other shoe dropped in Kurt's head at that moment, and he decided to go ahead with what he'd just realized, for Galen's sake. "Why do you think she puts so much of herself into the Foundation for Holistic Wellness? That's her caring nature trying to find an outlet.
"The thing is," Kurt continued, "she has trouble seeing you as an individual person, with your own wants and needs. Your mother doesn't take failure well; she never has. And every time she looks at you, it reminds her of her biggest failure - her marriage. Every day, you're a living, breathing reminder that she couldn't make living with your father work."
Galen's eyes were enormous. "So don't feel like you're somebody odd," Kurt concluded. "You're just who you were made to be, and all three of us love you for it."
Scott's eyes beamed agreement and assurance at his cousin, and the irrepressible Marcus chimed in, "You're *my* weird cousin, and anybody who doesn't like it, has to answer to *me*." Laughter at the eight-year-old's bravado broke the tension.
Scott tried again to draw out Jude. "So now you know we're not gonna turn into ogres on you, what happened to make you run away?"
"Well," said Jude, "my mom 'n' dad were down in Jacksonville for their wedding anniversary. They left me home by myself; I was kinda proud that they trusted me to stay by myself. I had Grandfather's phone number if there was trouble, but I wasn't about to call him for anything short of a riot in front of the house.
"They were driving back and got caught in a rainband from Hurricane Ivan. A big rig lost control in the wind and rain, and slammed into 'em. They were both killed.
"The judge sent me to live with Grandfather and Grandmother. But he started beating me with a strap. I tried to behave, but I couldn't live up to whatever it was he expected of me.
"Yesterday, I took off. I hid in an abandoned gas station overnight, and hiked on out to 95 this morning. People went past me as I was hitching, and then you guys stopped."
"Why are you heading to Orlando?" Scott asked warmly. "Do you have family there?"
"Nope," Jude answered. "This is gonna sound dumb...."
"Try us," Scott encouraged. "After the last two days, you aren’t gonna surprise us with anything."
"Well, I used to read these stories about a group that rescued kids who needed help, and they were based in Orlando. I know they were just stories, but I got this sense inside me that I could find help in Orlando, like something is urging me to go there. So that's what I set out for."
"We'll help you find somebody," Marcus said with the assurance of youth. "Clan Short's not there, of course. We just talked to Sean yesterday, and he was ready to give up."
"You talked to *Sean*?" Jude's expression was wide-eyed. "You guys know about *those* stories too?"
"Yeah," said Kurt, grinning back. "You may have thought you were getting a ride from a normal family, but you ended up in the Twilight Zone."
"Doo-doo-doo-doo," Marcus and Scott chorused, doing the Twilight Zone theme. Everybody laughed, including Jude.
"Jude thinks Scott is hot, but he's afraid if he says anything, he won't like him," Galen volunteered. Jude's face dropped back into panic mode again.
Kurt checked the rear view to read Scott's expression, and tried to signal support for him. Scott drew a breath. He knew his brother and cousin wouldn't have any problems with it - they were all Clan Short fans, after all. And after the conversation yesterday, he knew his uncle was behind him. But it was, after all, the first time he'd come out to anyone but Kurt.
"Hey, Jude, no sweat. I think you're pretty cute too. But there's something you need to know about me; we'll talk later, when we can have a little privacy. Okay?" Jude's relief was transparent.
Sensing a need to chill the tension, Kurt turned on the radio, scanned, and found 'the Big Ape,' Jacksonville's rock station. The Backstreet Boys' 'As Long As You Love Me' began playing; all five of them burst into laughter at the appropriateness of that song. "Leading off the news," the announcer said, "authorities are unsure of the cause of the crash of a Cessna light plane in Putnam County this morning. The plane's pilot, Preston Saunders, and his wife Marie, were killed in the crash. Their two sons, Benjamin and Elijah, who were also passengers, were airlifted to Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital in Orlando in critical condition."
Jude's expression was haunted. "My God," he said, "that sounds like Benji and Eli."
"Yeah, it does," Galen responded. "Let us tell you about what's been happening to us this trip. We weren’t joking about Sean." And the boys began to describe the radio news stories they'd heard that seemed to echo Clan Short episodes, but with tragic ends when the Clan didn't intervene.
Kurt added one. "Hey, guys. That monument we saw at the Battery, the new one?"
"The guy that died three weeks back?" Galen asked.
"Yeah," Kurt said. "That was J.R.'s name and parents. I'll bet you that was a suicide; Kenny and Rory weren't there to talk him out of it, in the real world."
"This is getting positively eerie," Scott said. Everyone agreed.
At the Welcome Center, Kurt moved Scott, the longest-legged of the group, to the front passenger seat, pretending to ignore the sad expressions both he and Jude were sporting at the prospect of not being able to flirt with each other. Everyone took time to stretch their legs.
"Well, boys," Kurt said, "we're nicely ahead of schedule. There'll be time to visit Kennedy Space Center and still get into Orlando in time to get a room. That was one of my planned side trips; any objections to doing it now?" Four enthusiastic space buffs indicated their pleasure loudly. With that, Kurt pulled the car back onto I-95, and headed south on the last leg of the trip.