"Thanks *so* much for bringing us here!" said a tired but still-enthusiastic Scott as the three boys and Kurt collapsed on a bench outside the tourist center at Kennedy Space Center. For the previous hour they had been eagerly moving from exhibit to exhibit, drinking in the ambience of NASA's space program, A.D. 2004.
"No need to thank me, guys -- I wanted to see it as much as you did!" Kurt answered. "Whoops, Marky, look out!"
Kurt jumped to his feet to help a woman in early middle age who had tripped over Marcus's legs as he sprawled on the ground. "I'm very sorry, ma'am, are you all right?"
"Just fine, thank you. I should have been watching where I was going, instead of looking around for Vinny."
A tall blond man came running up. "Are you all right, Peg?"
"No problem, Joe -- I was trying to spot where Vinny disappeared to, didn't watch where I was walking, and nearly stepped on this little guy."
"Larry, come over here," the man called out to a boy who looked like what he himself must have in his early teens. He escorted his wife to another bench. Kurt and Marcus started to apologize, and Peg waved them down. "I should have been watching where I put my feet, anyway."
The blond teen, evidently 'Larry,' sat on the bench, took his sketch pad, and quickly went to work. "There's Vinny. Vinny! Get your scrawny little butt over here!" he called out, pointing to an excited 9-year-old bouncing around the outdoor exhibits.
Kurt grinned. "I gather your younger boy is a space buff?"
Joe answered, "Yes, him and me both. We come over here to the Cape every chance we can talk Peg and Larry into putting up with another trip," gesturing to his wife and older son. "It just disgusts me how NASA is doing so little and spending so much doing it. We should be on the moon and planets by now, and we can barely put the Shuttle and a few satellites in LEO."
"LEO?" Galen asked.
"Low Earth Orbit," Joe explained.
"Let's see what you've done," Peg asked Larry. "O - o - o -oh, nice! Show the boys!"
"They won't care about that stuff," he answered her, embarrassed.
"You never know until you try, son," she said back to him. She took the sketch pad from him and held it up. Larry had quickly and deftly drawn Scott and Jude in the positions they were in, one sitting on the end of the bench and one leaning over him. But instead of the T-shirt and jeans each was wearing, Larry had dressed their images in what was clearly designer casual boyswear.
"He wants a career in fashion design," Peg said proudly.
"He certainly has the skills for it," Kurt answered. "Are those original designs?"
Larry blushed. "Yessir. They just looked like what those boys ought to be wearing."
Vinny came running up. "Dad, did you see the Atlas-Centaur mockup?"
"Yes, son, I did." Joe smiled. "Well, if you two are rested, we need to get under way, back to Orlando. Peg and Larry got up and headed down the path towards the parking lot, with Peg shooing Vinny ahead of her. Joe stood looking off past the exhibits to an empty launch site, a sad expression on his face.
"If you need to talk about it, I'm willing to listen," Kurt said.
"Oh no, it's just that, well, I grew up with Apollo and dreamed of someday making a career of the space program. And, well, it died on me, for all practical purposes. And my younger son caught the bug from me. He pretends we're both crewmen on a Star Trek starship; it's a little game we share."
"I understand," said Galen. "And I'm sorry." Joe looked at the young boy, amazed. What was written across Galen's face was compassion and understanding.
"Well, I better catch up with my wife and kids," Joe said.
"Yeah, we'd better be going too," Kurt said. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Mr. ... uh...."
"Oh, Bowers. Joe Bowers."
"What's that, Galen?" Marcus was curious as usual.
"Oh, I picked up a model of a Space Shuttle at the souvenir shop. I wanted some sort of keepsake of the visit, and this'll give me something to put together this winter. What'd you get, Unk?"
"A History of NASA. It was on clearance, and I've always wanted to read the background on how it got set up. I'll put it in my book box when we empty out the trunk."
"Your book box?" asked Scott.
"Did you notice that big box, way in the left of the trunk, just about behind where Jude's sitting? I packed up almost all my favorite books when I started pulling those double shifts at the Center. When I had to be on duty all night, I could sit there reading a favorite novel between doing rounds. I've got most of my favorite science fiction and a couple of other things. Almost all my Heinlein and Bujold collections, five Darkover novels, about half my Niven and Spider Robinson stuff, histories of the Civil War andWorld War II, The Making of Star Trek -- whole bunches of stuff. There's a couple of things I've been hoping to get one of you kids interested in."
"Oh, okay. I was wondering what that was."
"Well, you could have just asked," Kurt said, smiling.
The five travelers stumbled into their motel room exhausted. The remainder of the trip to Orlando had been uneventful and fun-filled. Jude had talked a bit more about his family, and about discovering himself to be gay, once he realized no one had issues with that. Galen had turned effusive towards his new friend, once *he* realized that Jude was someone he could open up to - a group hitherto limited to his two cousins and uncle. Marcus was full of hijinks until he finally began to run down. Dinner had been tasty and enjoyable.
The only jarring note was the radio - sporadic newscasts of the tragic fates of abused boys, and a series of fundamentalist preachers who seemed determined to convince their listeners that they and only they had God's ear, that He hated everyone except the people listening to them, with gays singled out for special condemnation, and that He expected the listeners to send donations to keep up the preachers' work. "That's probably the main reason for the broadcasts - to get money," Scott cynically observed. "What difference does it make to *them* if someone is gay? But you'd think that's worse than killing someone to hear them carry on about it."
Finding a room in Orlando, though, had been an exercise in frustration. Motel after motel was booked up. Finally Kurt had agreed to the price of a three-room suite for a vacant double - at busy season rates. He was casting aspersions on the character, ancestry, and probable destination of the desk clerk as they finally got into their room - which was ground floor, although they needed to park the car across the lot; someone had taken the parking places in front of the room. Scott had had the presence of mind to pick up an Orlando Sentinel Sunday edition at the gift shop attached to the last filled motel before the one they finally found a room at.
"Betcha this will help us find something better tomorrow," he said to Kurt.
"Good thought, Scotty," he answered. "There's probably a bunch of useful information in there we can use. If I'd thought ahead, I'd have phoned for reservations, but this trip was so impromptu I never thought of it.
"Speaking of which, I *did* bring you boys here to go to Disney World. But let's talk for a minute. It strikes me that the first thing we ought to do tomorrow is to try to help Jude find what he's looking for, and put off going for fun until we've got him somewhere where he can be happy."
"That's what the Clan guys would do," Marcus said. "You know we're not going to have fun if we're worried about Jude."
Kurt smiled at the eight-year-old. "There are a lot of people a lot older than you, Marky, that wouldn't think about others first that way. I'm very proud of you."
"That's 'cause I'm remarkable," said the irrepressible imp.
"I've got a few remarks about you," said his older brother, grinning to show he didn't mean it. "But I think you made the right call, Marcus."
"You guys don't have to go out of your way like that," Jude said. "It's enough you actually got me here."
"Yes, we do," Galen said firmly. "You're as big a fan of the stories as we are. You think Cory and them would just dump somebody off to contend with social services? I *don't* think so! After the rescue, they'd do placement, make sure the kid's somewhere where he can be happy."
"Gale's right, Jude," Scott put in. "Besides, I don't plan on getting rid of you any faster than we absolutely have to." He glanced up and down Jude's body to emphasize what he meant; Jude blushed.
"Is it OK if I take a shower?" Jude asked. "I hate to impose, but I feel grungy."
"Sure; you're not imposing," Kurt said. "You know pretty well how the Clan would act towards somebody, if all that chatter about the stories was any indication. Just figure that, to the extent we can, we're trying to do the same thing here."
"Um..." Scott was blushing. "Jude, I said back when that we'd need to get some private time to talk. You know about showering in the stories; what would you say to us showering together?"
Jude's reaction was electric. "Would you?" he said eagerly. "I didn't dare ask, but it would be like a dream come true for me. But, uh..." he added, looking at Kurt as if he expected to be slapped down.
Kurt smiled. "You know, I ought to quash that idea; Scott's parents would be having a fit if they knew. But I can see you two being attracted to each other, and for some reason, you all insist on turning into Clan Short boys in front of my face, whether I like it or not. So go for it, and have fun!"
"Awesome," Scott said. "I think you can't possibly be as eager to check me out as I am to check you. Just - this is the first time I've ever *been* with someone, you know, that way." He was blushing.
"Me too," Jude said, just as red as Scott. "But we just had our first disagreement - *I’m* the one that's eagerer."
The two teens headed for the shower; Kurt gave Scott a thumbs-up. Galen and Marcus giggled.
Moments later, a surprised voice came through the closed bathroom door. "Omigod, you're...."
"Ginormous," Marcus called out, collapsing in giggles.
"Watch it, Marky, or I'll tell them about the time you humped your stuffed bunny!" came from the bathroom. Marcus sobered instantly, and blushed.
"Busted, little imp!" said Kurt with a grin.
Then, with a note of sad surprise in his voice, Galen called out, "Hey, look at this!" Kurt and Marcus went over to where he lay sprawled on one bed, looking through the paper, sections of newspaper scattered around him.
"What're you reading about old dead people for?" Marcus asked. And indeed what Galen was looking at was the obituaries section, with seemingly dozens of elderly Orlando residents' death notices.
"This!" Galen said, pointing:
Rory Keith Teeter, 14
Rory Keith Teeter, 14, passed to a better life at Orange County General Hospital Saturday afternoon following a three year fight with chronic degenerative myoscleroneuropathy. Mr. Teeter had attended Lakeland Middle School prior to his disabilities making it impossible to attend public schools. Mr. Teeter is survived by his father and mother, Marcus and Doris Teeter, and a sister, Corina, 15, all of the family home. Arrangements with Crystal Memories Funeral Home are incomplete.
A picture of an emaciated redheaded boy with haunted eyes accompanied the story. "I wonder if he ever got to know Kenny," Galen said. "I kind of hope so, and kind of not, so that Kenny won't grieve."
"Um, you don't need to worry about Kenny," Kurt said, pointing to another story.
Father, Sons Die In Separate Incidents
Carl Matthew Waite, 32, died after a lingering illness on Monday. As reported in our obituary on Tuesday, Mr. Waite was survived by twin sons, Kenneth Lawson Waite, 11, of the home, and Kevin Lawson Harris, also 11, of Chicago. Following Mr. Waite's death, Kenneth Waite had been sent to Chicago to live with Mr. Waite's estranged wife, Gloria Harris, and his brother.
Fragmentary news reports from Chicago indicate that Kenneth Waite and a boy identified as Kevin Harris, his brother, were killed in the family apartment, along with an unidentified older neighbor boy, allegedly as the result of gang violence. Ms. Harris, who was evidently not at home at the time, could not be reached for comment.
Two smiling teens emerged from the bathroom, arm in arm. "Why's everybody so sad?" Scott asked. Silently, Galen motioned him over and pointed to the two stories. "Shit! This is getting ridiculous!" Scott exclaimed. Then, "Sorry, Uncle Kurt."
"Oh, I had stronger terms in mind than 'shit'," Kurt replied. "But this about puts the nail in the coffin for me. Before this, all the stories could have been explained by a really far-fetched series of coincidences. But those two stories have me spooked. Something really eerie is at work here."
"Yeah," said Marcus. "I'm gettin' scared." Scott made as if to hug his little brother.
"Scary? Why?" said Jude abruptly. All three boys turned to him, beginning to repeat the links to Clan Short stories they had noted over two days of travel. He motioned them to shush.
"I know all that; you told me, and I believe you. Remember, I've experienced a couple of them since I've been with you. But look, I don't have any right to speak up here....”
"Sure you do," Scott said. "You're part of us now." Kurt opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. "Say what you mean, bro."
"Well, it's like this," Jude began. "From my point of view, what happened to me was like something out of the Clan Short stories. I lost my parents, my grandfather was beating me, I ran away, and then I got rescued by a bunch of boys and the man who backs them in what they do.
"No, you guys aren't Clan Short. But what motivated you to do what you did is those stories, and your own good hearts. Maybe I wasn't rescued by Clan Short - but I sure was rescued by the *spirit* of Clan Short, working through you guys.
"I don't know what the purpose behind you running into all those stories is, but I'll bet my life that it's something *good*. Remember that Clan Short are the good guys. They're the ones that pull off crazy, improbable stuff."
"That one's easy," Galen said in a firm, abstracted voice. "I learned it this morning, a couple hours before we found you, Jude. It was in that church service we went to.
"It's *our* job to do those rescues, help those kids, and get a group going to carry it on and spread it. And if we do it, we'll get help. God promised me." The calm assurance in Galen's voice, so unlike the shy, repressed 11-year-old Kurt was used to, suddenly reminded him of Sonya, back when she'd been ready to take on the world and right everyone's wrongs, back before her marriage. And, remembering that, he suddenly knew he had to find a way to help them do it, improbable as it sounded. A chorus of 'Yeah's showed the other four agreed with Galen.
'But first, draw a bunch of starry-eyed boys back to Earth,' he thought. "Look, guys, I'm as dedicated to what you feel needs doing as any of you. But let's be practical. Sometime in the next day or two, we'll be finding Jude the new home he wants. And a week from today, we'll be pulling into York to go back to the life we’ve been living.
"By the way, Jude, I owe you some very deep thanks. I love all three of my nephews equally and differently, and I try never to play favorites. If I do, it's the one who needs me the most at the moment, and the other two know that.
"But Friday night and Saturday morning, I got slapped in the face with the size of the burden my oldest has been carrying for his brother and cousin, and inside himself. When you two came out of the shower, I saw him more relaxed and happy than I've seen him for years. That's a gift I couldn't give him, but you could and did.
"But that brings up something else. I don't have any issues with what's happened between you physically - I remember being that age, and I'm happy for you. But I hope you're not falling in love."
"Why!?" Scott and Jude were both shocked.
"Because you know you can't be together, and if you do fall in love, you'll both end up with broken hearts. Jude needs a home, and you other three will be going back to York with me after this week.
"Scott, can you see how Gus and Marjorie will react if you bring home a homeless boyfriend?"
Marcus mimed being shot with a machine gun and falling down dead. Scott and Galen nodded ruefully.
"ACFan can have his characters fall in love at first sight and manage to stay together despite all odds. He's an author; he can make it happen - in his stories. But in the real world, that's not always the case," Kurt continued.
"And there's another issue - you two like each other, you're strongly attracted to each other, but are you really completely compatible? Remember the last thing you told me, Scott, about your sexual tastes."
Scott looked puzzled, then like a light had dawned. "Can we be excused to talk privately again?" he asked.
"Of course," Kurt said. "By the way, I'm sorry we haven't had time for that private talk yet; it sounds like we should have gotten it in before this."
"Any time you postpone an embarrassing talk because you're bringing a cute guy into my life, you can count on me not to complain," Scott grinned.
As they retreated to the bathroom, Galen said, "About sleeping tonight, Unk - is it OK if Marky and I cuddle with you, and let Scotty and Jude have the other bed? They prob'ly won’t get much time together after this."
"I guess so. I'm not comfortable with them being in a position to, you know, *do* stuff in front of you two."
"Hey, we have a pretty good idea what guys do, Unk. In fact, we've... um, forget I said anything." Galen blushed. Marky inserted one finger in his mouth, then pulled it out with an exaggerated sucking expression, a devilish glint in his eyes.
Kurt shook his head and bowed to the inevitable. "You kids!" he grinned.
Scott and Jude emerged from the bathroom, looking a bit shy. "We talked," Scott reported. "We agreed we're gonna have a good time together for as long as it lasts, and if it turns into anything permanent, we're open to that, but we'll play things as they come, for now."
"What he said," Jude added. "I kind of like my butt just the way it is!" He blushed deeply.
"There are exercises you can use," Kurt couldn’t resist throwing in.
"I don't care what you do to fix things," Jude said, "you can't park a tractor trailer in a doghouse." Marcus cracked up. Scott looked like he wanted to be somewhere else for a little while. "Hey, studly, it's not like there isn't plenty else we can do," Jude said to him. Scott blushed and ducked his head against Jude's shoulder.
"Let's get some sleep," Kurt said. "Gale and Marky get to cuddle with me here; lovebirds get the other bed. Good night, guys."
The next morning, Kurt and the boys were awakened abruptly by an earsplitting boom. Almost immediately a strobe of lightning glowed even through the room's closed curtains. Another thunderclap, and rain began pelting down, as more lightning flashes and thunder accompanied it. Marky jumped up, ran to the window, and threw the curtains open.
"Hey, close that!" Scott yelled.
Kurt looked over to see the two naked teens entwined on the other bed, covers kicked to the floor. He chuckled. "Close 'em, Marky," he said. "The show these two are putting on is entirely too good to share with the general public"” Scott and Jude both blushed deeply.
As the rain continued on, the thunder and lightning came to an end. At Kurt's suggestion, everyone got up and took their time getting dressed. "We won't be able to go much of anywhere until the storm breaks, anyway," he said.
Abruptly, there was one more thunderclap, the kind that begins low and builds to a 'Boom!', but this one continued, Dopplering away. "That’s not thunder," a now-clothed Scott said, again opening the curtains.
They were not prepared for what met their view. Outside was a bright, sunny morning, and receding in the sky in the middle distance was a boxy shape labeled 'U.F.P.S.C. Mississippi.' He opened the door.
"What the heck was that?" he asked the old man standing by an open car trunk just outside.
"Them golblamed Federation shuttle pilots ain't got no consideration for nobody," said the codger. "They got no call hotdoggin' like that over cities. Used to be, Earth had some say in what happens in Starfleet, but not any more! Things ain't like they used to be when I was young."
'Or when I was young, like last Thursday,' thought Kurt.
"Hey, a complimentary copy of the Sentinel," said Scott, bringing in the bagged newspaper that had been hanging on the door. He unfolded it.
"Sarek Calls for More Social Justice in U.F.P." read the headline. Beneath was a picture of a man Kurt immediately identified as Mark Lenard in his Sarek makeup, from Star Trek. But the article seemed to be reporting straight news, as if the Star Trek universe had suddenly turned real.
"Scotty, try calling home," Kurt said, gesturing at the room phone. "Don’t forget the area code."
Scott walked across the room and dialed his parents' number. He hung up and tried again, more slowly, then hung up again. "I keep getting Max's Pizza," he said. "I thought I'd dialed wrong the first time."
Kurt took the phone and called his sister's work number at her Foundation. "You have reached the Schneiders'," the recording said. "Sorry, but we're not home. Please leave a number, and we’ll call you back." The same sort of wrong number happened when he next tried the Developmental Center where he had worked.
He looked at the phone, at the window, at the newspaper, and then at the four boys' expectant faces. "Toto," he said slowly, "something tells me we're not in Kansas anymore!"
'This can’t be happening!' ran through Kurt’s mind, followed immediately by 'No, that’s denial, and I *know* where denial leads. I won’t go there again.' His mind reeled. A sense of overwhelming responsibility for three, no *four* boys who were depending on him ran through his mind, and then a sense of calm acceptance, a sense he was being given strength to meet the problem. To gain time to collect his thoughts, he asked the first thing that came into his mind: "What exactly did you boys ask for when you were praying yesterday morning?"
"The chance to help boys who needed help, and a way to do it," Galen answered solemnly.
"The same thing - except that I asked for the chance to help gay, homeless boys," Scott contributed. A sudden realization lit up his face. Looking at Jude warmly, he said, "And my prayer got answered first!"
"That's because you're the oldest," Marcus said with an air of reasonableness, as if this was the sort of thing that happened daily. "I said I wanted to be part of Clan Short, and go shoot the bad guys with phasers and stuff."
Galen had been flipping through the motel room's phone book. "Here's what we need," he said, pointing to a blue page. "Federation Youth Services: Office of the Director."
"You don't mean it's actually *there*, do you - in the phone book?"
"Sure, right here in the Blue Pages, with all the Government listings and stuff."
Scotty bent to peer at where Galen was pointing. "No sh-my God, it's really here! I don't - yeah, I guess, after all that's been happening, I really *do* believe it. Which number do you want, Unc?"
"Oh, sure, call some woman who's never heard of me, and tell her we read about her and her kids in a fictional story on the Internet, and now we're here," Kurt said. "Like they'd ever believe that."
"They will if Jamie and Jacob read that we're telling the truth," Markus said reasonably.
It suddenly dawned on Kurt that his debit card would be no good if they had indeed somehow crossed into an alternate universe - and it was looking like they in fact had. His sense of being responsible for the boys became oppressive. He had no job over here, only the money in his pocket - if in fact that was still good - and four boys depending on him.
"What the heck," he breathed resignedly, "it can't hurt to try."
"Hello, Mrs. Short? This is Kurt Farnsworth. … Teri, then - that checks. I'm in Orlando with three young nephews and a homeless hitchhiker. If you're the person I’ve read about, you’ve run into some strange things with your boys. … Well, I have a story that will strain even your credulity. You'd better get Jamie or Jacob to verify we're telling the truth. … I'll explain how I know about the twins when we meet you, if we can; it's part of our story. … We're in the Snug Snooze Inn off Route 4. … All right; we'll be there as soon as we can. Thank you."
"Get your stuff together and head for the car, boys. We've got a meeting with Clan Short."