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Instead of daily paddling his tippy, one-boy canoe on the equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle, he now had all that any fugitive could ask for: a secure hideout with a steady supply of food and water. And he had much more -- a feeling of belonging. It made him think: Oh, a family must be paradise! The kid was a compulsive fantasist. He had long ago accepted that his mother was not going to come for him, yet had never stopped fantasizing about it. Billy had also finally accepted that his other great fantasy -- being discovered by a family and adopted -- was not going to happen. Yet he dreamed about it. Adoption is the foster child equivalent of finding the Holy Grail. Over the years, Billy's social workers had brought around many prospective adoptive parents. On such occasions he smiled so hard his face hurt. He waved his outstanding school report cards. He stood on tiptoes to gain an inch of height. He puffed out his chest to show that he was strong and healthy. One prospective foster parent asked him to open his mouth so she could check his teeth. “Teeth tell the real story,” she had said. Though many had seemed interested, asking Billy lots of questions, they had all turned out to be lookers. Something was always wrong. He was too old, too skinny, too fairskinned, too damaged, too risky. His posture could have been better. To some prospective adoptive parents, his sandy thatch of unruly hair suggested a rebellious streak. But in fairness to the adults looking him over, Billy had a big encumbrance. His mother's parental rights had never been officially terminated. While she had willingly given him up to state custody, she had refused to give up her rights to him. Just before she had disappeared from his life, she had written an angry (and illiterate) letter to the Department of Social Services declaring her intention never to give up her parental rights. If an adoptive parent had come along, the state could have terminated parental rights to Billy on the grounds of desertion. But an adoptive parent did not come along. It being a time when parental rights were considered sacred and the primary goal was to reunite foster children with birth parents, the state had never been in a hurry to terminate. This state of affairs left both Billy and prospective adoptive parents in a chicken-or-egg limbo. The kid did not have a clear title. So people looking for a child said, “Why adopt a kid with a parent who could show up later?” It would be like buying a car that could be taken away any time. In the absence of serious adoptive parents, the state said, “Why bother to terminate?” One day, when a social worker said she was going to take him to an adoption party, he refused to go. An adoption party brings together prospective adoptive parents and
available foster children for a few hours of games, refreshments, squinting at name tags, delving questions wrapped in chitchat, and much surreptitious note-taking “I'm done with that,” Billy said. “I am no longer willing to perform tricks for people out window-shopping for a kid. Anyway, I'm too old. Nobody really wants a kid over two.” Thus did Billy's adoption fantasy come to an end. In its place, he created a new fantasy and it had nothing to do with adults. In a prodigious burst of imagination, he decided to be his own man -- at the age of eleven. *** His mustering up the courage to create and sustain such an out-sized fantasy had taken him baby step by baby step toward making it a reality. Now, at 15, he had a job (of sorts), money (a bit), a home (a feeling of one, at least), transportation (a new bike), full charge of his life ( an equal-equal deal). Forgetting for a moment that he was a fugitive from the law, if this wasn't being your own man, what was? There was something else, something he had never experienced; not from his mother, not from any foster parent, not from any social worker, not from anybody. He felt wanted. He felt cared for. He had a feeling of family. It is important to understand, however, that Billy would never use the word “family” in reference to his current living situation. This was not just a word for him; it was the ultimate fantasy, whether it be the unconditional belonging by blood or inclusion by adoptive choice or, at this point in his life, any other kind of improvised stable acceptance. Any family would do. But Billy had learned that, for him, any family was not going to happen. This reality he carried around with him at all times; and just as well, because it kept his family fantasies under control. With each passing day, however, Mr. Caulfield seemed less likely to turn him in. He could not afford to expect or presume any more. Yet when he left the house to go out, Mr. Caulfield invariably said, “Be careful now. There's danger out there.” He would always write out the telephone number on a piece of paper and shove it in Billy's pocket saying, “Call if you need me.” Mr. Caulfield -- Billy now felt secure enough to drop calling him by his first name -- made sure Billy left with the reflector-striped jacket he had gotten him for night bike riding. Mr. Caulfield didn't just leave a light on for Billy's return; he waited up for him. One night Billy got home unusually late and Mr. Caulfield came rushing outside to meet him. He said, “Billy! I was worried sick about you! Where have you been? Why didn't you call?” Mr. Caulfield now felt secure enough to call Billy by his first name. Judging the question to be from concern and nothing else, Billy readily explained why he was later than usual. He had ridden his bike all the way to Berkfield, which was four miles beyond Fairview. “What was in Berkfield?” “Ggurrrrls. What else?” That explanation went down just fine.
*** All of this was so different from what Billy was used to. The foster parents he had known didn't care what he did when he left the house. They didn't care what time he came home or even if he came home. He could stay out all night if he wanted. If he ran away, they would just order up another state kid to help pay the bills and do the chores. If he stayed, it was concentration camp: Obey the rules; do what you're told; keep your mouth shut; cause trouble, you're out of here. In one home he and the other state kid did all the house work and the dishes. They ate slop in the kitchen -- bread soaked in milk with raisins and sugar added -- while the family ate roast beef in the dining room. One home was so crowded that he spent some nights strapped in the backseat of a car. In his present accommodations, however, he and Mr. Caulfield decided together the things that each should do and not do. It was his first experience with democracy. He knew America was a democracy from his reading but somehow it never seemed to apply to him. As a foster child, he had no vote in anything. Now he did; one full vote for him and one full vote for Mr. Caulfield. Deadlocks had to be worked out democratically, equal-equal, mutual benefit. *** One morning Billy came down with a fever and headache. He spent the day in bed, miserably. Mr. Caulfield made him soup and hot tea and spooned him home remedy medicine and checked on him regularly throughout the day. It was the same all through the night and the next day. Finally, Mr. Caulfied said, “Billy, you need to see a doctor.” “I'll be okay,” Billy said, coughing. “You're not okay. I don't like that cough. You're burning up.” Mr. Caulfield put a cool cloth on Billy's head as he lay in bed. “I'm not going to the doctor, Mr. Caulfield. That's final. It's my life.” But that night, Mr. Caulfield went out and came back with with a tall black man in a rumpled suit and carrying a leather bag. “This is Dr. Sam Bridges,” Mr. Caulfield said. The doctor took off his hat, revealing a balding head with close-cropped gray hair, and tossed it in a chair. He examined Billy. While the doctor listened to his heart and poked and squeezed, Billy fired daggers at Mr. Caulfield who stared at the ceiling. “Where did you get all those bites,” Dr. Bridges asked. “Oh, I let him camp out in the yard a few nights. I told him to use the bug spray. But he'd rather get eaten alive than listen to reason.” Nearly gagging on the thermometer in his mouth, Billy glared at Mr. Caulfield who turned his attention from the ceiling to his watch. “Got himself a doozy of an infection,” Dr. Bridges said, looking at the thermometer. “Could even be intestinal. I'll give you a prescription. We'll need to watch it.” Dr. Bridges put a hand on Billy shoulder and smiled. “We're going to take good care of you, Billy. You're going to be fine.” Dr. Bridges and Mr. Caulfield left the room. They talked softly at the door while Billy
strained to hear, but could not. The doctor left and Mr. Caulfied came into Billy's room with a glass of water and tablets. “I said no doctor!” Billy yelled. “I know. Shut up and take this.” Billy gulped it down and opened his mouth to deliver another blast. “Wait, hold that thought. I'm going to the drugstore to get your prescription.” Mr. Caulfield ran out the door with Billy shouting at him from the bedroom. *** When Mr. Caulfield returned with the prescription, Billy yelled, “I said no doctor.” Mr. Caulfield pulled up a chair beside Billy's bed. “Billy, you may not raise your voice to me,” he said quietly. “It is unacceptable to me.” “I said no doctor.” “Yes, you did. And you are right. It is your life. I probably should have respected your wishes. I apologize for not doing so.” “Thank you.” “Nevertheless, you may not raise your voice to me. Sick or not sick, I demand an apology.” Billy studied Mr. Caulfield. “Apology, Mr. Stone or there's the door.” Billy blinked. “Now look who's touchy.” “Your choice, Billy.” He went over to the bedroom door, turned. “Your choice.” In a few minutes, Billy came out of his room and went up to Mr. Caulfield who was sitting at the great oak kitchen table. He said, “Mr. Caulfield, I was wrong. You were only thinking of me. I...I... I apologize.” “The raised voice?” “I apologize. From now on I'll speak to you in whispers like you're some kind of God.” “See that you do. Now back to bed with you.” “By the way, How did you get Dr. Bridges to make a house call and at night, too? Or is he some kind of quack?” “He is Chief of Surgery at Fairview Memorial. I asked him as a personal favor.” “Why would he do it? Does he know about me? He must. Can he be trusted? How do you know he won't go to the police?” “Billy, Billy, my suspicious young friend, I really don't think we want to interrogate each other, do we? Dr. Bridges will not go to the police. Go to bed.” Billy felt like his security system was crashing down around his ears. ***
Three days after the doctor's visit, Billy was feeling like his old self after a satisfying home-cooked meal of oven-roasted chicken, potatoes and native corn. Mr. Caulfield had picked up the corn at his favorite farm stand. “I'm going out, Mr. Caulfied.” “You feel okay?” “I feel like making this a night to remember for some lucky girl.” “Frisky, aren't we? Got your jacket? Got money? Got the number?” “Got everything. I'm good to go.” “Where to?” “No place in particular, just out.” “Billy, be very careful. It's dangerous out there.” “I will. Bye.” “Be careful.” Tonight he was going someplace he had been thinking about for some time. He was going to cruise by the Stojak place, which was about seven miles away -- nothing for him. It had been nearly six weeks since he had escaped from the place in a hail of bullets; it seemed like another whole life ago. He remembered the Stojaks staring at him when he arrived as if he were some kind of horrible disease walking through the door. He remembered the rules, that twerp Frank Jr., that brat Joy, who was pretty and had a nice figure and still managed to look ugly. He remembered how terribly alone he felt ... Well that was then. This was now. Why was he doing this? Was it the thrill of observing his arch enemies from the shadows, knowing he could see them while they didn't have a clue? Was it a triumphant return as a free man to the place where he had been a piece of dirt? Was it the danger? The sense of adventure? Was he looking for a way to pay the Stojaks back? Was he asking to be captured? Whatever the reason, he was soon sitting on his bike on the little dirt road that ran behind the Stojak home. The bathroom window he had kicked out had not been replaced; a blue tarp covered the opening. He had zigzagged by this very spot with bullets whizzing around his ears. Lights were on in the kitchen. He could see Mrs. Stojak at the sink. Joy sat at the dining room table, with books and papers spread out, doing homework. Mr. Stojak and Frank Jr. were in the living room watching TV. For a long time, Billy watched the house. If they only knew the little pervert was outside watching them from fifty yards away! It was a delicious thought that Billy lingered over for the longest time. Should he lob a rock through the living room window? Maybe he could wrap a note around it. It could read: Congratulations, Stojak. It's me, Billy Stone. I just voted you my all-time worst foster parent. Of all of them, you are the stupidest. P.S. Get rid of that gun before somebody gets hurt. Billy chuckled and headed for home. He didn't want Mr. Caulfield to be worrying.