STANDARD WARNING: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to individuals, living or dead, is pure coincidence. Do not read this story if you are offended by man-to-man romance or sex. Do not read if you are underage according to the laws in the country, state/province, county, city/town/village or township where you live. There is sex between males. You have been warned!
Copyright 2002 by
Nick Archer. Permission is granted to Nifty Archives, ASSGM, and
gaywritings, to post one copy. No part may be copied, reproduced,
republished, or reposted on another website without written
permission from the author.
Thicker Than Water
By Nick Archer
Debbie McIlvain watched Dennis through the window of the living room in the houseparents suite in Trees Cottage. She pressed her lips together tightly and shook her head in frustration. In the roughly ten days Dennis had been at St. Lukes, he had turned the orderly life of the cottage upside down. No other kid had caused her and her husband Tom such anguish. Already, he had been caught smoking, suspended from school for a day for swearing at a teacher, and bullied the smaller kids in the cottage. His swaggering and streetwise patois rapidly became tiresome.
Dennis was heading to the campus school the Friday morning before Labor Day. His walk had a jaunty, almost arrogant, step. Unlike most of the other boys, Dennis would not be going home over the long weekend. The fact that she would have to deal with him all weekend was not something she was looking forward to.
Before the campus reopened for the current school year, the McIlvains were given their lists of boys that would be in their care for the next ten months. Most of the names were expected. Since Trees Cottage was a residence for seventh and eighth grade boys, all those who lived there in seventh grade would return for their eighth grade year. That was one of policies of St. Lukes Home For Boys. The policy gave the boys a sense of consistency - they expected to be in the same cottage. A seventh grader was switched to another junior high cottage grade only in extreme circumstances.
The process of choosing students as they moved up through the different cottage groupings was almost like a baseball draft. Most houseparents had knowledge of all the kids on campus - even if it was only a fleeting impression. The names of the returning sixth graders were compiled into a list. The junior high houseparents met with the Director of Home Life and Bill, who was the counselor for the junior high students. Each boy was hand-placed into a cottage that would be his residence for the next two years. It was not a choice taken lightly.
Because switches were rare and because the houseparents had some say as to which boys were in their cottage, the houseparents were expected to make the best of it with some unruly boys.
The three sets of junior high houseparents each got to pick three boys as first round draft picks. These were usually the boys who were the best behaved, the best students and who caused the least amount of trouble. If two or more sets of parents chose the same boy, he went to the houseparents with the most seniority.
Though the McIlvains had only been at St. Lukes School three years they were, incredibly, the houseparents with the most seniority. This fact both worked for them and worked against them. It worked for them because they had the opportunity to choose the best of the incoming sixth graders. It worked against them because they were also given the tougher boys - the ones who were known troublemakers. That is why The Beast had lived in Trees Cottage. Tom and Debbie had the most experience; therefore, they were best equipped to handle Demetrius.
The Beast was now a freshman in high school and had been placed in Spaulding Cottage and the McIlvains were glad of it. For a time last year, they were genuinely worried he would fail eighth grade and therefore they would be stuck with him for a hellish third year.
As Demetrius was carrying out his personal belongings last June, he tossed a parting shot at Debbie. "Bitch. Im glad Im getting the hell out of here."
Debbie smiled and responded, "Its been a pleasure having you these past two years, Demetrius." She used her most deadpan, sarcastic voice, certain that the huge teenager was going to miss the irony. As he dragged a huge suitcase out the back door, she added, "Dont let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya."
Just before the boys returned to campus, the lists were distributed to the houseparents. The McIlvains list had no surprises; except that at the bottom of their list a name was added as if it were an afterthought: Dennis Balzekas.
On a hot Tuesday morning before the boys were to arrive back at campus, the junior high staff were meeting in a room in the air-conditioned Admin Building. The topic was diversity and a guest speaker had been invited to discuss diversity issues with the staff. Debbie looked pretty, cool and comfortable in a white sleeveless blouse and her hair tied back in a ponytail. As she seated herself at the long table she smiled a greeting to Anne, the principal of the school, who was already seated at the table. Bill arrived carrying a huge pile of manila folders. The other two sets of houseparents, the Murrays and the Pintos were overdue for the meeting.
Bill and Debbie sought out each others company, especially in meetings. They had a similar sense of humor. Like naughty schoolkids, they passed notes back and forth - usually unprofessional comments about how fat Maria Pinto was or about Annes facial tic. They were never disruptive, although one of them might snicker, which would bring raised eyebrows. It was a way to pass the time.
Debbie leaned over to Bill. "Whos this Dennis Balzekas kid?"
Bill grimaced. "Ive been meaning to talk to you about him."
"Uh-oh. I dont like the sound of that at all."
Bill smiled his best cheerleading smile. "Well, Debbie, you and Tom got Mike Maggione, Zack Hiller and Tyler Sweeney - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of the incoming seventh grade. We had to balance it out."
"Why do I get the feeling Dennis is going to more than balance them out?"
Bills smile was enigmatic. "We can talk after the meeting. Can you stop by my office? Ill show you his file."
Throughout the rest of the meeting, Debbie wondered what she was in for. The dull meeting seemed to drag on interminably, and she found herself alternately watching the hands of the clock creep over its own face and doodling on her notepad. The monotonous voice of the speaker didnt help matters much.
"We have a couple minutes before lunch if you want to come to my office," Bill suggested.
Debbie notices that Bill was wearing shorts as she followed him to his office in the basement of the Admin Building. She thought he had the palest, whitest legs she had ever seen.
Bills office was dimly lit as always. It had earned the nickname The Cave. On a hot day like this, the cool, damp darkness was welcome relief. Bill preferred to keep the fluorescent lights off in his windowless office. Only a dim desk lamp with a green glass shade illuminated the square room. As Debbie sat in the comfortable wing chair, he handed her Dennis thick folder. What she read there chilled her, frightened her and moved her almost to tears. She read about Stanley, his abusive father. She read the accounts of how he had wandered to the Near North Side and became entangled in a hustling ring run by two middle-aged adolescents. When one of the partners murdered the other, Dennis found himself on the streets again. He ran to the apartment of an older brother who lived with his older male lover in Hyde Park. They had considered fostering him for a time and even took Dennis to Lake Geneva for the summer to test parenthood.
The experiment in Lake Geneva was a disaster. Dennis older brother Tad and his lover Sean broke up at the end of his visit therefore dashing his hopes of living with them. Tad moved back to Chicago. Tad had sent up a test balloon of fostering Dennis by himself but Judge Kildare stuck the hatpin of reality in his balloon. Tad wasnt making much money, he had little experience in working with kids, and supervision would be a problem. Since Tad was moving back to the city and Dennis might be tempted to return to his previous moneymaking enterprise, supervision was essential.
Added to this, although Dennis was highly intelligent, he would repeat eighth grade this year because of all the days of school he had missed.
While Debbie perused the thick file, Bill made a couple quick phone calls. As he set the receiver down thoughtfully and rubbed his chin. "What does that tell you?"
"It tells me that he hasnt had a lot of security or love in his life. Hes been through a lot in his life and very little of it was his fault."
"I wont bullshit you, Debbie. This kids going to be a handful."
"Why us, Bill? We put up with The Beast for two years," she stated factually without whining.
"You and Tom are the only ones who can handle him. You have the most experience. Can you imagine him with the Pintos? Hed walk all over them."
"What about Matt Rosato?"
"Perhaps later, but right now, hes too much even for Matt. Dennis needs intense counseling and behavior modification. He also needs constant supervision. Matt cant supply that. Here, he can get the help he needs."
Debbie was still shuffling through the papers. The file was a sad scrapbook of failure. Dennis family and social services had failed Dennis and Dennis had failed himself. There were dog-eared report cards from his schools. In the beginning, his grades and behavior were exemplary. Both grades and behavior deteriorated as he advanced through the grades and began to act out the violence he experienced at home. There were endless reports and evaluations from counselors and psychologists and results of psychological tests. She encountered the same phrases repeatedly: "oppositional disorder," "violent tendencies," "Attention Deficit Disorder," and "responds inappropriately to stress and disappointment."
"Bill ." Her voice trailed off.
"Debbie, you can do it," he interrupted. "Youve got me to fall back on. Youve got Mary Harrison. Dont forget Anne. Well do whatever it takes."
"Wait a minute " At the bottom of the papers, Debbie encountered several drawings and paintings. "Where did these come from? Did Dennis do these?"
Bill grinned and nodded.
Stunned, she studied a pencil drawing of an elderly woman sitting in a chair. A shawl was draped over her shoulders. She was smiling for the artist. Even though she was rendered in pencil, the wrinkles on her face looked so realistic, Debbie could almost touch them. The model was detailed down to the age spots on her hands and the fringe on her shawl.
There were other pictures, too. There were outdoor watercolors and many portraits done in pencil, watercolor, pen and ink and even crayon. Dennis was a gifted artist.
"He did all these?" Debbie asked incredulously.
"Yes," Bill said with a wide smile. "The watercolors he did this summer in Lake Geneva."
"Who is this young man?"
"Thats his older brother Tad. They look alike, as youll see. Theres quite a family resemblance."
"What about these?" Debbie referred to other portraits.
"The elderly woman is his grandmother. The other man is Sean, who was Tads significant other. The boy is Seans son."
It was a portrait done in blue crayon on simple typing paper. Somehow, Dennis still managed to capture the essence of a very handsome adolescent, complete with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. Debbie marveled at his use of lines to represent light and shadow. "Amazing," she murmured.
"I can see the wheels turning."
"Can you?" Debbie asked, not removing her eyes from the artwork.
"What are you thinking?"
"Hes going to need a lot of attention."
"Uh-huh," Bill agreed. "Anything else?"
"He was a hustler for a while - and by this sketch I can tell he had a lot of - umm -- affection for this boy in Lake Geneva. Am I correct in assuming Ill need to apply some of the diversity training we had today?"
"Probably," Bill agreed. "Anything else?"
Debbie finally looked up from the papers in her lap. "He doesnt have a family."
Bills face sobered. "Not only does he not have a family, he has no concept of what a normal family is. To Dennis a family means physical and mental abuse. Hes been on his own for so long, hes forgotten how to share, how to compromise, and how to get along with other people. For a while his only goal was survival. Hes feeling rejected by his natural parents and by his brother Tad."
"What a talent! At least hes got one redeeming quality."
"More than just that, Debbie. He can be quite a charming kid when he wants to be."
"Youve met him?"
Bill nodded. "Twice. What are you thinking now, Debbie?"
She drew in a deep breath and released it slowly but didnt speak. Bill knew he would have to sell Debbie on taking Dennis. She was thinking seriously about it.
After a long moment of silence between the two professionals, Bill spoke softly but there was earnestness and just a touch of urgency in his voice. "He deserves a second chance, doesnt he Debbie? The only way hes going to be able to develop his talents is if he has a solid foundation to back him up. This boy needs a family. Matt and Tim are probably the right family to place him with but first we have some work to do. Hes got a lot of issues, Debbie."
She avoided his gaze by shuffling through the papers on her lap. "If he has too many issues, I just might cancel my subscription." It was an attempt at humor to lighten the conversation.
Debbie finally looked up to see Bills reaction. Instead of a smile, she saw a look of determination. "Isnt that what St. Lukes is all about, Debbie? Second chances?" Bill continued as if he hadnt heard Debbies one-liner.
"Yes," Debbie finally conceded.
The day would come - very rapidly - when Debbie and Tom would regret the decision.
St. Lukes School For Boys opened its fall term before Labor Day, like most other schools in the Midwest. Like the rest of the campus, Trees Cottage was rejuvenated over the summer. New carpeting was laid in the dorm rooms and the entire interior was painted. The bathroom was completely retiled which coincided with the arrival of Chicago city water to the town where St. Lukes was located. Water from wells in the entire Chicago area was extremely hard. The dissolved minerals did more than simply make tap water unpalatable to drink. It stained clothes and fixtures. Twice the usual amount of soap had to be used, whether it was dish soap, laundry or bath soap. Once suds were formed they created a tough crust that caked on everything it came in contact with. The hard water also ruined pipes, appliances and equipment, because the dissolved minerals reacted with the metal to create rust.
The city of Chicago got its drinking water from cribs about a mile out in Lake Michigan. Lake water was soft and clean and required little treatment before it was piped to consumers. Nearby suburbs had been buying water from the city for decades. Gradually, the city extended its network of water mains further and further out into the suburbs. The village where St. Lukes was located finally came online in the early nineties.
Tom McIlvain worked at a computer company in Tinley Park. That left Debbie alone during the weekdays. She had to meet her boys at the dining hall for lunch, and then she returned to the cottage.
Those within her family and among her friends who thought her days were leisurely were quickly relieved of that illusion. She had regular mandatory meetings. Mondays were the usual meeting of all houseparents. On Thursdays, she attended another meeting just for the junior high staff. Tuesdays were laundry day. The boys clothes were washed at a laundry off campus, and returned to the cottages. But there was more work for Debbie. She had to sort the clean clothes into different piles for each boy, and place them on the end of his bed. She distributed a clean set of sheets to each bed as well.
She had daily tasks as well. She had to check up on the chores that the boys were assigned. If they were incomplete or poorly done, Debbie would have them do the chore again. From the time they arrived back from school until dinner was homework time unless they had an activity to attend. Debbie and Tom forbade the TV until 7PM on school nights.
She had to complete daily reports on the boys. This was made easier by the computer that the school had installed in the living room of the houseparents suite. It was hooked up to the internet as well as a secure campus intranet. The system was not without its flaws and crashes were common. Still, it was much better than writing all the reports out by hand. Plus, she could email other staff members - a great convenience since it was difficult to reach most staff by phone. The computer also informed her of after-school activities such as band, sports, Scouts, 4H and religious education. Debbie herself taught 3rd and 4th grade CCD, which she really enjoyed. Some asked her why she volunteered to teach the younger grades and she would quip that they were "old enough to know right from wrong but young enough not to have developed an attitude about it." Teachers posted homework assignments on the intranet. Now, the boys had no excuse. When they claimed they didnt have any homework, all she had to do was check the computer.
"Welcome back," Debbie said as she hugged Mike Maggione as soon as he stepped in the back door. She felt a genuine affection for the gangly boy who was taller than she by six inches. He was highly intelligent and had a terrific wit. She liked his company.
A voice behind him said, "Get your bony ass out of the way."
He turned around to see a very handsome boy behind him. Debbie glared at the new arrival.
"The correct phrase is Excuse Me," Debbie corrected him.
Sensing an impending problem, Mike picked up his duffel bag and moved toward his dorm room.
The new boy stepped into the back of Trees Cottage. "And you are " Debbies voice trailed off.
"I am what?"
"And ..you ..are .." Debbie repeated.
"What is your name?"
"Dennis," he said after a long pause.
"Im Debbie. Im the housemom." She held out her hand, but Dennis ignored it.
"Great," he said sarcastically. "Sounds like the plot for a wacky Fox sitcom."
Debbie chose to ignore him. "Ill show you to your room."
He dropped his bag on the floor directly in front of the woman. It was obvious he expected her to carry it for him.
Instead, she stepped lightly over it and started down the long corridor. "You might want to bring your bag with you," she said lightly over her shoulder.
She had won the first round. But, she wondered to herself, how many more would she win?
The first week back was crucial. All the houseparents at St. Lukes began to establish the routines that the boys followed for the rest of the year. Dennis seemed to think he was above the rules. In her mind, Debbie characterized the next week-and-a-half as Bunker Time. They were each digging deep foxholes in preparation for a long battle. Debbie took a light manner toward him. Bill advised her that if she lost her temper, Dennis won, because that was exactly what he wanted her to do.
Another negative behavior presented itself. Dennis seemed to want to get himself expelled from St. Lukes. He blatantly smoked a cigarette near the old Training Building. He refused to do his assigned chores or homework. When the science teacher had the temerity to suggest he wasnt working up to his potential, he called her a bitch. For this infraction, he was suspended for a day.
After this infraction, he was summoned to Father ODonnells office. Dennis was frightened. He expected the priest to hover over the floor like the nun in the movie The Blues Brothers. He might even whack his hands with a ruler like she did!
But ODonnell was a smart man. He was also very busy. His speech to Dennis was short and sweet.
"Dennis, I had hoped we would meet under better circumstances. I hear youre having some problems. Care to tell me your side of the story?"
Theres nothing to tell, Dennis thought to himself. Except that I dont want to be here.
The silence was so long and ODonnells stare so intense, Dennis felt perspiration form on his upper lip and under his arms.
"Dennis, I am a very busy person, so Ill make this short and sweet. We have rules here at St. Lukes and the rules are designed so that we can get along together. You have made it pretty clear that you dont want to follow the rules. You may have noticed that there are no walls or fences around St. Lukes. We always have choices in life, Dennis. You are always free to leave if you dont like the rules."
"I just might do that," he said in an emotionless voice.
"If that is your choice, you might as well know the facts. You cant go to your parents house. I dont need to tell you what might happen if you do. You cant go to your brothers house. He was the one who placed you here, and he would make you come back."
"I have other brothers and sisters."
"Sure you do. But theyve also made it clear they dont want you."
The boys eyes widened. He knows.
ODonnell continued. "And you cant go back to the streets. Barry is still at large and hell be looking for you. So your best alternative is to stay here for the time being, until we can find you a suitable family to live with. You might as well make the best of it, Dennis. As long as you stay here, you will stay out of trouble and follow the rules. Do I make myself clear?"
Dennis rolled his eyes. "Yes," he sighed.
"Good. Go now, I have work to do."
Dennis leapt out of his chair and made a beeline for the office door. As he opened it, ODonnell called to him again.
"The question to think about is not whether you can do it. Because you can, Dennis. I know it and you know it. The question is whether you want to do it. Once you show us that you can follow the rules, you may be eligible to go to a foster home. Thats our goal. OK? Go."
For the next few days, everything went smoothly. Then came the long Labor Day weekend. All Friday afternoon and evening, after school was out for the day, parents came to campus to pick up their kids. Perhaps it was the loneliness and abandonment Dennis felt as he watched the other kids leave and he knew he had nowhere to go. Perhaps it was just a contrary streak that had taken over within him.
He had one last cigarette he had hidden in a pocket of a jacket. He located it, but Debbie had confiscated his lighter. Where would he get a light? He certainly couldnt ask for one. Tonight on Fox! Watch Debbie the Wacky Housemom explode when Dennis asks, "Hey, Debbie, ya got a light?"
He thought of the stove. He snuck down the hall to the kitchenette. There was no sign of Debbie anywhere, although the door to the suite was open. Debbie usually left it open. She said she could watch who came in and out of the cottage through the windows and down the hall to the dorm rooms through the open door.
She didnt see Dennis on his way to the kitchen in his quest for fire.
With a twist of a knob, he turned on the front burner. He stared at the blue gas flame. In the dancing blue flames, he saw Grandma Balzekas beckoning to him. Damn! Why does she always appear in flames? She seemed to be gesturing to him frantically. How was he going to do this?
Without thinking, he put the cigarette between his lips and leaned over the hot flame to light it. Immediately, he felt his hair start to burn and the skin of his face get hot. The acrid odor of burning hair filled the room.
"Shit!" He turned on the water in the sink and splashed cool water over his face.
"Whats that smell?" Debbies voice sounded alarmed. "What did you do to yourself?"
She spotted the cigarette he had dropped on the floor and immediately understood what he was trying to do.
"Sit down," she commanded. She wet some paper towel and wiped his face with cool water. His face was red, but probably only first-degree burns. She didnt see any blisters forming. But his eyebrows and eyelashes were almost completely singed off as were his bangs.
"What were you thinking? Its a miracle you didnt cook your face. Youre going to look pretty goofy for a few weeks."
He started to stand up, but she put a hand on his shoulder. "Where do you think youre going? No, sir. Sit down. Youre going to sit here until I tell you that you can leave."
"Bitch," he muttered. "Im hurt. I need to go to the infirmary."
"No you dont. Not for burnt hair. And anyway, what are you going to tell them when they ask you what happened to you? That you were trying to light a cigarette on the stove?"
He scowled as she left the room.
Half an hour passed. Then an hour. After an hour and fifteen minutes, Debbie heard his adolescent voice calling her name from the dining room area.
"I have to use the bathroom," he told her when she appeared.
She gestured down the hall. "Come back here when youre done."
He literally stomped down the hall. He took a long time to relieve himself. In the meantime, Debbie had an inspiration.
Dennis needed to allow some of his emotions to flow otherwise he was going to explode, and Debbie knew this. But how was she going to get him to talk?
When Dennis returned, there was a pad of paper and three sharpened pencils sitting on the table.
"Draw me a picture," she told him.
"What do you want me to draw?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Anything. Draw something we can hang on the refrigerator," she said with a touch of sarcasm. "When youre done, bring it to me in the houseparents room."
It was almost 7:30, when he appeared in the doorway to the houseparent suite.
Wordlessly, he handed her the picture.
It was an unusual picture with an odd perspective. The view was looking down at the floor in the kitchenette. He had drawn an overhead representation of the sink, refrigerator and stove. He was lying face-down on the floor in front of the kitchen. Hovering above Dennis were a pair of very aged hands, palm up. Propped up against his torso was a stuffed dog. Like the rest of his artwork, it was richly detailed, with good perspective and superb attention to light and shadow.
Debbie was puzzled. "I dont understand."
"Thats me. The hands are my grandmas. She protects me. She gave me the stuffed dog when I was a little boy."
Debbies voice was quiet. "Its an excellent picture."
He shrugged as if it were nothing. "You can keep it, if you want."
"Thank you, Dennis."
He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his denim shorts pulling them down a few inches and exposing the elastic waistband of his underwear.
Although baggy shorts and exposed underwear was the fashion statement for boys, the fad was expressly forbidden at St. Lukes. Debbie knew it, and she was sure that Dennis knew it. He had also lost all his earrings when he started school. Tattoos were also forbidden, but Dennis already had one and nothing could be done about it. The prohibition against tattoos was intended for current students.
Would this kid never stop testing her? "Dennis," she said in a you-should-know-better tone. "Pull your shorts up, please."
He grinned a smile that told her that he did, indeed, know better. But he hiked his shorts up nonetheless.
"Since were going to be living together for the next year, we might as well try to get along." She smiled at him. "I like you Dennis."
The disbelief showed clearly in his face. Nobody likes me just for me. Joe did, but hes a hundred miles away. Everybody else wants something from me. What does Debbie want? What could she want?
Debbie stood and shook his hand. "OK, its a deal. How about some popcorn? I think I have a bag around here." She rummaged through a cabinet in the living room. She handed him a package of microwave popcorn.
"Why dont you go pop it in the kitchen, and bring it back here? Ill put a movie in the VCR."
Dennis brightened. "OK."
While Dennis was popping the corn in the kitchenette, Debbie typed a hasty email to Bill.
I have a very odd drawing Dennis did. I think you should take a look at it.
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it. As always, your comments and suggestions are welcome. I read and respond to all email (even if it takes a few days) Just click on one of the links below. And don't forget to check out my website (Chapters are always posted there earlier than here) and my other story here on Nifty, Pocketful of Stars, in the Young Friends section.
Email for feedback email@example.com
Secondary Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Yahoo Group http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Archerland
To Be notified of new chapters, go to Archerland and complete the Bravenet box in the middle of the page.