The crossing went without a hitch. We were soon on our way after a quick stop in Coquelles for facilities and snacks. Three hours and change later we were entering Paris. While not light, traffic was mostly going the other way. The GPS led me to our hotel and we arrived after another forty-five minutes. The boys were mostly asleep while Dennis and I chatted and watched the road. Ally and Cammy dozed behind us. They all woke up due to a few plates on the roadway that was under construction. It didn't bother me, I didn't plan to do much driving while in the city. Paris has wonderful public transit and plenty of cabs and Uber drivers.
The Hotel Bristol welcomed us back and had our suite ready. We handed bag after bag to the bellmen and I gave the keys to the valet. He offered to get the car washed while it was in the garage and I took him up on it.
The suite had a common living area and a separate TV room. There were two bedrooms for the adults and two for the four boys to share, Carter stayed with Brandon but said he might trade the next night.
We took a walk outside the hotel as a group, The younger boys were shocked to see a Mc Donalds in one shopping park. The bridges were interesting and we took a look at the metro. We milled around while trains came and went and then took the stairs back to street level. Carter pointed at police carrying sub machineguns and asked why.
"They've had some trouble with terrorism here. We can discuss it in length later, but the guns are a precaution," I informed him.
It seemed to satisfy him for the moment but I guessed that we would be chatting a bit more about it.
We continued to wander and circled back to the hotel. It was time to eat. The boys all found something on the menu that didn't look repulsive. They were good eaters but the French have different ideas about dinner fare. The salmon was excellent and we all ate well.
We all made an early night of it except Brandon. He was watching a French detective show with subtitles and doing a pretty good job of following the dialog without looking at them.
"I'll finish this and go to bed Dad, there's only fifteen minutes. It's pretty good," Brandon promised.
At nine the next morning we were dropped at the Louvre and led to the VIP entrance. Ally and I did most of the talking and we were shown directly to the Da Vinci exhibit.
Kelly bless his heart, upon seeing the Mona Lisa said, "I thought it was bigger."
I told him it was a common misconception because images of the painting almost never have anything in the photo for scale. It's actually a standard size for renaissance paintings.
"I wish I could see it close up, why do they have a rail around it?" Carter complained.
"The painting has been stolen once, and vandalized four times. It's a highly visible target for looneys with an axe to grind. So now we have to stand back a bit but it's a very clear for us today, once the museum opens it will be swamped with people. Several other paintings were more accessible and we moved on to the Rembrandts and Van Dykes plus many more. By the time the museum opened we had moved on to the impressionists. Gaugin was a hit with Cammy and Dennis, Kelly enjoyed George Serat's work.
Do they have the Dogs playing cards here?" Carter inquired.
"No son, that collection is in private hands in the U.S. did you know it was actually eighteen paintings and they were painted by a man named Cassius Coolidge?"
"No, when did he paint them?" Carter followed up.
"In the early nineteen hundreds and it took a few years to do them all. I wish they were accessible to the public, I'd like to see them myself," I told him.
We decide that everyone was walked out, so I sent for the shuttle while in the restroom and we waited on the benches outside. The van whisked us back to the hotel for naps all around.
Louis called and asked if we were still on for a bit of clubbing around. We adults had all discussed it and decided we would.
Brandon agreed to watch the others but I suspected he would have little supervision to perform. He and the boys watched American TV off the satellite system and ate junk food.
We took in Cabaret and jazz clubs. Dennis was not a fan of modern jazz but he managed to have a good time chatting with Elodie. It was nearly two when we returned to the hotel by cab. Elodie and Louis took a cab to his Paris flat. He still had to work the next day.
We took the boys sightseeing and took in the Pont des Artes and looked at the padlocks. Even though they had all been removed because of their combined weight, people continued to risk the rather hefty fine to add just one more.
There's an arcade just up the road from here, you guys can check out the games there if you like.
The boys enjoyed all the regular sites such as the Eiffel Tower, Arch de Triumph and many others. Our time in Paris came to an end and it was time to move on to the Loire valley.
I let Henri know we were on our way and he assured me they were ready. This time the boys would be in charge of the gifts. We didn't bring candy since it hadn't been long since we delivered the last batch. I knew that James, Guillaume and Jerome had returned to their homes. Guillaume would return over the summer break and work on the farm. I had told Henri to keep track of him and his aspirations. I was more than willing to help with tuition and other school costs. Jerome hadn't really declared an interest in a career but he was nine.
Ally had found a cutaway doctors model of a uterus with a fetus in residence. She cleared the gift with Avril and Henri before putting it in the box. The box of more tailored presents was sitting in the warehouse and would be brought to the house upon our arrival. Brandon had chosen a very involved history of Cattle for Paul and a similar tome on Agriculture for Andres. Robert would receive a drone kit to feed his engineering bug.
When we arrived there was a lot of excitement , not just meeting our boys and Wade, but they had dug up something very interesting in a new field.
We made all the introductions including Dennis, Cammie and Wade. Cammie spoke some French but Dennis and Wade didn't have a clue. Virtually everyone on the place spoke at least some English so they wouldn't get lost.
It was a warm day and considerably warmer than Paris had been.
"Why don't you all go up and change into something lighter, then the children can show you their discovery, Henri suggested.
"Dad, I'll have one of the men bring up the boxes and you can pass out the presents when you're ready," Henri whispered.
"Sounds good to me," I agreed.
"The kids cooked up a plan to cultivate asparagus which is extremely popular here. I gave them a large plot with good drainage and wind protection. They've cleared it and in the process of preparing the soil they found something very interesting, but I'll let them show you," Henri teased.
I was curious so I followed the herd of boys with our luggage and deposited them in our room. Brandon would bunk with Paul. Kelly would share with Andres.
Carter teamed up with David.
Wade was invited to join Kelly in Andres' and Robert's room.
Ally and I changed into cargo shorts and tees.
We followed the kids about four hundred meters uphill to a two hectare plot. It had been cleared of brush and other vegetation and cultivation was nearly done.
"Paul was on the tractor and I was examining the soil when I spotted a strangely shaped stone. I yelled for Paul to stop and Genevieve to come over and look," Robert related with excitement.
"And?" Ally inquired.
"She confirmed what I thought, they're Ammonites, do you know what those are?" Robert gasped out.
"Some sort of prehistoric cephalopod weren't they? You said 'They', how many did you find?" I asked.
"Hundreds, all of us were walking behind the tractor with buckets collecting rocks and we found three hundred and twenty-nine the first day. Paul went and got a tractor with a front bucket and dug deeper and we found a bunch more, we're going to excavate as much of the field as we can and still get our crop in, but the layer is about a meter thick and it's denser in some places than others. We took a few to Allain and he does…I don't know the word in English he's a lapidaire and he had a saw that can cut open rocks and geodes. He sliced a couple open for us and they're really beautiful inside. And he says they're valuable. We checked on La Redoute and Ebay, prices are quite high. We'll donate some to the schools and the local museum, but Dad says we can sell the rest if we want and keep the money. He'll put what we make in an interest account and we can use it for fun stuff and gifts. The asparagus is different. He'll manage the costs and make sure we don't get scammed. He'll pay our profits into a checking account and we'll divide the profits after costs at the end of the year. We all have savings accounts," Robert and Genevieve explained in concert.
"And David?" I asked.
"Him too, if he lives here he's part of the family and we'll share it out equally. James took home a bank order for his contributions here when he left. He cried when he left but he was happy to be going home. He missed his mom and dad. She's all better now and James had a safe place to be while she was so sick," Genevieve related.
"So you've formed an agricultural collective then eh?" I joked.
"Well not quite, our King is quite benevolent and he gives lots of hugs," Paul answered with a grin.
Paul was fourteen and still traded hugs and kisses with his dad routinely. I take partial credit for that. Brandon mentioned to me that all my boys do that with their kids, as does he, with Ally, his brothers and me.
Ally and I were thoroughly impressed with the organizational skills and business acumen of my grandkids. Carter already had an egg business going. A local distributor came by daily to collect eggs and leave fresh flats. Brandon and Kelly did grunt work with neighbors and never asked to be paid, their service was free to seniors. But people were generous and paid a fair price. The boys also received payment for all the work they did around the house and land. Ally had to get them to tone it down because she had no housework to do. But she joined us with landscaping, tree trimming and other chores too. Kelly and Brandon volunteered to help teach younger kids baseball fundamentals and soccer. That was something I could have used when I was young, I still can't do much more than play catch with the boys.
David and Carter walked side by side on the way back to the house. They seemed to have made a connection. Joint interests and complimentary personalities played a role.
"Well, what do you think of your enterprising grandchildren?" Henri smiled.
"They're outstanding, it's quite plan they have going. Will they be growing the Fat White variety?" I asked.
That's what I recommended. I know plenty of café' owners and restauranters that would be interested in a local source for asparagus. Our weather is similar to Oregon's inland valleys although I think they get more snow. Our growing season is quite long and the kids will make the most of it. Once the planting is done, it's just irrigation and pest control. I think they'll make a go of it," Henri speculated.
"I have faith that they will. So what did you think of the machine?" I inquired.
"I'm dying to try it out. I've prepared some virgin soil for a test, so whenever you're ready I'll roll it out and we can experiment. I don't know about being the distributor. My plate is pretty full, but Avril and her sister might be a good choice. They're both hard as stone when it comes to business matters," Henri suggested.
"I have no objections. We came up with another wrinkle for the machines. Right now the track width is fixed and dedicated to vineyard work, but we've come up with a design to spread the tracks to accommodate any crop spacing that might need temperature stability," I explained.
"So, are the Reichlers using just the mineral salts as temperature control or are they augmenting with shelter?" Henri countered.
"Depending on conditions, they use mylar shelters that spread down rows accordion fashion on a hooped frame. Similar to what you were using a month ago. With the heat wells and recirculation pumps the temperature will keep the vines from freezing more effectively than smudge pots or other labor intensive methods. I'm sure one of your children could master a weather station and follow predictions of the regional weather models," I observed.
"If any of them have a talent for it I'll find out, I'm not sure about putting that much responsibility on the shoulders of a child. They could certainly help but one mistake could be very costly and might destroy their confidence. I don't think I can risk that," Henri worried.
"Even the experts don't get it right sometimes, but I see your point. It would be unfair to place that burden on a child, however competent. They wouldn't be ready for the consequences of failure. But it would be something to learn for all of them," I concurred.
"Wine is a multi-billion Euro business in this valley. Our local weather people are under huge pressure to perform. We all track the weather to some extent. If just a tenth of the grapes fail it's a substantial reduction in the regional output amounting to millions of Euros. We depend on our weather and the resident meteorologist has a lot of responsibility. But when all is said and done, he can only lose his job if he fails. Growers can lose a year's profits.
So many tourists think that we all live in immense chateaus with formal gardens. Aside from Avril's decorative garden we don't landscape. We just don't have the time to waste," Henri explained. "We have a very nice income and a great retirement fund. The kids can go to any school and our employees share in the profits. We're always turning money back into the business. We try new grapes occasionally but some are flops. Muscadet wouldn't grow here, it doesn't get cold enough to make it dormant and it wears itself out quickly. Now with the salt solution as a conductor, we could chill those vines if we wanted to try again. And it might actually be profitable."
"You raise some very good points. I'm a bit ignorant about the actual varieties of grapes, but I like the end product. I don't see why you couldn't use a chiller and bypass the heat well for certain conditions. It might be helpful during heat waves," I suggested.
"That might be true, I'd be willing to try it. Our summers have been hotter in the last few years. It's a cycle. It snowed in July once due to a volcano erupting somewhere in the nineteenth century," Henri cited.
"The machine you received is diesel but we're working on an electric unit. Currently the diesels we use are the cleanest you can get but require urea and more frequent service of the emissions components. In the long run, electric power will win the day. I'm not a fan of lithium but there are other less toxic and more affordable options on the horizon. Iron salt and Iron air technology could lead to localized grids and the dismantling of large infrastructures. Vertical axis wind turbines are much smaller than the behemoths that dot the hills on the way here and they're quieter and less prone to wind stress. You've seen the videos of the wing turbines exploding on their pylons or bursting into flame. A combination of storage and clean renewable energy is the most viable future. There will be tough times ahead though. Agricultural centers may shift along with desert areas. With affordable water desalinization not far off, we could actually be worried about having a planet that is too green to support some species. Everything has costs and benefits," I concluded.
"So what happens to your car collection when electrics take over?" Henri smiled.
"I've thought about that. Some will be converted and some will go to museums. I have some gems. I acquired a Facel Vega on my last trip. I have a modern five liter Ferrari drive train to replace the bodged up Peugot someone dropped into it in place of the big Chrysler. I've already got people working on the frame. The rest of the car is very clean. Minimal rust and it had a factory conversion to a drophead," I explained.
"That's something I never got into Dad. I enjoyed the shows you took me to and seeing the vintage cars was neat, but I'm a farmer and a utilitarian at heart. My collecting is old winemaking equipment and art. We've accumulated a decent collection. I even have a few pieces on loan to a museum or two," Henri noted.
"You always were one for more esoteric pursuits. Perhaps you'll show us your gallery?" I suggested.
Certainly, I don't know how we missed it the last trip, it's one of three rooms that we keep locked in the house. My office, the gallery and the gunroom. Just rifles and shotguns but they have to be secured. The police can make inspections at very short notice," Henri shared.
"They'd have a fit at what's in my gunroom. I have a very secure building where I do my special reloading and store guns and ammo. A longtime friend just asked me to look after his guns, he's a WWII vet and a police detective. I have his old police car too. I need to find an appropriate venue to send it to. His biggest concern was having some idiot yank the motor to put in an old Mustang or something. That's what happened to most of the old cop cars with big engines. I expect in another ten years, that I.C, vehicles will be relics and the vast majority will have been recycled or converted to electric power. I just have some serious qualms about basing all of this on lithium. I turned down an investment opportunity in Nevada because that's what they were going for. I expect lithium to be on its way out as better less toxic batteries hit the market," I orated.
"You and my other dad just ruined me as a venture capitalist, too many ethics to make it work. You've always thought of the long range effect of projects like lithium mining. It's sort of what sets you apart from the guys that will back anything that will make them more money," Henri grinned.
"I think you can be ethical and invest in technology, but it means doing your own research and most people who can pony up that kind of money hire that research out. Some of what they get back is valid and some is just the crap the industry wants them to know. I prefer to do my own research, but I'm an engineer at heart so I have a slight advantage. Plus I have friends who are like minded and can steer me to deserving enterprises. If you decide you want to shadow some of what I'm doing let me know. It's not without risk though. Just don't do something that's outside your comfort zone and don't use money you can't afford to lose. There's no such thing as a guaranteed investment," I instructed.
"I'll keep it in mind Dad, let's go catch up with the rest of them and see what's up. We can do a test run with the boring machine tomorrow if that's okay," Henri suggested.
We had been speaking for quite a while and Ally was beginning to wonder if we'd run off to a pub.
We were met with another very deep discussion of social matters.
"America isn't what you hear on CNN or whatever you listen to here. Most people are nice, it's just the noisy ones that get attention. Most of them are stupid or politicians or both," Brandon schooled his niece and nephews. Because of just a few people with exposure most Americans think that all French are rude. We all know that's not true. But we don't learn much about modern France in school, and most kids don't have someone like Dad to tell them what's true and what isn't."
"I'm sure you're right, I know that all Americans don't walk around with a gun everywhere, but we have strict gun control here and Charle Hebdo still happened. There are people everywhere that think they can do what they want anytime. If they can't get a gun they make a bomb, so what do we do? Can we control who can get nitrates? We use them here as fertilizer and they're in cleaning products too. Nitrates are the basic component of explosives, so what do we do?" Paul asked rhetorically.
"I know, most of the people who commit crime with a gun in our country are legally barred from having one. Dad said that here they have a problem with a flood of Makarov pistols coming in from all the old soviet bloc countries. They can't search every truck and car that enters the country. Guns and drugs get in to our country and yours. The only approach that will work is education. I don't mean everyone needs to go to college. Not everyone wants to go or could make use of a college. But trade schools and apprenticeships could be a pathway to economic stability in both our countries. There are other factors of course but I think that's where it starts," Kelley expounded.
"I agree, plus so many people believe anything they see on the web is real and that it's the norm everywhere. Not just some brain dead conspiracy theorist running his uncontrolled mouth. I believe in freedom of speech but I'm not sure it means a license to tell lies to everyone. But then that would really put a crimp in the politicians game wouldn't it?" Andres put in.
I had to laugh at that point, Andres had a very quick and well informed wit. He was the master orator of the family. His sarcasm could be wilting.
"You're such a cynic Andres," Genevieve giggled.
Andres only shrugged his shoulders.
We should all get cleaned up for dinner," Henri suggested.
The kids moved en mass to the stairs to find and wash the younger kids.
"Such a bunch of brilliant minds Henri, that has to be cultivated and encouraged. Even if they take positions that are in direct opposition to yours," I encouraged.
"Oh I know, they are free to believe what they want as long as it's based on fact," Henri replied.
I went up and changed after a quick washup in the sink. Ally joined me and we changed to slightly more formal clothing.
"We need to engage the boys more on the political and social aspects a bit more. Brandon and I talk about it regularly but Kelly has some thoughts on things too. I want to encourage that awareness, that means we have to allow them to disagree with our point of view, I just want them to research their position before they commit to it. I think Wade had something to say but we kind of broke up the discussion to get ready for dinner. I was hearing some very eloquent speaking considering the age level," I informed her.
"As long as their position is based on fact and not rumor, I'll support their decision to hold an opinion on anything. Taking anything from tweets and treating it like gospel won't fly though," Ally replied.
"We need to help them understand that, although I think Carter will need some help. He's younger and hasn't formed sophisticated logic yet. He's on his way but he's got a way to go. I don't want to rush him. When he's ready we can talk about philosophy and what our place is in the world. For now, let's just let him be a little boy," I suggested.
"Agreed," Ally replied and kissed me. "He couldn't find a better dad."
"Or a better mother," I said and kissed her back.
"Those were some pretty deep topics you guys were tackling earlier," I mentioned to Brandon after dinner.
"It didn't start out that way, but they wanted to know what American kids were like. I told them some of them were smart and reasonable, some were average and some were jerks. Just like people everywhere. We got onto the subject of violence and found out we all have to deal with it on some level. It just went on from there," Brandon told me.
"I just meant I was impressed. I wish most adults could discuss things as calmly as you guys were doing. People get so entrenched in their own point of view they won't even discuss an alternative. You'll want to be careful sparring with Andres, he'll take the piss with you at any opportunity," I warned with a grin.
"Why do you say that Dad, I mean why do you use that phrase, I know Andres has a sharp wit already. That take the piss thing is what I meant," Brandon elaborated.
"Something I picked up during my travels. I spend a lot of time in the UK and Europe. I have business to attend to here on a regular basis," I explained.
"I just wondered, I knew it was a British phrase and it goes with 'are you having a laugh' I just didn't realize you spent so much time there that it rubbed off," Brandon concluded.
"I can usually keep the Brit speak under control once I've been home for a day or two," I explained.
"I think it's cool, I have to change, I want to help Paul with the horses," Brandon shared.
"Carry on, I won't hold you up," I acknowledged.
That evening we all sat around and listened as the kids told stories about events or interesting things.
Brandon was asked to retell the story of Espen's rescue. Ally pointed out that Brandon had taken very good care of Espen once he was out of the mud.
David talked about missing his family and James who had become a close friend. He shared some of the things that James had emailed him. His dog had been overjoyed to see him again and the account was both humorous and heartwarming.
All the kids seemed to truly miss their absent brothers, they weren't temporary in their hearts. Ally, Cammie and Avril were off on their own chatting with Genevieve about womanhood, midwifery and other topics. I brought in a few glasses and left them be.
Later, when the children had all gone to bed and Henri was working in his office. Dennis and I chatted for a while.
"Henri is a great father, you brought him up right Rob," Dennis smiled.
"Maurice had a lot to do with that too, I just finished what he had begun. Henri is a fine man and a great father." I explained.
He was enjoying the trip immensely. It was hard to tell because Dennis is only expressive with Cammie and Wade. He wasn't taciturn but you couldn't read his emotional state by his expression. I could tell by body language and other clues, but I had known him quite a while.
The test run of the machine was a triumph. Henri and his entire crew marveled at the ease of operation and simplicity. The remote was a big hit. The guys were enjoying the experience so much that they hardly realized that they had done four hectares and nearly exhausted the tubing supply.
On our final night the boxes were brought to the house and the gifts were passed out. James, Guillaume and Jerome's gifts were set aside for forwarding with notes from our boys and their foster family.
Genevieve was overwhelmed by her gift and the boys were intrigued as well. Robert was ecstatic about the drone kit and promised to send video of the farm from the air.
At first I thought David was unhappy with his book but I was wrong, he was in awe of the illustrations of fossils and descriptions of digs being carried on throughout the world.
"I know you suggested this Grampa, you're the only one I told about dinosaurs and fossils and stuff," David smiled with wet eyes.
I hugged him tight and told him that yes, I had suggested it but Brandon sought out just the right thing for him. I was glad that he liked it.
Edgar was next, he crawled into my lap for a hug and a kiss. I love my fire engine, it's really big and it does everything but squirt water.
Genevieve hugged Brandon who directed her to Ally. "That was Mom's idea. I didn't even know that those existed. I hope it helps you out."
The girl gave Ally a crushing hug next and cried, she was so happy.
Andres and Paul raved about their books on cattle and agriculture. They were genuinely pleased.
Paul walked to a closet and drug out a cloth tote.
"We didn't know very much about you guys, but we knew you're all smart. We have a present for each of you, I'm afraid they're all the same thing though. We had several of the Ammonites cut and polished and we have them all boxed up in this tote," Paul announced. "We have enjoyed your visit very much. We hope to visit your country sometime soon."
The kids passed out the boxes and we each took a look at the finished product. They were phenomenally beautiful. All the little chambers were visible. There were small inclusions of quartz and other minerals which rendered them iridescent.
Lots of hugs and kisses changed hands, after which we sat down to dinner.
It was quite a spread and conversation was lively. David asked about the status on Carter's old school property and the remains that were being investigated there. I told him I would send a link to the UCSB website that was associated with the excavation.
Goodbyes are always sad, but I knew that they would be visiting us and we would be visiting them. Brandon had impressed Avril with his cooking skills and he was impressed by her kitchen and her table garden. It was the best produce he had ever had.
Our trip home was unremarkable, there were no issues at customs and our connecting flight from Dulles was right on time.
Our arrival was early afternoon and we took a service to Hawthorne and did the preflight. By six o'clock we were home and dry. The weather was gorgeous but I was knackered. I slept almost five hours without moving. Ally had slept on the plane while I kept watch on the boys. Now they kept watch, albeit in front of the TV.
They had done a group video chat with the kids in France and let them know that we had all arrived safe.
I found an empty spot on the couch and watched along with the boys. It was a documentary on invertebrate fossils. Customs had barely noticed the ammonites in our luggage. One did say that they were quite nice and asked where they came from in France.
"Our brother's farm in the Loire," Kelly told her and nailing the pronunciation. He would have talked her arm off if allowed.
The only negative about our arrival occured as we were waiting in line at the customs station. I had allowed several people to pass us so we could keep the boys between Ally and me. But a fat greasy man started edging past and got between Kelly and Wade. A man in a suit walked up to the rope and disconnected it from the pylon. He was a customs agent too. He gestured for the man to follow him to another screening area. I don't know what happened but I didn't see him again. I can only hope he'd been delayed by an intensive inspection of his luggage and person.
Our lives returned to normal. We gave the boys a day to readjust to the time difference and let them finish the school week while their stories were still fresh in their minds.
The trans-Atlantic chats continued and we received news that David had been allowed to return to his family. His new baby sister was out of danger and his mother was quite healthy. We also heard of a planned trip in August. That news cheered the boys who began looking for cool things to show their niece and nephews once they arrived. There were plenty of places to go either on horseback, quad or bicycle. Plus the required treks to Disneyland and other attractions. Edgar would be with them. The trial adoption period had begun and they were free to travel with the little boy.
Papa Cedric was identified as Jean Cedric De Dieu. It took a while but Hubert tracked him down in a Marseilles hotel. He was arrested for murder and several child abuse and endangerment charges. His network was rooted out and dismantled. Another would take its place but that was crime. Hubert Massinette told Edgar personally and that they even caught the neighbor with the mean dog.
Our lives settled down to the usual frantic pace with baseball and soccer games, piano practice for Kelly and Carter, plus guitar for Brandon.
Just before the end of school Kelly, Ronny and Brandon approached me with a fourth boy in tow. He was rough looking, his clothes were worn and his hair was shaggy. But underneath was a boy around Kelly's size. He could have really used a shower. He was Kelly's age and he looked fearful.
I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. The boy hesitated and shook my hand. "I'm Sorrel, Sorrel Andersen," he told me.
"Dad, he's been living like I was when you found me. Is there any way we can get him somewhere safe to live?" Brandon pleaded.
"I think it's possible. Is that something you'd like Sorrel?" I asked.
"Yes, but I don't want to get stuck in some kid jail just because my parents don't want me," The boy answered clearly.
"Would you prefer to speak with me in private?" I suggested.
"I think so, no offense guys but some of the stuff they did is pretty bad," He told the others.
I invited him to my study and asked the boys to round up some iced tea and snacks.
"So how did you end up living rough?" I probed.
He was silent a long while and then faced me with a look of despair.
"I'm gay and they didn't like that. They tried to beat it out of me and locked me in my room. It didn't work.
One day when they were gone, a guy broke into the house and picked the padlock on my door. I offered to show him where all of their valuable stuff was if he'd just let me go but he said no. He said that if he stole their stuff they'd think I did it. He told me to pack clothes and stuff in a backpack and get whatever food I could find from the kitchen. He even offered me some cash. I had my money in my room and he gave me advice about where to keep it. He said never keep more than ten bucks in your wallet. He was right. I got robbed a lot. Then he wished me luck and disappeared. I got my stuff and some food and took off too. I don't know if they reported me missing or not. Probably not, they didn't want me talking to the cops about their drugs and what they did to me. I made my way out here to California but I can't get a job and I won't do sex for money. I'm afraid to ask for help cos I'll end up in a care home or something worse. I dumpster dive and sell some stuff and find food that way too. Sometimes I panhandle, but I feel awful doing that. Most people ignore you and I'm not exactly what you'd call cute," Sorrel told me.
"I know Brandon told you he was living on his own when we met. Did he tell you the whole story?"
"Yes, and so did Kelly. He said if anyone could help it would be you," the boy sighed.
"You look exhausted and hungry, let's get some food into you and then maybe a bath and some clean clothes, how does that sound. I need to speak with my wife and the boys. I will also check to see if you're listed as missing. Where did you used to live?" I asked.
"Nebraska, outside of Lincoln," Sorrel informed me.
I led him back to the kitchen where I found Ally and the boys waiting. I asked Brandon and Ally to join me in private. Ally was up to speed and was open to the idea of adding him to our herd.
Kelly led him upstairs to shower and put out fresh clothes.
I called Paul and told him what was up. I gave him Sorrels name and asked him to do some checking on the family. I included the stepfather's surname for good measure. After that I called to have Sorrel checked in the system, like Brandon no one had reported him missing. At least not under the name he gave me. I ran a check of birth records on the chance that a boy his age would have been entered in the system. There he was, mother and father's names, date of birth and location. He'd been born at Bryan medical in west Lincoln. All that matched.
When I saw him next, Sorrel was clean and wearing clean clothes. They were loose but that was nothing that good food and caring couldn't overcome.
We sat together on my office couch in private and I laid a few things out for him. I told him chances were good that we could get protective custody of him. He would need to be deposed by Paul and tell his story to a judge. I also told him that anything he had on his parents would be helpful in keeping them away.
"Kelly told me about his mom and her boyfriend. What if I told you where my parents cook their meth? Could you get them arrested?" he asked hopefully.
"Do you know for a fact that they do that?" I asked.
"I'm not supposed to but I've heard them talking about it. They have a lab under the barn, it's got this trick entrance under some straw bales. I've seen them use it, and they bring up bags of stuff and drive to Iowa with it. I guess they sell it there," Sorrel told me.
"That fits in well with a protective custody order. I'll get going on what you've told me as soon as we're done here. I have a few questions for you and I need you to answer truthfully. Can you do that?"
"I think so," he answered.
"Do you use any drugs or alcohol ?"
"I smoked a joint once, it made me barf. I'm not doing that again. I can't afford weed anyway," He admitted.
"Anything else I should know?" I asked. "Bad or good, now is the time to tell me," I explained.
"I told you I was gay already, but it's not just that. I like to wear dresses sometimes. It makes me feel pretty and like I'm worth caring about. I know it's messed up but it's something I used to do," He whispered.
"That's it? Is that what got you in trouble at home?" I pressed.
"Yes," he said. Mom caught me in my room all dressed up. They tore up my room and took all my girl clothes out and burned them. Then they beat me and locked me up," he shared.
I put an arm around him and he leaned in and cried. My heart broke for him. I just held him until he was able to rein himself in. I handed him tissues and took a few myself.
"So are you Trans or do you just like to cross-dress occasionally?" I asked.
"No, I like being a boy. I just feel like wearing a dress sometimes," He insisted.
"Fair enough, you're free to follow your heart around here. I think you could be comfortable here and we'll do what we can to protect you. What do you say to that?"
Sorrel grinned and hugged me. I walked him out to the family and asked what Wade's mom was up to.
Sorrel's hair was ragged and I asked if he wanted to get it neatened up. He thought it was a great idea. Ally called Cammie while Brandon, Ronny and Kelly walked him over.
"He's been badly abused honey. There may be some lingering effects from that. They beat him for being gay. He was kept in a locked room while they manufactured meth under their barn. I'm going to call Alf and have him make contact with Lancaster county Sheriff's and get them up to speed. Sorrel may have to give a statement but he shouldn't have to go back. But that's for after we have protective custody. Has Pam retired yet?" I asked.
"No she hasn't and I'm sure she and Paul can streamline the process. But I think calling the county sheriff may be a bad move. I think you should call Paul Corelli and see what he has to say," Ally suggested.
"You're right, I'll give him a call first and he can let me know if anything has come to his attention re: Lancaster county S.O." I agreed.
I reached Paul right away but his reply took a couple hours.
"They seem to have a clean bill of health, but there is a joint task force working in that area. The Omaha, Des Moines corridor project. How credible is your info?" Paul asked.
"I think it's pretty sound. It came from the two actor's kid who has taken refuge here. I think it's credible intel. If you want to drive up and talk with him he can give you the details. Just give me some warning so I can get him ready," I requested.
"Will do Rob. I'll call you in the morning and let you know what I discover.
I can tell you now that Paul called me back, he interviewed Sorrel and cross checked his answers. Sorrel had spied on them and knew how the trick entrance worked. When the taskforce raided the place the Huggins sat and looked smug as the agents carefully searched the house. That turned out to be a bit disingenuous because another team was searching the barn simultaneously. Once the barn team told the house team what they found, the couple was arrested and handcuffed. Several other arrests resulted from that event.
Sorrel was a good fit, and after a haircut, sufficient food and medical care, he blended in well. He joined the boys at school the next term and has been getting extremely good grades. We offered to buy him a dress or two but he declined. He said we made him feel like he mattered and that was enough. He didn't need to do that anymore. For the record, he's plenty cute. So is our newborn son, Colby.
The end for now
Dear readers, thank you for sticking with me this far. Things are happening in my life that preclude writing for the foreseeable future. I left the door open for a return visit and I hope to check back in with the McKenna clan when it's possible.
Thanks again, to my late editor who taught me so much, and a young author called Juju who I considered a friend. I miss them both.