There was never a greater contrast of clean and dirty than a Detroit winter. One moment you were out on the crisp, snow-covered sidewalks, the next you were stepping into a mud puddle up to your ankle. That feeling was especially unpleasant when there were holes in the bottom of your sneakers. A young boy of nine grunted as water pooled into his shoe the instant his foot hit the pavement. He gave a sharp look to the woman who gripped his arm and tugged him along the crosswalk. She moved swiftly in her warm winter boots, oblivious to the dark glances she was receiving. She didn't step in the puddle. Only he did. Her feet were dry. His were not. He began to protest by pulling out of her grasp but she only gripped him harder. "Move it!" she demanded through gritted teeth. "I don't have time for this, Robert. Hurry up."
They were seconds from their destination. He could see it. The old familiar brick building looming before him as they finished their trek across the street. He'd been there more times than he could count, and he knew that this wasn't about to be the last. The overly eager woman practically bounded the last three steps to the entrance, yanking the young man behind her. She charged up the the receptionist and the desk and declared with hands thrown in the air, "I can't do it! That is it!"
He felt the receptionist eyeing him, and he allowed himself the pleasure of eyeing her back. They knew each other well. The woman in her early thirties who sat behind the desk broke her gaze from him and looked up to the fuming woman who had once again tightened a grip on his shoulder to keep him in place. "Mrs. Kripke, will you wait one moment, please? Doreine will be out in a moment." The receptioist, Barb, was her name, gave him another hardened stare as she picked up the phone and punched in a number. "Yes, Doreine, Janet Kripke is here. With Robert." He heard the annoyance in her voice when she spoke his name. He'd heard it many times. She hung up the phone and gave the Crypt Keeper a sympathetic smile. "She's on her way."
As if on cue a woman, tall, and gray haired, in her mid fifties appeared from around the corner. Before she could even ask, Crypt Keeper was screaming, "He set my daughter's hair on fire!"
"Mrs. Kripke, I'm sure it was an accide-"
"It was not an accident," she interupted, while practically tossing the young boy away from her and at Doreine. "Spilling milk is an accident. Locking your keys in the car is an fucking accident!" She was livid, and there was no denying he enjoyed seeing her this way. "Dumping lighter fluid into a girl's hair and putting a match to it is not an accident!" He didn't bother to hide his grin at the rising pitch of her voice. She was practically supersonic. "That thing," she huffed, pointing directly at him, "belongs in jail. Not a group home and certainly not my home. I'm sorry, Doreine. I tried. I brought the paper work." With that she shoved a folder into the awaiting hands of Doreine. She was back out the door before any more could be said.
Robert was silently praising himself for his victory when he heard the tone. That low, hushed groaning voice, just dripping in disappointment and irritation. "Robert, what on earth will I do with you?"
Now, he knew the system well enough. He knew his social worker was supposed to be compassionate and look out for his best interests. He knew because that's what the social workers did for the other kids. For as long as he could remember, Doreine had been around. But for as long as he could remember, he'd tried her patience more than any other kid she'd dealt with, so her compassion wasn't exactly something he was familiar with. He couldn't have possibly known that she was just old and was starting to have enough of the life she lived. As far as he was aware, he was just the kid that finally drove her bonkers. Four years of him could make anyone crazy. He was actually sort of impressed with the Crypt Keepers. They'd managed for a whole two months. Young or not, he knew what was coming next. A toss up between a group home or a temporary placement for a night or two until something more "permanent" could be found.
He could feel Doreine's eyes burrowing into the back of his skull and for a moment, he felt nervous, and started to become painfully aware of the sloshing in his still wet sneaker. Then he grit his teeth and fixed himself with the toughest look he could muster. He turned to her, crossing his arms and with the same tone she had given him said, "Fuck if I know, lady. Ain't it your job to figure it out?" He tried to make his voice a little gruffer and deeper, something not easy to accompish for a nine-year-old, but he was pretty pleased with himself when he caught the twitch under Doreine's eye. If he'd had parents of his own, they would have washed his mouth out with soap for using that language. If he was in a foster home he'd have likely been slapped around for it. But this was Doreine, and this was a public place, so he was full of courage.
They were locked in a fight of the death glares. Neither noticed the looks they were recieving from Barb or passers-by. It was finally Doreine who gave, letting out a sigh, and lowering his head. "Come on, Robert," she said with a vexed sigh. "I'm going to sort this out."
Six months later
Doreine's idea of sorting it out had been to retire. He didn't know it then, but she had been planning it for a while, and Robert had been the only open case she left behind. He'd been the only kid she couldn't place in the year leading up to her retirement. The best she could do was stick him in a group home, liked he'd expected. He'd watched kids come and go. It was always the babies that went first, then the toddlers, and then all the other kids under the age of seven. He'd hadn't moved. It wasn't common for a kid to stay in one group home as long as he had, but there was no one out there who wanted to take him. One look at him told whoever the prospectives were that he was trouble, more trouble than they could handle, so he stayed put.
Unaware to him, his file had been passed around from one worker to another until it landed in an entirely different district of Detroit. Two days before his tenth birthday, a woman in her early forties, with a pleasant face, blonde hair, and the kindest eyes Robert was sure he would ever see entered the room he shared with a dozen other kids, and walked directly up to him. "You must be Robert."
His lip curled into a look of disgust at the mention of his name. "Don't much like bein' called Robert," he said bluntly, unafraid to be rude. They all started off looking nice. He knew it was just a matter of time before he broke her so he decided it was best to get started.
The woman gave him a sidelong look. "No? Why's that?" Now she was pretending to be interested. Great.
"People only call me Robert when they're mad at me," he said with a casual shrug.
The woman knitted her brow in thought. "Well, what do they call you when they aren't mad at you?"
He gave let out a mischevious chuckle. "They're always mad at me."
She let out a similar chuckle, shaking her head. "I see your predicament. Well, young man, I am Evelyn Mercer, your new social worker, and I promise never to call you Robert ever again. Mad or otherwise."
This took him aback. What else was she supposed to call him if not his name? Hey you? Well, he'd heard that enough, he would respond to it anyway. But wasn't that almost worse than his name? He was obviously confused, but he attempted to mask it by giving her a look as if she were insane. "So what you plannin' on callin' me then, lady?"
"I was thinking of 'hey you', but I think that might confuse people," Evelyn replied seriously, as if she'd taken it into great consideration. Whether he was angry, and as rough as a bull in a china shop, Robert was still a kid, and couldn't stop himself from letting out a surprised laugh. As quickly as it slipped out, he'd recovered his tough persona, crossing his arms over his chest and challenging the woman before him. "I saw that," she said, pointing at him. "But I'll let it slide this time. A child like you shouldn't be laughing. It's a ridiculous notion." She a facetious sense of humor, and Robert couldn't help but enjoy it a little. But he was still keeping his gaurd up. Of that he was determined. He watched Evelyn intently as she rubbed her hands together. "So, we were deciding what to call you, weren't we? I suppose the next best thing to 'hey you' would be Bobby."
He raised his eyebrows a little. "Bobby?"
"Sure," she said with a bright smile. "What do you think?"
He held back the urge to nod in approval, rather settling on a non-commital shrug. "Yeah, whatever," he muttered.
"Well, if since you're so sure," Evelyn said with a teasing smile, "Bobby it is, then. So now that we've decided what to call you, I suppose our next order of business is to find you a home."
One year later
Bobby had been out of the group home for a long time, and instead was being bounced around from one foster family to another. Ms. Evelyn put great deal of effort into finding him homes. He hadn't known a commitment to him as strong as this before. Doreine put him where ever someone would take a kid. But Ms. Evelyn had done her homework on Bobby, and she was actually trying to fine him a home and make it work.
Her efforts, unfortunately, had all been in vain. Particularily the most recent.
This time, though, Bobby wasn't being brought back to the Family Services building by an angry foster parent. He was being escorted out of a foster home by an outraged Evelyn Mercer. However, unlike an angry foster parent who would have their hand on his shoulder or arm in a death lock grip, Evelyn held his hand gently, stroking his knuckles with her thumb, almost as a complusive attempt to keep herself calm. As Bobby walked from the house, combination of street lights and police car, ambulance and fire truck strobes nearly blinded him, and he briefly covered his eyes with is free hand. The shiner on his left eye stung at the contact and he removed his hand with a cringe.
He felt numb and indifferent, likely out of shock, but the lights, the officers, the firemen, and the sight of his latest foster father being shoved into the back of a police car was eerily familiar, though he had no clue why.
Around six years ago
A four year old, unusually small for his age, with big chocolate eyes and matted brown hair sat alone at the coffee table in the living room drawing pictures with crayons. He only had three colours, all stolen from a restaruant when the waitress had given him a paper placematte and a cup of crayons to draw with. He'd slipped the red, blue, and yellow crayons into his pocket when no one was looking. Now they were his most prized possessions, and he kept them in his pocket where ever he went. His favourite subject was cars. He drew all sorts of cool cars. To most they would appear as blobs with mishapen circles on the bottom. But to the little boy at the coffee table, they were race cars with flames on the side, or monster trucks with big teeth. He made sounds like an engine as he held up one recently completed picture and waved it around, like it was driving really fast.
The moment the silence was broken with the soft sounds of child's play was the moment he was noticed. And that was the moment it all went downhill.
"Hey!" a voice from around the corner snapped. The voice was soon followed by the form of a man, well dressed in a shirt and tie. "I told you to keep it down in here, Robert. What are you doing? Where did you get those?" The first thing he noticed were the crayons, and to the little boy's horror, his three most precious possessions were ripped from his chubby hands. The sound of the crayons snapping in two was for certain the sound of the little one's heart breaking. Tears were flooding his eyes, and he could not contain his sobs. "Hey, shut up!" The well dressed man looked down at the drawings and his eyes instantly were ablaze with unspeakable rage. "These are out of my briefcase?! Those are my proposals, you little shit!" The next sound in the room was a harsh smack of skin against skin, followed by the thud of a small head to the floor. "I've been working on those for three fucking weeks!" The pained crys of the little boy were no match for the ferocious screams of the man who towered above him.
"I sorry! I sorry!" the little one bawled from where he still lay on the ground. His pleas for forgiveness fell on deaf ears as he was yanked up by his arm, feeling the painful throb of bones being twisted the wrong way. He howled as he was dropped back to the floor. He was a mess of tears and snot as he wordlessly sobbed. "Shut up! SHUT UP!" the man repeated over and over again.
It seemed to last forever, but salvation finally came when a door was silently opened, and the voice of a woman was heard screaming in horror. "What are you doing?! Get off of him!" Attention was diverted from the little one who was on the floor in a pile, barely conscious and still crying, to the new presence in the apartment. There was no time for more words before the little boy heard the same sound of skin against skin and a thud to the floor. He peaked out from his shielded face enough to see a woman with dark curly hair in huddled on the floor against the door while the man viciously attacked her with kicks and fists. Her face was covered, so her arms and middle were taking most of the blows. The little boy was frozen with fear in his place. He watched and listened as the woman was silenced, her cries no longer being heard, but the man still wouldn't let up.
Somewhere, deep in the back of his mind, a tiny voice was beginning to tell him to get up, and get help, like they said on the commercials on tv. If someone you know is getting hurt, get help. But how? You're supposed to tell your parents, or the police, but what do you do when your parents are the ones hurting you? How do you get the police? He didn't know, they never explained that part. What was he supposed to do? What was he supposed to do? What did a little four-year-old child do? The same part of his mind that told him to get help suddenly took over. He sat up and slowly pushed himself away, watching still as the woman was taking blows. His back connected with the kitchen counter, and he crawled around the corner into the kitchen. He opened the door that only grown ups are supposed to open, and he stood on his tip toes to see. He saw what he was looking for, and took it out, and tried to run to the open briefcase on the desk in the office. He opened the box, and pulled out a match, and, doing exactly what the grown ups did, put the red end to the brown paper and swiped. The match instantly came to life in a bright flame, shocking the little boy into action. He dropped it into the briefcase, and the papers instantly went up in flames. He was momentarily hypnotized by the dancing flames as they engulfed the papers in the brief case, then lighting the briefcase itself. The flames were rising higher and hotter, until they nearly reached the ceiling, the little one staying where he stood, mesmorized by what he had created. It felt like a life time, but only seconds later, smoke alarms were sounding, and the sprinklers sprung to life, showering the entire apartment.
A thunderous scream from the man overwhelmed the little boys ears, and before he could cover them, he was being thrown against a wall. The little one cried again, both in fear in pain as he saw the man who was more a monster looming before him. Before another hand was laid on him, there was pounding at the door, and then the sound of it being broken down in amongst the shrilling of the fire alarms. There were voices in the apartment, and desperate footsteps. Suddenly it wasn't just the boy and the man. There were men in masks and rubber suits. Firemen. And police. The police were here! He'd done it. He'd gotten help, like he was supposed to. There wasn't a moment's hesitation when the police saw the man. His arms were yanked behind his back and put into handcuffs. The man kicked wildly and tried to get away, but more men came to subdue him. He was finally dragged away, leaving the little boy huddled in a corner, face buried in his knees.
All the noises had died down, and he could hear the muffled voices of the police outside in the living room. "Jesus. He beat her to death. Her head's practically backwards." "There's a kid too. Back in another room. He started the fire. The kid's fuckin' smart." "Probably saved his life." "He can't be more than four years old." "By the looks of things he got it too." "It's possible she died trying to fend the bastard off." "Have you seen the kid? He's a wreck." More comments like these followed, but he didn't understand or even comprehend them. He was too far gone in a world of shock.
He was finally carried out of the apartment building, out into the night where a combination of street lights, police car, ambulance and fire truck strobes nearly blinded him. He wasn't aware of the person who held him, but he watched as the man, with his hands behind his back, was forced into the back of a police vehicle, while a stretcher with a shape of a body under a sheet on it was rolled into an ambulance.
The little boy looked out of big chocolate eyes with a quiet, numb indifference as he was placed into another ambulance. He would never remember this night. He would never remember it as the turning point. The night that shaped him into what he would become. The only thing he would ever remember would be this.
Fire saved his life.
"Bobby? Bobby?" He heard his name being repeated over and over as if it were from a distance but right beside him at the same time. He'd been so deeply buried in the recesses of his mind he hadn't even noticed he'd been sitting in the car, driving away for as long as he had. He was out of it as an EMS had checked him over to determine if there were any serious injuries they weren't aware of. He was out of it when he was brought to the hospital and the bones in his left arm were roughly snapped back into place and bound with a cast. While the burns on his chest were treated and wrapped. He was on autopilot as he was interviewed by police while he sat on the hospital bed in the emergancy room, answering their questions but never to remember what it was he said. He was unaware that Evelyn never left his side the entire time.
The repeating of his name was finally bringing him back to reality, and he blinked a few times, waiting to see if he was imagining it or not. He wasn't. He turned his head to the source of it, to find those same kind eyes staring at him with the highest measure of concern and compassion he'd ever witnessed for himself. "Oh, Bobby," she sighed in relief when she saw he acknowledged her. "I'm sorry."
What was she apologizing for? He's the one who came home late from school. He's the one who hit back with all the force he could muster when his foster father took it upon himself to discipline Bobby. He was also the one who smashed the glass in the china cabinet and lit the curtains in the living room ablaze. Any other circumstances and it would have been good times. Regardless, he did it, and while he was secretly pleased with himself, he didn't show it. So why was she apologizing? "Don't worry 'bout it, Ms. Evelyn. Shit happens." He was surprisingly calm and nonchalant about the whole thing. It would have taken anyone else aback, but Evelyn was expecting it.
"You want to tell me what happened, Bobby?" If he was going to be so cool and collected about it, then there was no point beating around the bush when it came to getting answers. Bobby shrugged casually, looking over the cast on his arm with a new found interest. "Bobby, don't bullshit me. You're going to tell me what happened. We can wait here all night if we have to." She sat down beside him on the bed and began to hum to herself quietly.
"Already told the cops everythin' I know," he grunted after a few minutes, her humming finally irritating him.
She nodded. "That's true, you did. But I'm wondering about why it happened more than what happened."
The young man rolled his eyes and straightened his posture. "What difference does it make, anyhow? Didn't like it there to begin with." She fixed him with a hard stare, proving she wasn't going to back down. He returned it and they waited there like that for several minutes. Doreine always lost, but this time Bobby felt himself faltering. Finally he hung his head once again and threw his good hand up. "S'not like I told George to start drinking again. He did that all on his own. Dumb fucker could barely aim straight when he went at me anyway," he snickered.
"Why didn't you call me and tell me something was wrong Bobby? You know that's what I'm here for."
Bobby scratched the back of his head in thought. "Well, I figured sooner or later they'd bring me back. They always do. 'Sides, I can take care of myself, Evelyn. Always have."
She wasn't going to have it. "Bobby, you were in shock when they brought you here. Your arm was broken in two places and you've got second degree burns on your chest. You were really going to take care of yourself?" she asked him sternly. Evelyn didn't wait for an answer as she continued, "You're damn lucky the neighbors called the fire department, or you might have been burned to a crisp and George would have gotten away scott free. That would have broken my heart, Bobby." He rolled his eyes at her comment. It would have broken her heart if George had gotten away? How would she have known the difference? He did her a favour by starting the bloody fire. "I care about you too much to think of you in any kind of danger." Bobby's eyebrows were to the ceiling with surprise. First she shows him kindness, and then, she says she cares. About him? Something bad happening to him was what broke her heart? Seeing him stunned into silence, Evelyn gave him a smile, and a soft nudge to his good hand. "Did you here me? I said I care about you very much. You're a wonderful, intellegent boy, and if no one else is going to recognize it then screw them, huh?"
She laughed lightly, and Bobby grinned at her comment. It only lasted a moment before his face fell into an expression of confusion and worry. If she was going to forget about putting him into a permanent home, then what was her plan for him? Was she going to abandon him to, rendering his case too impossible like Doreine had? Bobby was beginning to feel a heat rising in his stomach and went up his neck and to his face. He clenched his fist and pulled it away from Evelyn's hand sharply. His eyes were stinging from angry tears that were beginning to rise in his eyes, but he blinked them back in protest. "Bobby? Bobby, what's going on in that head of yours?" Evelyn asked softly, clearly seeing the boy was upset and that it was increasing by the second.
"Go away," he murmered, trying to make his voice sound gruff, a practice he had perfected.
Evelyn shook her head, remaining in her place beside him on the bed. "You're not going to scare me away by throwing one of your temper tantrums, Bobby. Tell me what you're thinking."
"So, you plannin' on tossin' me out on my ass too now?!" he demanded loudly, face red.
"I'm not going to abandon you, Bobby. Why do you think I would?" she asked calmly. In her experience, the worst thing anyone could do in a situation like this was retaliate with a defensive tone, even if the child said something surprising that caught one off guard.
"You said screw 'em. So what does that mean for me, huh? You're gonna toss my file back into the pile just like the last two workers and move along? Just leave me in some group home?" Bobby couldn't believe she actually began to smile, and even give a sigh of relief at his words. "What? You think this is funny, you crazy bitch?!"
Evelyn shook her head. What he said didn't faze her. She'd been called worse, and she knew in her profession more insults would come. "You misunderstood me, Bobby. I promise, I am not going to toss your file away. On the contrary, I plan to keep it for a very long time." Bobby frowned. Now what did she mean by that? Was she saying she never would find him a home, but she was going to stay his social worker? "Bobby," she said, trying to catch his eyes, finally succeeding. The rage in his eyes was far to strong for such a young boy, but she knew why it was there, and it didn't bother her. Rather, it made her heart go out to him more. "I want to ask you something, and I was going to before all this happened, but when we found this home, I thought I'd wait. That's one reason I'm sorry. But there isn't anything I can do about that now, so you need to tell me what you think of this plan of mine."
Bobby was certainly intrigued now. He wasn't about to make that obvious, not just yet. "What?"
"I'd say you and I are pretty good friends now. Would you agree." A shrug was all she got in response. "I want to know, if maybe, instead of one more home we both know is just going to be a bust," she paused, giving him a knowing look, "you would like to come and live with me?"
Bobby was dumbfounded. This woman, this woman with the kindest eyes he'd ever known, and the most compassionate demeanor he would ever come across was asking him, the angry, aggressive, pyromanical kid no one wanted, if he would like to live with her? It was too good to be true. Good things didn't happen in real life. Not for Bobby. She was messing with him. She had to be. Still, even if he had the most aggressive tempor that could be found in an eleven year old, he was still a kid, and he couldn't contain the excitement that made it's way to his face. As quickly as it came, though, he'd dampened it, settling on a suspicious look.
"Saw that," Evelyn said with a wink. "Why are you so happy, kid? Kids aren't supposed to be happy. A ridiculous notion," she deadpanned. It quickly melted into a warm smile.
Bobby didn't bother to hold back the grin that came from the memories of the first time he'd met this saint of a woman. But still, was this real. Did she really want him? "For how long?" he mumbled.
"Well, I can't make any promises-" she began, and Bobby instantly felt his stomach drop. That was never a good sign. But she surprised him yet again by continuing, "but the adoption papers should be filed by tomorrow afternoon. Meaning, you'll get to stay in this dump just long enough for your overnight stay, before you come back with me."
"Adoption papers? So, you mean-"
"I mean, forever, Bobby. If you'll have me."
This time the tears that sprung to Bobby's eyes were ones of disbelief and joy. Amazing even himself, Bobby tossed himself at Evelyn, embracing her as best he could with his good arm. The twisted position in which he sat stung the burns on his chest, but they couldn't have hurt less to Bobby if they'd been on somebody else. He'd never known the feeling of relief and happiness he experienced at this moment. Evelyn herself allowed a few tears to slip out as she held the battered, but loving boy in her arms. She grinned and shook her head in contentment. "Oh, Bobby," she murmered lovingly.
"Ma, Ma!" The holloring was followed by thundering footsteps down the stairs. "Ma! Can I take Jeremiah down the block to play some street hockey?" Around the corner, Bobby Mercer ran into the kitchen, followed by a quiet, skinny little African American boy.
Evelyn eyed her Bobby and newly arrived fostor son of nine. Jeremiah was bouncing on the balls of his feet in excitement, a pleading look in his eyes. "Please, Ms. Evelyn. I won't get into trouble, I promise."
"I don't believe you would on your own, Jeremiah."
"What you sayin', Ma? That'd I'd get him into trouble?" Bobby scoffed and shook his head. "C'mon. I haven't gotten into any serious trouble in..." He stopped, pretending to count on his fingers. "Two weeks. That's got to be some kind of record. How 'bout you let us celebrate my good behaviour by takin' my little brother out for a quick game. Please?"
Evelyn pursed her lips, as if giving it a great deal of thought. "Oh, alright," she sighed dramatically. "But be back in time for dinner."
They were out of the kitchen and nearly out the door before Evelyn could blink. "Thanks, Ma."
"You boys be careful. I don't want any split lips this time, Bobby Mercer," she called to them before the door slammed. She chuckled and shook her head. Bobby had called Jeremiah his little brother.
That gave her an idea.
So there it was. What did you think? Please R/R and let me know. Constructive critism is helpful, but remember, words hurt, so please no flames, I'm sensitive and I'd like to stay that way. Luvs again! peace out