Disclaimer – the Tracys don't belong to me – as you all know!
This is the sequel to my first story 'A High Price to Pay'. I didn't intend to write a sequel - I was halfway through another story - but this just kept nagging at me until I gave in and started writing!
Finding a parking space at the school was easy. This wouldn't have been the case if he'd arrived during school time, but at six o'clock in the evening it was a different matter. Jeff Tracy brought the car to a halt and sat back gathering his thoughts, preparing for a meeting with the principal which he knew was going to be difficult. It was actually the second time that he'd been here recently. The first time was to discuss Virgil's return to school following his kidnapping and subsequent return to his family. Then, Mrs Bourne had been supportive, undeniably concerned about the boy who she freely admitted was one of her favourite students. Talented in both academic subjects and the arts and generally well-behaved and polite, she wished she had a few more like him. Now, following several confrontations, both verbal and physical, and a number of complaints from other students' parents, it seemed she had changed her mind. Virgil had just been given a week's suspension following a particularly vicious fight and the principal, having already had several discussions with the boy's grandmother, had insisted on seeing his father.
Jeff stayed lost in thought for a moment, reflecting on the events of the past few months. Not memories of the actual kidnapping, of course – that was a subject to be pushed away from conscious thought, though it still haunted his dreams. He hadn't expected Virgil to find it easy to readjust, but it had been more difficult than he'd anticipated. And it had been hard on all of them – there wasn't a single member of the family who hadn't been affected in some way. The hardest thing of all to deal with, of course, was the change in Virgil: previously confident and cheerful – though no angel as his brothers could testify - now veering wildly between miserable, fearful, angry and reckless, desperately reliant on his family for security.
He had been pleased when Virgil – for the first and, it would turn out, only time in his life – had begged to return to school, much to the incredulity of Gordon, who would have jumped at the chance to stay off for as long as possible and who had even offered to miss school himself in order to keep his brother company at home.
"I just want to get back to normal," Virgil had confessed. "If I can get back into school it might make it easier to forget." Jeff still remembered the wistful look which had accompanied this statement, knowing full well that Virgil would never be able to forget what had happened to him. He just hoped that in time the memories would fade and his son would be able to move on. But he'd worried about how well Virgil would deal with the questions his classmates were bound to ask. His closest friends had already been round to the house and had shown admirable restraint in avoiding the topic unless Virgil himself had raised it, but he was well aware that many students wouldn't be so tactful. It seemed that his concerns had been justified.
Thank you for coming, Mr Tracy, I appreciate you're a busy man."
"Not too busy to be concerned about Virgil," Jeff couldn't help feeling defensive.
"Yes, well, regarding Virgil, there's a lot to be worried about. I'm sure your mother has filled you in on the problems he's been experiencing. He's getting into fights, upsetting other students. I appreciate it's not his fault – we anticipated he might have some problems readjusting. But this isn't the Virgil I know. He was such a lovely boy before all this."
"He still is," Jeff growled.
"I know. Of course he is. But all that he went through in the summer has affected him badly. It can't go on like this."
"Virgil told me about the latest fight. Apparently this young man – James someone? – grabbed him and was teasing him about the kidnap. I'm not condoning Virgil, but you can understand him lashing out."
The principal regarded him calmly, making him feel like a disgraced child. "Yes, I can, and James has been disciplined. But the fact remains that Virgil's reaction was extreme. James has a broken nose – it took two teachers to pull Virgil off him."
Jeff sighed. There were obviously one or two little details Virgil had decided not to mention.
"That was the third fight in two weeks. And the other two were started by Virgil," Mrs Bourne reminded him. "But that's not all. I presume your mother told you about the incident in Virgil's English class?"
"That would be the poetry lesson?"
"That's right. The Highwayman – I appreciate that Mr Ellis was thoughtless in reading the class a poem where two characters were shot, but even so, Virgil's decision to tell the class what a death by shooting was really like, in full, graphic detail, was perhaps not his wisest choice. Two of the girls had nightmares that night. Their mothers weren't impressed when they called me the next day."
"You think Virgil doesn't have nightmares?" Jeff snapped angrily. "He actually saw a man die; he didn't just hear someone talking about it. What do you think that does to a twelve year old boy?"
"It doesn't surprise me that he has nightmares. The question is: what are you doing to stop them?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Jeff was incensed. How dare this woman accuse him of failing to help his son?
"I suggested counselling when we spoke before Virgil returned to school. I know you weren't keen. You felt that Virgil's decision to return to school proved that he was coping well without professional help. But he isn't. Oh, I'm sure he's fine at home with you and his brothers and his grandmother, where he feels protected, but the problem is that when he's in school he's away from that security. There are people around who he doesn't know – and you can see the fear in his eyes when he sees a strange adult. Also, there are students who, unfortunately, will enjoy pushing him until he snaps, just to see the fallout. If he doesn't learn how to deal with this you're going to end up with one seriously dysfunctional young man on your hands."
Jeff stared at her. The woman was talking nonsense. Or that's what he wanted to believe. Deep down though, he knew she had a point. Counselling had been suggested by the doctors who had looked after Virgil in the aftermath of his abduction, but Jeff wasn't too keen on the thought of one of his boys wallowing in that kind of emotional rubbish. Real men – Tracy men – didn't indulge their feelings. And despite Virgil's emotional fragility, the boy himself had rejected the idea when Grandma had suggested a session with the school counsellor – though his eldest boys' subsequent mocking of the man implied that it was Mr Bennett himself who was the problem rather than counsellors in general. But things weren't getting better. Maybe it was time to reconsider.
She saw him considering her comments and softened her tone. "I want to help, Mr Tracy. But if things go on like this Virgil is going to end up suspended again and eventually I'm going to have to ask you to find another school. I really don't want that. I know this has been hard on him – on all of you - and I really do want to help him, but I have my other students to consider. "
"So what do you suggest?"
"If you want Virgil to continue his education here, then he has to see a counsellor. Or a psychiatrist. The choice is yours."
Harsh, but effective. She knew Tracy would opt for the lesser of the two. She sympathised. Her long conversation with Mrs Tracy had left her in no doubt that in such a testosterone-fuelled environment, anything suggestive of emotional weakness would be frowned upon. Tracy, Air Force and NASA veteran, was bound to be suspicious of what he would deem 'nonsense', but for Virgil's sake, it had to be faced.
"Well, you don't leave me much choice, do you?" Jeff finally replied. "Virgil needs stability. You're right about one thing – he still gets anxious around strangers. He wouldn't cope with a new school."
"Our school counsellor is more than capable –"
"No! If you don't mind, I think he needs to see someone who's not part of the school. I'll take advice and find someone."
"Thank you. It's for the best, you know."
"I suppose so," Jeff shook her hand unhappily wondering just what he was going to do with his damaged middle son.
He returned home to find the house relatively quiet. Gordon was in bed, still in deep trouble after misbehaving earlier in the week. Only Alan and Virgil were in the lounge, his youngest bathed and dressed in pyjamas ready for a bedtime story and Virgil curled up in a chair intent on a drawing. He didn't look up as his father entered the room.
"We need to talk," Jeff said to Virgil, picking up Alan and carrying him upstairs. "Give me half an hour."
Virgil sighed as his father left the room. Over two months since he'd been kidnapped and he felt just as lost and confused as he had the day he was rescued. Nothing made sense any more. One minute he'd be okay, even managing to forget what had happened for a minute, the next something would upset him and he'd find himself crying or shouting or lashing out at someone. He'd tried so hard to fit in when he returned to school, but he was constantly aware of pointed fingers and whispered voices. It seemed that everyone was either bending over backwards to accommodate him – for once there had been no 'What I did during the summer' assignment in English, though he'd been tempted to write one anyway to pin up on the notice board in order to stop all the whispering – or else they were crowding around him asking about his experience, eyes bright with excitement, desperate to know exactly what it had been like, whether or not the wildest of the rumours were true. Marcy Grainger had been the worst, he thought, begging him to go into detail about Mike Donovan's shooting. She'd got what she wanted alright – so what if it gave her nightmares. At least it had got her off his back.
The fights of course were another matter. Scott had chewed him out over those, especially when his broken wrist still wasn't fully healed, but Scott didn't understand. No one was ever going to hurt him again, so if that meant getting the retaliation in first then so be it. He didn't regret what he'd done to James McCauley one bit – days of snide comments and jokes at his expense had caused the rage to build up and when he finally let go he'd surprised himself with the force of his fists. Of course, the fact that he was finally hitting a growth spurt helped. He'd grown two inches in the last month and put on some muscle, much to his relief. He'd also started to join Scott in working out, determined to increase his strength. Scott had threatened to stop training with him if it was just going to make him more handy with his fists, but when it came down to it, he was just too grateful to have his young brother back to refuse him anything. The recent friction between the boys was forgotten as Scott was determined to put Virgil first, to make up in some way for all he'd endured. No, Virgil thought, school hadn't been the escape he'd hoped for, though immersing himself in his studies had helped take his mind off things. It was other people who were the problem. Home was the only place he really felt secure.
Jeff came back into the lounge and sat beside Virgil.
"How's the drawing going?" he asked, indicating the sketch pad on Virgil's lap.
"Okay," Virgil said, passing it across to his father. Jeff was relieved to see the likeness of one of Alan's favourite cartoon characters. Virgil had sought release in his drawing after his return home and some of the resulting pictures had been decidedly disturbing.
"Alan will like that," Jeff said, aware that he was just putting off the inevitable. Virgil knew it too and set his sketchbook aside, sitting up straighter and looking his father in the eye as he asked about the meeting with Mrs Bourne.
"She's worried about you," Jeff said. "She thinks you need some help coping in school. She wants you to see a counsellor."
"I'm not talking to Mr Bennett!" Virgil said immediately.
"No, you're not. But I think it might be good for you to talk to someone."
"I talk to you," Virgil scowled. "And Scott and John."
"Anyway, what's the point of talking? Nothing's going to change what happened."
"No," Jeff agreed - that was the problem, of course. "But it might help you feel better about it."
"I'm doing okay."
That was Virgil's stock answer these days. But they both knew he wasn't anywhere near okay.
"Virgil, you can't keep hitting out at people who upset you. You didn't mention that boy's broken nose, by the way."
"Well, now they'll know to keep out of my way, won't they?"
"It's not going to be that simple. Mrs Bourne has decided that unless you get help she's going to ask you to find a new school."
"What?" Virgil's shock was obvious. "When I went back she kept saying she'd do anything to help me. How is kicking me out going to help?"
"She's not going to kick you out because you're going to do as she says," Jeff stated firmly.
"But I don't want to talk about it!" They both knew that what he really meant was, "I don't want to talk to someone I don't know".
"Virgil, you don't have a choice. Not unless you want to find a new school."
The look of panic on his son's face pained him and he reached out a hand to Virgil's shoulder.
"Son, you have to learn how to deal with the outside world again. When was the last time you went out?"
"I went shopping with Grandma this afternoon."
"And that's the most exciting thing you can think of to do? You don't even go round to your friends' houses anymore."
"You don't want me to go out alone," Virgil pointed out.
"No, but I thought you might have asked. " He hesitated then decided he might as well have it out. Virgil had suffered another panic attack just a couple of days ago. "Grandma told me what happened with Gordon the other day."
Virgil's face flushed. "Gordon's just a stupid kid."
Jeff raised an eyebrow and Virgil sighed.
"He wanted to go across the fields. Scott and John weren't around so I told him he'd have to wait. You know what he's like. He kept on and on at me to take him. Then he started running off. I went after him but..." his voice trailed off.
Jeff waited for him to finish.
"He kept running. I shouted at him to come back but he wouldn't. And I got to the gate and I – I couldn't go any further. I wanted to go after him but I couldn't. And I could see him in the distance pulling faces and waving at me like he didn't have a care in the world and I was scared, Dad, really scared. I kept thinking what if there's someone out there who wants to take him. And I tried to go after him. But I couldn't. And I kept thinking that any minute now someone was going to grab him. That they'd be there waiting for him. I should have gone after him. He's my little brother and I should have been looking after him. I shouldn't have been too scared to go after him." Virgil was shaking now and Jeff put an arm around him.
Virgil thought back to that day. He'd wanted to go after Gordon, to drag him back to home and safety, but he just hadn't been able to make his feet move beyond the gate. He'd just stood there shaking, screaming at Gordon to come back, until his brother had finally given up the game and come sullenly back. Virgil couldn't remember what happened next with any clarity, but the next thing he knew they were back at the house, he was yelling and Gordon was crying hysterically. Scott had come running up and had started yelling himself, grabbing hold of Virgil and prising his fingers away from Gordon's wrist. Virgil had looked down in horror, seeing the bruises already forming next to the bloody crescents left by his nails. The next few hours were a blur of tears and guilt. Gordon still wasn't speaking to him and Virgil didn't really blame him.
"Virgil?" his father's voice nudged him back to reality.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt him," he said, his voice quiet.
"Okay, okay, it's alright, I know you couldn't help it," Jeff soothed as his son's tears started to fall. "Gordon shouldn't have run off. He should have known not to upset you. "
"That's not the point. Dad, maybe I should see someone like Mrs Bourne said. I'm so tired of feeling like this. I don't want to hurt anyone else. I just want things to be the way they used to be."
"I know, son. It'll be alright. I'll speak to Dr Cole tomorrow and see if he can recommend someone." He hugged his son again, grateful beyond belief that he could still do so.
Later that evening, when all the boys were in bed and the house was quiet, Jeff picked up Virgil's sketchbook which he'd left lying on the sofa. Flicking through it, he was relieved to find no disturbing images of the kidnapping, or anything else to cause him concern. He was glad that Virgil was sketching again, though, as he remembered an incident which had taken place just a couple of weeks after the kidnapping. John had told him that Virgil hadn't drawn or painted anything since his frenetic spate of pictures the day of Mike Donovan's funeral. When he'd asked, Virgil had made some vague comment about running out of materials, so Jeff had suggested that he and Virgil go into town to pick up some art supplies. He'd put Virgil's lack of enthusiasm down to his general reluctance to face strangers, all of whom he seemed to see as a threat, and it became clear as they walked towards the store that Virgil was becoming more and more unsettled. Catching comments from the people around them as they walked, he could understand why.
"That's the boy who was on the news... See, over there..."
"Twenty five million dollars I heard..."
Virgil had never liked being the centre of attention and he shrank closer to his father. By the time they reached their destination he was rigid with tension.
"Come on, then," Jeff said, holding the door open for him. Virgil didn't move, he just shook his head.
"Son?" Jeff asked in concern, having expected Virgil to willingly accept the refuge of the store.
"I don't want to," Virgil whispered. "If it hadn't been for that painting competition I wouldn't have been there for them to take. I don't want to draw again."
That was a new one, Jeff thought. It seemed that as fast as he could allay one fear or anxiety another one would take its place. Nearby was a bench and he led his son across to it and sat down beside him.
"Virgil, they were planning this before they knew about the art convention. They would have done the same thing wherever you were. Don't give up on your art just because of those people." He still couldn't bring himself to say the name Redman. "Don't let them win."
Virgil looked at him, not entirely convinced. "But they wouldn't have come all the way to Kansas."
"No, but you know that I would have brought you to New York even if you hadn't won that competition, don't you? I wanted to spend some time with you for your birthday. Of course, I also thought that separating you and Scott for a while might put a stop to all the arguing and give your grandma some peace."
Virgil managed a half-smile. "We don't argue now."
"No, though I'd willingly have put up with all the fighting if it would have spared you this. Come on, let's get those paints."
They got the art materials. They also made a stop at the music store where Jeff bought a new keyboard for Virgil who was unable to do much on the piano because of his injured wrist. A few gifts for the other boys and a bunch of flowers for Grandma completed the shopping trip and it was a happier Virgil who returned home.
Setting down the sketchpad, Jeff glanced at the clock and decided it was time to turn in himself. Checking on his boys he was relieved to find Virgil sleeping peacefully. John was still awake, though and he chatted with his son for a few moments.
"Night, Dad," said John, turning out the lamp. "Sleep well."
"I'll try," Jeff said, knowing what his son meant. Virgil wasn't the only one who was reliving the kidnapping in his dreams.
The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes – great poem!