Chapter 9

Sorry for the very long delay in posting. Real life is a pain at times, and I've had some major computer problems.

Mark had been determined to wait up for Steve, but he'd managed to fall asleep after Jesse was called back to the hospital. The sound of Steve's truck returning woke him.

A weary looking Steve made his way into the lounge. Despite the lateness of the hour, he knew his dad would still be up and sure enough Mark was sitting on the sofa. He'd obviously just woken up, but at least he hadn't gone to bed.

"I'm sorry, Dad." Steve was tired but he knew he had to talk to his father. This wasn't the time for avoidance.

"It's okay, Steve." Mark stood up. "Do you want a drink?"

Steve shrugged. He did, but he didn't think it was a good idea. "What about coffee? I'll put it on."

Mark nodded and followed Steve into the kitchen.

"Sammy asleep?" Steve asked.

Mark hadn't even given him a thought and he half-grinned. "I think so. I haven't seen him or heard him."

"I'll just check," Steve smiled wearily at his dad as he went to check the guest room. He came back in a couple of minutes. "It's okay, he's still there."

Deliberately concentrating on making the coffee, Steve remained silent as he poured the drinks and then indicated to his dad to come downstairs.

"Probably best if we talk downstairs as I don't want to disturb Sammy."

Mark followed willingly, not unsurprised by Steve's willingness to talk. He sat down with his coffee and waited as he knew better than to push his son. He was surprised when Steve sat down next to him on the sofa, rather than on the chair opposite. But he made no comment. He'd do whatever it took to help his son.

"I haven't thought of Robby for years," Steve began in a conversational manner, almost as if talking about the weather. He leant back in the sofa and stared up at the ceiling. The movement of his hands, the clenching and unclenching of his fists being the only indication of his distress.

"I hadn't forgotten him, but I just hadn't thought of him, and I really didn't see that Sammy looks like he did. But you're right – he does." Steve paused. Mark waited patiently.

"When Robby's father died, he was devastated. He loved him so much and he always said that he and I were very lucky when it came to our folks." Steve flashed a quick but weary smile at his dad before he started staring at the ceiling again. "His mother remarried about six months after his father died and I don't think he understood why. It was so soon." Steve paused again. It was difficult going over this old painful time but he knew he had to. "His stepfather hated him and I know he really did. I remember going around to his place one day after school and all I could hear was the sound of crying and shouting. I wanted to run back and tell you but Robby came out and he begged me not to say anything. I think he was worried about his mother turning on him. But, Dad, he had cuts and bruises all over his face…." Steve's voice broke.

Mark didn't know what to say, so he just put his hand on Steve's shoulder to give it an encouraging squeeze.

"I should have told you, I know that, especially now. But I didn't want to make it worse for him. He started to change—his temper got real bad and he even hit me one day. He was very sorry after but he seemed to lose control. Do you remember?"

Steve turned to look at his dad.

Mark nodded. "Yes I do. I remember you coming home upset and with a black eye. I also remember how he started running with a really wild crowd."

Steve nodded sadly. "Yeah, I tried to stick with him but he pushed me away. Looking back I think he pushed me away deliberately but I didn't realize at the time. Everything became such a mess. I should have been there, Dad, I should have helped him." Steve swallowed hard, trying hard to fight back the tears.

Mark put his arm around his son's shoulders. Steve leaned back into him, for once accepting the comfort without argument. "He started hanging out with the toughest boys in the school and skipping classes. He'd come to school bruised and obviously hurt. One day in particular was real bad. I joined him at lunch time and he was crying. He told me his mother had hit him. She was upset with him because he was upsetting his stepfather. I could hardly believe him, hardly believe his own mother would do that to him. Why, Dad, why?" Steve couldn't hold back the tears anymore and Mark just held him close. Mark was appalled and horrified that he hadn't seen what was happening to Steve's friend, and he had no real answer for his son.

"I don't know, Steve, I will never know how any parent can hurt a child." Mark whispered. Even when he'd been angriest at Steve during his rebellious period, it would never have occurred to him to raise a hand against him, or to hurt him in anyway. As a doctor, he'd seen many cases of child abuse over the years and it never ceased to sicken him. As a father he found it completely incomprehensible. As he remembered the angry young friend of his son's, he could only feel guilt and regret that he hadn't seen what was happening.

"It's not right, Dad, people hurting each other, especially families." Steve spoke softly.

"No, it's not right, Steve. I don't know why it happens, even after all these years of being a doctor. I don't understand how or why." Mark didn't know what to say to Steve, knowing he had no acceptable answers for him.

"I just didn't believe Robby's own mother would hurt him so. But I must have hurt him too, by not believing him. But she was his mother," Steve's voice changed to anger as he remembered his friend and the bruises which had colored his face. "She'd hurt him badly. I know this happens, especially now. I see a lot of violence in my job but I don't think I ever get used to the fact parents can lay into their kids like that."

"Me neither, Steve. I see a lot of abused kids come through and unfortunately it does seem to be a growing epidemic. But I don't understand why, or how it can happen. But I do know you can't blame yourself for Robby. If anyone is to blame, then it should be me. I'm a doctor, and I saw him changing before my eyes. I thought it was just grief and anger over the loss of his father but in hindsight I should have seen the signs."

"It wasn't your fault, Dad, and I don't blame myself really," Steve hesitated for a moment. "I don't think I do anyway," He pulled himself forward so he no longer had Mark's arm around his shoulders but he turned back and gave a slight grin. "I was too young myself to know what to do but I should have been a better friend to him. If I had, then maybe he wouldn't have been killed. I saw that you know…." Steve's voice tapered off and Mark hoped he'd misheard what Steve had said.

"What did you say?" Mark asked hoarsely.

"I saw him hit by a car. The police came to the school to arrest him and he ran out. I was hiding behind the gym shed and I saw the car hit him. He…." Steve's voice broke and Mark moved forward again and put his arm around his son's shaking shoulder. He was having trouble grasping the enormity of what Steve was telling him.

"I knew you were at the scene, but I thought you'd gone out after the accident. Why didn't you tell me?" Mark tried to keep his words soft, but the shock he'd received made him sound sharper than he intended. Knowing this, he rubbed Steve's arm gently, trying to convey his horror and sorrow.

"I knew something was going to happen. Robby had been jumpy that day and he wanted to talk to me. We'd arranged to meet at lunch time but the police came and he ran into an oncoming car. Funny thing is, I had never thought about it since. It was all such a blur….and even now, I can only see images flashing in my mind." Steve sighed deeply as he lay back on the sofa.

Mark was stunned and horrified and unsure of what to say as he tried to gather his thoughts.

"You saw Robby get hit by a car? Oh Steve…" Mark's voice trailed off, his mind still reeling from this unexpected shock. Memories from that tragic day came back to him – Steve's white and shocked face. Should he have realized Steve had seen it all? Had he missed some vital signs? It was more than understandable that Steve would have been shocked by the sudden death of his best friend and that's all it had seemed to be. Mark stood up suddenly, trying to grapple with the implications and the knowledge he hadn't seen the depth of his own son's pain and shock.

Steve recognized the turmoil his father was in and even with his own turbulent emotions, he wanted to help. He leaned forward and grabbed Mark's arm.

"Dad, you couldn't have known. I'm not even sure I accepted it at the time. It's all such a blur and I'm not sure what exactly I do remember from it. You were there and holding me, and that's all I needed," Steve didn't even realize he had fresh tears running down his face as he relived the terrible day. "The strongest memory I have is you holding me close and telling me everything would be okay. I had to believe that, and I did. You were so sure it would be….and I needed to believe it."

Mark was still stunned by it all, but he turned back to his son and sat down close to him. He put his arm around Steve's shoulder.

"I just wish I'd known you'd seen it." Mark whispered.

"You did all you could, Dad, and that was more than enough. I don't know if you remember but I didn't go out much for awhile after. I just wanted to stay home with you and mom and Carol and to know you were there. You were – always. Do you remember a morning, not long after, when I woke up feeling sick. You should have gone to work but you didn't. You stayed with me, even though mom was home and I remember feeling how lucky I was. I still think I won the jackpot with my parents." Steve managed a small grin. Mark responded although he was still feeling very shaken.

"It's okay, Dad, really. I don't remember the details and I'll be okay. When I first saw Sammy something told me I had to help him and I really want to try. I didn't know why, but I guess I do now." Steve's voice trailed off.

Mark watched him as he spoke, knowing he had to be very careful with what he said next. His arm was still protectively around his son's shoulder and he gripped his shoulder briefly. "You have to remember that Sammy isn't Robby, and you may not be able to help him." Mark shook his head and held up his hand as he could Steve starting to respond. "No, let me finish. You're a good man, Steve, and you know that I support you in anything you do but I just see some pitfalls ahead and it wouldn't be fair for me not to say anything. We've both had some shocks lately and I need you to know that nothing that happened in the past was your fault, and if Sammy doesn't work out then that isn't your fault either. Robby had a good family before it went bad, but you have no idea what Sammy has gone through. Just be careful, Steve, and know that I'm here to help you. You don't have to do this on your own." Mark sighed as he finished speaking. He wasn't sure if he'd said what he wanted to, or if it was enough. Part of him wanted to kick Sammy out and to tell Steve to forget it, but he knew his son and he knew he was going to have to at least try to help. He couldn't ask him to be less than he was, even though his instincts were yelling at him that they were heading for trouble.

Steve's eyes had lightened and he looked at his father with deep affection shining through. The whole evening had been an emotional roller coaster for him, bringing back long-forgotten memories of a difficult time. His father, as usual, was more than being there for him and helping him. He'd meant what he said earlier – he had always felt lucky with his parents and his father had come through again, at a time when he would have every right to protest or to at least argue about bringing a street kid home. Steve threw his arm around his father and hugged him close. No words were needed as they both absorbed the comfort of the other.

"It's going to be an interesting day tomorrow, so let's get some sleep," Steve was the one to break the moment but the look he gave his father revealed the depth of emotion he was feeling.

Mark wasn't sure what he felt, but he was grateful for his son's openness with him and the fact they were talking easily. He'd always felt that as long as the lines of communication remained open between parents and their children, anything could be weathered and he'd tried very hard over the years to maintain this resolve. Steve wasn't always the easiest person to get to open up, but he believed strongly in their relationship and he'd never had cause to doubt it, even when Steve wasn't always as prepared to talk about things which bothered him. He was still bothered that he'd had no idea of what his son had witnessed at the time. He remembered well the day he'd chosen to stay home with his sick son rather than go to work. It had been his emotional state which had worried him more than his physical ailment, and he'd felt the need to stay close, without even really knowing why. Steve had said little but had stuck close to him and he knew he'd made the right decision. Deciding enough had been discussed that night, and they did need some sleep, Mark wanted to say just one more thing.

"Okay, but I want you to promise to talk to me if anything happens with Robby…" In his tiredness Mark didn't realize the slip with the name but Steve did. He decided not to say anything for he was as aware as his father was of the fact they were on a slippery road.

"I promise, now let's go to bed." With a final hug, Mark turned to go back upstairs. It had been an emotional and shattering evening.