The patrol car pulled up outside the club and Officer Stillwell glanced through the passenger window at the flashing neon sign; he sighed deeply. He hated this kind of assignment. Mostly, these were a waste of time, with the reported junkie long dead by the time they found him or her. Stepping out of the patrol car, Stillwell straightened his uniform and led the way inside. He headed straight to the washroom near the bar, pushing open the door carefully and screwing up his nose at the stench of vomit and urine. Lying on the floor, propped up against the wall and very still, was a young man. White powder coated his clothes, just as the caller had stated and Stillwell knew that either the junkie was dead or oblivious to the world around him.
Stillwell crouched down beside the pale, gaunt man and reached for his throat with two fingers, raising an eyebrow when he found a weak, thready pulse. He turned to his partner, Evans, who stood waiting by the door with his nose pinched between thumb and finger.
"Got a live one here... just. Best report it in," Stillwell turned back to the junkie and tapped him on the cheek while Evans relayed the need for paramedics. "Hey... Hey. Come on. Wake up." He pushed the hair off the junkie's face and heard Evans sad exclamation.
"Damn, he's little more than a kid! Eighteen, maybe nineteen."
Unevenly dilated eyes opened slowly and Stillwell screwed up his nose again, though this time in distaste, as a mixture of spittle and vomit drawled from the kid's open mouth.
"Your name Chuckie?"
The drug-darkened eyes tried to focus and Stillwell could only guess that the kid had taken either a little too much dope, or the white powder was too pure a cut. Either way, the kid was in trouble. Another half an hour lying alone on this damp washroom floor and Stillwell would have found only a corpse.
The distant wail of a siren could barely be heard above the loud music in the club next door but Stillwell was attuned to it. He knew the paramedics were on their way and he could only hope that they would arrive in time. Sure enough, two men came through the door moments later and began setting down equipment beside the junkie.
"Someone cared enough to prop him up; otherwise he'd have drowned in his own vomit by now. He got a name?" The first paramedic leaned in and shone a light into the half opened eyes.
"Yeah, person reporting him in called him Chuckie."
"Chuckie?" The paramedic turned to the kid. "Chuckie? We're going to take you in." The paramedics moved quickly like a well-oiled machine and Stillwell wondered how many junkies they had to deal with each week. Certainly, they seem to know exactly what to do with this one. Stillwell hung around waiting until the second paramedic returned with a gurney. He helped them lift the kid onto it and followed them through the narrow passageways to the front of the club where the ambulance stood waiting.
"So, who wants to do the honors?" asked Stillwell, as the kid was now in custody, technically. He groaned out loud when his partner gave him a gesture that implied that he had the duty. "Okay, but you get the next one."
Stillwell clambered into the back of the ambulance, taking a seat out of the way, knowing his partner would follow in the patrol car. Even though Chuckie did not look much of a threat right now, he could not take the chance that the junkie might suddenly begin to surface and fight the very people trying to help him. One of the paramedics went straight to the driver's seat while the other continued his checks on the junkie. From inside the ambulance the siren sounded strangely muted that Stillwell tuned it out quickly enough. Instead, he focused on the young man, taking a proper look at him for the first time. Evans was right; the junkie was little more than a boy. In some ways he reminded Stillwell of his sister's boy. There could not be more than a few years between them, and it made him wonder where his nephew was right now. Hopefully, not doing drugs. It seemed such a shame seeing this kid with his life already wasted by cocaine.
Eventually, they reached the hospital and Stillwell accompanied the gurney on its journey into the emergency room. As Chuckie was moved straight to the top of the waiting list, Stillwell felt momentary regret for the miserable people crowded into the ER. Some would have been waiting hours to see a doctor, holding onto the injured parts of their bodies with pain etched on their tired features. Yet, here he was, whisking a no-good junkie straight through to a doctor.
Stillwell felt remorse for that thought. Even a junkie had rights. He watched from the doorway as a nurse quickly divested Chuckie of his grime and vomit stained clothing while doctors worked out the best course of action to negate the effects of the drugs overloading his system. Stillwell shook his head as the gangly youth showed little reaction to their treatment, already filling in the paperwork mentally for the police and coroner's reports.
As the doctor turned away from his patient, having done all that he could for now, Stillwell cleared his throat to gain the doctor's attention.
"What are his chances?"
"Surprisingly, better than they would have been if you hadn't found him so quickly. But he's not out of the woods yet." The doctor leaned over the junkie and pushed back the long greasy bangs hanging over Chuckie's forehead.
"Damn... So young. We see far too many of them here. What a waste."
"Maybe... maybe not. If he pulls through then he'll be up before the Judge. If it's his first time through the system on a drug charge then he'll be given the choice of prison or a rehab program. Let's hope he makes the right choice."
Stillwell followed the gurney out to a screened off area and sat down in the seat opposite, watching over the kid. He pulled a battered novel out of his uniform jacket and opened the dog-eared book. It would probably be a long night. Eventually, the hospital administration would find a bed for his prisoner but until then, this public area would have to do. When the boy began gagging twenty minutes later, Stillwell moved forward, quickly turning the boy's head, and calling for help. Two nurses came running immediately and he stepped back to let them take over.
Hours passed by slowly but no bed was found, and with no nursing staff available, the task of babysitting the sick boy fell to Stillwell. Several times, he found himself standing over the scared kid, trying to reassure Chuckie as he wavered in an out between bad dreams. Eventually, Chuckie fell into a deeper, more natural sleep.
The rest of the night passed slowly but was otherwise uneventful. Another officer came to relieve him from duty at shift end and yet, by then, Stillwell had felt an attachment form with the kid. In some ways, he felt responsible for him, perhaps because every time he looked at the kid he saw a reflection of his sister's kid. Instead of going home, he went back to the station to fill in the reports and was surprised to see Evans sitting there.
"Is the kid going to make it?"
"Looks like it."
"Then we had better get these reports written up. Once he comes down from that high, the DA will have him brought up before the Judge."
"I was thinking about giving my brother a call."
"The one that runs that boy's ranch down in the Midwest?"
"Yeah, that's the one."
"What the hell for?"
"I checked the kid's record. He was pulled in about a month ago for prostitution. Probably selling himself for drugs. He's seventeen years old but in another month he'll be too old for juvie hall. He'll be doing hard time, and a kid like that will end up bending over for every lag in prison. Just figured this kid needs a break."
"You can't help them all."
"True enough... but I might be able to help this one."
"Well, it's your choice."
Stillwell picked up the phone and called his brother, silently hoping that he was not calling in the middle of the night. Even so, he knew his brother would not be angry. Only rarely did Mike give in to temper, usually under the most trying of situations.
"Hey, Mikey, it's Darren. Now this is a little unorthodox but I got a favor to ask. Got this kid here who's in a lot of trouble. You could be his last chance to get his life straightened out."
Two Weeks Later:
Chuckie stepped off of the plane onto the dusty runway and grimaced at the heat. Beside him, Officer Stillwell was already sweating in his blue uniform and he watched as the cop took off his jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves. Suddenly, Stillwell was waving, and Chuckie raised his eyebrows when he saw a middle-aged, slightly pudgy man dressed in a check shirt, faded blue jeans, and wearing a cowboy hat and boots. The man came straight over and shook Stillwell's hand before drawing him into a hug. As they stepped back from each other and the stranger turned Chuckie, he noticed a resemblance between them.
"I'm Mike Stillwell and you must be Chuckie. Good to meet you, son. Now, let's get going."
Chuckie sat alone in the back seat while the two older men rode upfront together. He listened as the two talked with long familiarity, only then realizing that they were, in fact, brothers. Long miles of emptiness stretched out from both sides of the truck and when, eventually, the truck turned onto a dusty road, Chuckie began to wonder if he made the right decision in accepting Stillwell's proposal. However the Judge had only given him two choices. Either he chose juvenile hall, which meant being transferred to an adult prison as soon as he turned eighteen -- in less than a month--or he could take up Officer Stillwell's offer. In truth, prison was not an option any sane person would choose.
The truck passed beneath a ranch entrance and drew up alongside a wooden house. Chuckie noticed that the ranch consisted of several smaller structures, like small cabins. He watched as a group of younger boys gathered outside, watching the truck intently, waiting to see the new addition to their number. Chuckie did not bother to acknowledge them, simply following on behind the Stillwell brothers into the ranch house. As they entered an office, he was surprised when Officer Stillwell turned back to him, reaching for the handcuffs and removing them before stepping away again. He left Chuckie standing alone in front of a large desk. Stillwell sat down behind it and gave Chuckie a stern yet gentle smile.
"I don't know how much Officer Stillwell has told you but I own and run this ranch. I'll show you where you'll be sleeping, then you can take a little time to freshen up... and then we'll have a talk about the rules here. Until then, have you got any questions?"
Chuckie shook his head, still feeling a little shell-shocked by all that had happened to him over the past few weeks. He had spent the first week in hospital being eased off the drugs, and the second week in an isolated unit within Juvie Hall where the general population of the center had no access to him. Chuckie knew why. He had been in Juvie Hall once before, just for a couple of nights, after the cops picked him up on a prostitution charge. Laura had made bail for him and when it came to court, the judge let him off for a first offense. However, those two nights showed him how bad it could be, with kids shooting up in the dark corners while a couple of the other kids got raped on their first night in. As he was a lot older, no one took much notice of him but he knew it would be far different once he was placed in the adult prison. He would be the young, fresh meat brought in for the sharks to feast on.
By the time they put him on the plane, the worst of his cravings for the drugs had gone but what was left hovered at the edge of his mind, calling to his starving body. Looking around the small office, Chuckie knew there would be no drugs here at the ranch and no place nearby where he could sneak out and buy some with whatever currency the dealer would be willing to take... probably his ass as he had no money. The ride up from the tiny airport had proved that the ranch was surrounded by miles and miles of nothing, just scrubland and desert so there was nowhere to run to either.
"George?" Stillwell craned his neck as he looked behind Chuckie and smiled as someone entered the room behind him. "Chuckie, this is George, and he'll take you to where you'll be sleeping while you stay here at the ranch."
Chuckie felt a light touch on his arm and half-turned, looking back when Mike Stillwell spoke again.
"Go on. I'll see you back here in half an hour."
Mike Stillwell watched as Chuckie gave a half-hearted smile before following George from the office. He waited until the boy was out of earshot before leaning back in his seat and staring up at his brother.
"When you refused to tell me anything about this kid until you got here, I had a strong feeling I was going to be in for a few surprises. The boy being almost a man is one. That gaunt, pale look and the skittishness tell me he's been involved with drugs... recently. Is there more?"
"I don't think he's always paid cash for the drugs."
Mike frowned then closed his eyes as realization set in. A possible rent boy. He opened his eyes and sighed deeply before smiling softly.
"You see a lot of these kids, so why this one?"
Darren shook his head. "Don't know. He just seemed different from the moment the call came in. Whoever that caller was... well she must have cared about him, at least enough to save his life by contacting the police. Most times out of a hundred, we get the call once the proprietor realizes he has a dead body on his hands and wants to get shot of it before it drives away any business. It's rare for anyone to care less before then." Darren slumped into a seat opposite. "Most of these junkies have lost any decent friends by the time they get to Chuckie's state, and they hang out with other junkies. Few of them would have bothered to get him any help. They'd be more concerned with rifling through his pockets for anything they could snort or sell." Darren looked intently at his brother. "Somebody was watching over him that night, like he had a guardian angel on his shoulder. Then, at the hospital, they had a shortage of nurses so I was left watching out for him, getting to see beyond the junkie to the scared kid beneath. Just figured some force was at work to let him cross my path and walk along beside me... even for just that short time."
Mike nodded, understanding all too clearly as he had been in a similar position several times in his life, where he had felt the hand of God influencing one decision or another. Mike rated himself a good judge of people and he had not been disappointed yet... though he had come close on a few occasions. Despite knowing Chuckie for but an hour, he had sensed the possibilities in him and decided to have faith.
One Year Later:
Those first months had not been easy on him. His body had craved the drugs and, for a time, he had hated Laura for saving him. He knew it had to have been her for his last real memory before waking in the hospital was of her angry face and her accusations. She had loved him once... and trusted him. They had run away from their dull hometown together, looking for the bright lights of the city without ever considering how they would live, simply believing that being together would be enough.
The cocaine habit had found him too fast, nurtured by drug dealers looking to build their clientele and finding, in him, an easy victim. Laura had been stronger, resisting the temptations but, as his dependency on the drugs grew, he ended up abusing her love for him, time and time again. After his last attempt to sell his ass had ended with him in a world of pain from a rough client, he begged her to help him just one last time. How many last times had that been? This last time he persuaded her to perform for some sick porn wacko and his friend for the money he needed to buy his next fix and then he betrayed her to those same weird guys, Roscoe and Sully, for more drugs.
She had every right to feel anger and disgust at him. She had every right to hate him now and had even wished him dead. Yet, as his mind cleared and his body worked through the worst of the withdrawal symptoms, he figured that she had not reported him to the police out of malice but from an echo of the love they had once shared. She could have walked away and simply let him die. No one would ever have blamed her. Instead, she had sought help for him, albeit anonymously but Chuckie knew she was the one to make the call because no one else in that city had ever given a damn about him.
Five months in this remote ranch had cleansed his body of the drugs, and the constant support of the Stillwells had given him back his self-respect. In the full year that he had lived here, tending horses and making repairs to the ranch, not once had they judged him for his former failures, for his weakness. Instead, they helped him to discover his strengths.
He owed them for more than his life but that still did not negate how much he owed Laura.
Darren Stillwell found her telephone number for him a few weeks back and Chuckie was both surprised and pleased that Laura had stayed with the cab driver, Tony Russo. The man had seemed a dependable sort... unlike him. Silently, he hoped she was happy but he had not found the courage to contact her and ask, until now, on the rist anniversary of his arrival at the ranch.
Mike grasped Chuckie's shoulders and pressed him down onto the chair behind that large desk in his office. He pushed the phone across to Chuckie and nodded, his blue eyes twinkling with warmth and reassurance.
"What if she doesn't want to hear from me?"
"I'm sure she'd like to know you're okay. She cared enough before so she'll care enough to know now."
Chuckie swallowed hard and called the number, his mouth going dry as he listened to the ring tone, nervously waiting for someone, Tony or Laura, to pick up the call. A man's voice answered.
"Yes. Who is that?"
"I'm-I'm an old friend of Laura's. I was wondering if I could speak to her... just for a moment."
"Can I tell her who's calling?"
"Ah..." Chuckie felt the panic rise. If he told Russo his name then Russo might end the call in disgust. After all, Chuckie had set him up with those dealers he owed money to, earning Russo a beating he had never deserved. At the time, Chuckie had acted partially out of jealousy, and partly because Roscoe had threatened him with dire consequences if he did not. Yet, even if Russo did not recall his name, Laura would know him, and having her refuse to speak to him would be so much worse.
Chuckie's eyes dived wildly for Mike, who hovered near the door, far enough away to give him some privacy but close enough to offer the moral support he needed. He looked into the gentle, encouraging face and felt calm infuse him. Mike had instilled in him the morals of telling the truth, no matter how unpleasant, believing it would be for the best in the long run. If Russo slammed down the phone, or if Laura refused to speak to him then he could always try again in a few months, or write a letter instead.
The tone held both annoyance and intrigue. It seemed Russo did recall his name but then, he had been a large part of Laura's life up until those final days, and the cause of so much grief for both Laura and Russo. How could Russo forget?
"I'll get Laura."
The silence lengthened and Chuckie feared he would hear only Russo's voice telling him that Laura was not willing to take his call. Instead, the phone scraped as someone picked it up.
"Oh God, Chuckie. I thought you were dead. Where have you been?"
"I--I've been in rehab, down in the Midwest. Kicking the drugs and--and getting my life straightened out."
"And have you?"
"Yeah... yeah, I have." Chuckie cleared his throat. "I just wanted to say... that I'm sorry. For what I put you through. And I wanted to check you were... okay."
The silence lengthened again and then he heard Laura's voice again. This time it was soft, the way it used to be when she had loved him. "I'm okay, Chuckie. I'm more than okay. I'm happy. Even happier now I know you're okay."
"That's good. That's really good."
Any awkwardness left then as Laura started to tell him all about her new life as Mrs. Tony Russo. Though part of him felt a little sad that she had found with Russo what she used to have with him, he no longer felt any jealousy. She was happy, and that counted for everything, allowing the last stains of guilt to wash away from his soul, leaving him feeling clean again.
When the call ended some twenty minutes later, Chuckie placed the handset back on its cradle gently. When he looked back up, Mike had come into the office but he did not need to ask Chuckie how it went for Chuckie knew his emotions were shining on his face, visible for anyone to read. Looking back over the past two years of his life, he realized he had spent most of it clawing his way back from the dark side of human nature but now, with this one call, he had stepped back out into the light. The burden of guilt was gone, as was the shame.
"You're gonna be okay, Chuckie."
He paused on the threshold and looked back into the office as Mike settled back into his seat. His smile grew as he looked at the man who had taken a chance on him, giving him the opportunity to turn his life around before it was too late. There did not seem to be adequate words to describe how he felt at this moment so he offered all that he had, speaking so quietly, it was almost a whisper.