Those who don’t remember history may not be doomed to repeat it; but, they are doomed to be taken advantage of by those who do. —David McLeod
I stretched out my arms and sat up. Yep, I was in someone’s living room. Nemesis stood over me. Apparently he’d known what was about to happen and had stood up before he—before he transported us from a Boston coffee shop to wherever this was.
“Oh, crap! I’m sorry! Did I hurt your back?” Nemesis asked.
“No, it’s not fragile … the bones are okay, now that they’ve been fused,” I said. “Actually, they’re probably stronger than your bones.”
I didn’t just say all that, I grumbled it. Too many people saw me with the braces on my legs and the walking sticks and assumed I was delicate. Of course, they weren’t as bad as the ones who took one look at a disabled person and turned away, not willing to see that which they thought was ugly. Speaking of walking sticks, I was happy to see they and my man-bag had come with us. They were lying helter-skelter on the floor. A youngish man walked in the room.
“Nemesis! What … ?”
The boy-god blushed.
“I’m really sorry.” He said it to me. He ducked his head rather than look at the young man.
“All okay, Nemesis,” I said. “No problems.”
I turned to the young man. “I’m Caden. Caden Hopkins. Or K. D. for short.”
“Garreth Walters … Gary to my friends,” the young man said.
“You’re both very silly,” Nemesis said, and then giggled. “K. D. and Caden? Garreth and Gary? They all have the same number of syllables. How can one be short for the other?”
Garreth wrinkled his nose and made a face at Nemesis; I thought he might have stuck out his tongue had they be alone. I saw something in the way they looked at one another, but it was gone before I could understand it.
Garreth held out his hand. I shook hands with him. Then, I shrugged off his attempt to lift me from the floor, but grabbed my walking sticks.
“I do better on my own,” I said. “It’s not mistrust, as I’ve often been accused of. It’s just that I know my own strength.”
“You don’t want someone pulling—or not pulling—at the wrong moment, right?” Garreth said. He didn’t quite call me a liar, but he got to the root of the problem. Clever guy, I thought. And diplomatic.
“You got it,” I admitted after levering myself to my feet.
“I understand. I felt the same way during my rehab,” Garreth said.
I raised my eyebrows, but he didn’t seem to want to discuss it. Rather, he turned to Nemesis.
“He’s the one?”
Gary ushered us into the corner of a kitchen where a round table held the remains of a meal. He scowled at Nemesis, who immediately cleared the table. Gary pointed to a coffee pot, and raised his eyebrows.
I’m not going to get any sleep, tonight, I thought. And then nodded. “Yes, please. I have a feeling this is going to be a long day. Are we really in Chicago? I need to reset my watch. Sorry, I’m babbling.” I was babbling.
Gary laughed, and then nodded. “Yeah, you are. But don’t worry. Nemesis has that effect on people.”
Gary talked; I listened. Nemesis interjected a word or two, but mostly, he listened. I wondered why a god (or a kid with some unexplained powers and who thought himself to be a god) would take cues from Gary, whom Nemesis had said was human—and his best friend. Perhaps that was the reason. Perhaps it was because Gary was clever—and diplomatic.
“We got word that an operation in Chicago had branched out to Boston, where you’re from. They run an orphanage, here. They got their start in Oklahoma City, but moved their headquarters to Chicago. The city, in fact, the entire state of Illinois, is so corrupt that they can operate without any fear of reprisal.
“Moving into Boston, we think, is an attempt to drive a wedge into Catholic territory. The Catholics have been having financial problems, and are losing credibility about the way they deal with children. Catholics’ long-time hold on orphanages and schools is up for grabs, and we think the fundamentalists are going after that.
“Between the old-line Illinois politicians, the Wright faction figuring new ways to suck the public teat, and Mayor Roman and his coterie of vultures, there’s so much greed and corruption here, these people don’t even rate a blip on the radar screen.
“Their next infestation was Georgia. That state is rapidly changing from a notch on the Bible Belt to the buckle, thanks to a handful of right-wing politicians, a president wannabe, and an incredibly corrupt and incompetent school system. Again, the people we’re worried about are so close to main-stream evangelical that they’re accepted as the norm.
“In fact, and this is the most frightening thing, they may be the new norm.
“There’s another group working on the Georgia problem. We were asked to work on Boston. Actually, to try to close down Boston by cutting off the Chicago head, before they get a firm foothold in Boston.
“These people buy up bankrupt private academies, boarding schools, junior colleges, and such in the name of a non-profit religious foundation; get certified as orphanages; and start collecting kids. Then, they file for support payments from the government. Not only are they not paying taxes, they’re milking the taxpayers.
“The kids come from all over: inner cities; port cities where immigrants—legal and illegal—are forced to abandon their kids rather than allow them to be put in sweat shops or sold into sexual slavery; rural areas where family farms are going bankrupt.”
“Wait a minute, please,” I said. “Abandon kids rather than sell them into sexual slavery? Where is this happening?”
Gary looked at me. I felt his pity at my naivety. “In every major city in this country, but most especially along the Mexican border, and in cities with major ports: Boston being one of them.
“The immigrants arrive, smuggled on a container ship, brought in on a speedboat, or hidden among the crew of a cruise liner. Just before they land or cross the border, their options are explained to them. They’re going to be working in sweat shops; they’re going to be doing dirty, dangerous work; they’re going to be paying off the mules who brought them in. And their children, too. Only, the children are usually auctioned off to porn studios, to men and women who get a thrill out of sex with children—”
“Stop!” I interrupted. I was sweating. I was shaking. It was if I’d taken too many of the pain pills that I’d been prescribed.
Gary sat quietly, waiting. Nemesis walked to the refrigerator, and returned with a glass of ice water. I thanked him, and gulped the water.
“Okay,” I said. “I believe you. What have we come to?”
It was a rhetorical question. The looks in the eyes of both Gary and Nemesis showed me that they knew this.
“Please … ” I gestured for Gary to continue.
“Caden,” Nemesis said. “We can’t do it alone. We need you.”
“Nemesis is right,” Gary said. “But we aren’t entirely alone. There is a team working the ports—both maritime and inland. There is a team working the porn studios. Our job is to cut off the head. To stop the entire Chicago operation. If we can do that, we think others—Savannah, Boston, others—will wither.”
I nodded, and then said, “I told Nemesis I didn’t have anything on my schedule for the next week. Actually, about the only thing on my schedule for the rest of my life is physical therapy. If I miss that, my condition will probably get worse. If that happens, I won’t be much good to anyone. Whatever I can do to help, it’s got to take that into account. Other than that, I’m in.”
Nemesis giggled. “You and Gary should get along pretty good. He’s in the gym every day … ”
I started to explain the difference between gym and physio when Gary interjected. “There’s a registered physical therapist at my gym. I can get you signed up.”
I nodded, then, “Nemesis said you wanted someone to infiltrate their organization. What’s the plan?” I looked at Gary. His face gave me no clues. I looked at Nemesis. He looked … nervous. He wouldn’t catch my eye. He looked at the wall behind Gary.
“Um, we don’t have a plan,” Nemesis said. “We were kind of hoping … ” There was a long pause.
“You want me to come up with a plan?” I asked.
“Well,” Gary said. “You were on the operations-planning staff of US Central Command, weren’t you?”
I shoved aside the how did you know that that tried to cloud my mind. “Yes, for about a year, and as a reservist. It’s amazing what doors a doctorate in history will open. That was a lot different, though. We knew our enemy; we knew our strength. The only thing we didn’t know was the political will of the Obama administration, or how long we could count on them holding a consistent position.
“I don’t know much about this enemy except what you’ve told me—which isn’t much. I don’t know anything about our strength … except that Nemesis can change his appearance and transport himself and others half-way across the country. That’s pretty good, but it’s not much to work with.”
Gary chuckled, and then nodded. “All good points, Caden. Um, I was Army. Afghanistan. Platoon leader, then company commander. Never got the staff training you must have had, but I do understand.”
I had one more thing to say. “Nemesis never did finish answering the why me question. Our mutual dislike of the mistreatment of children isn’t all there is, is there?”
Gary and Nemesis looked at one another. Gary answered for them both.
“Actually, we know why you no longer teach at a parochial school, and figured that might be just what it would take to get you into their organization.”
Now, I did turn pale. I thought all that was behind me, buried in sealed court documents the school wouldn’t want made public.
“What do you know?” I asked. “And, how?” My voice was tight.
Gary answered. “An exhaustive internet search of parochial school staff gave us a short list of people who had been let go but never hired at any other school. Your name came up. It also came up in conjunction with a sealed file from a Family Court in Boston. A friend in the judicial system was able to talk to someone who knew the facts of the case. That person wouldn’t divulge details from the sealed file, but was able to look at it and then assure us that you weren’t a threat to children. A private detective agency gave us enough information for Nemesis to find you. He picked up your emotions and surface thoughts in the coffee shop on Wednesday.
“Nemesis believes you are a good person who would never deliberately harm a child. Is that true?” Gary asked.
“He picked up my emotions and surface thoughts?” I said. “So, now, he’s going to know if I tell the truth?” I was starting to become accustomed to things that went beyond my understanding of science. Accustomed to, but not altogether happy with it.
Gary and Nemesis both nodded. The boy had the grace to blush.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s true that I would never deliberately harm a child—and that I have never done so. I hope that is sufficient. The incident at the school was less than a year ago, and it is still unsettling.”
Nemesis smiled. “I’m so glad,” he said.
I guess that’s what Gary was looking for. He asked, “Are you in?”
I nodded. Gary stuck has hand across the table. We shook. What have I gotten myself into? I wondered.
Gary showed me to a bedroom. The adjoining bathroom was equipped with extra toothbrushes and toiletries like a motel room. A bureau held various sizes of sweat clothes, T-shirts, and gym shorts. Apparently they were accustomed to sudden visitors. Visitors without luggage.
“If you want to shower and change into a sweat suit, I can have your clothes cleaned overnight,” Gary offered.
I must have looked puzzled. “This apartment building is connected to a hotel. We can call on hotel services. I had to move here when things started getting … well, complicated. You’ll see.
“Would you come to supper after your shower? Nothing fancy.”
Gary and Nemesis both had changed to sweats for supper. A nice gesture, I thought. Two other kids had arrived while I was in the shower. Bobby, who looked to be about 12, and Benji, who was several years younger. They were in school clothes. Supper was lasagna and salad. Conversation was light—Bobby’s new history teacher’s habit of misplacing the chalk brought giggles from all the boys. The conversation was filled in by Benji’s intermural soccer team’s victory, baseball, and a new coffee shop that had opened down the street. I perked up at that one. (No pun intended.) It was all family stuff.
After supper, Bobby and Benji sat in the dining room doing homework. Gary, Nemesis, and I stayed in the kitchen working on “the plan.”
The devil is in the details, or so they say. And, there were a lot of details. I needed an apartment in Chicago, and to clear my apartment in Boston. I needed a new physical therapist. And, I needed to get a job with the bad guys’ orphanage school. The plan was simple: I’d apply for a job based only on academic credentials and my short service in the Army. The bad guys would do a background check, and find out about my being fired from the school in Boston. If they were any good at all, they’d find out just enough about why I was fired. If they were any bad at all, they’d want someone with my considerably exaggerated reputation for sternly dealing with recalcitrant parochial school students. Oh, and Gary would take care of all of the other details including selling my car to the neighbor woman for a dollar.
Once in the school, I’d work my way into their confidence, gather information, and, with luck, find something that would bring them down. It was not much of a plan, but it was all we could come up with.
After a final review, Gary turned to Nemesis. “This was Dike’s idea. Let’s get an appointment to run it by her.”
I brushed my teeth and took off the sweats. I put on gym shorts and a T-shirt in lieu of pajamas, and then slipped into the bed. It was nearly midnight in Chicago, one AM by my body time, and late by any standards. I was tired. I lay on my back. I spread my arms away from my body so that I wasn’t touching any part of myself. If I did, it was as if an electric circuit were completed, and tingles would run from my arms, through my body, and back to my arms. If I lay like this for a couple of hours, I’d usually fall asleep. I’d sleep for a couple of hours, until a burst of pain from my legs would wake me. Then it would start over again. During the best of nights, I’d get perhaps four hours of sleep.
The door opened. I saw the ceiling brighten, and turned my head to the left. A shadow stood in the doorway.
“Caden? May I sleep with you? Bobby and Benji are sleeping with Gary, and I need a cuddle.” It was the voice of Nemesis. I didn’t miss that he’d said Gary was sleeping with two little boys, and I didn’t miss that a 12-year-old boy, who thought himself to be a god, wanted to cuddle.
Still, I was a visitor in an unusual household. Until I knew what was really going on, I thought I should be open to new experiences.
“Sure, Nemesis,” I said. I rolled toward the door, and pulled back the covers. Nemesis slid into bed. He faced me for a hug. Then, he turned his back to me, nestled into my chest, tummy, legs … and crotch … and whispered. “Good night.”
His breathing slowed. Eventually, mine did as well.
The next morning was a good one for me. Nemesis woke me with a kiss on my cheek, a thank you, and then scampered out of the room.
I was surprised, but happy that I had gotten a full night’s sleep for the first time in months and was more refreshed than I’d been in ages. I put on my leg braces and one of the sweat suits, grabbed my canes, and headed for the kitchen.
Nemesis was already there, wearing gym shorts, a T-shirt, and about two cups of flour. There was a mess on the counter, and he seemed to be trying to make it worse.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Blueberry pancakes,” he said. “It’s Saturday. But Gary had to take Bobby and Benji back to Erewhon for a soccer game, so he’s not here to cook.” His elbow knocked into the flour canister and nearly turned it over.
“Maybe you would let me do that, while you explain some things to me,” I offered.
Nemesis seemed happy to do this. He hugged me when he stepped away from the counter. I was sure I now had flour all over my clothes, but didn’t want to spoil the moment, so I didn’t say anything. I rearranged things on the counter, cleaned up the worst of the spills, and restarted the mixing. Nemesis started talking.
“I guess you need to know … from the beginning,” he said.
“Gary and Dike, and maybe Death are the only ones who know this.” He didn’t ask, but I felt an implicit request to keep a secret. I nodded.
“Not long ago, I was a 40-something man who was … about to kill himself. Not deliberately, I don’t think, … but accidentally. I was living in a cheap motel. I ate fast food and drank cheap whiskey during the day. At night, I’d pop a couple of over-the-counter sleeping pills to keep me from dreaming.
“One night, I was about to drown in my own vomit from the combination of burritos, booze, and pills, when this really cute 12-year-old came to the room, told me he was Nemesis, one of the gods of retribution, and said that I was going to take his place.”
Nemesis paused and looked hard at me. “I should tell you that I had done a lot of bad things … some really bad things that I won’t ever talk about with anyone but Gary, so don’t ask.
“The old Nemesis showed me how I’d hurt people … and I won’t talk about that, either. Then, he turned me into a 12-year-old wearing a chiton—the thing you think of as a curtus—and a sword, and said I was a god. He disappeared.
“I sort of found Bobby, Gary, and Benji. Also Dike. She’s kind of my boss. We do things, together, to help kids. Gary works with a foundation that runs an orphanage—a good one—and rescues kids. Bobby and Benji live there.”
I put the first plate of pancakes in front of Nemesis. “You’re juggling a lot of things,” I said. “Your old adult memories, a new life as a kid, powers and responsibility, new friendships … that’s quite a load.”
“I don’t remember much of my old life,” he said. Between bites of pancakes, he explained. “I’ve forgotten most of it …I remember enough to know that I’ve done wrong, and what it feels like. Oh, and I still know how to drive a car.”
“That must be tough … can you see over the steering wheel?”
“Gary’s car has power seats!” The boy was indignant. I’d seen an adult when he first started talking; now, he was all boy, one who polished his plate, but who was polite enough to wait until I’d finished my own pancakes before asking for more.
Gary didn’t get back until nearly noon. He’d stayed for the soccer game, and then to talk with some of the staff. He was flustered, and apologized.
“I’m sorry to be late … things get hectic, sometimes … did Nemesis … ? Did you get breakfast?”
By this time, the kitchen was spotless. I was pleasantly surprised when Nemesis had pitched in with the cleanup. I was more pleasantly surprised when he answered Gary.
“Caden made blueberry pancakes, and cleaned up my mess. They were good, too. We talked, a lot. Then we cleaned up.”
Then, Gary brought up the one subject I was afraid of. “How did you sleep, last night?”
I must have turned red, perhaps white, at that question. It didn’t help a damn bit when Nemesis laughed. Actually, it was more of a giggle.
“He slept quite well, thank you,” the boy said. “How did you sleep?”
Gary seemed a little defensive. “You know that Bobby and Benji need cuddles … ” He stared at Nemesis, who backed down, and nodded.
“I know,” the boy said. “I know that you promised Bobby hugs … and even though you didn’t promise Benji, he and Bobby love each other so much, it’s almost a promise …
“And I … I slept well, too. Caden gives good cuddles.”
I must have blushed, because Gary smiled, and said, “Thank you for cuddling Nemesis … sometimes, he can be quite a handful!” Gary ruffled the boy’s hair. Nemesis blushed and then stood on tiptoe to kiss Gary’s cheek.
Gary explained that Saturday was usually his day off, to spend with Nemesis. He’d planned for them to go to a movie that afternoon, and did I want to go. His offer was genuine; however, I realized I would be a fifth wheel, so I excused myself. “I don’t do real well sitting for a couple of hours in one position,” I said. “And, I really need some exercise.”
Gary’s gym was part of the hotel, and it took only a phone call to get me guest privileges. I spent the afternoon doing light exercise including some swimming, and soaking in a whirlpool. Afterwards, I did a little shopping and ate dinner at the hotel. Gary and Nemesis were back when I returned at 9:00 PM. I sat with them for a few minutes in front of the television, and then excused myself.
It was Sunday afternoon before I had a chance to ask Nemesis the question that had been racing through my mind.
“Why did you come to me, Friday night?” I asked. Gary was in his office, dividing his attention between a computer screen and a telephone. Nemesis and I were watching the Bulls ground the Hawks. I wasn’t that interested in the game—or the sport, but Nemesis said if I were going to fit into Chicago, I needed to know something about the local sports teams. The sound on the TV was low, and we were talking while we watched.
Nemesis seemed to understand that my question was serious, and didn’t answer immediately. When he did, it was revealing.
“The first night I was here … the first night I was Nemesis … Bobby asked to sleep with me, and to cuddle. We slept together every night for a month before he went to Erewhon. The first night he was gone, I couldn’t sleep. I felt empty. I sneaked into Gary’s bed. He knew I needed to cuddle, and he’s cuddled me every night, since then.
“Last night was the first night that Bobby and Benji have been here since … since we rescued Benji. I know I could have found a place in Gary’s bed, and I know that Bobby and Benji wouldn’t have minded. But … last night was kind of, their night with Gary.
“He’s so much more than a friend to them, and to me.”
Nemesis looked at me. I saw challenge and I dare you in his eyes … in the set of his mouth … and I heard it in the tone of his voice.
I thought for a moment before speaking. “Nemesis, I didn’t ask you all that. I asked you why you came to my bed. You skirted around the answer: you were alone and didn’t want to be alone, and you didn’t want to intrude on a special moment among Gary, Bobby, and Benji.
“That doesn’t really explain why you came to me.”
Nemesis blushed. “I knew you were smart,” he said. “I should have known I couldn’t get away with that answer.”
“Wednesday,” he said. “When I was following the bible tract kid around? I was watching you. I saw you reach for your keys. You were going to scare the crap out of the kid, but you didn’t. I heard you think it would be wrong. I knew, then, that you were a good guy.
“I heard you wishing you could help the boy, but I didn’t hear any sex stuff in your thoughts. Then, I heard what you were thinking about me when I first appeared. You didn’t think sex stuff about me.
“I knew that you could cuddle—even a naked 12-year-old boy—” he giggled, and then continued. “Even a naked boy without doing sex stuff.
“And that’s important to me … I can’t tell you why …”
I thought about what he had just said.
“I know why, Nemesis. It’s because you love Gary,” I said.
Nemesis froze. Then, he asked, “How do you know?” It was a whisper.
I wanted to laugh, but was afraid to do so. This was a serious question for him.
“You and he … you’re trying so hard to hide what you feel for one another. Yet, it’s so obvious.”
It’s so obvious that I can see it; and, it’s so different from what I saw back at the school.
I remembered the Christmas party at the school. I had watched two of the teachers as they watched the boys. I saw that the two men were focused, each on one particular boy. I was uncomfortable, but there was nothing I felt I could do.
It was a few months later when I found myself in the neighborhood where the headmaster lived and decided to accept his standing invitation to “drop by if you’re ever near by.”
Those two teachers and the two boys were there. A third boy whom I recognized was also present.
The headmaster was polite, and welcomed me; however, I felt tension. I chatted for a minute, said something about wanting to talk about a project but not wanting to take the headmaster’s time, since he had guests, and left.
I thought about that afternoon for weeks afterwards. I saw the three boys every day in school. I watched them with concern, wondering if their relationship with the men was proper, or if they were being harmed. I’m not sure I would know if that were the case. What would I have seen? I wasn’t even sure the relationship was physical. What if it were? What if it weren’t? Would it be bad or wrong if it were, but the boys were happy in it? I created a myriad questions, none of which were answered before I was “let go” from the school.
I thought about what I felt between Gary and Nemesis, and realized that it wasn’t the same as I’d felt between the principal and teachers, and the boys they’d coopted.
I knew, then, that what Gary and Nemesis had was unequivocally right.
I knew that Caden was a good man, and a smart one. I needed to talk to someone, someone other than Gary. I decided it would be Caden. So, I told him.
“It’s more than that. I … I want to do sex stuff with Gary, but he knows that sex between men and boys is usually wrong. I’m afraid that if we have sex he will be angry—not at me, but at himself—and that he will push me away.
“I never loved anyone before, not even myself. Now, I love Gary so much I know I’ll die if I ever lose him.”
I had thought about that, a lot. After Death showed me all that stuff about my sword, I realized that the sword might be the only thing that could kill me. I buried those thoughts deep inside me.
Caden told me that he understood. Before he could say more, Gary came in from his office and announced that it was time to get supper.