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Nick's screams jolted Daniel into action before he was entirely awake. Barefooted, with his pajama bottoms flapping around his ankles, he raced down the hall, pausing outside Nick's room to take a deep breath and will his heartbeat to settle down. Not until he'd accomplished that did he step into the room.
"Nick," Daniel said softly. "It's okay. I'm here." He switched on the bedside lamp, a figure of a baseball player in a Red Sox uniform. In the subdued glow of the light, he saw the boy sitting up in bed, eyes wild and face drained of color, his screams still bouncing off the walls.
Daniel sat on the edge of the bed and smoothed Nick's tousled red hair. It was wet with perspiration. "It's okay," he said again. "I won't let anything hurt you."
Gradually, the screams faded into sobs, then to gasps for air. Nick didn't reach out his arms to be hugged until his terror passed. He'd been one of Daniel's foster boys for almost two months now, and still didn't trust him enough to seek him out for comfort. What could have happened to a boy so young to make him close his heart so completely?
No one knew. A woman in a larger town nearby had found Nick, all alone and unable to give his name or his parents' to Child Services. How old was he? The pediatrician who examined him had put his age at seven. Daniel's hands clenched. He'd solve the mystery of Nick one day, and when he did, the responsible parties would deeply regret what they'd done to this child.
"What's wrong?" Daniel asked, gently rubbing Nick's bony shoulder. "Tell me about it."
With one final gasp that ended on a sigh, Nick mumbled, "It was just a bad dream."
"You'd feel better if you toldme. We could talk about it."
"I don't remember. Sorry I woke you up."
Nick always said, "I don't remember." He was calm now, safe behind the invisible wall that protected him from the demons he couldn't confront.
"How about a little bedtime reading, then?" Daniel suggested. "What would you like to hear?"
"The Swiss Family Robinson?" It was not a statement so much as a question. Is that okay with youor am I asking too much?
"Terrific," Daniel said. "My favorite."
In less than a minute he was back in Nick's room with the book, an old copy with yellowing pages. The Swiss Family Robinson, in which the father was able to solve any problem that threatened his family's survival.
If only. The book offered a dream world in place of a nightmare world, and Nick clearly needed a glimpse of a dream world.
That's what Daniel had needed at Nick's age, as well. Routinely beaten by his father as his mother cried and wrung her hands, often before being knocked unconscious in her attempts to protect her son, Daniel had finally appeared in the local emergency room one time too many. Based on the testimony of medical staff and neighbors, he'd been taken from his parents and placed in a foster home.
But not a good foster home like the one he was giving Nick. In a series of miserable places, he'd slept on sofas, cut school to take care of younger children in his foster families, gone hungry, worn dirty clothes and been whipped for any infringement of a rule or shirking of a duty.
Daniel ran away from each of these homes, getting picked up, every time, only to be turned over to another family.
He lost his trust in human beings, thinking that no one would ever love him or even be kind to him. Still in his teens, he ran away again, and this time he was determined to run so far that no one could find him. He stole a bicycle and what little money his foster parents had around the house, grabbed ajar full of coins donated to charity from the general store counter and rode north as fast as he could. When he made the mistake of trying to cross over the border into Canada with a fanciful story but no ID, the border guards detained him for questioning. He could still feel the rage and frustration that made him fight back, injuring one of the guards before they could get him under control. Cuffed and helpless, he was sent back to Vermont and placed in juvenile detention. It was the best thing that could have happened to him, because there, at last, he'd found a family.
He and two other boys, Mike and Ian, discovered they had the same goal, to leave their unhappy pasts behind and become law-abiding and productive citizens. Slowly but surely, he'd learned to trust them. The three formed a strong bond, and when they were released from the facility they became "brothers," changing their surnames to Foster, and set out to change their lives.
Knowing he had people he could trust absolutely had been the turning point in Daniel's life. It had led him to taking in foster childrenhe had that one thing he could teach them, that in him they had someone they could trust, and that trust could eventually extend to other people, too.
So far, each of his foster kids had come to do that. And someday Nick would, too. But when? How could Daniel break through the boy's silence? Weekly visits to a psychiatrist hadn't worked any better than Daniel's own efforts.
Nick didn't want to be found by his real parents, and that told Daniel the whole story.
When the boy's eyes closed in spite of his attempts to stay awake, Daniel went back to his own room and fell into bed, emotionally drained, to struggle with his own nightmares.
"We're going to be fine, honey. I know it's scary to leave home for a new place, but I wouldn't bring you here if I didn't know it was the right thing to do, would I?" Lilah Jamison slid a sidelong glance at her son. Jonathan was scrunched down in the passenger seat, looking smaller and younger than usual, scared to death by this sudden upheaval.
Was it the right thing to do? She had $290, three-quarters of a tank of gas to get her from Whittaker, her hometown in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, to Serenity Valley, many miles south, a cooler packed with the contents of her refrigerator and not even an inkling of what she would do to support the two of them. But they'd be safe there. She'd researched every corner of Vermont before deciding that Serenity Valley was the perfect place to hide.
She had to hide, had to protect Jonathan and herself from her ex-husband, Jonathan's father. He'd been imprisoned for defrauding investors who'd trusted in him. Only a few people knew he'd also abused her. And now he was being released from prison. She'd been the one to blow the whistle on him, and she knew he was going to come after her as soon as he had the opportunity. Her muscles tightened, and her hands balled into fists on the steering wheel.
"Where will we live?" Those were the first words Jonathan had spoken in the past hour.
"We'll start by finding a special, secret place to park the car and set up housekeeping," Lilah said in a conspiratorial whisper.
"Are we hiding out from the bad guys?" Jonathan turned toward her for the first time, looking interested. She couldn't tell him the only "bad guy" in their lives was his father. She said, "Hmm. I was thinking we'd be more like The Boxcar Children." It was one of his favorite books. She hoped it would conjure up a positive image in his mind, even if it was less exciting than escaping from "the bad guys." "As soon as I get a job, we'll find a real house."
Or a one-room apartment like the one they'd lived in after she'd sold their three-bedroom cottage in Whit-taker and used the money to pay off Bruce's remaining debts.
"What kind of work will you look for?" "Well, I used to be a nurse," she reminded him. "Then, when you came along, I stayed home with you and did your father's bookkeeping." She could hardly bear to say the words. "And you know what I've been doing the past three years."
"Home care," Jonathan said. "For a nice, old lady."
"So I can look for several kinds of jobs. And you'll like your new school," she went on. "I just know it, because you make friends easily and you're a great soccer player."
"Yeah." He sighed. "Are we almost there?"
"The exit's coming up now. We'll take Route 30 for a few miles, and then we'll start looking for our hideout."
Daniel wasn't a churchgoer himself, but he firmly believed in Sunday school for children. The boys griped and dragged their feet sometimes, but many of their best friends were kids they'd met at the Churchill Congregational Church, where they learned more about kindness than they did about any particular religion.
He'd finally herded the four of them, their hair still damp from showering and a few hands undoubtedly still sticky from pancake syrup, into the van. "Are we gonna have breakfast at the church?" Will asked.
"You just had breakfast," Daniel said, glancing into his rearview mirror to catch the eleven-year-old's eyes. "Seven pancakes, I think. A personal best."
"I know," Will said, "but sometimes they have real good stuff."
"I should hope so," Daniel said. "If you guys were ever ready in time to get there thirty minutes early, instead of eating breakfast at home in ten "
"Yeah, yeah." Mutters came from the backseat. Daniel smiled. Kids who arrived thirty minutes before Sunday school began were served a hot breakfast. It had been his idea, and he still supported it financially. So much poverty existed in and around Churchill that he'd thought it would be a valuable service to the community. Besides, he owed the church something in return for suffering through an hour a week with his unruly gang. The program had been a big success.
As he pulled into the yard, he saw a small car, many years old, parked at the curb well away from the entrance to the building. It was dusty, as all Vermont cars were after negotiating the dirt farm roads into the town center, but otherwise it looked as if it had been well cared for.
A woman sat at the wheel, probably waiting for one of the children the breakfast program was intended to benefit. He could see little of her, just blond hair hiding her face as she bent over the steering wheel, reading, maybe, or just resting. His boys had already tumbled out of the van and gone on their way to rattle the cages of their long-suffering teachers.
Daniel thought about going to speak to her, offering to drive her child home after Sunday school so she wouldn't have to wait, but he decided against it. If she'd wanted company, she'd have gone into the church for the adult class.
Besides, he had a whole hour to himself, and what was he going to do with it? What any normal, virile, macho man would do. Go to the grocery store.
Lilah saw the children begin to stream out of the church and looked anxiously for Jonathan. When she saw him, he was in deep discussion with a freckled redheaded boy about his age. Her muscles tightened. What she hated most about her situation was that she and Jonathan had to lie about themselves. But what if someday he forgot?
She got out of the car. She had to end the conversation before Jonathan became too chatty. When he saw her, he gave the other boy a wave and came running toward her, his eyes bright. She forced a big smile. She had to calm herself downshe couldn't start quizzing him about his conversation right away. "Did you have fun?" Lilah asked as they pulled away from the curb.
"Yeah." Jonathan looked happy.
"How was breakfast?" As she'd searched the grocery store bulletin board for job possibilities the day before, she'd seen a flyer inviting children to come for "breakfast and Bible study." Feeling desperately shy, she'd taken him into the church this morning, where he, to her relief, was greeted warmly.
"Great. We had pancakes and sausage and chocolate milk."
Lilah's stomach growled. "That does sound good," she said. She felt terrible about asking someone else to feed her child, but he hadn't had a hot meal in more than a week.
"And I made a friend."
"Now that is wonderful. What's hisor hername?"
"His," Jonathan said, directing a brief "I hate girls" scowl at his mother. "Nick. He's nice."
"Tell me about him." Please tell me you asked all the questions and didn't answer any.
"He told me he's a foster child. What's a foster child?"
"Well, sometimes," Lilah said, dreading the inevitable consequences of giving Jonathan a definition, "parents can't take care of their own children. They have to let other people take care of them until they can get their lives in order."
"Is your life in order?"
"You and I are together and we always will be," Lilah said with a forced steadiness. "That's what I call having your life in order." How long could she keep up this pretense? A week of job-hunting had netted her nothing. But tomorrow could be different. Would be different. Because she'd never lose Jonathan to foster care, no matter how good that care might be.
"Who are Nick's foster parents?"
"He lives with a guy named Daniel. A vet veternar "
"Veterinarian," Lilah said.
"Vet-er-in-ar-ian. Some other boys live there, too, and a sort of grampa. His name is Jesse. Nick says they're all real nice."
"Really nice," Lilah said automatically.
"Yeah. But he looked real tiredreally tiredand I asked him why, and he said he'd had another nightmare last night."
"He says he has 'em all the time."
"That's terrible," Lilah said, her heart going out to this child she didn't even know.
"Remember when I had those bad nightmares?"
How could she ever forget? Jonathan hadn't had one since he was three, when his father went to prison. Her child might be living in a car, eating cereal and sandwiches, but every night, when she'd tucked him into the backseat, he slept like Rip Van Winkle.
"I told him you made me a dreamcatcher, and I didn't have 'em anymore. I told him maybe you'd make one for him." He looked at her, the question in his eyes.
"Of course I will," Lilah said. "You could give it to him at Sunday school next week." She couldn't tell Jonathan the dreamcatcher had nothing to do with his nightmares going away. Even at three, he'd been far too aware of his father's brutality.