Rick hears his neighbor’s cat on his front porch.
But that’s not what he finds when he looks outside.
It had turned out to be a day that didn’t tempt anyone to spend time outside. The rain had been almost torrential, accompanied by thunder and lightning. The temperature was cold, in the upper-thirties. I was stuck inside on a Thursday evening with no desire to go anywhere because of the weather. I sat in my family room and turned to a movie on TV. It was boring, and I realized that I didn’t even remember the title. Some great flick, right?
I looked at the clock. It was 4:25 p.m. The TV shows were boring, so I clicked the off button on the remote and watched the screen go black.
I got up and walked to my home office, which was at the front of the house near the entry. I clicked on the light, and I heard thunder rumble in the distance. As I sat down at my desk, I heard what sounded like my neighbor’s cat mewing outside; then it stopped. The stupid cat liked to curl up in the back corner of my front porch. Its mewing sounded like a kid crying. I assumed the cat was cold or scared of the thunder, or more likely was mewing because it was hungry. I would not feed it. If I did, I was sure it would adopt me. I didn’t need a cat or problems with my neighbors! I traveled a lot, and no one I knew would want to take care of a cat for me.
The mewing resumed, and as I listened, I realized that it sounded more like a kid crying than a cat. Then I heard sobbing. It wasn’t a cat.
I opened the blinds on my home office window and looked out at the porch. A boy was sitting on the top step, hunched over with his elbows on his knees and one hand covering his face. He wore typical school clothes, jeans and a T-shirt, and a thin short-sleeve jacket, too lightweight for the cold weather. There was a backpack at his feet. Everything appeared to be wet. What was a kid doing out in weather like this, and what was he doing on my front porch?
I turned on the porch light, opened the front door, and stepped outside. I walked to where he was sitting and stood in front of him. He was sobbing. Being careful not to frighten him, I said in a soft voice, “Hi, there. Can I help you?”
He jerked his head up and stared up at me. He looked like he was about thirteen or fourteen, with light brown hair so wet it glowed under the porch light. He looked strong for his age and slender without being skinny. His eyes were a stunning brilliant emerald green color. I’d seen a lot of kids’ eyes, but I’d never seen one with eyes that color. They glowed in the reflected light.
He turned away and tried to stop crying.
I crouched down on the step in front of him so we were at eye level. He looked at me with the saddest expression I had ever seen on a kid. He was shivering from the cold, or maybe because he was frightened by me staring at him. More likely, both.
“You’re soaking wet and cold, so come on inside, and I’ll get you dried off and warmed up.”
His voice was soft as he stuttered a “Thank you” that I could barely hear. He tried to get up, but I could tell he wouldn’t be able to do it himself. He was shaking with the effort. I stood and put out my hands. “Let me give you a hand.” He reached up, and I helped him up. His hands felt frozen, and I worried that he might be on the verge of hypothermia. He took a step and almost collapsed, so I put my arm around him, grabbed his backpack, and helped him up the steps and into the house. He continued to shake, and I decided that a warm bath would be the best thing to raise his temperature.
“I have a Jacuzzi bathtub in the master bathroom, and I’ll fill it with water just hot enough to help you warm up.” He looked up at me and nodded, saying nothing. I walked him to the master bathroom, dropped his backpack on the floor, then turned on the water and adjusted it so it should be warm enough but not too hot for him. I helped him take off his soaking wet jacket.
“Go ahead and get undressed, and I’ll get you a bathrobe you can use.” I turned to walk out of the bathroom when I heard him say, “I can’t.”
I looked back and saw that his hands were shaking so much he wouldn’t be able to untie his shoes, pull off his T-shirt, or unzip and unbutton his jeans.
“Can you do it for me, please?”
“Sure.” I had him sit on the edge of the bathtub and helped him get out of his soaked shoes and socks, then helped him stand and helped him out of his clothes, leaving his boxer briefs for him to take off himself.
“What’s your name?”
“Okay, Adam, my name is Rick Decker.” I checked the water temperature. “The water is just right, not too hot, so get in the Jacuzzi, and I’ll turn on the jets and start adding some more hot water so you can get used to it slowly. It should help you warm up.”
Adam pulled off his boxer briefs, sat on the edge of the tub, swung his legs over, slipped into the water, and sat down.
“This feels so wonderful,” he said, looking up at me.
I turned on the jets about halfway.
“Ohhh, that’s even better. Oh, wow! Mmmm!” He looked at me with a slight grin and closed his eyes.
“Adam, will you be okay in the tub? If so, I’ll put your clothes in the wash, your jacket in the dryer, dry your shoes, and I’ll get you some towels and a bathrobe.”
“Thank you. This feels so wonderful, and I’m starting to feel warm already.”
I gathered up his clothes, shoes, socks, and backpack and took them to the laundry room. I set his shoes and backpack on the floor and emptied the pockets in his jeans. There was a neatly folded but wet hand-printed note in one pocket. I carefully opened it and read:
Ted and I are going to his place in Chico to clear
out his things. We’ll be back Monday or Tuesday.
Stay with one of your friends.
So, Adam’s mother had taken off and had left him to take care of himself. How could she assume that he would know a friend whose parents would let him stay from Thursday night through Monday or Tuesday? I couldn’t believe that she would abandon a kid his age in such lousy weather. Why didn’t she just let him stay at home alone? Even though it probably wasn’t legal — since he appeared to be under the minimum 16 years of age to be left alone — it would have been better for him. I sighed and thought about how much it bugged me that some parents just didn’t seem to care much for their kids.
I put the note on top of the dryer. Then I went through the pockets in his jeans. I found a one-dollar bill and a five-dollar bill, both wet; a quarter, a dime, and three nickels; one white handkerchief, wet; one Contra Costa Transit student bus ticket for November, damp; a business card from someone with the San Francisco 49ers, wet. I put this motley collection alongside the note.
So, no wallet, no keys, and no picture ID, unless they were in his backpack. I checked it and found an old model smartphone, textbooks, pens and pencils, and spiral notepads, all dry — but no keys and no ID. I grumbled to myself about how dangerous it is to let a kid out without an ID that included his home address and phone number and a parent’s cellphone number. It also made me wonder where his student ID card was. He was probably in high school. If he went to one of the local public high schools, he had to carry a student ID card. I checked the pockets in his jacket and found his student ID card from Lincoln High School attached to a broken lanyard. His name was Adam Keith Rios. He was a freshman at Lincoln High School. His birthdate was October 21st, 2005, which meant he was fourteen years old. I added his ID card to his other items.
I left his backpack on the laundry room floor, put his clothes in the washer with detergent and fabric softener, his jacket in the dryer, and turned them both on. I put his shoes, the inside facing down, on top of the forced air duct in the laundry room floor. I went down the hall to the thermostat and turned it up to 76 degrees to warm up the house so he wouldn’t get chilled when he got out of the Jacuzzi, and it would help dry his shoes.
I went to the guest bedroom and found a short bathrobe that wouldn’t be too long for him. I went back to the master bathroom, picking up several clean towels and a washcloth from the linen closet on the way. I’d left him less than ten minutes since he got into the Jacuzzi. I saw he was resting against the back of the tub with his eyes closed. It looked like he had fallen asleep. I hung the bathrobe on the hook in the door.
“Hey, Adam,” I said softly. He opened his eyes and looked up at me. I grinned as I turned off the water. “You shouldn’t fall asleep in the Jacuzzi. You might slide into the water and drown!”
“Wouldn’t make any difference.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothin’.” His eyes filled with tears.
“Seems to me that it’s gotta be a lot more than nothing.”
“Maybe.” He blinked his tears away and changed the subject. “Is there some soap and some shampoo I can use?”
“There’s shampoo and liquid soap in the shower. Here are a bath towel and a washcloth. When you’re warmed up and finished in the Jacuzzi, you can get in the shower to wash everything including your hair.”
He grinned at me. “Thanks. I’d like to use the shower now if it’s okay.”
“You’re feeling warm?”
“Oh, yeah! Thank you so much for letting me use this great tub. I’ve never been in one of these before.”
“It’s a Jacuzzi, and it does feel great to sit in there, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it sure does!” Adam turned and looked at me. “Thank you so much for helping me. I don’t know what I would have done….” He choked up.
“I’m glad I was here to help. Maybe when you finished with the shower, you can tell me how you ended up on my front porch.”
Adam sighed, a long, deep sigh. Then he said, “Okay.”
“While you’re in the shower, I’ll find some clothes you can use. They’ll be a bit large, but you’ll be able to wear them until yours are washed and dried. There’s a bathrobe for you hanging there on the door. I’ll bring you a hairdryer so you can dry your hair after you shower. That will help you warm up, too.”
“Thanks. You’ve been nice to me even though you don’t know me. That’s cool.”
I grinned at him. “I couldn’t let you drown and freeze to death on my front porch. You should be warm and dry and comfortable, not sitting outside in the cold and wet weather.”
“I don’t think most adults are nice to kids they don’t know. You’re nice to me, and…. and some aren’t,” he said. He quickly turned away.
“Well, you seem like a nice kid, so there’s no reason that I shouldn’t be nice to you. I’m glad that I’ve been able to help. Are you okay now?”
“I’m okay. I’m feeling lots better.”
“Can you get out of the tub by yourself?”
I turned off the jets and pulled the drain lever to let the water out. “Okay. If you need anything, just call out and let me know.” I left the master bathroom and closed the door.
Adam implied that some people hadn’t been nice to him. I’d have to discover who they were. He probably had friends, relatives, a home not far from mine, and went to school nearby. I wondered what was going on with his mother. From what she wrote in her note, it seemed like she was more concerned about helping Ted, whoever he was, than Adam.
I walked down the hall to the guest bedroom. This is where I still had a few of my nephew Eric’s clothes that he’d left so they’d be available for the next time he visited. That included the robe I’d found for Adam. I checked the dresser and found a pair of gray sweatpants that were too long; the elastic around the cuffs and the drawstring around the waist would help Adam keep them on. I found a dark blue Gap sweatshirt; the body and the sleeves would be too long, but it was better than nothing. There was also a medium-size white T-shirt with a red San Francisco 49ers logo and a big number 12 on the back that would fit him; some boxer briefs that would probably be a little loose; and a pair of gym socks that would keep his feet warm until his socks and sneakers were dry.
Based on the note I found in his shirt pocket, I figured that Adam would contact one of his friends and stay with them. But if that didn’t happen, I would invite him to be my guest for the next few days until his mother returned.
I laid out the clothes on the bed, along with the things I’d taken out of his pockets, then walked back to the master bathroom. Adam had finished his shower, put on the bathrobe, and his wet hair was hanging down in his face. “Time to dry your hair now, Adam.” I handed him the hairdryer and plugged it in. “I left a new comb on the sink.”
“Thanks,” Adam said, as he started to dry his hair. I went to the kitchen and found leftovers for us to have for dinner. When I heard the noise of the hairdryer stop, I returned to the bathroom.
“I’m finished,” he said.
I looked at him nodding my head like I was giving him a once-over appraisal. “You look great. I’ll take you to the guest bedroom, and you can put on some of my nephew’s clothes. They’ll probably be loose on you but should be okay temporarily.”
Adam went through the few items I had laid out for him. He looked up at me. “These are all real nice. The T-shirt’s great! I love the 49ers! And I like Gap sweatshirts and blue is my favorite color. It’s also one of our school colors. They’re red, white, and blue.”
“Go ahead and get dressed. Are you’re hungry? Would you like a snack before we have dinner?”
“Yeah, I am. I haven’t had anything since I ate lunch at school today.”
“When you’ve finished dressing, turn left into the hall and keep going. You’ll end up in the kitchen.”
Adam arrived in the kitchen about five minutes later. He’d put on Eric’s clothes. The sweatpants were too long for him, as expected, so he’d rolled up the cuffs. The sweatshirt sleeves were also too long, and he’d rolled them up, too. He held his arms out and did a 360-degree turn, showing off what he’d put on.
“These all fit okay, but they’re long on me, so I rolled up the sleeves and cuffs,” he said. “You said they’re your nephew’s?”
“Uh-huh. My nephew Eric visits every so often. He’s seventeen and is larger and taller than you.”
Suddenly Adam’s stomach growled, not just once but twice, and he burst out laughing. It was infectious, so I also laughed. “I guess you’re hungry. I know it’s not breakfast, but how about a breakfast burrito? It has egg, sausage, and cheese and is a little spicy. That’ll be a snack to tide you over until we have dinner.”
“I like breakfast burritos. I like spicy food.”
“Coming up!” I announced.
As he was eating, I asked Adam the questions I asked similar kids every day. I’m the regional manager at the California Child Protective Services office in Pleasant Hill.
“Adam, what’s your mother’s name?”
“What about your dad?”
“He died in a traffic accident five years ago. His name was Jason Rios.”
“That’s sad. Your mother has a boyfriend now?”
“Yeah. He’s a jerk. His name’s Ted Loaming.”
“Why’s he a jerk?”
“I don’t know. He just is. He’s a bully and is always yelling at me. He doesn’t like me. I’m not very athletic looking or a big football player, and he thinks that means I’m weak.”
I shook my head. He did sound like a bully. “Does your mom know he doesn’t like you?”
“Sure. I tell her all the time. She says he’s not used to being around kids.”
“How do you do at school?”
“I get all A’s. Even in PE.”
“What parts of PE do you like?”
“Wrestling! I love wrestling, and I’m the only freshman on the varsity wrestling team. Ted says wrestling is a pansy sport. He says all wrestlers want to do is feel each other up. What an asshole! Uh… sorry about saying all that. But it’s true, he is! Anyway, I finished first in the 120-pound weight class in our first meet against four schools at College Park High. That means I won all three of my matches. So much for me being weak! Ted couldn’t even qualify in his weight class,” he growled.
“How’s Lincoln High School?”
“The teachers and classes are good. The administration sucks. They don’t stop kids from being bullied.”
“Are you being bullied?”
Adam looked embarrassed. “Yeah,” he mumbled.
“What kind of bullying?”
“There are some guys who smash me into the lockers and hit and kick me.”
“Who are these guys who bully you?”
“It’s always the same three guys. They’re on the varsity football team.”
“Why do you think they bully you?”
He shrugged his shoulders, then looked down.
“Do they say things to you when they are bullying you?”
“What sort of things do they say?”
“They call me a faggot and queer and other stuff like that.” Adam stared at me, then said, “There’s a reason they say those things.” In a softer voice, he continued, “I’m gay.” He looked up at me to see my reaction.
“That shouldn’t make any difference,” I said. “No one should be hassled or bullied because they’re gay. One of Eric’s best friends is gay. Eric says he has a lot of friends, and no one hassles him. They both go to Davis High. That’s in Davis, of course.” I grinned.
“I don’t get hassled. I get bullied. There’s a big difference. No one in the administration does anything about it. If any of my friends try to help me, then they get bullied by the same guys, too.”
“You said you’re on the wrestling team. How about your teammates?”
“They don’t care that I’m gay. I’m the only freshman on the team, so, other than PE, I don’t have any classes with them, and they sit at tables with kids in the same grades during lunch. The bullies make sure none of the other wrestlers are around when they bully me.”
“Have you complained to your counselor? Or to someone in the administration like the vice-principal or the principal?”
“Yeah, but the vice-principal told me since I’m a wrestler, I should be able to stand up for myself. But I’m just a freshman, and I’m not very big, and I only weigh 115 pounds. The bullies are a hell of a lot bigger than me. They are stars on the varsity football team, and I think that’s why he doesn’t want to do anything to them.”
“Maybe I can do something about that.”
“Yeah, as if! Sorry, no offense, but my mom went to school to complain several times. The last time she told the vice principal the names of the three guys, and he was like, ‘Yes, yes, we agree with you, and we’re taking measures to end the bullying.’ Bullshit. Sorry about the word, but that’s true. He didn’t do anything. The vice-principal told those three bullies that my mom complained and that I’d given her their names. Then they beat me up one day after wrestling practice when I was on my way to meet my mom at Buckhorn Grill for dinner. I complained the next day and showed him pictures of my bruises, and he said they have no control over what happens off-campus, and besides, I didn’t have any witnesses to prove it was them. But I did have a witness, a guy who’s a football player with the 49ers, and I gave the vice-principal his business card.”
“And this is the vice principal at Lincoln High School?”
“It turns out that I can do something about it. My job is with CPS, that’s Child Protective Services.”
He raised his eyes to me and quickly looked down. “I thought that the CPS was there to take kids away from their parents and put them into foster homes.”
“That’s only part of what we do, and we only do something like that when a kid can’t stay with his parents or a relative, or is in an unsafe situation. Our charter includes an obligation that we protect and support children who are having problems they can’t resolve on their own. I’ll go to Lincoln High School with you tomorrow morning and have a word with your vice principal. Then, if necessary, with the principal. I know the vice principal. I can make a difference and in your favor. One of the things I’ll do is make sure that if those three football players bother you or your friends in any way again that they’ll be arrested and taken to juvenile hall and will be brought up in front of a judge.”
“You can do that?”
“I can and will do that.”
“Thanks. It would be great if that works. My mom decided she wasn’t going to complain anymore. She said she was tired of me getting in trouble so often. But the only reason I’m getting in trouble is that they won’t do anything about the bullies.”
That was something I would resolve for Adam in the morning.
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