Hated – Part Four – Full Circle

Pete’s wait in the office was much longer this time around. Given the severity of the beatings he had handed down, and the accusations of assault, and defense, Mr. Robertson had been forced to call the police, and now Pete sat, alone, waiting for them to conclude their interviews. Miss Sarah had not even bothered to show up, telling Pete that she would deal with him when he got home, and Ashley’s aunt had come to collect her while Pete had been giving his statement. In the end, a combination of video evidence, provided by a student who had recorded the beginning of the fight on her phone, and corroborating statements from both Pete and Ashley had convinced them that he had, in fact, been acting in self defense.

By the end of the day, the score stood; one torn ACL, a fractured patella with torn lower patella tendon, combining to equal one lost scholarship offer. One hemorrhaged testicle, a broken collar bone supporting a dislocated shoulder, a fractured cheek bone complete with three missing teeth, and a second degree concussion. Two cracked ribs, a severely wrenched neck with a bulging disk, along with yet another severe concussion on the parts of Greg and his friends. Versus four bruised ribs, and and a bruise creeping down the left side of his face, on the part of Pete. As the police detective watched Pete walk down the road away from the school, he turned to Mr. Robertson and said quietly, “I don’t know how that boy has made it this far. And I have no clue whats keeping him together.” The vice principal looked at him seriously and replied, “Ashley Waters is.”

By the time Pete got home, Miss Sarah was waiting for him, she had been furious when she found out that Pete had not even managed a single day without getting into another fight. She had begun drinking as soon as she got home, and had, by now, completely wound herself up waiting for the worthless little fucker to get home. And as soon as Pete walked through the door he could see that tonight was going to be a bad one. But for the first time in his entire life, Pete felt no fear, for the first time in his life, he knew someone out there actually cared, someone out there actually thought he was worth the effort to care. And for the first time in his life, that made Pete untouchable.

Sarah started as soon as the door closed, her voice shrill and slurred, as she came at Pete in a rage. The wooden cooking spoon in her hand brandished like the deadliest of weapons, swinging at Pete like she intended to decapitate him. Pete honestly couldn’t care, what he had learned that day, had taught him that pain was inconsequential, absolutely meaningless, when someone was willing to help shoulder the burden. The spoon cracked down onto Pete’s shoulders and face, in stinging slaps, as Sarah continued to berate him. “You stupid little fuck! You couldn’t go one day without showing how worthless you really are?” she shrieked, her voice going up an octave, as she saw how little Pete was reacting, “You think you can just spit on all the effort I’m putting into you?”

Something inside of Pete snapped, he had finally had enough of it all. For the first time, he knew he was worth something to someone, and that everything Miss Sarah was spewing at him was bullshit. It had always been bullshit, after everything Ashley had told him today, he finally understood, that none of what happened to him, had been his fault. Pete’s eyes hardened, and he pulled himself up to his full height, towering almost a full foot over Sarah, who suddenly saw something in Pete that she had never known was there, burning behind those eyes, that had always been empty and hollow, was anger, and outrage. His eyes were burning with an anger so all consuming that it stopped Sarah cold, as fear settled into the pit of her stomach.

Snatching the spoon out of her hand, Pete snapped it in half in front of Sarah’s eyes. “You will never touch me again, you worthless bitch.” Pete’s voice was calm, the type of calm that spoke volumes about the anger that was boiling just beneath the surface, and it turned her insides to jello, “I’m nothing more than a stipend check to you, remember? I’m here because I have no choice, but I will not be a victim ever again.” he grated through tightly clenched teeth, “I’m here until I age out of the system, you keep getting your money. But that is as far as it will ever go again. You will never hit me, or raise your voice to me again! And you will never, ever, feel my dick inside of that sloppy hole you call a cunt again. Do. You. Understand?” All Sarah could do was stand there, mute, and nod, knowing that if she pushed this boy, whom she had so callously disregarded, had used and discarded simply because she felt she could, if she pushed him one more time, she suddenly knew, he might break her, just like her spoon.

That night, was the first night, since Pete had been forcibly removed from Uncle Billy’s home, that Pete slept, deeply, soundly, safe in the knowledge that no matter what was to happen to him next in life, he had someone who was willing to have his back. In the small hours of the night, deep in his first untroubled sleep in years, Pete dreamed. He saw Ashley, her beautiful eyes, glorious and smiling, and felt, again, the touch of her hand on his cheek, and her warm, soft lips as they touched his. The dream morphed then, into the long litany of faces, and voices, that had brought him nothing but pain and horror throughout his life. He saw his mother, her cold, merciless eyes, glaring at him, Victor, his first foster father, leering at him with that sick, degrading hunger that had inspired fear in a young, vulnerable Pete. On and on the line continued, taunting, and tormenting Pete with the memories of the pain, opening all of the old wounds, but this time, the words carried no weight. There was finally nothing more for them to use to hurt him, because at the end of the line, after the storm of pain and sorrow, was Ashley. Those glorious eyes, smiling at him like a lighthouse beacon, shining through a hurricane, calming both wind and sea, letting Pete know that he was ok.

Pete woke up with the sun streaming through the window of his bedroom (barely more than an expanded closet in truth) and it was to Pete, like the sun rising on the first day of time. After the best night’s sleep of his life, this was the most beautiful morning he had ever experienced, and in a few short hours, he knew, it would only get better. Today he was going to spend his entire day with Ashley Waters, and Pete finally felt like being around another person, was going to be a good thing. Looking at the small clock next to his bed, Pete realized that it was already after nine in the morning! He was stunned, he had never slept this late, always awake long before the other people he had lived with, always finding a reason to leave early, and come home late, avoiding contact as much as possible. Today, all he heard was silence, the house was still, calm, just like Pete felt. Right up until he realized he only had an hour before he had promised to meet Ashley at the gas station uptown!

Pete rushed out of the house, his hair still wet from his shower, still pulling his shirt down his lean, bruised, scar laced body. He had never bothered to really look at himself, so he barely understood why the neighbor, Mrs. Bradley, a kind, matronly, septuagenarian, who was out getting her morning paper gave him such a stare as he passed her, while straightening out his clothes. Pete ran as fast as his long legs could carry him, knowing he was already running late, hoping Ashley would wait for him. By the time Pete had covered the twelve blocks to the Dairy Mart & Gas’er’Up, he was panting for breath, his right side was wailing at him in pain, and every intake of breath shot white hot needles from his waist to his armpit. He skidded to a halt at the air pump in the gas station parking lot, pressing in on his ribs, and gasping for breath, and looked around, not seeing Ashley.

He started to panic, thinking he had kept her waiting so long, that she had decided to leave. Pete looked around the uptown area, a juncture of two secondary state highways surrounded by local businesses and the town bank. Pete stopped and stared, at the front of the bank stood the ‘Old Towne Clock’, the story was it went up when the town was incorporated over a century ago. That wasn’t what was important to Pete though, what was important was that, according to the clock, it was only five minutes to ten! He had covered twelve blocks in under fifteen minutes! In fact he was so stunned that he completely missed Ashley walking up next to him. “Hey Peter!”

The sudden sound of a voice next to him made Pete jump. Right up until he looked down, and saw Ashley smiling up at him. Pete stood, his mouth hanging open, Ashley looked amazing, her rust red hair was pulled back into a pony tail, fully exposing her heart stopping face. Her pale skin glowed in the morning light, and her broad smile lit up her eyes like Pete had never seen before. She wore a pair of tight jeans that accentuated her narrow waist, and perfectly flared hips. Her green sweater was light, and hugged her curves gracefully, showing off her amazing chest (Pete had no way of judging them, but they were in fact a very generous C cup) while not making her look trashy. In a word, Ashley was stunning. Right up until the smile slid from her face, to be replaced by a look of outrage.

“Peter?! What happened?” she demanded, as a tiny hand came up to cup his chin, pushing and pulling his face from side to side. She could see the confusion in his face, and suddenly she realized something about Pete that she could never have prepared herself for. She realized that Pete, this poor, shy, quiet, wonderful boy, who had saved her from her worst fear coming back to life, was so accustomed to pain, that he didn’t even notice the bruises that now covered his cheeks and jaw. Her heart broke, and she had to fight off tears, knowing they would only confuse Pete even more. “Peter, your face is covered in bruises! I know it wasn’t the fight, so… What. Happened!?” She demanded, wanting to know who’s eyes she was going to have to claw out for hurting this poor boy again.

“Oh. That?” Pete said, trying to brush it off like it was nothing “I had a disagreement with Miss Sarah. It’s all settled now though, don’t worry.” Even as he said it, he could tell, Ashley was not about to not worry. Her gray eyes hardened like flint, and her mouth thinned to a single line, as she tried to sublimate her anger.

“I don’t think I can do that Peter,” she whispered hotly, her voice carrying an edge of anger to it Pete had never heard from her before. She grabbed his hand quickly, her tiny, delicate fingers lacing into his own, and squeezed tightly, “I don’t think want to either. Someone’s gotta care about you Peter, and I think I’d like to take that job.” Her smile completely floored Pete. A feeling he had no familiarity with flooded through his gut. If Pete had been given a chance to grow up like a normal boy, he would have known immediately, he was falling in love. “C’mon Peter, I’d like you meet a few of my best friends!” Ashley said, changing the subject before Pete had an emotional breakdown, and quickly tugged him down the sidewalk.

It was only a four block walk to Ashley’s home, but after a twelve block sprint, and the quick pace Ashley set for him, he was again gasping, and pressing on his ribs by the time they made it there. Ashley looked at him, concern in her eyes, as he leaned against the porch railing, trying to catch his breath. “That kick.” Pete said hoarsely between breaths, “Ribs are a… Little bit tender…” he explained, waving away her concern. By this point in his life, pain was just something that was, there was nothing all that unusual about it.

Brushing aside Pete’s explanations, and protests, Ashley pushed up the side of his shirt and stopped dead in her tracks. Her eyes widened in shock, but it wasn’t the bruise that spread from Pete’s armpit to his hip that shocked her. Yes, the bruise was gruesome, and she could tell it was painful, but it was the scars that laced his body that put a lump in her throat. She was intimately familiar with kinds of marks physical abuse can leave on the body, but she had never, in her life, seen the sheer volume of them that she was seeing now. His chest and back resembled a rail yard, scars from an inch to a foot long covered his torso like a road map of misery. Ashley had always known Pete had been abused, but she had always assumed that the scars she saw on his hands and arms were from being a cutter. She could not even begin to process the amount of torment this gentle boy had been forced to endure.

“Good God Peter!” she whispered, “I am so sorry!”

Pete grunted in reply “Yeah, but I can tell the ribs aren’t broken.” Not even realizing why Ashley was so upset, “Been there twice. Not really something you forget.” He said as he pulled his shirt back down. As he straightened up, he looked into Ashley’s eyes, and saw tears welling up. He cocked his head questioningly at her, and tried to smile. “It’s ok Ashley, like I said, they’re not broken. Nothing for you to be sorry about.” he said gently, as he placed his massive hand against her face, his thumb wiping away the tear that was sliding down her cheek.

Pete could feel Ashley restrain her impulse to flinch at his touch, and suddenly she melted into the feeling of his hand. Her soft, warm cheek nuzzled into his palm, as a contented smile slowly spread across her face. The feeling of joy, at seeing someone smile, simply because he was touching them, erupted through Pete’s body like a geyser. He had never experienced something like that before, someone was actually happy just to be near him, there was no hunger, or lust, or sick desire in her smile. It was simple, pure, undiluted, happiness, and Pete’s heart swelled at seeing it.

The hand was rough, and calloused, Ashley could feel that the pointer, and ring fingers were twisted in a manner that spoke of improperly healed breaks. The thumb, that so carefully, and gently wiped away her tears, was still strong, and hard. It was, in Ashley’s opinion, the most beautiful touch she had ever felt. Hands that had turned to fists, dealing out punishment to people who had tried to hurt her, were now gently trying to erase the guilt she was feeling, for so badly misjudging this lonely, gentle, beautiful boy in front of her. It felt so natural, to allow herself to revel in a touch so innocent, and full of care. Deep inside of her, where she had walled off so much of herself, protecting her from ever being hurt again, she felt a tectonic click. Ashley’s eyes snapped open, and bore into Pete’s with a questing intensity, looking for something all of her instincts told her should be there. Looking for that perverse desire all the men in her experience had shown, and praying it was not there. All she saw was care, deep, sincere, and unconditional. Her smile widened, somehow, she knew, she would always be safe with Peter.

“Peter,” she whispered softly, as she looked him in the eyes, those soft brown orbs captivating her completely, “Come inside with me, I want you meet my two best friends in the world.” and taking his giant hand in hers once again, led him through her front door. The house was small, and had that cluttered, yet orderly look of some place that could only be described as ‘home’. The sea foam green wallpaper had that faded look of a place that had absorbed countless memories, most happy, but some sad as well, and quite simply spoke of comfort. The furniture was worn, yet not shabby, the sky blue carpet showed the signs of countless steps, without being threadbare. It was the sort of home Pete had always dreamed he could have grown up in, and, even though he knew Ashley had not always lived here, it was still the kind of place that said she belonged here.

Pete was looking around, taking in the details, letting them burn into his mind, knowing, one day, he wanted a place just like this. He was so caught up in the place, that he completely missed seeing the giant dog lumbering down the hall, until his legs were nearly taken out from under him. The massive, barrel bodied, gray brindled, pit bull put his shoulder into Pete, rubbing along his leg, trying to get this large stranger’s attention, since, a new person was in the house, and they still hadn’t petted him. He felt this had to be corrected, and this was obviously the best way to go about it. Pete looked down, after regaining his balance, just as the wide head, and open, honest, face of the dog looked up at him. Those light chocolate eyes boring square into his own, caused a lump the size of the dog’s head to form in Pete’s throat, all of his memories of Goliath crashing down on him. Pete dropped to his knees next to the beautiful dog, his hands cupping the enormous jaws, and began to scratch gently, up along the jawline, and behind the ears, tears standing in his eyes, as he remembered how Goliath had loved this exact same thing.

“Peter, this is Broadway,” Ashley explained, as she knelt next to the pair, and began scratching along Broadway’s flank. The giant dog’s eyes rolled up in ecstasy as he now had two people petting on him, his tail wagged like a battering ram, slapping into Ashley’s shoulder with loud pops of joy. Pete looked at Ashley in shock, at hearing the name, but his question was erased from his mind as Broadway began happily licking his cheek and jaw. All he could do was laugh, it was just like Goliath used to do, and as he laughed at the sensation, all of the sadness he felt at Goliath being gone, was replaced by all the memories of love, and joy he had of his lost puppy. It was the first time Ashley had ever heard Peter laugh, and it was, in her opinion, one of the most beautiful sounds she had ever heard.

Pete’s laughter was abruptly cut short, as he felt a tugging at his left elbow. The tugging came from low on the floor, and was accompanied by the needle sharp insistence of claws. Thinking Ashley also had a cat, Pete looked down into the inquisitive, curious, face of a striped skunk. Pete froze, and lightly cleared his throat. “Uh… Ashley…” he said softly, trying to get her attention without startling her, not wanting any of them to get sprayed, “There’s um… There’s a skunk in the house…”

Ashley giggled at Peter, looking into his concerned face with a bright smile. “I know Peter. He wants you to pet him too,” She said gently, as she scooped the skunk off the floor, and cradled it in her left arm. “Peter, this is Hudson, and yes, he’s a skunk.” her smile was broad and infectious, as she presented Hudson for Pete to pet too. And he couldn’t help but smile at her too, it was strained, and forced, since Pete had had very little reason to smile through most of his life, but it was still genuine. “C’mon Peter, lets sit on the couch, so these two attention hogs can have their way,” she said brightly, as she bounced down into the soft cushions of the sofa.

The next hour was one of the happiest times Pete could remember having since before Goliath had died. The pair spent it petting, and cuddling, Broadway, as he wiggled back and forth between the two, deciding who was going to get the pleasure of scratching his belly next, seemingly at random. Hudson meanwhile had climbed up on the back of the couch, and scampered back and forth, taking time to nuzzle, and sniff, and occasionally nibble on both Pete and Ashley in equal measures. Through it all they talked, avoiding the obvious topic, of their similar past, instead just honestly getting to know one another. Ashley found out that Pete had tested in the ninety-eighth percentile in math, science, history, and language every year since he was in fourth grade, but only ever barely passed because he never spoke, and rarely ever did the homework assignments. He wouldn’t give specifics as to why, only “Home isn’t a good place for me to work”.

Pete found out that Ashley was very nearly a savant in the areas of art, and music, she could play seven different instruments fluently, and loved to paint, sketch, and sculpt. Her passion was the violin, and she dug out her phone, and played played a video her aunt had taken of her playing Vivaldi’s Summer Movement of The Four Seasons. Pete was spell bound when he saw the emotion in her face, as she played. He could tell just from that short video, that Ashley was being modest about her talent.

After an hour of unadulterated joy at having two people to give them attention, both Broadway and Hudson had finally had enough. Broadway lumbered off into the den, and plopped down on a giant pillow, while Hudson waddled off toward the back of the house. Ashley used their reprieve to go to the kitchen and get both of them a glass of iced tea. Pete sat on the couch, and for the first time in he didn’t know how long, actually relaxed, just soaking in the peace that seemed to envelope the entire house.

Ashley returned with the tea, and sat on the couch, facing him with a serious expression on her face. “Peter, I have to say something to you, and before you interrupt, please, let me finish it all the way through,” Pete could tell right away, that what Ashley was about to say was important, so he clamped his mouth shut, and nodded gently, “Peter,” Ashley continued softly, “I want to apologize, because I misjudged you very, very, badly. I knew from the second I saw you, that you had been abused, horribly abused, just by how you reacted to other people. But…” She paused, and looked at Pete, wiping away tears that threatened to come pouring down her face, “But I made the mistake of thinking that all of those scars on your arms were because you were a cutter. I thought you were hurting yourself. But then, when I pulled up your shirt… Oh my God Peter, I had no idea,” her voice caught in her throat, as the vivid image of the scars covering his body flashed through her mind again, “Peter, I have scars on my arms, and legs, they’re all that’s left of the marks Frank left on me. I have never seen the kind of scars you have Peter. I can’t imagine what you had to go through, and I am so sorry for misjudging you so badly.”

Pete was stunned, he honestly had no idea what to say. Reaching out with his left hand, he took Ashley’s small, fragile hand in his own, and squeezed it gently. “How could you know Ashley?” he asked quietly, as he slowly ran his thumb up and down the back of her hand, “You have nothing to be sorry for. You’re the first person who’s ever bothered to care about me, since my Uncle Billy killed himself…” his voice froze, as Ashley’s eyes widened in shock. He had sworn to himself, years ago, that he would never bring Uncle Billy up, to anyone. But sitting here, holding this wonderful girl’s hand, in this warm, caring, house, it finally dawned on Pete. Uncle Billy didn’t do it because he didn’t love him anymore. His uncle had killed himself, because he thought that everything that Pete was being forced to endure, was his fault. The realization shook one of the most sturdy foundations of Pete’s world, maybe love wasn’t a sham after all.

“I swore, Peter, I swore, I would never ask you this, but I have to know. Where did they all come from?” She asked, as her finger gently traced along the scars on his arms. Pete was suddenly terrified. The only person who knew his entire story was Mr. Robertson, and knowing, had changed the way the man looked at Pete. He couldn’t risk that change in Ashley, he didn’t know why, but the idea of seeing revulsion in her eyes scared the shit out of him.

“Honestly Ashley, I can’t say where all of them came from. I wasn’t conscious for over half of them.” he explained tentatively, trying not to let the worst of the details slip out. “But how about this? You point one out, and if I can remember, I’ll explain them.” Pete said, still unable to meet her eyes. Still praying that she didn’t ask questions he was too afraid to answer.

“Peter” Ashley said sternly, a slight anger flaring up in her. By this point, she knew Pete well enough to know that the boy was almost incapable of lying. So she also knew that he was not being honest with her “Do not dare lie to me Peter. In that storage room, I told you things, that no one outside of my direct family knows about. I think I deserve that same respect!”

Pete actually flinched from the heat in Ashley’s voice. The last thing he wanted was her to be angry with him, but he was still petrified that what he had to tell would still color how she saw him. The look of fear in his eyes was something that Ashley had never seen coming from a man. And the fact that she saw it in Peter, this giant, strong, and ferocious boy who had easily protected her, was shocking to say the least. “Peter,” she whispered, suddenly feeling very ashamed about how she had just spoken to him, “Please, let me in Peter. I don’t really know why, but I just feel like I need to know. I told you earlier, I want to be the one that cares about you, but to do that, I need to understand.”

Just like had used to happen with Goliath, it seemed that Broadway knew that someone in the house needed to be comforted. The massive dog walked slowly up to Pete, and placed the gigantic head into his lap, and sighed as Pete began scratching behind his ears again. “Ashley,” he began slowly, his voice just slightly more than a whisper, “I’m afraid that if I tell you everything…” he fought hard to swallow the lump forming in his throat, “If I tell it all, if I put this… Shit… on you, it might change things. You’re honestly the only person who’s looked at me, and saw ME, I don’t want to lose that.”

His heart was in his eyes, and Ashley understood, finally, why he was trying to hold back. She had felt the same way, when Aunt Em had made her confront what Frank had done to her. She had never wanted her aunt to see her ‘that way’, but after she finally broke down, and actually spoke about it, she had been surprised to see that her aunt actually loved even more. She had cared enough to shoulder part of that burden, allowing Ashley to finally get out from under it, and to begin to heal. Now Ashley wanted to give that gift to Peter. Nobody had ever been there for him, and now she was determined to be just that. “Peter,” she began, trying not to sound too pushy, “I can only tell you this, my aunt pushed me until I finally told her all of my story, and the only thing that changed was that for the first time in years, I was able to breathe again. Nothing you tell me Peter, nothing at all is going to change how I feel about you.”

And so, looking down at the coffee table next to them Pete began to talk. It wasn’t easy for him, it was like trying to push himself through a wall of solid granite. He spoke slowly, dispassionately, forcing himself to relive everything he had been through in his life. He told Ashley about his mother, and her constant abuse, and neglect. He told her about Goliath, and how that brave, wonderful, dog had actually given his life to try and protect him from her. He told her about Uncle Billy trying to protect him, and being taken away, and about his eventual suicide, after his third petition for custody was denied. He forced himself to tear open wounds he had thought sealed forever. He explained to Ashley about the group home director forcing him to give him a blowjob, in order to be allowed to attend Billy’s funeral, and all the nights in that home he had cried himself to sleep after being dragged to that office. In the end, Pete even confessed to her about Miss Sarah, and the eventual, final confrontation of the night before. It took him almost three hours to give Ashley a complete picture of his life to this point. And when he finally finished, when he had finally cleaned all of the ghosts out of his past, he looked, fearfully at her. He expected to see horror, revulsion, and even rejection in her eyes. What he saw instead were tears, and pain, and…

Pete could not believe it, as he looked into the beautiful, glorious, tear filled eyes, he saw acceptance, and understanding. Ashley had finally seen everything through Pete’s eyes, and, miraculously, to him anyway, she wasn’t repulsed by him. For all of his scars, for all of his shame, she still only saw him. Not the freak, who never spoke, not the ugliness, and despair, he had been forced to live through. She only saw him, Peter, and he could tell, just from the grief he saw in her eyes, she was not about to let him go.

Ashley sniffed loudly, her heart aching, tears streaming down her face, as she looked into his light brown eyes with understanding and compassion. “My God… Peter, I…” she faltered, what was she going to say, she was sorry? She had wanted, needed, to know. But she had never imagined, could never have imagined, that this poor boy, this brave, fearless, sweet, boy in front of her, had been forced to carry all of that with him. In his entire life, only one other person had ever cared about him, and the system had failed them both so badly, that even that had been taken away from him. Impulsively, Ashley threw her arms around Pete’s neck, and burying her face in his neck, began to cry. She cried hard, bitter tears for Pete, for the lost boy inside of him, that no one had ever bothered to care about before.

Pete sat there, stone still, unsure how to process everything that was happening. He looked down at Broadway, who’s head was still sitting in his lap. The giant dog’s light chocolate brown eyes looked from him to Ashley, and back, and gave a heavy sigh, almost like he was saying ‘Well? You gonna hug her or not?’ Pete smiled at the infinite wisdom of dogs, and wrapped his arms around Ashley, holding her tight, and just absorbing the warmth of the emotions she was expressing for him.

It was nearly seven in the evening, and the storm of weeping, and sorrow had given way to two teenagers, finally giving in to the idea that they both cared very deeply for each other. They had sat in the living room for several hours, simply talking, finding out about little quirks, and similar likes and dislikes. They both discovered, that as kids, their favorite cartoon had been Gargoyles, for example, which was where they had gotten the names for their respective pets. Ashley had gotten Pete to demonstrate his fluency in five different languages, having him put names to different items in the house in Russian, French, Japanese, and Greek. Pete had amazed her as he recited whole verses of The Iliad from memory. Ashley had played Fur Elise for him on the piano, to which she had been given a standing ovation, as tears flowed down Pete’s cheeks. The day had been full of enormous emotional ups and downs, but it was, beyond a doubt, one of the happiest days Pete could ever remember. Ashley had called, and gotten permission from, her aunt for Pete to stay for dinner, so they weren’t surprised, when they heard a woman’s voice from the back door. “Ashley? I brought pizza!”

“Aunt Em!” Ashley said in an excited voice, as she bounced up to go help her aunt in with the food. “I want you to meet Peter!” she said, putting the boxes down on the kitchen counter, and grabbing her aunt’s wrist, practically dragging her aunt through the house. Her aunt was intrigued, knowing her niece’s history, that she was so excited about a boy. He must be someone pretty special indeed, she thought to herself.

Ashley dragged her aunt around the corner into the living room, seeing Peter standing, trying to look unimposing, even though he stood nearly a foot taller than either of them. He was holding his half full glass of iced tea in his left hand, and trying to smile, though not really knowing if he was pulling it off. “Peter, I’d like you meet my aunt, Amelia Warren. Aunt Em…” her voice was cut off by the sound of glass breaking behind her. Turning to see what had happened, she gasped, her face going white. Pete stood frozen, his hand balled into a fist, shards of glass being drilled into his flesh by how tightly he was clenching his hand, blood running down his arm, and dripping onto the floor, and a look of undisguised, all consuming hatred on his face.

Amelia ran to the bathroom, grabbing the first aid kit, while Ashley ran to get a towel. A loud whining cry from Broadway, followed by the sound of the screen door crashing shut, told both of them that Pete was already gone. As they came back toward the front door, they saw Broadway standing by the door, crying plaintively, and scratching desperately, as if the world depended on him getting out of the house. On an impulse, Ashley flung the door open, and found Pete, pacing back and forth, clenching and opening his bloody hand, grinding and cutting his skin more violently. Her aunt joined her on the porch, and looked at this tall, scraggly young man questioningly. Pete could see the accusations in her eyes already, could see that she thought he wasn’t good enough to even be near Ashley, and that same something that had snapped when Miss Sarah had been hitting him, shattered.

“You don’t even remember me do you?” he said, his voice harsh, and the venom in it completely unmasked. “You don’t remember having me taken away from my Uncle Billy do you?!” The question struck Ashley like a physical blow, and she sucked in a deep breath as her eyes shot from Peter, and then back to her aunt. “I can see it in your eyes, you just think I’m some kind of freak don’t you?” he clenched his fist again, his knuckles cracking, and blood flowing more quickly onto the porch. “Take a good look Miss Warren, you’re the one who made this freak! You made me this way! I had an uncle who loved me! I had a home where I would finally be safe! You took that away from me!” His voice, was, by this time a roar, a terrible accusation, that Amelia was unable to answer, because, in truth, she didn’t remember him, and to acknowledge that would damn her, not only in his eyes, but Ashley’s as well.

“I’m Peter Daniels! It was your recommendation that sent me to live with a fucking pedophile! That took me away from the only member of my family who ever fucking loved me!” his voice was already hoarse, from choking back the rage that would have had his hands around this woman’s throat, but the words had hit Amelia like a runaway truck. She finally remembered, the small, frail, broken boy in the hospital. He had been an emergency case, her recommendation had been a temporary placement, until his uncle had steady work in the area. And then the file had been passed off to youth placement services. She had never known what had happened to him, always assuming that his uncle had met the conditions for custody. “You left me in hell, and you just forgot about me!” Pete yanked his shirt off, fully displaying the horror that had been done to his body and, slapping himself in the chest with his bloody hand, splattering himself with the crimson spray, he shouted “You stole my fucking life, and this is all you left me with!”

Ashley was, by now, on her knees sobbing, holding her head in her hands as tears streamed down her face. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing, her aunt, the woman who had stormed in, and saved her from being raped, again, again, by her stepfather, had left Peter to walk alone through hell. She had forgotten him, abandoned him, taken everything that could have ever been good, or happy, from him, and had left him with nothing but pain, and hatred. And now that toll had finally come due. Seeing Ashley in tears caused Amelia’s pain to double, she didn’t know who to try and comfort first. She knew Ashley needed her, but she also knew that Peter deserved an explanation, and a very sincere apology.

Pete took the choice away from her, as he turned and stomped off the porch, “Take care of Ashley, she needs you more than I do.” his voice was bitter, and the recrimination in it caused Amelia’s heart to whither, as he stalked off.

“Peter, come back!” Ashley’s voice cut into him like broken glass, the plea was full of tears, and anguish, and it nearly broke Pete’s resolve, but he steeled himself, and continued walking, not looking back, knowing if he did, he would crumble.

He had no idea where he was going, only that he had to keep going, he had to get away. His feet led him, and he followed not really caring where. It was nearly an hour later, that he finally found out where he unconsciously knew he had to be. He found himself standing in front of his Uncle Billy’s grave. It was nearly seven years since he had been there, and it was the first time he had ever seen the grave marker, slowly his eyes scanned the small stone, reading the inscription with tears running down his cheeks. ‘William Arthur Perkins, 1973 – 2002 Who loved his nephew so much, he could no longer live without him.’ Pete sank to his knees, his heart breaking into tiny pieces, “I’m sorry Uncle Billy!” he wailed, and began crying, weeping for everything that had been taken away from them both. It took hours for the tears to stop, and when they finally did, Pete curled up, his head next to the grave marker, and slept.

Back at Ashley’s, Amelia sat, with her arms around her shoulders, while she cried for Peter, wishing he had come back to her. Amelia sat there, after the tears had dried, and Ashley had calmed down, came the recriminations, the demands to know how she could have just abandoned Peter to everything that had come after. She had sat and listened to Ashley tell her Peter’s story, with a growing sense of grief, and sorrow, as she listened. She sat and explained everything that had happened. How she had had no idea the case worker who had taken over Peter’s file, had denied his uncle’s custody petitions. Amelia was a crisis worker, and once placement had been arranged, her job was usually done. The files were then passed down to case workers who were supposed to ensure the placements were taken proper care of. Peter had only been the second case of her career, and she had had absolute trust in the system, by the time that illusion had been shattered, she had had so many cases past her desk, that she honestly couldn’t remember all of them. She had explained all of this to Ashley, and hoped to God, that she would understand, and forgive her for allowing Peter to slip through the cracks.

“We have to find him,” Ashley said suddenly, her head coming away from Amelia’s shoulder, as she looked her aunt in the eye, “You have to help me make this right. I told him someone had to care about him, I told him I wasn’t going to let him go!” her voice nearly broke, “You have to help me Aunt Em. He needs me…” her voice dropped to a whisper, as a realization dawned on her “Almost as much as I need him…” the declaration rocked Amelia, never imagining she would hear something like that from her niece, and with less than a thought, Amelia grabbed her keys, and was heading to the door, Ashley hot on her heels.

The pair spent the entire night driving around town, looking for Pete. They tried everywhere they could think of, local parks, the school playground, the pavilion at the local swimming hole. He was nowhere. On an impulse, and recalling their talk, Ashley had her aunt try The Bluffs. The Bluffs were really a misnomer, it was actually a couple of small cliffs, cut down by the river that ran through the middle of town. There was a small park, rarely used, at the top of The Bluffs, that afforded a sort of peace, and tranquility, that a boy like Peter would have savored. But again, he wasn’t there, by the time they had walked back to the car, Ashley was frantic, worrying that Peter was out there, hurt and bleeding, and no one was there for him.

In the end, it took a trip back to the house, where Amelia had used her computer, to look up Peter’s file. It took her less than a minute, to finally know where they would find him. She gathered Ashley up, and screwed her courage down, and drove to Saint Micheal’s Cemetery. The sun was just cresting above the trees at the back edge of the cemetery, as Amelia’s car rounded the bend in the drive, overlooking Billy’s grave. Ashley flung herself out of the car before her aunt had even come to a complete stop. Pete was kneeling on the ground, his left hand wrapped in a scrap of cloth torn from his shirt, staring at the grave of his uncle, it looked like he was talking, but Ashley was was far too relieved to hear what he was saying.

Ashley dropped to her knees, and flung her arms around Peter’s neck, crying in joy at seeing him unhurt, “Oh God Peter! I was so worried about you!” she whispered, her arms tightening around him.

Pete surprised her, when his right arm went around her waist, pulling her to his body tightly. “Look Ashley,” he said, pointing at the grave marker, “I want you to meet my Uncle Billy, I never knew, but he never stopped loving me.” His voice, for the first time since Ashley had heard it, was honestly happy, there was no pain in it, there was no sorrow, only a peace that had obviously come from knowing, even when his uncle’s life had lost it’s value to him, he had never given up loving his nephew. They knelt there, for a long time, as Ashley tried to explain what had happened, how Peter had not been abandoned, how her aunt had honestly thought his uncle would have had custody of him in a few short months, until Amelia finally walked up to the pair, gently clearing her throat. Pete looked up at her, his eyes, finally undarkened by hate, showed an understanding, if not complete acceptance. “So I suppose you’ll be sending me back to the group home until I age out?” he asked, his voice clear, with no bitterness.

Amelia smiled at Peter, a genuinely warm, and comforting smile, “No Peter. We’re taking you back to our home, your new home.” she said softly, as she held her hand out to both Peter, and her niece.

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