by Cole Parker

~    P a r t   2    ~

Chapter 18

Escaping one problem only to find others, a boy can find unexpected courage when pushed to his limits.

> 1 <

There was a knock on the door. Julia frowned. She’d expected Hec to simply walk in as he’d always done. He’d grown up in this house. He’d never knocked.

She opened the door, and there he was. Hec was standing on the porch. Cal was several feet behind, watching. When Julia looked over Hec’s shoulder at him, he winked, smiled and nodded his head, then turned and walked off.

“I thought I should knock,” Hec said.

Already the changes were evident. His hair was cut short, much shorter than she’d ever seen him wear it. He stood tall with no sign of a teenaged slouch. His clothes were neat and pressed, still a tee shirt and jeans, but jeans that fit perfectly and looked fairly new, and a tee shirt that was plain white and clean and also fit him. His arms were more muscular now, almost filling the sleeves of the shirt. He looked taller, too, perhaps by two inches.

But the thing that caught her attention more than anything was, when he spoke, he looked her directly in her eyes. No flinching away, no wariness, no smirk, nothing but a respectful gaze that didn’t move away from her at all.

He had a duffle bag which was resting against his leg. “Is that all you brought?” she asked.

“It’ll be plenty for a week. May I come in?”

Julia laughed, some of her nervousness making it brighter than usual. She said, “Sure, it’s your home,” and stepped aside.

> 2 <

Andy and Ren were in the stable when they saw Hec approaching. Ren’s heart started beating faster. Hec was bigger now than when he’d left. The way he moved, it was more like an adult striding forward than like a kid. His posture was erect, his face leaner, and his body as it could be seen through his form-fitting tee shirt was hard and strong. This was someone to take account of. This was also the boy Ren had felt a strong and immediate attraction to when he’d first seen him. He felt none of that now. If he felt anything, it was trepidation.

Ren looked at Andy. Andy moved slightly and then was standing next to but slightly ahead of Ren. He was in position to step in front of him instantly if necessary.

The boys were alone in the stables. Hec walked in, then stopped a few feet away. He looked around him, taking in what he could see and smell of the stable, then took a deep breath through his nose and said, “I always liked this place. My favorite spot on the ranch.” Then he looked directly at Ren. “May I speak to you?”

Ren hesitated, then said, “You can speak to both of us.”

Hec smiled. “Thanks. I guess I have things to say to each of you, and if you want to hear them together, that’s fine. But we’d be more comfortable sitting. There are still hay bales in the back stall, aren’t there? We could sit there.”

Ren realized that if they went into the stall, no one passing the stables could see them. But Hec was already on his way there. Should they go with him?

Andy looked a question at Ren, and Ren finally nodded. They both went and joined Hec in the stall where he’d arranged three bales in a triangle, convenient for a comfortable conversation. He sat on one, and the boys chose one of the others, Andy sliding in next to Ren, leaving the third bale unused.

Hec saw this, then looked at the two boys sitting with their upper arms touching and slowly smiled. “You two together? I’d wondered.”

Neither boy answered, and then Ren said, “What do you want to say?”

The smile faded from Hec’s lips.

He dropped his eyes, then quickly raised them again, meeting Ren’s. “I screwed up; I almost killed you. I think about that a lot. I did a lot of bad things here, but that was the worst. I don’t know what was wrong with me. I want to blame some of it on not having a father, and that probably was part of it, but it’s really all on me. I did what I did. I can’t ask you to forgive me, but I wanted you to know how much I regret it. I regret who I was growing up here. I regret so many things.”

He turned to Andy. “You.” He smiled. “I figured you out right away. You were different from the other kids. You smiled a lot and were happy, but there was something that kept you slightly apart from them. I saw it lots of times, the toughness inside of you. I just saw it again walking over here, how you moved to protect Ren. You did it without saying anything; you just did it. That’s why I never did anything to you. You would have told, and even as screwed up as I was, thinking everything I did was OK because this ranch was partly mine, I still somehow knew if anyone told, I’d be toast. And I knew you’d tell. I could intimidate the others; you wouldn’t let me get away with what the other boys accepted.”

He stopped and looked at the two of them. “You two are really a pair, you know? Both so strong where it counts and so soft-appearing on the outside.”

Ren spoke up. “You’ve changed, haven’t you?”

Hec nodded. “You can’t get away with anything where I’m going to school. Mitchell Military Academy in South Carolina. You either buy into the program or will be very unhappy. Very. And I found I liked the discipline, the rules, the fact everyone was treated the same. But not right away. No, I didn’t like it at first.”

He paused, remembering. Then, “It was really hard at the beginning. I went there thinking this was just for show, that I’d just survive it for a month or so and then be back at the ranch. That didn’t work. I wasn’t on any sort of a pedestal there like I thought I was here, and I found that out real fast.”

He shifted on his hay bale and straightened his back. “You do exactly what you’re supposed to do or are punished. The punishments include stuff like cleaning all the toilets or marching up and down the yards carrying a rifle or standing at attention while everyone else is going through the chow line and then eating lunch while you stand there. If you don’t perform the punishment tasks, they put you in solitary. That isn’t as bad as solitary in a prison, I guess, but you are in a room all by yourself for all but two hours a day, you eat in the mess hall but at a table by yourself where everyone can look at you, and you have to write a paper about why you are at the school and what you want to accomplish there. Then you have to meet with the headmaster and talk about the paper.

“That isn’t much fun. I don’t think the headmaster has any fun in him. He tells you your time at the school can be educational or punishment, and it’s up to you to decide which way to go. You buy into the program, or life will be very, very hard.”

He paused again before going on. A wan smile wrinkled his face when he did. “I messed up a lot because of my attitude. I had to take the punishments and was even in solitary once. But I’m not dumb. Maybe stubborn, but not dumb. A lot of the kids there were like me, kids who’d screwed up before being sent there. I watched them and saw who was getting ahead and who was fighting the system and getting nowhere.

“My real awakening was when I realized I actually didn’t mind the stuff we were supposed to do. I’d been reacting to it negatively more out of misconceived pride than anything else. But there was nothing they asked of us that didn’t make good sense. We had to keep our kit in good shape. We did calisthenics and unit drills. We cleaned our living space for inspection and kept it looking perfect at all times. They were teaching us discipline—self-discipline—and I’d never had that before. The strange thing was, once I started to embrace it, once I got over thinking I was something special and decided to try to get with the program, once I decided to try to fit in so as to make my life a little easier, all of a sudden I did fit in and things began making sense, and to my surprise, I started to be proud of doing the things they asked of me.

“It took awhile, and it was painful at first, but when I changed my attitude, for the first time I had a real purpose in everything I did every day. It’s hard there, and it’s exacting, and I’ve grown to love it. I go back to their summer camp next week. If I do as well as I’m hoping to, I think I have a chance of becoming an officer next year.”

“So you’ll be a leader again, just like you were here?” Andy asked.

“No, not like here. A leader, yes, but the leaders there don’t lead others as a way to get what they want for themselves. They lead for the good of the unit. I can do that. I want to do that. I want to help the kids under me to be better than they are. It’ll make me feel I’m making up just a little for what I did here. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happened here. A lot of time to regret it.”

Ren shook his head. “Talk about changing. Well, thanks for talking to us. I was a little scared, seeing you walk up. I guess I don’t have to worry about you any longer.”

“No, you don’t. Neither of you do.” He shifted on his bale, and again straightened his back, then sought out both of their gazes. “Look, I realize that accepting what I’ve said at face value is difficult for you. You have no reason to believe anything I say. So I guess I’m saying this more for me than you, just to know I’ve tried to explain. And I wanted to say that I’m really sorry for what I did, to you and to everyone.”

They saw little of Hec the rest of the week he was at the ranch. He paid a visit to each of the houses and spoke to the parents and boys at each house. Other than that and one ride he took on his horse alone, he remained inside the Hanson House. Cal told the boys he was spending a lot of time patching things up with his mother.

> 3 <

With Hec again gone from the ranch, Cal was spending more and more time with Julia. It had begun when he and Ren had started eating dinner with Julia more often. Andy had begun attending those dinners as well. Then Cal had begun going over the ranch’s books, and he began spending time at night with Julia, explaining and talking about what he was finding.

It wasn’t surprising to Ren when, a couple of months later, Cal called him and Andy into the kitchen for a meeting.

“Boys,” he said, sounding nervous.

“Yeah, Dad,” said Ren. Andy was watching.

“What would you think if I asked Julia to marry me?”

Ren smiled. Andy did, too. Then Ren said, “I’d say you’re wasting your time talking to us. She’s the one to talk to about it.”

“Yeah, but I’m nervous. What if she says no? I’m just a cowboy, and she’s a ranch owner. And I wanted your opinion, too, if you’d be upset or anything.”

“First, I’d be delighted. Second, you’re just a cowboy who has a college degree and a great deal of responsibility with lots of men and cows under him. Besides which,” and Ren caught his dad’s eyes and held them, “she loves you.”

“Huh? Why do you think that?”

“Because Amelia told me so. She said—” and here Ren adopted a tone of voice and accent that was distinctively Amelia “‘—that girl loves him, and you’d better get that man movin’ fast-like ’cause that girl, she ain’t gonna wait forever. No sir.’ I don’t know how she came up with that ‘loves him’ part, but that’s what she said.”

Cal stood up. “Well, that’s that, then. See you later, boys. I’m going calling.”

> 4 <

The wedding was planned for June. Julia had always wanted to be a June bride, and so it was to be. Cal was so happy that he had no problem at all going along with whatever Julia wanted. A June wedding was fine with him. The waiting for June to arrive wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t as if it was a hardship. He and Ren had already moved into the Hanson House.

Andy had, too. No one batted an eye. This was the New Millennium.

Julia had been busy with all the women on the ranch, planning every detail. Everyone would attend. The wedding would be held on the lawn behind the Hanson House, the same lawn on which the ranch had almost been lost not long before. Julia was hoping that that incident would rapidly be forgotten in the excitement and joy of the upcoming nuptials.

The women had all wanted to pitch in and do the cooking for the reception, make the cake and all, but Julia had said she wanted them to enjoy the festivities, not work themselves to death, and she had hired caterers.

Julia had sent invitations to some of the people she’d known earlier in her life, too, but the ranch was so isolated and difficult to reach that very few of them were coming. A state representative from the ranch’s district would be there, the sheriff of the county was attending, and Fred Turner, who convinced Julia that as long as he was there they should have a board meeting, too, said he wouldn’t miss it for the world.

The person who wouldn’t be coming was Hec. Julia had invited him as a formality, knowing he couldn’t make it. She told Cal that when they spoke on the phone, Hec had sounded very sorry and apologized to her in his new, much lower voice; he sounded even more mature than he had during his visit to the ranch. He said he wished he could be there for her and that Cal seemed perfect for her, and he knew they’d be happy. He even said he was sure that with Cal as her partner, the ranch would be in good hands.

But, he said, “I’m at camp, and I have to be here if I want to get ahead next year. It’s really hard here, physically and mentally, but I’m in the middle of everything, and I love it. The ranch will always be my home, my anchor, but what I’m doing right now, it’s building me into someone I want to be. I simply can’t leave my mates for the wedding.”

Cal was a little disappointed the honeymoon would be delayed by the board meeting, but that should be short and sweet and it would be good to get it over with. Then the two of them could have two weeks in Hawaii. They’d already made reservations.

The wedding was beautiful. Julia looked stunning in her white gown. Lavina Rivera, age 7, was the flower girl and blushed all the way down the aisle scattering rose petals. Ren and Andy were the two best men. Yes, two. Ren wouldn't accept the honor without Andy by his side, and Cal didn’t care how many best men there were as long as Ren was there for him.

The reception went on till the wee hours of the morning. Both Ren and Andy gave the toast, standing together, each saying a few interspersed lines. It was filled with humor and love, and Cal shook hands with them, and Julia kissed them both afterwards.

Cal was eager to be off on their drive to the airport. Only the board meeting the next day was keeping them there.

> 5 <

Cal was hungover and groggy when he came into the meeting the next morning, but the smile on his face appeared to be permanent. The meeting was occurring in the dining room, which was to be the temporary boardroom for the occasion.

Fred Turner was already sitting at the table, a cup of coffee in front of him. Julia came in with Cal, and both Ren and Andy followed. Moses brought coffee and set cups by Julia’s and Cal’s places, then started out the door. He was stopped by Fred Turner.

“Moses, would you please stay? Someone might need more coffee or perhaps something to nibble on.”

“Yes, of course, Mr. Turner.” Moses looked around, then took an empty chair from the table, set it by the door, and silently settled on it.

Cal pulled out Julia’s chair for her.

“You don’t mind if Cal and the boys join us, do you, Fred?” Julia asked. She seemed to echo Cal’s smile. Her eyes kept drifting to his.

“Of course not, Julia. I’m so happy for the two of you. About time you were married. I think we can make this meeting rather short, but we are required by the bylaws of the corporation to hold two board meetings a year, one of which is open to shareholders, and as I’m getting older and getting here is becoming more of a chore, it just made sense…” He stopped and smiled, then slid an agenda across the table to Julia.

There was a pause, and then he asked, “OK, I guess we’re all ready. So, let’s begin. I’ve notified all stockholders of record of this meeting. All whose addresses are registered are present except for Hec, who I understand is out of state and not available. I’m sorry he couldn’t be here, Julia. Do you have his proxy, in writing, as required by our bylaws?”

Julia shook her head. Cal noticed the expression on Fred Turner’s slightly relax at Julia’s response. He laid his hand over hers on the table.

“So then, we’ll proceed. Any old business?” Fred didn’t wait more than a second for an answer, merely continued, saying, “New business? No? Well, I have some new business to bring up. It’s listed on your agenda as Other Business to be Brought Before the Board and Stockholders. I’m afraid you might be upset, even angry, but with time you’ll realize it’s the right decision. I’ve sold the ranch.”

Everyone in the room was so stunned with that announcement that it was followed by dead silence. Then Julia said, “You can’t do that!”

“Well, technically, no, I can’t,” Fred said, smiling. “The sale has to be approved by the board. But that’s what we’re here for today. I move that the sale of the ranch I’ve negotiated be accepted. I vote yea.”

Julia opened her mouth, and Cal squeezed her hand, then shook his head when she glanced at him.

“Fred,” Cal said, “I assume you know what you’re doing. You appear too smug to be winging this. Just so you know, however, I’ve been going over the books. I’ve found some irregularities Julia and I want to discuss with you today. We were going to do so after the meeting, but now will work just as well. The profit the ranch has made this year and the last part of last year has been significantly reduced, and there’s been a draw on the reserve. The reason for this seems to be two line items, one titled ‘Legal services beyond regular compensation,’ the other ‘Administrative Wage schedule’.”

Cal was watching Fred, looking for signs of worry. He saw none. Fred simply looked back at him, smiling as usual.

Cal didn’t care for that, but plowed ahead. “I see you’ve been getting paid for your employment by the ranch at over $250,000 a year, and that salary has risen sharply due to raises you’ve given yourself each of the past four years. I’ve asked Julia and she knows nothing about your salary increases nor has she approved them. Now, on top of that, you’ve been taking more money for services every month for which there has been no explanation. And again, Julia has not been informed of any of this, whereas both good business practice and your corporation’s bylaws say she must be.”

Fred responded, not looking the least bit flustered. “Those items were in the profit-and-loss statements furnished to Julia. She never questioned them, and I took that as her tacit approval.”

“Yes, you’re correct in saying the results of your decisions were furnished in the income statement. However, I took it upon myself to read both your contract with the ranch and the incorporation papers. Any and all decisions significantly affecting the finances of the ranch are to be communicated to the board. I’ve looked at the board meeting minutes and at your communications with Julia. These matters were never communicated to her.”

Fred was still smiling. He didn’t respond, just sat looking at Cal.

Cal continued. “What this means is you’ve taken something over $500,000 from the ranch that you aren’t entitled to. We want the money back.”

Fred shook his head and finally spoke. “Of course you’re mistaken. And of course I deny everything you said. If you wish to pursue it, in my legal opinion it will eventually have to come before a court. Exactly which court will be tricky as the ranch is in Texas and my business dealings are in California. But venue will be hassled out and—here’s that word again—eventually go before a court if you wish. Not right away, of course. These things always take time to work out, and compromises are often negotiated.

“However, all that messiness is in the future and nothing you’ve said affects the business at hand that’s being settled today. Right now, the matter of the sale of the ranch is being voted on. Only stock holders can vote, and even that is restricted to those present at board meetings.”

Julia looked bewildered. Fred continued.

“Now, for the record, I hold forty-seven percent of the corporation’s stock. Julia and Hec together hold fifty percent. It was arranged that way so the family always would have control. But Julia alone holds only forty-five percent, with Hec having the other five percent. Unfortunately, as he’s not here and hasn’t sent in a proxy giving Julia the right to vote his stock, this means, for the vote we’re taking today, I have more votes than Julia does. I voted and repeat my vote of yea. What say you, Julia?”

The smile he’d been wearing remained in place. Ren saw in the man’s eyes what he’d seen when he’d met him before. There was no hint of a smile in them.

Before Julia could say anything, Fred jumped in again. “I should say, of course, that with the sale of the ranch, as I own forty-seven percent of it, I will take forty-seven percent of the sale price. Several million dollars. But you’ll get almost as much as I will. Certainly enough money to live most anywhere you like. It’ll have to be somewhere else, of course, as this house is owned by the corporation, not by you.

“Hec will get his five percent share, which should help him get his life back together after the troubles he’s had here.” He stopped for a moment. Julia opened her mouth, and Cal touched her hand and shook his head, allowing Fred to continue.

“Unfortunately, as the buyer I’ve found is a corporation with its own employees and different ways of running a ranch than yours, I guess your employees will all have to look elsewhere for employment, and that’s really too bad, but it’s not really my concern.”

Julia was looking at Cal, and Cal was looking disturbed. He’d counted on Fred’s legal difficulties to have more of an effect on the man. Now, he could see what Fred was planning: a quick sale, lots of cash, and a quick departure from the United States to lands unknown.

Into the silence that was growing longer, Ren spoke. His voice was tentative, but still he spoke. “Those numbers you gave don’t add up, Mr. Turner. You said forty-seven and forty-five and five. That’s ninety-seven. Where is the other three percent?”

“Frankly, I have no idea.” Mr. Turner stopped for a sip of coffee, then made a face. “This is cold. Moses?”

Moses got a fresh cup for him, and Mr. Turner, after taking a sip, continued. “When Mr. Hanson divided the stock, he kept three percent out for what he claimed were personal reasons—to be distributed to friends he never named. But it doesn’t matter at all right now. Three percent of the final sale price of the ranch will go into escrow, and if the people who received those shares ever come forward, the money will be waiting for them. I assume he gave the stock out to people he’d known in the past, a bit here and there, but no one’s ever come forward and let anyone know about it.”

Ren nodded. “Thanks, Mr. Turner. Uh, Dad?”

Cal turned to him.

“Dad, can we take a break? This is all confusing, and it sounds awful, and upsetting, and, well, I’m scared. Can we take five minutes?”

Cal turned to Fred. “We’d like a short break.”

“And I’d like to finish this vote.”

Cal, looking a bit stunned, said, his voice hardening, “After the break.”

Fred grimaced, but agreed. He sat in his place. The rest all left the room.

> 6 <

They walked into the kitchen. There, Ren had Moses and Amelia join them. Then he spoke to Cal and Julia.

“Do you know where the other three percent of the stock went?” he asked.

Julia shook her head. “It was a long time ago, and no one ever did know.”

“Well, I know.” Looking at the somber faces around him, he surprised them all by grinning. “It was given to Moses and Amelia. She has the certificate of shares put away, but it’s right here, up in her bedroom. She showed it to me. Neither one of them can read, and she wanted to know what it was.”

Julia’s eyes opened wide, but then, after a moment of thought, her excitement waned. She said, “But that doesn’t do us any good. She hasn’t been at the meeting, so she can’t vote.”

“No, but Moses has and can. He was sitting right there in the room, and the certificate said they were joint owners. So when you vote, he can, too. Assuming he doesn’t want the ranch to be sold.” Ren turned to Moses. “Do you want Mr. Turner to sell the ranch?”

Moses looked at Julia. “What I want is to do whatever Ms. Julia wants me to do.”

Cal was looking at Ren with disbelief. “You’re doing it again. You’re saving the ranch!”

Ren shook his head. “Let’s not tell anyone this time, OK? I don’t like how people treat me when they think I’m some sort of hero. It’s embarrassing. Anyway, it isn’t me doing it, it’s Amelia and Moses. They’re the heroes this time. I’m just the messenger.”

Cal stood up. “I guess it’s time to go vote. Oh, Amelia? Can you get that certificate. I’m sure we’ll need it.”

The group moved back to the meeting room and again sat at the table. Seeing no reason to telegraph the coming surprise, Moses resumed his chair by the door when they returned. With everyone seated, Fred opened the floor.

“I again vote yea on the sale of the ranch. How do you vote?” he asked, looking at Julia. “And just so you know, this voting is merely procedural. Voting ‘no’ will accomplish nothing, nor would abstaining. But, we should have the vote for the record. How say you?”

“I vote nay.” And then, having just thought of it, Julia added, “I also vote that your employment with the ranch is terminated immediately.”

Fred laughed and was about to speak when he was interrupted. “I vote the same way,” said Moses, speaking softly, and rising to his feet as he spoke.

“What? You can’t vote!”

“As a matter of fact, he can,” said Cal. “He and his wife own the missing three percent of the shares in the company, and added to Julia’s forty-five percent, they outvote you. Amelia is upstairs getting the share certificate right now to confirm this.”

“But, but…” Fred was sputtering. Then he looked at Moses and said, “I have a buyer for the ranch. He’s paying thirty-five million dollars for the land, buildings and stock. Three percent of that is something over a million dollars. You’ll be a millionaire! Vote yes and you’ll be a rich man!”

Moses smiled at him. “I already am. I live in a house with people I love. They show me respect, and I guess you could say love, too. What would I want with all that money?”

Fred looked at him as though he was crazy.

Cal stood up. “You’re guilty of fraud and misrepresentation and misappropriation of funds at the very least. Probably other things as well. The sheriff is still here. He had a late night, like all of us, and stayed to sleep it off. You’d better stay right here while I go get him. The legalities of this are way over my head, but he’s a good man to start talking to about this. I know you owe the ranch a whole lot of money and will probably spend some time in a jail cell. Maybe a lot.”

Fred got up. His face was white. He began to walk toward the door, but Cal moved to intercept him. “Ren,” he said, “would you go see if the sheriff is up yet? Tell him we need him here—now.”

> – Epilogue – <

Ernie hit the ball sharply on the ground to the left side of the infield. Izzy, playing shortstop, scooped it up cleanly and threw a perfect waist-high strike to Ren running to cover second. It was the perfect start of a double play that would retire the side.

Ren bobbled and dropped the ball.

“Darn it, Ren,” Gus said, jogging from the pitcher’s mound to where Ren stood at second base. “How many times do I have to tell you? Any ball coming to you above the waist, catch it with the fingers of your mitt pointing up and your elbow pointing at the ground. Any ball coming to you below your waist, the fingers of your glove should be pointing down. You tried to catch Izzy’s throw like the ball was above your waist, and of course the ball just hit the heel of your glove and skipped out. When are you going to learn?”

“I’m not very good at this,” Ren said. He said it looking at Gus, however, not dropping his eyes bashfully. Those days were now in the past.

“Fuck that, you’re just as capable as any of us, you just have to use the proper fundamentals. It comes with practice, and you haven’t been playing long. You’re getting better every game. Just keep trying.”

“I’ll do that,” Ren said.

Gus stared at him a moment. “Yes, you will. I know that! And you will get better, too.” He patted Ren on the shoulder, then returned to the mound.

JJ had come over, saying, “Damn it, I’m up first next inning, and that should be three outs. Mom wants me home by three, and I might not have time to bat now. Catch the damn ball, Ren!”

Ren looked down on him—JJ was one of the few kids shorter than Ren; JJ was growing, but so was Ren, keeping pace with him—and he tried to keep from smiling. “Next game you can bat for me every time. How’s that?”

JJ’s face lit up in a huge smile. “Great, Ren! Thanks!” He trotted back to his third-base position.

From the outfield came Rocky’s voice. “Trade places with the water boy, Ren. You’d be better at that. Maybe.”

Ren shouted back at him. “You know why you get stuck in the outfield? Because you’re too ugly to play in close where everyone else would have to look at you!”

Rocky laughed. “Good one, Ren,” he called back.

Ren looked at them all, and a huge smile formed on his lips. He was one of them. He knew each one, knew their personalities, and amazingly, could react to them in ways he’d never have been able to less than a year before with kids in Jackson he’d known his whole life.

It had taken them awhile, but the ranch kids were yelling at him again, whining at him and teasing him, and it was apparent he was no longer their hero. They had finally stopped treating him like that. He was now simply Ren, another kid like any of them. Just another kid in a community of kids. A kid everyone liked. Ren’s smile seemed stuck on his face, not to go away anytime soon.

He moved back to his position between first and second, crouched a little, and smacked his fist in his glove. “Let’s get this guy out, Gus,” he shouted, glancing at Andy standing in the batter’s box. “He couldn’t hit a beach ball with a tennis racket.” He moved back a step, Gus toed the rubber, and the game resumed.

The End

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