AUTHOR: CHERYL HEADFORD
PUBLISHER: WAYWARD INK PUBLISHING
GENRE(S): GAY YA, GAY YOUNG ADULT, GAY CONTEMPORARY, GAY ROMANCE
Shade has been kept in the dark for eight long years. Now he’s facing a world that terrifies him. A world that seems to hold no place for him.
When the authorities are unable to find a home for Shade, Penny, reluctantly accepts him into the secure school she manages, despite thinking it’s the wrong place for him. Penny fears for his safety among the other troubled children. In an attempt to forestall the disaster she predicts will happen she appoints one of them as his champion.
Dory, an engaging seventeen year old with mental health issues, is proud to be chosen as Shade’s champion and throws his heart and soul into the job. In doing so he is forced to face the thing he fears most – his own emotions.
An unexpected friendship begins to grow into something more, until a spiteful act tears them apart and leaves them broken.
When Dory falls ill, Shade is forced to face his demons and struggles to find the strength and courage he needs to fight for the right to love, and to be there for his champion when he needs him most.
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“YOU CAN’T be serious. No. It’s out of the question.”
“Penny, you’re our last option. The hospital won’t keep him any longer. They can’t. His own family don’t want him, and no foster family will take him. He can’t go to a children’s home because he’s such a high risk. Frankly, I have no idea what to do with him.”
“But this is a secure unit, and that kid’s done nothing wrong to anyone but himself. Do you have any idea what kind of kids we have here? We can’t watch him all the time, and half the little bastards would be queuing up to hand him the razor blades.”
“What else can we do? He’s stable enough for the psychiatric unit to discharge him, but he can’t live alone, and no one else wants him. We’re out of options.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I feel for the kid. He’s in an impossible situation, but we’re just not set up to handle someone like him. Are you sure he wouldn’t be better in a care home or psychiatric unit?”
“Honestly? I believe that’s where he’s likely to end up, but the kid’s sixteen and has been through the most horrific experience. He deserves a chance.”
“And you think he’s going to get it here?”
Penelope Creedy, Penny to her friends, struggled and failed to keep the incredulity out of her voice. It was obvious the social worker was new; she hadn’t had the idealistic desire to help everyone beaten out of her by “the system”.
“No, no I don’t, not really, but the poor thing has to go somewhere.”
“I don’t understand why he can’t go to Hillcrest or Maes Y Ffynnon.”
“They won’t take him. It’s too much responsibility for them, and they can’t give him a high enough level of care.”
“Care? We don’t provide care to our kids, Donna. We provide food and shelter and locked rooms. If we’re lucky we get them to study now and again, and a couple even go to school. Most of them are under psychiatrists and headed straight for prison. Occasionally, we see one of them turn around, but mostly we’re marking time until they can be unleashed on society and start committing their crimes.”
“That’s a very bleak view.” The social worker had a hint of censure in her voice, which made Penny defensive. Damn those idealistic idiots with their rose-coloured views.
She snapped back, “This is a very bleak place.”
“No bleaker than his last.” The comeback was soft and sincere and made Penny feel vaguely guilty. She sighed and closed the folder that lay open on the desk in front of her. She ran her finger over the name on the cover and sighed again. “It’s one prison for another, Donna. Is that really what he needs?”
“A prison he can handle, Penny. It’s freedom that’s too much for him.”
Penny’s stomach flipped at her words. “Alright, we’ll give it a try. I’ll take him on a temporary basis, while you keep working to find a family. I don’t want you slacking off, thinking he’s going to be settled here. You’re to work hard at it. He’s here for three months, tops.”
“I’ll see what I can do. I promise.”
The relief and triumph in her voice made Penny’s stomach flip again. It was all very well and good being an idealistic social worker, but that did the kids no good at all once the front gates closed on them. To think of an innocent in the middle of all this….
“I’ll bring him right over.”
“But I’ve nothing prepared.”
“He doesn’t need much. We’re holding just about everything he owns in the world in two suitcases his family dropped off at our offices.”
“Why would they do that? Why would any family abandon a child like that? Especially one who needs them so badly?”
“Nine years is a long time. A child goes away and a man comes back, good as. They did their best, but when he started hitting out, then with the suicide attempt. They have other children, young ones. He was being… inappropriate.”
“And that’s a good enough reason? Your child cries out for help, and you send him away?”
“I’m not pretending to understand. I’m left to deal with the fallout.”
“No, Donna, I am.”
“And I can’t thank you enough. I’m sure Shade will be grateful, too.”
“I’m sure he won’t. Is Shade what we’re to call him?” Penny couldn’t help but groan inside. With a name like that he was going to be in for some stick with her lot. As if he didn’t have enough to make him a target.
“Given the alternative I think so, yes.” Now it was Donna’s turn to sound incredulous.
“I’m not too sure about that either. He hasn’t been Shade for a long time.”
“I’m glad you understand.”
“Not enough. Not nearly enough.”
As soon as she put the phone down, Penny called for her assistant. Within moments Richard appeared in the doorway.
“You called, Milady.”
“Can you have the staff make up a bed? We’ve got a new inmate.”
“Tut tut. You know the lingo. We don’t have inmates, we have residents, just like all the other children’s homes who have trips and outings and sing songs in the evenings.”
“Whatever.” Penny grinned at her assistant. Richard grinned back, his blue eyes twinkling, crinkling in the corners. With his bright red hair and rough beard he looked boyish and playful, but he was her rock.
“So how come we’re getting a new one at such short notice? What’s he done?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Penny sighed and tapped the folder absently. She opened it again and stared at the photograph.
“He looks like an angel,” Richard said, glancing over her shoulder. “Can I take it his looks are deceptive?”
“Not as far as I know.”
Richard looked down at her with a frown. “Are you seriously telling me they’re sending a nice kid here? Here?”
“That’s what I’m telling you, yes.”
“What’s his story?”
“It’s complicated and not pretty.”
“I’ll get Betty to sort out the room, and another place at the table, then I’ll make some coffee and you can horrify me with it.”
“Don’t joke, Richard. I might well do with this one.”
Richard frowned and raised his eyebrows, then disappeared, leaving Penny still staring at the photograph.
The boy looked younger than sixteen. He was staring past the camera, his eyes vacant but haunted. Raven black hair hung in waves to his shoulders, and although he was very pale, his skin had a tone that looked like it might have been swarthy if it had some sunlight. This, with his general features, made her wonder if he had Spanish ancestry. It must have been way back, though, because his eyes were light: a very striking honey colour. She knew he’d seen precious little sunshine in the last nine years, and it showed. He looked ill and very sad.
Despite the vacant expression in his eyes there was something about him that made Penny think that, in other circumstances, he could have been a bright boy, doing well at school, with friends and family and a future. Five minutes’ inattention had stolen it all and left behind… something.
She looked up and smiled. There were seven children in residence at the moment, eight with Shade. Their full capacity was ten. Ages ranged from eleven to sixteen and they were all troubled children. Some had behavioural problems, some mental health issues. All of them had been expelled from mainstream schools and had been in trouble for years. Some of them were evil little buggers, but this one was as good as they got.
“Hi, Dory. What can I do for you?”
“Rich says we’ve got a new inmate.”
“Resident, Dory. Not inmate.”
The boy shrugged. “It’s a prison, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s a residential children’s home and a school.”
“So I can leave, then? Take the bus home? Oops, forgot, I don’t have a home.”
“Yes you do. This is it.”
Dorian gave her his wide, innocent smile. In many ways Dorian was an engaging child, well not really a child anymore. At almost seventeen he was the oldest. Generally, he was sweet, helpful, and bright. However, he had mental health issues, and sometimes he exploded in outbursts of uncontrollable anger when he would strike out at anyone or anything near to hand. Having injured a child and teacher at his last school, he’d narrowly missed a prison sentence and had been sent here. Lucky boy.
On a good day, Dorien brought the place to life. On a bad day, there were sedatives ready in syringes in the locked fridge. Fortunately, bad days were happening less and less, but still often enough to make Dorien dangerous. They were all hopeful, however, the new medication his doctors were trying would stabilize him permanently. They’d thought that before.
“If you want to be useful go help Betty get a room ready.”
“The one next to yours.”
“Oh shit. Is he that bad?”
“You know we don’t talk about that, Dory. If he wants to tell you his story, he will.”
“How old is he?”
“Woohoo, I finally get someone my own age to make friends with. The kids are okay but… well, no, they’re not. They’re a load of shits. I hope this one won’t be.”
On a sudden impulse Penny said, “Come here a minute, Dory. I want to show you something.”
“Ooh, er, Missus.”
“I’m being serious, Dory. I want you to help with the new boy.”
“Awesome. You know me, always ready to help.”
“Sure. Here.” She picked up the photograph and handed it to Dory. He gave a low whistle and frowned.
Looking up, he met Penny’s eyes. “Are you sure? I can’t promise he’ll be safe.”
“He’s very pretty. The others are all going to want a piece of him, one way or another.”
“That’s what bothers me. The thing is… this one will probably let them, and that bothers me a lot.”
Dorien’s eyes widened. “Let them?”
“He’s very vulnerable, Dory, and I can’t watch him every minute. He needs a champion.”
“Me? You want me to be a champion?” He shook his head. “I can’t do that. I can’t be trusted.”
There was a look close to panic in his eyes, and it hurt Penny to see it.
“I’m not giving you any responsibility, Dory, don’t worry. I just want you to be my eyes when I’m not there. You don’t have to fight for him, you just have to let me know if there’s trouble.”
“Why can’t he?”
Penny sighed. There was an absolute rule that histories weren’t shared by staff. If the child wanted to talk about their past so be it, but no one else would. On the other hand, Dory would find out soon enough, and by then it could be too late.
“I don’t think he can, Dory. He doesn’t talk very much and he’s not…. He’s on quite a lot of medication, more than you, and he’s been, well, away from the world for a long time. He can’t read or write, and he has no idea about things like television shows, computers, up-to-date technology.”
“Oh shit,” Dorien said, and Penny saw the calculation in his eyes, running through the trouble the boy was going to get into and with whom. “Why is someone like that coming here? They’re going to tear him apart.”
“I think he can hold his own in a fight, if he wants to.”
“But he doesn’t want to?”
“Something like that. So, will you do it? Will you keep an eye on him for me?”
Dorien shrugged. “Sure, if you won’t hold me responsible when they fuck him over.”
“Watch your language, Dorien.”
“What? Everyone says fuck.”
“Not when I can hear it.”
“Whatever. Do we get something nice for dinner, just as a welcome, you know?”
“You always have nice dinners.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Dorien treated her to another of his bright smiles which lit up his lively blue eyes. With his messy blond locks, he looked like an angel but certainly didn’t act like one. She tried very hard not to have favourites among the children, but it was impossible not to like Dorien. Although she wouldn’t admit it to anyone, Penny had always had a soft spot for him, and it hurt her when he had an episode.
“Hey you.” Richard ruffled Dorien’s hair as he passed. “What trouble are you getting into now?”
“None. I’m being a champion. A champion-in-training, at least.”
“Oh really? There you go then.”
Dorien grinned at him and scampered off.
“I may have made a huge mistake,” Penny said, staring after him and suddenly realising how much he’d grown lately.
“In what way?”
“I asked Dory to keep an eye on the new boy.”
“And how is that a mistake?”
“Let’s hope it isn’t.”
“So,” Richard said, sitting down, “what’s the story with the new boy?”
“It’s a tricky one.”
“Okay, well let’s start with something simple, like his name.”
“What makes you think that’s simple?”
Richard raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t it?”
“Which name do you want?”
“How many does he have?”
Penny unconsciously stroked the folder of notes. “Two. The one he was given and the one he answers to.”
“So… the one he was given?”
Richard raised his eyebrows, and Penny knew he was, as she had, going through all the ways the kids would find to torture him for that. “Well, that’s going to go down like a lead brick.” Scanning her eyes, he said timidly, “I have a feeling I’m not going to like this, but go ahead. The one he answers to?”
Penny paused, then raised her eyes to meet Richard’s. “Slave,” she said.
Richard’s eyes widened. “Oh shit.”
For a moment they sat in silence. Penny pretended to read the folder, not really seeing the words, while Richard pinched his lip and frowned.
“Okay, what’s his story? The short version, please.”
“Short version? Let’s see. He disappeared from a shopping centre nine years ago, when he was seven. Six months back police investigating a paedophile ring found him in a cellar. It looks like he’d been there for a very long time, being used by the man who snatched him, and anyone else the guy pleased.”
“Oh, sweet Jesus.”
“It didn’t take his family long to realise he wasn’t the boy who left them, and they didn’t like the one that came back. He was well trained and responds instantly to orders, although he has trouble processing requests. He can’t handle kindness and he…. Put it this way, when he tried to show his stepfather gratitude, he ended up in casualty. Shortly after, his parents dropped off two suitcases bearing everything he owns.”
“Double sweet Jesus. What’s he doing here? Why isn’t he in Hillcrest, or—?”
“Before he had the chance to leave the hospital, after the beating his stepfather gave him, he got hold of a scalpel and opened his wrists. If he’d been anywhere but the hospital he’d have bled to death.”
“Oh God, no.”
“Oh, it gets worse.”
“He was transferred to the psych ward, and for the first three days he was restrained and drugged senseless. Three hours after they released the straps they found him in the bathroom, bleeding out. He’d torn out the stitches in his wrists with his teeth.”
“He was serious about it then.”
“Oh yes. After the second attempt, he was transferred to a secure unit in a psychiatric hospital and given one drug after another until they found one that at least stopped him actively trying to kill himself every time they took their eyes off him. He won’t talk, so therapy’s next to useless, although he’s still to see a shrink daily, at least for a couple of weeks. He’s stable, so the hospital wants rid of him, and no one else will take him. He needs careful watching, and we’re the only ones prepared to take him.”
Richard was sitting up in his chair now. “Are we prepared to take him?”
“No, but what could I do? I’ve given Social Services three months to find him another placement.”
“Three months is a long time, Pen, especially amongst this lot.”
“God, don’t I know it.” She shook her head. “One of my main worries is that he’s incredibly vulnerable. He barely speaks, can’t read or write, has had no experience of technology, and is completely out of his depth in any kind of social situation.”
“Oh, he’ll have fun here then.”
“That’s not even my biggest concern, neither is the fact that he needs direction for everything. What really worries me is that he’s sexually promiscuous. Understandable from his experiences over the last nine years. He has no sexual boundaries at all with men. He doesn’t show any interest in women at all.”
“And you’ve given him to Dory?” Richard’s eyes popped wide.
“I haven’t ‘given’ him to Dory. I’ve asked Dory to keep an eye on him.”
“Knowing Dory, he’ll keep more than an eye on him.”
“No. Dory’s a sucker for the helpless. He won’t take advantage, and he won’t let anyone else do it either.”
“Are you sure?”
“No, but we don’t have much choice.” Penny shuffled together the papers she’d unconsciously spread over her desk and slid them back into the folder. She held up the photograph again for a moment. The haunted eyes caught and held her.
“My thoughts exactly.”
ABOUT CHERYL HEADFORD
CHERYL HEADFORD was born into a poor mining family in the South Wales Valleys. Until she was 16, the toilet was at the bottom of the garden and the bath hung on the wall. Her refrigerator was a stone slab in the pantry and there was a black lead fireplace in the kitchen. They look lovely in a museum but aren’t so much fun to clean.
Cheryl has always been a storyteller. As a child, she’d make up stories for her nieces, nephews and cousin and they’d explore the imaginary worlds she created, in play.
Later in life, Cheryl became the storyteller for a re-enactment group who traveled widely, giving a taste of life in the Iron Age. As well as having an opportunity to run around hitting people with a sword, she had an opportunity to tell stories of all kinds, sometimes of her own making, to all kinds of people. The criticism was sometimes harsh, especially from the children, but the reward enormous.
It was here she began to appreciate the power of stories and the primal need to hear them. In ancient times, the wandering bard was the only source of news, and the storyteller the heart of the village, keeping the lore and the magic alive. Although much of the magic has been lost, the stories still provide a link to the part of us that still wants to believe that it’s still there, somewhere.
In present times, Cheryl lives in a terraced house in the valleys with her son and her two cats. Her daughter has deserted her for the big city, but they’re still close. The part of her that needs to earn money is a lawyer, but the deepest, and most important part of her is a storyteller and artist, and always will be.
CHERYL HEADFORD can be found at:
- Website: http://cherylheadford.com/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cheryl.headford
- Twitter: @SevenPointStar