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Gom Marsh liked knowing that the work he did as an undercover cop, enrolling into high schools to assist the staff in cases of extreme bullying, made a difference. It was rewarding, but often heartbreaking, work. When a new man, Casey Tanner, comes into his life, his heart is immediately engaged. Is he about to find the happiness he’s always longed for? He’s excited by the possibilities, but Casey doesn’t like to be touched. That could be a problem. These two young men’s lives become as intricately entwined as the cases that Gom finds himself involved in throughout the story.
Gom Marsh was resting in his room at Scarcity Sanctuary when he heard a soft knock at the door.
“Come in,” he said, rolling over and facing the door.
Soldier stood there and Gom smiled when he saw him. Soldier always made him smile. The man was everything to Gom, from the time he was eight years old and was a very broken child. Soldier and Dillon had, with love and compassion, put him back together, made him feel safe and healed him. Now, at twenty-two, he still got the same warm feeling when he was with his dad. Soldier had adopted Gom and Tommy, another boy who’d been living with Dillon when Soldier first came to them. Soldier loved all the boys, but there had been something special about his feelings for he and Tommy and he took the name Marsh with pride.
“Hey, Dad. What’s up?”
“Casey’s back,” Soldier said, with a slight frown. Gom’s heart raced at the mention of Casey’s name.
“Is Trick here? I didn’t see him when I came in.” Gom was already up and heading to the door. He’d only been lying down for a few minutes. It had been a long day and he was gearing up for the evening. He had to be back at Willington High for a ballgame.
“Trick’s been in the gym for almost an hour. It’s time to pull him out before he works himself to death. That boy is determined to bulk up like Randy. At least he’s eating more now,” Soldier said, as they walked together toward the stairs, heading down to the main floor.
Gom’s heart thudded as he got closer. He didn’t question it anymore. For some reason, any time he even thought about Casey Tanner, his heart rate increased and his breathing slowed. It was a strange effect, like he was trying to make himself stay calm, when there wasn’t any reason to be, not calm. Was there? This was only the third time he’d seen the man. Gom had been there when Casey came to ask if he could bring a kid to them who was living on the street and again when he showed up with Trick.
Both times, Gom had left the details to Soldier and Dillon and he’d quietly and avidly studied Casey Tanner. The man had this hair that Gom was dying to touch. It was long and wavy, not curly, but it was thick and lay in rolling waves down past his shoulders. Casey’d worn it down when he’d been here and Gom had been intrigued with getting his hands into it. Casey’s eyes were what Gom called Husky blue, a light blue that reminded him of the eyes of a Husky dog. With that blond hair, and his obviously naturally-dark skin, the effect was stunning, to Gom at least.
Gom had also done a serious study of Casey’s body. He wasn’t very tall, which was a plus since Gom was a small man, too. Most men towered over him. Casey had a thin body that looked like it had been honed by hard knocks. He looked weathered, like a much older man, though Gom believed that Casey was near his age, maybe a little older. Despite his small size, Casey gave off the vibe of being able to take care of himself. His shoulders were much wider than his hips, giving him a very sexy shape. Gom could easily see himself being held in those arms and pressed against that chest.
One thing that really held his interest was Casey’s hands. They were fairly large with long thin fingers. He wanted to hold hands with Casey Tanner. Just the thought of the simple gesture had him kind of freaked out. Besides, there was that mark on Casey’s left hand right below the bottom knuckle of his thumb, between it and his simple black Timex watch. At first Gom had thought it was just a bit of dirt or something slashed across his hand, but it was always there, making him think it might be a birthmark or maybe a tattoo. It was a long thin line with what looked like dots or letters, but it was so small that Gom hadn’t been able to make it out. That’s a goal, he thought. Find out what that was on Casey’s hand.
Casey was standing by the door, as usual, waiting for them to approach. He looked like he was two seconds from bolting, but his gaze was determined, as if he would not allow his instincts to take over. He was in control. It was clear to Gom that it was a matter of pride for Casey that he faced what came without letting his uneasiness show. He wondered what had made Casey so skittish around people.
“Hey, Casey,” Gom said, smiling, wondering if Casey ever did. Smile.
“Hey. Came by to check on Trick. He doing okay?” Casey hadn’t moved from the door.
Soldier went back to fixing supper for the crew that was staying here now and any of the regulars that would show up on any given night. Gom’s home was a facility called Scarcity Sanctuary that Soldier and Dillon managed together. To the many boys who had been through there, it was just home. When Gom first came here, it wasn’t quite the well-set-up situation it was now, but it had been a sanctuary nonetheless. There had been seven boys back then and despite coming from seven separate kinds of hell, they became a family.
Soldier and Dillon never knew when Bart, Jack, J, Randy, or even Tommy and Daniel, would stop by for a meal and to share their day’s news. Four of the original ones had left the house and were living on their own. Well, Jack, Bart, and Randy shared a house a few blocks over from here and J was living with his girlfriend right now. The family was expecting to hear that they were getting married anytime. Ben was still here, in college, and helping Daniel at the shelter when he wasn’t working in the theater department. The first seven stayed in close touch with each other and they heard, at one time or another, from most of the boys who’d been through here. Soldier and Dillon made a lasting impression on everyone they helped. It had to do with love, compassion, and respect; things that were new to the boys who showed up here with sometimes overwhelming needs.
Tommy and Daniel lived in the apartment that Soldier had originally built for himself in the other section of the sanctuary. Daniel Anderson ran the shelter that acted as a go-between with the social services system and kids who needed more than the normal foster care program provided. They were sickeningly happy and worked together in the social services area. Tommy was a counselor for troubled kids, and assisted Daniel at the shelter, often helping to set up boys who needed Soldier and Dillon’s expertise in helping those boys who had especially torturous pasts.
Gom answered Casey’s question, saying, “Yeah, man, Trick’s doing great. He’s going to school and the new start is helping. He’s safe here, Casey, thanks to you. Would you like to join us for supper, maybe see how well Trick has settled in here? We’d love to have you, huh, Soldier?” Gom turned to his dad, who was moving about the kitchen setting things out for one of their favorite meals. “It smells great in here. I love when you make tacos. There’s always plenty,” he said, looking back toward Casey, who looked like he was ready to book.
“Nah. I gotta go. Things to do, you know?” Casey started to leave.
“Casey,” Gom said, stepping closer and touching Casey’s arm near his shoulder, “please stay and eat with us. We’d love to have you. We never know who’s going to show up. It’s not really formal here and everyone’s welcome.”
Casey didn’t jerk away from Gom’s touch. It was more that he slid out from under it in a smooth gesture. “I don’t need anybody takin’ care of me. I just wanted to make sure Trick was doing better is all.” He seemed firm in his refusal. Just as he started to reach for the door, Trick came in from the hall and saw them.
“Casey, hey! Are you here for supper with us? Look, we’re having tacos. Soldier makes the best ones ever. I’m glad to see you.” Trick came over and in a surprising move, put his arms up and went to hug Casey, who stepped back quickly, leaving Trick with his arms up in an embarrassing gesture. The rejection showed clearly on Trick’s face and Gom was upset. That was the first time he’d ever seen Trick even act like he was going to hug someone and it had been instinctive.
“Sorry. I’m sorry,” Trick turned away. Gom was at a loss. He looked from an embarrassed and harried-looking Casey to a sad Trick to a pissed-off Soldier. Damn it! Casey’s gesture had probably set Trick back considerably. Being able to make a spontaneous move like Trick had came hard for the young man and it had been met with what Gom considered callous disregard, not something he found to be a good or caring thing, especially from a man that Gom was finding interesting. He was very disappointed.
Gom looked at Casey and tried not to let his feelings show as Soldier set about trying to get them all past the small scene that had taken a toll on Trick. Gom turned from Casey, afraid his face would show how disheartened he was by Casey’s move.
“Trick, help me chop the lettuce. I’ll do the onions. No crying in my kitchen, huh? Gom, you’re on dicing the tomatoes, and Casey, if you’re staying, you can get a bowl for the shredded cheese and open the black olives. Oh, and get out the sour cream and the guacamole. Let’s hop to, boys. This meat and the refried beans are almost ready. We’ve got tortillas, regular taco shells, and those bowl-shaped ones you like, Gom. They’re ready to come out of the oven, by the way. Here, Casey, take this and grab them before they burn.” Soldier handed Casey a potholder and pointed to the oven where there was a large tray of the bowl-shaped taco shells just getting brown.
Gom didn’t look to see if Casey did as requested. He got his tomatoes and started dicing. It took a lot. He was a little ticked at Casey for the way he’d hurt Trick. Would it have hurt him to accept the gesture from the younger boy, especially since it wasn’t something Trick did easily? Trick was seeing Tommy and making some headway in losing some of his isolationist behaviors and fears. Gom could see him really making an effort to fit in with the others at the place. There was no doubt in his mind that Soldier and Dillon, with Tommy and Daniel’s help, could help Trick become another success story. He kept working with his head down.
They had big bowls of each item that went into the delicious tacos. He heard the oven door open and out of the corner of his eye he saw Casey’s arm setting the shells and bowl-shaped tacos down on the trivets on the counter. He refused to smile at Soldier’s clever mind. Maybe Casey had realized what a mistake he’d made and the hurt he’d caused and was trying to make up for it, even though Gom knew he wouldn’t be comfortable working with them all in the kitchen. He got the impression that Casey didn’t play well with others.
“Thanks, Casey. Guac’s in the red bowl with the white top and sour cream’s on the door. I hope you like tacos and I hope you’re hungry. I’ve got enough meat here for the football team. Leftovers are fine, but it’s all better when it’s fresh. Good job on the lettuce, Trick, I like it chopped fine so it’s easier to eat in the tacos. Randy and J are coming tonight. J’s Beth is going out with some friends for supper so he’s going to pick Randy up at the gym and be over in a few minutes. Dillon should be back in time, too, but Daniel is working late at the shelter tonight. Tommy’s with him.”
Gom didn’t know where his other dad had been, but he was liable to show up with anything from another boy who needed them to a trunk full of food for them to help bring in. He finished with the big bowl of tomatoes and put it in line after Trick’s lettuce. The door opened behind them and Dillon came in with a big smile on his face and only one bag from the grocery.
“I know that grin,” Soldier said, “You’ve got something sweet in there.”
“Brownies, ice cream, hot fudge. Anybody up for dessert?” Dillon said, walking over to Soldier, giving him a quick kiss, and opening the freezer to put the ice cream away. Gom looked to Casey and saw his eyes quickly widen then he turned away to hide his expression. Gom couldn’t tell if it was disapproval or embarrassment.
“Oh, hi Casey. Good to see you again,” Dillon said. “Mmm, tacos. I can’t wait. You’re staying for supper, aren’t you?”
“I, uh, can’t. I need to go. I just, he told me to, uh, help and…” Casey trailed off, ending his explanation.
“Oh no, anyone who helps, eats. Join us for supper, Casey. You don’t have to worry, Trick and Ben have clean up duties tonight. Gom, show him where the plates are and you all can get the table set. I hear car doors so I bet the gang’s all here. Perfect timing, I like that.” Soldier just assumed his request would be met and swiveled around to turn off the stove, leaving the meaty mixture ready with a big spoon in it for dishing it up. He put the hot beans in a bowl and added it to the line on the counter, stood back, rearranging a couple of the bowls for a better order in the construction of the perfect taco.
J and Randy came in talking and Gom got two big hugs. The same was distributed to Dillon, Soldier and Trick. Ben and Niko showed up as if by magic to get in on the hugfest. They all looked at the new guy in the room.
“Hey, I’m Randy,” said the tall, muscular man when he saw Casey, “and this is J. I own a gym on State Street, the Work Out. Come by any time. J here teaches at Crafton and he’s missing his girlfriend tonight.” Randy and J both shook Casey’s hand.
“Guys, this is Casey Tanner. He brought Trick to us a couple of weeks ago. We owe him big time. He stopped to make sure Trick was doing okay and has been roped into joining us for supper. We’d better get to it while the hot stuff’s still hot and the cold stuff’s still cold. It’s better that way. Come on, Casey, let’s go wash up.” Gom just acted like Casey had agreed to supper with them. He led him to a wash room off the kitchen and made short work of washing his hands, followed by each of the other men.
They were soon all seated around the table after having gone down the counter making tacos, one right after the other. Gom noticed that Casey chose the tortilla, while he and Ben liked the bowls. Everybody chose their favorites and started off with two and there was still plenty left for seconds. This was one of the few times that there were very few boys at Scarcity. Trick and Niko were the only two right now.
Randy was telling stories about some of the funny things that went on at the gym and J shared a tale about a girl fight at the elementary school where he and his girlfriend both taught. It was funny with his retelling of the names the girls were calling each other. Clearly, they’d been watching too much TV.
Casey didn’t talk, but he did eat. Only when Gom got up to get a third taco, did Casey follow to do the same. Randy was on his fourth. Randy had always been a big eater. He was still making up for being hungry as a child. He’d decided to open a gym to keep in shape to support his appetite, saying if he didn’t he wouldn’t be able to get in the door.
“So, Casey, how’d you know to bring Trick to Scarcity? Soldier and Dillon are the best, huh, Trick?” J asked, leaving a question out there for both.
Trick, at seventeen, was a senior at Willington, having transferred there when he came to Scarcity and was doing much better at the new school. There was no truancy and no problems with classes now that he had help. He was catching up quickly. He was still prone to nightmares and was moody sometimes, but that was to be expected, considering his history.
“I’m happy here, really.” Trick addressed his answer to Casey instead of J, who’d asked. “It’s getting better. I never knew people could be like this, you know, being nice without expecting something back. You were right to make me come here. I had it pretty bad. I owe you. I know that.” Trick’s speech was the most that Gom had ever heard him say at one time.
After Casey’s rejection earlier, Gom was proud of Trick for speaking his thanks so eloquently.
“Nobody owes me anything. I just wanted you to be safe. Your life was shit. Uh, sorry.” Casey ducked his head.
“Not a problem. We’ve all been there, believe me.” Randy looked around the table and then back to Casey. “None of us had it any better before coming here. We all have horror stories that we got past with Dillon and Soldier’s help.”
“All of you?” Casey asked and then looked surprised that he’d expressed the interest.
“Oh, yeah. Us, and so many more through the years have had their lives turned around. We won’t go into it, but abuse and neglect are nothing new to any of us. It doesn’t freak us out anymore. You can rest assured that you did a good thing by urging Trick to come here. Soldier worked hard at getting the paperwork all done to foster him and change his school.” J nodded to Soldier and Dillon, both of whom had remained quiet, listening to the conversation around them.
“Casey, what do you do? How’d you know about Trick?” Randy asked.
“Um, I’ve got a couple of jobs. I work at the theater on Main and I clean a couple of offices at night to make some extra money.” Casey looked down at his now empty plate.
“Oh my God, you work at the Showhouse?” That was Ben speaking up. Ben was in college, majoring in theater and English Lit. His dream was to write and direct plays. He had worked on every play the college players put on, doing everything from set design and construction to lighting and sound. He loved everything about stories, movies, and plays. It had begun as pure escape from his own life into those of the ones he saw on TV. After being escorted to a couple of plays by Soldier and Dillon, he had fallen in love with all things theater and been hooked since.
“Yeah, for about three years. You like theater?” Casey responded.
The laughter at the table at that question was quick and filled with fondness and they all looked at Ben.
“What?” Casey looked confused.
“Ben lives for the theater. He knows all the lines from all the plays, musicals, and shows that he’s watched over and over. He’s got the best collection of anyone I’ve ever seen,” Gom said, proud of his foster brother.
“Uh, yeah…” Casey mumbled, “Cool.”
“My brother, Tommy, used to sing songs for us when we were growing up. A lot of them were from musicals that we watched, mostly Disney then, but Dillon and then Ben got us hooked on all the old Hollywood and Broadway musicals.” Gom looked fondly at both Ben and Dillon as he spoke.
“Time for dessert,” Dillon spoke up. “Ben, get the ice cream, Trick grab the box of brownies, and J, if you’ll heat the chocolate, we’ll be good to go. Randy, Gom, and Casey, let’s clear this table and get dessert bowls out. Just rinse and stack the dishes by the sink.”
For some reason, Casey seemed okay with following orders and he helped clear the table. Gom noticed Soldier watching him intently. Casey didn’t joke around and bump into the others like the rest of them, but he moved back and forth, and then sat quietly when everything was ready for the treat. Trick had placed a big brownie into each bowl and set them in front of everyone. Ben scooped a big blob of vanilla ice cream on top, and J followed behind, pouring hot fudge over the top. All of a sudden, Randy hopped up and went to the refrigerator and reached in, saying, “Aha!”
They all laughed when he pulled out the jar of cherries. He opened it, poured off the juice and dumped them into a bowl. He went around the table and put a cherry on top of everyone’s dish.
“Perfect,” he stated, when he finished. He’d put three on his treat, finishing off the contents of the cherry bowl.
For a few minutes the only sounds were hums, slurps, and soft grunts as they all enjoyed the delicious dessert. Pretty much as one they all sat back and sighed, some patting their stomachs.
“That was wonderful, Soldier. Thanks for fixing it. It’s one of my favorite meals,” Gom said.
“I know,” said Soldier, smiling at him. Like there was anything about Gom that Soldier didn’t know. The love and respect he felt for this man was bigger than anything in his life. It just filled him up.
Casey scooted back from the table and Gom figured it was time to let him go. Gom couldn’t believe that Casey had stayed through dessert. He wondered where Casey lived.
“Thanks for staying for supper, Casey. I think it meant a lot to Trick. You never said how you know him,” Soldier said.
“That’s his story to tell, if he wants to. I gotta go. Uh, thanks for the meal. It was really good.” Casey was out the door before anyone could say anymore.
They all looked at Trick to see if he would elaborate on the story of Casey and how he came to be at Scarcity Sanctuary.
“Um, I was sort of sleeping behind the theater. It’s kind of protected back there, not a lot of drunks or jerks hanging around.” Trick’s hands were shaking so he held them together tightly as he went on. “Casey saw me a couple of times and then I started to find little bits of food left back there, safely wrapped so I knew it was for me. He came out one time and sat down by me and asked if I wanted to go somewhere safe. I was too scared to believe him.” Trick stopped, not looking at anyone. He scooted back from the table and headed for the sink. “The night he brought me here it was raining hard and I just didn’t have the strength to turn down the idea of being warm…and safe. That’s all.”
No one believed that was all, but, too, no one asked for more details. A young man of seventeen didn’t live on the street unless home was worse and they’d all been there, done that.
While Trick and Ben cleaned the kitchen Gom prepared to go to the football game at the high school. Soldier came in while he was changing clothes, grabbing a school jacket.
“Have you made any headway into finding out the source of the bullying at Willington?” Soldier asked.
“I’m getting closer. Bradley is very quiet, even withdrawn. I’ve seen a few kids making a wide berth around him in the halls, but haven’t seen the actual aggression that was reported.” Gom paused by the door, leaning on the facing and looking up to Soldier. “The guy’s a little overweight, bad skin, cheap clothes; all three things that make him a target. I’ve heard kids call him Stink, and he does have a bit of a problem with odor. Put it together and you’ve got great fodder for the fools who get off on hurting someone weaker. He barely speaks in class, and then mumbles when he does. I think he’d fade into walls if he could. I can’t imagine him doing or saying anything to warrant the threats and meanness that have been directed his way. He’s kind of a loner.”
“Keep an eye out tonight. I know things tend to happen more at events like this than during the school day. You think Bradley’ll be there?” Soldier asked.
“I hope so. High school football is so not my thing.” Gom laughed as he said it. He was five foot seven and weighed about one hundred and twenty pounds. He’d always been small for his age and the fact that he looked like a young teenager made his job that much easier.
Gom had majored in both criminology and social work in college. For the last year he’d been working a special program with the police department, social services, and the school systems in the surrounding counties as well as the ones nearby. He worked undercover, enrolling as a senior at the high school when there was a report of severe bullying that the school personnel felt they couldn’t get a handle on. For once, Gom’s small stature and young look was in the plus column, making him perfect for the job he had.
“Poor thing. Why do I get the feeling you’d rather check out what’s going on at the Showhouse?” Soldier teased.
“I don’t know. Why do you get that feeling?” Gom knew he couldn’t hide anything from Soldier and he was interested in Casey Tanner. The man intrigued him, no doubt about it. The fact that he was drop dead gorgeous didn’t hurt a thing. To top it all off, Casey wasn’t that much bigger than Gom, where most twenty-two year olds towered over him and beat his weight by a good forty pounds or more.
“I’d like to know more about him,” Soldier said.
“Relax. It’s not like we’re dating or anything. I just think it was a good thing for him to do, bringing Trick here. I don’t even know how he knew about us. Can you believe he ate supper with us? I was sure he was going to leave. You’re good, Soldier,” Gom said, giving credit where it was due. “I know how upset you were when he didn’t accept the hug from Trick. I couldn’t believe Trick even offered it. It looks like Casey may have some issues of his own.”
“Yeah, looks like. I didn’t want to make a big deal about it, but it did hurt Trick and you know how I feel about anyone hurting any of my boys.” Soldier didn’t try to hide the frown Casey’s action had caused. “He made an effort though, by staying for supper and trying to fit in. He’s an interesting man. I’ll give you that. You be careful, Gom. I can tell you’re more than a little bit fascinated with Casey.”
Gom blushed as he faced his dad, for the first time admitting that he was interested in another man. They all knew that Gom was gay, but they also knew that he hadn’t acted on it or even been interested in anyone in particular. Gom had spent the last five years, since realizing that he was “of the persuasion” working on his schooling and helping the others. He’d never even felt the need for a relationship. Maybe that was about to change.
“I am, I admit, fascinated, that is. He’s a very strange and different kind of person. He has to be a good man to have bothered to leave food for Trick and then to bring him to us. That says good things about him. I’m not going to go jump his bones or anything. You don’t have to worry about me. I would like to get to know him better, though. As you say, he intrigues me.”
“That’s a good thing, Gom, really. I’d be happy to see you with someone, but I want to know that the someone won’t hurt you. I know you’re a man now and that you won’t always live here. It works for now with your job, but when you move out, I want to know it’s a good situation.”
It might be odd that, at twenty-two, he still lived at home, but as Soldier said, it worked well with his job right now and before he’d been away at college and officer training, so he was in and out and the time he was home, he wanted to be here with his family. He would never make apologies for that.
“You’re not going to like, check him out or anything, are you?” Gom asked, watching Soldier intently.
“No, I’ll leave your relationship to you, if you have one with him. But I’ll be watching and if he hurts you, all bets are off.” Soldier smiled, to soften the threat, but Gom didn’t doubt for a minute that he was serious. Instead of bothering him as it might other people, it merely warmed Gom’s heart. Soldier’d always had his back, from the first night he’d met the man.
“I’ve got to get out of here. Football. Go team,” he said in a droll voice.
“You’re doing a good thing, Gom. I’m proud of you,” Soldier said, touching Gom’s shoulder.
“I know you are. Making you proud is one of the things that makes me very happy, you know?” Gom leaned in for a quick hug, knowing it would be there for him.
“Yeah, I know. Now, go on, Monty Marshall. I don’t know how you get used to answering to that name.”
“You got used to Soldier after being Keith Marsh for most of your life. You had your reasons for wanting to be Soldier and I have mine for wanting to be Monty when I’m working.”
Soldier had explained that after his injuries in the war he had felt very alone and very anonymous. The fact that he was a soldier was what defined him, made him feel like he was somebody who was worthy. He’d spent the time after his many surgeries moving around Texas and checking on various properties, pretty much alone, still, and cut off from relationships. The fact that he had boogoodles of money hadn’t meant squat to him at the time. It was only later that he found that it came to a useful and fulfilling purpose.
He’d found Dillon and the boys occupying one of the properties he owned and that’s how they’d all met. When he introduced himself, it was as Soldier. He hadn’t gone into details then about how the name had given him an identity that meant more to him that Keith Marsh did after all he’d been through in the war. None of them had cared about the whys of his name, they just loved the way he cared for them so deeply and fought for them so aggressively. He was their hero. It was as simple as that.
In Gom’s case, he wanted to be someone else when he was working. He didn’t want any of the unkindness and sometimes outright hatred to follow him home. He was truly amazed at the rampant amount of bullying that went on. Most of it wasn’t reported because the targeted kids never told anyone, but he’d seen it so many times in the last year. He’d been in two schools already. Willington was his third.
The degree of threats that Bradley Haines was experiencing was troubling. The staff at the school hadn’t been able to discover the cause of the intense level of threatening behavior Bradley was being forced to endure. Gom wondered why he continued to come to school. He was going to try again to make contact with Bradley. All of his previous attempts had been met with quiet, but firm rejection. Bradley didn’t socialize.