Part 3

Ruthie opened the door to the limousine, and, pulling her overnight bag onto her shoulder, said a quiet thank you to the driver. She had told him to let her off a few blocks from her apartment; she didn't want the neighbors to give her or any of her family a hard time for hobnobbing with the elite. She walked the three blocks slowly, her head hung down, the weight of the world seemingly resting on her slim shoulders. As she turned the corner on to William Street, she saw her mother sitting on the front steps of the run-down building she called home. Something about her mother's posture made Ruthie want to turn and run the other direction -- run for as long as she could. With a sigh, she kept going.

Marion took a slow drag from her cigarette as she watched her daughter approach. It had not been a good day for her. Her other hand was wrapped around a bottle of something strong smelling, hidden in a plain brown paper bag. She lifted the bag to her mouth and gulped the liquid greedily. Ruthie inched closer and closer.

Marion's expression turned even more sullen as Ruthie was nearly in front of her. "Where the hell have you been?" she asked her daughter. "Hanging out with that rich bitch again?"

Ruthie just stared at her, unsure what a safe response would be. It took her only a second or two to realize there was no safe response, and maybe it was best just to keep her mouth shut.

"Answer me." Marion snubbed the cigarette butt out on the step and stood up.

Ruthie barely spoke above a whisper. "I told you on Thursday. I went to stay at Diana's."

"That's what I thought. What were you thinking hanging out with that rich bitch? Huh? Do you really think that bitch likes you?" Marion scowled deeply.

"Mom, stop. She's not like that." Ruthie looked helplessly at her mother. Let the words roll off. She doesn't know what she's saying. Just let the words roll off. Ruthie took another step and another. Almost to the door.

Marion grabbed her daughter's arm and twisted her around to face her. The two of them stared at each other for what seemed like ten minutes but was probably only ten seconds. Suddenly, Marion let go. In forced movements, Ruthie went back down the stairs and walked away.

When she had managed to put two blocks between herself and her drunken mother, Ruthie finally dared look over her shoulder. No one had followed her. No one was calling her name. Ruthie took a few deep breaths. She needed a place to go; there was a small park not too far down the street. There were three guys standing around trying to look tough. Ruthie ignored them. They were probably drug dealers, or some idiots waiting to buy drugs from a dealer. They didn't bother her; she didn't bother them. Inside the park was a playground, with slides and swings, and a little fort-like place for climbing in and on. Ruthie bent down and crawled inside that fort. It was a little cramped for her size, but she didn't want to be seen.

Home. I wish I had a home. Ruthie picked up a small, grey rock and started tossing it back and forth between her hands. Why did I come here? Why didn't I just walk in the door? The answers didn't come to her. I'm not even angry with her. I can't seem to feel anything. She scraped the rock against the skin of her arm, just above her left wrist, leaving thin white lines where the rough edges of the rock had scratched her. Can't even feel that. She scratched harder, causing a little blood to show. I still can't feel anything. What's wrong with me? She scratched again, harder still. And again. Her arm did not hurt, but she finally felt the pain in her heart.

Macie Perkins was sitting at the large, antique desk that her husband had bought her the year before for their anniversary. She had a pen in her hand and was writing down her messages as she listened to them. She and Raymond Perkins lived on the outskirts of town, but they spent a lot of time in Sleepyside. Her husband owned the local radio station, WSTH. Macie did some counseling and also helped run the local Boys & Girls Club.

Macie hung up the phone and smiled. She remembered Daniel Mangan very well. He was a sullen punk kid, or at least he had wanted her to think so. It hadn't taken long for him to fall in with the Bob-Whites of the Glen, the supposedly semi-secret club she had known about almost since the day school had started over a year ago. He had been lucky. He could have just as easily fallen in with a different group, one made up of other truly sullen punk kids. She was a little bit surprised by the message he had left her, though. She got up to get his file, wanting to skim through it just in case her memory was not as clear as she thought.

Dan had gone to every one of their mandatory counseling sessions, never once really opening up to her. He played the game well, saying what he knew that she needed to hear. And she knew he was playing the game. She also knew he was never going to open up to her, and that, if she pushed him, he would just pull further into himself. In spite of the fact that she was a licensed clinical social worker, in spite of the fact that she spent hours every day counseling children and teenagers with various needs, she did not believe that counseling was right for every one. The judge had ordered counseling. The judge had appointed her. She did her job. She sometimes felt a twinge of guilt, knowing that she wasn't really doing her job, not in his case. But he was not the kind of person that was going to respond to counseling. Some people just weren't ready for that step, especially when it was forced on them.

Macie picked up the phone again and dialed the number he had left her.

"Hello," came a deep voice on the other end of the line after a few rings. The voice sounded startled.

"Hello. I'm calling for Dan Mangan," Macie replied.

"Might I tell him who is calling?"

Macie thought she detected a smirk in the voice. Im not one of his girlfriends. "My name is Macie. I'm returning his call."

"Hang on. I'll see if he's around." Macie heard a chuckle as the phone was put down.

"Daniel." Dan's door stood ajar, but Mr. Maypenny knocked lightly on it to get his attention. "Telephone's for you."

Dan put down the book he was reading. He got up from his bed and headed for the kitchen. "Who is it?" he asked.

"A girl. She said her name was Macie." Mr. Maypenny smiled.

"Macie? Oh, thanks." Mr. Maypenny thought Dan sounded disappointed, but Dan hurried to the phone.

"H'lo," Dan mumbled.

"Hi, Dan. Macie Perkins here. Is now a good time to talk?"

"Yeah. Yeah. Um ... "

"I got your message. You wanted to make an appointment?" Macie asked.

"Yeah. Yeah. Um ... " I sound like an idiot.

"I have an opening on Monday, if that works for you," she offered.

"Monday. Monday. Okay."

"Okay." Dan could hear the smile in Macie's voice. "Did something happen recently? Would you like to talk a little bit now?"

"No. No, Monday's fine. What about, uh, what about payment?" Why do I keep repeating the first word, Dan thought to himself. I shouldn't be this nervous.

"The first session will be a free consultation. We can talk about fees at the end of that time, if you decide to continue with the counseling." Macie paused, and Dan could hear some pages being turned and the scratching of the pen. "Dan?"

"Yes. Yes, I'm still here." Stop that stupid stuttering.

"Im glad you called. Well meet on Monday and see how it goes. I'll see you then?" Normally, she would have asked what the client wanted to talk about. Normally, she would have asked a lot more questions.

"Okay. Thanks." Dan hung up the phone and breathed a sigh of relief. Making the appointment was probably harder than actually going, right? Yeah, right. What will I tell the others?

"Mr. Farm -- Father." Leslie didn't know how to say what she wanted to say exactly. Randall was cooking spaghetti in the kitchen of his apartment, and Leslie was at the sink, washing dishes. She had a soapy sponge in one hand and a dirty glass in the other, but all she was doing was staring out the window.

"What's wrong, Leslie? You've been preoccupied all day." Randy Farmer looked over at his daughter.

"It's Ruthie," Leslie admitted. "I just keep thinking about Ruthie, for some reason."

"Is she okay?" Randy tried to remember the last time he'd seen Ruthie. She wasn't in any of his classes, and he rarely saw her in the school halls. If he had, he might have made the connection to Marion sooner. She looked a lot like her mother, though her nose was different, as was the shape of her eyes.

Randy turned the sauce down to simmer and sat down at the kitchen table, motioning for Leslie to join him.

"I don't know," Leslie replied. "Maybe I'm just feeling --" Leslie broke off her thoughts. She placed the glass and the sponge back in the sink and turned to face her father. She'd been feeling guilty for not seeing her sister as often as she used to. Things had changed between them. Ruthie was more and more distant with every visit, and that had been true for some time now. On top of that, there was a general feeling of tension in the house. In truth, since she had found out about her father, she was secretly glad to have an excuse not to visit her old home. But now, today, suddenly she felt like her sister needed her, and she should have made more of an effort to keep their weekend dates.

"Feeling guilty?" Randy guessed. "I have been, too. I know you and your half-sister are close, and I shouldn't have made you give up your time with her."

Leslie looked Randy in the eyes. "First, she's my sister. Not half-sister. I don't care what the legal term is, as far as I'm concerned, she's my sister. And Matt's my brother."

Randy held up his hands in a gesture of peace. "I didn't mean to diminish your relationship with her," he said gently.

"Sorry." Leslie calmed down a bit and sat next to Randy at the small table. "Second, you didn't make me give up my time with her. That was my choice. And, yes, I guess I have been feeling a bit guilty about that. But, well, you know ... "

"I don't know, but I can guess. Marion's not exactly the homemaker type, and when I went to see her I got the impression that it's not the happiest apartment in the building." Randy put his hand over Leslie's. "Is it serious enough that authorities should be involved?"

Leslie shook her head slightly. "It wasn't when I was living there. Now, I'm not so sure. Neither Ruthie nor Matt has ever said anything to me, but things always feel so strained when I'm there. I hate going home, actually. Matt is hardly ever there anymore; he's always hanging out with his friends at their homes. And when Ruthie and I do get together, we almost always go out somewhere, even if it's just to the park. Lately, though, even just hanging out with Ruthie, there's this tension between us. Sometimes it's so slight, I think I'm just imaging it. I don't know."

Randy got up and reached for the telephone. "Why don't you just call her? Make sure she's okay. Maybe you and she can go out tonight." He handed Leslie the phone.

Leslie nodded and smiled. She took the phone from him and dialed her old home. After several rings, she hung up. "No answer. I guess I'll try later." But that feeling that something was wrong kept nagging at her.

Matt Kettner skated down the curb, did a quick spin, skated back up the curb, and then kicked the skateboard up into his hand. Holding the board, he walked quickly across the grass and sat down on the wooden picnic bench. He surveyed the nearly deserted park, spotting a group of about five teens standing just to the side of the basketball hoops. It was dusk, nearly dark, and there didn't seem to be anyone else around. He thought briefly about heading home, knowing he was expected for dinner. A movement from inside the playground caught his attention, and he used it as an excuse to stay and see who or what was there. When a blonde-haired girl poked her head out of the play fort, Matt smiled. He grabbed his skateboard and ran over to her.

"What are you doing here?" he called out to his sister.

Ruthie dropped the bag she was pulling out of the fort and then scampered to pick it back up. "Matthew Arnold Kettner! You scared me. Don't sneak up on people like that."

Matt grinned. "But it's so much fun." He walked with Ruthie back over to the picnic tables. "So, what are you doing here? This isn't your normal hang-out."

"Is it yours?" Ruthie threw a quick glance over to the teenagers by the basketball court. "Don't tell me you're aspiring to hang out with that crowd."

"Nah. Of course not." Matt leaned his skateboard against the bench, stepped up on the seat, and sat down on top of the table. "But I do come by here and sit and think sometimes. It's nice and quiet."

"It is quiet. I actually fell asleep." Ruthie stretched and yawned. "So, why aren't you home yet?"

"Why aren't you home?" Matt countered.

"Mom's drunk and belligerent," Ruthie answered frankly.

"Again, huh? Now I really don't want to go home. What about Dad?" Matt looked down at the ground, wondering if he should do his normal routine.

"I didn't see Arnie at all. And I really don't want to go home either," Ruthie admitted. "But I don't relish sleeping out here." Ruthie absentmindedly dropped her bag on the table. In doing so, Matt got a good look at her wrists. The thin, jagged red lines from the rock had already started to scab over, but what made his stomach feel really heavy were the scars underneath.

"We don't have to, you know." Matt was trying to think quickly. He knew his sister well enough to know there was no point in his asking her about what he saw. Ruthie almost always clammed up whenever he tried to talk to her about anything serious. He knew that scar could not be a good sign, and wished he could say something, but he had no idea what to say. All he knew was he was scared to lose her. Ruthie was staring at him, waiting for him to explain. "You know how sometimes I don't bother to go home? When I don't show up for dinner?"

Ruthie nodded, waiting for him to go on. She'd always been curious about where he was. Concerned, even. But theirs was not the kind of family that was close. Yes, she and Leslie and Matt were close in their own way, but they didn't ever really talk to each other.

"Well, you know that building over by the A & P?"

This time, Ruthie shook her head. "No. What building?"

Matt whispered his answer. "The Boys and Girls Club building."

"Oh. But don't they close in the evening? And they don't serve meals, do they?" Ruthie was curious where Matt spent those nights.

"Actually, not the club officially, but yes, the person who runs the club ... She's really cool. She always lets us know that anyone who can't go home for any reason is welcome to stay, and she's a great cook. If you want to go tonight, we could." Matt looked at her hopefully. He'd already made up his mind that he was going there tonight, but he really wanted Ruthie to come with him this time.

Ruthie shrugged her shoulders. "Anything's better than facing Mom. And I am hungry."

"Cool. Let's go." Matt grabbed Ruthie's bag and with his skateboard under his arm, already started walking away. Ruthie hurriedly caught up with him and grabbed her bag back, and the two walked side by side, the top of Matt's head just reaching her shoulders.

The End

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