The Castaway Hotel: Book 3

Chapter 7: The Runaway and a Family In Need

I had the boys up and fed early the next morning, so it wasn’t long before we were on the road heading toward Phoenix. I had been driving for a couple of hours, but it was still fairly early, yet I could tell it was going to be real scorcher today. After another hour or so on the highway, we finally reached our first stop, the Pioneer Arizona Living History Museum, just north of Phoenix. This wasn’t your typical museum in which you saw a bunch of displays. Instead, this is a collection of preserved buildings and authentic reproductions that represent a part of the country’s history. To be precise, it is intended to recreate various parts of late 19th century Arizona Territorial history, from the 1860’s through the 1890’s.

There are 28 buildings on the site, spread over ninety acres, and include a Victorian house, rare Spanish colonial houses, an Opera House, a saloon, a dressmaking shop, a print shop, a carpenter’s shop and a blacksmith’s shop. There were also interpreters in period costumes, to answer any and all questions visitors might have about what they were seeing. It was an interesting stop, almost making you feel as if you went back in time, which the boys seemed to enjoy. In fact, the boys even talked me into having our lunch there.

As we ate, the boys wanted to discuss some of the things they’d seen. “Man, people sure lived in really small places,” Pat observed. “Some of those cabins are smaller than your bedroom, Dad.”

“Yes, people lived very simply and spent more time outdoors rather than inside,” I explain, “which is probably the opposite of the way things are today.”

“Daddy, who was the woman that guy kept talking about at the theater?” Graham asked.

“I think you mean Opera House and he was talking about Lily Langtree,” I responded. “She was an actress whose beauty was said to rival that of Helen of Troy, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships.’ I’ve heard she had lily white skin, hence her first name, delicate features and her hair was filled with lovely curls. Judge Roy Bean, the Old West’s ‘hanging judge,’ was said to have a crush on her, although it is unsure if he ever met or even saw her in person.” I wasn’t sure that information helped Graham any, but he didn’t ask any more questions about her.

“Dad, the Fort Brent Wood that we saw,” Danny asked, “is that really what it would have looked like? I thought the western forts were made of logs with pointed tops, to keep the Indians out.”

“I think that’s what television and the movies have led us to believe,” I told him, “and I’m sure there were a collection of forts like that, but look around. Do you see enough trees for them to do something like that around here?” I forgot we were indoors at the time, so my comment caused Danny and some of the others to get up and go look outside. When they came back, they answered my question.

“Gee, I never noticed that before,” he told me. “I guess you’re right, it would be easier to make a mud and wood type fort like we saw today, rather than the one’s I’d thought were used.” What can I say? Another lesson learned.

By late afternoon, we were back on the road again, and by now, it was an extremely hot afternoon. I had only been driving for about an hour, when the boys started begging me to stop at a grocery store, so they could pick up some soda, ice and a couple of those Styrofoam coolers. I agreed it would be a good idea and a wise precaution, and then we would have enough for the motel that evening. Therefore, I made a quick stop on the outskirts of Phoenix.

It didn’t take long before I found a grocery store and pulled into the parking lot. All of the boys wanted to go in and enjoy the air conditioning, so I looked like the Pied Piper with my whole brood in tow. We grabbed a cart and headed back to the beverage section. While the boys were loading up their choices of drinks in the cart, I noticed a man chasing a teenage boy through the store. Before the kid got to the end of the aisle, another man jumped in front of him and they both roughly grabbed a hold of the boy.

Immediately they started pulling items from the boy’s pants and from under his shirt; it looked to be all food items. My guess was that the boy was a runaway and he was stealing something to eat. I didn’t like the way he was being treated, so I knew I would have to think of something fast.

I told my boys to get the ice and to try to find the coolers, while I went to take care of something else. I also told them to play along with me and follow my lead, if things started to go against us. I walked down to where the two men where manhandling the kid, and set my impromptu plan into motion.

“Buddy, there you are,” I said, pretending to speak to the boy. “Where in the hell did you disappear to?”

“Do you know this kid, mister?” the older gentleman asked me.

“Yes, I do. Excuse me, I’m Josh Currie and I run a group home,” I told them. “Buddy, here, is one of my boys and he ran away from us a couple of days ago. We’ve been looking all over for him.”

“My name’s not Buddy,” the kid protested. “It’s Nicky.”

“I know that, Nicky,” I countered, hoping the kid didn’t blow this for both of us. “I forgot you don’t like me using your nickname any more.” I turned toward the older man. “I’m sorry if he’s caused you any problems, but if you let me take him with us, I’ll make sure that he doesn’t bother you again.”

“You can tell that to the police,” the man bellowed, determined to make the kid pay for what he’d done. “We caught the kid shoplifting and he’s going to be arrested.”

“Look, sir, I’m sorry about what he’s done, but what if I pay for the items with our other purchases? We’re not from around here and we’ll be leaving the area right after we pay for our groceries.”

“I’m not supposed to do that,” he began to mumble. “He should be punished for what he’s done.”

“He will be, I’ll make sure of that,” I informed him, hoping he’d think my punishment would be a suitable alternative. “Look, if you have him arrested you won’t get any money for what he tried to steal, I’ll have to go down to the police station to get him, and that means I also won’t be buying the things the other boys have chosen. We’ll all make out better if you just drop your objection and let me pay for everything. That way, I can take him with me, without having to go to the police station, and then we’ll be leaving town. What do you say?”

He looked very pensive for another minute or so. “Very well, but I don’t want to see him in this store again,” he stated, adamantly.

“Don’t worry, you won’t,” I informed him. “We’re planning to leave this area as soon as we finish here, if nothing stops us, that is,” I added, insinuating we wouldn’t be able to, if he had this kid arrested.

Having reached this agreement, I took the boy and his ‘stolen property’ back to find the other boys, and they were ready to leave by the time we found them. “These things are Nick’s, so put them in the cart with the other items. Do you need anything else, Nick?”

“Why are you doing this?” he asked, wondering if he’d got himself into bigger trouble after I did this for him.

“Because you needed help,” I explained, simply. “Is there anything else you think you need?”

“Look, I wasn’t stealing this stuff for me,” he told me. “I would never do that. It’s for this boy I met over at the park, over by the school. He told me that he hadn’t had anything to eat for nearly three days. I was taking this stuff for him.”

“That’s very noble of you, Nick. Will this be enough?” I persisted.

“For now. I don’t know what else he might need,” Nick explained. “You could go with me and we could ask him?”

“That sounds like a good idea,” I agreed. “Okay, boys, to the checkouts. Let’s pay for this and go find that kid.”

We went to the front of the store, paid for everything and took it out to the van. The boys let Nick sit in front, next to me, although he was still eyeing us suspiciously. “What kind of a group are you guys, anyway?” I could hear the others begin to snicker.

“We’re a family,” Andrew told him, “and that’s my daddy.”

“But I thought you told the manager that you ran a group home!” he snapped back, now totally befuddled.

“I do. I run a home for this group, my sons,” I replied, before smiling at him. Nick looked around the vehicle, trying to figure out how this could possibly be.

“Dad adopted us,” Dion told him. “We all came to him in different ways, but we’re all brothers now and we’re one big, happy…well, mostly happy, family.” The other boys giggled or took objection to his last phrase.

“What do you mean, mostly?” Ricky wanted to know.

“You should understand that part,” Pat told him. “You and your little hoodlum friends were the ones who were harassing the others when I arrived.”

“That’s not fair,” Graham said, indignantly.

“See what I mean, Nick?” Dion said, with a huge grin on his face.

“Yeah, I think I’m getting the picture,” Nick responded.

“Nick…” I began, but he cut me off.

“It’s Nicky, if you don’t mind,” he told me, leaving no doubt that he preferred this name to the one we’d been using for him.

I hesitated and thought about my response before I continued. “While you’re with us you’ll have to answer to Nick, because we already have a Nicky and it would be pretty confusing with two of you.”

“You do?” he asked, as if he didn’t believe me.

“Yes, my grandson. He’s back there somewhere,” I pointed out.

“It’s me,” I heard a little voice squeak from the back, and then a face peered over one of his uncles’ shoulders. “I’m Nicky.”

“Hi, Nicky,” Nick said, smiling at him. “I don’t get to meet other boys named Nicky very often. There are a lot of girls named Nicole that they call Nikki, but I’ve only met one other boy with that name.”

“Now you know two,” Nicky said mischievously, “and I’m the best one.”

Nick laughed at his namesake. “I’m sure you are, Nicky. I’m sure you are. Okay, you guys can call me Nick and he can be Nicky. Okay, Nicky?” Nicky beamed at the recognition.

“Yeah, I’m Nicky and you’re Nick. I like that,” my grandson confirmed.

“Me too,” Nick said, smiling back at him.

“Nick,” I began, “why don’t you direct me over to that park, so we can look for that other boy. Okay?” He agreed and we were on our way. As we pulled into the area, I discovered it was more of a school playground than a park.

“He’ll be over by the bushes, back there behind the swings,” Nick said, pointing in that general area. I pulled the van around and got as close to the area as I could. Then I told Nick to go and find his friend, so he could bring him back to the van and we’d give him something to eat and a soda to drink. It was several minutes before Nick reappeared, and he came out of the bushes leading a younger boy. They were walking hand in hand toward us, so we all began to get out of the van. The other boy looked a little frightened at first, until Nick said something to him that seemed to calm him down. As they came up to us, Trey and Brandon were pulling the coolers out of the van and carrying them over to a shady spot on the grass. We all went over and sat down and Nick introduced the new boy to us.

“Bobby, this is Mr. Currie and his sons and grandsons,” he informed his friend. “They just got me out of a jam at the store. I got caught stealing and they talked the manager into letting me go, instead of calling the cops. They also bought the food I was stealing for you and a bunch of other stuff.”

“I didn’t want you to steal for me,” Bobby said, with a shocked look on his face. “When you said you were going to get something, I thought you meant that you had money to buy it with. I wouldn’t have said okay otherwise.” While the boys were discussing this, I made each of them a sandwich and then reached out in their direction, with a sandwich in each hand. After they took them from me, I told them to grab a soda from the cooler. They both wolfed down the food and guzzled their sodas, so I made another sandwich for both of them. Bobby was still eating rapidly, but Nick had slowed to a more normal pace.

I took this time to get a good look at both boys. Nick was about 5’7”, blond hair, blue eyes and was more than a little dirty. I’d say from looking at his disheveled appearance that he’d been on his own for a while and hadn’t been able to bathe or change for quite a few days. He was slender, but not anorexic, and his movements were very fluid and graceful.

Bobby, on the other hand, probably wasn’t even five feet tall, really skinny, and extremely filthy. This kid hadn’t seen any water for cleaning purposes for a very long time. Once the boys finished eating, I began to ask them both questions.

“Bobby, how old are you?” I wanted to know.

“I’m eleven,” he told me, without hesitation.

“What in the world are you doing by yourself?” I followed, unable to comprehend what a kid this age was doing out all alone.

“I’m not really by myself,” he quickly informed me. “I just went to be on my own, because my parents weren’t able to make enough money to feed the whole family. I figured I was old enough to take care of myself, so I left.”

“Whoa, slow down there for a minute,” I urged him. “Let’s back up a little, shall we? What do you mean that your parents aren’t able to earn enough money?”

“My dad hurt his back in an accident and couldn’t work at his old job any longer,” he began his explanation. “The jobs he can work don’t pay much and both my parents have been having trouble finding jobs that last for very long. Most of the work they get usually only lasts for a short time.”

“Where are your parents now?” I wondered, but Bobby didn’t seem to want to answer this question for me. He looked at the ground in front of him and didn’t say a word. I knew I would have to prod him again.

“Hey, it’s okay, Bobby,” I continued. “I don’t mean to pry, but I would like to see if I could help your family out. I can’t do that if you won’t tell me anything.”

He looked up at me and studied my face for a little while. He must have thought I was being sincere, because he finally answered me. “We lost our house after Dad lost his job,” he informed me. “The bank reprocessed it or something…”

“Do you mean the bank repossessed it?” I asked, interrupting him.

“Yeah, that’s what they did,” he confirmed, “so we’ve been living in our car ever since.”

“In a car?” I repeated, startled. “How many of you are living in this car?”

“There were five of us,” he answered. “My mom, dad, two sisters and me.”

“I at least hope it’s a big car,” I replied, forgetting I shouldn’t be making jokes about his situation.

“It’s a Dodge Shadow,” he told me. I quickly realized that is a smaller, mid-size vehicle.

“That’s not real big,” I replied. “It must have been awfully cramped with five people and their belongings.”

“Yeah, we didn’t have very much room,” he admitted, looking even more sad than before.

“Bobby, what does your father do?” I asked.

“He worked for a construction company. He did a lot of things, but mostly he was a carpenter,” he told me, and I could immediately see why a bad back would be a major problem for him, although Bobby also clarified that point. “He can’t lift much now, not after he hurt his back, so nobody wants to hire him.”

“Why don’t you take me to where they’re staying and I’ll see if I can’t help them? Okay?” I continued.

He looked skeptical, as if he weren’t sure he should be doing this, or possibly he thought his parents would object to getting someone else involved in their problems. However, after a few minutes, he finally agreed to my request and we began preparations to leave.