EVAN stepped out of the warm car with its leather seats, vents blasting warm air and clean scent. He thought of looking back at the man driving, but he didn’t really matter. Evan knew that—at least he did now. Stepping out onto the sidewalk, nearly slipping on the slushy snow, he closed the door and jumped back as the dark blue Mercedes sped away in a fountain of water, dirt, and half-melted slush. Looking around to get his bearings in the early morning gloom, he backed farther away from the street, running into someone who simply shoved him away with a grunt. With another stumble, he reached the brick building, leaning against it, taking stock of what he had and where he was, hands sliding instinctively into his pockets as they sought some sort of warmth. The hardest thing to get used to and get his mind around was the near-constant cold.
His hands slid along the folded bills, and Evan breathed a sigh of relief. Those small slips of paper, vital for everything on the streets, were a lifeline to a warm night and maybe even a bath or shower to wash away the scents of others on his body. Pulling out the bills, he slipped off a tattered shoe. Rolling down a sock, he shoved the bills deep under his arch with the others before rolling the sock up again. The sound of ripping fabric made him groan, and he looked down as the top of the sock, a few inches above his ankle, came away in his hand. Sliding his shoe back on, he left the tattered piece of fabric just above his ankle for warmth, letting his pant leg slide back down. His money hidden, Evan relaxed a little, looking around for that signal, the look that would indicate another man who might be willing to pay for what he was selling. Pulling his thin jacket around his body, Evan huddled against the building, his skin prickling, legs beginning to shake, arms aching as the cold seeped in through the jacket and his thin shirt.
Watching passersby, he caught the eye of a man in a business suit and long woolen coat sauntering down the street like he owned the world, and to Evan it looked like he did. The man, who might have been on his way to work, passed and continued walking before stopping, looking through the glass of a shop window. Evan knew he wasn’t really looking into the shop. That was one of the traits he’d already picked up on. No one ever approached him right away; the men were usually shy or cautious. Evan watched as the man turned and walked back toward him, stopping just a few feet away without looking directly at him. “Sure is cold,” the man said, looking around the street.
“Yup,” Evan replied, trying to stay out of the wind.
“Bet it’s warmer between the buildings,” the man commented, a not-so-subtle hint at what he wanted.
Warily, Evan pushed himself away from the building, taking a few steps and looking around before following the man’s line of sight, saying nothing more. He heard the man’s footsteps behind him and braced himself. He hated this, he really did. A few months ago, he’d been a normal kid with normal parents and a normal life, and thoughts of what he was about to do had never entered his mind. Now it was an almost daily occurrence just to eat and maybe have a warm place to sleep. “Fifty,” Evan said and waited to see what the guy would do.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” the man said, and Evan moved back toward the street. He already had some money, and with it, he knew he’d eat. The man’s hands slipped into his pocket, pulling out crumpled bills. Evan took them, shoving the bills deep into his own pocket. The man pushed down on his shoulders, and Evan felt his knees buckle, pain shooting through his legs as his knees hit the slush-covered pavement, even more cold seeping into his skin. The teeth of a zipper sounded, and Evan began to retreat, his conscious mind pulling away, sheltering himself from the implications of what was about to happen—it was the only thing that stopped him from gagging, stopped the reflex to bite, to get away, or even to hurt. The only way he could bear the man’s voice as he called Evan every disgusting name in the book. Evan heard these, though; they penetrated his defenses because he’d said them to himself. He knew they were true because, after all, he was a “dirty fucking whore.”
Tears welled, as they always did, and he blinked them back as the man’s calls became more urgent. Pulling away, he could take no more. Jumping to his feet, legs wet, prickling with cold, Evan forced himself to move as the man howled his frustration. Evan peeked back and saw him pumping himself as Evan turned the corner, heart pounding. Realizing he wasn’t being chased, he slowed and stopped in front of a bright department store window, puddles of water glistening with reflected light. Evan looked down, and catching a glimpse of his own reflection, he actually looked over his shoulder wondering if someone was behind him. He took a second look and realization dawned: the thin, drawn, old-looking face staring back at him was him.
Stepping away, out of the light, Evan huddled beneath the awning of a dark window. His knees aching, he slid down the marble-tiled wall. Arms encircling his knees, body curling into a tight ball, forehead resting on his knees, Evan felt the tears that had threatened multiple times come to the surface. “Mom… Dad… why’d you leave me?” he asked for what seemed like the millionth time as his throat tightened. Shoulders bouncing, Evan couldn’t stop the emotions that he’d held at bay for months. As they burst to the surface, he murmured, “I miss you both,” and he felt his face contort into the near-universal display of grief. He could see them saying goodbye that last Saturday morning as they’d left the house to go shopping. He’d asked to stay home, and as the tears ran down his cheeks, Evan wished with all his might that he’d gone with them. That way, the semitrailer that had skidded on the ice, crushing his parents’ lives and his entire world, could have taken him too.
“Son.” A hand touched his shoulder, and Evan jumped up, bouncing on his feet, arms bent, hands already clenched in tight fists. The man simply looked at him, his face calm, hands remaining at his side. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said levelly, almost serenely.
Evan felt his arms become heavy and he lowered them, his body ready to run at the slightest provocation. “What is it you want?” Evan asked, taking a step back, hitting the wall behind him. “I’m not interested in any customers, so you can just move on.” Evan looked the man over, starting at the clean, plain shoes, black pants and plain coat, open to show just the edge of a black shirt with a bit of white collar. “Oh,” he said softly, “one of those.” He’d had ministers and priests before, and at least they’d been gentler than most, even as they used him like everyone else. “Fifty,” he said softly and moved toward the darkness around the side of the store as the streets began to fill.
“No, son,” the man responded gently, “that’s not what I want.” Evan felt the fight seep away, and he turned to move on. If the man wasn’t a customer, Evan had money, and he could find a warm place for the day and maybe get some sleep and fill his empty and howling belly. “I can help you,” the man called after Evan, without yelling, a softness in his voice that Evan hadn’t heard from anyone since…. Evan blinked and shoved his hurt and pain back behind the walls his mind was rapidly reconstructing after the earlier breach. “I don’t want anything from you,” the priest added. “I promise. Can I buy you some breakfast?” He motioned toward a small diner just across the street. “I promise I won’t hurt you.”
Evan watched as the priest—he assumed he was a priest, but he could have been any kind of minister as far as Evan knew—walked across the street, looking back at him before opening the door to the diner and disappearing inside. His mind struggled, trying to decide what to do, but in the end it was his growling stomach that made up his mind for him, and he stepped off the curb, a taxi blowing its horn at him. Evan let it pass, giving the driver both fingers, because that’s just what you did to cabbies, before feeling the fight and the last remaining energy in his body begin to slip away. Walking the rest of the way across the street, he stopped at the glass before reaching out to pull open the door.
Evan caught the sneer on the face of the woman behind the counter. What he’d ever done to her he didn’t know, but he’d always avoided this place because of her and the sneer she always gave him, like he was something she’d scrape off her shoe, and maybe that’s what he was. Maybe he was no better than the dirt off her shoes.
Looking around, he spied the priest sitting at a table, watching him. Seeing him nod slightly, Evan slowly walked in his direction, watching his reaction. “Sit down. It’s okay,” the priest said, and Evan slipped into the booth, sliding across from the other man, looking for any sign of deceit or subterfuge, but the man’s expression seemed as open and honest as he could remember since he found himself on the streets. There had to be something this man wanted from him—no one did something for nothing. That he’d found out fast when the man who’d helped him the first night he found himself alone tried to take what it was he wanted. Evan had learned fast, and quickly became wary of anyone and everyone.
A waitress, old as the hills, approached their table, smiling at the priest but scowling at him. She handed the priest a menu before grudgingly setting one in front of Evan and leaving. “What do you want?” Evan asked, his eyes boring into the other man, challenging him to try to lie to him.
The waitress returned, and the priest placed an order for a huge breakfast, and Evan said he’d have the same, figuring he might as well eat if nothing else.
“What’s your name, son?” the priest asked, and he waited as the waitress brought cups of coffee. Evan wrapped his hands around his, letting the warmth thaw his nearly numb hands.
“What do you want it to be?” Evan asked, a cliché answer, but he never told anyone his real name. It felt to him that if he did, he’d be giving up that last bit of himself, that last remnant of who he was before everything changed.
“Don’t play games. I will not stand for that,” the man admonished firmly, but with a tone completely absent of malice.
Evan swallowed hard, taking a sip of the coffee, heat sliding down his throat and settling in his belly. Setting down the mug, he reached for the sugar packets, ripping open about four, dumping them into the black liquid before drinking again. The priest said nothing more, but stern, brown eyes tinged with kindness stared back at him.
“Evan,” he finally said, in a near whisper.
“Good. I’m Father Valentin, and as I said before, I will not hurt you in any way,” the priest said as he sipped the coffee, making a face before setting the mug back on the table. “Can you tell me how old you are?”
“Of course, you think I’m dumb or something?” Evan retorted. “I’m sixteen and I can take care of myself.” Evan again dared the priest with his eyes to contradict him.
“I’m sure you can,” he responded with a smile. The waitress returned and placed a plate in front of each of them. Evan picked up a piece of toast, shoving the entire thing into his mouth, chewing and swallowing before devouring the other. Lifting his fork, he attacked the eggs before downing the slippery potatoes in three bites. “I promise you, no one will take your plate from you,” the man teased.
Evan ignored him, shoveling in the food as fast as he could swallow it, arm on the table protecting his turf as he scanned the immediate vicinity. Only when the plate was empty did he look up again to see the priest sort of smiling at him. “Thanks,” Evan said softly, not knowing what else to say, as some long-forgotten voice whispered inside him what to do. The voice sounded a lot like his mother.
“Are you still hungry?” The priest didn’t wait for an answer, taking Evan’s plate and sliding his own in front of him. Evan felt his eyes widen and then began to eat again until his stomach felt truly full—a sensation he hadn’t experienced since he’d discovered the fruit trees in the park last summer and had eaten his fill right from the tree, that is, until he was chased away.
“Evan, do you know where your parents are?”
He nodded but couldn’t bring himself to say the words out loud. The thought felt like saying goodbye to them all over again. For months he’d kept hoping it was all a mistake, but it wasn’t. And he knew it now, but he still couldn’t say it, not to a stranger, anyway. Evan’s expression seemed to be enough for the priest, because the man simply nodded.
“Evan, I can help you if you’ll let me. I run a school for boys, and I’d like to take you there.”
Evan got it now. The priest would take him to this “school” and in return for a place to sleep, Evan would take care of the priest. He’d heard about places like this from one of the other boys he’d met during the summer. Tom had been offered something like that by an old geezer who hung around the park. Last time he’d seen him, Tom was living it up, and all he had to do was let the geezer fuck him once in a while. “What do I have to do?” Evan leaned across the table, eyes locked on the priest’s. “You want me to suck your dick—is that it?”
“No, Evan, I most certainly do not. I don’t want anything from you except the truth when I ask a question. My order of priests and brothers are educators,” he continued, “and we believe that every boy should have an education and a chance at a better life. At the school, you’ll have duties that you’ll need to perform, and there will be things we all expect from you, such as good behavior, completing your lessons, and showing respect to your instructors and fellow students.”
“Nice speech, Father, but what is it you really want?”
“To give you a chance to get off the streets, to have a place that’s safe and warm with plenty of food and no need for you to sleep in alleys or sell yourself for money.”
Evan looked around at all the other patrons in the diner, trying to figure out if this guy was for real. He wanted to ask someone, but no one else even looked at them. “What are you, Santa Claus? ’Cause I stopped believing in that shit a long time ago.”
“No, and I assure you what I’m offering you is for real. I believe that we must help our fellow man, and I want to help you. Will you let me?” the priest asked, before adding, “and don’t swear to me or anyone else. That’s another of our rules, and part of respecting others.”
Was this man for real? Evan stared, trying to figure it out as the waitress brought the check, and Father Valentin picked it up, handing some cash to the waitress before standing. This seemed way too good to be true, but something inside him said he’d be a fool not to go along with it. If Father Valentin turned out to be as full of shit as he thought he was, he could always leave.
“Are you coming or not?” the priest asked, and Evan slid out of the booth, following behind, his hands once again sliding into his pockets, hands feeling the soiled bills like a security blanket. Outside, Father Valentin walked to where an old, clunky station wagon with fake wood trim was parked, and unlocked the door, holding it open for him and waiting. Evan got into the vehicle, wondering what he was so afraid of. He’d gotten into strange cars before, and not with men who said they wanted to help him. Maybe it was the wondering? When he’d gotten into cars before, he knew why he was doing it and what was expected, but now, he had no idea about any of it. Evan found himself watching as Father Valentin opened the driver’s door and got into the car, starting the old engine with prayer and a few cajoling words. “Fasten your seatbelt. Bernadette here keeps running, but sometimes she’s a little unpredictable.” Father Valentin put the car into gear, and Evan felt a lurch as the car seemed to jump out into traffic.
They rode for a while through the traffic of the city and out into what looked to Evan to be a very old portion of Milwaukee. Beautiful homes shared space with what looked like dilapidated wrecks, except most of them were covered in scaffolding. Not thinking about it, Evan watched the road, memorizing landmarks in case he needed to leave and find his way back. He refused to let himself believe that anyone was willing to help him, but part of him, deep down, hoped that maybe, just maybe, Father Valentin was for real.
Many landmarks passed, and Evan tried to remember them, but then gave up. He knew he could survive, he’d done it for months, and he could and would do it again once he found out just what Father Valentin wanted from him. The old car bounced and pitched them over the patched roads. The buildings became lower, apartments replaced with homes, and then the ride got smoother as the houses got grander, and still they drove. The homes gave way to fields with barns, and animals Evan had never seen before, grazing and wandering.
A hill loomed on the horizon with a large building sitting on top of it, getting bigger and bigger as they approached. “That’s the school,” Father Valentin said, his hand pointing over the top of the steering wheel. Evan craned his head out the window as the building continued to climb over them. Evan thought it looked like some sort of haunted house, with its large windows and towers that loomed over the landscape. Shuddering slightly, he looked over at the driver, expecting him to have transformed into some sort of evil creature, but Father Valentin turned and smiled back at him. “I hope you like it here. This is a good place, and you’ll be taken care of, I promise. Part of what we do is help those who need us, and when I saw you come out of that alley, I knew I had to try to help.”
Evan looked at the floor, his feet shifting in his tattered shoes. He had no idea why Father Valentin seeing him in the alley bothered him, but it did. The man had been kind to him, so far, and while Evan refused to lower his guard, something inside him lifted. Was it hope? Evan wasn’t sure and he actually tamped it down. Every time he’d felt that over the last months, he’d been let down again.
The car turned onto a long driveway lined with trees and began to climb, the road turning first one way and then the other until Father Valentin pulled into a parking lot. Evan kept trying to see the building, but it rose above them high enough that all he could see was mustard walls and a few brown window frames. “What is this?” Evan asked softly as he peered out and saw what looked like a church among the other buildings, all sitting on the top of the hill.
“This is St. Bartholomew’s Academy for Boys,” Father Valentin said proudly as he opened his door and climbed out of the car. Evan did the same, standing in the clean air, instantly cold again after the long drive in the warm car.
“Father, you’re back.”
Evan saw another man approach, bundled against the cold. “How was the conference with the bishop?”
“Fruitful, Brother William,” he said before adding, “the car will need to be unloaded. Could you please see to it while I get Evan here inside and warmed up?”
“I… I… can help,” Evan offered, his teeth chattering.
“Don’t be silly, you’re freezing.” Father Valentin started toward a set of doors, and Evan followed, not having any idea what else to do. Going inside was like passing into another world, with warmth surrounding him almost instantly. “My office is this way,” he said, gesturing, and Evan nodded slowly, following down the quiet hallway. “The other boys are in classes right now, but it’ll get quite noisy soon,” Father Valentin explained as they approached a large door. Pulling it open, Father Valentin motioned for him to enter, and Evan stepped forward, peering inside before looking back down the hall.
Part of him wanted to run. He’d already seen one statue of a man holding his own head and one of a man shot through with a bunch of arrows, and he wondered what kind of people spent time in a place like that. Looking into what appeared to be an office, Evan saw another statue, this one of a pretty lady with a blue cloak, and she looked nice, almost serene. Looking up at Father Valentin’s face, he saw him smile and nod. Stepping inside, Evan looked around as Father Valentin stepped in behind him, closing the door. So this was when he’d get it? Evan thought as he watched the priest step around to his desk. “Sit down, Evan,” Father Valentin said gently, motioning toward one of the chairs. “I have some questions for you, and I want you to answer them honestly. That’s all we can ever ask of anyone, to be truthful. I promise not to judge or condemn you for your answers. Do you understand?”
Evan didn’t, but he nodded his head anyway, hoping Father Valentin would get to whatever it was he wanted from him.
Father Valentin got up from behind the desk and walked around it before sitting in the chair next to his. “I know you’re finding all this hard to believe, so I want to take a few minutes to explain things so you know what I’m offering you and what’s expected of you.” Father Valentin’s voice sounded so kind and caring that, for the first time, Evan began to allow himself to believe that this might just be real. “This is a religious school,” he continued to explain. “We’ll test you to determine where you are academically and develop an appropriate schedule of classes. You’ll attend mass every day with all the other boys. In short, this school will be your home, and I, along with the other brothers, will be your family.”
Evan lifted his eyes from the small stain on the carpet where he’d been staring. “What’s the price? No one does anything for free, I know that. What is it you want?”
Father Valentin nodded slowly, his eyes remaining soft and kind. “The price is your education. All I ask is that you do your best in school to learn and to be a good, caring person. I neither expect nor want anything more from you. There are some rules that we follow here. One of them is respect for your teachers and fellow students. Another is that the type of behavior you engaged in prior to coming here is not tolerated.” Father Valentin’s voice became firm. “I understand you were trying to survive, and I can respect that, but here, we strive to lead lives pleasing to God, and that type of behavior is not acceptable.” Evan could feel Father Valentin’s eyes rake over him as though drilling the message into him. “What we will strive to provide for you is a safe place where you can learn to be a good young man and build a future for yourself beyond the streets.”
Evan swallowed. Was this for real? This truly was too good to be true. “You really don’t want anything from me?”
Father Valentin shook his head slowly. “No. Well, not in the way you’re thinking. I do want things from you. I want you to be a good student and grow into a good man with a bright, promising future. Nothing more.” He held up a finger, and Evan braced for the rug to be pulled away. “But I would like some answers.”
“What kind of answers?” Evan asked tentatively.
“Let’s start with your full name.” Father Valentin picked up a pad of paper.
“Evan Donaldson,” he answered, saying the full name out loud for the first time since his parents’ death.
Father Valentin wrote for a second and then leaned forward in the chair, a quiet, serene expression on his face. “What happened to your family?” Evan knew at some point he’d have to talk about this, but he really had no desire to and shook his head before looking away. “I’m asking you to trust me, Evan. I will do nothing to hurt you, but I need to know what happened to you so I can try to help you.”
“They died in an accident last spring,” he answered to the floor. “I wish I’d been with them,” Evan added as he swallowed hard, keeping a tenuous hold on the last of his emotional control.
“Was there no other family?” he heard Father Valentin ask, and Evan shook his head, not trusting himself to answer. “Were you sent to a foster home?” he asked softly, and Evan nodded. “Did they hurt you?” Evan shook his head, completely unable to explain that the foster parents were probably good people, but they weren’t his parents, so in his mind, they were the worst people on earth.
“I left. They didn’t want me anyway.” That was the easiest explanation that fit the way Evan thought. He wasn’t their child, and they weren’t his parents, so they couldn’t want him, and he certainly didn’t want them. Evan lifted his eyes from the carpet and saw Father Valentin looking at him nervously. “I’m not going back there,” he added before returning his gaze to the floor.
“I won’t send you back. But do you remember when I said you had to be truthful? That goes both ways.” Evan listened, wondering where this was going. “I need to call the authorities and tell them where you are. I can arrange for legal guardianship to be transferred to me, but I’ll only do that if you allow me to.”
Evan snapped his eyes to Father Valentin. “You’re giving me a choice? That social worker bitch never did. She just dumped me with strangers!” It surprised Evan to realize he didn’t consider Father Valentin a stranger. He didn’t know what he considered him yet, not really, but he thought he could maybe trust him, sort of.
“Yes, you have a choice,” Father Valentin said, reaching across the distance between them, touching his shoulder. “One of our other rules is that swearing of any kind is an offense to God,” Father Valentin said flatly. “The social worker may have been a ‘bitch’, but we don’t say it that way.” Evan saw Father Valentin wink at him, and Father Valentin’s lips turned up in what might have approximated a smile.
“Okay.” He thought for a second. “How about witch with a capital B?” That’s what his mother used to say. Evan choked around the lump that threatened in his throat.
Father Valentin smiled. “If you insist.” Evan saw the smile fade. “How long ago did you leave the foster home?” Evan shrugged. It had been warm when he left, and the first few months had been easier, at least with finding a place to sleep.
“Spring, I guess,” Evan answered, trying to remember. It seemed so long ago. With every day a fight for survival, time had little reference other than temperature and the weather. A soft knock on the door interrupted them, and Evan sank back into the chair as Father Valentin called for whoever it was to enter.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Father, but it’s almost time for mass and….”
Father Valentin rose from his chair, and Evan heard his knees pop. “Thank you, Brother, you were quite right to remind me.” The door closed again. “We should get ready. Come, I’ll show you the way.” Father Valentin walked to the office door and opened it, leading him down the now-noisy hallway filled with boys ranging from a few years younger to a few years older than he was. Evan kept his eyes cast down, careful not to meet anyone’s gaze and still keep Father Valentin in sight. “The chapel is right over there. I need to change. Just go right inside and sit down.”
Father Valentin hurried away, and Evan went where he’d pointed, going into the building and then through another set of doors to a large room with a soaring ceiling. He and his parents hadn’t been to church much, but something about this room seemed to reach deep inside him. Turning to one side, Evan found a back corner, near one of the pillars, and sat down, his eyes darting all around before his head craned upward toward a painted ceiling. He’d never seen anything so beautiful, and his mouth sort of hung open as he stared.
The doors opening and the sound of overlapping voices brought him back, his gaze transferring itself to the floor. The boys all found places to sit, and their voices quieted. Slowly, Evan lifted his eyes and saw Father Valentin walk out, raising his hands, and everyone stood. Father Valentin began singing things, and then everyone sang back. Evan really couldn’t make out many of the words, but he did his best to listen.
The back door of the church opened, and a single boy entered, peering around before closing the door quietly and sliding down to sit next to him. All the boys wore gray pants, white shirts, and blue jackets. The boy next to him touched his arm and handed him one of the blue jackets, motioning for him to put it on. Evan did, looking back at the other boy, wondering what was going on. He tried to mouth his question, but the dark-haired boy simply smiled at him before turning his attention back to the service.
Evan listened to what was happening around him, trying to pay attention, but his eyes kept wandering to the boy sitting next to him on the long hard wooden seat. Evan didn’t know his name, but he did know he had sparkly brown eyes and an open face that made Evan’s insides feel funny when he’d smiled at him. He adjusted himself in his pants slightly and pulled the jacket closed around him. Not only did it keep him warmer, but it also hid other things he didn’t want his companion to see. All through the service, he kept an eye on the boy with jet-black hair. “Amen,” rang through the voluminous space as everyone sang in unison. Then quiet descended for half a second until everyone began to talk again, all the boys heading at once toward the exit.
Evan tried to follow the boy, walking between the wooden seats, but he seemed to join the others and got almost carried away. Not knowing where to go, Evan stopped and stayed where he was until he saw Father Valentin walking toward him. “Good, I see you got a jacket. Excellent,” he said, stopping. “I think we need to get you some lunch. Then you can clean up, and we’ll find you a room.”
Evan nodded and followed, wondering for the millionth time what he was doing here and why this man in particular was being so kind to him. Father Valentin led him back to his office, where he had one of the brothers bring them both some lunch, and then Evan found himself led to a small, private bathroom. “I’ll have some uniforms brought for you, and I’ll see what I can do to find you clothes to wear on the weekends.”
Evan turned back. “I can’t pay for all of this,” he said softly, reaching into his pockets, hands sliding over the bills for a second before he pulled them out and handed them to Father Valentin without saying anything. Before he closed the bathroom door, Evan saw the priest’s eyes widen, and then his mouth curled into a smile.
Stripping off his filthy clothes, Evan pulled off his socks, bills fluttering to the floor. Putting everything in a pile with the bills stuffed in a sock, Evan stepped naked into the shower, turning on the water. Dirt and grime slipped away, washing down the drain. Finding a bottle of shampoo in the corner, he washed his long blond hair, unable to remember the last time he’d had his hair cut.
Evan jumped when he heard the outside door open and braced himself, placing his hands against the tile. So this was how it was? He’d played this game before, many times. Lots of guys who took him home liked to let him clean up before meeting him in the shower. “Father Valentin asked me to bring in some clothes for you,” a quiet, unseen voice said, and Evan heard someone move around on the other side of the curtain. Peering out, he saw a man set a bundle on the counter before leaving the room again. Shaking his head, wet hair flopping on his shoulders, Evan finished his shower before stepping out. Towels rested on the counter along with the clothes and a small plastic bag of toiletries. His meager possessions remained where he’d left them. Drying himself, he pulled on the new clothes, trying not to look at himself as he combed his hair. Putting on his own shoes, Evan picked up his old clothes and left the bathroom, wondering where he should go. “Are you ready?” Evan jumped at the same voice that he’d heard in the bathroom. “Sorry,” the young man said, “Father Val got called away, and he asked me to take you to meet our evaluator.”
“What’s that?” Evan inquired softly.
“Brother Benedict will test where you are academically so we can place you in the proper classes.” The young man walked toward the door.
“Who are you?”
“Oh.” The young man actually giggled. “I’m Brother Timothy. I’m the newest member of the order.” He didn’t seem that much older than Evan. “We shouldn’t keep Brother Bart waiting.” Evan followed Timothy through the halls and up two flights of stairs to a tiny room where he spent the next few hours working problems and reading out loud as well as taking all kinds of tests before Timothy returned. “Let’s get you settled.”
Evan followed Timothy out of the building and along a covered hallway to another building. Inside, Evan was led up more stairs and down yet another long, straight hallway. Heads turned inside rooms with open doors, and some of the other boys murmured quietly as he passed. Evan knew they were talking about him. Keeping his eyes down, he nearly ran into Brother Timothy when the young man stopped at one of the doors. “What’s this?”
“This,” Timothy started to say as he opened the door, “is your room. You’ll share it with one other student.”
Evan stepped forward and walked inside. The black-haired boy from the chapel looked up from his book, smiling at him.
Evan blinked a few times, his belly seizing hard, and for a second he thought he might be sick, but it settled to a dull ache. Evan didn’t know what it meant, but felt fairly confident it had something to do with those huge eyes looking at him. Evan actually looked at Brother Timothy to see if he felt it, but his expression hadn’t changed. “Hi,” the boy said as he stood up, extending his hand. “I’m Clay Mueller, and you must be Evan.”
Not knowing what else to do, Evan reached for the outstretched hand, and his bundle of old clothes slipped from his other hand, landing in a pile on the floor. “I’ll take those to the laundry,” Tim said, picking them up. Evan panicked as he saw his socks with all his money in it moving away. That small stack of bills was everything he had in the world, and if things didn’t work out here…. Hurrying after the young brother, Evan grabbed for his ragged socks as he reached the door. His fingers feeling the bills, Evan clutched the socks as he saw Clay staring at him. Trying to get his heart to stop pounding, Evan gripped the bits of fabric like lifelines and watched as Brother Timothy disappeared from view.
“I take it those socks are special,” Clay said, and Evan turned to him for a brief second before lowering his eyes to the floor, still holding the bits of fabric with everything he owned inside them. “Sorry,” Clay said, and Evan sat on the edge of what he guessed was his bed, since it was the only one made and that half of the room appeared empty. The mattress sank beneath him, and Evan peered around the room, which consisted of two beds, dressers, and desks, along with a closet and window. “Father Val said you’ve had a hard time of things,” Clay commented, and Evan lifted his eyes, finding Clay looking back. That seemed like the understatement of the century to Evan, but he wasn’t in any mood to comment. He was still trying to figure out who, or what, had brought him here. “Not much of a talker? That’s okay,” Clay continued. “My mom says I talk enough for eight people, so we’ll get along fine.” Evan felt the bed dip as Clay sat next to him. “This is your bed,” Clay went on. “You probably know that already, and that’s your dresser. I put the uniforms and clothes brother Tim brought in the drawers. And that desk is yours, and you have half the closet, although I have to warn you, it’s more like a quarter because my mom keeps sending more stuff, and I’m running out of room.”
Evan looked away from his shoes, watching Clay as he talked on. He wasn’t sure if Clay was really talking to him or just talking. “Okay,” Evan said, not really caring, since his meager possessions would probably fit in one drawer of the white painted dresser.
“Hey, Clay.” Another boy bounded into the room, and Evan saw him staring at both of them. “How long before you drive this one away? Clay hates having roommates and always finds a way to drive them away,” the boy with wavy brown hair and a big nose went on to explain.
“Knock it off, Bryson,” Clay said, jumping from the bed, grabbing the kid around the neck before running his knuckles over his head as they both began laughing.
Evan stood up. “I’ll just go,” he said softly. He should have known this was too good. He wasn’t going to fit in, not here. The only place he fit was on the streets, like the whore he was. At least there he knew what to expect and could see things coming. Here, he never knew what to expect about anything. His socks still in hand, Evan walked out of the room and down the hall, toward the far door, hoping he could find Brother Timothy to get his clothes back. He had some money; he could use it to get back to where he belonged.
“Hey.” He heard running behind him. “Evan, wait up.” He kept walking and then felt someone tug on his arm. “Where are you going?” That was a good question. He could have answered “home,” but he didn’t have one. He’d spent months wandering, sleeping anywhere he could find. “Come on.” He felt Clay tug him back toward the room. “Don’t listen to Bryson. He’s a complete moron.” Back in the room, Clay shut the door like his new roommate was going to try to escape. “Do you want to talk about what happened to you?”
Evan shook his head. “Not really.”
“That’s okay. You don’t have to tell me, you know.” Clay flitted around the room, picking up some of the scattered clothes and pulling the covers up on his bed. “You know what I think?” Clay asked as he continued moving. “I think we’re going to be good friends.” A chime sounded outside the room, and Clay straightened his clothes. “Dinner’s in five minutes,” Clay announced. “You should put your things away, and we’ll go.”
Looking around, Evan realized the only thing he had to put away was his socks. Opening the top dresser drawer, Evan set the socks under the other clothes and shut the drawer. The sound of footsteps in the hall drew his attention, and Clay opened the door, waiting for him.
“Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” Clay stepped into the hallway, and Evan followed, joining the throng of other boys as they made their way down the stairs. At one point, he lost sight of Clay, and with everyone wearing the same thing, he couldn’t pick him out. Evan followed the crowd and found himself in a large dining room. All the other boys lined up and appeared to be waiting. He felt a nudge on his arm and saw Clay standing next to him, giving him a smile. Peering around at the other boys dressed identically, he realized they all looked the same. Looking down at his own clothes, Evan realized he looked like everyone else—well, sort of.
All the boys bowed their heads, becoming quiet, and Evan saw Father Valentin standing near one side of the room. Evan followed suit, and he heard what sounded like a prayer. As soon as the prayer ended, doors opened and everyone talked at once, well, everyone except him. Following Clay, Evan picked up a tray and did whatever Clay did.
Carrying his full tray back out into the room, he sat next to Clay, and soon other boys joined their table. “Guys, this is my new roommate, Evan. That’s Pete,” Clay said, pointing, “Patrick, Wilbur, Dex, and the guy on the end is Frankie.”
Evan felt a little overwhelmed. Would these guys like him or hate him on sight? Sometimes he half expected he had the word “whore” embossed into his forehead and that everyone knew what he’d been doing to survive. “Hi,” he said tentatively.
“Father Val helped out Frankie too,” Clay offered, and Evan looked at the other boy sitting at the far edge of the table.
“My folks couldn’t afford the tuition, and Father Val arranged for a scholarship,” Frankie offered with a pleased smile. “Father Val helps everyone he can. There are other guys here that he’s helped too,” Frankie said, pointing around the room before turning back to the table. “It takes some getting used to, but this is a good school, and most of us can go on to really good colleges,” Frankie said with a smile on his face.
College was out of the question as far as Evan was concerned. He just needed to get through each day. The streets had taught him not to look forward to tomorrow, but to just try to live through each day as it came. “So this is for real?” Evan asked, directing the question to Frankie. “He’s really that nice and doesn’t want nothin’?”
All the boys around the table turned to where Father Valentin walked among the tables. Evan saw him stop at almost every table, talking to the boys, sometimes laughing, sharing a hug with some, especially what looked like the younger boys. Then he saw him walk closer, approaching their table. “Evening, boys,” he said jovially.
“Hi, Father Val,” seemed to be the most common response, and Evan saw the other boys smile at the priest, genuinely happy to see him. “You’ve all met Evan?” They nodded in response. “Excellent. I’d appreciate it if you’d show him around. Clay, we’ve placed him in many of your classes.” He pulled out a printed page and handed it to Evan. “Clay will help you get to your classes tomorrow,” Father Val told him. “Now, boys, I know I’m asking a lot here, but could you refrain from the usual initiation pranks? Evan needs to settle in, and I’d appreciate it if we could forego those, at least until he’s had a chance to feel like one of us.” All the boys nodded, and a few of them suppressed smiles. “Thank you, boys. I’ll see some of you at bed check.” Father Val gave them a smile, and Evan felt a hand rest on his shoulder, fingers squeezing lightly. Looking up, he saw the priest smile genuinely at him, and Evan’s breath caught at the look on the man’s face. He hadn’t seen that since his dad had told him good night the day before…. Turning away, Evan looked down at his tray, unwilling to let the others see what he was feeling.
Laughter around the table pulled his attention back to the others, and he saw milk flowing down Frankie’s face as one of the other boys patted his back. Evan felt himself smile, remembering what that was like. Taking a bite of food from his plate, Evan pushed away some of his feelings as he listened to the other boys, watching them have their fun, noticing that they included him. As they told their jokes, they waited for him to laugh too. One of the boys farted loudly before saying something about there being a duck under the table. Evan found himself smiling and then laughing, hard and strong, feeling the first bit of his worry begin to slip away just a little, and when his turn came, he told a joke he remembered his dad telling about a toothbrush salesman. The boys listened and then burst out laughing at the punch line.
Evan saw one of the brothers walk toward their table, a stern look on his face, and Evan turned back to his plate. As the brother approached the table, Evan saw Father Valentin steer him away. Evan wasn’t sure the others saw, but he could have sworn Father Valentin winked at him as he steered the brother toward another table.
All the boys finished their dinner, bussing their trays before leaving the room. Evan once again did as Clay did before following him back to their room. Clay turned on the light before stripping off his uniform. Changing into sweats and a T-shirt, he flopped onto his bed with one of his books. “You want one?” Clay asked, lobbing a book at him. “This is our first class in the morning,” Clay explained before telling him the assignment.
Evan sat at his empty desk and opened the book. Clay passed him a sheet of paper, and Evan began to work his way through the problems. Math had always been easy for him, and this seemed familiar, but every few minutes, he found himself peeking at Clay. Finishing the problems, Evan turned to Clay to ask a question and saw him yawn, arms stretching over his head, shirt riding high, a strip of lightly tanned belly showing above his sweatpants. Evan turned back around, feeling himself react. He knew what that meant. He’d taken care of many other men with that reaction, but none of them had ever affected him like that. Clay handed him another book and explained the reading assignment. Evan plodded his way through it for a while until he yawned. “It’s almost time for bed check,” Clay announced, and he left the room, returning a few minutes later. “Bathroom’s two doors down on the left. You better hurry or you’ll wait forever.”
Evan grabbed the small bag of toiletries he’d been given and walked down the hall to the bathroom, hearing laughter drift out from the other rooms. In the bathroom, other boys hurried around, cleaning up and doing their business, most dressed for sleep. Evan did his best to ignore everyone, brushing his teeth before hurrying back to his room. Clay was already in bed, and Evan stripped off his clothes, folding them carefully.
Sliding between the sheets, he turned out the light. A soft knock sounded and then the door opened. Father Val walked in, saying good night to Clay before stepping to Evan’s bed. He looked up into the priest’s kind face and smiled, finally allowing himself to believe and hope this was all real. He saw the priest smile back before patting him lightly on the shoulder and leaving the room.
“Good night, Evan,” he heard Clay say as he rolled over.
“Night,” Evan replied softly with a smile.