I woke up early the next morning, but laid in bed for a while remembering the sense of foreboding I'd felt at the Doc's house. Even the next day it didn't make any sense, but it had been very real, and the feeling started to come back just thinking about it.
It had gotten cloudy and Wes thought it was going to rain, so we spent the morning picking up the hay we'd been baling and stashed it in the barn. We took showers and had lunch, then drove back to Stratton. The sky was really getting dark, and we drove into light rain just before we arrived. There wasn't going to be a campfire, but creative minds had been at work. The living room drapes were closed, and the only light was from a bunch of candles burning on a low table in the middle of the floor. An indoor campfire. It could work.
We spent a few minutes on hello's then got to it, taking pretty much the same positions we'd been in the night before. There was a low rumble of thunder from outside It was actually a little eerie and exciting.
Don started talking again. "Davy, I think I was getting into too much detail last night. We've got a lot of ground to cover, and I don't want to talk all week. I told you we got Artie's aunt's phone number. I tried to call a few times but never got an answer. I finally got hold of her husband one night. He didn't know me from Adam, and it was hard to get him to say anything. He did say that Artie's mother had died several years ago, but get this ... he thought it was from a broken heart because Artie had died as a child. She never got over it. Stick with me here, I've gotta go in two directions at once. He didn't want to say anymore on the phone, but when I asked, he said it'd be okay if I came to visit.
"Kenny was there with me and I told him what the guy said about Artie. If he was dead, who the fuck's using his name? If it's really him, why would his folks tell the family he'd died? If he was dead, why wouldn't we have found that out sooner? Who'd try to hide something like that? This whole damn thing was giving us more new questions than we were getting answers for. We were all scratching our heads like we had lice. I was thinking that your guy is really Artie. I mean, how could a kid die and the neighbors not even know? Ken had a point, though. Maybe the parents had killed him somehow and just made like something else happened when they had to face the family. That might explain their just disappearing in the middle of the night.
"I talked to one of my detective friends, and he said it wasn't that hard to take on the identity of a dead person. You could just go to town hall and get a copy of a birth certificate of someone who'd died, then use that to get a Social Security number, driver's license - anything like that. They don't cross reference births and deaths. It's pretty easy."
The storm was getting closer, and some of the thunder claps were getting loud. Hearing this stuff in this setting was getting me nervous, though the inner fear I'd felt yesterday hadn't returned. I leaned back into Timmy and he tightened his grip on me a little.
"We could guess about stuff all day and not get anywhere, so one weekend Ken, Jim and I drove down to Delaware to meet the relatives. They were a nice couple, but we had to get them upset to get anything out of them. We decided to just tell them that a guy was living as Artie Loomis in his old home town. I told them what the detective had said about that kind of thing and how it could be done. They said that Artie had died in an accident when he was ten. Artie's folks told the family that they'd been too distraught to have a proper funeral and just had him cremated before they told anybody. They couldn't stand the idea of staying there, and had just packed up and sold the house.
"It got hard then. They showed us some pictures of Artie when he was a kid. We couldn't say anything to them, but there was no doubt in my mind that Artie Loomis is still alive and living in your old house. What got to all of us is that he looked like a normal, happy kid.
"There was one studio portrait, but that was when he was about three. They had school pictures up to about age nine, but most of the pictures were snapshots at a family picnic when he was eight. It's totally normal stuff, Dave. You see him playing with other kids, eating, sitting on his father's lap. He was a nice looking kid - nice features and a good smile. There ain't a thing to indicate something unusual about him or his life. Certainly nothin' to tell us how his life had turned into a mystery."
"I still don't get what all this has to do with me."
"Almost there, Dave. Almost there."
"But, why'd you go do all this work for me? You spent a lotta time".
Don smiled sadly, "Davy, I got kids, too. So does Kenny. I don't know if Jimbo told you yet, but he's gonna be a daddy in December. I don't want that fuck livin' in the same town, much less a mile from my house. You're my friend, Dave, and Artie Loomis did some truly evil things to you. If you think he's gonna be around to try that with my kids, you got another think coming. While I'm thinking of it, let me ask a couple of questions."
"When you were doing the pictures and things, did you ever wonder about the other kids, who they were and why they were there?"
I shrugged, "I guess I sort'a wondered. I never talked to any of them. Why?"
Don sneered, "I know something about them now. A few were like you, doing it to make their drug payments. A couple of the older ones were gay kids just wantin' to have some fun and make money at the same time. Didn't you ever wonder about the young kids, though? Didn't you ever wonder exactly what the fuck they were doing there ... doing that?"
"I guess I didn't think about it. I was tryin' to forget about what I was doing, never mind somebody else's problems." I started to cry thinking about it. What the fuck had been in my head? They were little kids, and I just did what I was told to do. They did too. We were like little robots with hardons, just making pornography, doing whatever they asked. If I was truly human I would've gotten outraged - smashed the cameras and the photographers and rescued those kids. I could have done it easily. There was never anybody there with a gun or anything. No one ever even threatened us. They told us what they wanted, we did it, they paid us, then we left. It was almost sterile in a way.
Don stared, "They were brought there by their parents, Dave. They were used to pay off drug and gambling debts. It's the sickest thing I ever heard of, but it's been going on for a long time. A real long time. You okay?" He was looking at me, trying to read my expression.
"No, I'm not okay. How could somebody do that? What'd they say, 'C'mon Johnny, you go take a couple of dicks up the ass and I'll buy you an ice cream'? How could it be like that? What kind of sick people could do that? How sick can you be to ask someone to do that? I feel like throwing up."
"You need a break?"
I shook my head, "No, I'm alright. Thinkin' about it makes me sick. Just keep going."
"Let's get back to Delaware. When Artie's parents left town they moved to the D.C. area. They got jobs at the local phone company and tried to get back on with their lives. Artie's mother stayed in limited contact with her sister until she died. They'd only heard from his father a few times since then, but they didn't have any reason to think he'd moved. They gave us his address, Dave. We could find Artie's father, and we were most of the way to Washington anyhow."
I felt a sudden need, "I think I do need a bathroom break if it's ok."
"It's fine. Let's all stretch for a few minutes."
I watched the storm from the bathroom window for a minute after I peed. It was really pouring outside and it was almost as dark as night. I drank some water from the tap and returned to the living room. I sat down with Timmy, but the guys were in another room. When they came in they all looked at me. Don and Ken looked like they'd been crying. Barry and Jim gave me looks of pure concern. Don didn't sit down.
"Davy, I'm gonna cut through the crap. We found Artie's father and confronted him. He swore for a long time that Artie was dead, but we kept pushing. He finally collapsed in a ball on the sofa and started crying. We just stood there and waited. Then he came clean. I'm not even gonna try to tell you the details, here.
"Artie's father had been a gambler. It wasn't anything serious at first - just friendly poker games and stuff like that. He got more and more into it, finding bigger and bigger games. He wasn't bad at it, and pretty much broke even. Then he found the big game in town, and he was hooked on it. He started to lose. At first it was just pocket money, then it became grocery money, then bill money ... it got worse and worse. He was a typical gambler, thinking he just needed one big score to get back even. His wife was all over his case about it and he backed off for a while, then went right back at it. He started losing more than he had. He was playing on credit. People wanted their money. It was money he didn't have. He borrowed from his family and friends, then started selling things. He couldn't keep up. He started to get threats, then got the shit kicked out of himself one night.
"He got a call one night where the caller described Artie to him, where he went to school, the route he took home, stuff like that. The guy on the phone said the kid would have a hard time walking with broken legs. The alternative would be for him to bring Artie somewhere to have some pictures taken. Nothing dirty or anything. The photographer would start to pay down the gambling debt. They gave him three choices. Pay up with interest, play along, or watch his kid get hurt. He played along and started to bring Artie for picture sessions. You can fill in the blanks here, Dave. It was the same sick progression you went through.
"The problem was it barely earned enough to pay the interest on his gambling debt. After almost a year they gave him another ultimatum. Give them Artie and clear out of town. Otherwise Artie was dead, along with his wife for good measure. He begged and pleaded, but it was no good. They got Artie, and the parents left with their bullshit story about the accident. Artie was ten years old."
I found myself crying for ten year old Artie Loomis. Not the new one, but the little boy who'd been given to these evil people by his own parents. Everybody was crying. Ken sat down beside me and pulled me into a hug. He was bawling out loud on my shoulder.
Don's voice continued. He was so choked with emotion he could barely speak. "I ... I'm so sorry, Davy. I really am. The man James Loomis delivered Artie to was Salvatore Devino. It was your uncle, Dave."
The words sank in. If Uncle Sal was involved, then my father probably knew about this. Suddenly I wasn't just another kid riding the spinning surface of the planet with everyone else. I got dropped off. I could feel Ken and Tim tightening their grips on me. I leaned back into Tim and Ken let me go. My mind wasn't working well, it was trying to reject what I'd just heard. I wanted to throw up, not just the contents of my belly but all the rotten information in my brain as well.
I knew I had no way to verify this. My father and my uncle were both dead. Who could explain it to me? I knew more about my father's business than my mother did. She never wanted to know. I was certain in my mind that my father couldn't have been directly involved - he loved kids - his own and everyone's.
Sal was a different matter. I knew that my father argued with him all the time, though I didn't know what the fights were about. I just knew that they were frequent and loud. The ones I heard were always in my father's den. You could hear the voices but not the words.
I felt Tim's cheek next to mine. "You okay, Dave?"
I looked around, and everyone was looking at me. "I don't know. No! I'm not okay! I never expected that. I didn't want to hear that."
Mary knelt down in front of me. "David, you and I should talk about this. Right now! It's important that we deal with your feelings before you try to rationalize this. Are you up to it? It's really important to do it now."
I knew that word. We'd talked about rationalization a lot. Mary thought that's what I did. I made everything not matter by convincing myself that it didn't. It was my normal way of thinking. We'd never figured out what caused me to be like that.
I looked around at everyone again, recognizing the care and concern in their faces. I felt Timmy's hug, his face against mine.
"Okay. Let's talk."
... to be continued
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