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Starting Late book cover

Starting Late
A Tale from Spearfish Lake
Wes Boyd
©2011, ©2013

Chapter 2

Mark’s mother Rose didn’t have much more to add to what they already knew, but had the name and number of the social worker down in Decatur, Arlene Bloch, who had called her a short time before. It only took a moment to get the social worker on the phone and identify himself.

“I’m glad to hear from you, Mr. Gravengood,” Mrs. Bloch said. “Brianna and Rebecca told me they had no other close relatives but their great-grandmother.”

“Their grandfather was my brother,” Mark told the social worker. “He died several years ago.”

“You’re willing to take the girls in, I take it?”

“This comes as a surprise,” Mark replied. “But we’re still family, so of course we’d be willing. Are you with the girls right now?”

“Yes.” the social worker replied. “Would you like to speak to them?”

“Yes, please, either one or both.”

There was a moment’s fumbling around before he heard the words, “Hi, I’m Becca.”

“Hi, Becca,” Mark replied, trying to sound gentle and supportive. “I’m sorry to hear about your mother. I’m your Uncle Mark, I don’t know if you’d remember me or not.”

“You’re the tall man with the airplane, right?” the girlish voice replied. “I remember you telling Bree and me about flying around in it back at Grandpa’s funeral.”

“That’s me. I know this isn’t the easiest time for you, but my wife and I have been asked to take the two of you in. Would that work all right for you?”

“I guess,” Becca replied. “Bree and I talked it over a little and we really don’t want to go to a foster home. We both know kids who have been in foster homes and some of the stuff they tell us isn’t very nice.”

“Well, if you’re up for it, Jackie and I are. I guess we’ll be seeing you soon. Now let me talk to Mrs. Bloch again.”

The social worker was back on the line in a moment. “How soon can you get here?” she asked.

“It’s a good four hundred miles, so there’s not any way we can get there before morning,” Mark said after a moment’s thought. “But we can drive all night if there’s a need to.”

“That will be fine,” Mrs. Bloch replied. “But under the circumstances we need to do something with the girls tonight. I can take them to our shelter house for the night if you don’t know anyone down here who could take them in for tonight. If you could tell me of someone, it would be a lot simpler.”

Mark was going to agree with the suggestion of the shelter house, but glanced across the hot tub noticing Mike and Kirsten hanging on every word. Henry and Cindy were down there in Decatur, after all . . . “Hang on for a minute,” he told the social worker. “There might be something. Give me a minute to work on it.”

He covered the receiver of the phone and quickly explained the problem to his friends, and asked, “You guys think Henry and Cindy might be willing to help out?”

“My cell phone is in my pants,” Mike said, getting out of the tub. “I’ll give them a call.”

Mark spoke back into the cordless. “Ma’am, our best friends are here with us. Their son lives down there, and they’re going to try to get hold of him. Now, can you tell me what happened with Shannon?”

“I’d really rather not, not right now,” the social worker replied, obviously wanting to avoid the topic.

“I get it,” Mark said. “The girls haven’t been told the whole story yet, right?”

“That’s essentially correct,” the social worker replied. “Just as a suggestion, if you’re going to drive down here, you might want to plan on staying in town for a couple days. As you’re the next of kin, there’ll be details you need to deal with in releasing the children to you, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’ll be other things, including funeral arrangements.”

“I suppose,” Mark said as he came to the realization that this wasn’t going to be a simple trip down to Decatur to pick up Rebecca and Brianna; he hadn’t even thought about the funeral aspect and had no idea of where to start with that. It took no imagination to realize there was going to be much more. He glanced over at Mike, who was standing out on the deck, talking on his cell phone. From the way the conversation appeared to be going, things looked positive.

They were. “They’ll be glad to do it,” Mike reported. “The only thing is that the girls will have to sleep in the same bed or one of them will have to sleep on the couch. Shouldn’t matter for only one night, though.”

There was a little confusion in getting the address where Mrs. Bloch and the girls were to Henry, but it was soon accomplished. “He says he should be there in under an hour,” Mark finally reported to the social worker. “You might have the girls pack enough for a couple nights, just in case something slips up,” he suggested as an afterthought.

“I’ll do that,” she replied. “I’ll need to get together with you tomorrow to go over the paperwork.”

“The simple way is probably to do it at Henry’s,” Mark replied. “I don’t know Decatur much, but I can find his place.”

“If you think you can be there around ten, I can manage that,” she told him.

“Well, unless you have something else for us tonight, we’ll see you in the morning,” Mark said.

“That’ll be fine,” she replied. “I have to thank you for responding so quickly and generously.”

“Like I said, it’s family,” Mark replied. “See you tomorrow.”

Mark punched the off button on the cordless and looked at Mike, who was holding out his cell phone. “Here,” his friend said. “You better get this from the horse’s mouth.”

Mark took the cell phone and said, “Hi, Henry. What’s up?”

“This is Shannon Gravengood you guys are talking about, right?”

“Yeah,” Mark replied. “The social worker didn’t want to say anything because the kids were listening in.”

“I don’t blame her,” Henry said. “The TV station sent me out and I was there when they pulled her car from the river today. Her body was in it. Her purse was with her so they got a tentative ID right away.”

“Ran off the road into the river?” Mark asked.

“I don’t think so,” Henry said. “The medical examiner on the scene said off the record that he’d bet money that she was dead before she hit the water.”

“She was murdered?” Mark said, eyes open wide.

“I wouldn’t want to say that, not just yet,” Henry told him. “But suspicious circumstances, for damn sure.”

*   *   *

“Well,” Mark sighed as he turned the phone off after talking with Henry for a couple more minutes but not getting much more detail than he already had. “So much for a relaxing soak tonight.”

“Expect the unexpected,” Mike grinned. “In fact, that’s about the first rule of being parents. You might as well learn it now.”

“No fooling,” Kirsten added. “In a way, I wish it was us instead of you. I mean, we’ve been there, we have some idea of what to expect. But I’m sure that Mike will agree that we’ll do what we can to help you out.”

“It’s what, about eight hours down to Henry’s?” Jackie asked.

“About that,” Mike said. “Maybe a little less at night, the traffic down there shouldn’t be too bad in the wee small hours.”

“I’d think we ought to be there around nine,” Mark said thoughtfully. “Jackie and I could grab three or four hours of sleep and then drive straight through.”

“And then you’d be beat to shit after an eight-hour drive when you meet the kids,” Mike pointed out. “Maybe it would be better if I went along to help with the driving.”

“Both of us ought to go,” Kirsten offered. “Both to help with the driving and help with the kids. They’re probably going to be pretty upset. Maybe it’ll help to have a couple extra hands.”

“It would be helpful, and it would be nice of you,” Jackie said. “But that means that we’d have six of us coming back, plus who knows how much stuff. We’re definitely not getting six of us in my car.”

“We could probably take Josh and Tiffany’s minivan,” Mike suggested. “It’d be a little bit bigger.”

“It would still be pretty crowded for that long a trip,” Jackie pointed out.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Mike conceded.

“We could call up Gil and Carrie and see if they’d let us take their motor home,” Kirsten suggested. “The girls are going to have clothes and stuff they’ll want to bring with them, and there would be plenty of room in that.”

“Not a bad idea,” Mark said. “I almost hate to call them this late, though.”

“I’ll call,” Kirsten offered. “It was my idea, after all. Something like this, they won’t mind.”

“I suppose,” Mark shook his head. “That way, at least some of us can get some sleep tonight.”

“Actually, while we probably ought to get rolling tonight, there’s no huge rush,” Mike observed as he handed his cell phone to his wife. “If we hurry we’ll just get there in the wee small hours when everyone is asleep. But we probably ought to figure on being there several days. The foster care system is probably going to have hoops for you to jump through, and there’ll be stuff at Shannon’s place that you’ll have to deal with.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” Mark said. “I’ve been thinking about it a little, and the more I do the more I realize just how complicated this is going to be. Hell, I have no idea of what we’re jumping into. It could be days before we head home.”

“Boy, is that ever the truth,” Mike shook his head. “You’ve gotten lucky and managed to avoid all the hassles that kids can drop on you. Now you’re getting them at the most obnoxious teenage years, and you’re going to have to learn fast.”

“Quit trying to make me have even more second thoughts,” Mark snorted. “I’ve already got enough of my own to hold me as it is.”

“Look on the bright side,” Mike laughed, either trying to stick the needle in a little further or trying to help – it was a little hard to say which. “The youngest is, what did you say, twelve? That means probably six more years to get her out of high school. That’s about when you were talking about retiring, and by then you’ll be ready to.”

“I almost hate to say it, but that’s what I’m afraid of,” Mark sighed. “Right off the top of my head I don’t see how it’ll affect what I do about the ISP, but it’ll probably have some bearing on the question.”

While Mike had been teasing Mark – if that was what it was – Kirsten had managed to get Gil on her cell phone. “OK, it’s all set up,” she reported. “The motor home is pretty much all ready to go, except that it doesn’t have much in it. Gil says he and Carrie haven’t used it since they came back from Arizona a couple months ago, and they’re pretty much going to be out at the club all summer, so it’s ours to use if we want it. I told him we’d be over to pick it up pretty soon, so he’s going to go out and check it over, just to be on the safe side.”

“Good enough,” Mark said, the uncertainty of the strange situation reduced by the prospect of doing something, rather than just worrying about it. “I suppose we’d better get moving, then. It’s getting late enough as it is and I don’t think we want to put him out more than necessary. You guys run home and pack your stuff; we’ll meet you at your place in a few minutes.”

“Suppose we might as well,” Kirsten said. “Darn, it’s such a good night for a soak, too.”

“There’ll be other times,” Jackie smiled. “I suppose you’ll want to call Tiffany and tell her we’re all going to be gone. Tell her to come up and feed the cats while you’re at it. She’s done it before, she knows where everything is.”

*   *   *

Gil and Carrie Evachevski were old friends of the four of them – more than that, actually; Mike and Kirsten had worked with Carrie for over three decades up until she retired a few years before. These days, they spent their winters someplace in Arizona, where they wouldn’t be up to their fannies in the kind of snow that Spearfish Lake gets in the winter. It took only about twenty minutes before the four of them pulled into their driveway in Kirsten’s car.

Both Gil and Carrie were in the motor home checking things out when the four arrived. “As far as I can tell it’s ready to go,” Gil told them. “Just be warned – it’s real hard to hold this thing’s head when you get near a gas pump. You’ve got forty gallons of tankage, and that’s enough to get you three hundred miles at highway speeds, maybe a little more. And when the gas gauge on this thing says it’s empty, it means that it’s empty. It’s full now, so just bring it back full. Oil is OK, it won’t use any. Bear in mind that you’re driving a truck, not a car. It doesn’t accelerate or stop quickly.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Mark told him. “I’ve driven one of these things before. Not a whole lot, but enough to know what it’s all about.”

“There’s no food or anything on board,” Carrie told the younger women. “If we leave it stocked up we get mice in it, and that’s a problem. I left some bed linen in the back closet, but I haven’t made the beds. I didn’t know if you’re planning on using them.”

“Probably not much,” Jackie told her. “We’re mostly going to be driving all night and trying to get a little sleep in the back while we’re on the road. We’ll probably come back during the day, but everything is a little up in the air. This came as a real surprise to us.”

“No doubt,” Carrie agreed. “Kirsten said this came out of nowhere, with absolutely no warning. Do you know these kids at all?”

“I’ve seen them maybe two or three times in my life,” Jackie told her while Gil showed Mark and Mike about switches, gauges, and the like. “The last time was several years ago, at Mark’s brother’s funeral. I’ll have to admit that I don’t even have any clear memory of them. They were just, well, little kids I didn’t have any reason to remember.”

“That’s going to make it rough,” Carrie observed, something that was already clear to Jackie. “But never forget that it’s going to be even harder on the girls than it will be on you. You’re just having a couple of new additions. It’s going to be a whole new world to them.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” Jackie agreed. “I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

*   *   *

Although the timing wasn’t quite right, there was nothing to keep them from getting on the road; it seemed better than sitting around and waiting for a couple hours. If they got into Decatur early, then they got there early; they could sit around and have a long breakfast or something if necessary.

As soon as they pulled the motor home out of Mike and Kirsten’s driveway, Mike and Jackie decided to make use of single bunks in the back to catch a little shut-eye. Kirsten moved up front to ride shotgun with Mark and keep him company while he drove the big rig on the first leg of the trip. That was fine with him; he was in the mood for some company, if for nothing more than keeping him awake on this unexpected journey. Besides, he thought, Kirsten usually was fun to talk with.

Before long they were out on the state road south of Spearfish Lake. While the motor home was big, it didn’t take Mark long to get used to it, even though he hadn’t often driven vehicles this size. At first he took it easy; there was no point in rushing, after all. His mind was churning with questions and potential problems, not only with the decision about Marlin.com, but about what would happen now with the two girls they’d just agreed to take in. After a few miles he realized he wasn’t being very courteous to Kirsten and figured a conversation would take his mind away from all the uncertainty this day had produced.

“I’m afraid I wasn’t paying much attention when you were talking about Susan’s latest big idea,” he admitted, after thinking a bit for something to talk about. “I had my mind on the offer to buy out my interest in Marlin.com all too much, and now on the impact the girls are going to have, and I need to think about something else.”

“Well, if it were anyone other than Susan I might not worry too much about it,” Kirsten replied, “but it is Susan, and I learned a long time ago that she’s not going to do anything like a normal Spearfish Lake kid.”

“Boy, that’s the truth,” Mark agreed. Susan was one of a kind, and he and Jackie had lived through some of the hassles at only a slight remove. Susan was a great kid, but she was an independent cuss with her own goals, fortunately with the talents and usually the maturity to back them up.

In her younger years, say before middle school, Susan had seemed more or less like a normal kid – with only one exception: she spoke German literally like a native, learned from her grandmother from babyhood. Since Kirsten had been busy working while Susan was quite small, Kirsten’s mother Birgit, a post-World War II German war bride, had taken over much of the child-care duties. Birgit soon discovered that even as a toddler Susan had an ear for languages, so the little girl grew up speaking both German and English fluently.

About the time Susan was in sixth grade, she made friends with a boy from a family who ran a Mexican restaurant in Spearfish Lake; by the time she was in high school she was fluent in Spanish as well, although with a strong Tex-Mex accent. In two years of high school she laid down a good base in French as well.

Early in middle school Susan came up with the idea that she wanted to do a year-long foreign exchange program in her junior year of high school. She did it, spending a year in Germany, and qualifying as a graduate of a German Gymnasium. When she came back to the States, rather than going back to high school, she used the German Abitur, the graduation certificate, to enroll in a local community college. After a year there, she and Mizuki Takashita, a friend she’d met at the community college, transferred to Southern Michigan University, hundreds of miles away.

Susan and Mizuki had done well at Southern Michigan; it was a school that specialized in excellence. The two roomed together; since Mizuki, like Susan, was bilingual from babyhood, they usually spoke with each other in Japanese for the sake of Susan learning the language. Susan was now tolerably fluent in it and was coming along at learning the ideographs.

“The problem is,” Kirsten explained, “Mizuki is running short of money to finish her degree, and she doesn’t want to get into the student loan hassle, which I can understand. The local school where her mother lives in Japan apparently is looking for a couple of native English speakers who speak Japanese fairly well to help teach English as a foreign language. Mizuki wouldn’t mind being around her mother for a while, especially if there’s a job involved and she can live cheaply. Of course, Susan sees it as a way to spend a year in Japan and get paid for it while she soaks up more of the language and culture.”

“Well, it sounds reasonable,” Mark shrugged. “If I understand Susan correctly, that’s pretty much what she wants to do anyway – live overseas and get paid for it.”

“Yeah, but it would be nice for her to finish college first,” Kirsten sighed, “but if I’ve learned anything about Susan, or about kids in general, it’s that they usually wind up doing what they want to do whether it makes good sense or not. I hate to say this, Mark, but I’m afraid those two kids of Shannon’s are going to wind up teaching you that, as well.”

“I don’t doubt you’re right,” he replied after a moment. “Hell, this whole thing is so new to me I don’t know what to think.”

“I can tell you this. You have no idea what you’re getting into. They could be good kids, or they could be the worst possible teenage monsters on two legs. Usually when people have kids they’re young enough to be able to cope with the hassles. At least if it were Mike and I this was dumped on, we’ve been through it enough to have some idea of how to deal with most everything you’re going to be facing. You and Jackie are going to be starting from scratch, without that kind of experience to back you up. I’m just afraid those two kids are going to drive you up the wall.”

“It can’t be that bad.”

“The hell it can’t,” she snorted. “It was bad enough with Tiffany getting into dogsled racing. At least you and Mike were into it at the same time, so we all were just going to the dogs, and things made a little sense. And then, at least Henry was a little bit normal, although the way he was sniffing around Cindy for years was enough to drive us batty from time to time. Neither of them prepared us for Susan. Kids are different, Mark. Not only are they not grown up yet, they all seem to be different from each other. The differences can drive you nuts.”

“You could be right,” he shook his head, not taking his eyes from the road, “but I guess we’re stuck with it. I don’t see how we can do anything else. I guess you realize that Jackie and I are going to be leaning on you and Mike when we run into trouble.”

“Oh, we’ll help where we can, you can be sure of that. It’s just that probably about the best we’ll be able to do most of the time is give you some advice, and it’ll pretty much be the two of you dealing with the real issues.”

“I can see we’re going to need some help,” Mark replied thoughtfully, “but on the other hand, it could be fun. I mean, it was only a couple hours ago I was griping about wanting to find something new to do.”

“That’s it, look on the bright side,” Kirsten giggled. “This is going to be a new challenge for you, all right. But, I’ll tell you this: don’t think it’s going to be over with as soon as the kids get out of high school. There’s college, and then there’s the stuff after that. Your life just changed, Mark. I don’t think you realize yet just how much it changed.”

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