Circle of Pride began as a response to the training I attended with my husband to become foster parents. As we listened to seasoned foster parents and met some young adults who had grown up in 'the system' I was constantly amazed by their tenacity, their courage, and their drive to truly become better than their situation afforded them.
While I've certainly added a supernatural element to Circle of Pride, I've done so only because it seems that every foster child and every foster parent would benefit from seeing the supernatural beings act on their part for good and to see the beings that are twisting their hands eagerness to make life difficult and miserable. How could someone benefit from seeing that? Because I like to know what's going on in just about every situation. When someone is sick, they instantly feel a sense of relief when they learn what it is.
Perhaps this novel is my creative diagnosis of our society's short-comings, the hereos that I pray are real, and a boost to all families who are out there fighting the good fight.
And to those in the Foster Care system as children, to those who work for pennies to help those children, and to the parents who open their homes to bring in children whom they will learn to love, my prayers are all for you! May this story be inspiring, entertaining, and may it renew your sense of purpose and instill a stronger mission in your life.
Russ wasn’t one to believe in superstitions, but when the coin reappeared in his cereal, he knew he was in trouble. Even worse, Matt saw it.
“Isn’t that—?” Matt started but Russ cut him off.
“No,” he lied.
But Matt wasn’t stupid. “Yes it is. Why do you have it in your cereal?”
Not wanting to think about it—or eat his cereal—Russ hurried to the trash can and dumped out the contents of his bowl, went to his room and locked the door. The bag under his bed, filled with food he had swiped from the kitchen, was for situations just like this. Well, maybe not just like this; Russ had spent many hungry nights alone, but never because a cursed coin kept showing up in the most inconvenient places.
He knew now for sure it was cursed. He was cursed. Matt had seen him take it from the man at the coffee shop, the dude in the expensive suit with the gold cuff links, the one reading a leather-bound book with elaborate gold embossing on the spine. This guy was a perfect target, not only because of the money that oozed from his demeanor, but when he stopped reading, he actually used a hundred dollar bill as a bookmark. Russ followed him to the bathroom. Easy. The suit was in the stall and the briefcase was not. Slipping the ‘bookmark’ from the book, Russ was instantly wealthy. Waiting for the flush, he used the noise to hide his quick swipe of a few things from the briefcase.
It was one of his better steals. His hands were faster as were his talents in determining what was worth taking. Russ bypassed the pathetic lock on the briefcase in seconds. He ignored the worthless stack of folders. He slipped several large coins and a Rolex into his pocket and quietly snapped the case shut before the hundred-dollar man noticed. But Russ hadn’t seen or heard Matt enter the bathroom. There was a witness to the entire thing.
“Put it back,” Matt said.
Russ brushed past Matt and straight outside, intending to walk all the way home instead of riding with Matt.
Matt caught up to him and blocked his way. “You have to stop stealing!”
“Back off,” Russ tried to walk by, but Matt stood his ground. He wasn’t much taller than Russ, but he was older and had an edge over Russ. They weren’t friends, or even enemies. Worse. Russ lived with Matt’s family as a foster child. Child. The least the system could do was to call him a foster teen or foster man.
“Russ, give it back.”
A voice interrupted their stand-off, “Excuse me, boys.” The hundred-dollar bookmark man beeped his key fob. An older sedan’s lights flashed and the doors unlocked. Now that he stood next to him, Russ saw that this man's sleeves were too long, his hair was shaggy, and his face just a bit unshaven. A thin scar over his left eyebrow stood out, as if a stiff white cord had been implanted just beneath the surface of his skin.
“Sir,” Matt started, “I think he stole something from your briefcase.” Matt pointed to Russ.
“Really?” the man opened his briefcase. “You mean this?” He held up a Rolex.
Matt blushed. “There’s nothing missing?”
Searching his case for a moment, the man shook his head. “Everything's here.” Russ couldn’t believe his ears, and obviously Matt couldn’t either. “Now, if you would let me by?” the man said.
Both boys stepped out of the way.
“I don’t understand,” Matt said.
Neither did Russ, but he wasn’t about to say that. He could feel the gold watch and the coins in his pocket. “Maybe next time you’ll trust me. Let’s go.”
An hour later, Russ regretted following that man into the bathroom. The watch, as it turned out, wasn’t a Rolex. In the safety of his room, he had taken it out of his pocket and noticed that the gold on the broken band had faded. The coins weren’t coins at all, but metal disks with holes in the center. Who would carry around washers? Russ wondered. Worse yet, why had they looked so different in the bathroom?
At least one coin was truly a coin. An ancient coin by the look of it. Slightly larger than a half-dollar and marked with what was probably Latin or Greek, it could be worth enough to buy him a car if he found the right dealer. One side had the face of a man with a laurel crown on his head. The other side had an eagle, or maybe a griffin. It was difficult to tell because it was almost worn flat and slightly blackened. He would take it to the Pawn Shop, but Matt wasn’t about to take him anywhere and Mr. Kerr would ask where the coin came from. So he held onto it.
The coffee shop swipe had been two days ago. Since, a stream of bad luck haunted Russ like a home-made horror flick. Russ almost burned down the kitchen when the toaster overheated and shot two-foot flames out of the slots. Peter Kerr, Matt’s dad, doused the flames with everything he could reach: the soup on the stove and a box of baking soda. It was quite the pasty, charred mess, but they only lost a toaster and dinner. Russ worried that the Kerr’s would yell at him for almost destroying their home, but they didn’t. They actually laughed and thanked Russ for the adventure. Mr. Kerr even let Russ pick out the new toaster at the store.
This morning, Matt’s car had a flat tire and they had to run to catch the school bus. Two high school juniors riding the bus. Not cool.
At school, Russ’ locker wouldn’t open making him late for class. His sack lunch met an unfortunate end under his backside when the football players charged down the hallway knocking him down. His sandwich was flattened and soaked by his juice box, and so were his pants.
After the lunch-sitting incident, he was convinced the coin was cursed, so he threw it away. That afternoon he felt free. He had to walk home because he and Matt missed the bus, but it wasn’t raining too hard and it was only two miles to home. He hid out in his room after school, changing out of the wet clothes and diving into his food bag for an after-school snack of raisins and peanuts when he noticed that coin laying on top of a bag of cookies.
After dinner, he went out to the river just down the street and dropped the black coin into the swirling depths, hoping it would carry all his troubles out to sea. Crawling into bed that night, Russ found it under his pillow. He flushed it down the toilet immediately. It had shown up in his cereal this morning.
It was no surprise when slid his food bag back under the bed and found the coin once more, no longer in the trash with his soggy breakfast, but right there in his shoe.
“I heard from the lawyer today,” Elaine whispered to Peter as they washed the dishes.
“Do they have a date for the court hearing?”
“Not yet,” she stopped scrubbing the pan and looked at her husband. “I’m torn.”
Peter nodded. “I understand.”
She narrowed her eyes, “You don’t even know what I’m torn about.”
“I know, because it’s been on my mind too.” He took another glass out of the sink and dried it slowly. “I want to adopt Russ. In order for that to happen, his mother needs to sign away her rights. But we can’t find her. So what do I pray for? That we find her and she gives up her rights as his mother so that I can be his father and you will be his mother? Or that we don’t find her and Russ never has that closure? Am I praying for one family to be destroyed so that my family can grow?”
Elaine nodded, her eyes moist. “What do we pray for?”
“That whatever happens, it will be the best thing for Russ.”
She sniffed, cleared her throat and continued. “So the lawyer called today. The search for Russ’ mother still has found nothing. But before the termination hearing can be scheduled, they need to do an assessment on Russ.”
“He is still stealing.”
“Only from us.”
“I know,” Elaine agreed. “But the case worker doesn’t think it should be happening at all.”
Peter set a glass firmly on the cupboard shelf. “Until he feels safe somewhere, he can’t stop.”
“That’s what I told her.”
“You’d think she would know that.”
“Knowing is one thing. Understanding another. Accepting that,” she lay a soapy gloved-hand on her husband’s arm, “that only happens when the heart has compassion.”
Peter blushed. Even after all these years, all they had been through, Elaine could still make him feel like a school boy.
Elaine returned to scrubbing the pan. “I told the lawyer that it didn’t change anything for us. We still want to move forward with the adoption.”
“Did she seem surprised?”
Elaine nodded. “She reminded me again that Russ would be independent in three years. That the process of adoption could be lengthy and traumatic.”
“That the final severance from his family of origin could have adverse effects.”
“She said that?”
"Word for word."
Peter gripped the counter with both hands and shook his head. "We love him. We are trying to protect him."
Elaine slipped her gloves off and hugged her husband. “She wasn’t suggesting that we were going to be a traumatize Russ. Just that if his mother is never found...” She didn’t finish. She knew she didn’t have to. It was Peter’s past she was talking about now, not Russ’. Peter never had an adoptive family. His last foster home was simply that--his last foster home. He met Elaine one night as he wandered through the college campus, looking for a short cut to the bus station. Before he knew it, she had found him tuition assistance and her church arranged a room at the local parish for him. His rent consisted of custodial work and attending Mass. Peter knew that things like that didn’t just happen; they were gifts. Elaine’s family had become Peter’s family. Peter hoped that Elaine and he would become Russ’ new family.
“We just have to make life as comfortable as possible,” Peter said. “The safer he feels, the better.”
Russ left the coin in his top dresser drawer, hoping that it would have the sense to stay put and not fly out of his nose if he sneezed at school. He made it all the way to third hour English class before his bad luck turned to strike-me-dead luck.
English class was Russ’ favorite class. It surprised him, when on his progress report, he actually had the highest grade in the class. While diagramming sentences seemed as useful as security doors made of paper, it made sense to him and he was good at it. What he really loved were the books. Not short stories from a thirty-pound anthology, but the classics: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, and this month, The Count of Monte Cristo. Russ finished the book the first week it was assigned and because of the writing style of Alexander Dumas, he had moved onto The Three Musketeers.
Sitting in class, waiting for the teacher to collect their homework and begin their daily reading discussion, the highlight of Russ’ school day, he started to feel hot. Fever hot.
Then he smelled smoke.
Sniffing the air, he wondered who would be stupid enough to start a fire in school when his homework burst into flames.
He jumped out of his chair. Girls screamed. Boys cheered. His English teacher yelled to “Put it out!”
Russ slapped at the paper and only succeeded in catching his sleeve on fire. It was Matt, taking a page from his dad’s hero book, who put out the fire with the teacher’s coffee, but not before someone had pulled the fire alarm and the school burst into an explosion of activity as every classroom quickly evacuated.
Matt, Russ and the teacher remained in the room. “What were you thinking?” the teacher asked, nervously reaching for her coffee up, sighing when she realized Russ was soaked with it.
“I didn’t start that fire,” Russ said.
She shook her head, obviously not believing him. “It just burst into flames on its own.”
Russ shrugged. “Yeah.”
Russ and Matt became instant, yet brief, heroes. As students filed through the halls, returning to classrooms, Matt and Russ’ presence in the red-upholstered chairs outside Mr. Crove’s office, Principal of H.E.L.L. High School; lovingly abbreviated from Homer Ellings Learning Labyrinth, the actual name of the school, so titled for the intricate design of the halls that confused every freshman class for months. It was said that the original design was supposed to enhance learning by removing distractions from the square-ness of typical schools. Russ was certain the weaving halls and octagonal-shaped classrooms did nothing to further his education. All his learning came from the intricate wandering through foster homes and the roundness of letters in books.
In the principal’s office, the spontaneous combustion story didn’t convince Mr. Crove, either. Russ's stomach twisted in anger as the contents of his backpack were spread out on the desk. “It would be easier to believe you if I hadn’t found this,” he pointed to a cigarette lighter. “Smoking is not allowed on school grounds.”
“I don’t smoke,” Russ said.
“Then why carry this?”
Russ had reasons and they were good reasons, but he never shared them with anyone. To explain his craving for heat would require revealing a dark past. Russ’ scariest moments were kept at bay by the warmth of a small lighter like this one.
“You have quite a few interesting things in your bag,” Mr. Crove noted.
“Stop it.” Russ stood and started gathering his things back into his bag and headed for the door. “You have no right.”
Once again, the faces of every case worker, ever psychologist, every school counselor that had ever tried to pry into Russ’ past rolled before him in a nauseating memory.
“I have every right,” Mr. Crove spoke sternly. “When a fire is started, when the school loses a half hour of learning and when the district now has to pay for the fire trucks, I have the right to search your bag.”
Russ watched helplessly as Mr. Crove pulled out item after item from his bag.
No one, absolutely no one had ever emptied his bag and examined the contents. It was like having his soul unzipped and dumped out for all to see; his fear and his failures on display like evidence in court. The lighter, the extra socks and underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste. Bare necessities. Two books, both from his first foster home, coveted and stolen. Two zip-lock bags of granola bars and trail mix. The few items he actually used for school included the classroom copy of The Count of Monte Cristo and a notebook with homework.
Mr. Crove picked up and examined each item, setting them on his desk, arranging everything in groups of clothing, food, or school. Russ felt the physical change in his heart and silently scolded himself for not keeping his defenses up. For months, the Kerr’s, with their gentle ways and quick laughter had softened Russ. But now, with his backpack turned inside out, Russ put the iron walls around his mind and soul. No one would hurt him. Not this time. Never again.
The black disk was the last item Mr. Crove examined. He flipped it over and his face shifted for a moment, as though a shadow passed just behind his eyes, leaving them darker and lined with deeper wrinkles. He placed it in the middle, in a pile all its own.
“I see that comforts are more important than academics.” Russ didn’t respond, so Mr. Crove moved on to Matt. “My secretary called your parents, Matt. They’ll be here shortly. Then we’ll figure out what to do with you.”
Russ frowned, “Matt put the fire out.”
Mr. Crove rubbed his finger across the disk. “Perhaps.”
A knock on the door interrupted the expression on Mr. Crove’s face and he returned to his perpetual bully-frown. His secretary poker her head in, “Mr. Crove, we have a situation.”
“Can you elaborate, Natalie?” he asked, annoyed.
“I don’t have the full story, but Mr. Jones has been locked in his storage closet again.”
“Stan has the keys,” Mr. Crove said.
“Stan is home sick today,” she continued, completely unruffled by Mr. Crove’s growing agitation. “I’ve already called the locksmith but there are no extra adults available to manage Mr. Jones’ class.”
Mr. Crove sighed. “You are suggesting I go.”
“Yes, sir. The students would benefit from a strong, authoritative figure.”
Mr. Crove’s anger subsided at the compliment. “Fine. Natalie, these boys are to wait for their parents."
As he started for the door, Mr. Crove tucked the coin into his shirt pocket.
“I’ll take care of that,” Natalie smiled. As soon as Mr. Crove closed the door, she turned to Russ. “Pack up your bag.”
Russ didn’t hesitate. As he put the last book in his bag, he checked the desk again. The coin was back.
Russ checked to see if Matt had seen. He had, or his eyes were growing bigger and more bug-like from his first visit to the Principal’s office. Ever so slightly, Russ shook his head. Matt, to his credit, didn’t say anything.
“Are my parents coming?” Matt asked.
“No, actually,” Natalie peeked through the window of the door to make sure no one was there. “I called your father at work, but there seems to be trouble there, too.”
“Fire?” Matt asked.
Russ zipped up his bag. “The problem is me. I’m...”
Natalie held up her hand for Russ to stop. “You are not the problem. I know about your situation.”
“How?” Russ felt blades of shame reddening his face.
“I’m the school secretary,” she said as if that explained everything. She turned to Matt. “Your dad needs you. Both of you.”
“He’s at work,” Matt reminded her.
“Yes. Go.” She opened the door, freeing the caged boys.
Russ didn’t hesitate. Matt did. “Wait! What about the fire?”
Natalie waved away his concern. “No lasting damage.”
“But Mr. Crove said –”
“To wait for your parents,” Natalie finished Matt’s sentence. “And you father is at work and unable to leave. His office is a five minute walk from here. I’m certain you can make it there in four minutes.” She leveled her eyes at the boys. Russ felt as if not doing exactly as Natalie said would be worse that stealing money from the collection plate.
Both boys nodded. “Yes, ma'am.”
“Go.” She smiled. “And don’t delay.”
“Did you see Mr. Crove’s face when he touched that thing?” Matt asked as they walked away from the school.
“Where did you get that thing?” Matt asked.
Russ kept walking. He wasn’t ready to talk about it and was grateful that Matt didn’t press the issue. He desperately wanted to crawl under a rock and stay there until the sun burned out. Someone else – no, scratch that – three someones had seen inside his backpack.
Mr. Kerr worked at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church as a Jack-of-all-trades Director; at least that’s what Father Joe called him. What Russ discovered about Mr. Kerr wasn’t that he could do everything, but that he couldn’t say no to anyone, which left him with many opportunities to learn as he helped. His official position, as was posted on his office door, was Director of Religious Education, something that directly affected Russ as he now attended the classes on Sunday morning. Mr. Kerr was also the treasurer and a member of the choir.
Russ had never been to St. Patrick’s during the week in the middle of the day, but he was surprised by how many people were there.
“I wonder what's going on?” Matt said.
“This isn’t normal?” Russ asked, only mildly interested, okay not at all interested, in a busy church.
“That is not normal,” Matt pointed to a local TV news van with a very familiar reporter speaking to a camera, a large microphone poised. The boys stopped a few feet away and listened.
“...comes as a shock to this community. Of course, a full investigation will be launched, but unconfirmed reports indicate that the case against Peter Kerr is rock solid.”
“Moira Reynolds reporting from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.” Moira Reynolds, stood still, smiling her well-known ‘tell-me-all-your-secrets smile’ until the camera man lowered the camera.
“Got it,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Russ expected Matt to ask Moira Reynolds about her ‘breaking story’, but it looked like Matt was breaking apart. “Come on,” Russ said and walked past the news van and into the rectory of the church toward Mr. Kerr’s office. Inside, the atmosphere was like a funeral home, everyone was talking in hushed tones and standing in small groups. When Matt followed Russ in, they all stopped and stared. Russ felt naked, like all these people had x-ray vision.
Russ waved, “Morning,” he said with a most cheerful (and highly sarcastic) tone. Everyone in the office shifted their feet uncomfortably and looked away from the boys. Mr. Kerr excused himself from the man he was talking to and rushed to Matt and Russ. His face was red and his receding hair line shone with perspiration.
“Is everything alright? Why aren’t you at school?”
Father Joe joined them. “Peter this is my request. The school called, I answered. It seems there was a slight mishap in class.”
That’s putting it lightly, Russ thought.
“They wanted you to go to the school, but I thought it best they come here.”
“Joe, this is the last place,” Mr. Kerr stopped talking when Father Joe put his hand on his shoulder.
“Let’s go into my office. Gentlemen?” he held out his hand toward his office door. “After you.”
Matt walked right in, but Russ hesitated. Walking into any office compared to volunteering to shave your head and paint a bull’s-eye on your scalp.
Russ had been in many offices, his first caseworker who took him away from home and every principal’s office of every school he ever attended. Nothing good ever came from those visits.
“Go ahead, Russ,” Mr. Kerr encouraged him. “You’ll find Father Joe’s office refreshing.”
Russ wondered if Mr. Kerr could read thoughts. Over the years, Russ had perfected a blank expression, a much-practiced facial slate completely void of emotion intended to squash interrogations. Not wanting to draw further attention to himself, the homework fire had been more than embarrassing, Russ entered the office.
Mr. Kerr was wrong. This office was not interesting, it was absolutely awesome! Artwork covered the walls; not Michelangelo stuff or anything classical. There were ink sketches of men gathered around Jesus, their heads thrown back in a fit of laughter or leaning forward and slapping their knees. Another sketch illustrated something Russ had never imagined. It was not baby Jesus in the manger with Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the floating angel all looking dopey-eyed at this baby who was illuminated in a beam of starlight. This drawing was Mary tickling the tummy of toddler-Jesus. Mary’s nose was scrunched up as she leaned in toward Jesus and his cloth diapered-self. Russ could almost hear Mary’s sing-song teasing, “I’m going to get your divine tummy,” followed by peels of toddler-Jesus laughter.
Dozens of these drawings hung in frames all over the office with a crucifix here, a framed photo of the Pope there, and a rather large painting of St. Patrick standing in a field of clover. With his eyes trained to assess a scene quickly, Russ knew immediately which one he would take; not that he would steal from a priest. Even petty thieves had morals.
It was Jesus, of course, but he was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. The drawing was exceptional, not in beauty but in the ordinary way Jesus was carrying a child in his arms. It’s how he remembered his mom carrying him from the bus to their apartment when he fell asleep during the ride home.
“Do you like them?” Father Joe asked.
“Yeah. Did you do all these?"
Mr. Kerr pointed to a sketch of a ladder going up to heaven crowded with people—not people but angels, Russ realized, going up and down, bumping each other with their wings. “This one is my favorite. I like to think that the path to heaven is crowded and difficult.”
“You couldn’t be more right,” Father Joe said. “Especially after this morning.”
Matt found his voice. “The reported said there is a rock-solid case. For what?”
Mr. Kerr walked to the couch and sat down. He waited for everyone else to sit before he started. “Last month, a sum of money disappeared from the safe. We’ve been looking for it, thinking someone must have misplaced it.”
Russ could feel Matt looking at him, but he put on his stone face and ignored it.
“Someone accused me of stealing it,” Mr. Kerr continued. “And today they came forward with what they think is proof.”
“You would never steal money... or anything,” Matt’s voice grew higher with each word.
“I know that,” Father Joe said. “But the evidence raises some questions about our security.”
“What evidence?” Matt asked.
A knock at the door interrupted him and one of the parishioners who always volunteered her time to help the church’s budget peeked her head through the slightly open door. Seeing Mr. Kerr, his son and foster son with Father Joe, she apologized. “The church council members are on their way and our accountant from the bank is here.”
“Thank you, Emily,” Father Joe said. Turning back to the Kerr’s and Russ, he said, “Why don’t you boys head home.”
“Shouldn’t we go back to school?” Matt asked. “It’s not even lunch hour yet.”
Father Joe smiled. “I think your afternoon would be better spent working around the house. The next few days and weeks are likely going to be tough. Do the laundry, clean the kitchen and the bathrooms. Straighten up your rooms. Do everything you can to make all this easier on your mother.”
Russ would rather return to school than do chores all afternoon, but he knew that Father Joe was right; anything they could do to make life easier for the Kerr’s would be time well spent. Besides, he thought, this was all his fault anyway. He didn’t steal the money from the church, but he knew it was still his fault. Doing some dishes and cleaning a few toilets was the least he could do.