After Carter took the boys away from the church…

Carter unlocked Mack’s Chevy and opened the back door on the passenger’s side for Donnie Nash. The boy looked so scared regarding what was going to happen to him, it made Carter sick to his stomach.

He gave the boy a small smile, trying to lighten the mood. “What’s wrong? We’re going to my brother’s house. My sister-in-law is a teacher at your school, I think. She teaches kindergarten, and she’s really nice. We’ll get this straightened out, guys. Nobody is going to hit you again if I have any say in the matter,” Carter explained to them.

Those two boys were walking, talking zombies in Carter’s opinion. They were scared out of their minds about everything, which was no way to live as Carter judged the situation. They needed someone to look out for them and fight for them instead of allowing them to be treated the way that old bastard priest and their grandparents—who Carter was yet to meet—had treated them.

Little boys should be full of energy and curiosity. His nephew was three, and he asked more questions than any kid Carter had ever seen. Something wasn’t right in the Nash home.

Carter pulled the Chevy up to the garage but didn’t drive it inside because if the visit with the social worker didn’t go as he wanted, he’d have those boys out of there like he was a driver in the Indy 500. They deserved a hell of a lot better than the hand they’d been dealt, and Carter would do everything he could to see they got it.

“Okay, I live up there,” Carter pointed to the garage apartment he shared with Mack, “but we’re going to go over to Opie and Tash’s,” he continued as he pointed to the large house with the pool.

“We’ll get you cleaned up and wash your clothes, and I’ll call your grandparents. It’ll be fine, I swear,” Carter promised, and he’d damn well keep it.

He led them into the house to find Tash on the floor playing with Paul. They were building something with Lego’s, and when they heard him come in, both of them looked up. Paul came running toward him but stopped in his tracks when he saw the boys. “Hi,” the three-year-old said quietly.

Denny, the older of the two, knelt down and smiled at Paul. “Hi there. What’s your name?” he asked. Carter watched as Donnie shrank back in a corner looking very scared.

“I’m Paul. Who are you?” his nephew asked Denny, offering with his sweet little boy smile, always happy to make a new friend.

“I’m Denny, and that’s my little brother, Donnie. Don, come say hi to Paul,” Denny tried to persuade. Carter turned to see Donnie was quietly sobbing again, turning in on himself.

Carter walked over to him and touched his shoulder. “What’s wrong, Donnie?”

The boy wiped his face with the collar of his t-shirt before he looked at Carter with those big blue eyes. “I smell like pee. I don’t want to get close to him. I’ve seen them at church. They sit in the back, and they seem nice,” Donnie whispered.

Carter felt his heart hammer in his chest with anger. “Okay, let’s see if we can do something about that because I’d bet Paul would like it if you’d build stuff with him. Do you like Lego’s?” he asked.

Donnie looked down at the floor. “I never had none,” he whispered.

Tasha walked over to them and smiled, extending her hand to Donnie. “I’m Tasha. You’re Donnie Nash, right? Why don’t you come with me and let’s see what we can do about getting you cooled off, okay?”

Carter appreciated she’d noticed the boy had wet his pants but didn’t mention it so as to humiliate the boy any further by pointing it out. Carter turned to Denny. “Will you be okay watching Paul while his mom and I help Donnie? You can shower as well after I talk to Tash, I mean if you’d like. They have four bathrooms. We’ll find you something to wear while your clothes are in the washer and dryer, too. It’s going to be okay, Denny,” Carter assured again.

Tasha led Donnie upstairs to the master bathroom. “Here’s a robe to put on just for a little while. Get undressed and hand out your clothes, please,” Tasha gently prodded.

Donnie nodded and went into the bathroom, handing out his dirty clothes. Carter and Tasha sat down in the sitting area of the bedroom, and she looked at him with the expectation of some truth.

“I was about two seconds from killing that fucking priest at Sacred Heart. That man said he was going to call their grandparents and snitch because Donnie had to pee… this shit is too much, Tasha. They can’t stay with those evil bastards. I’m going to call CPS. I saw that boy’s back today while he was pulling weeds and if those marks aren’t enough to get him out of that house, I don’t know what the fuck will. I won’t let them go back to live with those people,” Carter told Natasha who looked equally distressed by his statement.

“Let me call a social worker I know through my school. The boys will be put into emergency foster care, but if I call Stefani, maybe I can keep up with them to be sure they’re okay. Hang tight, Rigger. I’m going to go put his clothes into the washer, and I’ll get Denny set up in the hall bathroom. He might fit into some of Opie’s old basketball shorts. I’ll be back. Stay here because we don’t want him to get scared,” she ordered and then offered a wink.

Carter nodded and smiled at her. He was sure he’d done the right thing by bringing them to Tasha and Opie’s home. They were the type of people who would never stand by and watch a child be mistreated.

When the shower turned off after about a minute, Carter knocked on the door. “Donnie, are you okay? That was pretty fast,” he called through the door.

The boy opened the door and stood in front of Carter, his lips blue. Carter touched his cheek to feel it was ice cold. “Were you that hot today that you took a cold shower?”

Donnie looked at the floor. “I didn’t use the hot water because that’s not for us. It’s fine in the summer to shower out in the barn, but it’s cold in the winter. We don’t get to use the fancy bathroom inside the house because it’s for company and we make messes,” the boy explained.

Carter stepped into the room and directed the boy back to the large shower in his brother and sister-in-law’s master suite. He opened the shower door and set the controls to lukewarm before he turned on all of the spray heads. “Get back in there. Wash your hair and your body with the soap in that fancy thing. It feels terrific,” Carter told him with a wink as he pointed to the dispenser mounted on the wall of their large marble shower.

The boy blushed, so Carter turned his back as Donnie dropped the towel and stepped back under the spray, closing the glass door. Carter heard the boy laughing at all of the nozels spraying him at once, so Carter sat down on the sink with his back to the shower stall. “What else are you not allowed to do? How about food? What do you like for dinner?” he asked, trying not to sound judgmental. He needed more information to explain to the social worker so they didn’t let the Nashes take the boys back home where they would punish them… hell, they might even kill them after the stink Carter had caused at the church. He couldn’t let that happen because he had other hopes for Denny and Donnie Nash.

An hour later, the Nash boys were sitting on the floor with Paul, all three of them building a barn or something, and Carter was sitting at the kitchen counter watching them. “Did you call your friend? I need to call those grandparents so they can be here while the social worker is here. I want witnesses to see how those two treat the boys in person. It’ll sound like a lie coming from me, but if someone’s here to see it, it will make more of an impact. By the way, where’s Opie?” he asked.

“He’s probably at the church by now. There was an emergency meeting of the Parish Council this morning. It seems the Diocese has other plans for Sacred Heart, and as it turns out, Mack was assigned here to make sure things go smoothly. I don’t really know much more, but Opie told me Father Kozlow will probably be sent to a monastery for his retirement. Anyway, tell me what happened, Carter, for you to bring those boys here?” she requested quietly.

Carter noticed she was grating cabbage for slaw and it was then he remembered Mack’s family was supposed to come to Beckett Creek to help with the church roof. He wondered if that church even needed a new roof based on its state of disrepair, but it wasn’t his money. “That prick at the church told the grandparents Donnie used the bathroom twice yesterday and he was beaten with a willow switch. That boy’s back? It makes me sick.

“Anyway, that priest was yelling at them again today, and they didn’t do anything wrong. Tash, those boys have worked damn hard at that church in the heat of the day. I make sure they drink plenty of water because when I worked in the gardens while I was in prison, they pushed us to make sure we didn’t get dehydrated. If it was good enough for convicts, then those boys deserved to be treated a hell of a lot better.

“I found out all they get for lunch before they come to work at the church is hard-tack and deer jerky. Denny called it a ‘cowboy lunch.’  What the fuck is hard-tack?” Carter asked, trying hard not to raise his voice so the boys could hear him.

He watched as Tasha walked over to the laptop on the desk in the kitchen and typed the words into a search engine. She scrolled until she found something and then she read the screen and turned to look at him. The look wasn’t happy. “It’s some kind of hard biscuit thing they used to make during the Civil War because it would last for days. What about breakfast and dinner? What do they eat then?” Tash asked.

Carter held up his hands. “I have no idea, Natasha. I’m not there for their meals. All I know is the sandwiches I take with me? I’ve been giving the food to them, and sometimes they’ll take it. They’re underweight, I’d bet. Denny is fifteen, and I’d have guessed he was twelve. Poor Donnie doesn’t look any bigger than eight or nine. How the hell hasn’t anyone at their school reported those sick old sadists?”

Tasha’s phone rang, and she looked at the screen before she let out a breath. “Go distract them and ask them about school. I don’t think they go, Carter. I’ve never seen them there, only at church.”

He walked over to the family room where the three boys were busily playing with the blocks. Carter sat down and smiled at them. “What are we building, men?”

He saw Donnie blanch at his question, and as he studied the boy, he noticed Donnie continued to brush his fingers over the soft fabric of Tasha’s robe. It was satin, Carter thought, but he’d never been intrigued by women’s lingerie. Just then, the buzzer on the dryer sounded, so he hopped up. “That’s your clothes. I’ll be right back,” he told them.

He went to the large laundry room and took their clothes out of the dryer. It reminded him of the date he’d planned for himself and Mack, and he hoped they could still go. With the shit that had gone down that day, he wasn’t sure if they’d be able to get away, but he’d try like hell. It was important to him.

Carter returned to the family room and saw the three boys were still assembling something that resembled a fence. “What’s that?” he asked as he handed each of the Nash brothers their clean, dry clothes.

“A zoo, Uncle Carter. We make a zoo,” Paul told them with a big grin.

Carter glanced at the two boys to see both of them were entranced by what the three-year-old was doing. “You guys ever been to a zoo?” Both boys looked down and shook their heads. It was heartbreaking.

Tasha walked into the family room and smiled. “Guys, go change and then come down here because a friend of mine is coming over to meet you. I’m making you a snack for now. Do you like ham and cheese sandwiches? I can grill them,” she offered.

Denny stood from the floor and smiled. “You don’t need to grill it, Misses. We’re okay with just the bread and cheese. You can have the ham, ma’am.”

Carter stood from the floor and looked at Tasha who smiled and announced, “Grilled ham and cheese it is, and I’ll open a can of tomato soup as well. I’d make it fresh, but Stefani Jennings will be here pretty soon. I think you’ll like her. She’s really nice, and she loves kids,” Tasha gushed before she hurried back to the kitchen.

Thirty minutes later, Carter was sitting at the counter in the kitchen with the boys while Stefani and Tasha asked them questions in as light-hearted a manner as possible. Carter looked up at the clock on the microwave to see it was about the time the Nashes would be leaving their house to pick up the boys from the church. “We need to call their grandparents to pick them up here. You should meet them,” he told Stefani.

She nodded, so he picked up Tasha’s house phone and dialed the number Denny had given him. It rang twice before it was answered. “Hello?”

It was the old woman. Carter swallowed his anger and smiled. “Mrs. Nash, this is Carter Riggs. There was a mishap at the church today, so I have your grandsons at my brother’s house, Opie Riggs? He’s on the Parish Council. Anyway, there’s no need for you to go all the way to town to pick them up at the church. They’re at Opie’s house on…” Carter explained, holding his temper as best as he could.

He gave the woman the directions to Opie and Tasha’s place and exhaled as he disconnected the call. “On their way. I’m going to run home and shower. I’ll be back in ten minutes, okay?” he asked as he turned to the boys who had finished both sandwiches and a bowl of soup each. They’d eaten as much as Carter could put down in one sitting, and when he heard Donnie’s stomach rumble, he looked to see the boy with fear on his face.

“What’s wrong?” he asked quietly.

“I ate too much. I ‘m gonna be in trouble for wasting food,” the boy told Carter as he began crying again and ran down the hallway, slamming the door to the powder room.

Carter looked at Denny who looked upset as well. “I’m gonna be in trouble too, this time. Is there another bathroom?”

“Go to the one upstairs,” Carter told him. The boy ran up the stairs, and they heard the door slam.

Tash looked at him with wide eyes, apparently confused about what the hell was happening. Carter cleared his throat. “I believe they overate too fast. I’d guess their bodies aren’t used to such calorie-rich foods, and they’re both barfing.”

He turned to look at the social worker. “They starve those boys, you see. You can see how small they are, right? You have to do something, or their grandparents will take them home and beat them for what happened today, and they’ll continue to starve them and beat them, and that’s not something we can tolerate, right? I don’t think I can make it any plainer. Someone needs to step in on behalf of those boys.

“I’ll be back. Don’t let those boys leave until I get back down here,” Carter demanded before hurrying to the apartment to shower and get his head together before all hell broke loose when the Nashes showed up.

By the time he returned, Carter was surprised to see the social worker outside with a sheriff’s deputy. They were speaking with the Nashes on the driveway, and it didn’t look good. He listened to hear them, and he frowned. “They’re my grandsons, and no smart mouth trash like you is going to tell me how I should raise them,” the grandmother told Stefani Jennings.

Stefani looked at the deputy, who nodded. “I’m exercising my right as an officer of the Court to take those boys into custody and place them in emergency foster care. They are being abused and neglected. I’ve documented the marks on their bodies where they were beaten, and I’m not prepared to allow you to take Dennis and Donald Nash back to  your home.”

Carter could tell the deputy wanted to be anywhere else, but Stefani was in charge. The guy turned to the Nashes and sighed. “I’m sorry, Elsie and Morris, but she has the authority to take the boys into custody for now. You’ll be notified when there’s a hearing date regarding who is granted guardianship of them. You’ll have to agree to home visits from Children’s Protective Services, but you can petition for supervised visits at their foster home if you want to see them,” he offered to the older couple.

Carter saw the old woman scoff at the words. “Go ahead and keep ‘em. They’re more trouble than they’re worth, and I never wanted ‘em in the first place. Good riddance,” she snapped as she grabbed her husband’s arm, and they made their way to their old truck.

Carter went into the house to find the boys standing at the picture window in the dining room with Tasha’s arms around both of them. Carter walked over and hugged each of them. “I’ll come see you when you get settled, okay?” he offered. Each boy nodded, but Carter could tell they didn’t believe him.

“I’ll come with him. We’ll see you in a week, I’m sure,” Tasha told them as she hugged each of the boys. Carter could see the hurt in their eyes as they went outside to go with the social worker, but there wasn’t much they could do at that moment.

Tasha turned to look at him with steel in her big eyes and began cursing like a sailor, shocking the shit out of him. “Those mother fuckers don’t deserve to have those precious boys in their lives. They probably treat their dog better than their grandsons. I’ll be goddamn if I’ll let them fucking get their evil hands on them again. I want Denny and Donnie to live with us, Rigger, because Opie and I will love them and protect them. You leave things to me, and I’ll explain it to your pigheaded brother. He might not be on board immediately, but he’ll come around if he knows what’s good for him,” Tasha promised as she wheeled around and headed back to the kitchen.

Carter laughed because he knew his brother was in for a hell of a ride when it came to Tasha wanting something, and she could be very persuasive when it came to Opie. Carter hoped he had that same thing in his life someday. It might be a pain in the ass, but it looked like it might be pretty fucking great.

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