"Five-State Teen helpline, how can I help you today?" a woman answered.
"I... I don't know..." Tommy answered into the pay phone. "I just... I can't take it anymore..."
He couldn't see her, but he could hear her smile at him. "Tell me what's wrong, honey." He cried, he could almost see the loving expression on her face.
"I've got a razor... I just can't..."
"What's going on?" she asked, concern clear in her voice.
"I was going to... but I couldn't, I'm a coward just like he said... then I saw the poster... I..." tears were streaming down Tommy's face. "Oh, God, I don't know why I called, you can't help!"
"Maybe I can, maybe I can't. Won't you at least tell me what's wrong, get it off your chest? It's completely confidential, unless you threaten someone else, I swear."
"Why should I? You won't believe me, the cops didn't!"
"It can help you just to say it, even if I don't believe. But honey, I've heard it all, and I probably will believe, unless you lie to me."
For a moment, Tommy hesitated, thirteen years of life telling him not to trust an adult. Finally, he broke down and told her, words cascading from him with the pent up pressure of his heart and soul. She listened closely, prompting him when he faltered, comforting him when he broke down, and cursing both his parents and the cops at appropriate points. As he wound to a close, she asked a few questions. "Hon, how long has this been going on?"
"Two... two years," Tommy hiccuped.
"Son of a bitch... listen, Tommy, I'm sorry this happened to you, and it's not your fault, believe me in that if nothing else."
"Ok," Tommy replied. Then the nice lady asked him a very strange question. "How the hell did you know that?!"
She sighed before answering, "I didn't know, but I suspected, your city is very, very sick. We don't get a lot of calls from there, but all of them are... Tommy, your call is breaking my heart because of what was done to you, and it's far from the worst I've heard of. Listen, we have two choices here. I can report what you've told me from my end, and make the police there do their jobs."
"That won't make them happy!" Tommy exclaimed.
"No, it won't," she agreed. "But they'll have to do it. They'll drag their heels and cause trouble, but they'll do it, they won't have much of a choice. It'll make life a living hell for you, though, even if..."
"Even if my dad don't do me in first."
"I'm sorry Tommy. But..."
"What's option two?"
"I have a phone number, and an address here. It's in the northeastern part of the city, it's... well, I don't know what it is, it's listed as a gym. But its more than that... I don't know what it really is, but no mere gym does what this place does. It's the easy course, but one phone call and the situation will be... resolved. That's all I really know, but you can trust them, Tommy."
"Gimme the number, please."
Tommy wrote it down on a piece of scratch paper in his pocket, thanked the lady, and then hung up. He stared at the phone for a moment, then with a shaking hand reached up to drop in another quarter.
"Hello," a soft voice answered on the other end. "How can I help you?"
"My name's... my name is Tommy..."
"Hello Tommy, and don't worry. We'll help you. However we can, we'll help you. Now, just tell me what's wrong..."
"My... my dad... he does things..."
"Why don't you start from the beginning, Tommy, and let me know about it?"
Tommy did. It was amazing how easy it was to talk to this man. The words flowed from his mouth easily, and he barely even stumbled when he talked about how it progresses from caresses to his most private parts, to taking his pants off for bed, to things no father should do to their son. Or the threats, the dire threats to keep him silent. Or the way the police had just laughed him off when he tried to tell them. Or, how his mother had simply told him to "obey your father" and "deal with his punishments" when he tried to tell her. She'd spanked him for talking back when he told her what the 'punishments' were. How she'd joined in the threats, threatening to... threatening him if he ever dared breathe a word of it again.
"Tommy, I have a friend who'd be willing to help you out..."
Four years later, Tommy trudged home from school, exhausted after a long football practice. He'd been given a new family -- Child Protective Services had allowed the voice's 'friend' to adopt him when his parents up and vanished that day, without warning or explanation (and, he was assured by the voice before hanging up, without having died). He'd become the big brother to a dozen kids -- most even worse off than himself. He still remembered his first day there, when a little kid, no more than five, had asked him for help going potty. He'd gone along, poor kid's arm was in a cast after all (climbing trees is a seeerious business, and not for the faint of heart).
He'd ran out of the restroom, right into Ashley Wester and just clutched her, wailing. Behind him, little Tony had waddled after, crying, asking what was wrong. Ashley had simply hugged them both and apologized for not warning Tommy. "Tommy, Tony had a little bed wetting problem. His dad... well... his dad threatened to cut it off if he kept wetting the bed, and when Tony wasn't able to stop... It's been a year now, I guess Tony has managed to forget about it, and the rest of us just don't think about it."
Tommy sniffled into her shoulder. "My ma... she said she would... it could've been me!" he started wailing again.
Now, he'd had four years to heal and learn what it was like to be part of a real family. He had a dozen little brothers and sisters, and loved them all dearly. Even, or perhaps especially, poor Tony, who would never get to enjoy the mysteries Tommy was starting to explore with his girlfriend Samantha.
When he got home, he started cooking dinner while they waited for their Mom to get home, and kept the littlest of his siblings busy with their schoolwork. She was running a little late, but that wasn't anything to unusual.
What was unusual was when she got home with red eyes and tears still streaking her face. Tommy, Tony, and a dozen others practically attacked her with a group hug. "What's wrong, Mom?" Tony asked, crying with her.
"One of... one of my friends just died..." She wept and just held them all closer. The next morning, she pointed his photo out in the obituary section of the newspaper, and Tommy went pale (he wasn't the only one who reacted, either), remembering that fateful encounter four years ago. He'd bumped into that man right in front of a poster for the hot line he'd called four years ago. The man had called his attention to the poster, saying it was a good group, and if he ever needed help he should call them.
Eric Nicholas Stephens had saved his life with that bit of advice, and come hell or high water he was going to attend that funeral, both for his new Mom's sake, and for his own!