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Restoration in the Barrens

1 Madison, Wisconsin

 "Okay Corey, this is your last chance." The woman pulled on her winter parka. "Are you sure you don't want to come with Dad and me?"

The boy looked up from the living room floor, set down the National Wildlife Magazine, and smiled. "I don't know how to break it to you Mom, but that movie sounds pretty boring to me."

"Me too!" came a voice from down the hall. "But you don't see me trying to get out of it, do you?"

"Sorry, Dad, you lost the race-you're stuck."

"I was set up. That race wasn't fair!"

The woman handed a parka to the man and grinned. "Face it, you lost. I ski better than you and you know it!"

The man rolled his eyes and groaned. The two adults walked out into the January night. A ghost of wintry air crawled into the small apartment as the door closed. With his parents gone for the night, the young boy returned to his magazine. He grabbed one of the homemade afghans his mother had strategically placed around the living room and wrapped it around him to ward off the cold. Within minutes, he was asleep.

The doorbell rang. Only half awake, the boy opened the door. In the cold entryway stood a City of Madison police officer and a woman from the Dane County Child Welfare Department. This was when Corey's world fell apart.

2 The Meeting

 The child in the passenger seat had not said a word during the ninety-seven mile trip north from Madison. Every attempt at conversation produced nothing more than brief grunts that could not be mistaken for words. Only two times did the boy seem to react in any way: once, when a red-tailed hawk passed low over the car; and again when, forgetting she wasn't alone, Cindy Dalea began singing along to American Pie as she drove.

Cindy didn't know much about this boy. Coming back from the first real vacation she'd had in years, she had not had enough time to look over the case file. What did she know about this kid? He was thirteen, a little on the skinny side, and had sandy brown hair that fell into his eyes. His mother and father had been killed when a drunk teenager driving her parents' car had hit their car. For the last three months, the boy had been passed around from one relative to the next. He had never been in trouble with the law and, until the accident, seemed to like school. It was slightly unusual to place a child so far away from home; but there were a few foster openings in Adams County, while Dane County was bursting at the seams.

In the nineteen years that Cindy had been working for the Adams County Social Services Department, she'd had this responsibility too many times. Introducing a foster child to foster parents was emotionally taxing. The child knows he is here because he is not safe, or not wanted, anywhere else. He also knows that his foster parents are being paid to take him in. Most important, he knows he's here for only a short time.

Cindy winced as her blue 1991 Chevy Suburban scraped the large snow bank that bordered the driveway. The farmhouse needed paint badly. The sidewalk to the house was shoveled neatly, but the path to the barn still showed the results of yesterday's heavy snow. Behind the barn lay a one-hundred-sixty-acre potato field with a large center-pivot irrigation boom that stretched to the western fence line. The snow-covered field looked lifeless. Cindy had an uneasy feeling as she brought the large Chevy to a stop.

Ellen and Ben Raine came out of the house immediately. "A good sign," Cindy thought. She had never met the Raines. This was their first foster child. The report in the file explained that until 1988 they had been struggling dairy farmers. The worst drought in fifty years and some heartbreaking financial trouble led to their selling off most of the farm. Ben started driving for a local trucking firm and sometimes was gone for days at time. Ellen did seasonal work packing cheese gift boxes and taking telephone orders for a company in Marshfield.

Ellen, Ben, and Cindy stood in the farmyard talking as the boy slowly got out of the car. The adults stopped talking and Cindy moved to stand next to the anxious child. "Corey Nelson, I'd like you to meet Mr. and Mrs. Raine," Cindy said.

"Please, call us Ben and Ellen," Ben said, offering his hand.

Corey shook it hesitantly. "Nice to meet you," Corey said, a slight nervous quiver to his voice. "Thank you for letting me stay here."

Ellen stepped forward and shook Corey's hand. "We're glad you're here. Let's all go inside. It's cold out here. Ms. Dalea, would you like some coffee?"

"Please call me 'Cindy,' and, yes, I would love a cup." The conversation seemed forced as the group took seats around the circular kitchen table. "Corey, would you like a cup of hot chocolate?" Ellen offered.

"No thank you," came the automatic reply.

"Cindy tells us that you're quite the outdoorsman. Do you hunt much?" Ben asked.

"No. We..." He caught himself. "I mean, I don't hunt. I just like to be outdoors."

"You're in luck. Just down the road is the Mary G. Lincoln Wildlife Area. The locals just call it 'the Barrens.' It covers over fifteen square miles," Ben added. Corey's interest was heightened, if for only a few seconds.

"I know this must be overwhelming to you," Ellen said calmly. "How about if we take you up to your room and give you a chance to unpack. We'll take some time to talk later."

Cindy saw this as her cue to leave. "Ellen, I'll talk with you tomorrow to see how things are going. Feel free to call me at home if you have any questions." With that she finished the last of her coffee and stood to leave. Turning to Corey she smiled and added, "You can call me anytime, too."

The door to Corey's bedroom closed. He set down his suitcase and stood motionlessly. He felt lost, homeless, and disconnected. The reality of his situation was again coming back to haunt him. His parents were gone for good. Not out for the evening. Not on some botany field trip. Gone.

Slowly Corey sat down on the bed-another strange bed. How many have there been in the last three months? How long would he be here? How long before he would feel normal again? Corey lay down on the bed and quietly cried.

3 The First Supper

Ellen gave Corey a quick tour of the house. The other bedroom on the second floor was empty, used only for visitors. A bathroom and a linen closet took up the rest of the upstairs.

The living room had a small color TV with rabbit-ear antennae. With luck, the farmhouse pulled in the major networks, although reception was poor. The VCR next to the TV was disconnected, not used for years. Off the kitchen, a hallway led to a bathroom and a small workroom that held a sewing machine. At the end of the hall was Ellen and Ben's bedroom.

As Corey followed Ellen down the basement stairs he noticed the fieldstone walls and the damp smell. A washer, dryer, water heater, and furnace filled almost a third of the clean, single room. Bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling, except for a bank of fluorescent shop lights positioned over a model train set, which was partly covered with a white sheet. Corey noticed it, but before he could ask about it Ben was calling from the top of the stairs. "Corey, grab your coat. I'll show you around outside before it gets too dark."

Ben was a large man. At two hundred and fifty pounds and a little over six feet, he could have passed as a football player. Walking from the house to the barn, Ben and Corey were greeted by Ponch, a ten-year-old border collie. Ben pointed out the property boundaries. "That small cornfield is ours. I rent it out to the neighbor. If you follow the fence line over to the woods, that's ours too."

"What about that big field with pipes in it?" Corey asked.

"That's a center-pivot irrigation system. They're popping up all over the county. We used to own that piece of land, but I sold it when I stopped farming."

Corey felt the mood change a little, and he wondered if he had said something wrong.

The barn contained a workshop and a large storage area. Standing in its center was an old Ford 8N "Redbelly" tractor and the skeletal frame of a Volkswagen Beetle. The attached milkhouse was empty.

The yard light came on automatically, triggered by the darkness of the late winter afternoon. As they headed away from the barn, Ben turned to Corey and said quietly, "I know this is going to be an adjustment for you, but we're both glad you're here." Without another word, they walked back to the house.

"Just in time," Ellen proclaimed. "Now both of you get washed up. We're eating in five minutes."

On the small kitchen table, Ellen had set out three mismatched place settings. A platter in the center of the table held a huge pot roast surrounded by carrots, onions, and potatoes. A wooden salad bowl and a white gravy pitcher took up the rest of the space. "I hope you're hungry," Ellen said.

Corey glanced at the counter and saw a large chocolate cake. Clearly Ellen had worked hard to make this first supper special. But he had not had an appetite in months and still didn't.

"I don't know what your religion is," Ben said, "or even if you have one, but in our home we pray before meals."

Ellen quickly added, "You can just sit quietly if you would like."

Corey nodded.

"Dear Lord, thank you for this meal," Ben said with his eyes closed and his hands folded, "and thank you for bringing Corey to our home so that, with your help, three lives can be made whole again."

"Again?" Corey thought. Logic briefly surfaced and then disappeared.

Ben continued, "Please keep us healthy in mind and body. Amen."

"Amen," Ellen and Corey said in unison.

The meal seemed to go on forever. Corey tried to eat a little of everything but mostly just pushed things around on his plate.

"What do you like to do for fun, Corey?" Ben asked, trying to start a conversation.

Corey was relieved at the question. Finally, someone wasn't prying into his feelings. He hated telling people how he felt. "Not much really. I like to cross country ski in the winter and in the summer I just like to explore. I really like plants...native plants," Corey explained. "I also played a little soccer in the summer when I wasn't on a field trip with one of my dad's botany classes."

"Where did you go on these field trips?" Ellen asked.

"It depended on what ecosystem they wanted to study. I've been to the dunes in Indiana, the backwaters of the Mississippi, and the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota. Last summer we went to the Everglades and out to Joshua Tree in California."

"Sounds like you've been everywhere," Ellen said.

"I'd love to get to a rain forest and maybe to Antarctica someday," Corey replied.

The conversation helped move the turmoil in his life to the back of his mind for a few minutes-a welcome break. By the time the chocolate cake was brought to the table, Corey realized that he had eaten a whole meal. The first real meal in months was not enough to make his pants fit better, but it was a start.

Ellen cleared the table and Ben wiped the plastic top with a damp cloth. The dishes were stacked near the sink. "I'll take care of those a little later," Ellen said. "Let's talk a bit." With that, she took a yellow legal pad off the counter. The first page was filled with small, neat, writing. Corey didn't like the looks of this.

"We want you to feel at home with us," Ellen said. "Every home has to have some rules in order for things to run smoothly, and this may seem a little overwhelming, but I don't know of any other way to do it. Feel free ask questions anytime."

"Um-m," Corey murmured.

"Let's start with your room," Ellen continued. "It will be up to you to keep your room clean. You'll make your bed each morning and throw your dirty clothes down the clothes chute outside your room. I will wash and fold your clothes, but it will be up to you to put them away.

"You can use the bathroom upstairs and throw your towels down the chute also. We'll expect you to take a shower or a bath daily and keep your hair neat. The water heater is small, so showers will need to be short." Ellen spoke gently, but firmly.

"We eat our meals together. Supper is at six. On special occasions, there will be snacks around; other than that, there will be no eating between meals.

"You can watch TV as soon as your homework is done and checked. Your bedtime on school nights will be ten o'clock, weekends eleven."

The mention of school sent a wave of fear through Corey. He had forgotten that he would have to deal, once again, with being "the new kid."

Ellen continued. "You will be expected to help with the chores and dishes."

"Do you know much about working with cars?" Ben asked.

"No, but I could learn."

"One thing we insist on is complete honesty," Ellen said in a serious voice. "We need to know that everything you tell us is the truth. If you feel uncomfortable telling us something, you can say 'I'd rather not talk about that' or something along those lines. Does that make sense?"

Corey nodded. He somehow found this arrangement comforting. He could honestly say that he didn't want talk about something.

"You don't have to tell us everything, but we need to know that what you tell us is the truth." Ellen turned a page on the yellow pad. "Let's talk a little about privacy. We use a 'closed door' rule. Simply put, if a door is closed, you knock and wait for permission to enter. If you want privacy in your bedroom or the bathroom, close the door. No one will enter without your permission. Likewise, if our door is closed, you will knock and wait for permission to enter.  Does that sound reasonable?"

Corey thought back to his brief stay with his grandma in January. She still thought of him as a little kid and had a habit of walking in on him when he was in the shower. This "closed door" rule could work out just fine. "Yes, that sounds okay," he answered.

"If you feel better about it, there are locks on both your bedroom and bathroom doors," Ben said.

Ellen quickly added, "Please understand that if I thought for a minute you were in trouble, I'd come through that door, lock or no lock."

Corey looked at this small woman. She couldn't have been much more than five feet tall, but Corey understood that there wasn't a lock in the house that could stop her. He had this vision of her standing in the doorway with the door busted off the hinges. Corey almost grinned.

"The last thing you need to know is that you can talk to us about anything," Ben said. "There has been so much that has changed in your life lately, we just want you to know we're here if you need us."

"You're a growing boy. If you have questions...you know...guy stuff, talk to Ben," Ellen added.

Corey blushed and said, "We had health class in the fifth grade. We learned all about that stuff."

"Great," said Ben, "because I've got a few questions!" They all laughed, which helped to dispel some of the tension in the air.

With the rule-setting session over, Corey went upstairs. He finished unpacking the few personal items that he'd been allowed to bring: a photo of himself with his parents taken last year in the Konza Prairie, a cassette tape that his father recorded for him, and a copy of A Sand County Almanac, his mother's favorite book. Most of his possessions were in a storage locker in Madison, along with the entire contents of his family's drafty apartment.

An all-too-familiar uneasy feeling returned. It was a kind of darkness that seemed to overwhelm Corey anytime he was alone. He stood motionlessly in his room. Fighting back tears, he took a deep breath and walked downstairs.

Ellen was sitting on the sofa reading a magazine. Ben was watching TV from the recliner. Corey sat down on the sofa and hoped the evening would pass quickly. After two hours of TV, it was time for bed.

"Tomorrow I'll take you to town and get you registered for school," Ellen said.

The words made a sound like breaking glass inside the boy's head. On top of everything else, he had to deal with another new school. He was sure at some point he would explode. So many things had changed for him and no one understood what he was going through. A little shaken, Corey said good night and went up to his bedroom.

A half-hour later there was a knock on his bedroom door. "Corey, are you still up?"

"Sure, Ellen, come on in."

Ellen walked in without turning on the light. The dim glow from the hallway left the room bright enough to see, yet dark enough to talk. She sat down on the edge of the bed, pulling the blankets up to the young boy's neck. "They say it's supposed to get cold tonight and I remember that the upstairs sometimes gets chilly."

"I'll be all right."

"If you get cold, there are more blankets in the closet." Ellen started to get up, but paused. She turned to Corey and said, "I just want to tell you that I understand what you're going through."

Having kept it bottled up for months, Corey's stress finally surfaced. "No you don't-you can't! Nobody could understand." Tears began to roll down his face. "I don't want to sound ungrateful, but you don't know what it's like."

Ellen brushed the hair from his eyes. In the darkness of the bedroom, Corey could see that she was also crying. "Why don't you try to get some sleep," Ellen said.

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Page last updated: Thursday, March 17, 2011