"Your mother is kicking herself rather harshly right now, boys," Simon announced, as they walked along one of the vast atriums of the hotel complex. "She feels she hasn't been watching out for Jason as much as she should have. You know what I mean, with him getting ill like this and all."
"But ... it isn't serious, right Dad?" Elliot asked, a note of concern in his tone.
Simon smiled and shook his head. "Not in the slightest. It's a cold, that almost set itself into bronchitis, that's all. The doctor told me as he was leaving, he's seen it before. Fortunately, we caught it in time, I think. Jason will be much improved when he wakes up later this evening, and even more so tomorrow morning."
Elliot nodded, looking relieved. "I'm glad. You know, it's kind of our fault, too. We noticed he was being really quiet on the plane, but..."
"We just thought he was tired. You know, from getting up so early," Derek finished. "That, and well, we were kind of excited with getting here and all, too," the boy added meekly.
"I understand boys," Simon replied. "And you were probably right on point with that. I wouldn't worry about the being excited part. We all know Jason hasn't felt well the last few days, and I'm sure he's just exhausted. It probably dragged his immune system down, and he just didn't recoup in time - as well as we all thought, or hoped, he had. I honestly wouldn't worry about it if I were you, though. He'll be fine."
"Then you shouldn't worry about it either, Dad," Elliot offered.
"I know, son, I know," Simon replied softly.
"But Mum..." Elliot started, then left his remark unfinished. Simon stopped and looked down at his youngest son.
"Your mother will be fine. Granted, she may become like a mother hen over the next few days, but that's to be expected. It isn't anything we can't handle, right? I daresay, we've been through it plenty of times before. I will say though, you did do something very commendable, son. Derek tells me you're the one who got into the tub with him, and then went about helping him get warmed up."
Elliot blushed. "Yeah, Dad." He looked up. "I did it. Just so you know though, it seemed the best way. I mean, it seemed like the right thing to do."
Simon smiled. "You don't need to feel uncomfortable with me. I've already spoken on this once. I know you boys aren't modest around each other, and I don't think anything ill of it at all. You need not feel embarrassed, at least not to me anyway. However, I don't think you realize the impact of what that action did, for both Jason and for yourself. I don't know of any boys, certainly not in my lifetime, who would have done that outright. It just goes to show how much you two think of each other, and how much you continue to look out for one another. It's commendable, really. Only months ago, Jason arrived as a complete stranger to us all, remember? Now, it is totally different. Your mother is proud of you, and I must say I'm right behind her on this, 100%."
Once again Elliot blushed deeply, and noticing it, Simon put his arm around his son and exerted a gentle hug. He did the same for Derek with his other free arm. "You, too. Your part in this is no less important than his. It is to your credit that both of you have helped him come along as far as he has. That took, I'm sure, an incredible amount of tenderness and patience. I don't know how you did it, but whatever you two did, it was the perfect antidote. It's what he needed. I'm proud of you both."
"Thanks, Dad," Derek replied, before raising a fist and bumping it with the one offered by his brother. Looking up to their father, he added, "I don't know what we did either, really. We just told him things, and then told him again and again until he started believing them."
Simon smiled. "Well, whether you knew it or not, sometimes that is exactly what you have to do."
Elliot looked up from the embrace. "Um, Dad? What's going to happen Monday? Do you know?"
Simon shook his head. "Not exactly. I just know it's going to be something good, for Jason. Please don't tell him any of this yet, because things could change, but I suspect we are all going to get a lot of questions answered. Sometime next week these people want to take a video deposition from him. That's kind of like a recorded testimony, I think, with him telling his side of the story. How much they delve into specific parts may be up for grabs, I don't know, but some of the details surrounding his circumstances will come out. It will all be used as evidence, eventually, against different parties as applicable. Afterwards, Mr. Coomer - the man in charge for all this - gave me a rough outline, but he isn't giving away any details yet. I just know we're starting in the town center on Monday, and that we'll all go from there."
"Are we all going to go down together?" Derek asked. "Will we get to stay with him?"
"Yes. Truthfully, I think we should all go initially, since we don't know what to expect. Moreover, I think Jason may need a little moral support from us, too. Mind you boys, even though I am sure he's excited about this trip, be very careful. I would imagine this whole experience will drive his emotions all over the place in different directions. He may need a little reassurance at times, and a little more patience from all of us. You understand what I mean, right? He's already mended well, we all know that. I no longer see the doubt, or the insecurities, he's had since joining us. He's a lot surer of himself now, and his whole demeanor is much more positive - again, something I attribute and credit heavily to the two of you."
Simon paused as he turned so he could look at them both. "Be that as it may boys, this trip is going to probably open some old wounds again, in places that he has yet to heal. He may be just fine one moment, or he may..." Simon paused. "He may just need a little more from you two, and from all of us, for a little while longer. I think we all need to be with him, every step of the way, for the little while we're here. If for no other reason, then it will let him know he still has us, as a family."
"Yeah, Dad," Elliot replied, to which Derek added. "Yeah, we understand. It's so he will never feel alone again." The teenager looked up at his father and added, "And he won't be alone, we promise."
As they started walking again, Simon smiled. "I personally am hoping this trip will bring some closure for him. He has done remarkably well. I think without what you two have done for him, he would be one of these battle-scarred teens, and that would take years to heal. Instead, with only a few exceptions, he seems to be the exact opposite now." He hesitated briefly. "We'll just have to see how well things play out, that's all. Either way, however, we'll make sure he handles it fine, won't we?"
"Damned straight we will," Derek muttered under his breath, causing the eldest Flavell to laugh.
- + - + - + - + -
Jason woke slowly, his mind in a groggy, drug-like state. At first, he felt uneasy, being in an unfamiliar environment with things so very different around him. He could not recall when or how he had arrived, or what had taken place recently. Slowly, however, it began to come back to him as he became more alert: the trip, then the second flight and their arrival at the hotel. Somewhere in there he remembered baring his hip to a man who gave him a shot, one which he barely registered at the time. Reaching back, he rubbed the general area and found he could feel the tiniest fringe of discomfort. For the most part, however, it had dissipated. As he started thinking again, he recalled that somehow, he had ended up in a huge tub of warm water, with Elliot holding him from behind again.
Jason also realized he was sweating now, though not profusely. The room was overly warm, perhaps because of his chills from earlier. He slowly threw back the comforter that was covering him, at least to his waistline, and after a long pause he started to sit up. Immediately, however, he felt light-headed as things began to spin around the room quickly. Closing his eyes, he stilled himself to sit for a moment, willing his head to stop confounding his senses.
When he opened his eyes and could focus again, he noticed Natalie sitting in a chair next to him, asleep. There was a cell phone in her lap, lit for whatever reason, and he could just make out the local time to be almost 8:00PM. That surprised him. Shaking his head ever so carefully, he also noted there was a text message on the display, and finally stretching toward her, he could just make it out from where he sat. "Is he doing better, or still sleeping?" It was from Simon, and obviously Natalie had yet to see the display, or the message.
Rising quietly from the bed, he made his way to the bathroom, this time using the facilities. The movement was not as bad as he feared, as he grasped onto items along his route to help him to reorient his senses. From Simon's text, he presumed he must have gotten worse again, because at the moment his memories were fogged. What he could recall, however, was the freezing chills that had seized him, and the general achiness that went along with the misery of his cold. He flushed the toilet and washed his hands, before returning to the room. As he approached the bed, he saw a pair of sweats already placed on the end, so he sat down and donned them.
When he returned and sat on the side of the bed next to Natalie, she suddenly stirred with a start. "Oh my, I'm sorry. I must have dozed off!" She sat up and directed her attention to him immediately. "How are you feeling, dear?"
"I guess better. I mean, I don't have a headache anymore, and I'm not freezing like a popsicle." Jason wrinkled his nose. "My nose isn't so stuffed up anymore, either. I can actually breathe now."
Natalie smiled at him with a clear expression of relief after hearing his words. "You gave me a fright there. The doctor told us you would get better though, especially by morning." She moved over and sat beside him on the bed. "Are you hungry?"
Jason thought about it for a few seconds. "Well, kind of, yeah..."
"Well, I know you haven't had much of anything since last night, so I'm not surprised. The boys are out with their father, and I suspect they'll get dinner before they return." Natalie explained, and then put her arm around the teen before she spoke again, softly. "I'm sorry, Jason. I made them go. They needed to have a little Dad time for a change, and not worry about you, I think."
Jason smiled back. "It's okay, Aunt Natalie. I understand."
Natalie hugged him briefly, then rose and crossed to the desk. Returning with an ample-sized binder, she remarked. "There are quite a few choices for room-service here. Do you want to order something up?" They then, together, proceeded to look through the various selections.
When they came across a deli menu, Jason stopped her and spoke up. "Um, maybe I better eat something easy. You know, to start with?"
"Not a bad idea, I think. How about this? Turkey Bacon Club, with some Loaded Potato Soup. How would that sound?" Getting his agreement, she picked up the phone and ordered duplicate servings for them both. While they waited, she turned to him. She ran her hand tentatively at first, but more assuredly across his forehead, brushing his hair back and away from his face. "I'm sorry, Jason."
"Huh? What for?" he replied, curious.
"I should have been watching you much better than I did. I guess I just didn't realize how ill you were these last few days. I should have been much more attentive, I know," Natalie explained, quietly.
Jason shrugged. "You didn't do anything wrong, Aunt Natalie. I just... I was getting better, honest. I got up this morning feeling a lot better, actually. I just, I don't know, things changed somewhere along the way."
"You had a relapse, according to the doctor." Natalie sighed. "For some reason, however, I failed to see it happening, or see it coming on. For that, son, I truly apologize." She stared at him deeply. "If it had been my own sons, I might have picked it up-"
"Wait, please. Don't go doing that. You didn't do anything wrong. If anything, I didn't speak up and say something, maybe when I should have, you know? But you did fine. You and Uncle Simon have enough to deal with as it is, with this trip and all the expenses and everything."
That statement drew a quizzical look from the woman. "Jason, didn't you hear them down at the front desk? Your uncle and I don't have to pay for our rooms here, it's being picked up by the State," Natalie explained. "So are a good many other items, too, it seems."
It was Jason's turn to be confused. "Huh?" Natalie proceeded to tell him about things he seemingly had missed out on, going as far back as their arrival in Atlanta. Jason could recall vaguely the episode with the customs officer at the airport, and getting on the plane in Atlanta, but for the most part he missed out completely on the rest. "Wow," he responded when she finished. "I honestly... I mean, I don't, I don't remember anything. Not, like that, at least... Maybe parts of it, but it all seems fuzzy and everything."
Natalie nodded. "Yes, wow. I'm not surprised, really. When the boys called out for us to come over here, when we arrived in our rooms, you were white and freezing, burning up with a fever, too. In other words, you were out of it, so I would guess a lot of it was just going by you." She smiled at him. "So, now it looks like we have the weekend free to go about the hotel here. Once you're feeling up to it, that is," she added.
Jason looked up at her. "Aunt Natalie? Honest, you didn't do anything wrong. This is my fault, if anyone is to blame."
Natalie reached out and hugged him just then, embracing him warmly. "No," she whispered. "No one is at fault this time, but I promise you. It won't happen again. not like this." She pulled back. "You may be my nephew, but you are also my son, just like Elliot and Derek."
Jason smiled. "You may not be my mom, but you're my mum." Those words moved her, as she understood what he was saying. They hugged again before she laughed. "Okay, enough mushy stuff, as Elliot likes to call it!"
They chatted, just the two of them, about other things regarding the hotel. Hearing about the balcony, Jason rose to open the doors and walk out onto the landing. "Wow!" he exclaimed once again, seeing it as if for the first time. Natalie walked up behind and threaded her arms around his waist.
"It is quite a sight, isn't it?" she whispered. They stood there briefly, noting the evening sun had cast a different vista in the multi-colored hues below. "Jason, are you sure you're okay?"
With each passing minute, Jason seemed to be gaining more strength. "Yeah, I'm okay. I just can't believe I missed all of this, though. The first time around, I mean."
"Like I said, you were really out of it. I'm just relieved to have you back," Natalie admitted.
Jason craned his neck around to look up at her. "I meant what I said, Aunt Natalie. You didn't fail me, honest. If anything, I'm the one who should be sorry you guys had to put up with me this way, especially here."
Still embracing him from behind, Natalie lowered her voice. "That part is perfectly okay, and already behind us. Trust me, we would have done it for any of you boys, no differently. But thank you," she whispered. Just then they both heard a knock at their door. Returning inside, Natalie walked over and answered it, finding a server with a tray of food standing outside.
- + - + - + - + -
Elliot sat on the bed next to his cousin, Indian style, while Derek flopped across the opposite bed on his stomach. Jason smiled at them both.
"Yeah, a lot better now. Thanks guys." He lay back into the pillows. "So, find anything much while out with your Dad?"
Derek grinned. "Plenty, really! We've just got to get you better so you can go out with us!"
"They have this pool, unlike anything you've ever seen," Elliot added.
"Yeah, he even found him a girlfriend," Derek teased.
"Did not!" Elliot retorted, but then blushed. "Tina was just being friendly, that's all."
Jason was amused. "Wow, you already know her name, huh? So, what was she being friendly about? And was she pretty?"
"Mostly asking him about life in the UK, all that jazz," Derek answered for his little brother. "She picked up on his accent right away, I think."
Elliot stuck his tongue out at his brother, but otherwise turned his attention back to Jason. "Yeah. As to pretty or not, you can decide that tomorrow."
Seeing the confusion on Jason's face, Derek interjected. "I think they setup a play date to get together some more tomorrow." He had to dodge the pillow thrown at him just then, but not without laughing.
Jason turned to the Elliot. "Um, be careful, some of these American girls, they uh... 'put out' pretty easy. What you guys call 'loose'."
"So? I wouldn't mind that! I can put it out, too!" Elliot whispered, then snickered. Derek rolled his eyes but said nothing.
Jason grinned at them both, watching the exchange that followed as they teased each other over the next few minutes. When it came time for bed, he was surprised to find himself still tired. So, when Elliot stripped and donned a t-shirt to join him, he welcomed the youth underneath the covers. Derek had crawled into the other bed and was rapidly dozing off.
As Elliot snuggled up, he spoke softly. "Jase? I was just teasing about the putting it out stuff. I don't skin for just anyone, you know."
"Yeah, I know bro. No worries," Jason whispered. "Even if you did want to, it wouldn't bother me, I promise."
Elliot stared his cousin in the dim lighting. "I'm really glad you're feeling better. You had us worried for a while."
"I am, too," Jason replied, before rolling and embracing Elliot in a full body hug. He didn't let go for a long time, wrapping his legs around his cousin and holding him tight. The room had cooled substantially by then, Derek having adjusted the thermostat earlier. Both Jason and Elliot together enjoyed the uninhibited comfort they shared with each other, now for the first time in several days. When they finally parted, Elliot started to lean in and give his friend a kiss, but Jason shook his head. "No bro," he whispered. "Not until I'm over this thing completely. I don't want you to get sick, too, okay?"
Elliot first pouted, but then nodded. "You know I love you though, right?"
"I feel it, every day. Thanks for the bath today, too. If there's anything I CAN remember, it was that. It felt, I don't know, it felt really good."
Elliot giggled. "Yeah, you were shivering bad when me and Derek were trying to get you in there. I'm just glad it got warmed up as quick as it did."
Jason blushed. "Hope I didn't do anything else, you know, while someone was around."
"Well, Mum was surprised to see you with a popped, circumcised boner. And Dad said something like 'Wow, that's some wood!', and-" Elliot stopped when he felt his cousin tense. Giggling, he relented. "Nah, just teasing, bro. You know I wouldn't do that to you!" Elliot hugged him closer. "It was just me and Derek, and no, you were a perfect gentleman. A cute and naked one, but yeah, a perfect gentleman."
Jason closed his eyes in relief. "You guys just love getting me naked, don't you?" he whispered.
Elliot giggled. "You said something like that when we got you in the bathtub, too. Remember?" When Jason shook his head, Elliot just leaned in and kissed the nape of his neck. "Only because you let us, bro," Elliot whispered back. "It's why we love you, and why you love us back, I think."
He felt Jason nod, and then heard the deep breathing he was so used to hearing. It wasn't long, before Elliot followed him into dreamland.
- + - + - + - + -
The weekend passed quickly, much to Jason's dismay. He did feel much better the following morning, and when the doctor stopped by to check in on him, the man nodded in satisfaction. "Just don't do anything too strenuous today, and you'll be fine, I think. Avoid the pools until your congestion clears up, too." Simon gave the boys permission to roam about on their own, provided they didn't get into any mischief and watched after Jason in the interim. When it came time to head to the pool, Elliot changed, but Jason obeyed the doctor, tagging along only for moral support. Tina, it turned out, was a very sweet, young lady close to their age, and was also spending the week with her grandparents at the hotel. Although she didn't seem to mind Jason tagging along, she definitely paid more attention to Elliot, finding his speech and English accent to be fascinating. They stayed with her for a couple of hours before Elliot, feeling bad for his cousin, finally excused himself. He received a big surprise, however, when as they were departing, Tina called out to them both and ran up. Slipping a note into Elliot's hand, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, then surprisingly turned and gave one to Jason as well. Both were speechless, which caused her to giggle, but then she hastily walked away. Looking at the note in his hand, Elliot was stunned to find her cell number, and a hurriedly scribbled message: "Let's text sometimes, okay?"
"Wow," Jason remarked, looking on after her as she disappeared into the crowd.
"Yeah, I know, right?" Elliot grinned. "For a girl, she's really nice, too. Not stuck up, I mean, like some girls I know..."
As had been foretold, the hotel had accommodations of all sorts, for all ages. The boys had no trouble finding things to do throughout that day and the next. Aside from the pools, there were basketball courts, shuffleboards, and more - all of which made Jason smile as memories returned to him from an era not that long ago. They met each evening, with Simon and Natalie, to have dinner and talk about their adventures for the day. Jason laughed, listening to some of the antics Simon and Natalie had encountered and had thought were strange, but to him seemed perfectly normal. Perfectly American, to be more precise, but nonetheless still appreciated. Although Simon seemed to be more adjusted, perhaps due to his world-traveler status, Natalie was beside herself. When and where he could, Jason explained the little intricacies of American culture that were normally taken for granted. Breakfast was especially of note to her, discovering and understanding the deal with oatmeal, stripped bacon and 'flat' sausages. "No wonder you were so amazed at our breakfasts back home!" she declared. The family's introduction to biscuits and gravy, however, was not as well received, which amused Jason. Even with their dinners, Jason helped them choose new and different dishes, many which none had really experienced before. All of them appreciated his efforts, and for the most part enjoyed the cuisine.
When Monday morning arrived, the family met in the main lobby as they were directed, and waited for Mr. Burris' arrival. At half past eight, the man alighted from the parking area doors, grinning widely and shaking hands with each of them. "Ah! Did you all enjoy yourselves, this weekend?" the man asked, as he ushered the family toward the parking lot. The boys spent most of the next half-hour dispensing tales of their adventures, while Simon and Natalie both listened with amusement. Their driver was surprised to hear of Jason's ordeal and relapse, but seemed happy that it only affected him for a short duration.
Throughout their short journey, Jason fell silent, looking out as the scenery passed by. The moment, and the immediate future, wore heavily upon him. He had initially been excited about the opportunity to come back to his home State. Now that he was here though, the full realization of where they were going made him take pause. He didn't know what was happening, or why - just that it was. When he looked at his Uncle Simon, it finally hit him what the man had reached out for him, pulling this entire trip together for Jason's benefit. In one sense it calmed him somewhat, knowing the man would be protecting and watching out for him. Still, Jason looked ahead at the unknown, and began to worry.
Upon their arrival at the Davidson County Court Annex, the family was met by one of Mr. Coomer's assistants. After introductions were made, the group was ushered inside to the third floor, and into a small courtroom. The room was already filled with a large group of people, something which surprised Simon. All chatter suddenly ceased, and an eerie silence engulfed the family as they entered. All eyes followed the group as they were silently ushered into a set of seats in the front of the room. Looking about, Simon recognized Mr. Coomer sitting at a table facing them, with another gentleman at his side. They greeted each other pleasantly, and as Natalie and the boys settled in, Mr. Coomer rose and shook hands, and then introduced himself to the rest of the family, shaking their hands as well. When he reached Jason, he held the teen's hand a little longer. "Mr. Mathews. I'm sincerely happy to see you with us this morning."
"Uh, t-thanks," was Jason's reply, unsure as he stole a quick glance at Simon, who only smiled and nodded his encouragement.
Just then another individual, an older man with graying hair, appeared from another door located behind the judges desk. Sauntering in with a relaxed gait, he carried a thick manila folder filled with various papers. When he reached the area in front of the family, he paused and sat down in an old, worn leather chair. Once settled, he addressed the family with a smile. "Good morning!"
Both the family and other people in the room returned the greeting, before he smiled and continued. "So, you're Jason," he stated simply, identifying the youth without hesitation. "I've heard quite a bit about you, young man. It seems you have given a lot of people a run for their money these last few months."
Jason suddenly became nervous, and it showed plainly on his features as he observed the man. The gentleman, however, smiled and spoke again in a pleasant tone. "You need not fear anything, son. Everything is in order, probably more so than you think." He raised his voice. "This hearing, by the way, is a closed-door hearing, as you may have discerned. I do have Marty here to record our details officially, but I think that's to be expected. I am, for those of you who do not know me, Judge Robert Eugene Moore, special counsel for the State of Tennessee. I am presently a member of the 8th District Circuit Court, although I travel to Nashville on occasion for various affairs of state, such as this one." He grunted, seeing the three boys and their look of confusion. "Now, I know, that probably doesn't mean a lot to some of you, so let me make it simpler, hmm? I am the judge, Jason, who - in the beginning - signed off on your paperwork committing you to State care. At that time, I believed, or at least had thought it would be, a fair and impartial foster care system that would see to your needs. Certainly, everything placed before me at the time seemed to be in order, but nevertheless, I guess you could say I'm the one to blame, partially, for the predicament you fell into."
"I- I don't understand, sir," Jason replied, finding his voice.
"I wouldn't expect you to, not yet anyway. So, let me make this a part of the record, and at the same time explain to you, who all these people are in the room, shall we? The two gentlemen directly behind you and your family, are from the State Judicial Department, specifically the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations. They are here mostly to just observe and collect information, should any be relevant to them for their various investigations. To their right is Detective - Williams, I believe? - who has been working recently with your case directly. It is through his efforts, I might add, that we were able to acquire much of the information. It is his efforts that have brought us together, and thus enabling us to convene today."
"To my left down here - your right - are three individuals from the State Child Welfare offices. Over there," the judge indicated to his right, "are the county attorney, the White County sheriff, and the White County Superintendent of Public Schools. Sitting behind them, are people representing various other departments for the State of Tennessee, all of which I cannot name directly, but who have my permission to be here, for one purpose or another. Then, finally, sitting below them, is Mr. Dennison, an advocate attorney. His is here at my request to safeguard your rights, Jason, and to provide legal counsel for you and/or the Flavells, should it be required. Although this is not a trial by any means, it is a legal session of sorts, a hearing if you will. It is a hearing, as it turns out, that will launch repercussions far and wide before we're finished. With you living abroad with your aunt and uncle, I felt like you might need someone to advocate for you here, and I believe there is no finer man than this gentleman here who will do so."
Jason sat back hard into his seat and said nothing. Once again, Judge Moore smiled at him. "So, you see, all these people have a stake here today, in some shape or fashion. We, being myself and Mr. Coomer and his staff, decided to make these arrangements, primarily so all of us could meet you and your family this morning. Not an easy task to achieve, mind you, given there are so many different divisions and groups involved. We have accomplished it nonetheless, though, and I believe I owe a hearty thank you, to each and every one of you present." The man paused, waving around the room. "You will notice, I hope, there are no reporters, no press of any kind - as this will, for the immediate future, remain a privately held matter. At least, until all the I's have been dotted, and the T's have been crossed. You'll understand what that means in a little while."
Judge Moore sat back. "Now, I'm sure many of you in this room, have a head full of questions about certain details here. Let's attempt, however, to simplify this at the outset. Let it be understood that young Jason here will be giving a formal deposition later this afternoon. In that deposition, we will record various facts and highlights as he can provide them therein. What I want to do just now, however, is describe a chain of events that we've been able to establish, and with those events, we'll specify which details we hold as fact, and others based on theories, as the need arises. Afterwards, I'll try to answer any questions this family has, with regards to what we do and do not know. Some of you may be able to help in that regard as well, so we'll see. Afterwards, then I'll turn anything remaining over to the rest of you, if you so wish. Is that agreeable?" When all murmured assent, he cleared his throat. "Mr. Coomer, why don't you join me down here, as I believe you may be able to help fill in some of the blanks by now."
"Sure judge," the man replied, and was soon sitting in a similar chair to the Judge's right.
"Now Jason, just for the record, you were born Jason Dewayne Mathews, here in the State of Tennessee. Your father, do you recall his name?"
"Wil-William Flavell, sir."
Judge Moore nodded agreeably. "Yes, your father, William H. Flavell, and your mother, Regina Ann Mathews, were married for a little over 2 years before you were born. Your father was on medical discharge from the British Royal Navy, I think, but he had worked in the United States for several years, employed with the Norfolk Southern Railroad Group. Your mother, deceased due to the onset of a rare type of cancer, I believe, died when you were approximately 4 years of age. At that time, your father moved the two of you to Sparta, Tennessee, where you lived together until his death, which occurred in April of last year. Does this summary seem accurate, to your understanding?"
"Y-Yes, sir," Jason nodded.
Just then, a voice called from the audience. "Might I inquire, Judge, is there any special indication why their surnames are not consistent?"
"There is nothing in our records at the moment, no - but the birth certificate, recently recovered, does show both individuals listed as his parents, and that for whatever their reasoning is, Jason adopted the surname of his mother." Seeing the answer was satisfactory, Judge Moore then glanced at Mr. Coomer, who took over the narrative. "Now, Jason, could I get you to tell us a little about the day your father died?"
"Wh- what do you want to know, sir?" Jason asked.
"Just the general elements you recall, if you would."
Jason thought about it briefly, but after glancing at Simon first, sat up a little straighter. Beneath the table, Elliot subtly placed his leg next to Jason's, keeping their touch and reminding his cousin they were there for him. "I was coming home from school, sir, and I got off my bus. My Dad, he was on the porch, pretty much like he always was. His head was bowed down, kind of, on his chest like he was asleep. When I got up on the porch though, I called out to him. He didn't answer me, so I walked over to him. That's... that is when... I realized something was wrong." He kept control of his outward emotions, but he could not keep the thickness from his voice.
"Then what?" Mr. Coomer asked.
"Well, I tried, but I couldn't wake him up, so I went inside and called 911. Then people came - lots of people came," Jason explained.
"What happened to you then, son?" Judge Moore asked.
"I- I was kind of just, I don't know... dazed I guess. I mean, I sat down on the other side of the porch and all, and I watched all these people making notes, taking pictures, and so forth. Then some of them, they put Dad on a stretcher, and took him away. They put him into an ambulance, and then closed the doors. After it drove off, people started to leave, you know, disappear. After a bit it was down to just me and a couple of deputies or something. They played paper-rock-scissors to see who was going to call social services."
"Okay, let's hold there for a moment. You're saying, I think, that you observed 2 or 3 individuals remaining, play a game of choice. How do you know, son, it was about you and calling social services?" Judge Moore, inquired kindly.
"Well, they were not that far away, honest, and one of them said something like 'okay, who gets to take care of the damn kid and call services?'" Jason replied, then lowered his eyes sheepishly. "I'm sorry, Judge."
Judge Moore smiled at him. "That's perfectly fine, son." Looking up into the crowd, the man raised his voice. "Deputy Kline, would you stand up for a moment?" Jason heard a noise behind them and turned, noticing for the first time a strangely familiar man standing in the gallery. "Is this the deputy who, you say, won the task of directing you to social services?" Judge Moore asked.
Jason studied the man for only a few seconds before nodding. "Yes sir, that's him."
"Are you positive?" Judge Moore asked carefully.
"Yes sir. It, like, took me a second, but yeah, I recognize him," Jason replied, firmly.
The judge addressed the man briefly. "Deputy, is his surmises correct, sir? Did you, and others, dib for who was going to remain behind and report to social services?"
"Yes sir," the deputy replied meekly. "We did."
"Why were social services not notified any sooner?" the judge asked.
"Well, your Honor, of that I'm not entirely sure. I think many of us assumed they had already been contacted, and it wasn't until most of the people were gone before we realized that wasn't the case," Deputy Kline replied.
Judge Moore thought about that. "I see. That might make sense. Okay, very good. You may sit down in that box there, Mr. Kline, but you are not to leave the premises today until you have spoken with me directly." Turning his attention back to the teenager, he continued. "Please Jason, continue. What happened next?"
Jason proceeded then to explain, in simple but short terms, the rest of that day, and the next few up through his father's funeral. Where he had been, whom he had seen and the woman who had come for him. He also explained how he made it to the funeral itself, before being taken to his new 'foster' home.
"So, let me fill in some details here a little," the Judge interrupted at that point. "The lady Jason is referring to, as we've been able to determine, was at the time named Geraldine Rose. However, her real name is not Rose, but Ross. She worked at one time for the district social services division in White County, but at the time this occurred, she had been dismissed from those duties. She had, in fact, been released over a year prior to that."
"What was her position?" someone asked from the body of the audience.
Mr. Coomer answered, "CPS Caseworker, Child Protective Services."
If the judge was annoyed at the interruption, he did not show it. "Now, thanks to testimony from Mr. Kline, we can assemble some of these pieces. Together with his involvement, he notified the lady in question, having worked with her before in the past. What followed, however, is a bizarre set of circumstances and actions that, at first, were quite puzzling. It seems that between the two, Ms. Ross and the deputy, they discovered Jason's status rather quickly. That means they discovered you to be orphaned, with no relatives, and with no one in a direct network that could be called upon to 'claim' you. Tell me, do you ever recall either of the two asking about close relatives, or others you might stay with?"
Jason hesitated only slightly before shaking his head. "N-No, sir."
"You're quite sure of that?"
"No one really talked to me at all that day, Judge. I- I just sat on the porch, mostly, by myself. No one really asked me anything except, I think, my name," Jason explained.
Judge Moore shook his head at this point. "Interesting, and disappointing, to say the least. We'll dive into that later, I think. For now, however, these people looked up the county records for your residence, Jason, and found it clear of title. That means no lien existed on the property, or that your father had any payments due to a bank or other institution. At some point afterwards, Ms. Ross and/or a group of individuals also searched your house, and found documents - such as your father's checking account, and other details. The next day, someone promptly withdrew all of the cash value from that account." The man saw the look of surprise cross both Simon and Natalie's face. "Please, Mr. and Mrs. Flavell, I know how startling some of this is. There is no doubt that the deed was done willfully and purposefully. Deputy Kline has already confessed and revealed this to us, much of it while under investigation. At that point, that and other actions were considered illegal, which we'll detail later." He smiled again. "I know you'll have questions - probably a lot of them, but let me finish my narrative first, if I may." Simon nodded, and so the Judge continued.
"All of you must understand, which I'm sure Mr. Coomer will re-iterate here shortly. The system has plenty of checks and balances in place to guard against fraud of this nature, but here is a woman who, with her husband in the background, slipped past the checkpoints. In fact, we suspect young Jason here was not the first, nor the last of the victims she manipulated. That aspect is still being investigated."
"I don't... manipulated? Fraud?" Natalie spoke up. Shaking her head, she continued. "I'm sorry Judge, I know this is a gentlemen's forum, but..."
"It's quite all right, madam. I would expect there to be some confusion in the wake of this." Judge Moore crossed his arms and let go a deep sigh. "And no, although most of the people here are male, this is not, I assure you, a gentlemen's forum. Not by a long shot. However, let me finish with the basics here first, if you will. We have learned that Ms. Ross, as I will refer to her, worked with an elderly couple down in Dade County, Tennessee. While conspiring in their scheme, this couple was the assigned various children over several years, including your nephew. She delivered Jason to them, with minimal supervision and oversight. That couple has since disappeared, but we have both county and state agencies across the country looking for them now. A clue to their whereabouts came in late yesterday evening, in fact, so regardless, they will be found eventually, and held for questioning."
Simon crossed his arms as well. "Well, that explains a little of what went on, at least." He furrowed his brow. "Just how extensively did this play out? Or do you know, yet?"
Mr. Coomer took over the conversation. "I'm afraid that after they got Jason out of the way, if you'll forgive the expression, Ms. Ross and her cohorts proceeded to vacate the property, and sell the house as quickly as possible. We're unsure of what happened to all the personal effects, as there are no records to be found anywhere on that matter. We believe they went through and disposed of all clothing, pictures, and items that were deemed non-sellable."
"That explains why he had nothing, then," Natalie commented.
"It does indeed ma'am, and I hate to be the bearer of that news. Especially while sitting in front of that young man, who is here with us today." Mr. Coomer sat up straight. "The detectives did make a cursory attempt in the area flea markets and pawn shops, just general inquiries. To tell the truth, however, they were looking for needles in a haystack, as you can imagine. There were no pictures, no descriptions of anything to work from ... nothing to really identify what the said property would be. They still held out hope, however, for clues to who might have disseminated the estate. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful in that regard. Additionally, I should add, none of the estate scribes in the State of Tennessee reported having acquired anything in bulk, either. I'm terribly sorry, but for this aspect of the episode, I'm afraid we have come to an end."
Simon reached out and put his arm around Jason's shoulders. "You understand what he is saying, right? They're talking about all those personal effects we were wondering about for you, for so long." Jason nodded his head slowly.
Judge Moore cleared his throat. "There is more, if I may proceed. The couple you were staying with, as I stated, are now wanted in connection with a large number of issues and charges. From the affidavits we've been through, we now know you were severely abused in their care. Under the letter of the law, that care was detrimental and hurtful, and considered by the State to be nothing short of abandonment. Note that, please, all of you, as I will come back to it in a moment. The State did not provide follow-up or routine care for this young man, in any form, while he resided in their care. The principle of who is accountable here, who had responsibility, is noted without prejudice."
"Now, Jason," Mr. Coomer continued. "We've followed your trail when you escaped, and we believe a route has been identified that fits most of the details you've supplied thus far. A part of the session we hold later today, perhaps this afternoon, will be to clarify certain particulars to that end. For everyone else's benefit here now, we know Jason ended up in Crab Orchard, Tennessee, because we found the hospital there which admitted you. It was interesting, I might add, that there were no formal records for your stay, at least by name. It appears you originally were admitted, however, as a 'John Doe', being an unidentifiable male, in your early teens. Some days later a woman appeared, however, claiming to be from Social Services. She presented all the basic information then that identified you as a 'Jacob Masters'."
Simon watched as Jason shook his head. Looking up, Simon queried the judge. "But you did find he was there? That it was him?".
"Oh yes, definitely. When pictures were brought out, several nurses and staff recalled his circumstances almost immediately. Further investigation was what matched their record up with ours, together. Jason was in their care for a total of 12 days before he was released." This brought a gasp and round of astonishment from several people in the room, including Natalie.
"Did you say 12 d-days?" the petite lady asked in surprise.
"Yes. I know, it is quite surprising. According to records that were uncovered there, however, Jason was unconscious for a period of 8-days, before they could bring him around." Judge Moore opened his folder to pull out a sheet from within. "When he was revived, the report reads that 'the subject was listless, mute, and had refused to speak on the matter of what happened to him. He was admitted as having been roughly violated, and for extreme exposure to the elements, with an alarming degree of hypothermia. The resident specialist suggested a case of severe trauma had occurred, one that influenced the youth's inability to cognitively function at the time.' They took a few photos of him, and I am at least pleased to say they match the young man sitting with us here today." He looked up. "I do not mean to say I am pleased regarding what happened, mind you. I am only acknowledging that we traced where Jason was at, and that the records indicate what we have only surmised. This provides concrete corroboration in that regard."
"Now, before we go much further, understand that the removal of Jason from hospital care, was orchestrated and conducted by none other than Ms. Ross herself. We're uncertain how she learned of his presence there, but the fact she did learn is presently irrelevant. We also know that she had him remanded to her care as soon as he was fit to travel." He looked up at Jason at that point. "Does that appear to be correct?"
Jason shook his head. "I'm sorry, Judge. Honestly? I don't remember very much about hospital at all, or what happened after that, really. Just little things, mostly, but..."
Judge Moore, nodded in understanding. To the rest of the group, he continued. "Where they went afterwards exactly, no one really knows at this time. From the few details some of you and Jason have provided, this is an exception to the trail of facts we've assembled. All we know is that Jason, at some point, ended up back at the White County Detention Center, the following day. It is from there he was transferred to the International Airport in Nashville, and then was flown to meet with the Flavells. We're still working on this angle, but it may take us some time yet to figure it all out. This constitutes the majority of the facts, however, as we've collected them. Mr. Mathews, is there anything I've mentioned here, to the best of your recollection, that you need to dispute or clarify? Take your time son, there is no need to hurry and answer."
Jason sat back, both stunned and unsure how he felt at that moment. He had expected to be interviewed for his testimony, that much the family was prepared for. Instead, Jason was learning now how everything had happened, from the outside in. Simon, whose arm still encircled the teen's shoulders, gave him a warm hug in support. On the other side, Elliot also placed a hand discreetly upon his leg and squeezed. All of the Flavells remained silent, giving Jason time to contemplate his answer. Having them there, however, was something he felt very grateful for. When he finally spoke, he looked up at the judge. His voice, clear and steady, carried throughout the room. "No, sir, I think everything was pretty close."
Judge Moore smiled, but it was Mr. Coomer who cleared his throat and spoke again. "Then we have the basics in play. Now, if I may, let me explain why so many people are here in this room with us, today. You see Jason, you have, or rather your case has, put our various departments in an uproar over the last several weeks. It was Judge Moore who, in the beginning when you lost your father, signed over your release to us. There was nothing unusual about it, meaning it was more of a standard procedure than anything else. Nonetheless, when that happened, you became a ward of the State of Tennessee. So, at that point, the State became liable for your care. Does that make sense, so far?"
"Yes, sir," Jason replied, and Simon nodded in agreement. Mr. Coomer then continued.
"Even though you were being managed by someone outside of our system, the checks and balances we had in place were still thwarted, and it put you at grave peril. As your responsible guardians, we were without question at fault for not safeguarding your well-being. We, meaning the State of Tennessee, were also at fault for not acting in your best interests, and protecting you and your assets like we should have done. Had this been orchestrated by someone outside the system, then our liability would be more restricted. In your case, however, Ms. Ross was a former employee, for several years in fact, of the very system she manipulated, which she did in her favor. For that reason alone, our liability is still in force. We were, ultimately, responsible for you. Does this part make sense?"
"Uh..." Jason hesitated, but Simon smiled at the youth and then answered for him.
"I believe I can speak and acknowledge that we understand. Maybe not completely, but as you said, the basics are there at least," Simon offered.
Judge Moore spoke up. "You need not worry too much with the specifics. Your advocate, over there, already has the paperwork and necessary materials for the most part. Anything missing, he'll have drawn for you in short order. It is his job to watch out for you, as I spoke earlier, and he'll keep your legal interests at heart, I'm sure. In other words, he'll help you protect these basics, as we call them, in your best interests. Fundamentally, what Mr. Coomer is saying to you is that, even though the State of Tennessee did not originate the cause or circumstance surrounding what happened, they were still responsible. They accept that responsibility now without prejudice, meaning it is uncontested."
"Alright," Simon nodded.
Mr. Coomer cleared his throat. "There is also the matter regarding Deputy Kline, and a total of four other law enforcement agencies, who had a direct hand in this affair. Two of those agencies, through the results of our investigation, have been cleared. They were found to have acted in the best interest of the individuals involved, given the information they had to work with. The hospital, also, has been cleared of all inquiries and implications. They provided you with the care you needed, and then released you to a person who they believed was your legal guardian."
"The two remaining agencies, however," Mr. Coomer continued, "have accepted liability, on behalf of their employees, as being involved in this matter in a wrongful fashion. First of all, Jason, we - the State - extend to you our sincerest apologies for the ordeals and neglect you went through. Understand, the Governor himself will issue you a public, and formal, apology at some point in the future. Most likely, it will not happen though, until this matter has been cleared and tied up. Similarly, other agencies will also follow. That will probably be about 12-18 months or so in the making, mind you, but it will come. Have no doubt of it."
Mr. Coomer took another deep breath, before turning to another page on his tablet. "Each agency that is listed here, is also prepared to offer you an initial settlement. It is a package of restitution, if you will, one that has been approved by all parties involved from our end. It was also discussed, with your advocate working on your behalf, so that we could fast track and prepare information for you at this hearing, today. I am bound by the law, and by his Honor here, to tell you that you do not have to accept this offer. You do not even have to accept your court-appointed advocate, and should you desire, you can seek independent counsel at any time as you see fit. But I request you, personally, and ask all of you really, to at least take the documents we've prepared, and consider them."
"Offer? What are you talking about?" Jason asked, finding his voice amid the confusion.
Judge Moore smiled and took over at that point. "Jason, a part of the reason we're all coming together here is to express our sincere apologies to you. I myself, am humbled by the fact that, even though what crossed my desk seemed legally and procedurally correct, it was still at fault. In other words, the reports lacked certain things I should have picked up on, had I at least paid closer attention. I regret pushing you through the system, as we call it, without performing any means of following up. My office did process your case, but there was only a limited amount of oversight we pursued, because we believed the foster system would take care of you. We were wrong, as it turns out. Everyone in this room recognizes that there is nothing we can do now, after the fact. No amount of apologizing is going to take away what happened to you."
"I don't... I just want to forget about the whole thing, Judge. Honest," Jason stated softly.
Mr. Coomer nodded. "We understand that, Jason. I understand that, I really do. I think in turn, the State and some of these agencies behind you want to make sure you don't encounter any more, shall we say, unnecessary hardships from here on out. Please understand, none of this is meant to replace the pain and suffering you endured, but we are hoping you can find some solace somewhere in between, again with our sincere apologies."
At that point, Judge Moore retrieved from his folder and handed a sealed envelope to the clerk, who rose and delivered it to Simon. "The contents of that envelope are yours to control and disclose as you see fit. However, it would be considered a high favor of this court if you could at least, if you intend to go public with this information, wait a month or two. As we spoke of earlier, we're in the middle of cracking this ring, so to speak, and we have a large manhunt operation in play. It would be better if we could have the element of surprise on our side, while chasing down the individuals who are still at large."
Simon again nodded. "I can understand that, sir, and appreciate it. Personally, I don't think that would present any real problem." He looked at the envelope. "Should we open this now, or...?"
Judge Moore leaned forward. "Why don't we all take a brief recess, perhaps stretch our legs. That will give you an opportunity to look it over. Then, let's reconvene in, say, half an hour or so. I am sure a lot of people in this room want to ask Jason some questions, and then clarify perhaps some other minor details at length. Then, we'll break for an early lunch. You and your family will be my guests today, at a place just down the street here, well known for a variety of southern cuisine. Later this afternoon, if you're up for it young man, we'll do a formal deposition over some of the more crucial pieces of evidence here. Personally, I do not believe that will take all that long, as we already have an official record created and assembled here, today, of what happened. The deposition, however, is going to be the key to a few specific items, all of which will reinforce explicit aspects of the charges we're considering. By doing the deposition now, we think we can avoid having you return to any trials or legal proceedings in the future. Understand, I cannot guarantee that fact, but I think it will go a long way. Once all of that is done today, then you can head back to the hotel and enjoy a nice dinner tonight. Mr. Coomer and I may join you folks, if we're able, and if that is agreeable with you. How does that sound?"
Simon looked at the others, and then at Jason, who nodded. "That would be splendid, sir," the eldest Flavell answered.
"Very well, then," Judge Moore announced.
- + - + - + - + -
"I don't believe it, I just don't believe it!" Natalie muttered under her breath, while the boys and Simon stood around her.
The Flavell clan, with Jason, were directed to a side-room just outside, off the chambers, where they reunited in private. It was Natalie who had taken the envelope from her husband and, using care, opened one end before extracting several papers packaged together. There was a top sheet, identifying the contents as intended for Jason Dewayne Mathews and his legal guardians. When Simon saw it, he grunted. "Legal guardians? Don't suppose they really mean us, do they?" he mused aloud.
As they read over the page, it showed it had been originated by various departments and individuals for the State. The second and third pages contained some sort of legal disclaimer information, which Simon urged his wife to just pass over. The fourth page, however, contained a summary of information that caused them each to gasp aloud.
Simon took the paper from his wife's shaking hands and read aloud for the rest of them to hear. "The State of Tennessee, Child Advocacy and Protection Services, offers..." He stopped reading, then went down to the next line. "There are, what 8, no 9 agencies here listed, all of them with... Oh my stars!"
"What is it, Uncle Simon?" Jason asked timidly, who stood the farthest away. His uncle turned to him.
"Jason, if I read this right, the State wants to offer you a potential settlement in the amount of... in the amount of $1.6 million US dollars." He read further briefly, and then looked up to the youth. "That is the compensatory amounts. There appears to also be a discretionary amount listed here, separate from the others, to cover various expenditures, etc. legal fees and the like, in the amount of $250,000." He read further in silence before continuing. "It appears there is yet another additional fund, which is being used to cover our airfare, hotel, travel arrangements - pretty much everything else. Which explains that little mystery of our trip. It also..." He looked at Natalie and removed his glasses. "His loss of property, personal effects, and other lost or unrecoverable components is covered there, as well. Not the real estate, but the other tangible items." Finishing the page, Simon reached out and pulled up a chair, the surprise taking its toll. Natalie only stared at her husband in shock, until she also pulled a chair up beside him.
Jason, however, backed away. Reaching one of the chairs arranged nearby, he sat down slowly. Although the others in the room were astonished, the news generated more of a shockwave that passed through him. Instead of relief or excitement, a sense of dread enveloped him and his face turned uncharacteristically white. Elliot, upon noticing this, immediately stepped over and sat beside him. "Are you okay, Jase? What's wrong?" he asked, worried.
Derek followed his little brother, but knelt in front of their cousin instead. "What is it, squeaker?" he spoke softly.
When Jason didn't reply right away, Natalie chose to turn her chair and pull it up in front him. Taking one of his hands, she held it while watching him closely. Jason looked at each of them in a state of complete confusion. "Why? Why would they want to give me ... money?" he finally asked, his voice a low whisper.
It was Simon who reached out, placing his hand upon Jason's knee. "Listen to me, son. Maybe you're not used to this, but I daresay, it happens often enough. They, being the State, acknowledged that they should have taken better care of you, and they didn't. So, I imagine this is their way of wanting to avoid a big round of lawsuits, and the potential aftermath that will come from it. Does that make sense to you?"
"But- But they didn't... I mean, it wasn't the Judge's fault, they didn't..." Jason tried to explain, but was lost for words.
"They know that, Jason," Natalie chimed in. "But, honey, that doesn't excuse them from admitting they were negligent." She looked deep into his eyes. "Trust me, I'm certain their sincerity is well founded. Like you, I feel for the Judge and some of those people in that room out there. They were taken advantage of by somebody outside of their control. But you see, this isn't about them; it's about you and what happened to you. And truthfully, this is the only real way they can come from behind, and try to make up for it. The damage that was caused by those people, and then what happened afterwards - all of that was real. In their eyes, see, the damage inflicted upon you was because of their misconduct."
Simon leaned in closer. "We didn't expect any of this, son. It's as much a surprise to me, as well as everyone else in this room. I had the impression they were just going to get some information from you, get it all down on video and more, so they could go off and figure all of this out. Instead, it seems they already have a good portion of it predetermined, and now they're trying to look forward. That is why, it looks like, the Judge and Mr. Coomer are bringing all of this together. I suspect it's why the judge got a lawyer, an advocate, involved for you, as well. It actually makes sense, now. They are going through this, to get the details out, and to appeal to you on behalf of their groups. See?"
Jason slowly nodded. "I- I guess so, yeah." He fell back into the chair with slumped shoulders. "They want to give me... how much?"
Simon spoke again. "Somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.8 million dollars, give or take some change. At least, from the looks of it."
"If you take it, that is," Derek stated. "I don't mean to sound greedy or anything, but you heard the man. It's all if it's acceptable to you. If you take it, then you'll be... well, you won't have to worry so much about money anymore."
Jason looked up to the youth, searching his expression before nodding. "Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I never worry about me any, it's more you guys I worry about more than anything else."
Simon studied that for a minute in silence. "You need not be doing that," he whispered finally, his voice thick with emotion. "I know it's hard to let go sometimes, but really, son - I've told you this so many times now already. You need to let me worry with those kinds of things." Simon shook his head though, a tear falling from his cheek before he smiled. "You know, Derek is right. This figure could be considered low by some standards. I agree, not that I'm thinking greedily or anything, mind you, but just saying so. If you took them to court, you could probably end up with a lot more. But be warned, that would probably mean it will be tied up for years, and you'll have to pay lawyers for their fees, court costs and everything else. In the end, it might not wind up being much more than this. It could be this amount corresponds closely to what you would get after the fact, when all those expenses and fees are paid up and finished. So - if that's the case, it probably isn't a bad offer at all."
Natalie hesitated, but spoke measuredly. "Jason dear, this is your decision - your money, your case. Don't let us influence you in this, okay? I imagine all this is very sudden and confusing, and probably exciting and puzzling. Probably all that and more. Just, think about it for yourself, okay? Not us, not me and Simon or the boys here. That's enough money for you to well attend college, get a house, or even more. It would also let you live almost anywhere you want in the world, when you're older and can handle yourself. Do you see? You could get a very solid start for yourself in life. Like that man out there said, it can't buy back what happened to you in the past. They know that, we know it - and you know it, too. But they can at least make sure your future is a lot safer. That's what all of this, ultimately, is for. It's your future, son."
Jason looked at her and smiled. "Did you just call me son?"
"It's not the first time I've done it, you know!" Natalie laughed.
Jason scoffed, but reached out and embraced the woman as completely as he could. "No, but maybe it's the first time I've like, really heard it, inside," he whispered into her ear. He let go and turned to face the rest of them. "You guys are my future. You should know that by now." He closed his eyes as the others looked on, then sighed. "Honest? I just want it all to be over with, you know? I don't care about any of it, really. Uncle Simon, if you think it's fair, then yeah, it's fine with me. I'd rather just be done with all of it, okay?"
The family patriarch nodded and stood up. "I understand that, more than you might think I do. Then, that's what we'll tell them, simple as that."
Jason turned to Elliot, and then to Derek. "I'm okay guys, honest. Just, don't leave me, okay?"
"You bet," Elliot nodded.
"We're not going anywhere," Derek replied.
- + - + - + - + -
The rest of the morning went by quickly, with most questions from the audience being nothing more than what the Judge suspected, a call for more specific details. Lunch with Judge Moore was also a pleasant affair, where not one word was spoken about the proceedings. Instead, their conversations floated around Jason, and what he had been doing since his arrival in the UK. The Judge was keenly interested in learning the young man's take on the differences and more, and what he thought of his new surroundings. He also seemed impressed at how well the teen had taken to life with his new family, and how well the family had come to accept him.
That afternoon was spent, once again, ironing out more details. With Jason moving through the entire tale again, from start to finish, he found it easier to recall obscurities that had escaped him before. The only exception was, this time, everything was recorded on video, and with a stenographer present. Both Derek and Elliot were permitted to sit nearby, ready to offer support in any way they could should it be needed. This time, however, Jason made it through all of his testimony, without the difficulties he had previously experienced. Looking at the camera a few times, he recognized the need for the recording, and also recognized that he needed to be more careful in his use of language. Throughout the recording, however, his advocate was present beside him on one side, making notes of his own, and Simon was on the other, albeit not as close, but still well within arm's grasp. It gave Jason a renewed courage, something Elliot and Derek noted with a swell of pride on their own. On a few occasions, their advocate made objections when certain questions were raised that, in his view, fell outside the scope of what they were doing. Otherwise, the man sat mostly silent and attentive. All in all, for someone the Flavells or Jason had never met or knew existed, until that day, the advocate seemed to truly be working on Jason's behalf. For this, all those in the family were extremely grateful.
Once finished, everyone wrapped up and began preparations to go their separate ways. Judge Moore walked over and sat down with just the five of them, clearly indicating he wasn't quite finished. Before he addressed the family, the man looked upon them thoughtfully. "I know, you're all probably feeling a little weary and exhausted right now, but could we talk for just another minute? This time, with it just us?" Both Simon and Natalie joined him at the table, with both Flavell brothers standing behind Jason. Once settled, Judge Moore addressed Jason with a smile. "I just wanted to say a few things, if I may, totally off the record. It will only take a moment, but I think you'll find some of what I have to say interesting."
The judge paused, as if to collect his words. "I had one of my clerks track down some of your other basic information. It turns out, your place of residence, while you lived here, was sold to a family late last June. Somehow, the county records, deed of ownership and the like, were altered, and from the best we can tell, it was through the Ross couple and Deputy Hines that it all occurred. That itself is extensive, and it shows the level of perpetration these people went through, to circumvent our legal systems here. There are deeds, right-of-way management, and more, that assign and validate land ownership at several levels. It would appear the couple masterminded that whole effort."
"Be that as it may, what I wanted to tell you is that my clerk spoke with the new owners briefly, and it seems they offered to have you come down one day this week and visit, if you like. It would, in effect, allow you to have a look around one last time if you wanted. They did inform us that the place had been fairly stripped when they moved in, as anyone would normally expect. Still, that offer is out there for you, Jason. They seemed very genuine in making sure you were aware of that fact, that you and your new family were welcomed to come by."
"Thank you Judge. We had given some thought about visiting Sparta and visit the cemetery. At least while we were here," Simon replied.
Mr. Coomer happened to be walking by at that point, when he stopped. "I'm sorry Judge, I don't mean to interrupt, but I couldn't help but overhear. If you folks want to go down to Sparta, just let your driver know what day. He'll arrange it for you, with my blessing. It's not that far out, really, maybe an hour or so. Besides, I know how hard it can be coming over here, and then having to worry about getting around like that. Granted, it's a little out of his jurisdiction, but I'll see to it there aren't any problems."
Judge Moore smiled and nodded. "Well, then that's taken care of. Thank you, Greg. Now, there is another matter, one which may surprise you, but I'll only give you a heads up for now. I would prefer you give us another day or so before I leave any details with you. It's nothing adverse, I assure you, but one of the investigators found some interesting information on Jason's father." He saw the look of curiosity that met him, and laughed. "That's all I will say for the moment, young man. Just trust me on it for the time being."
The man paused in thought. "Now then, the only other thing I wanted to mention is about your arrangements in the UK. I take it, from our conversation during lunch, you are agreeable with these folks being a part of your family and all, and that you want to stay with them?"
Jason visibly perked up before responding. "Yes, sir. They're all I have left, but that part doesn't matter, really. They're good to me. They care." He glanced about him briefly and smiled. " I'm not alone anymore, Judge." Elliot, standing nearest, put an arm around his cousin and held him close.
Judge Moore smiled again. "I can understand that, and trust me, I have no intention of breaking you apart. I suppose, by now, you realize why I assigned you an advocate. With you living there, and with all these proceedings needing to be handled and dealt with here, I think all our communication will be haphazard at best. He will handle almost all your details for you, representing you in every facet from here on out. Unless there is something that just requires your immediate attention, and I mean personally, we'll let him move everything up to the door. Then you and your family can make any decisions necessary across the way there in the UK." They all nodded, and then the man leaned forward. "As to the matter of staying with these folks, I am bound by law to have someone evaluate your suitability to take Jason on. Please, do not worry with this process, and to be truthful, with you being there and us being here, I am not even certain what those requirements may culminate to. Mr. Coomer here, he'll take care of that, but once it is done, we'll see to it Mr. and Mrs. Flavell, that you have no problems formally adopting him. Mind you, that will take some time, probably upwards of 12 or more months, but it will happen. I'll personally oversee as much of it as possible."
Natalie sat silently, a range of feelings crossing her face. When she spoke, her voice was thick with emotion. "Thank you, Judge. You don't know what that means to us."
Judge Moore shook his head. "No, with respect, I believe you may be wrong again, my dear lady. Having seen many of our youth go through the system, as we call it, very few get to have the privilege that reaches this stage. I am always, most overjoyed, when it does happen, and for the right reasons." He looked upon each of them again. "Just so you are aware, I am going to officially request that you make one additional trip back over here. However, it won't be until we wrap this thing up. More or less, we'll all cross our T's and dot our I's, as we spoke of earlier. The Governor himself, as we mentioned this morning, will most likely want to meet you, and I'm sure there will be a few other loose ends that get tied up here and there. I don't expect it will happen for at least, oh, say anywhere from 10 to 18 months down the road, but we'll plan it all out eventually. I will see to it son, that your entire family is invited to make the trip with you, and it will be done, again, at the State's expense from your incidentals account."
Simon was beside himself. "I- I don't know how to thank you for that, sir. We saw that earlier today, and it was, well, it was a gracious thought on our behalf. It is not easy for me to bring the family over like this."
Judge Moore shook his head. "Don't thank me, thank Gregory. Mr. Coomer has gone out of his way in your case, mostly because we know everything here, in this situation, has been in the extreme. I believe he wants, sincerely desires, to make things as right as he can. We're in the beginning stages of a massive sweep right now. I don't mind telling you, other members of this sting have already been identified, so it is not just localized to your case, Jason. Your situation was the catalyst that set things in motion, and I honestly believe Gregory is grateful. It may cost the State a little up front, but the long-term effect far outweighs what it could have cost his group financially. And then, he's also thinking of the children affected, too. There is a lot to pay for, and if he has anything to do with it, he'll be hanging the guilty parties out on a thread to make it happen - regardless of the cost. Even this weekend, putting you up at the Gaylord? That cost is a drop in the bucket compared to what is coming. So, don't skimp, enjoy yourself while you're there. Uh, maybe do it reasonably, mind you, but yes - just enjoy your stay."
Mr. Coomer smiled at them. "What the judge says is totally correct. Please, enjoy your stay, and once again make use of your driver if you need to." He thanked them again, and then departed the group, leaving them alone with the Judge.
"Judge-" Natalie started, then shook her head smiling. "I think it is us who should be thanking you, for everything. Not just for Jason's sake, but for all of us. We had no idea how any of this was going down, or what to expect, when we walked in here this morning. I don't think Simon or myself could be any happier, or more pleased, with its outcome either!" Simon nodded in agreement.
The older man regarded them closely. "I understand. Once again, I know this can, for some people, create undue hardships if we're not careful. Jason was a pawn in all of this, which you and your family got drawn into unintentionally. I regret it happened, but that does not change the fact. So hopefully that little added budget for expenses, etc. will cover everything you need, at least initially, until we get the rest of this sorted out. If there's anything left over at the end, well, just put it away for a rainy day." He smiled mischievously. "Unless you might want to send me a bottle or two of that English wine I keep hearing about over there."
Simon raised his eyebrows. "I take it you chaps don't get any of it over here, then?"
The judge shook his head. "Afraid not. It seems your British government keeps much of the Bolney and Oxney under strict export control. I've heard it is quite exceptional, however."
Simon laughed. "I'll see what I can do. Perhaps on the next trip I make over for my work, I can get a bottle or two and bring them with me." He extended his hand. "As my wife said, I cannot help but thank you enough for everything. All of you, Mr. Coomer included, have gone out of your way, I feel, for the care you've taken with Jason and my family." The man shook it kindly, then turned to Jason. Rising from the table, he moved around to stand beside the youth. Jason also decided to stand and meet him.
"Jason, I've said it enough already, but I will do this one more time. Young man, I truly apologize for your experience. I regret not having taken a closer scrutiny of it in the beginning. If I had, much of this might have been avoided." The man offered his hand to the youth, who took it with his own, but held it.
"Sir, you ... you didn't do this, I know that. Thanks for everything, though. Thanks for lunch, and... and... thanks for caring. That means more to me than anything else." He leaned in and gave the older man a brief hug, which surprised him.
"You're most kindly welcome." The man turned towards Simon. "Quite a youth here, I think." Before bidding his departure, he arranged with them that he and Mr. Coomer would call around 7:00 that evening, for dinner. They graciously accepted, and then parted ways.
Almost immediately, their driver appeared back in the doorway to the courtroom. Strolling in, he called down to the family. "Howdy, folks! So, I hear you've finished for the day. Are you ready to head back to the hotel now?"
They all smiled at the change of mood in the room, and Jason was the first to speak. "Sure, but uh, can I have a minute? I need to, like, make a pit stop first. Is that okay?"
"By all means, of course you can!" Mr. Burris replied, laughing. "We don't need you bursting a bladder while you're here, do we!" His kindly smile was infectious, and all three boys made their way out of the room together, leaving their parents behind.
Once in the bathroom, they each walked up to a urinal. Elliot, glancing about, remarked. "I see what you mean about these divider thingies."
Derek laughed, but as he finished, he flushed the unit before coming around Jason and, from behind, wrapped him in a big hug. "You know something?" he whispered, "We always said, everything was going to be alright, even better now."
Jason zipped up and then grasped Derek's strong arms, holding them in place. "I don't know what I would do without you two."
Elliot sidled up just then and added his own hug. Jason accepted it, the three standing together tightly for the moment. It had been a good day.
It had been a very good day, indeed.