As we were walking out of the hospital, I remembered Jeb and his overnighter there. I felt bad that I hadn't thought or asked about him the entire time we were there.
"Dan, I need to go back in and see if Jeb is still here."
"Okay. Let him know that I'll be calling on him to find out about what went on at his place. And let me know when he's being released, please."
I asked at the Information Desk and got his room number. I even lied and said I was his son, or I don't think they would have let me up to see him. 'Then again, anyone that came in, that the staff could push him off on, might be to their benefit,' I thought, chuckling to myself.
But as I rounded the corner on his floor and saw his room number my suspicions were laid to rest.
"….but when? I'm perfectly fine. Now get me my pants or I'm walkin' as is, breeze in back and all, young lady!"
As I walked in it got even better.
"Ah! Tim, just in time. They won't release me until I have someone to take me from this godforsaken place and make sure I'm okay for a few days. Nurse, nurse, this is my neighbor and good friend, Retired Sergeant Tim McGill. He's strong and young and even has two boys that can help. Now, please, can I go?"
"I keep telling you, Mr. Harding, I can't make that decision. It's up to your doctor. I think he's on rounds so he should be coming by shortly."
The nurse was busy straightening some things on the other side of the room. She was about twenty-five, attractive and talking very sweet to the man in the bed who I'm sure had made quite an impression on everyone on the staff, as well as everyone on the whole floor. Then she turned and took about three steps until she could bend down and look right into his eyes.
"Until then," she continued with an even sweeter sound to her voice, "if you don't stay in that bed, I'll have orderlies in here in about one minute to strap you down. And if that doesn't keep you quiet, we'll take you over to the children's section where they have the right to whine like a little child, Mr. Harding." She finished, emphasizing his name.
He looked like he was trying to push back farther into the bed. His look was one of fear, but I could tell he was acting as well as he did when he complained.
After she left, he immediately turned to me and smiled, reaching for my arm to emphasize the pleasure he was having.
"I think she's my favorite so far. She doesn't take anything from me. I had one sweet little thing in tears last night. I had the florist here send her a bouquet of a variety of carnations. Haven't seen her since, though."
"Well, you look good. I can see you're getting your exercise by running everyone else ragged."
"Yes, it's just my way, don'tcha know. I'm sure they think they died and gone to heaven when they find out they get to come in here and listen to me rant and rave. What do you think?"
"I think you're probably right, but I think you got the timing wrong. It's when they leave you that they think they'd died and gone to heaven."
"Ha ha ha! I think so too. I'll probably have to buy up a flower stand and send it here to all of them. But I was pretty nice to the doctor when he saw me last night."
"Pretty nice? As nice as you are to AJ, Jeffy and me?"
"Oh, come on. I reserve that for my special friends. But I was civil enough.
"So, Tim, I really was wondering if you could drive me home when it's time. It should be today. The doctor said there were very few cuts that amounted to more than scratches. Still, he did stitch up about three in my neck and arm," he said, pulling back the sleeve of his Johnny to show me an example.
And who should walk in right then but Jeb's doctor? He looked pretty young, but I could tell immediately that he had Jeb figured out and wasn't taking anything from the old fart. Still, he had a twinkle in his eye that gave away his liking for my friend and neighbor.
"Dr. Hastings," he said, walking directly to me. "And you are . . .?"
"Doc, this is my neighbor, Sergeant Tim McGill, that I told you about. His truck is pretty old, but it'll be fine to take me home in. Whadda ya say, doc? Please?"
"Mr. Harding, it won't do any good for you to cry anymore," said the doctor with a wink toward me. I believe Jeb had met his match and I got to see the winning goal.
"Cry? Why I . . ."
"Yes, that poor nurse said she was so sad because you were in such a state last night that it made her cry just to see you that way."
"ME? I . . . Well, I never! I'll have you know . . ."
"Mr. Harding, of course, I'm pulling your chain; throwing back a little of what you've been tossing at my staff all day. Frankly, I think the party will commence after you leave. Do you blame them?" he asked while scribbling in the chart he'd taken from the front of the patient's bed.
"Humph! Why, I . . . Okay," smiled Jeb, giving up on trying to act out an attitude to the man he obviously admired for his endurance. "I guess you win again. But, may I really go soon?"
"Since you asked so nice," the doctor answered, pulling out the sheet he was writing on. "And since you have a ride waiting, I think we can release you."
He handed Jeb his release form.
"God bless ya, young man. You've been a good and fair man all along and I do take kindly to people like you, don't I, Tim?" he said turning to look up at me.
"Yes, well I think . . ." I started until,
"Okay, get me my pants, boy. Times a-wastin'," he said sitting up on the edge of the bed.
"I've written out some instructions along with prescriptions for an antibiotic and some pain meds, just in case. Finish the whole course of the antibiotic and just rest for a few days. Now, I had the choice of stitches that dissolved or the kind I take out and I decided on the kind I needed to take out."
"So, come back in a week and we'll continue the fun. I'll let you rant and rave in vain a few minutes more." It was all he could do to keep from laughing.
Jeb was about ready to come back at him when he saw the laughter in the doctor's eyes, then he immediately relaxed and smiled back.
"You really are a piece of work. I can't get anything by you, can I?"
"Maybe not, sir, but you've certainly kept me on my toes for the three times I've been in here."
"Tell me, do you see patients as a Family Practice or Primary Care Doctor?"
"No, not yet. I may go that route in a few years but I'm still cutting my teeth here. There's a lot to learn to get really good at this doctoring stuff, you know."
"Well, son, I for one think you've come a long way and I'm proud to have met you," he said, holding out his hand to shake the doctor's.
"Oh my god, nurse, get the crash cart! I think he's going into fibrillation!" said the doctor, though not loud enough to be heard outside the room. Besides, he was smiling through the whole thing.
"Smart ass! Forget everything I said," retorted Jeb, smiling just as big when the doctor took his hand and shook it.
We had to wait for the ever-necessary orderly with the wheelchair, which Jeb protested about of course, until the orderly turned to leave without his patient.
The drive home was quiet for about ten minutes until Jeb just started to talk about his time with the sheriff in his attic. He spoke kind of softly, like he was deep in thought though he answered the few questions I had during his story.
There were orange cones across the driveway of the farmhouse across the way from Jeb's, a sole deputy's car farther along the driveway and I could see yellow tape closer to the house, but it was a ways from the road. I don't think Jeb even looked over there. He looked tired.
I walked Jeb into his house and made sure he'd have everything he needed, at least until dinnertime when I invited him over. I said I'd send the boys over for him at that time.
AJ must have lost all his adrenalin by the time he and Jeffy got home escorting Jeb to eat with us. I can imagine that both Jeb's and Jeffy's ear were on fire by then. We had a quiet meal with a story or two from our friend.
"That reminds me. I need to call some place in the Midwest tomorrow. Something about my daughter," he told us. "Nothin' important I'm sure."
The following day when I met Dan at the hospital earlier than the day before, we found Linda Sue waiting for us by the boy's door and, after exchanging a few pleasant words, went in to see the boy. His curtain was drawn, and a nurse explained from the other side that she was just changing some of his bandages and it wouldn't be a minute.
"Could you ask him if we can get him anything, like to drink or maybe a dessert," asked Linda Sue. "Something special since we may be here for a while and it might get boring for him."
We heard the nurse mumble something to the boy.
"Oh? You know about milkshakes?" asked the nurse in a more normal volume. "I think we have a winner. He would like a milkshake, please, a white one. I suppose that means vanilla."
"Wonderful. Guys, do you want anything? I may buy some cookies to go with this. I was thinking of a coffee or tea."
"I would, and I'll go with you, Linda Sue," I said.
Dan agreed, and we all went down to the cafeteria and ordered.
When we returned the nurse was just coming out of the room. She was the same nurse as the day before. She was shaking her head at us.
"If he isn't about the sweetest, shyest young man I have ever met. Do you know that everything we served him to eat was new to him except the oatmeal this morning? Even that had granola on it and you'd think he'd found some Turkish Delight. He went on and on about how it was even better than having 'that brown sugar stuff', as he called it, on his oatmeal. But everything is such a challenge to him. It's like he knows lots of information, even has a good vocabulary, but has no idea about the real world. Where did he come from, if I may ask?"
Dan answered, "Well, that's what we're here to determine. We have no idea about where he's from or who he is. We don't even know his name."
"Boy is all he could tell me. That's pretty strange in itself, though I've read of other cases where that's happened."
"Is it okay if we go in now? Maybe you should be the one to introduce us. You seem to be high on his list of good people," said Dan.
"I will have to say that he was very shy and even scared when the doctor met him, even more so when a male orderly came to take him to X-ray. Since then, we've tried to keep a female in attendance, so he'd be able to relax."
"Hm-m-m, well, let's just play it by ear then and we'll leave if things start to go south," Dan said, looking at me.
"I know," said Linda Sue. "It's a small thing but, Dan, why don't you offer him the milkshake."
"Not a bad idea." Dan took the drink from her and we all went into the boy's hospital room.
The nurse bent down a bit to see that his eyes were closed.
"Oh, well, he might have drifted off while . . ."
"Um, no, ma'am, I'm just resting my eyes a bit. I'm not asleep," said the boy. "Oh, I'm sorry I interrupted you too."
"That's nice of you to say. You certainly are a polite young man. I have some friends here that I'd like to introduce to you."
"My . . . my friends? I, uh, I don't know anyone." He seemed a little shook up and instantly sounded confused.
"No, sweetheart. These are my friends and friends of Dr. Strauss. But I'm sure they want to be your friends too."
"They do?" he said, trying to look behind him where we were standing.
"Come around, folks, and meet one of the nicest people on our planet," said Nurse Flora with a huge smile.
When we came around, he immediately cringed when he saw Dan and me. We knew it had to be because of his distrust of men in his life up to then.
Dan knelt down so he was at the same height as the boy.
"Son, we mean you no harm, in fact, Sergeant McGill and I are part of the team of people that saved you from that farm and those bad men that kept hurting you all the time."
"You, you are?" said the boy to Dan, then shifted his eyes to look at me.
I tried to smile my best smile and nodded my head.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, young man. I'm just so sorry we were unable to get there in time to save you from this last beating."
"Oh, it's okay. I'm kind of used to it. You know, after a while you just push the pain out of your head, so you can take more, right?"
His words shocked me because he said it as though he was telling us something that everyone knew and experienced all the time.
But it must have shocked Linda Sue even more. She gasped when he said that, her hand going to cover her mouth and soon her eyes were filling with tears.
"Did I say something wrong again? I seem to do that a lot. I, um, well, I don't know a lot of people and the ones I do . . . well, did know usually did all the talking at me. I'm sorry to have upset you, ma'am."
"And I'm sorry for reacting. I just hate to know that someone, anyone could have had to endure what you have been through for so long."
"Thank you, ma'am. That's very kind of you to say."
Linda Sue had a puzzled look on her face when she looked up at me. I didn't know at the time what she was thinking. That would come later.
"Well, my boy, you asked for a milkshake and that's what we brought. Can I hold it for you? I don't think you'll be sitting up for a while."
"Um, well, um okay," he stammered, looking up at Nurse Flora for help. He was obviously still frightened of us, at least Dan and me.
"May I say something to him?" I asked Dan.
"Of course," he said and stood up.
I knelt down as Dan had done and the boy cringed a bit before he opened his eyes and looked into mine. I wanted with all my heart to convey our acceptance of this unfortunate boy, whoever he was. It didn't matter.
"It hasn't been a couple of months since I took in a young boy, a few years younger than you. He'd been beaten several times by some bullies where he lived, and he was on his own and on the streets for much of his life. He was pretty scared of me then too, just like you are, because he didn't trust anyone, especially adults that could hurt him. But he finally accepted me and now we live together and soon he will be my son. In fact, we just took another boy into our family that had lived much like my little guy. We're all so happy, just as we here are all so happy that you are now safe and won't have to endure any more pain." I thought I was talking over his head a bit, so I started to explain. "Endure means to . . . "
"One, to suffer something painful or difficult, patiently. Two, to tolerate someone or something."
We were all a bit taken back by what he'd just recited, though only Linda Sue caught on to what that meant about the boy.
"Um, yes, exactly," I said, looking at my friends standing over me. "That's perfect. Just like it came from . . ."
"Webster's New World College Dictionary, reprinted 1996," said the boy. "Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to interrupt." He was getting a little upset.
Linda Sue scooted me over and knelt beside the boy. He immediately smiled, and I thought that she must have lost her balance by the way she reacted. Her mouth opened but the words took a second before they came out.
"I, oh my, I want you to know that it is finally okay for you to say anything and everything that's on your mind. In fact, if there are thoughts or feelings from way back in your life, I want to hear them too. We only want what's best for you from now on. Do you understand what I'm saying? We just want you to think of us as you would think of your own folks."
I could see some regret in her expression when she realized he didn't really have any folks, at least not at that farm. The three men and the boy were the only ones there. Dan had evidently told her that earlier. She smiled softly at the boy and raised her hand to his head and gently played with his thick mop of hair.
"M-m-m, that sure feels wonderful, ma'am."
"Oh, please call me . . ." and she stopped in mid-sentence like she was unable to go on. In fact, she stood up and turned away for a minute.
Dan handed the boy the milkshake, took the paper wrapper off the straw and pushed it into the drink and bent the tip so the boy could enjoy it.
"Um, this is almost as good as the other one I had the other day. It sure was nice and I got it from the nicest ma'am, kind of like you two ma'ams. It is so good."
We let him drink for a bit until Nurse Flora noticed him scrunching up his nose a bit.
"Honey, is there something . . .? Oh, drink it slower and you won't get that feeling on the roof of your mouth. Let your mouth get used to the cold before you drink anymore."
"Wow! Do you know, you sound just like Luanne Ma'am at the café when she saw me getting that cold spot too. She said almost the same thing to me. She was as nice as you ma'ams are. I, uh, I guess you sirs are very nice too," he said, bending his head to look down. He was still very shy around Dan and me and who could blame him?
"And I'm sure they want to be your friends as much as the ladies and I do, sweetheart. Now, this man would like to ask you some questions. I have to go for only a little bit, but this lady will be with you the whole time."
And Nurse Flora was gone.
"Yes, I will, and if this all gets to be too much for you, we'll just come back another time to finish up, okay?" asked Linda Sue turning back to us and the boy.
"Um, okay, I guess. I don't think I'm going anywhere soon," he said, looking back over his shoulder.
"That was very funny. I think I'm going to like being your friend," said Dan with a warm smile.
He grabbed a chair and slid it over to the head of the bed, so he could sit at the boy's level.
"This won't take long, I'm sure, but I would really like to know a little about what went on at the farm where we found you. Is that okay?"
"Um, oka-a-ay?" he said looking at Linda Sue for assurance, I suspect.
"It's okay, son. He just wants to know what you know about that horrible place, but don't be afraid to tell him everything. The truth is a very good thing to tell, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am. I once told him, um, that old man, a lie to save me from a beating and I was beaten worse than when I tell the truth. The truth is much less painful for me."
Again, I noticed Linda Sue shudder. She didn't like to hear him describe what he'd been through.
"Well, let's start with something simple," Dan said. "My name is Dan Perkins."
"Pleased to meet you, sir," said the boy automatically.
"Um, yes, and this man's name is Tim McGill," said Dan, pointing to me.
"And you too, sir. Pleased to meet you."
"And you, son," I replied.
"And this nice lady is Linda Sue Cottington. A long last name but you'll be hearing it a lot, so you'll be used to it in no time."
"Shall I just call her Linda Sue ma'am?"
"Um," Dan looked up at Linda Sue who shrugged her shoulders. "Sure, that would be fine. I told you all our names. Now you get to tell us yours. It's only polite, right?" Dan said smiling.
"Yes, it is. Boy."
"Okay, then," Dan said, waiting for the boy's response.
"What?" asked the boy looking to each of us.
"I asked your name,"
"Well, usually then you say it."
"Yes, sir. I said my name was Boy. Is that the wrong answer?" He looked on the verge of tears and was starting to shake just a bit.
Linda Sue reached over and rubbed his head softly and he calmed right down, almost cooing at the feeling of her gentle touch. Once I even saw her turn her hand to look at it before she continued to stroke his head.
"I think Deputy Perkins is asking if you have a name like we do. You know, a first name and then a family name after it."
"Oh, um, not that I know. I was usually called Boy, but sometimes they called me stupid and sometimes it was idiot. There were lots of those names. Oh, asshole and jackass too. But mostly they called me boy.
"Hm-m-m. Then do you know the names of the other men who lived there, at the farm?"
"And they are . . ."
"The man that lived there mostly was called old man a lot, so I guess that was his name. This really mean man who had a six-sided star, he called him other names like they called me sometimes, but he was the only one they all called old man."
"Was the star that the mean man wore like this one?" Dan said reaching into his breast pocket to pull out his service wallet with his badge and ID in it."
"Oh no! You and him are friends? Oh no!"
"No, no, son. We aren't friends. Son, a badge doesn't make someone good or bad. It just tells you that we both worked at the same place. Though it should also tell you that you are protected when you are near someone with one of these," he explained, finally flipping the wallet closed and sliding it back into his breast pocket.
"Protected means keep safe from harm or injury, but that Sheriff man hurt me as much as the old man and others did, just like they were having fun."
Again, I noticed Linda Sue cringe at the knowledge of what the boy had gone through. She dabbed her eyes with a tissue as Dan went on.
"So, you heard the bad man called Sheriff?"
"Yes, once that I can recall; maybe more. Was he a Sheriff?"
"Yes, he was."
"He isn't now?"
"No, son, he was killed when we came to get you. He was shot while he was trying to hurt more people."
The boy stared at Dan for what seemed like a long time before he mouthed the single word, "Oh." Then he broke down and sobbed.
Again, Linda Sue rubbed his scalp soothingly. She also leaned down and spoke softly to him, telling him it was all okay, that he couldn't be hurt by those men anymore and that Dan was a real good Sheriff and would protect him like he should have been protected.
As the boy tried to collect himself, Dan told him the same thing.
"I won't let anyone hurt you, boy. I only want to know these things, so we can know you even better. Okay?"
"Yes, sir. I believe you are a nice man and so is he, um, Mr.?"
"You may call me Tim. I want to help you too and maybe you could meet my sons someday."
"You have those two boys you talked about? I saw some boys the other day too, but it wasn't a nice thing at all. I . . ."
"Those were my sons you met that day," said Dan, not thinking about the reaction it would cause.
The boy almost got up from the bed he was so shocked! The pain I could see on his face must have been excruciating because he immediately flopped back onto the bed and started to cry and try to curl up but that too must have hurt too much.
"Oh no! Oh no! I am so sorry. I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to do that, but Gus made me. Honest. He pushed me out and said bad things if I didn't grab that little boy. I am so sorry. I didn't really take him. No, I left him, and I ran and we left real quick."
Dan reached to comfort him too, but the boy jerked back.
He was getting incoherent and Dan and I decided he needed a break. Linda Sue began to care for him again, rubbing his hair and talking to him with her voice that was naturally soothing to him. She motioned us toward the door when she had things under control and we both slipped out.
"What will he do to me now that he knows I'm the one that . . . the one that tried to take his little boy? I'm so sorry. I really am." The boy was really shaken by Dan's comment that he was the little boy's dad.
"Hush, hush, boy. Everything will be fine," said Linda Sue, gently rubbing his scalp again. "He already knew you were the one and his little boy even told his daddy that you didn't want to do it."
"Yes, but I . . . Um, he did? The little boy knew that? How did he know?"
"Well, it seems that your look told the little boy that you were so sorry for trying to take him and he saw how upset you were, and he said that you were almost kind as you asked him to come with you. Is that when the other boy jumped on you and scratched you?"
"Yes, it is. How did you . . . You mean, Mr. Dan was here with me all that time and he knew what a horrible person I am, and he still wanted to help me and give me a milkshake?" His tears began before he could finish.
When Linda Sue told us the story later, she said he just couldn't believe someone could be so nice.
"Boy, I think you will find a lot of people that want to be nice to you. We all know that you went through so much pain and torture at the hands of those men. All we want is for you to start to live a normal life again."
With that, the sobbing took on new levels, as strong as Linda Sue had ever seen. He crossed his arms under his head and wept, his head buried. She continued to stroke his head as he cried until he couldn't anymore. Before she realized it, his crying subsided until he had worn himself out and was breathing deep. He had cried himself to sleep.
As she laid her hand on his head, she felt a stirring in her that she had put aside a long time ago. Then it struck her what a coincidence it was that he seemed to be about the age her own son would have been had he not been . . .
She shook the thought away, then looked at him again, peacefully sleeping next to her, his face wet with spent tears. She hoped he wouldn't have to go through that kind of emotion too many times before things began to get back to normal for him, not knowing that the boy had never known a normal life like most kids experienced.
'So, this is what my little one would have grown up to be if he had . . .'
And she wept too.
"I am so stupid, Tim. I never should have said that he was my son, at least not yet. He's so vulnerable and innocent."
I'd never seen Dan quite like that, not since he told me the story of his family and their brutal end. He was tearing up but hadn't started to weep.
"Dan, I'm sure he'll be just fine. That boy has been through so much hell he still doesn't realize how safe he is. He's just beginning to live and doesn't even know it. Every experience he's had, at least that he's told us, has been so negative, he can't comprehend when something good is happening."
Dan looked over at me and chuckled, saying, "Except for a white milkshake."
"Yes, you're right. Look, I think we need to go back in a few minutes and make this right. I'm sure Linda Sue will explain it to him as best she can, but he needs to hear it from you. You need to pledge to him that he really can trust you, if he even knows what that means."
"You're right. Hey, let's go down to the cafeteria and see if they have any more cookies. We forgot to get some when we went down for our drinks."
"And his white shake," I added.
"Yeah. Thanks, buddy. That pep talk helped a lot." Dan slapped me on the back and we started to walk toward the elevators.
"I think things will get even better when a couple of our boys meet Boy."
"Ha ha ha! Yup. I think you have something there."
It was probably a half hour since we'd left the two alone. I quietly knocked on the door and heard Linda Sue say quietly to come in.
"He's sleeping now. He had a real good crying fit and just couldn't stay awake. I'm sure it has to do with all the pressure he feels and the drugs dripping into him," she said, pointing to his intravenous drip.
"I'm so sorry for not thinking before I said Denver was my son. I just wasn't thinking straight," said Dan.
"Dan, no one could have known how he would react. This boy is starting from ground zero today. Everything except pain, humiliation and, and . . ."
"White milkshakes?" I said.
"Yes, the one treat he's had in all this. Everything else is brand new, good and bad. He needs so much assurance from everyone he meets."
"Yes, that's true. In fact, just a minute," Dan said, handing me the bag of cookies and walking to the door. He leaned his head outside for about thirty seconds and came back, once again, closing the door. "I just released the officer sitting guard outside. I don't think there's any doubt in my mind that he was forced into what he'd done. I think his whole life has been being forced to do things against his will, if he even knew he had one."
"So, no investigation?" I asked.
"Oh, we still want to know what he knows about the operation, but I'm willing to bet that he was kept in the dark about everything that went on there, probably even why there were kids there so often. He might even have been kept from knowing they were there."
Linda Sue turned to look at the boy sleeping in front of her.
"He's so . . . I don't know. I just feel like I'd do anything for him if I had the power. And I mean more than just as my role as a children's advocate. He just so . . ."
"I think she's fallen for him, Tim. Linda Sue, are you thinking about adopting him or at least taking him as your own foster child?"
"Oh, I suppose that would be near impossible, especially if he's had his eighteenth birthday. I just don't know."
"You realize that we may never know his birthday, much less who he is at all."
"Yes, Dan, I know. But he needs someone. He's like a very tall toddler that has to shave. He needs guidance and will for quite a while. I also think he'll need schooling, even though he seems to be pretty versed in a lot of things."
"Yeah, I noticed that too," I said. "He came up with the definition of a few words before we could explain them. That seems really weird to me. Like he's memorized a dictionary?"
"I know," said Dan. "I agree. What could that be? You'd think he'd be as close to illiterate as he could be and yet . . ."
"Part of what we need to ask him. Is that bag for him, Dan?" asked Linda Sue.
"Oh, yes. We decided that since the milkshake was such a hit that we'd follow through with your cookie idea. We forgot them on our first trip downstairs."
"Good idea, men," said Linda Sue through a big smile.
"Tarnation! Alexander Graham Bell should have been locked up for having invented this infernal machine," said Jeb as he raised the receiver to his ear and started dialing. "I should have my head examined for wasting my time with this . . ." he started to say, trying to talk himself out of making the call he was making.
"Police Department. How may I help you?"
"Well, this is Jebediah Harding over here and I was sent a letter from your County Medical Examiner saying that my daughter had died of self-inflicted wounds."
"Mr. Harding, my condolences. Was this recently, sir," asked the receptionist.
"Oh, no. It's been ten, eleven years, I suppose. I didn't even know where'd she'd took off too, if you must know."
"Well, sir, how can the police department help you in this matter?"
"It says here that you can tell me the particulars of what happened. I'm also requested to notify the Examiner that I am, indeed, her father."
Jeb was usually pretty straightforward, to the point of being forceful, in almost any dealings he had. It wasn't uncommon for him to be talking to dial tone after only a few minutes of someone on the other end of the call putting up with his rudeness. But as soon as the lady at the police department in that Midwest state answered, he was as complacent as a lamb.
"Sir, this still must be very hard on you. Let me get an officer to help you and answer your questions. Please hold."
After a minute or two of a very professional sounding voice telling him over and over to call 911 if this is a real emergency and him just about ready to tell him where to stick 911 . . .
"Good day, sir. I was told you were looking for some information about someone's death. Is that correct?"
"Why yes, it is. My daughter, to be exact, a Ms. Marilyn Harding. Her suicide was about eleven years ago. I'm just finding out.
"Yes, sir. I'm looking in our database. Hm-m-m, can I ask how you found out about her death, sir? I'm not finding her name."
"Of course. Seems the medical examiner over there was looking for me, well, relatives. I have his letter right here and it says . . . Oh! I forgot. I'm old, forgive me. Her married name was Marilyn Briscoe."
"Okay, that may be better. Oh, yes, here it is. Now, let me get to this file and, hm-m-m, okay. Shall I read you the information I have on the circumstances around her death, sir?"
"Well, that would be very kind. But if she committed suicide what's there to know? Is there something special I should know?"
"Yes, good question, sir. It's unusual to have much more information, but I guess the neighbor left a bit more information with the officer that was called out on the case. Let me read it to you, sir.
"'Mrs. Briscoe was found in her apartment after several days,' well, let me skip to the next part. 'The neighbor reported that the deceased had been virtually despondent for quite a while and wouldn't accept the offer to help her seek professional help. The neighbor said it all started after the death of her daughter, a June Briscoe."
"A . . . a daughter? You mean I have, or had a granddaughter? I . . . I never knew." Jeb's voice got quieter and the receiver slowly came away from his ear. He was shocked at the possibility. He never saw it coming.
"Mr. Harding! Mr. Harding, are you okay?" shouted the officer into the phone.
"Oh, oh, yes, young man. I am. I . . . just didn't know she'd had a daughter, my granddaughter. I never knew."
"I'm looking up the daughter's records, sir, if that's okay."
"Oh, thank you. Yes, I'd like to know all you can tell me, please. I'm just a little taken back by it all. Forgive me."
"Of course, sir. Is there someone with you, who you can call into the room, sir, just to be with you at this time? This is a lot to digest so quickly for anyone."
"Um, thank you, but no, not right now. I'll call my neighbor when we're through here. He's a fine fellow and will talk with me about all this. He went through a similar thing not too long ago, you see."
"Oh, I'm really sorry, sir. But I have the report on your granddaughter's death, if you're up to it."
"Yes, yes, please. I . . . need to know."
"And you promise to call your neighbor when we're through here, sir? I can even take his number and call for you if you'd like."
"No, no. I'll be fine. Really. It's just that I had no idea . . . But go on, please."
"Well, I'm afraid it gets worse, sir. I really think you should have someone . . . "
"Please! I need to know," replied Jeb vehemently.
"Um, okay. Like I said, it only gets worse. It seems your granddaughter was killed when her car was run off the road and her, um, okay, you're sure?"
"Okay, it says here that her baby boy was kidnapped, and her throat was cut and she was found dead at the scene. There hasn't been any sign of the boy since that day, ten years ago."
"Mr. Harding? Mr. Harding! Mr. . . ."
"I'm here. I'm here. You were right, young man. How could it be any worse than that? I had no idea I had a granddaughter and now you say I had a great-grandson. The investigation led nowhere?"
"Yes, sir. It was actually in the county's jurisdiction, but we keep a common database. It happened just before I came on the force and I wasn't from around here, so I never heard about it. I'm so sorry, sir."
"Well, thank you, son. It's strange too for your daughter to leave one day and you finally think you've put her out of your mind, then BAM! There's a whole different family developed and ended all at the same time. Who would have guessed?" His voice was quiet, thoughtful, his mind filled with visions of the little girl at his knee and at Christmas. Then he remembered when she would help him pick blueberries in their . . ."
"Now, Mr. Harding, will you be okay? I'm worried about you. Are you sure I can't make that phone call for you?"
"I'll be quite alright, son. Thank you for worrying about an old sentimental fool. No, I'll be fine. I just want to sit here for a while, then I'll call Tim and see if . . . see if he can come over or send one of the boys."
"Sir, I would like your address and your phone number if you will. I'd like to send you the documentation that I've uncovered about both incidents. There's more here than I told you. I think you'll want it. And, if it's alright with you, I'll call tomorrow and see how you're doing. Is that okay with you?"
"Oh, I've been enough of a burden to you. You don't have to go to that bother, really."
"Then, sir, I insist. Now, may I have your address to start with?"
Several hours later, when the boys had just returned home from school:
AJ must have some magic in him. Lately, every time the phone rings he's walking by it.
"Hello, AJ speaking." He listened.
"Hi, Mr. Harding. No, he's not here right now. For us to come over? Sure, I'd like that. I'll ask Jeffy. He's right here and if he doesn't, I'll come anyway, okay? Okay. See you real soon. Bye."
"I heard. What does he need now?"
"He didn't say. He just wondered if we could come over for a spell, he said. Whatever a spell is."
"Maybe he needs help with a crossword puzzle or something. You know, spell?"
"Ya think? Maybe."
"AJ, remind me to ask Pop to order you a sense of humor when we get back, okay?"
At the hospital, we waited for the boy to wake up. He still needed a lot of rest to recover from the physical abuse that his body had suffered and from the constant mental strain on him. He was cast into a world that he knew little or nothing about and, for good or bad, it was his life from here on out. We were very aware that it was up to us to make sure he came into this new life in a positive light.
As we waited for him to awaken, maybe another fifteen minutes, while we talked quietly, the door opened and in came Dr. Strauss.
"Well, I see our welcoming committee is back. How is our patient doing?" he asked, picking up the boy's chart.
"Doctor, he's wiped out," said Dan. "I'm afraid I got him upset when he found out that I was related to the boy he was forced to try to kidnap. It didn't happen, but he was really upset and very apologetic."
"Oh, I hadn't heard any of the details of the reasons he's here. It sounds very dramatic. As little as I know about the boy, it doesn't seem out of place for him to be upset."
"I think his exhaustion caught up with him. He's been asleep for a good half hour," said Linda Sue.
The doctor began a simple examination of the boy's wounds as he addressed us.
"Yes, with the medication flowing into him, that's to be expected. He should wake up in a few minutes though. Short naps will be the norm for a few days. Oh, I've scheduled surgery for a few days from now. Hopefully, we can make it as easy on him as possible. I even talked with the surgeon assisting and we've come up with a plan where he won't be in a body cast if things go well."
"That's wonderful, doctor," said Linda Sue. "He's had a lifetime of hurting. It will be so wonderful to see him without a look of turmoil going on in him."
"Good. Then I'll leave you to your visit. Let him get the rest he needs when he looks tired. It's helping the healing process," he said as he made his way out of the room.
"Oh, doctor," said Dan, following him out into the hallway.
When he came back, he had a nice smile on his face.
"Dr. Strauss said the boys could come up tomorrow after school if they behaved themselves. No parties or anything. Of course, he doesn't know my monkeys."
"I think that would be ideal, Dan," said Linda Sue. "I think we need to be prepared for what just happened to happen again when he sees them."
"Do you think you could arrive a few minutes before and remind him that we're coming, Linda Sue?"
"Oh, of course. I wouldn't miss it for the world. Tim?"
"Well, I was thinking of bringing AJ, and Jeffy if he wanted to come up, but I think it may be too many, too soon. Overwhelming."
"Then let's play it by ear. We want to concentrate on Boy, not the shenanigans of our boys."
"I agree, Dan. I'll see," I told him.
Just then we heard a groan from the bed.
"Well, I think our little cutie is finally waking up. Did you have a good nap, Boy?" asked Linda Sue.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry I fell asleep like that. I know it was rude of me."
"Boy, no one is going to blame you for falling asleep at any time. Your body needs lots of rest and we can wait. We all want the best for you, remember?"
"Ma'am, if you'll excuse me, I hear the words, but this is the first time I can remember that they were for real, well, except for that nice lady at the café the other day. She was nice as all you people too."
Dan knelt down closer to Boy and we noticed him shudder just a bit.
"Boy, I am so sorry for scaring you like I did. I want to apologize for my behavior. I need to be more sensitive to what you've been through."
"You're sorry? Apologize to me?" he said on the verge of tears again.
"All of us want what's best for you, son. We know you've hurt long enough. We want to be a part of making that stop right now."
"Okay," he said, straining to look at Linda Sue. He was still confused by all the pleasant talk and promises of good things to come. It must have been so unreal to him.
"Boy, I'd like to ask you something, but you have to make me a promise first," asked Dan.
"Oh, yes sir. I'll do anything you say. I'll be real good. That's a promise too!"
"No, well, I meant that I need you to tell me if what I ask you would be too hard for you. It's something that may be upsetting and that's a kind of hurt. We don't need anymore hurt, right?"
"Well, I'd really rather not, but if I do something . . ."
"No, Boy. There isn't anything that you could do that should cause you to hurt more. Do you understand?" asked Dan.
"Um, no, not really. Everything has to be done just so or I'm in big trouble, right?"
"That's what I mean. You are not in trouble. You won't be in trouble no matter what you do or say. You can't get into too much by just lying in this bed, can you?"
"I don't know. I know it's the best place I ever slept before. No straw poking me or splinters from those wooden pallet things when I was bad."
Dan and I both looked up at Linda Sue to see her turn away again.
"From the moment you leave here, the place you sleep will feel even better than this bed, Boy. I promise."
"I don't know how it could be any better, but if you say so."
"Okay, I would like you to meet my boys tomorrow, but only if it's alright with you. You have to tell us if it would be too hard on you."
"You mean bring those little boys here that were there that day? Oh wow. I don't know." He was a little tense, but I was surprised at how well he was taking it.
"Boy, they want to meet you so much. Mostly Denver, my littlest wants to be your friend so bad."
"Your littlest boy? But didn't you say that it was your boy that I tried to . . ." He stopped and dropped his head to his arms, his eyes closed.
"Boy, that's behind us. The boy you tried to take wants you to be well and begin a new life. He knew before any of us that you were being forced to do what you tried to do. He seemed to know what you were going through."
"So, what do you think? May I invite them up to meet you and be friends?"
"Friends?" His mind was searching for the meaning of a word, the definition of which was something he had never thought possible in his life until that moment.
'Friend: A person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard. A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts.'
His tears started again. The words that formed that definition had been so far removed from his existence that it seemed impossible to even dream about such a thing. Oh, he'd said his friends were the animals at the farm, but they weren't really; not the kind that you could talk to. One of the storybooks he'd found was about two boys playing together and getting into mischief too. Their moms were so nice and let them do so many wonderful things together. The boys talked to each other and once, even hugged. It was as close to a fairytale as he could imagine. To think it could come true, and tomorrow, was beyond his comprehension.
"Maybe we shouldn't do this," said Dan, looking to us for advice.
"Oh, I think we should, Dan. I think it would be so good for him. Imagine who he's had to deal with for years, probably all his life. Yes, I think this is the perfect time."
"Friends," we heard once more, turning our attention to a wondering boy.
"Yes, Boy. Do you think you might like to meet them tomorrow?"
"I, uh, I can't say no. I know I don't know how to act with most people and I've never been with children. I heard some crying off and on at the farm, but I never saw any. The first time I saw some was at that house, oh, your house?"
Dan nodded but with a smile too.
My mind was swimming as I tried to picture the place he was coming from. To be virtually locked up all his life, never having a person to trust, to love, to love him, or just to play with, to talk to on his level. It was something that even my two boys had at least a sprinkling of throughout their dreary lives up to now. That changed, though, and we'd see to it that it all changed for Boy.
"Sir, I am having a hard time imagining what it all means."
"We know, Boy, and we want you to know that there will be lots of things that are so new for you to experience for a long time to come," said Dan. "Isn't it about time for you to begin living like most of the world gets to live? That means a lot more freedom and good things in your life."
"You keep saying the nicest words. I just don't know if I really understand. Will the boys think I'm going to hurt them anymore? I won't, I promise."
"We know. No, they know you mean them no harm. They want to get to know you, almost as much as you need to get to know who you really are."
"Oh." He looked again at Linda Sue.
"I'll be here, too, Boy. Oh, I wish we could call you by a real name instead of that generic name." She sounded a little frustrated.
"I'm sorry. It's all I know."
"No, oh, no. I'm sorry. It's just that you deserve a name like the other boys have, that's yours alone, not a generalization of what you are, but a personalization of who you are, like a Denver or an AJ or a Tyler . . ."
"Tyler, ma'am? Who's this Tyler?"
"Linda Sue?" I asked, remembering her lost boy's name from so many years before. It then dawned on me that Boy was about the age that her Tyler would have been. Was she projecting her son onto the boy lying in that hospital room? I began to worry that she'd get her hopes up for no reason.
"Oh, I'm sorry. He hits a soft spot in my heart and I can't help myself. I'll behave," she said with a smile.
Boy's eyes were getting heavy again and we decide that we'd taken up too much of his time, his strength. We let him rest and we left, promising an even better day to follow.
On my way home that evening, I called first and had Jeffy order pizza, so it would be almost ready when I passed that way.
I walked into the kitchen to set down the boxes and there was no one there, so I called for them.
"We're up here, Pop," called Jeffy. They must not have smelled the pizzas yet.
"Well, come on down. Your feast is here."
It seemed to take forever until they both slowly trod into the kitchen, each boy looking a little worried or something.
"Guys, what's wrong? You look like you just lost your best friend." Then it hit me! "Jeb?" I asked, very concerned.
"Well, yes and no. Oh, no, Pop, he's okay as far as breathing and stuff, but something happened that made him call us as we were walking into the house after school. He wanted you, but he asked us to come over."
"Any idea what it may have been?" I asked.
AJ piped up, "Dad, he was kinda goofy when we got there. He smiled and stuff like always, but it wasn't the same. It was like he had to try to be his old self and it wasn't working."
"Yeah, and he was kinda pale."
"Uh, huh, and his eyes were red."
"What did he say?"
"Not too much, Pop. He said he had some news that bothered him and just wanted us to be with him, if we didn't mind."
"And we didn't, Dad. We just stayed there with him and we were quiet for the longest time ever."
"AJ, it was only about ten minutes," corrected his big brother.
"Yeah, I know. Ten whole minutes, Dad."
"Yeah, that must be a record for you, huh, AJ?" I said.
"Well, someone had to lighten up this somber party. How was he doing when you boys left him? Did he say anything?"
"He never told us what happened and pretty soon he and I started to talk about what we could do to spruce up the place; things that wouldn't take a pro, you know."
"Yeah, and he asked for you to call him when you got home. 'Kay?"
"Thanks, AJ. You both are great friends, you know. Some kids wouldn't bother with a crotchety old man."
"I don't know any of those 'cept when you get all mad," AJ told me.
That got a laugh from Jeffy and a swing of my hand at him. But since he was across the room, he was pretty safe. He thought it was the funniest joke.
I got them going on the pizza and was dialing Jeb when I decided that if I didn't take any now, there wouldn't be anything but crumbs in the bottom of the pizza boxes in a few minutes.
"Jeb, it's Tim. The boys said you asked me to call you. Are you alright?"
"Tim? Tim! Oh, thanks for calling, my boy. Oh, I just had about the worst day of my life. I can take a piece or two of bad news, but when it comes in waves, I'm at a loss."
"We're just having pizza. Can I come over and get you to have some with us?
"Thanks, friend, but they just delivered one of those dinners and I was sitting down to, well, I was going to say enjoy it, but that doesn't happen too often with these meals. No, I guess I'll just sit here and . . ."
"Now, wait! You're more than just our friend and neighbor, Jeb. You're practically family. I'll drive over real quick, you can jump into the truck along with your hot plate and eat it over here. Maybe we can fix it up, so it will taste a little better. How's that sound?"
"Oh, I don't want to put you out, Tim."
"Good, it's settled. Wrap it in a towel and wait on the porch. I'm headed that way," I told him, then hung up before he could argue.
We had a pleasant evening. We didn't talk about his day until AJ went to bed. And, while Jeb didn't totally brighten up to his cheerful self, he was a lot happier, until I brought up his problem.
"Wow, Mr. Harding, that's not a good way to find out about your family. You didn't even know you had all of them, except your daughter. I don't know what I'da done," said Jeffy.
"Thank you, son. You're right. It was like someone hit me over the head with a two by four. I'm still not too sure I got it all."
"Okay, let me see if I understand," I said. "Your daughter leaves home some time ago to marry this guy and she has a baby. The baby girl grows up and has a child, evidently out of wedlock, considering her name. Then the boy, your great-grandson, is kidnapped and her daughter, your granddaughter, is killed in the process. That left your daughter so distraught that she committed suicide about ten years ago. And you're just finding out about it now."
"I guess that about sums it up, Tim. I never had an inkling about any other family except the daughter. Now I also understand why she never contacted me in all these years."
"Yes, I can't imagine what's going on in your mind. That's a lot to deal with."
"Well, Tim, Jeffy, oh, and bless his soul, AJ, you all have made it easier to swallow now that we've hashed it out a bit more. Oh, the police officer said he'd send me the reports of both incidents. I gave him my address and such. And he said he'd call me tomorrow to check up on me. I was pretty much a wreck over the phone, I'm afraid."
"Mr. Harding, who wouldn't be? Gee, I can't believe how well you're taking it," said Jeffy.
"That was sure nice of him to do that," I said.
"Now, Tim, if you don't mind, I think I'd like to walk home from here. Walking out in the night air sounds very pleasant tonight, and it's not too late yet."
"Really, Jeb, I think I should drive you."
"No, now, I've decided. Tell you what, Jeffy, will you walk with me, maybe carry a lantern, I mean flashlight to help us? I'd really like that."
"I'd really like that too, sir. Can I, Pop?"
"Yes, you may, Jeffy. Be careful, please. We want both of you in one piece for a long time to come. And come right back; school tomorrow, you know."
"Thank you again for letting AJ fix up my meal, Tim," Jeb said, standing to leave. "Who would have ever guessed what a treat pepperoni can be on top of chicken and gravy. Ha ha! What a boy."
"Goodnight, Jeb. Sleep well."
"I will be sure to, tonight. I'm tired. Goodnight, Tim, and goodnight, AJ!" he said a little louder.
"Gasp!" from the other side of the kitchen door.
"And thanks for that too, Jeb. I didn't know," I said walking toward where my youngest son was lurking in the shadows.
When they were gone, I said, "Okay, come on out, snoopy."
Out crawled my boy in a PJ top and his undies.
"AJ, when I sent you to bed it was because you have school tomorrow. Now, if you fall asleep going to the hospital after school tomorrow, don't blame me for what you miss."
"I just wanted to . . . Huh? Why do I have to go to the hospital?"
"Well, truthfully, you don't have to if you don't want to. No one will force you this time."
"Wow, really? Then I'll just stay here with Jeffy, 'Kay?"
"No, because Jeffy is going too, if he wants."
"Wait! Why would he want to go to the hospital?"
"He would want to because his new friend is there and we're going to meet him tomorrow, along with Dan's boys."
"We are? They are? Wow! Why didn't you say so? I'm in!"
"Then go to bed! Now, you little pipsqueak!" I said to his rear end as he tore upstairs.
At Dan's that same night, the boys were excited about going up to see Boy, too. Except for one – Denver. When Dan asked if they wanted to go, he just nodded and slowly walked to his room. Dan was amazed. Denver had been so insistent about going up to the hospital, at least until that moment.
After a few minutes and still no Denver, Dan went to his room and looked in.
"Is everything okay, little one? You surprised me. I thought you'd be excited to go meet the boy."
Denver was just putting some papers into his backpack.
"I am, Dad, but I had to do something before we go up there. Everything has to be just perfect. Is that okay? I didn't mean to make you worry."
"No, I'm okay, if you're okay. I was just concerned about you."
He looked up and gave Dan a good smile, dimples and all, and said, "I'm great now."
"Then let's have dessert and do our numbers, little man. How's that sound?"
"Great!" he said, jumping on his bed, then into Dan's arms. While he hugged his foster dad, Dan walked back into the kitchen with his load.
We'd decided to make only one visit to Boy at the hospital the next day and that would be with the boys, after they got home from school. Both Dan and Linda Sue said they thought it would be fine to have my boys come too, though I was worried it would be too much stimulation for Boy. After all, we figured he wasn't used to meeting new people and, in the past two days he'd probably met more people than in his lifetime up to then, and that number was about to double!
As it turned out, both of my boys were eager to meet this mystery person; someone who blatantly tried to take their friend from right in front of his house, and then was rescued and deemed a victim himself.
As we talked on the way there, the boys said they had no problem with the wrong things that Boy was blamed for doing, and they had no problem with everyone forgiving him.
"After all, Dad, Jeffy and I did some bad things to stay alive when we were on our own. I didn't have a gun, though. That was probably a good thing."
I shivered when I heard that. There was no doubt that he would have used at least one of those bullets on himself eventually.
"And we've all forgiven Jeffy for his use of that gun. It's all behind us, isn't it, son?" I asked of my oldest who was sitting next to the door, my littlest in between us.
"Yes, sir, I mean, Pop. That turned out to be a very good day for me in a lot of ways. It just took me a while to figure it all out. That was a weird time."
"Okay, then, think about this, as rough as you both have had it, think about never getting anything you want, almost nothing that you need and only eating the blandest, tasteless goop every day and only that."
"Yuck! I think I'd die after a few days of that," said AJ. "I don't like oatmeal."
"But what if it was all you had and all you knew to eat?"
"Pop, I don't mind oatmeal, but not every day. But what do you mean if it was all we knew to eat? How could he forget the tastes he had before he got caught?"
"See, that's the thing, guys. Boy was evidently caught at such a young age, he doesn't have any memory of anything but being on that farm, mostly confined to the barn, I suspect, and only eating oatmeal for all of his meals."
"Wo-o-ow!" said AJ.
"That can't be, can it? That's like some baby disappearing into the forest and being raised by the bears or something."
"Yup, just like Tarzan," I said to clarify Jeffy's description.
"Who?" I got in unison from both boys. I decided to buy the book, maybe one for Boy too.
Dan and clan hadn't shown up yet, but Linda Sue was walking in as we walked to the front doors.
AJ surprised me by going up to her and giving her a hug. Jeffy walked up and decided that was good enough for him too. I think Linda Sue was as surprised as I was. They hadn't shown that kind of affection to too many people. I'm sure she was touched.
"Thank you, boys. That was so special. It's so good to see you two again, and with brilliant smiles. That's wonderful."
AJ piped up first. "That's because you're special to us, too. You did lots for Jeffy and I know you're doin' stuff for Dad and me, right?"
"Okay, boys, a little background on Boy since he has been here."
"Dad, why don't you use his real name, for gosh sakes? I bet he doesn't like to be called 'Boy'."
"Remember what I said about the foods he knew?"
"Well, he has never heard anyone call him by anything other than Boy, except when they really got mad at him and called him idiot and a lot of nastier names. He just doesn't know that Boy is not his real name."
"Okay, listen up. He's only met children, okay, people near his age and younger, once and that was when he tried to take Denver. Up to then, it was only men, no women that we know of and the men were usually mean and abusive to him. And that's why he's here, to heal from his last beating the day we rescued him."
"Bullies!" said AJ. "I hate bullies and what they do."
"This took bullying to a whole new level, AJ. They whipped him until he bled, and that was only on that day. His body shows signs of being beaten like that a number of times."
Jeffy was being awfully quiet, in fact, he had taken a step back from us and I noticed that his eyes were watering. Linda Sue noticed too.
"Jeffy, he's going to be just fine. One of the reasons you boys are here is to start him to get to know real people and start a new life with a family like you two got to do."
"Pop, does that mean he's going to stay with us? Be a part of our family?"
"Well, we haven't talked about where he goes after the hospital. But we don't have any more bedrooms . . ."
Two boys interrupted me at the same time with, "He can have my room!"
"My! That's was quick," said Linda Sue.
"Okay, let's get him healed up before we start to think about his next place. I want you boys to be on your best behavior up there. He's real nervous around most people. We've seen him three times now and he's still not quite used to Dan and me. He really likes Linda Sue though."
"Because he's got good taste," said Dan as he approached us, followed by his merry men.
"Hey there. I was just giving the boys some background and what to expect. One frightened boy is enough."
"I agree. I had that talk with the boys on the way over, about some of the things, heck, most of the things we take for granted that he has never seen or experienced."
"'Cept oatmeal! Yuck," said Enrique.
"And no friends like us yet, huh, Dad?" said Denver, hanging on to his dad's hand.
"That's right, guys. He had a milkshake yesterday and he told the nurse that he'd had one a day or so earlier. That's about it as far as regular food is concerned; at least that's what we think. Maybe you guys can help him experience things like sports and sharing and, hey, drawing, Denver!"
"Yeah," said Denver with a huge smile on his face.
"Good idea, too, son. Okay guys, let's have lots of smiles and use your library voices. We don't want to scare him. I think we decided that when you all arrive you will have doubled the number of people he's met in his lifetime. It's a guess, but a good one I think."
"Wo-o-ow!" said my youngest.
"Now, boys," admonished Dan as we stood in the waiting room very near the boy's room, "You fellows stay out here while the three of us go in and make sure he's up to this experience. If he's in too much pain or something, or even asleep, we may have to come back later."
"Aw-w-w," whined most of the boys.
"Hey! Hush, okay? You can't do that in there. Be polite and let us do most of the talking. I know Denver wants to say something to him. We'll all get a chance soon enough, but we don't want to overwhelm him."
The boys agreed to Dan's requests and Ralph stayed out with the boys while we quietly opened the door and walked in.
Boy was lying back normally, on the raised bed like most other patients in the hospital. And he was reading an old book. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He was even nibbling on one of the cookies we'd left the day before. His head flew up as we entered.
"My, my, it's so good to see how much you've progressed, Boy," said Linda Sue, walking over and straightening his covers and patting his leg.
Boy smiled one of the best smiles we've seen on him. It was good to see. If we'd just met, I'd have said he was just another normal young man.
"Ma'am, sirs, it's good to see you again. I was given this book to read by Nurse Flora. She said it's one of her favorites and I can see why."
"And I hope you're enjoying that cookie, too," said Dan.
"Oh, yes. Nurse Flora said that's what it was. It's very good. Oh, and I had some really good, um, oh, eggs and pancakes for breakfast and a sandwich that I could hold for lunch. It was good too. And milk, I like milk."
Boy had said more on his own in those few sentences than we'd heard from him in the past two days. It was great to see him doing so well. We didn't catch the reference to holding the sandwich because we weren't at the café when he tried to manhandle his hamburger.
"Boy, we have some visitors outside that would really like to meet you. You remember that we talked about Dan's boys and Tim's two boys coming to meet you?" asked Linda Sue.
The smile left, and his head started to nod, but it didn't look like the kind that meant he remembered. It looked like he was heading into panic mode.
"Boy, we've talked about this. They really want to help you start a new life. A life of fun and no pain, only nice things."
"Oh, I know, ma'am, it's just that I don't see how they can be that good, especially since they know what I did to them."
"No, we talked about that too. They want to tell you that they know you didn't mean it and you were made to do bad things. And remember, you chose not to take Denver, so he's safe now, just like you are."
"Oh, well, okay then. I guess. Everyone you've let come see me has been awfully nice. I just don't know kids yet."
"Well, they can be pretty rowdy at times," Dan laughed. "But when they want to, they are as nice as anyone you've met so far. I promise."
"Well, okay then."
I went to the door and waved the boys over, reminding them to be on their best behavior as they filed in, past me.
Linda Sue stood on the other side of the bed, next to Boy, and rubbed his arm as they came in to meet him. He pushed back a bit into the bed as more and more kids came in and then he flinched from the pain.
"Kids, I'd like to introduce you to Boy. We're going to use that name for a while until we find a new one for him," explained Linda Sue. "Boy, let's start with Tim's two boys. This is AJ and Jeffy."
My two boys just waved to him and smiled. He nodded, not quite knowing what was proper, of course.
"Then we have Dan's boys. The oldest and the tallest is Ralph."
"Hi, Boy. Pleased to me you."
"Then Jacob, Enrique, and Melvin," she said, pointing them out.
They waved like my boys did and quietly said their 'Hi's.
Boy looked a little troubled when he saw Melvin. He seemed to recognize him and wasn't really paying attention when Linda Sue introduced the youngest of Dan's sons.
"And the last one is Denver, Boy. Denver, say 'Hi' to Boy."
Coming from behind the other boys, Denver walked up to the side of the bed.
"I'm really glad to meet you again, Boy. I'm sorry you have had such a bad life. And don't be sorry about what they made you try to do to me. We all know you didn't wanna do it. So, here, Boy."
Denver unzipped his coat and pulled out a bright piece of folded construction paper. On the front were two words, 'For Boy.'
Boy was stunned by Denver's forward words and actions. He knew he could never do something like that and wasn't accustomed to kids as it was. He also wasn't used to being given anything nice, like a gift or the card he held in his shaking hands.
He looked at Denver, then at the card and we could see him read the two words.
"Me. I'm Boy."
It seemed really weird, but I couldn't imagine my reaction to receive something like a handmade card for the first time in my life.
"You open it up, Boy. There's prob'ly something inside for you too," whispered my AJ, who was soon standing next to Denver.
Boy looked very serious and very careful as he slowly found the edge of the paper and pulled up on one corner, revealing the inside to him. His tongue in the corner of his mouth told me how gentle he was trying to be with his new gift.
As the card was laid flat on his outstretched legs, his tears immediately welled up and cascaded down his face.
Denver gave Dan a worried look, afraid he'd done something wrong.
Linda Sue looked over Boy's shoulder at the card and whispered to Denver, "It's just beautiful, Denver. How thoughtful that was of you."
By that time Denver had tears running down his face too.
It was AJ that leaned over and gave us a description. "It has a tall boy and a short boy and under the tall boy it says 'Boy' and under the short boy it says, 'Denver', and they both have big smiles and they're holding hands and under all that it just says, 'Friends forever." When AJ turned to look up at me with a nice smile, he had tears in his eyes too.
In fact, most of us did by then.
Denver stepped closer and laid his hand on Boy's. Of course, Boy flinched but not as much as the day before.
"Can we be, Boy? Will you be my friend forever?" he asked the weeping boy.
"I . . . I, uh. Okay," he answered, raising his head to look at Denver's bright smile. The corners of Boy's mouth began to curl up, giving way to a very wet smile.
"May I hug you too, Boy. I need a hug, don't you?"
Boy thought, 'An act of holding someone tightly in one's arms, typically to express affection.'
"Um, okay. How do we . . . ?" he answered watching what Denver was about to do.
AJ's head shot around to look up at me as he mouthed, 'Wo-o-ow! He doesn't even know hug.'
Denver had trouble getting close enough and tall enough and when his hands touched Boy's back, Boy gasped. That scared Denver and he let go quickly.
"I'm sorry, Boy! I didn't mean to hurt you. I forgot about your back. Really I did."
"Oh, it's okay. It's just pain. I know pain. I just never knew what affection was until you hugged me, Denver. Thank you."
Linda Sue had to turn away again and most of us just added to the wet spots on our shirts and coats.
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar