Roger lightly poked me in the ribs with his elbow. "I didn't push it at lunch today, but how did your appointment go this morning?"
I glanced at Roger and couldn't help myself. "They made me get naked in front of everyone," I made my saddest and most painful expression I could as I slowed my speech down, dropping my voice to a soft whisper. "And a nurse made fun of me. And then... and then, they stuck a foot-long needle into my hip without knocking me out."
Joey busted out laughing. Roger glared at me. I shrugged.
"Okay," I snickered. "I undressed in private and lay down on a bed with my butt stuck up in the air for everyone to see. But the nurse did kinda make a joke about it before she left the room. And maybe the needle wasn't a foot long, but it was at least six inches long, and it hurt like a bitch when it started going into my hipbone. I'm not ashamed to say that it brought tears to my eyes and I wanted to squeal like one of old man Perry's hogs getting castrated."
"Man, that sucks. Are you still sore from it?" A frown replaced Roger's grin.
"Yeah, a little. When I rolled off of you after I totally pinned your butt, I landed on that hip. I felt it, but it wasn't like an end of the world type pain. It was like having a bad bruise hit."
Roger smiled. "I would say I'm sorry, but you did it to yourself trying to get away from me after you and the referee cheated."
"What?!" I laughed and fake lunged for him while Joey acted like he was holding me back.
Roger rolled his eyes and chuckled. "You two are hilarious. Really, you guys should take that act on the road."
Judge Collins stood outside the classroom and watched on as the football coaches finished going over tonight's game plan against Pike County Central.
After Coach Nettles dismissed the team to go home to eat and rest, he greeted the judge. "Judge Collins, I can't tell you how happy I am that you're helping JT. He's told me that he'll be staying with you and your son for the foreseeable future. I don't mind telling you that I've been very concerned for him since school started."
He smiled. "Athletically, he's one of the most gifted players we have. And the fact that he's only a sophomore, speaks volumes for his potential. Now that he's living with you, I'm not concerned about his physical well being," the coach voice dropped, and he leaned in slightly towards Mr. Collins as he continued, "but with the brutal murder of both his parents... How's he taking it judge?"
Judge Collins waited as the last of the boys filed out the door and past him, leaving only JT still talking to one of the other coaches in the room, before he spoke to Coach Nettles. "Mr. Nettles," the judge began but saw the look on the other man's face, he stopped.
"Coach, he appears to be doing as well as can be expected, giving the circumstances," the judge paused and glanced at JT. "I like to ask your opinion on a matter that concerns JT. I need to speak with him about the funeral arrangements. Drawing from your experience, would it be better to speak to him prior to or after the game tonight?"
"Have the arrangements been firmed up?"
"Yes, they have been." The judge sighed and then looked back to the coach. "Legally, we had to wait until they released the bodies. Once released, I requested they be taken to the Letcher Funeral Home this afternoon."
The coach nodded. "I'm glad that part is finally done. Did you get the arrangements set yet?"
"Yes. I'm trying to make this as easy as I can on JT. Visitation will begin tomorrow evening at six, services at the Presbyterian Church, Sunday, at four in the afternoon, with the burial following, at the Green Acres Cemetery. I hope you and the team will be able to show him some support."
"To answer your question and concern, I believe you should speak with him before the game, and the team will rally behind him before, during, and after the game. I will also guarantee you that most of the team will be there tomorrow night and Sunday to support him."
JT walked up. "I'm ready when you are, sir."
Judge Collins smiled at his young charge, and then addressed Coach Nettles. "Thank you for your advice and assurances, Coach. Good luck tonight."
After the judge and coach shook hands, the judge placed an arm around JT's shoulder and led him to his SUV. "JT. As I told you last night, we're stopping to buy you some new clothes and I don't want you to worry about the money. I'm well set financially, so I don't mind a bit helping you out. Okay?"
JT looked at him suspiciously, but he could see the sincerity of the man's words written on his face. After a moments thought, he smiled at the judge. "Thank you, sir."
The judge started to back out of the parking spot, but stopped and place the transmission back into park. He knew this would be hard on the boy, but it needed to be taken care of as soon as possible.
Judge Collins cleared his throat. "Son, I need to discuss an unpleasant topic with you. There are several issues that have to be decided on. The coroner has released your parent's remains to the Funeral Home." The judge paused to let that information sink in before he tackled the hardest part of all. "JT, I'm not sure how much you remember from that night..."
JT stared out the front window at the passing scenery, but he was reliving that night his parents were killed. "It was pitch dark, but from the amount of blood, I got all over me... I guess it was pretty bad, uh?"
"I'm afraid so, JT. I'm surprised the rumors haven't reached you yet and I'm glad they haven't, but I need to tell you the truth so you'll understand why I recommending we do something to make everything easier for you."
"Okay, I trust you, Mr. Collins. What is it you think I should do?"
The judge's voice was filled with pain and sorrow. "JT, I'm sorry. There is no easy way to tell you this. Your father's throat was slashed." The judge had a hard time speaking and his voice nearly broke as he continued to give JT the awful news. "Perhaps worse was what they did to your mother. She was decapitated."
No matter how hard JT tried to hold it in and be a man, a sob escaped his lips and tears flowed from his eyes. His parents were hideously murdered in what one would think the safety of their own home. It was him that walked in on the murderers, only to have been kidnapped by them. After he escaped their clutches and walked for miles, the very people that were supposed to be there to help and protect him tried to blame him for the death of his parents. Now, he found out that the one person in the world he always knew loved him, his own mother, was beheaded. He has never known the depth and breadth of sorrow as he felt at this moment, but anger also rose from the center of his being that began to push all other emotions aside. Rage began to take hold.
The judge saw the emotional transformation play out on the young boy's face and recognized it for what it was. Judge Collins carefully reached over, placing a hand on the boy's shoulder, and softly said, "Son, hate will only consume you and cause you more pain. Somehow, we'll find those responsible and the law will make them pay for the crimes they committed against your family. And, I'll do everything I can to make sure they receive the maximum penalty, after they have been found guilty."
JT turned his tear-stained face to the judge's looking for deception or rejection. Instead, the judge reached out and hugged him tight, allowing JT to find the support he had only ever found from his mother. He let the rage that had swept through him go as he wiped at the tears that still coated his face. Eventually, the judge let go and JT tried to regain control of his emotions.
The judge had a sad sort of smile as he looked at JT. When he finally did speak, his voice was gentle. "There's no shame in unwelcome thoughts. Shame comes from acting on those thoughts. Anyone in your situation would be entertaining revenge and hatred against those who have taken your family from you." The judge gently pulled JT to him and hugged him again. "It's easy to be in control in good times, but maintaining control over our emotions, intrusive thoughts, and actions in the worst of times is what separates good strong men from the weak."
"Thanks," JT answered, barely above a whisper. Then, with his voice gaining strength and conviction, "I do hate whoever killed my ma and pa, but I realize what you said is true. I'll trust you and in the trust, you have in the courts."
"Good," the judge smiled. "Let's skip the shopping trip today and head over to the hospital and visit with Cody. Andy and Joey went straight there from school. Would that be okay with you?"
"I think so. I really don't feel like shopping for clothes now." JT answered, as he scooted back to his side of the SUV.
Lost in thought, JT stared out the window as the judge drove them to the hospital. In the past when he felt the rage rising within him, he ran. He would run like a deer through the woods, dodging trees, leaping large rocks and bushes, jumping over creeks, until his lungs burned and his legs would give out on him. But he was in a moving SUV this time while the rage had threatened to take over. Thankfully, the judge sensed the growing conflict within him and had helped to calm him down. JT was smart enough to know that the words the judge offered were wise and should be taken seriously.
JT was willing to give the judge and the courts a chance – for now. But if they let him down him, he would look for ways to handle things himself. He would not allow the killers of his parents to go unpunished. One way or another, he would find them; and one way or another, they would pay.
The judge broke through his private thoughts. "JT, we haven't been able to find any family or friends of your family that are able and willing to offer you a place to live."
JT wasn't surprised by this at all. Of the aunts and uncles he knew of, he wouldn't want to live with them either.
"I wanted to run an idea by you before I took any actions. I want you to know that it's totally up to you if we follow through on this. Okay?"
"Both Andy and I have offered you our home on a temporary basis. However, with Andy's blessings, I would like to make the offer on a more permanent basis. With your agreement, we would like to open our family to you as a foster family, and perhaps adopt you into the family sometime down the road, when you feel comfortable with the idea."
Again, Andy and the judge had shocked him with their kindness. He had trouble coming up with the words to complete a sentence, much less expressing what he felt.
He blinked through his tears, "Sir... I... can't... I mean... Oh man... do you mean it?"
"Yes JT. Both Andy and I would love to have you become a part of our family." The judge smiled as he glanced over at the boy.
It was a good thing that Judge Collins had just parked at the hospital, because JT quickly slid over have hugged the judge. He looked up at the judge with tears brimming in his eyes. "Yes, that would be awesome! But..."
Cody grinned like a Cheshire cat, "You're so full of crap, it's a wonder your eyes aren't brown."
I rolled my eyes and laughed along with him and Joey. I couldn't help it. The kid nailed me to the wall. I was downplaying everything and he called me on it.
"Okay, okay..." I held up my hands in surrender. "I still don't know anything yet, at least I won't until we get the test results back. Once we know something, then we can plan on what to do next." I took a deep breath and laid it all out on the table for him. "I'll be honest with you, I probably do have leukemia. I mean I get tired real easy and there's no denying the bruises or the blood tests. And all three are symptoms of leukemia. So more than likely I will be starting chemo treatments next week."
"I know you explained the treatments some the last time we talked, but... mmm..." Cody paused. His eyes scrunched up like he was in deep thought. "I guess it would just be better to come right out and asked what I'm worried about." He locked eyes with me and I could see fear and concern in them. "Chemo is bad isn't it?"
How anyone could hurt this loving caring boy was beyond me. I just can't understand why his father had blamed him for the death of Cody's mother. Or how his blood brother couldn't see what an awesome kid he is.
I answered truthfully. "Yes and no. It's complicated."
Joey wrapped his arms around my shoulder as he sat by me on the sofa. I turned and smiled my thanks.
Cody asked, "What do you mean?"
"I mean that it will make me sick at first, because it kills good blood cells as well as the bad ones; but in the end, when all the bad cells are gone, I'll be back to normal." I tried to put it as simply as I could, at least with my own limited knowledge.
Dad arrived with JT soon after that and sent JT, Joey, and myself down to the coke machines for some drinks, leaving him alone with Cody. When we returned, I understood why when Dad told us all that Cody and JT both agreed to become my foster brothers, but he wanted to speak to all of us now before we headed home for dinner and the ball game.
"I'm being asked to run for a state-wide office," Dad began. "If I agree to run, this will mean my life will become an open book for the public. The reaction will vary depending on where the person's views begin." He paused. "What I mean is, some people will be blinded by political ideology, but others will be open-minded." However," he made eye contact with each of us before he finished. "I will do my utmost best to make sure that the dialog will be about me and my views, and not about any of you and your beliefs."
That night after Joey and I finished our jobs at the ticket booth and the concession stand, we sat with Roger, Timmy, and Randy, and watched JT and our High School team demolish Pike County Central. There was a moment where my mind drifted and I thought about how the past had brought each of us to where we were in the present.
"Whatcha thinking about?" Joey asked with a light poke to my ribs.
"What?" I asked, not sure what Joey asked me.
He smiled. "I asked what had you so deep in thought."
I turned with a smile. "Oh. I was thinking about how we all came together as a family. You, JT, Cody, my dad, and me. I was thinking about everything from your abusive parents, JT's parent's being murdered, Cody's abusive father and brother and then how his foster parents were killed in a car accident, how Cody was seriously injured, and my mother dying of cancer and how it has affected Dad and me. How tragic pasts brought us together as a new family."
I didn't realize it then, but the idea of tragedy bringing people together would become very important in the not too distant future.
"I know we still have unanswered questions in our lives." I paused collecting my thoughts into some order, and then I continued. "Like, will Dad actually run for Governor? Will JT's change of heart last, and will we ever find out who killed his parents? I've also noticed JT and Debbie looking at each other a lot. Which makes me wonder will they become an item and how would I handle it?"
I stared off into the night. "I also worry about Cody. Will he go back to being the happy go, lucky kid, he used to be, after finding a loving home then losing his foster parents, or will all he's been through make him grow up too fast?"
I turned and smiled at him. "Will Uncle Steve and Aunt Alice adopt you and give you the parents and the brother you deserve."
I sighed. "Do I have leukemia and if I do, how will I respond to the treatments? And if Dad does run and win, how would that affect all of us?"
"Woe, Andy. That's too much for kids our age to be worried about."
"Yeah, you're right, but I can't help worrying about those I care for.
Before I knew it, the game was over and we had won 56-13: another good game for both our team and JT. He ran for three touchdowns and carried the ball for 162 yards. Not bad for a sophomore, not bad at all. And his teammates had been incredible in the support they showed him throughout the night. Even as I watched him run off the field towards the locker room, it seemed like every one of his teammates were patting him on the back or his helmet.
"WOW! What a game." Roger said, as he wrapped an arm around my shoulder.
"Yeah, it was," Joey responded as he stood beside me. "But, are we that good or are the teams we're playing just that bad?"
"Maybe it's like Dad said a couple of weeks ago, a little of both." I wrapped my arm around his shoulder like Roger's was around mine.
"What are you three? The three musketeers? Or boyfriends?" Timmy smiled at us.
Roger laughed. "Come here Timmy boy." Then he wrapped his free arm around Timmy as well.
Timmy grinned, poked Roger in the ribs with his elbow, and quickly moved away. "I need to find my ride. I'll see y'all Sunday." He bumped fists with each of us and left with a wave.
The three of us sat down and watched as most everyone headed towards the exit. The coaches and the players' families waited outside the locker room as the team showered and dressed. From where we sat in the stands, the entrance to the locker room was visible. As I scanned the faces in the crowd, I spotted Dad.
He seemed to be stopping to chat with everyone for a couple of minutes before moving on to another group of people. He looked like a politician working a crowd, but I had a feeling that was the farthest thing from his mind. If I had to bet, I would bet it had to do with the McCray's funeral on Sunday.
"What up? You seemed to be spacing out again." Joey asked; bringing me out of my thoughts.
"Tomorrow's and Monday's funerals." I locked eyes with Joey and then Roger. "We need to be there for JT and Cody. You guys agree with me?"
Roger nodded. "You know we do, Andy."
"Yeah, I do, but it feels good hearing it." I smiled. "I guess we better get down there with Dad. JT shouldn't be much longer and his emotions are probably all over the place right now."
As we walked down the bleacher steps, I thought back to my mother's funeral. No way could I have played a football game a couple of nights before her funeral. I wasn't sure how JT did it and I didn't feel I should ask, but I would later learn how he played so well.