"Jacob, what's wrong with you? It's like you're in a trance or somethin'."
Jacob had wandered into the bedroom and was sitting next to his big brother who was just waking up.
"Nu, uh, I'm not, Jeremy. I slept better than ever before, and it's 'cause I was here, in this place, with . . ."
They heard the toilet flush and in another minute the man came around the corner.
"So, my young friends, what will we be having for breakfast this fine mid-December morning? I know! Let's have my favorite: Pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream. What do you think?"
Four heads bobbed up and down in hearty agreement. Jeremy and Jacob could remember having them a long time ago. Their mom used to make them for birthdays and other special days. Larry and Devon couldn't even imagine such a treat. Their mouths began to water as they began to form pictures in their minds. Devon threw back the bed covers and they all started to get up.
"Alright, I'll do the cooking because I wouldn't want anyone damaged by the hot stove. It could splatter on some very vital parts!"
Three boys laughed at his teasing about their state of dress. The t-shirts lay on the floor at their feet, the room had been so cozy warm all night. Jacob almost said, “huh?”, then looked at the three and grinned too.
"Jeremy, why don't you help Jacob bathe or shower? I'm sure he wants to feel as clean as the three of you look. It does wonders for your spirits, doesn't it?"
The three clean boys said their uh-huh's and sure thing's.
The man reached down to retrieve the long t-shirts, tossing them to the three to put them on. Then Larry and Devon followed the man into the kitchen. Jeremy followed a skipping boy into the bathroom and got there just as the naked eight-year-old boy sat down in an empty bathtub. Who knew where the tattered undies flew off to?
Jeremy started the water and got it just right. It hadn't been much more than three weeks since their last bath. Since then it was just keeping their hands and faces clean in restrooms. He soaped up a wash cloth and started washing the younger boy. It was always his chore when their mom was alive, but it was no chore to Jeremy. He loved his little brother, now more than ever. They were all they had.
"Jer, you gonna wash me or just sit there starin'?" Jacob asked his big brother.
Jeremy kind of snapped out of it. "Sorry, little guy. I guess my thoughts were on something else."
"Let's see. We'll need plates and forks, knives and glasses. Two glasses each; one for milk and a smaller one for orange juice. How does that sound?"
"Yummy, mister. It sounds like the best eatin' ever. And we didn't have ta dumpster dive ta get it!"
The man started to chuckle at the absurdity, then realized he was the only one laughing. He stopped to look at the two boys, going about their work as though nothing unusual had been said. Larry finally looked up at the man, wondering why he'd stopped mixing the pancake batter.
"What? What'd we say?"
"Um, you really . . . ? Boys, when was your last good meal?"
"Last night, 'member? That was go-o-od cheesey stuff. What's it called again?" Devon asked.
"Huh, um, it's just macaroni and cheese. But before that when did you have a good meal?"
"Once we saw this guy dump a ton o' food from some party they was throwin'. Holy shit . . ., ah, sorry, uh, holy cow, they musta been rich bastar- . . . folks. We ate so good we was sick a week. Can't say it was worth it but it wasn't gonna last anyways and, 'cept for the icky feelin's, who cared if'n we got sick or even died, right?"
"Wha, oh, yeah, right. NO! I care! I don't want you sick. You boys are too important. There's just too much for you to do to leave this world just yet. Lots to do." The man turned around and started to drop spoonful’s of batter onto a hot skillet, then started thawing the strawberries.
"Gimme a break, mister. You're a nice enough guy for an old far- . . .guy, but there ain't nothin’ we're good for in this here world. Most people'd sooner we disappeared. Ain't it so, Devon?"
"Damn straight, Lar. That it is. We're just in the way."
The man was taken back by the attitude of total loss that the two boys displayed. It wasn't that they sulked around, it just seemed as though it was a fact of life for them. He faced the stove to mull over what was said. Surely, there was a way to turn this around. Oh, it was clear what he should do about it, he just wasn't sure he had the emotional strength to go through with it. After all, he had done such a terrible thing.
"It feels so good when you wash me, Jeremy. It makes me tingle and I get warm all over. I missed that ‘cause there wasn't any bath anymore. I really like it here; don't you?"
"Stand up, Jacob," said Jeremy. He never called his brother Jake. He would never be that old or tough to be called anything but Jacob. Jeremy took the shower head off the wall and rinsed his brother, being sure to get all the soap off with his hand against the young skin of the eight-year-old. He could tell his little brother liked the attention. He giggled in all the right places and almost fell when they got too goofy. It was almost like he remembered.
Jeremy turned and grabbed a folded towel, and reached to lift his brother out of the tub and onto the rug. He always used to make a big deal about drying Jacob, when they were still in their home; so he did it that time too. Jacob laughed hard as Jeremy tickled him and pushed him around in his arms, as though he would knock him down, then he'd grab him up and tickle him some more.
"Jacob, why are you so funny looking when you look at the man? Do you know him?"
"'Course, I know him, silly. Everybody knows him." His voice got very quiet, as though the softer he said the words, the longer the wonder would last; and there definitely was wonder in his voice.
"Okay then, who do you think he is and where have you seen him before."
Jacob was very quiet all of a sudden. He stopped moving. He looked like he was waiting for someone to come in and ruin that moment. He leaned into Jeremy so he could whisper ever so softly.
"Oh." Jeremy looked over his shoulder at the open door, as though someone would be coming in momentarily. He pictured the man that was in the kitchen, making their breakfast. He wasn't real tall but he was wide. He had a full beard that was pretty white. He'd heard him chuckle but never really laugh. And, if he was Santa, where did he keep the reindeer? He finally shook his head as if to clear any ridiculous notions out of his head.
But the smells from the kitchen were taking precedents over their talking. The wonderful aromas were so overpowering. Both boys were starving again, even after their wonderful meal the night before.
"Good timing, boys. I just served two hungry lions and I've got more pancakes right here for two beautiful panthers. Are you hungry yet?" The man flipped several small pancakes onto each of their plates as they hurried to sit at the table.
"I'm hungry 'nough to eat a elephant," said Jacob as he sat his little bottom on the chair and reached for the strawberries.
"I'm hungry enough to eat a, a lion," said Jeremy. He blushed when Devon choked and Lar started to laugh.
"You gonna eat Lar and Devon, Jeremy? You're pretty hungry, then," his brother said, waiting on the man to douse his feast with the whipped cream.
As the four boys ate, keeping the man pretty busy, making batch after batch of pancakes, he talked about their plans.
“I think we need to do some things before we go get Michael. Things like, get you boys some decent clothes to wear. Yours are pretty much falling apart." He was thoughtful, rubbing his beard-covered chin while his eyes looked like they were trying to read something written on the ceiling.
It made Jeremy look at Jacob, like it was something they had seen in pictures of . . .
"Mrs. Cantrell, down the hall, had her two grandsons staying with her this summer while their parents went on a cruise. She mentioned all the clothes they left over the years. I wonder . . ."
"Mister, you don't gotta do all that crap for us. We can go after . . ." Larry never got to finish his sentence.
"Don't you see, Larry? Boys? It's too late. There's no leaving now."
It was such a matter-of-fact statement that it gave Larry and Devon the willies for just a second. After all, how could something so scary come out of someone so nice?
"Ha ha! What I meant to say was, we've discussed this. There is no way I'm letting you stay another night in that dungeon over there. It just isn't going to happen if I have to build bunk beds in the hallway. At the least, I will find you another place to stay equally, or more likely, nicer than this place. That's a promise."
The boys didn't quite know what to think. It seemed impossible to Larry and Devon that this man could come up with some scheme to get them off the street, short of calling Children Services, which they would never go back to. But he did say better than the man's place.
Jeremy couldn't believe him either. How could he do those things? He was just a nice man that . . . Unless, he really was . . . Naw!
Jacob had a knowing grin on his face. His cheeks were just about as pink as the man's and his imagination was starting to take off as though he would find reindeer on the roof.
"Now, I need to make some phone calls. While I'm doing that there are books on the shelves, there are activities in this cabinet and there is food all over the kitchen. Be good, be relatively silent (he smiled) and if the doorbell rings and it's an elderly woman, ask Mrs. Cantrell to come in. Oh, and help her, if she asks. And someone get a t-shirt for little Jacob."
With that, he picked up the phone and started dialing.
Larry nodded to Devon, toward the bedroom, and they walked off. Jeremy saw them go that way, and it caused his interest to peak about what the bigger boys were going to do, but, instead, he and Jacob opened the cabinet. They found all sorts of games and coloring books and markers. There were books of activities and puzzles, too. There were scissors and colored paper. Tons of stuff to keep boys their ages busy for days.
'Where'd he get all this stuff?' Jeremy asked himself.
"Wow, Jer! You s'pose he has all this left over from Christmases? There's a million things ta do here. Wow!"
"Well, that's s'posin' he really is . . . you know who."
Jacob's face lit up in a brilliant smile. "M-m-m. Yeah!" he said almost with a little pride in his voice. Soon he was consumed in a stack of comics.
"Jacob, I'm gonna go see what the guys are up to. 'Kay?"
"Huh? Oh, sure. Whatever," said his brother. He didn't even look up.
But, as his brother walked toward the bedroom, he was curious to know what the older kids were doing without all this great stuff to play with.
Jeremy gasped silently when he opened the door and found his friends in an all-out war of a pillow fight! He quickly closed the door and stood there with 'awe' leaking out of every pore of his body.
"Hey, punk, wanna get your head whacked off," shouted Devon. He laughed at himself until Larry planted a good hit across his head, knocking him back.
"Ha! Come on, Jer. Get over here and join the fun. Whatcha waiting for?" said Larry before he ducked Devon's next swing.
"I'm waiting for our man ta come in and kick us out. He said quiet and I s'pose we oughta be nice to his stuff too since he's been so nice to us. I'm goin' back out with Jacob."
"Wait!" said Larry, dropping the pillow and walking up to Jeremy.
"Yeah, wait, shrimp. You gonna squeal on us?" asked Devon, still holding his weapon, uh, pillow down by his side.
"Nah, Dev, he ain't that kinda kid. Are ya, Jer?"
"Nope. I just wanna stay here in the warm for as long as we can. I want you guys to be part of it all too. I want you safe too." Jeremy was getting a little red in his eyes.
If the other two boys had looked real close, they'd seen the wetness building up, almost ready to stream down his cheeks.
"Yeah. You're right," said Larry, "He's being real nice to us, with his speech about not lettin' us go back ta that place again."
Devon threw the pillow back onto the bed and plunked down on the edge of the bed. "Okay, but what's this stuff about someplace better'n here? I ain't goin' back ta some excuse for a foster family and can't think of nothin' better'n here."
"I don't care. I trust him and so does Jacob. That's enough for me. You see how happy Jacob is? I haven't seen him smile that big since before Momma died."
"Sorry, Jer. You're right. We gotta respect our man, huh? Whaddya say, Devon?"
"I say he's an adult and I get the shakes around 'em all, but I guess he's treated us okay up to now. I'm willin' ta see what his plan is."
"And we still gots Michael ta worry about. We gotta find out about him and make sure he gets well and doesn't get trapped by the cops or nuthin'," said Larry, walking up to and sitting beside Devon.
Larry and Devon talked about the possibilities in their future, all pivoted around Michael's wellbeing. Jeremy had his hand on the doorknob, listening, when it pushed open, causing him to jump.
"Boys, I need your help with two important things," said the man's voice at the door.
Larry and Devon jumped at the man's voice, though it was anything but gruff.
"Ha ha," laughed the man. "Pillow fighting, oh my. Well, just remember how much nicer it is to sleep on a nice soft pillow than just its empty pillow slip. Ha ha."
Lar and Devon just nodded dumbly. Jeremy smiled that the man saw the humor in their playing.
"Hm-m-m. My, my. Well, boys, don't forget to answer the door, please. And little Jacob wants to come in to be with you guys. Hm-m-m, maybe you could decide on a board game or something with him. I think he really wants to be with you big boys. What do you say?"
Jeremy was, of course, more than willing. Lar and Devon were still nodding anyway. Then Jacob came around the man and into the room.
"You guys wanna draw and stuff? There's some really neat games out there, too. Whatcha doin' in here, anyway?"
"Okay, I have to get back to the phone. Answer the door, please," said the man as he turned to leave. "Oh, one more small thing. Maybe you should have something ready to put on Jacob when the doorbell rings. You may be asked to help carry in some boxes from the hallway or from one of the other apartments. Ha ha! I thought I asked you boys to get a t-shirt on the little streaker?" And then he was gone.
Jacob stood there waiting, while the three boys were still trying to figure out how the man knew what had been going on.
"So, little squirt, you really wanna go out there an' play some games and stuff, huh?" Larry asked the excited boy.
Jacob nodded, took Jeremy's hand and turned to lead him out of the bedroom.
And then the doorbell rang. Four faces turned to look at the bedroom door, as though they could see the front door from there. Three boys dove for the closet where the man's t-shirts were. When they found a good one, and looked up, they realized that one of them had disappeared. Jacob?
"Well, hello there, little boy. And how are we this fine morning? I see we've just had a bath? No, that would be whipped cream on our tummy, isn't it. But we do look comfy, don't we? I'm not sure you'll make such good use of these clothes I've brought you, do you?"
There was the teeter of an elderly lady giggling, then another voice: Jacob's.
"I'm fine, ma'am. We get ta run free since we been here. But if we go out, we'd freeze our cute little butts off, oh, I mean bottoms. So, I'm sure we can use the clothes, 'cause there aren't any others here. Ours have had it."
"Oh, look at this. Three fine strapping young boys to help with boxes. And why did we decide to wear clothes, boys?"
She stood up straight from talking to Jacob as the three older boys came to the door. They were grateful that their shirts covered all the important parts.
"Well, I don't know about you, lady, but we had ta dress 'cause what Mister said. Ouch!" Devon blurted his answer before Larry could cut him off.
"Um, Ma'am . . ."
"Mrs. Cantrell," she said to inform Larry of her name.
"Oh, uh, thanks. Mrs. Cantrell, it's like we ain't, I mean ta say, we don't got no clothes what's good enough ta wear. Hell, I mean, heck, they barely hold together now."
"Oh my! Well, then, by all means, we need to see that you boys are outfitted with some decent things to wear. Yes, indeedy." She reached to pat Jacob's bare bottom but he scooted out of her reach and ran behind Larry.
"And what are our names, lads?"
Unfortunately, Devon started out.
"Well, your name is - Ow! What the hell? Quit it, ass wipe!" That's the reaction that is normal when someone elbows you in the side, whether you're standing in front of a nice lady or not.
She held back the urge to present her hand to Larry, thinking that 'ass wipe' probably wasn't his given name. But she couldn't resist a laugh at the outburst. They were so like the boys, that is, her grandsons at that age. She had the time of her life with them and hoped she could get to know these boys as well.
Larry caught on to her laugh and realized she was having some fun with all that was going on.
"Really, Mrs. Cantrell, my name is Larry. This here loud-mouth is Devon and these guys are Jeremy and Jacob," he said, pointing to each boy as he named them.
Jeremy was a little taken back by Devon being so impolite. He couldn't remember when either Jacob or he were ever like that. That would have hurt their mom something awful.
"And what brings us to this place, boys? I get the feeling it was quite sudden. But let's go over to my apartment where we can talk and sit down. Who would like some root beer?"
Mrs. Cantrell's home was just like they expected. It smelled to Jeremy and Jacob like a grammas' place, complete with the smell they recognized, but couldn't name, as moth balls. She served some glasses of root beer, along with a bowl of stale pretzels. The boys didn't care. Their legs were hollow again and needed to be filled. After all, it had been almost an hour since they'd eaten.
She also brought out a wash cloth and asked Jacob to come to her. His smooth body slid between her legs and he rested his little bottom against the inside of her thigh as she wiped part of his breakfast from his tummy. It seemed to Jacob to take quite a while, but he was enjoying the attention and was busy listening as the boys explained what had been happening and how they had come to be with their new friend.
Larry and Jeremy did most of the talking, careful to say that Michael got hurt, not raped. They looked at each other, confirming the decision. They didn't want Mrs. Cantrell to really freak out.
Jacob was almost cooing from the attention he was getting. The wash cloth had been set aside and his bare shoulders and back, down and over his soft cheeks, were receiving a lot of attention from her hand.
It wasn't until sometime later that Jeremy looked down and saw the t-shirt in his hand; the one for his little brother.
Devon had noticed a bowl of peanuts on the end table, next to Mrs. Cantrell's chair. He was absentmindedly munching away on them. He reached once more and realized he had eaten every one of them.
"Way ta go, lunch mouth. Now whaddya say?" Larry had obviously noticed Devon's indiscretion too.
"Now, now, Larry. That's perfectly okay. You're growing boys and are always hungry, no doubt. Besides, I only eat the chocolate coating off of them, anyway."
Devon didn't move for what seemed to him to be about an hour. There was total silence for a whole minute. Then Larry busted a gut, followed by Jeremy. They literally fell on the floor laughing so hard. Devon didn't know what to do. He sat back in the chair where Larry had been and blushed, deep red.
"You have chocolate?" Jacob hadn't really caught on.
"No, deary. Not anymore."
Which caused another outburst by Larry and Jeremy. You could even see the corners of Devon's mouth turn up a bit, realizing he had caused all the merriment that they were enjoying.
"Alrighty, then, let's plow through some of these things. Oh, why don't we just take them all over to your apartment? Anything you don't use can be donated or taken to that horrid place next door for any other boys that may need them. Or maybe we could hang a sign and they could come here to accept some clothes and try them on."
So, they finished their sodas and, each carrying a box, went down the hall and rang the doorbell. Soon the door opened to admit them one at a time. Mrs. Cantrell nodded to the man as the four boys passed by with their bundles. As they turned to see the last boy, Jacob, walk past them, the man gasped and Mrs. Cantrell laughed at the sight of the cutest bare boy buns passing before them. Another trip was needed to bring all the clothes into the apartment, and soon they were going through each box and putting clothes into respective sizes.
There were five piles. One for each boy, except that Jeremy and Michael were the same size, Larry figured, so they shared a pile. Then there was a pile of clothes that were too big.
There was hardly anything in Jacob's size. He had very few things to try on, which delighted Mrs. Cantrell. She delighted in the beauty of each boy's body as they immodestly tried on all the clothes that they thought would fit them. They had such a good time trying things on and taking them off, they could care less about exposing themselves to their adult friends, besides, they'd each found at least one pair of undies to keep them somewhat modest.
The man tried to make clear to Mrs. Cantrell that his intentions were pure, that he had no choice but to bring the boys in to remove them from any danger, when he'd realized where they were living. She simply waved him off, agreeing wholeheartedly and offering even more help. She used the man's phone to call several neighbors in the same building, telling them of her good fortune in having met the man and 'his boys'. Almost immediately the doorbell rang, opening to another lady with the promise of a box or two of outgrown clothes. The boys merrily roamed the hallways with the delighted women, bringing back boxes of clothes from several different floors. There was more tittering and giggling of older ladies, delighted at the cute little urchins that they were taking a part in helping. It also made them miss their own children and grandchildren. Lots of phone calls went out that night, the precious voices of their loved ones, at the other end, causing happy tears to flow into the lace hankies of several of the apartment building's grateful women.
"Oh my!" exclaimed the man. "We've just a short time to be at the hospital to collect our young friend, Michael. I need a shower and so does Jacob. Boys, I need you to find your own clothes among your new things and get dressed. I also believe we will need clothes for Michael. I'm sure they have discarded what rags he wore. There was not much left after . . . well, when we got him there. Okay, jump!"
Larry jumped high and the other three boys and the man laughed at his shenanigans. Then they went through their piles. Larry picked out clothes for Michael which they put into a bag. As they did that, the man and Jacob strode down the hallway.
"Oh, Jacob, we need to hurry. I'll take my shower then help you with your bath. How does that sound?"
Jacob grinned and said, "Yes, please. I'd like that."
"Okay, go get the clothes you'll be wearing while I take my shower."
A huge smile filled Jacob's face and he ran into the living room to gather up his clothes. The boys were laughing and trying to snap each other with their shirts. They stopped long enough to let Jacob move past them. Larry did have to bop Devon when he looked like he was aiming at the eight year old's unprotected rear end.
The man was deep in thought about the last two years and the reason he was in this city, this building and this apartment, all by himself for most of that time. His thoughts about no longer being alone caused him to laugh, then steel himself on the knowledge that he was even surer of what must be done for these boys. He was resolved to take care of the one thing that he had been resisting for two years. It was certainly time for him to buck up and accept responsibility for his actions.
The man finished his own cleansing, quickly dried and dressed. Then he called Jacob to help him with a quick bath.
"I think we got your breakfast washed off of you, though your tummy was pretty clean."
Soon they were all dressed and waiting in the lobby, ready to hop into the waiting taxi.
Please read with pleasure, this has been my gift to you. I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you.