I was just about to start dinner, rounding up all the ingredients and setting them on the counter, ready to throw everything together to make a chicken dish that I'd always liked growing up. My mind kept my heart happy and a smile on my face as I thought about the last few days . . . no, weeks now. Life was complete in so many ways. I had a family of two, half of whom I loved and cherished as my own.
"Soon! Ha, Ha!" I laughed out loud, self-consciously looking around to make sure there wasn't anyone listening to me make a fool of myself. I looked forward to the adoption as I did to no other single event.
I was giddy because of all that had happened. 'Life was almost peaceful,' I thought to myself. Not too peaceful. That would be boring. You know, every once in a while you need something to come along to make things interesting. Maybe soon?
Suddenly, I heard the front door bang open and then shut hard and feet running up the stairs. The next thing I heard was the sound of AJ's bedroom door slamming closed, twice. Of course, it never latched, but by the sound, it might not even have a doorframe after that!
I'd learned to take things much easier than before but this did concern me. The boy and I were getting along pretty well and he seemed to be discussing things with me pretty openly. I assumed he just ran upstairs to get something and would be tearing out again on some wonderful adventure he'd conjured up. Still, I did wander into the hallway and look up toward his room.
School had just let out for Spring Break. We'd discussed doing something but AJ, surprisingly only had two requests. One of which was that he could have Stewart over for a sleepover, and two, that we could do something with Dan and his tribe.
So he had been pretty free for the weekend and it was just Sunday afternoon.
POUND! POUND! POUND!
Suddenly there was a loud pounding on the front door. As I went to answer it I could only think of a couple of people it could have been but the reality was far from anyone I knew because the severity of the knocking was something I wasn't used to.
Jebediah Harding, the old man who lived across the road, had a reputation of being cantankerous. It just so happened that he also had several rows of huge blueberry bushes lining the road and a few rows back into his property as well. The good thing about Jebediah Harding was that he was an eccentric hermit that kept to himself. But all that information came much later.
In fact, I didn't even know he existed until the door slamming and then the knocking.
I opened the door to a man of considerable size. It was easy to imagine that, in his younger years, he was a man to reckon with, a powerful man of some height and girth. That day he was bent over so much so that he appeared to be much shorter than I and he used a cane to maneuver around. His face was well weathered with a few days growth on his pale cheeks.
I started to say hello and introduce myself but . . .
"Where is he? Where's the little thievin' shit?" He bellowed and started to come into the house to find his thief.
"Wait! Excuse me, sir, but this is not your house. This is my home and I'll thank you to respect it as such."
"Well, he certainly has no regard for another's property, does he? Now, where is he? He owes me!"
"I beg your pardon but who is 'he' and what did 'he' do to get you all angry at me?" All my old habits were surfacing; the ones I'd been learning to deal with when I was talking with AJ. This guy was pissing me off. "Take a deep breath and let it out, sir, and then we'll talk about this as level-headed adults."
"Don't you 'level-headed' me, you poor excuse for a parent. I won't have that brat on my property again, stealing my berries. Why the nerve! Do you hear me? Why he's got me out of my house and all the way over . . . Oh my God! Out of my house?"
I could see his eyes grow bigger as he looked around to get his bearings. As he looked back at me his legs started shaking. The shock he felt was evident by the look on his flushed face. Then his face quickly turned from a bright red to a clammy gray color. I knew he was going to do a 'Tim McGill dive' for the deck and I didn't know if I could stop him. He was pretty big.
I stepped forward and held out my hands, ready to grasp his arms should he start to go down. Luckily for us both, he started to calm down. He grabbed a huge old handkerchief from his back overall pocket with one hand and wiped the sweat from his brow. With the other hand, he reached out to steady himself by grabbing the doorframe.
"Where am I? I . . . How did I get here? And where's here? Why am I out of my house?"
I was a little worried because he was looking a lot paler than when he'd arrived and he wasn't all that tan to start.
"Sir, why don't you come into the kitchen and sit down and join me in a cup of coffee? Maybe then we can figure out the answer to all your questions and several of mine."
"Oh, uh, okay. I don't want to burden you. I just don't know . . ." He seemed to be a totally different person.
I closed the front door and took his arm to guide him into the kitchen. We got settled into kitchen chairs and I poured mugs of coffee for both of us. Over the next few minutes, nothing was said. We just enjoyed the coffee and the relaxing peace the quiet afforded us. He also started to get some color in his face.
"Is he gone . . .? Oops!" whispered AJ from the doorway. He turned to tiptoe into the hallway toward the stairway, like a cartoon mouse that had just seen the cat in front of him, until I called him.
"AJ, will you please come in here? I want you to meet our neighbor, Mr. um, . . ."
"Huh? Oh, me," said our guest, a little flustered by my attention to something behind him. It was pretty clear that he couldn't remember why he was there or even where 'there' was. "Why, I'm Jebediah Harding. Lived in these parts for nigh onto 74 years now, not counting the time in WW two."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Harding," I said, holding out my hand. "I'm Tim McGill. I've been in these parts for about three years and this is my foster son, Andrew James, but we call him AJ."
"Where? Where's this boy you mentioned?" asked the old man, turning to look all around for the boy hiding behind the door.
"AJ, I'd like to introduce you to our neighbor, Mr. Harding. Did you know that he just lives across the road from us?"
As I was introducing the boy, AJ came about halfway around the edge of the doorway until I got to the 'neighbor' part. Then his eyes rolled back and he leaned against the doorway and sighed a heavy sigh.
"Oh, there he is. Boy, come closer. These old eyes don't see like they used to. Come over here, now." I could hear the authority in his voice again, though quieter, but his demeanor was totally different than at the door.
AJ slowly crept forward, knowing his life was over. He looked at me as if to ask if he really had to go stand by the man who was, evidently, out to get him only a few minutes before.
"Humph! Strappin' good boy you got there, McGill. Strappin' good boy. Bet you get a lot of hard work outta him. You got cows and pigs? He'd be good with them I reckon."
By that time, AJ was close enough that Harding had his hands on both of AJ's arms and was feeling for muscle. AJ had his eyes closed and looked to be in sheer terror that this man was going to maul him or something.
"No, sir, we have no livestock. I just retired from the Marines and took in AJ as my foster son. Since then we've been getting to know each other."
"Humph, Seabees for me, only until the war was over. Well, a fine looking boy. Go wash your hands, boy. You got blue stains all over them."
AJ gasped and I was given a pretty clear picture of what had passed before he ran into the house and the safety of his bedroom. Blueberries.
"Humph! This isn't my kitchen. Well, no matter. So, he's yours, huh? Where's the missus, then?"
AJ gasped again, this time at the kitchen sink, but I thought that I was the only one that heard him. I looked at him and shook my head.
"Sir, my wife and daughter died in an automobile accident a few weeks ago."
"Well, I'll be damned. That was your family? I read about it in the paper. Damn awful thing; damn awful. My condolences. Still, a fine lad you got there, neighbor. Maybe I can borrow him to do some chores for me. Damn good looking boy, too."
AJ was about to hyperventilate and it was all I could do to keep from laughing.
"Well, I'm sure we could . . ."
AJ was shaking his head as hard as he could at me. Harding was looking down into his coffee.
". . . work something out. Maybe he could help trim the blueberries."
Another loud gasp!
"Well, I don't know. I didn't know better, I'd say the boy was developin' some kind of asthma or somethin'. Can't work too hard for too long like that, now can he? Can you, boy?"
"Oh, he's fine. We just didn't expect guests this evening, Mr. Harding. It was a pleasant surprise, but a surprise, all the same, wasn't it, AJ?"
AJ's eyes rolled back into his head. I was having a great time with all that was happening. I wasn't even concerned that at any time the old coot could just as well have remembered how angry he had been and, more importantly, why and with whom he was angry.
Then, when I invited the man to stay for dinner, we could have served it on platters the size of AJ's eyes.
"That's mighty decent of you, neighbor. It's been a long time since I've had someone make me a good home-cooked meal. You might not have known that I don't tend ta leave my house much."
"Actually, the thought had occurred to me," I said.
"Yeah, well, usually someone delivers something edible every coupla days. Till then it's them damnable TV dinner things. You just toss 'em in the micro-doodad and it's hotter'n Hades in a few minutes time."
"Well, I'm afraid it's just a chicken casserole tonight but there'll be plenty of it. Some fresh vegetables and a salad too. How does that sound?"
"Humph, sounds like something my daughter'd make for me, that is, before she left with some guy. Said they was gettin' hitched. Never hear from her anymore either."
"Wow! How long ago was that, sir?"
"Jeb, just call me Jeb. No need to get formal. Let's see, if this is, humph, thirty-some years now. Yup. At least."
Jebediah Harding never did remember how angry he'd been or why, much to AJ's relief. I think he was so overcome with being outside of his house that the pure Jeb came rushing out too. We actually had a very nice meal and heard some stories about the area and, of course, Jeb's life in short snippets as they'd come up. Like we found out that he wasn't born here but moved here after his tenth birthday.
Over another cup of coffee, and as soon as AJ had cleared the table . . .
"Fine, boy, Tim, fine boy. Why, look at that."
Oh, I was looking, amazed!
. . . we talked for another hour until it was pretty dark out. AJ was at one end of the table with his chin in his hands, propped up on his elbows, listening intently to every word from his former enemy.
"Well, I best be moseyin' on back to . . . hell, I can't rightly recall how it was I came to be here, Tim. My memory isn't all that great anymore. Eighty-four years in May, you know."
I almost laughed again. AJ did a 'whew' and then a 'wow' to Jeb's memory and age.
"Jeb, I think AJ ought to walk you home. It can't be easy in the dark and it's a ways, too."
AJ's eyes went wide for a minute until I continued.
"In fact, I think we'll both accompany you home. That way we'll both know that our new friend was safe and sound."
The relief on AJ's face was precious. I think his heart rate that night was higher than ever, most of the time, at least until that moment.
The walk was slow and mostly quiet. We saw lots of blueberries. Well, I should say Jeb and I saw them. AJ had his head buried behind me, holding onto my arm. But once we got past that area he joined us again.
"Boy? AJ? You pick what you want now, but I get half, okay?"
AJ came around to my side with his eyes lit up like headlights.
"But you have to share back with Mr. Harding, remember," I explained to him.
"Yeah, I got it. That's great. Thank you, Mr. Harding. Really thank you."
"Well, young man, you're really welcome. I miss having some on my cereal. Get on that, will you?" he said in his forceful way. And he laughed a deep laugh that caused us both to laugh with him. When he laughed while walking with us, he'd raise up his arms and his cane would swing around until AJ had to duck to keep from getting clunked on the noggin. He was laughing so much he almost fell down, AJ, that is.
Jeb's home was huge, old, and almost historic looking, but it was cold and dark. It was past sunset but you could tell that, even in the sunlight, it would be depressingly dark. It seemed to be clean, for the most part, though a little dusty in places and there was a smell, an old smell that often accompanied an elderly person's residence.
I looked at AJ and saw his nose scrunch, to which I quickly shook my head and nodded toward Jeb. AJ understood that we didn't want to embarrass Mr. Harding and changed his expression.
"Well, this is it. Here's my chair, my television box, and a radio within reach. Oh, I have a lady comes in once every two weeks and, of course, those people bring me dinners every other day or so. It's quiet, except lately. You may not believe it but someone's been into my berries. Can you believe it?"
Of course, AJ was soon behind me, peeking out. I wasn't too sure if Jeb knew it was AJ, but if he did, he never let on.
Jeb plunked down in his recliner. After all the air was pushed out of the old Naugahyde chair Jeb let out a big sigh as well.
"I'll just set here awhile until I decide to go up. I sure do appreciate you serving me up such a fine meal, Tim. You are one nice man. AJ, you got yourself one good father there, son. You treat him good, okay?"
"Uh, yes sir, I sure will, sir."
"Jeb, are you feeling okay tonight? Do you remember being a little confused when you first came over to the house?"
"Humpf. Don't recall. Must have been unimportant, I'd say. Wouldn't you? Though, now that you mention it, I don't go out of the house very often anymore. Humph. But you know it felt good for a change. Now you kids go on home and get some rest. We gotta keep up our strength, right, AJ?"
"Yes sir!" answered my boy with a big grin and a ton of enthusiasm.
We made plans to visit him and bring him back to our place for dinner in a few days. Even AJ was excited to have him over again; relieved and excited.
As we walked home down the road that led from our road to the four farms beyond us, I noticed a van pull into the drive directly across from Jeb's place. I'd never paid any attention to any of those places so nothing registered with me. It made me aware that I knew very few people around me, well, us.
"Dad, what's a moseyin'?" asked AJ, drawing my attention away from the neighbors across from Jeb's place.
"Moseyin'? Hmm, well, we're moseyin' right now. Do you like to mosey now that you know what you've been doing all along?"
"He he. Yeah, moseyin' is fun, 'specially," he said, grabbing hold of my hand in his and swinging it back and forth, "when it's with you."
One of the ideas that I had after meeting Jeb, and because Dan had gotten reports about a vagrant named AJ running around loose, was a barbeque to which we'd invite all of our neighbors. After all, we knew no one around and they certainly had no way to know us.
The next day, while I was working at my desk, I noticed a shadow from the boy come across the papers I was working on, telling me he was standing next to me, silently.
"Ye-e-e-s?" I asked, finally, having let him stand there for a minute. I looked up to see him looking down, again.
"Um, I was wondering . . ." and then he paused.
"AJ, will you lift up your head, please? You have such a great smile, and I don't think I bite much anymore, do I?"
"'Kay, uh, huh-uh. You don't yell or nothin', anymore," he answered, looking up at me. Then his smile began to build and fill his whole face.
I couldn't help it. I grabbed him up and hugged him a good one. Of course, my fingers happened to be tickling his ribs as well. He was giggling until I let go of him. He melted to the floor and breathed in deeply.
"You're crazy! But it's okay, cuz I like crazy."
"Well, I'm glad for that. But tell me, what were you wondering just a while ago?"
"Uh. . . oh, that. I wanted to know if we could get some paper pads and drawin' stuff for when Denver and the guys come and visit."
"I don't see why not."
The grin he gave me made it worth buying out the store if he'd asked right then.
We were different, far more patient with each other, though we certainly had a long way to go. But everything was so much better. I could get used to those feelings. But I still wanted more. I wanted his self-esteem to soar.
The man thought about it for a while. It took longer to get those kinds of things out of his brain and out front, where he could grab hold of 'em and know what to do.
But it finally clicked and he walked up his staircase into the second bedroom on the left where boxes were stacked since before his daughter took off. In fact, just after his June bug had died, leaving him as a miserable son-of-a-bitch for so many . . . Then he laughed out loud as he thought of the boy that had recently come into his life and energized his old heart.
He was still grinning to himself as he lifted the lid on the old trunk and started to move his wife's things to one side. Just then a flash caught his eye as there was movement across the road at the homestead there.
"Yes, sir, uh, this here is Jebediah Harding, out Route 4. Humphf, I was wondering if you folks there know anything about someone takin' over the old Terrington farm; rentin' maybe. Can't tell but there sure is somethin' happening over there? Haven't seen hide nor hair of anyone over there for years, then all of a sudden a few months ago it started."
"Well, sir, the Sheriff's Department is hardly in charge of real estate sales in the county. What makes you think there's something going on? And, Mr. Harding, you have to start saying that you live on Terrington Road now. We don't go by Route 4 anymore."
"Humph. Well, anyway, everything happens after dark. I could swear I saw a van over there, um, twice now, and I could see someone, a small someone get out of this van and someone pushing them into that there house. It ain't right, what I saw."
"Well, sir, who's to say they aren't just coming home from some dinner or party or something?"
"Carrying a rifle, officer?"
AJ came in with a two quart Tupperware bowl three-quarters filled with the plumpest blueberries. He immediately went to the cupboard with the colander and dumped his treasure into it. I wandered in from the living room and the newspaper I'd been engrossed in just as AJ was rinsing the berries under running water.
"You mean you have all those and you split them with Jeb?" I asked with awe and laughter in my voice. "You've only been gone about 45 minutes and some of that had to be going up to his place."
"Yeah, so I'm gettin' good at it, huh? Besides, he didn't want half cuz he said he wouldn't eat 'em all. Just means he wants more sooner, is all." AJ had this glow about him. His pride was showing and wasn't dimmed one iota by his experiences with our new friend and neighbor. "Dad?"
I couldn't help but grin. "Yes, son."
He'd stopped what he was doing and turned to look right at me. "I really like him. He tells good stories and he's nice to me."
"Well, I guess I'll need to have a talk with him then, huh?" I said with very little smile showing through.
He didn't even skip a beat that time. "Da-a-a-d!" Then I got another big smile and a hug.
The boys came over during the week. Ralph brought them because Dan, of course, had to work. It seemed they all had a good time. Denver was thrilled by the stack of art supplies we'd bought; not quite the entire store. AJ beamed at me and mouthed a happy 'Thank you'.
Those boys must have explored every inch of our land, all two acres. I think they were just pleased to be somewhere else that they could run free to some extent.
They came in for a quick drink once and once more for a snack, then they were gone again.
Ralph was inside talking to me in the kitchen. He was sure interesting. We spent some time talking about his aspirations and his goals in life, thanks to his dad, Dan. And he sure was in love with his dad. His eyes would light up and he'd sit a little straighter when he mentioned Dan.
"Tim, he has to be the most caring man there is. But even now, after all these years, he still has the most awful nightmares. He still can't get the murders of his family out of his mind and it's eating him up."
I wanted to ask how he knew all about it but Ralph looked up, past me, out into the yard and stood up.
"Where are the boys, Tim? They were always right out there, at least every couple of minutes. I haven't seen them in a while. Where do you suppose they are?"
"Oh, I'm pretty sure AJ has them on some expedition. I wouldn't worry about them."
"Yes, but it's my job to worry about them. I should have been out there with them."
"Isn't it like I said? Isn't he the coolest man you ever met?" AJ called out to the crowd behind him as the front door opened and in pranced the gang.
Ralph gave an audible sigh of relief and plunked down in his chair.
"Um, boys?" I said, "I think you need to be a little bit better about telling us when you take off like that. You had us worried for a moment."
I think I heard more than one 'oops' coming from various boys as they came into the kitchen.
"I think you need to apologize to Ralph and maybe stay inside for a bit."
There were lots of gray faces that turned and looked at their oldest foster brother, Ralph. He didn't even look up from his drink. Each boy went to him to apologize. But AJ came to me.
"I'm sorry, Dad. I didn't think it would be any problem. We just went to say 'hi' to Mr. Harding. I didn't think about not telling anyone. We was just gonna be gone a minute or two."
"Apology accepted, son, but you need to understand Ralph's responsibility to these boys. He's supposed to watch them. What if something would have happened while you were gone? What if there was an emergency and he needed all the boys to get home quickly or something? It's just part of what we need to work on every day, and that's thinking about others first; right, boys?"
"Yessir." Five times I think, maybe six.
"Why don't you all go wash up then come back and we'll start lunch. Maybe you can share that fascinating story of Mr. Harding with Ralph and me."
During lunch, Denver asked Ralph if he was going to tell Dan about what happened. But before Ralph could answer, Jacob spoke up.
"No, he isn't, Denver. We need to tell him when we do something stupid like that. I'll tell him, because I'm the oldest and should have known better. It's a way for each of us to learn to be responsible for ourselves."
The other boys nodded their agreement and said they'd be with him on his confession.
Ralph looked over at me with a smile that spoke of the pride he had in his brothers for their handling their responsibility in that situation.
"Will Ralph get in trouble too, because of what we done?" asked Denver, with tears in his eyes
"Probably," answered Ralph. "You're my responsibility when Dad isn't around, and I blew it." He looked over at Denver and waved him over, finally pulling the smaller boy into his lap. "Don't you worry about me, little tyke. I'll be fine. The best thing is this, guys, we do this because it's right . . . right?"
The older boys laughed and answered, "Right!"
Denver looked around at his brothers, then back at Ralph with a smile and a nod.
I looked over at AJ and his mouth was open in wonder. He looked at me like he was a little confused. Ralph caught on right away.
"AJ, the truth is always the best choice. It might get someone in trouble for a second, but it's no where's near as bad as what can happen when you lie and it grows and grows. Those feelings aren't good, huh, boys?"
"And think of the people, friends or brothers even, that can get hurt worse, in the process of lying."
"Okay, that's past us, for now. AJ, how was Mr. Harding?" I asked.
"Oh, Dad, he was just fine. You know how he gets when he has someone visiting. He was as happy as you can get. He was real nice to all of us. We even got some root beer."
"Did you say thank you to Mr. Harding?"
"'Course, Dad," answered AJ, a little miffed that I could have thought such a thing, no doubt by his look.
Denver looked over from Ralph's lap and added, "He sure did, sir, right after we all thanked him."
AJ's expression changed to that sheepish look he got when he was pretty close to the truth, barely. But his cheeks were pretty pink.
"Oh, he did, huh? Well," I said, as I picked AJ up and swung him around a few times.
I stood him up and he swayed a bit, dizzy-like, then he gave me a great smile.
"What was that for?"
"Because, my young man, you may not have been the first to thank him or to think of it, but you did it and that tells me you're learning. I'm very proud of you, son."
Could the grin get any bigger? He sure was proud, and had every right. He'd been through so much but come so far in such a short time; I couldn't help but be proud too.
"Well," Ralph said, "We need to get home and make Dad some dinner. He's been working too hard lately. You guys go on outside. I'll be right there. Stay close!"
"Anything going on that's making him work so hard?" I asked, after the boys went out to the car. AJ had followed them to say goodbye.
"He won't talk about it. Maybe he doesn't want to scare the boys. I don't know. I hope he doesn't get so tired he can't protect himself."
"What could possibly happen around here that would put him or anyone in that kind of danger?"
"Oh, I suppose you're right but I hate him being out there facing who knows what every day."
Of course, the incident with innocent young Jeffy immediately came to mind. Out of the blue, he was thrust into a life and death situation.
AJ and I stood on the porch, my arm draped over his shoulders, while we waved goodbye to our friends.
But something was bugging me, digging its way into my brain and not letting go. My mind wasn't focusing but I couldn't exactly pin down the feelings I was having or why, until,
"Dad, what's gonna happen to Jeffy, Jarod's friend?"
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar