"Elliot, you don't have a cell phone, do you?" I asked my newest foster son.
We'd been having another quiet day after a day of excitement, what with the adoption and celebration. That is, before the gang would eventually get there. We probably should have been getting ready for the rowdy bunch from Dan's place, Tyler and Linda Sue, who incidentally were becoming inseparable from Dan and clan, and even Stewart and his parents were invited. Of course, Jeb was invited to mosey on over.
I really didn't have anything planned, just eating up all the leftovers like AJ suggested.
Elliot looked up from the inevitable book in his hands to answer me.
"Um, huh? Oh, sorry. What did you ask me, Pop?"
"I just asked if you owned a cell phone. My guess is that your parents wouldn't trust you with one and would have had it turned off if they had."
As I said that he gave me a disgusted look that told me I was right.
"Yeah, like they'd never have given me anything so frivolous."
"Pop, he only had a bed and a chair in his room," said Jeffy, looking up from the book he was reading while lying on the floor in front of me. I think they're called graphic novels now.
"Yuck. How come, Elliot?" asked my little one.
"Because they didn't want me anywhere, they couldn't control me, I guess, like behind a closed door, even if I was studying. I'm sure they knew I'd use a cell phone for the Devil's work, not something important like my safety."
"But I thought you had a computer, El. Where was it?" asked Jeffy, sitting up and leaning against the chair I was in.
"Oh, it was in my dad's study. He kept that locked and only let me use it when I proved I really needed it or had a note from a teacher."
I couldn't believe it. They had no trust at all in their own child.
"Good grief, El, that's sick," said Jeffy.
"Well, Elliot, I think you need a cell phone. I got Jeffy one and you should have one too, just in case. You never know when you might need it."
"Oh, well, thanks but . . .," answered Elliot.
"Yeah, El, you do. Look, mine does texting and stuff. I can text and tell Pop if I'm coming out of school late and junk like that. I like that part."
"You text the other kids too?" asked Elliot of his brother.
"Naw. You're the only one I'd wanna do that with. Well, maybe Dan's guys too, but I'm pretty sure that only Ralph has one."
"Hey, you mean you wouldn't wanna text me?" asked AJ, sitting up on the floor while crossing his legs under him.
"Oh, sure, AJ. In fact, I've been trying to, but you never answer," teased his brother.
"Really? See, Dad, I need one too so I can answer Jeffy's texts to me, huh?"
"AJ, he didn't really . . ." started Elliot seriously, until Jeffy, who started rolling on the floor laughing, was so loud it drowned him out.
"Oh," said AJ. "I get it. It's a joke, huh?" he asked his brother who was trying to recover from his laughing fit.
"AJ," I said, "You need to be just a bit older, I think. Then you can have one too."
"Alright," he said, pouting.
"Now, guys, we need to talk about a computer. It's becoming too important to your school work, and even some things that I'd like to do, to not have one here. I think it's about time to get at least one for the house, boys. Maybe we'll get one for a nook in the dining room and one for Jeffy's and Elliot's room, at least until the house is remodeled. How does that sound?"
Jeffy was all for it. AJ was pleased but rather neutral on the idea, never really seeing a need so far in his life. Elliot seemed pleased though he was very business-like about the whole idea.
"Pop, a computer is quite an investment. I'm sorry to put you through this. I suppose I could get by without . . ."
"No, no. It's been decided, Elliot. I know you'll make good use of it and its high time the other two boys get used to using one. They will undoubtedly need that skill in their education from here on out as well as in their business life to come. You seem to already have a grasp on that."
"Very true. Then may I suggest some features to be included in the purchase?"
"When we get to that point, Elliot, we can make a list. You can go with me to pick it out, of course."
A little later that Saturday morning Elliot and Jeffy left to go ride their bikes, saying they'd be back shortly. AJ wasn't interested. He said he was tired, something that I wasn't used to hearing. At one point when I looked over at him, he seemed very pale, then another time he looked flushed.
"AJ, do you feel hot or cold, like a fever?" I asked him.
He'd taken the blocks from a game we played and was on the floor arranging them into a tower.
"Um, I don't know," he answered putting his hand to his forehead. "I don't feel hot or nuthin'."
"Well, I'm going to take your temperature just to be safe. Your coloring keeps changing."
I went into the kitchen where I kept one thermometer (another was upstairs in the bathroom) and came back to administer my nursing abilities.
"Okay," I said, "Under your tongue. It has to stay there for a minute."
As it went under his tongue he tried to talk, "A mimutt? A hoe mimutt?"
"Or two if you keep trying to talk around it. I'll buy the new kind that only takes a few seconds. Or I could buy the kind where it doesn't even go into your mouth." I said that with a smile on my face and a gleam in my eye which was conveyed to him and showed up much the same on his face! Until . . .
"Huh-uh! Huh-uh!" he said vehemently, shaking his head, his eyes getting bigger by the second. He jumped up long enough to stick both hands under his butt and continued to shake his frightened head.
"I'm just kidding. You don't think I want to be the one to clean it up do you?"
"Ninety-nine point two. Not too bad. I've already made an appointment for Monday. I guess you'll be okay until then. I'm surprised that Linda Sue didn't have us going in to have you checked out to see if I was getting a good deal or not," I rambled, smiling at my boy.
"Hey! I'm a swell deal," he answered indignantly, crawling over to perch between my legs.
"Honey, you are the best deal I could ever imagine. You and now your two brothers, wow, you complete me. You fill in what was missing in my life, what I needed more than anything."
"Yeah, Dad. I know," he replied. But he'd closed his eyes and laid his head on one of my legs and sighed. He wasn't being a smart aleck.
"You know?" I asked.
"Well, yeah, cuz I feel the same way. 'Member? I even was gonna jump off of Cryer's Point. But you saved me and gave me a life."
"Yeah, that was pretty scary when I found out how close I came to losing you and I hadn't even gotcha by then, huh?"
"Nope. I was a brat, huh? I didn't trust no one, I mean, anyone. Then you came along and all you wanted was to feed me? Su-u-u-ure! Ha! But you were bein' you and now I love that I can trust you and tell you anything."
One tear dropped to my leg as he looked up at me, a simple grin on his flushed face, dimples of red and a little bit of yellow in the whites of his wet eyes. I didn't know what that last part was all about, but we'd find out in a couple of days.
Eventually, the whole gang came over and we were just like one big happy family. The Curtains were with us less often than the Perkins' Clan, but they had no trouble fitting right in. Stewart was simply one of the guys and his parents, Kaye and George Curtain, were great friends to all in seconds. And, of course, the boys went over and mosey'd on back with Great Grampa Jeb in tow.
Of course, you could have lit a fire off of the glow on their faces when Dan and Linda Sue looked at each other. That was so great. The smaller kids were practically hanging onto Tyler who was quiet as always, but he seemed to laugh more and follow stories to the punch line almost as quickly and as often as the other kids.
"Yes," explained Linda Sue, "First it was the concept of a joke or humorous story, something Dan's kids never had a shortage of. Then it was explaining what a punch line was. It started out as that row of people waiting to be served a sweet fruit drink, generally at a party. He actually found it in his memory and then, lately, he's been going to look it up in a dictionary to be sure. It's almost like he's losing the memorization bank of some of what he'd done. His counselor seems to think that now that he was moving past the trauma that forced him to use those skills, that they were making way for other useful skills, some that were even more to his liking. But believe me, he can still memorize and do it well."
I always loved to hear about Tyler's progress. It must be fascinating living with him. But I also loved hearing about Dan's kids. There came a time when we all seemed to congregate around with most of the kids in the center of our circle.
"Jacob is leaving home," said Denver. A sniff or two followed.
Ralph was quick to explain, "He isn't leaving home, Denver. He's actually going home, to his real family. Remember? We're all proud of him for doing so well in his recovery that he gets to go live with his real family."
Ralph clapped Jacob on his shoulder and Jacob gave us a half smile.
"But we're his family too," said Denver.
Jacob knelt in front of Denver. He was so patient with his foster brother.
"We've been through this before, little mite. I'll miss you all so much and I have to admit, I'm a little-scared o' what to expect, but I still wanna be home in my own house and have dinner with my own folks again. It's been a long time. Do you understand?"
Denver was the only one of Dan's kids that wasn't the reason for his foster placement. Denver had never really been abused. He was the witness to the shooting murder and suicide of his parents. From that day on, he had no place to go back to. That made it hard for him to understand.
Denver reached for Jacob and hugged him hard.
"I'll miss you," he said, his face getting wet with his tears.
"I'll miss you too. I'll miss all of you tons and tons," Jacob answered.
He wasn't leaving for a couple of weeks. His blood dad had improved significantly, and Jacob was looking forward to the move home.
The rest of the day was pretty laid back. We continued to enjoy each other's company and eat lots of wonderful leftovers. I remember looking around to see that everyone was looking very content with whatever they were doing and thinking that we had a great gang of friends.
It was pretty late when we broke up. Everyone went on their way and I began to send my kids to bed after they walked, I mean mosey'd their great grampa home. Dan offered to take him, but the kids wouldn't hear of it. Jeffy and Elliot were still pretty wired. The parties we'd had were becoming somewhat normal for Jeffy but for Elliot it had to be somewhat new to him to get to spend time with so many others, just having a good time; real friends finally. I could hear them talking for a while after they went to bed. It was a very good, heartwarming sound.
AJ again looked very tired. I was about to send him with the boys when I decided to go up with him.
"AJ, go on up and I'll be right there after I lock up. Okay?"
I was up in his room in a matter of minutes and he was lying back on his bed, still fully clothed.
"How are you doing, podunk? You don't feel too well, do you?"
"Well, I feel okay but I'm just really tired again. What's goin' on?"
"We're going to find out on Monday, AJ. I promise."
He sat up and started to take off his clothes. When he was down to his t-shirt and underwear he crawled onto his bed.
"And, Dad, what's a podunk? Is it like a pipsqueak where you change the meaning to fit me? Or did great grampa make it up?"
I had to laugh. "Oh, AJ, I'm not really sure where it came from. It's what they used to call something small and cute, like a town; it was actually called Podunk. No, it's been around a lot longer than your great grampa, I'm sure. It's just a sweet, kinda cute name for a really sweet young boy that I couldn't love more."
"Mm-m-m-m, then I like to be called that too."
"Good. Now, let's get you under the covers and off to dreamland. You need your rest when you don't feel well."
"And gettin' tucked in will help too, huh?" he asked with a tired grin.
As I looked down at my little guy with the covers barely across his chest, I remembered the first time I broached the subject of me tucking him in. He wasn't too thrilled at the time, but a lot had happened since then.
"I think so, cuz it's done with so much love," I answered him as I pulled up his blanket and sheet, tucked them under his chin and kissed his warm cheek. "Good night."
"Okay. Good night, podunk. Rest well."
He might have been asleep before I closed his door.
The older boys were quiet, and I was ready for an early evening. It wasn't so much that the party was exhausting as it was the stress of not knowing what was going on with AJ. I was getting a bit concerned.
"We just need someone with some expertise in these matters to bring him to us. We know your reputation and we'd like to hire you."
"You know my . . . Hmmm, well, see, I don't do business with just anyone. I need to be sure that I won't be compromised in my duties."
It was very late at night and they met in the farthest, darkest corner of the Walmart parking lot. No one was around at that hour on the outskirts of that small city. No one that is, except a middle-aged couple and a well-dressed man about their age, driving a rather expensive Audi.
"We actually know quite a bit about you, don't we, my dear," said the man.
"I don't know what you . . ."
"Oh, stop playing with us, Mr., um, shall we say, Smith?"
"Well, I . . ."
"Or maybe we can call you Mr. Spectrum," the woman said flatly.
At that name, the man got rather pale. He pulled on his collar before the woman continued.
"We know what you did. We know that at least two of those children were taken by you."
"What! How did you . . .? Never mind. Yes, Smith is just fine for now. I'll be in contact with you about the details. Have the cash ready. I will be in a hurry."
It took a few minutes to pass their contact information back and forth, then the couple was left standing there as the Audi pulled out of the parking lot.
"Well, that's done. We'll need to contact the pastor and make the arrangements for the ritual. We need to protect the rest of our community from the Devil's own. This whole cause of debauchery and shameless sinning has to be cleansed and purged once and for all," she told her husband as they went to either side of their SUV, got in and finally drove off as well.
I heard the older boys up and about. It sounded like they were going out on their bikes for some early exercise. I pulled on an old t-shirt and some old shorts and made for the kitchen. Coffee was a priority, but I thought I could have a nice breakfast for the boys by the time they got back.
I'd made the coffee, laid out a breakfast of eggs, bacon and hash browns and was reading the paper over a cup of java when the boys fell into the house.
"Ugh!" cried Jeffy. "That's too much like work. I'm ready for bed."
Both boys came into the living room, wringing wet, the results of a strenuous ride.
"You're just soft, Daniel. If you went with me every morning, you'd feel great after a ride that short."
"Short! I think we made it to the county line!" whined Jeffy, flopping down on the couch.
"Hey! Not in those wet clothes, young man. Both of you go change while I fry up breakfast. Showers would be ideal."
"Now that's the best offer I've had all day, Pop," said Jeffy, moping off toward the stairs.
"Good grief, Daniel, it's only 10 o'clock! It's the only offer you've had all day so far," laughed his brother.
"Nu-uh. I let you talk me into that torture."
The bacon was almost done, and the rest of their breakfast was in the oven keeping warm by the time the two boys returned clean and dry, for the most part.
"Get something to drink, please. Jeffy, would you pour me another cup of coffee please, while I serve up your breakfast?"
"Um, Pop," asked Elliot, "What about AJ?"
"Hey, yeah. Is he over at great grampa's pickin' blueberries?"
"No. Actually, I forgot all about him. He's been asleep the whole time, I guess." Now I was concerned. "Boys, take over here, will you? I need to go check on him. Divide it all up between four plates please."
And with that, I walked up to AJ's room.
I opened the door to my son's room and . . . he wasn't there! Not only was he absent but his blanket was gone too.
As I stepped into the room, I heard something on the other side of the door. To my surprise, there sat AJ on the floor, against the wall, fully awake and covered with sweat, with the blanket partially covering him.
"Dad, I'm scared, and I don't feel good."
In one fell swoop, I grabbed the boy into my arms and carried him to his bed. His arms went around me as best they could in that position, but when I tried to lay him in his bed he didn't let go of my neck.
"AJ, what's going on? Why were you behind the door, son?" I asked as I gently removed his arms so I could check him over.
"Dad, I had a really, really bad dream and I tried to get to the door to get to you, but it didn't have a handle. I was trapped in here. I got really scared and must've fallen asleep. But I dreamed it again and then I just sat there until you came in. I guess I was lookin' for the door handle on the wrong side of the door, like at my old apartment. I'm sorry."
"No, son. There's no reason to be sorry. Something is going on that's a virus or something. What we need to decide is if we need to take you in now, to Immediate Care, or you can wait until tomorrow and your doctor's appointment."
"Oh. I don't know. I know I don't want another dream like I just had. It was scary."
"I certainly don't blame you, AJ. But how do you feel otherwise? Are you weak, sore, tired still?"
"Well, um, I guess I feel okay right now. I'm tired but not like I have been. Maybe I'm better," he said with a slight grin; not one of his best.
"Yes. I've heard that when a fever breaks you can have all sorts of illusions, um, like bad dreams. Maybe you're getting better." I was certainly hopeful. I added a smile to encourage him. "Are you ready for some breakfast? The guys are waiting to find out how you're feeling."
"Really? They said that?" He propped himself up a bit and his eyes got bigger.
"Yes. In fact, they're the ones that asked where you were. Then I came up here and found you."
"Wo-ow! They coulda saved my life." He was sitting straight up by then.
"Well, I hope that wasn't the case, but they sure do love you lots, Podunk."
AJ changed into some comfortable, loose clothes and walked down with me.
"AJ! How you feelin', little buddy?" asked Jeffy.
"Yeah, we were worried when you were still up there," Elliot added. "Everything okay?"
"Um . . ."
"He had a bad dream, guys. But we think it might mean his fever broke and he's on the mend. I guess we'll find out for sure tomorrow morning."
I don't remember a time that AJ had been quieter. After breakfast, which he ate better than he had been lately, he mostly stayed on the couch. Twice, when I was about to sit in my chair, he asked me to sit with him. Then he sprawled across me and just lay there. We barely talked. I brushed the hair out of his eyes, even when it wasn't in his eyes anymore and the times I stopped, he picked up my hand and placed it back on his forehead. So I kept up my job until he fell asleep. I moved him so I could get up and lay him down in a more comfortable position.
I didn't go back to my chair. I put a throw pillow under his head and watched him breathe, watched his chest rise up and fall back, listened to the air suck into him and softly exhale.
It was about five minutes into his repose when I noticed that my lap was wet with spots. I brushed my eyes and came away with the back of my hand wet with tears.
I loved him so much. I was so worried about him, yet all the signs seemed to point to his getting past the worst of it.
The boys were in and out, their busy lives filled with the things fifteen-year-olds do for fun and energy release. They laughed and carried on somewhat noisily most of the time, until they saw that their little brother was asleep, then they quieted down and tiptoed out of the room until I called to them.
"I'm sure it's okay, boys. You aren't going to wake him. And, if you do, he'll be asleep again in a few minutes."
They wandered back into the living room, looking down where AJ was stretched out on the couch.
"Pop, is he going to be alright? He's been tired like this for days, hasn't he?"
"Yeah, Elliot, he has. I was worried but if the fever has broken, like I suspect it has, then we're on the mend."
Jeffy was quick to say, "I hope so. He sure can worry a guy."
"But, Pop, I thought he didn't have a fever when you tested him."
"Well, not much of one. I guess I assumed it went up then broke in the middle of the night."
"Oh. I hope that's what happened too."
"Um, Pop," asked Jeffy, "Is it okay if I go over to great grampa's tomorrow morning and talk about stuff to do around his house?"
"Wait, I wanna go too! Please, Daniel?" asked Elliot.
"I guess. But you'll be on your bike ride cuz I'm goin' pretty early. Hey, just come on over on your bike when you're done with your ride."
"Thank you, Daniel."
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar