I felt a chill, like something passed over me or, more likely, through me. It had to be a dream.
I was looking out at something, an open space like a meadow I suppose. It's hard to tell in dreams, mine anyway. Besides, the sun was setting and everything was looking very gray and fuzzy. Or maybe it was just dawn with a little fog covering everything. Like I said, it was hard to tell.
It seemed calm enough. There wasn't much going on and it was just light enough to see the shapes of flowers and bushes some ways off.
Suddenly a little figure went running, almost a waddle, in front me, close enough to tell it was a little boy but far enough away to not see any features, certainly not to recognize him. It took a while; he didn't run very fast. I was still looking in the direction that he disappeared when my peripheral vision caught movement to my left again.
Just as suddenly, but much faster, a young girl ran across the meadow. Again, she was too far to see real features. But then she stopped and looked around like she'd forgotten something. It looked like she gave out a laugh when she saw something near her feet. She stooped down to grab something, a flower I think, and then skipped joyfully off in the same direction as the little boy.
That same chill hit me again, but it was so different. It made me feel light, like another puff would have me floating several feet above the ground. I actually caught myself looking down at my bare feet, the part that my pajama pants didn't cover. Luckily I was still fixed to the ground, somewhat secure, I suppose.
When I looked up the whole scene was in the process of change. The sky was lighter, brighter and the fog had lifted. Things were definitely clearer. I could see the tip of the sun peeking over the distant horizon. The land in front of me was turning into a beautiful meadow and I so much wanted to wander around, let my feet feel the grass and experience the freedom before me. But it wasn't to be. As much as my mind wanted my feet to move, my muscles were having none of it. I was fixed to my spot.
Once again I saw movement to my left and this time it was another young boy, maybe about seven or eight. He wore the baggiest of clothes so it was hard to tell his age because he was still too far away. But he was definitely bent over and looking all around him like he was frightened of every little thing, jerking his head left and right. A bird took off yards off to his left and he almost had a heart attack it seemed. I couldn't imagine how anyone so young could be so fearful.
But the strangest thing happened as the sun continued to come up and he walked between me and the great fiery globe. It was only to his shoulders and barely a quarter of the way into a full sphere, but it was like it energized the boy. Not only energized him, but he seemed to grow. He certainly straightened up and it looked like those baggie clothes, still big on him, were a little bit better fit. Oh, they were definitely pajamas. They hung on his bare feet just like mine, the arms of the pajama tops hung down to his knuckles. I couldn't see his face for the glow of the sun, but I could tell there was a pride or something that made his walk brisker, light, like he had inherited my gift of weightlessness. The best part was there seemed to be no indication of the fear he'd showed so clearly before.
Near the far end of his destination was an old rickety fence. I hadn't even noticed it before. It was really just two uprights and several cross pieces, but the top one was just high enough for him to lean against as though he was enjoying watching the sun make its way toward its goal of brilliant light to take away the darkness from this part of the world for another day.
I hadn't heard the bird, nor any rustle or noise up until then, but I could swear I heard the boy sigh and take a deep breath. It was just what I wanted to do, so . . .
I rolled over and breathed a very contented breath of very fresh, almost cold air. I shivered, but it was nothing like during my dream. That time, I was cold.
In fact, I rolled onto my back and looked to see if the balcony doors had swung open during the night. It really wasn't warm enough at night to leave them open yet.
Sometime I'll have to take you on a tour of the house, like I took AJ that first day. But suffice it to say, for now, that the only balcony on the second floor was directly in front of my bed, on the far side of the room. Two French doors opened onto it that let in all the light we needed in the early morning when she and I should have been getting up instead of lying there for several more minutes. But that had been a time long past.
When I looked up, sure enough, those doors had somehow . . . Wait! That was a shadow, a shadow of a boy leaning against the balcony railing and he had on . . .
"AJ?" I asked softly. It was a wonderful picture that I would never think of disturbing.
I heard him mumble something. I swung my legs out of bed and trod over and stood behind him in the doorway. He must have sensed that I couldn't hear him.
"I said, we sure have had a ton of things happen in a short bunch o' time, huh?"
I moved to his side and laid my hand on his, on the railing. That wasn't good enough evidently, because he took my arm and draped it over his shoulders, then moved into my side, still holding onto my sleeve. Yes, things were changing.
"Yes, po-dunk, we sure have been through it all haven't we? Was it worth it?"
He turned then, to look up into my face. It was barely two-thirty so the sun had a long way to go until it was ready to wake up and present itself for the day. But the moon was out, and I could see AJ's smile and his tear-streaked cheeks.
"Wow. I don't want any more bad stuff to happen to anybody, but, so far, the good stuff sure has been really, really good, huh?"
"Really?" I asked as we both turned to look out into the dark night, feeling a wisp of cool evening air on our faces. "What was your favorite part?"
"M-m-m-m, that's easy." Then he pushed up against my side and kind of wiggled to get even closer. His hand grabbed mine and pulled it closer, tighter around his neck. "This part; I like this part the most of all."
"Can I sleep with you tonight?"
We could only stand the cold a few minutes longer, then we closed the doors and moved into the bedroom.
"Oh, I don't know. I don't think it would be a very good idea."
"Please? I never had a dad before that I could have a sleepover with, campin' like or nuthin' neither. I sure wasn't gonna do it with Mom. She'd have a fit. And we never went to bed at the same time anyway, almost ever. So, please?"
Persuasive little pipsqueak, wasn't he?
Still . . .
"I just don't know, AJ. I kinda swing around a lot in my sleep. You even saw when I kicked off my covers that time you heard me talking in my sleep. Remember?"
"But you'll be so close to me and I had kinda a weird dream. I keep thinkin' about it."
"A weird dream?"
"Yeah, it was weird. It was like I was standing in this big outside place, grass all around. But I couldn't move my feet. The sun wasn't coming up yet so . . ."
"Okay, come on."
"AJ! You have to simmer down and sleep. You have school and I have, well, nothing, but we need sleep."
"I know but isn't this great? It's like campin', huh? I never been but I thought about it now that I know I have you with me. It wasn't too fun the times I didn't have a choice and couldn't go back to home. No, this is so different, huh?"
"I suppose but I need to pull out your batteries or something. Quit'cher fidgeting! Haha."
"Yeah, yeah, okay. Wow!"
But he wouldn't simmer down, so I put both hands on the crown of his head and pushed him down as far as I could under the covers. He was laughing so hard he had no control over what I was doing to him. Soon, his pajama top had worked its way up and was trapping his arms over his head.
"Hey! I can't see or move like this!" At least I think that's what he said. His voice was pretty muffled under the covers and with the shirt up around his head. His feet, if they were still straight, must have been poking through the foot of the bed.
I removed my hands from the equation and watched as he tried to turn over onto his stomach and crawl back up. But his hands were still caught above him and I was guessing that he had little traction with his feet. Soon enough his arms came down and he started to scoot up on his elbows until . . .
He eyes, amidst his laughing, got bigger and his mouth went open in surprise.
His head disappeared under the covers and I could feel one hand slide down between him and me and I saw his hind end raise the covers of the bed. Then I felt his hands come back up along with several grunts as he stretched out. He was obviously pulling up his pajama pants that were caught between him and the bed and had refused to go with him when he was trying to climb back up until he reached down and pulled them up.
I didn't think I'd ever stop laughing.
"Uh, Uh, hey, what's the big idea?" he asked me right into my face.
"Didn't I tell you about the new way of tucking you in? Do you like it?"
"Nuh-uh! It isn't . . . is it?" he asked with wonder in his eyes.
Gawd, I loved him so much.
I finally stopped laughing and all that activity exhausted my wiggle worm. Soon we were fast asleep.
I didn't think I was dreaming, but the coolness I'd felt before was back. Well, at least the furnace I had been attached to wasn't heating me like before. In fact, I thought, as I reached beside me, he wasn't there at all. The sheets were cool so it had been awhile.
The sun was up and I saw that the alarm would go off any minute so I shut it off first.
I immediately looked at the balcony doors but they were closed.
I walked toward the bathroom, but kept going to his room where I found the bundle in a fetal position, sleeping soundly. It was a very good sign as far as I was concerned.
At breakfast, he admitted, "Man, you really do swing your stuff around a lot. I got beat up until I went to my own bed. Wow! I like that sound, huh? My own bed."
"Yeah, in your pink and purple room. OUCH!
"Okay, partner, two things: I need to ask Stewart's mom to bring you home this afternoon. We have an appointment here with the lady that's going to let me foster you. We want to show her the house and find out all we need to know to make this go as smoothly as possible. Are you still up for it?"
"You're kidding? It's all I can think about anymore. I can't wait."
I went over and kissed the top of his head. "Well, it won't happen overnight. These things take time. But I think we have one of the best people helping us."
"What was the other thing you wanted me to do, Dad?"
"Oh, that. I need you to help me show her all the bruises you've put on my arm and chest for no good reason. OUCH! Hey! Like that one, you pipsqueak."
Linda Sue Cottington was one of the nicest, sweetest people I've ever known. She reminded me so much of her sister, Mrs. Spear, AJ's wonderful sixth-grade teacher. In fact, the only thing I could say that might have detracted from my great impression of Ms. Cottington was that she worked for 'them.' The Children's Services Department of our county was pretty much the same as almost anywhere in the country. A horrible array of incompetents manifested by the children they turned out who were literally stunted by the neglect, confusion, and abuse that was thrust upon them.
And, it was one of the first topics that came up, one she had no trouble defending herself through.
We sat in the 'meeting room', that is, the dining room. I saved the kitchen table for my discussions and homework with AJ. I served tea, her preference, and a plate of cookies which went untouched until the cookie monster got home later.
"I'm so pleased to finally meet you, Sergeant McGill. Emily has told me so much about you and AJ that I feel like we're old friends, if I may be so bold."
"Um, no that's great! I didn't know we had such a following. I can't imagine what she told you that would have made us seem so likable."
"Well, let's see, there's the way you saved him, the way he practically saved you, considering all you've been through, then both of you and another family being heroes to bullying and even helping out the bullies to prevent them getting lost in the system. You're proving to be quite the super twosome."
"Well, um, I don't know what to say. When there's a need, are we heroes when we do what's right and just? Are we heroes when we make life as it should be for those around us? I'm no hero, Ms. Cottington, though I would never say that AJ isn't. In fact, sometimes I feel a little guilty because of all I've been given in my son, well, foster son."
"And that subject is exactly why I'm here today. Let's discuss what needs to be done to make this arrangement as legal and secure for the two of you as possible. But first, may I see your home, Sergeant? What I've seen of it so far is just lovely."
"Yes, you may, on the condition you call me Tim."
"That's wonderful, Tim. I'm Linda Sue. Good ole southern name."
"Linda Sue, I have to ask why you've taken up with the likes of the people at Children Services. Isn't it kind of a rare thing to hear about someone as competent as you seem to me, working for them?"
"Tim, if I may be so bold, there is something wrong with a system that places more importance on the employees 'getting it right' than on the welfare of their children. They are called on and hired to protect their wards, not their jobs. Yes, there have been instances where they thought they were doing what their policies indicated and they were wrong. It only proved to make them reluctant to do anything that would look bad for them. And some of the policies in force when I first came were, well, not of the highest standard, I assure you. My story," she said, with a deep sigh, "Is but one example of the incompetence I uncovered during a very trying time for me. I was totally beside myself for their lack of wanting to get involved.
"When I was ready to join the working force again, I made the department my career aim. I am dedicated to their building and recommitment to the good of the children in our care. We're not there yet but our department is one of the best in the state, if not the country."
"Wow! That's quite an achievement, Linda Sue. I don't want to bring up bad memories, but may I ask what your story is or was at the time?"
"Oh, it's okay, Tim. It's been a long time. My husband and I were married quite young and after only three years of college and saving for a home, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Not long after, we found out we were pregnant with our first child. It was three days after the birth of our son that Jeremy died. At least he got to see his son for a few hours until he went into a coma for the last time.
"It had only been three years after my Jeremy's death when I was driving home from a baby shower for a friend with little Tyler, my son, in the car seat in the back, when I was forced off the road and a man and a woman forced themselves into the car, pulled me out onto the ground and drove away."
"Oh my God!" I said, "But your boy was . . ."
"Yes, he was," she said through new tears. "It was the last time I ever saw him. He'd be 18 . . . oh my, in two months." She stared at the coffee mug in front of her and I gave her time to recover, if that was possible.
My hand went to lay on hers as I said, "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to butt in. I only . . ."
She slowly lifted her head and shook it gently, a half-smile forming on her sweet face. Just then, for some reason, she reminded me of another mother that had been very important to me.
"It's okay, Tim, really. It's been a long time; I even stayed in the same house all these years so if he did . . . and, I have to admit, there are times when I'll hear something and look to the door, expecting it to open and a little, well, not so little anymore, Tyler come running . . ." She sighed deeply and then sat up a little higher in her chair to continue. "But it's been my goal to protect the ones I can now, the ones that were thrown away or just need some help within their family to bring them back together. I'm proud to say there isn't anyone in our department that doesn't share those goals, those needs."
Then just as suddenly as that grey cloud had covered our conversation, it disappeared and the sparkle returned to her eyes.
"So, please, Tim, I'd love to see the rest of this adorable house. It's almost right off of a Thomas Kinkade canvas, isn't it?
"Yes, and that's exactly what my wife hoped for when she saw it. She did a magnificent job, didn't she? However, it may be just a little too girlie, as AJ calls it, for the likes of the men of this family now. But come on, the tour begins now.
And it went like this:
As you enter the house from a small stone porch, you are in the front hallway. To the left is a coat closet. In front is a large doorway to the living room. To the right is the stairway to the upstairs. At the foot of the stairs, just off the side, is a small antique table with a mirror hanging on the wall above it.
The living room takes up most of the right side of the house with a nice kitchen and breakfast nook to the left and a small dining room almost in front. Farther to the left, beyond the kitchen is a laundry room and pantry. There is one little room off the living room that I used as a den. I used it as an office before AJ arrived but I pretty much do most of my paperwork at the dining room table when AJ does his homework. There is also a door to the backyard at the back of the kitchen.
Upstairs was a pretty big bathroom on the right as you came up the stairs, then the master bedroom, though it has no bathroom, yet. On the left side, there are two bedrooms and a linen closet.
There are decks from my bedroom, a small one, and one that runs the length of the back of the first floor of the house, accessed by the kitchen door and French doors at the back of the living room.
End of tour. Twenty-five cents, please!
When we arrived at AJ's room, I simply stood aside and waved my arm toward it, giving her permission to go in.
"And this is AJ's room," I stated.
"Oh, my! How, uh, charming? Um . . ."
She stared at the pink and purple walls and the display of dolls on the two shelves over the dollhouse and bench that had been my daughter's. I didn't even think until later that it hadn't bothered me the way it did when I introduced AJ to the room so few weeks before. But a lot of water had raced under that proverbial bridge since then. Now it was just AJ's room.
"Oh! I keep forgetting. Ha! This was my daughter's room. We haven't had time to paint and rearrange things. I need to give him a new bigger bed. You should have seen his expression the first time he stepped in and saw a crib in here. It was priceless, for sure."
"I can imagine. And he doesn't mind really?"
"Oh, I wouldn't go that far but you must have read his assignment for school. He laughed in it about his wall color. But I think he's come to be pretty proud of his own room. I have no idea what he might have had before. And I do have one story to tell if you promise not to tell him I know."
I then told of the time I heard him playing there, soon after he'd arrived. He was letting two dolls dance on the bench with his help and support. I remarked how pure and innocent it was to see and hear that side of him come out uninhibited. To me, it was like an expression of his new found freedom.
"But, of course, I would never tell him that I saw him in such a compromising situation."
"No, I don't imagine that would go over well," Linda Sue chuckled. "I can't wait to meet him in person, Tim. I was at the school board meeting you know. But I had to leave early. You must have been so proud of him and his little friend as they stood in front of the school board and spoke with such maturity."
"Well, thank you; I am proud of him all the time, it seems. He should be on his way home by now. He's getting a ride from his hero partner, Stewart Curtain, and his mom."
"Ah, then let's hurry through the paperwork as much as we can so we can enjoy him as it should be."
I really liked her. She wasn't anything like I'd imagined the stereotypical caseworker for the county would be. But I was also learning from the experiences we'd been through and with her help, to let go of my biases, too.
We'd been working at the mound of paper for some time when she spoke up.
"Now, one thing we need to get out of the way is an investigation to determine if there are any living relatives out there somewhere. In this case, it seems superfluous but it's the law, you know. Then, generally I'd have to make you wait to be instructed as to being a foster parent; however, I won't stand in the way of you and AJ being together continually. It will also be necessary for you to go through some instruction if you plan on adoption. You do, don't you?"
"Oh, you know it. Some days it's all I can think about. I can't wait." My mind drifted for a minute, as usual, when I thought of what it would be like.
"Well, I wouldn't get your hopes up for a short timeline. Even with your history with AJ and bypassing some of the requirements, it could still be well on a year before papers are actually signed, but he will be yours until then and you will be his too."
I was choking up again, as I always did when I thought about AJ being my little pipsqueak for good.
"Dad, what are you cryin' for?"
I don't know why we didn't hear the boy come in, but there he was, looking around my shoulder as a few of my tears dropped to the table.
I grabbed him up and pulled him into my lap. He tried, amidst his squealing, to be serious until I answered him.
"Okay, young one, first of all, say hello to our guest, Ms. Cottington. I told you to expect her, right?"
"Yeah, but you didn't say she'd come and make you cry."
Linda Sue stood up from her chair and stretched her arm toward AJ to shake his hand. "I'm pleased to finally meet you, AJ."
"I'm pleased to meet you too, ma'am." Then he looked at me, as he often did at first, to see if he'd done it correctly. I beamed so, of course, he beamed too.
"AJ, we had just been talking about me legally fostering you and then what it would take to adopt you."
He gasped in shock, like the impossibility had made me cry.
"No, no, son, it's all good. I just get choked up when I . . . when I . . . (Pause, deep sigh) . . . when I think I have to put up with you my whole life."
"NUH-UH!" he said, folding his arms across his chest and turning to one side, though still on my lap.
"Timothy McGill! Shame on you!" laughed Linda Sue.
"What? You don't know him yet. Why there is no way I could last with him as my son for less than, say . . . about a thousand years. No way!"
"What? You couldn't . . . Oh. You sure are weird sometimes; you know that? Weird, weird, weird. Huh, Ms. Cottington?"
"Weird, AJ. Do you think I may need to protect you from his weirdness? What if it's catching? I don't know about this," she said as serious as she could get while holding back the laughter with her hand to her mouth.
But that boy didn't skip a beat. "Oh, I suppose I can manage him most of the time," he said, hands on his skinny hips and a stern look flung at me while still on my lap.
I wiped my brow in mock relief and added a "Whew!" for good measure.
"But can I have your phone number just in case I have to give him up?"
"Huh?" I shouted and tickled him off my lap, the chair and onto the floor amidst his non-stop giggling.
"So, how was your day, my son?"
"M-m-m, I like that, when you call me son," he said, getting into the chair next to me. "It was okay. Mrs. Spear gave us a spelling test, but I don't think I did so good. It was too hard for me. Oh, but guess what? Stewart and I had lunch with Brad and Devon! Isn't that neat?"
"Brad and Devon?" asked Linda Sue.
"Yeah, they're the two guys that made Stewart wet . . ., made Stewart have his accident that time. And, guess what, Dad?" he said, pulling on my sleeve. "Brad bought a dessert for Stewart and everything. It was so great."
"Oh, my. That's so wonderful that you two boys are not only so forgiving, but you're willing to help the boys get through this important time in all of your lives. It must have felt really good to see the results of that today, AJ," said Ms. Cottington. "So, tell me, do you like your teacher, Mrs. Spear?"
"Oh, yeah. What's not to like? She's really good with me about stuff like the spelling test and she doesn't make me feel dumb or nothin', um, anything. In fact, I'm s'posed ta talk to her tomorrow about it. She'll prob'ly get someone to help me with my spelling. She's always doin' stuff like that ta help me out. She's pretty cool."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that."
"See, AJ, Ms. Cottington is your teacher's sister."
"O-o-oh! Really? Neat!"
Soon, AJ and I were waving to Linda Sue Cottington as she drove out of our driveway. It had been a pretty painless meeting for me, though I was sorry I'd asked about her past.
"Well, bud, what say we get in the car and go order us a pizza from the place on Sparks Street. Do you know the one I mean?"
"Nope, but if you like it, I'll like it too. And I get to be with you, huh?"
"Yup. And conveniently enough, I get to be with you too. Neat, huh?"
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar