"But I don't get it," AJ said with disdain in his voice. After all, he'd really been working hard at his math assignment and he hadn't asked for any help until then . . . if that was his way of asking.
He slammed his pencil down next to his spiral notebook and plunked his head down onto the table, well, onto the spiral notebook.
"Ow!" he said, but his head stayed put.
I was pretty worried about him. Not for his lack of understanding of the assignment, but for his lack of understanding about his present situation. And it was only going to get worse if I didn't say anything profound. So, of course, I didn't.
"Do you think I could help you figure it out?"
"Why not," he answered, trying to push his math book across the kitchen table to where I was sitting. He still hadn't lifted his head. I was beginning to worry a little more, but not enough to put an end to this perfect moment.
"Okay, but wait right there, okay?" I asked, getting up and moving to the front room. That's where we kept the camera; in a credenza behind the sofa.
By the time I returned he'd lifted his head but there was still time. His hand moved to rub his forehead.
"Wait! Don't move. This is perfect," I admonished, causing him to scrunch up his nose at me.
"Hey! What was that for?" he said a little bit indignantly, and well deserved on my part, I might add.
"I just needed a record for when you bring home a date and I get the picture album out to show you off. I haven't got any baby pictures, you know."
"You're weird. Somethin's goin' on." Still the scrunch, but it didn't affect the picture.
"Okay, go look in the mirror if you must, then."
There was a small mirror over a table in the entry that he sauntered off to.
"HEY! You can't show that to anyone!"
"Uh-huh. I'm the dad and it's my duty."
When he came back he was trying to rub out the evidence. His head laying on his notebook had to have been uncomfortable, but he must have been too upset or too dramatic to move his forehead off of the metal spiral binding that held his notebook together. Consequently, he had a perfect row of backslashes that must have been a half inch wide and at least two, maybe three inches long, down the middle of his forehead.
He was so cute. My arm was so sore . . . but it was worth it. I still have that picture, by the way.
"You know, I think I saw a bear rug at Dan's house when we were over there last time."
"Yeah, ya mean that furry thing over by the fireplace? So?" he asked swinging his head back and forth, acknowledging my weirdness. He was sitting next to me as we prepared to go over his math lesson.
"Well, did you know that it's kind of a tradition to take a baby's picture lying on a bear rug to show how cute they are to the whole world?"
"I guess it's so they have a record of how cute the little rascal is in his birthday suit, you know, just once, pink skin and everything with his bare hiney sticking up."
"So, I did mention I had no baby pictures and I've got the camera out. We can go on over to Dan's right now and . . ."
He didn't even blink, well, after the look of total shock. He went running out the front door so fast I didn't think he'd ever come back. Kinda sounded like a siren, too, until the door closed behind him. You don't suppose he was running over to Dan's house ahead of me, do you? Naw!
Gawd, he was cute. But, one bare little pipsqueak picture down the drain.
I called the Patterson Agency the very next day. I quickly found out there was more name to the agency then there were lawyers. In fact, Ms. Hawthorne, his paralegal, was the only one there and Patterson was the only lawyer.
"Mr. Patterson is in Los Angeles this week. I'm afraid he won't be back until a week from next Monday. He has a business meeting in Las Vegas as well."
Her voice sounded kind of gruff, almost tough in a way. Not that she was upset or anything, just kind of butch, I guess.
"Well, maybe you can help me, Ms. Hawthorne," I said. "I want to be involved in helping Jeffy, um, Daniel Jeffrey Connors. I've heard a bit about what he's up against and I'm guessing it has little to do with his attempted shooting. But it sounds like there's a ton of other crap tacked on to that."
"Really? This is getting pretty intense. We were told there was no way he would walk but, well, can you tell me what you have?"
I spent the next fifteen minutes going over what I'd learned from the esteemed District Attorney and even went so far as to tell her what AJ had told me.
"Wait, slow down," she said a couple of times. "Damn! I should have been recording this. (I loved to listen to her. She had so much spunk.) Okay, go on."
And I did.
When I was done there was total silence. I thought we'd been cut off, until,
"Well, this does complicate things, doesn't it? You see, Donald Patterson, my boss . . . ?"
"Yes?" I answered.
"Well, he's not here to discuss the case but he's been pretty close-mouthed about it, even to me. Considering how important this case seems to be getting for a small county such as ours it's almost like he's ignoring it."
"But it's not right for your boss to just stand back and let Jeffy, um, the Connors boy swing, is it?"
"Of course not. And he won't. This is the biggest thing to happen here in years, maybe ever. He couldn't give up this case. It's not the money; it's the prestige. I'm sure that's what he's thinking. He's just not taking the time to figure out that the DA has something going on. It seems pretty clear to me."
"It doesn't sound like you have much respect for the DA and I'm not too sure about what you think of your boss right about now. And if I have anything to say about it and find out they had something to do with trying to railroad Jeffy, neither of them will come away from this fiasco smelling anything near to a rose."
"I want to help," said Ms. Hawthorne. "I've read up on this case, of course, and even though my boss hasn't let me start on this case officially, I've been picking up the evidence from the DA's office and I've learned a lot about the accused. He did the shooting but he's been through hell ever since his blood dad died a long time ago. He's been kicked around and when I saw who his new dad was, if you could call him that, I almost puked. And you want to know something else?"
"I want to know it all, Ms. Hawthorne," I said.
"Cybill, please call me Cybill. That man who married Jeffrey's mother has a record for doing whatever it takes to get what he wants. I know. Patterson has defended him a couple of times since I've been here."
"You have got to be kidding! How can they . . . How can he be involved with the stepdad if he . . ."
I was ringing wet from perspiring I was so heated up. I let out a big sigh and settled back in my seat.
"Now, sir, let's get busy. Do you want to come here or should I come out there?"
"Why don't you come over here and I'll buy you dinner. We'll have to work around a little pipsqueak when he gets home in a few hours, but he's pretty safe, I think."
"Sounds like you have a mean dog or something."
"Oh, well, I was just kidding like you were before. He's my boy and I love him to death. I just hope it doesn't come to that. And he's not all that mean."
"You're a kick, Sarge. I'll come out there. This will end up pretty messy before it's all over. It all sounds pretty fishy to me. I'm just hoping that Jeffrey doesn't suffer from it."
It was two hours before she arrived at the house. Cybill Hawthorne looked just as I'd pictured her in my mind. She was in a loose man's suit complete with tie. She was in her late twenties with strawberry blond hair cut less than page boy style giving her an even more masculine appearance, and she wore classic horn-rimmed glasses making her look more studious, if not more incongruous. She looked like she could handle herself if she needed to, also. She had one year to go before her boards, then she was going to go somewhere and prove her worth. I would soon find out that she had a lot of talent going for her, as far as her understanding and use of the law.
She brought a large box with her. It had a lot of files and discovery information in it, all to do with Jeffy's case and anything related. We spent the first hour just putting stuff into piles.
As we were working, I realized it was time to pick up my boy. I hadn't made arrangements so I took off to get him. I told Cybill that I'd be right back; I made sure she had a drink and was on my way.
The boy came skipping out of the school amidst dozens of his fellow students. Lots of the kids were slapping his shoulder, doing high fives and telling him they'd see him the next day, I suppose. It seemed that there were as many kids in the older grades talking with him as in his grade and younger.
"Dad, Dad," he called out when he saw me in the truck. He was pulling the arm of a big kid. That kid could have whipped his butt with one hand. "Dad, guess who this is?"
The poor kid just stood there, but AJ was not letting him get any farther away. His face turned bright red like he did not want to be there. He had his head down and I couldn't make out his features at all. I got out of the truck and walked around to the side they were on, though they were still up a couple of the steps before the sidewalk. I walked up to the base of the steps.
"I give up, son. Who have you hornswoggled over here?"
"Who'd I what? Anyway, this is Brad! Isn't that cool? Brad's a great guy. See?" he said, standing aside and indicating Brad like he was a new car just off of the show room floor.
"Well, Brad, I suppose you know that I know the story behind his excitement."
"Yes sir. I . . . I'm really sorry about all that happened. I sure am. I . . . uh, I . . ."
"Brad, say no more," I interrupted, trying to put the boy at ease. "You, my friend, have paid the price for what went down here with Stewart. That's past. But from what AJ's been telling me you have surpassed anything you've done before. You've made good friends with the boys and they are absolutely ecstatic about your change. For that, may I shake your hand, young man?"
"Um, uh, o-okay. I didn't do all that much though," he said, still unsure of what was happening but he did lift up his head and he did stretch out his hand slowly, like he was afraid he might not get it back.
I grabbed his hand and shook it good. I looked at him as he concentrated on our hands. After I shook it, he looked up with pride that was just flowing from every pore. It wasn't meant to be a gift to him but he did deserve it and that's how he took it.
"Gee, thanks, Sergeant McGill. AJ is one pushy brat and wouldn't let me or Devon, the other kid, get away with nothin' but being their friends. So, I guess we had no choice cuzza him." As he said that, I could see his confidence building and a smile come on his face. "He even made me buy Stew a dessert a coupla days ago."
He was grinning at AJ and AJ was looking up into nowhere and pursing his lips like he was whistling.
"Well, you've made quite an impression on the boys, Brad. Keep it up, now. Okay?"
"Oh, yessir. We were wrong and we both learned our lesson. We know better now. Stew's actually a pretty cool kid and he helped me with my algebra class. I'm gettin' closer to passin' than I ever did. I'm not gonna let nobody else hurt 'em now and neither is Devon."
For a minute there Brad stood a little taller with his chest pushed out just a bit more than before.
AJ smiled and turned to walk to the truck.
Brad waited until AJ had gotten into the pickup before he went on. He looked a little sad as he said, "Still, sometimes, it isn't easy, you know."
"Brad, you've got my ear if you ever need it."
He kind of shrugged and looked a little more down than he did. His shoulders slipped a little as he turned and said as he walked away, "Thanks, Sergeant, I may need to take you up on that."
"Brad," I said, making him turn my way, "If you are ever in any trouble, please let me know. It can be tough, but it doesn't have to be. Okay?"
He nodded to me, then smiled a bit and finally stood up to his height again as he walked away.
As we got into the truck, I asked AJ if he saw Devon walking around.
"Um, let's see," he said, straining to see over the crowd of kids as they hurried down the steps and away from school. "Oh, yeah. There he is, Dad. See him? He's a little shorter than Brad and has that cool big hair. See? Oh, he just high-fived Brad!"
I looked through the back window of the pickup and could just see their hands going up and slapping, then the crowd just parted like the Red Sea and there stood Brad with a black kid about his own age, but with a big afro haircut.
"AJ, he's . . ." I was overwhelmed that AJ didn't even acknowledge that the boy was . . .
"Yeah? He's cool, huh? You ever see that much hair on a kid? You'd think he'd fall over. He he he."
My son had not a clue that there was something else that stood out to probably everyone else in that school about Devon. I was so . . . I don't know. I was proud that it made no difference to him that Devon was black, but to the extent that he didn't even seem to recognize the difference. And Devon was definitely dark-skinned.
Some authorities theorize that there is likelihood that when the Native Americans stood on the shores of the Atlantic coast, maybe fishing or washing, they didn't see the three ships that carried Columbus and his crews because they had never seen such a thing before as a ship with sails coming from the Great Beyond.
So it was with AJ. I don't know if he had contact with anyone with a different colored skin before he came to that school, but if he did, it certainly didn't make a difference in his mind. Wow! What a lesson for us all.
Just then Brad knocked Devon in the shoulder and pointed to the truck and AJ, then he leaned over and said something to the boy. Devon looked over and waved to AJ who almost unscrewed his arm from his shoulder madly waving back at his friends.
"He saw us, Dad! Cool, huh?"
AJ smiled most of the way home. I loved the way he sat up straight in the seat, his hands on the dashboard, looking as eager as a beaver. In fact, I was watching him and forgot to tell him about our guest.
"Hey, we got a car in the driveway, Dad. What's that all about?"
"That, my boy, is the car owned by the person who is going to help us figure out how to get Jeffy out of his predicament."
We got in the house and I made introductions to Ms. Hawthorne who was immediately assaulted with the most important question on the little one's mind.
"You gonna let him go? Is he gonna hafta go to jail, cuz everyone says they'll . . . well, do nasty stuff to him in there?" he asked, looking back and forth between me and Cybill Hawthorne.
"Well, AJ, we're sure going to try. I think we have several things going for us that just might let us get this whole thing thrown out of court, get a couple of people in some really hot water and probably see me right out of a job." She laughed at her last phrase, but it was probably very true.
"I think the most he'll get is some major counseling, um, therapy, and then some community service around town. In fact, that's what we'll work toward, together, right?
"Wow, Dad, that's a whole lot better than him getting' ra. . . um, having to go to a big jail, huh?"
"Yes, son, and just so you know, we consider his being in an adult prison a death sentence to him too. It would not be good. We'll see that it doesn't happen, won't we, Cybill?"
"Yes, sir. I think with what we've uncovered here, I can say with some certainty that if he does serve time, it will not be in an adult prison."
"Well, that's a relief."
"Yes, in fact, I think I'm going to call our investigator and have his team look into a few things and people. There's no reason that, if Jeffrey is to get a fair and speedy trial, I can't start working on the case as his lawyer."
My eyes got a little big at that admission until she clarified herself.
"What I mean is, I do represent an attorney assigned to the Connors boy by the court of our county. That gives me the authority, while acting in my employer's best interests, to pursue the boy's freedom."
We'd had a torrential downpour a couple days before and the ground was finally just dry enough for us to be able to get outside, even if it was with our coats on. I was sitting on a lounge chair on the back deck enjoying a breathtaking view. It was still pretty cool out and the sun was just starting to go down. I was ready to call AJ in for supper but I was enchanted by his actions.
AJ was running around the yard chasing any little animal he could. He started after a bird that landed several yards in front of him, running hard until the bird flew too far away. Then he saw a squirrel near an old stump and started running after it. He reminded me of a young puppy just learning his vicious hunting skills in the dangerous outdoors and not really knowing what to do with them yet, far from his mommy dog's watchful eye.
I was having a ball because the ground was just wet enough that when AJ started to run or if he stopped suddenly he'd skid a little, almost losing his balance. Still, he'd run all out to try to get to whatever creature was out there. I'm not sure what he would have done had he caught up to one of them.
He took off after the squirrel, taking about three steps without moving, his feet slipped so bad. Then he ran that squirrel down a little shallow dip in the ground and up to the base of a tree. Of course, the squirrel scampered up the tree, but it climbed out on one of the largest limbs and just gave AJ hell for chasing him. It was jabbering away and AJ was bent over and slapping his knees, laughing as hard as I'd ever seen him.
Just then, he saw that same bird light on the ground in the direction he'd just come from, so he took off after it. Well, the slick ground finally caught up to him. He went down the few inches into the gently sloping culvert and came up it at full speed. But that bird had had enough of AJ's games evidently, and flew right at AJ. AJ panicked at this bullet flying toward him and his upper body ducked backward but, unfortunately, his feet kept going.
They flew up and he plunked down in the soft grass and mud. Even though he landed on his butt, his head went back and squashed into the mud, holding him there for an instant by its suction around his head.
I stood up and was going to run to his aid, but he sat up and I heard the most pathetic,
He turned around to push himself up and slipped some more. When he finally made it to his feet he swung both arms down hard to try to get some of the mud off. He was almost covered in wet, sloppy mud, the wettest kind. He started walking toward me.
"Well, up until then it looked like a lot of fun. Are you okay? Are you hurt?"
"No," he said with disgust in his voice, "Just wet and cold now. Yuck."
"Well, come on in and take a bath and get warmed up. You can even get in your jammies since we won't be going anywhere tonight." Not that we did very often on a school night.
When he came up to me I could see a major problem. He really was covered with mud and most of it was around his feet, his knees, and the back of his head. His butt was just soaked too. Okay, his whole body was a mess!
"Hmmm, wait a minute. You're not coming in like that. You'll have everything in the house covered in mud before you get to the bathroom."
"Huh? What am I gonna . . .?"
"Let's see, we could hose you down with the garden hose."
"Br-r-r-r-r! NO! Why can't I just be real careful?"
Isn't that called an oxymoron - AJ being careful?
"Not gonna happen. Tell you what, strip down and I'll go get you a robe so you'll stay warm, kind of, ‘til you get to your bath."
"What? Take off all my clothes outside. It's freezing and what if someone comes by?"
"No one is going to come around to the back of the house and you don't have to get totally naked. Just down to your undies and t-shirt, but we need to clean your feet."
I ran up to my room and got my terry cloth robe and an old towel for his feet. I hadn't got a robe for him yet, and I never used mine.
When I got back down to the back deck he had his sweatshirt off and he was just trying to shimmy out of his pants. He had to sit on the deck to get his shoes off with his pants around his ankles and I went to him and pulled on his pants legs. He finally stood up again and unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off. He wasn't wearing an undershirt. It looked like Spiderman had been in a losing mud fight too judging from AJ's rear end. He bent over to pick up all his clothes, something he wasn't prone to do without being asked.
"Hey there, guys! How's my favorite second family?"
AJ was aghast, of course. He stood straight up and all the clothes fell out of his arms. How was I to know that Dan would pick that instant to come around to the back of the house?
"We're good, just had a wee bit of an accident, chasing after a squirrel and a bird."
I handed AJ the robe and he pushed his arms through the sleeves and wrapped it around him, looking for the belt as he did. He had a little trouble getting the sleeves out of the way so he could tie himself in. And, of course, when he was secure in the huge covering, his look at me would cut glass. I shrugged. Like I said, how was I to know?
"I knocked but you probably didn't hear it because you were out here."
"We were just having some family fun. Well, I was having the fun while AJ slithered around in the mud, chasing the wildlife. Let's get your legs and feet wiped down, then you can run up to the bathroom. I started the water."
After AJ ran upstairs, tripping on the bathrobe; I turned to go into the house with Dan. He was smiling but it was not the kind of smile I'd call happy. It was more like an ‘I don't think you're going to want to hear this' smile. It was not my favorite look on my favorite friend. It was almost the same look he had when he and the police officer delivered the news about Jarod being my son. But I held together.
"So, my friend, to what do we owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit? Come in, come in."
I asked if he'd like coffee and he just stood inside the door shaking his head.
"Is AJ going to be up there for a while?" he asked. He took a cursory glance toward the hall, but of course, he couldn't see or hear anything.
"Yup. He's taking a hot bath. He'll be a while. Now, what's up?"
He held up a folder secured with a string wrapped around one of those little buttons. It looked very official.
"Just tell me, are you going to take him away from me?"
"Oh, no, no. Well, at least I'm not."
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar