The next day didn't start too bad, I guess, but I really didn't know because I hadn’t seen much of the boy in the morning. Of course, being a young teen he slept in until ten. He moped downstairs and just stood by the kitchen table where I had been working on bills. His hair was a mess, but the pajamas were cute on him. He had socks on his feet, so they must have been cozy.
Now, I knew that he would probably sleep in, given that it was likely the first time in years that he could do so safely, not worrying about what he had to do next to take care of himself. So, knowing that, what made me be such a butt?
"I, uh," said AJ quietly, trying to get my attention.
I was being a butt. I had been ignoring him, on purpose. What made me think that he would automatically know what I expected of him?
"Well, look who's up? How did you sleep, young man?"
"Okay, I guess."
"That's it? Just okay? Were you warm enough?"
"Yeah. I got cold last night but I was used to that."
See, it should have clicked right then. I knew some of what this child had been through. In his former life his next step would have been scrounging for his breakfast someplace, was my guess. He was standing in front of me, cute as a bug, wiping the sleep from his eyes, sleep that was deprived of him before that day. It was also probably the first day in a very long time that he didn't have to do any scrounging in rotten, filthy dumpsters.
Of course, ignoring all of that, being the butt I was, I'd already had my cereal and put everything away hours before.
"And did you finally get warm again?"
"Well, yeah, kinda, I mean I did but it was like I was dreamin' or something."
"Maybe like being carried back to your bed?" I asked.
"Uh, yeah, sorta. How did you . . .? Oh," he said as his head dropped.
I should have been more patient, I guess. That child had feelings that he'd had to stuff for years. I was only helping him to continue to stuff them, as I look back on it now.
"Would you like some breakfast, now that you're up?" I guess I might have sounded a bit sarcastic.
"It's okay. I don't usually have anything, anyway," he said as he lowered his head and turned to walk away.
As he reached the hallway, I called to him, "AJ, please come back."
"It's okay, really," he said from the living room.
"Okay, then, I'm telling you to come back."
It took almost a minute for him to walk the twenty steps into the kitchen again.
"AJ, I offered you something to eat. Why don't you want to eat?"
I heard him mumble something.
"I'm sorry," I said with very little patience, "Could you say it a little louder?"
"I said it sounded like you were mad at me and that I was bothering you."
See? He told me straight on, but . . .
"Well, you did sleep in kind of late and I'd already put the stuff away, but we can get it out again. You need to eat something."
"Yeah, well, I was kinda havin' a weird night cause I was havin' a hard time getting to sleep and remembering where I was. I kept kinda waking up, scared until I saw where I was. But, I didn't know I had to get up at a certain time. You never said. I don't wanna make you any madder at me."
Bingo! I was an idiot. My whole persona took a turn, back on track, I hoped.
Quietly, patiently, I said, "AJ, I'm not mad. I don't know what I am; concerned?"
"You don't hafta be. I can take care of myself. I been doin' it . . ."
"Oh, AJ, that's the whole point," I tried to explain. "You shouldn't have to take care of yourself. Not yet. You need to just be a boy. Let me take care of you. That's what I'm supposed to do."
"But I didn't think you'd be mad when you did it."
"I'M NOT . . ." At least I stopped, but you should have seen the boy.
AJ took a step backward and looked shocked. Then a tear dropped down his cheek and I wanted to kick myself and hug him.
"I'm so sorry about that, AJ. I don't want you to feel threatened while you're here. Give me another chance, please?"
He just stood there. He looked several places, like he was trying to decide if there were other benefits enough to put up with me. I couldn't blame him.
"Look, why don't I get out a frying pan and make us some, what, French toast and bacon?"
He took some time to answer, like he was still adding up the advantages, I think.
"'Kay, I guess. Uh, what's French toast?"
"Oh, it's bread that's dipped in egg and then fried in the pan. Do you like eggs?"
"Yeah, I think. I never had any at breakfast, or bacon neither. I had it once in a bacon cheeseburger, though."
What a kid? Everything I offered him was something new. It must have turned his world upside-down and made his poor head swim.
"Let's give it a go. After we cook the French toast, we smother it in thick, sweet syrup." I tried to make it sound so rich and good. But I wasn't known for my acting ability and I hadn't made any points with the boy up to that point that might have convinced him of my sincerity.
He just stared at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I didn't get it.
"You've never . . .?"
"Well," I said, "Don't be sorry. I'm pretty sure you'll like it. Like I said, it's sweet."
"Did you like the milkshake yesterday?"
"Sure. It was really good."
"Then trust me about French toast, 'kay?"
More of a shrug than a nod.
Soon, I was setting the meal in front of him. He waited for me to sit and pick up my fork before he would start. Oh, I knew it wasn't as much about being polite as it was about not being sure what to make of it. I'm sure he was waiting for me to take the first bite.
I picked up a piece of bacon and chomped. He picked one up and nibbled the first, tiny bite. I think I heard a 'm-m-m' as the rest of it disappeared.
I squeezed out some syrup onto my French toast and cut into it. He put some syrup on one corner of the toast and sank his fork into it, tasting just the clear brown confection on his fork.
"Wow, that's good."
We both had two big pieces of toast, several rashers of bacon each and big glasses of milk.
"Did you have enough, big guy?"
"Uh huh. An' it was good."
"I'm glad, AJ. I like to think you're getting some good, new experiences."
"Yeah, that was a good 'sperience, alright."
"And, AJ, I apologize for being short with you."
So, we're sitting there, a big mess from our breakfast on the table and the counter.
"What do you think we should do next?"
"Huh? How should I know? It's your place."
"Well, I was thinking like maybe doing the dishes?"
"Uh, okay. What should I do then?"
I didn't know whether to scream or to laugh my head off. That kid had not a clue one as to what went on in a stable household. Of course, how could he have any idea? I also realized that I'd never heard him say 'thank you'. He had no inkling about etiquette or graciousness; not when his sole need was to survive.
"AJ, I'd like your help with cleaning up."
"Today and every day. Like I said last night, we both need to help each other by doing what we need to do."
"'Kay, but what do I do?"
"Well, again, like last night, let's get all this stuff by the sink, then we can rinse it and pack it into the dishwasher."
"Oh, wow. You got a dishwasher? I never seen one."
So, we worked at the dishes. AJ would stand around until I gave him the next chore. I tried to be patient and give him simple tasks, hoping he'd catch on at some time. He didn't.
"Thanks for your help, AJ. It makes it a lot easier and more fun doing it together, huh?"
"I guess," he answered.
The rest of the day was pretty quiet and laid back. I finished my work pretty quickly and then we walked around outside, covering almost every area of the two acres. AJ seemed to enjoy the time outside, without a care. I'm sure it was another first for him. I was kind of pleased about being able to offer him that. When it came time for lunch . . .
"Lunch? Uh, yeah, I guess. I forgot that I didn't hafta go find somethin'."
"Where would you go? To the mission?" I asked as we walked the last part of our tour.
"Naw, not usually. They're only open at night. The day you came was different. They told us the night before that they had more food and we're gonna feed people about noon; you know, twelve o'clock."
"But what about the other days?"
"Oh, well," he started to get quiet as we were walking back to the house. "Usually I wouldn't have anything. Sometimes if I took the chance, I'd find something behind the deli on Burton Street. They, uh, they don't lock their dumpster, see."
I was being constantly caught off guard by the boy's stories, by his description of what he'd gone through.
"Let's go get some tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches."
"'Kay. It sounds good, I guess. I like cheese."
The average family has twelve dinner meals that they constantly recycle. Some come and go, so I figured that it would be almost a month before AJ had tried all the new foods and combinations he'd never knew existed before.
I had to explain the ritual of the dipping a strip of toasted cheese sandwich into a hot mug of tomato soup, made with milk, of course.
"I'm too full to have more, but can we have it again?"
"Yeah, I really liked it a lot."
"Then you're welcome. Thank you for the compliment."
We were sitting in the kitchen again, sort of our common talking place, and I decided a lesson was in order.
"So, AJ, when someone gives you a compliment, you say, 'thank you'.
"Yeah, okay." He seemed kind of bored again.
"And when someone does something nice for you, you should also say, 'thank you'."
"'Kay. I know that stuff; sorta."
"Well, good. I just wanted you to know what to do, in case you hadn't had a chance to know that stuff before."
We then did the dishes. He was a little better. He wasn't much at conversation, and I was still giving him almost every direction as though he'd never done it before. Still, we did it together and I was pleased that he seemed somewhat satisfied with his new experiences, so far. He certainly seemed to like to eat. I caught myself trying to imagine what he must feel like, being full for the first time, too.
That night was pretty quiet, so was our sleep. I didn't find him anywhere but in his bed in the morning. I did watch him get into his bed but I didn't offer to tuck him in that time. I hoped that would come eventually. We both seemed to sleep all night.
In fact, the next few days went as smooth. I was somewhat pleased that the subject of his departing hadn't surfaced. I was doing my best at controlling my lack of patience. I even looked for books to read about raising kids.
We still had our tense times, though. He was still pretty rough around the edges and I was still pretty rough everywhere else. I realized that certain attributes that I'd used in the military weren't all that great to use on a little kid, like barking orders at him. I also needed to find the kid in me and be more fun so AJ could start to loosen up.
He had developed this habit of wandering. He'd just take off until I was nervous and was ready to go looking for him, only to have him walk in and say he just needed to think or something, or he lost track of the time. It drove me nuts with worry.
But there were other signs that he was beginning to relax some, too. Like the time that I had to get something out of my bedroom one night, after our dinner, and passed his room to get to mine. His door was open just a bit. He probably thought he'd closed the door but it never latched very well and I never fixed it because it was my daughter's room and we wanted to be able to hear her.
As I passed I heard someone talking in there, but it sounded nothing like AJ. It sounded like a little girl with a high voice, talking to someone.
"Do you like to dance? Okay, here you go. I'll help. Dance, dance, dance, and kick. Wow! You're pretty good. Suppose Pinky over there can dance as good as you, Red? Let's see."
I was captivated by the sounds I heard. I realized he was using his 'make believe' voice. I couldn't keep going to my room; I would have missed a few words. But I had to see, too. I just had to.
"Okay, Pinky, let's see if you're as good a dancer as Red. She dances just swell. Okay, come here, now. Don't worry, I've got you."
I moved around and carefully opened the door just a bit so I could see into the room. There he was, sitting on the floor with his feet under him, in front of my daughter's pink bench, with two of the dolls he'd gotten down from her play shelf. The red-headed doll was laying on the bench while he held the one in a pink dress. He was holding the doll by her arms and reaching down and trying to kick her legs out with the end of his fingers, making them dance on the bench.
"Oh, you're a bit stiff. Let me see if I can loosen up your legs and stuff."
There was the boy that was trying so hard to be a little man and yet he fell into childhood so easily. It pleased me to no end that he could be that free. The worst part for me was that I couldnR17;t dare bring it up to him. I would hate to quell that part of him.
"Oh, look how much that helped. Wow! You dance good, Pinky. La la la la la. See, Red? You're both great dancers when you have some help, huh?"
I know I was glowing as I walked to my bedroom and then back downstairs, quietly. I can't explain it, but the contrast between the boy I'd brought home and the boy I'd just left was like night and day. It was almost like I was proud to have been the one to provide him with the outlet, the safety, the sense of comfort, for him to be able to have that kind of fun. Oh, I know he wouldn't let me see that side of him very soon, but my hope was that he could feel good enough about himself to expose that little boy part of him to me at some point.
In the meantime, I needed to be sure I didn't do anything to tamper with that sensitive part of him. I really needed help with that, too.
There was one time though, I remember with some regret, but at the same time, I think it helped us to understand each other a tiny bit better.
It was one of those crisp, cold days and AJ wandered around outside for a while, then just disappeared. I realized I needed to get him back into school, or I should say, into school for the first time. He seemed to be bored with just hanging around the house and I couldn't blame him. He'd helped me when I asked and seemed to try to be a good helper if I explained patiently what I needed. I didn't realize how bad I was at explaining things to him, though. But he needed to apply himself and school was part of the answer, I was sure.
He'd disappeared on occasion, just roaming around, I suppose, but that day turned into night and I was plastered against the window, looking for any sign of him and worried to death. I have no idea what I was worried about. It didn't seem to register to me that he'd spent quite a bit of his life on the streets, if only going the few blocks to the mission to eat. I didn't stop to think about the confrontations he must have encountered to get that Jarod kid so ticked off at him, though that might not have been the hardest thing to realize, given AJ's record with me. And I should have thought that there was little to hurt him out here, in the country, except that if he did fall or something he couldn't contact me.
Frankly, I was getting steamed that he thought so little of me and any relationship that we might have been developing to take off like that, again.
"Sorry I'm so late," said the boy behind me, having come in the front door.
I turned and just stared at him for what must have seemed like an age to the boy in front of me. Finally, all my anxiety surfaced at once.
"I have never been so angry in my life!" I bellowed at the figure in front of me. It wasn't so much loud as it was strong and determined. "Hell, it's dark out. Where have you been?"
The boy seemed to shrink about two inches. His shoulders hunched as he backed up into the wall behind him. He was looking at me but just under the bangs that threatened to hide his face if he bent his head anymore.
I was livid . . . I was furious . . . I was totally, completely, thoroughly . . .
I took the distance between us in two steps. He shrank another two inches and I could no longer see his eyes. What I did see were the tracks of his tears on his cheeks. He had folded his arms in front of him and pulled the double fist he'd made into his chest. I could see him shake.
I reached out and held his arms in my firm grip, not hard, just no-nonsense. His gasp was clear enough.
That's when I pulled the boy into my chest and hugged the snot out of him.
"Son, you had me so worried. Don't you know what you do to me each time you get a hair up your butt and pull a stunt like that?"
"I, uh, I, uh. Huh uh. I thought you was gonna sock me or something, just now. I'm 'bout to wet both of us and you're practic'lly squeezin' it outta me."
I didn't let up though. It was like I needed him to know with more than just words what he meant to me, how much I needed him.
"God, AJ, you drive me absolutely nuts. I don't know how much more I can take of your crap like this. Can't we just learn to love each other and get along?"
There was silence in that room for about a full minute as I felt him begin to warm up. I could feel his muscles relax a bit too. Even his pounding heartbeat seemed to be slowing down to something more regular. I'm sure mine was still going great guns. Actually, I didn't know what all I felt. I hadn't felt like that since I'd lost my family . . . my other family.
"I think I'm not the one that's wettin' us," he finally said as softly as he had ever spoken.
"Huh, uh, huh?" I stammered. "What are you talking about?"
"Well, I'm gettin' soaked by the rainfall I think that's comin' outta your eyes," he whispered, almost apologetically.
"I, I'm wha . . . ?"
I finally got what he was saying and almost choked, trying to hold back the laughter. But I failed my attempts and had to let it pour out. It started deep inside and cascaded into the quiet room until the walls were bouncing it back at us.
I laughed until I couldn't anymore and until my legs began to get weak. I slowly started to sink to the floor where we stood and took him with me. When I was sitting on the floor this big lug of a kid was sitting in my lap and I know I heard a huge sigh come from him.
"You mean you ain't, uh, aren't mad at me, then?"
"Ha ha ha, oh, don't get the wrong idea, young man. Just because I'm laughing doesn't mean you're off the hook at all. It just means I can gain back some sanity now that I know you're alive and safe again. Ha ha ha."
"Oh, whew. Well, I'm not too certain about the sane part but I'm kinda glad you feel better, I guess. Not so upset maybe?" he asked, hopefully.
"Ha, oh man. I haven't laughed like that since Viv and I . . . well, a long time. But, rest assured, your ass is grounded until you're at least 45. Ha ha ha!"
I was getting uncomfortable with my legs under me and him on top of them, so I pushed him upright and then got up myself. I motioned to one of the kitchen chairs and he sat down. I got out two glasses and filled them with milk.
Mostly we just sat and let everything sink in. I asked him to be more aware of other’s feelings, like when I was waiting for him so long. He apologized once more and helped me serve up our meal.
"With your hands, with both hands, and keep your eye on the ball!" I was being a little loud again. Even given the fact that he was 20 feet from me.
We'd been tossing a football back and forth. I don't think that in the twenty minutes that we'd been playing catch that either one of us had actually caught the ball. He, because he had no clue as to how to do that and I, because the ball never quite got to me.
"It's like you're making it harder than it really is, AJ."
He just stood there looking at me, the ball at his feet.
"Well, if you decided to show me how instead o' yellin' some more, maybe I'd learn how ta do this stuff!" he screamed before he kicked the ball as hard as he could. He didn't stick around long enough to see that it was a perfect kick right to me. He just stomped off around the side of the tool shed, on the other side of the garage.
It had been early afternoon and he'd been gone for some time. The sky was beginning to darken and the colors of the day were fading away. I tried to keep busy tending to chores in the yard by the house, just to keep a watch. It may have been one reason why he hadn't come back.
Pretty soon, after I was ready to go get the truck and start looking for him, he walked up the driveway.
"AJ, I'm sorry," I said as he walked past me, toward the warmth of the house.
"Yeah, I know. Ya keep on sayin' that," he said without looking up.
It was not going well, and I was realizing that it wasn't because of AJ, but because of my attitude and impatience.
"I was getting pretty worried. You were gone a long time."
He'd reached the steps to the porch and stopped when he heard me. I saw his head shake just a bit, then he continued into the house without answering me.
I finally called him down to dinner, which was a silent affair that night, then he pushed his chair back and went up to his room without a word.
I certainly didn't stop him. His attitude was brought on by mine and I deserved the quiet treatment. I just needed to do something to nip it in the bud, before I lost someone that was beginning to grow on me.
"Dan, I need some advice," I said into the phone. It wasn't much after I'd cleaned up the dinner mess that I'd called him.
"Hey there, stranger. It's good to hear from you. How's everything going over there? You need help with a project or something?"
"Or something. I kind of took on a project that's kept me pretty busy. I need some help in pulling it off without hurting anyone in the process."
"Wow, sounds like something big. I can come over in the late morning tomorrow. I have to drive out that way anyway. Seems there's a runaway wandering around the neighborhood. I have two reports on him."
"Um, I think I can help you with that problem, then you can help me with mine."
"What? Ha! Well, I guess you can clue me in tomorrow. See you then."
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar