"Wait, Dan," said Linda Sue, stopping Dan as he was about to reveal the identity of Boy's relative.
"Do you think it's fitting that we just drop this on the boy like this? I mean, this has to be traumatic to him."
We looked over at Boy whose curious eyes darted back and forth between Linda Sue, Dan and I. It was a look that lacked too much comprehension. He looked as though he was still trying to figure out what it was Dan was going to reveal.
"I suppose you're right, though I don't think it will mean anything to him until he hears what I have to say."
"Well, would you please get to it?" I asked, anxiously.
"Is it alright with you if I proceed, Linda Sue?"
"We-ell, would you please at least explain to Boy what was done and how they came up with this information. Somehow, I just think it would make it better for him to be more of a part of it."
"Sure. No problem," answered Dan. He turned to Boy. "Boy, do you remember us talking about the scratches that Melvin gave you when, well, on that day?"
Boy lowered his head. "Yes, sir."
"Okay, look up at me, Boy. It's all okay and it's all behind us and all forgiven, right?" Dan asked.
"I suppose so. It's just really hard to think you can be so nice about it."
"We took the tissue from your skin that was under Melvin's fingernails and had it analyzed in a special way. You looked up the information about what they looked for, called DNA."
"Yes, but I don't really understand enough about it, except that it tells those looking for the genetic makeup of the person tested and the information can even be used to identify that person to a very high probability based on the data stored by the government. Is that right?"
"Um, yes, I suppose that's, um, pretty much right," said Dan with an amazed look on his face.
Looking at AJ and Linda Sue, I saw almost the same look.
"AJ, do you understand what all that means?" I asked him.
"Nu-uh. I mean, kinda but only some. Does it mean you take a sample of that person and then they can tell who it belongs to?"
"Exactly. Simply put, but yes. They can even go a step or two farther and tell who the parents are and siblings if there are any. Keep in mind, the information has to be in storage at one of the databases in the country."
"Yeah, but what's so special about it? Why don't they just ask someone who they are?"
"Because, in Boy's case, we don't know who to ask. Even Boy doesn't know. Besides, this test will prove who he is and only who he is out of millions of possibilities."
"A million?" asked AJ in awe.
"No, millions. No one will have exactly the same DNA as Boy or you, for that matter."
"So, Boy," Dan went on to say, "I have here the results of the testing that was done on your samples. Actually, we got fresh samples so we're even more positive of the match."
"So, Linda Sue, do you think it's alright if I proceed now?" asked Dan with a smile.
We waited for her answer. She looked over at Boy, then Dan. She looked pale, like this was the last thing in the world she wanted to hear. I could tell that she was hoping against all hope that a miracle would occur. It was clear to me that Boy was someone very special to her. I could also relate to the sinking feeling that both AJ and I had recently felt about the possibility of being split up.
She slowly nodded her head.
Dan cleared his voice to tell us . . .
"Tyler, I'd like to introduce you to your mom," Dan said, holding his hand out to Linda Sue.
The evidence in his hand was daylight clear, he explained. There was no doubt that half of Tyler's DNA matched that of his mother, Linda Sue. It was a classic example of the way a perfect match should have worked.
As we looked at Linda Sue she was turning even paler and began to slip to the floor, her eyes rolling to the back of her head."
"Dad! Quick!" called out AJ.
Dan and I both grabbed for her. When she was securely in Dan's arms, I got the chair by the wall and scooted it under her. Then I turned to see Tyler, her long-lost son, slipping to his bare feet on the cold tile floor.
I moved out of his way as he knelt in front of Linda Sue. Even though the pain he was in was evident, he laid his head in her lap and her hands immediately began to stroke his long locks of hair.
When he finally looked up at her to see her tear stained face he said, "I thought I recognized you. I knew there was a woman that I should know when I met Luanna Ma'am, and then it kind of hit me again when I met Nurse Flora. But when you came into the room a few days ago, my heart wanted to jump out of my chest at you. But I didn't know what it meant then. You are the kindest, most gentle person I have ever met."
Linda Sue smiled and sobbed. She was in no condition to say a word right then. As we gathered around her, speaking comforting, congratulatory words, the door opened and in walked Nurse Flora with Dr. Strauss close behind.
"Well, it looks like someone found out the good news. Are you pleased, Mrs. Cottington, mother of... .?" He paused and looked at us, kind of lost.
"Tyler," I said.
"Yes, are you pleased, mother of Tyler Cottington?" asked the smiling doctor.
Linda Sue looked up at the doctor, her wet face still glowing with her soft smile and opened her mouth to answer him. But instead of words, she began to cry again.
Tyler began to look worried. He looked up at me then the doctor.
"Oh, she's just fine, Tyler," I said, patting his shoulder. "You've made her the happiest she's been since you were born so very long ago."
"Oh my," came a weak voice from the chair in front of her son. "He'll be nineteen in less than a month."
"Well, let me tell you all, I plan to make this the biggest birthday party this county has ever seen," said Dan, beaming proudly.
"Party?" asked Tyler.
"Young man, we'll try to explain party after you get back into your bed. We want you to heal properly and getting a cold is not the way to do that." Nurse Flora was firm but her smile gave away her love for the boy.
"A party? A social gathering of invited guests, typically involving eating, drinking, and entertainment?"
All of us except AJ and Tyler were chuckling at his recitation. AJ hopped off the bed long enough for the nurse and him to tuck Tyler back in.
"Dad, a party, like presents and cake and stuff?"
I clicked on the fact that AJ had almost no concept of a birthday party either. I walked up to him to explain, lifting him back up onto the bed. But I didn't let go.
"Son, if it all goes well, and I'm sure it will be dynamite, then we can use it to decide what we want to do for your birthday which will be later in the year. How's that sound?"
"Wo-ow!" he said in his awe-filled way that I couldn't get enough of.
Dan walked up to Tyler who still looked plenty confused. Like I said, it was a look we were getting used to.
"Boy, I mean Tyler, you will learn many new things about how rich life should be. We'll all try to help your mom with that. But one of the first things for you to find out is that birthdays, remembering the day you were born, are a reason to invite all your friends and family together to help you celebrate it. And this couldn't be a bigger, better, happier time for you, your mother and all of your friends."
Tears started to stream down Tyler's pale face. His eyes reddened and his cheeks blushed. Linda Sue was able to stand and walk to his side, placing her hands on his in his lap.
"I, I have friends and now, I have family?"
His mother slowly nodded her head then clutched the boy's head to her breast as they both sobbed and sobbed.
Dr. Strauss whispered, "I think it's about time for us to leave this reunited family to themselves for a bit. But first, that boy is going to be in a great deal of pain if we don't pry them apart."
We really laughed at that one, getting the attention of both Linda Sue and Tyler who looked our way.
"Good. Then we're going to leave you two for a while. I think you have some things to talk about. Am I right?" asked Dr. Strauss.
Linda Sue nodded but Tyler just looked at her curiously. This couldn't have been more different for him coming from the environment he'd endured for almost seventeen years.
While we gave Linda Sue and Tyler some space, Dan went back to his office for an hour or so. AJ and I went to get drinks from the cafeteria, then took them back to the waiting room when AJ started in on his questions.
"So, Dad, what does that all mean? I mean, what happened to Boy, oh, Tyler at the start?"
"Okay, the way I heard the story, Linda Sue was coming home from a party, with baby Tyler in the back, when someone drove them off the road, forced her out of the car and took off in the car with the baby still in the back. That's the last she'd ever seen of him."
"Oh," was all he said. He looked at the drink cup in his hand.
"How does that make you feel?" I asked.
He slowly looked up at me with a questioning look.
"It seems like I've seen that in a movie or something a long time ago. But it also makes me feel pretty lucky."
"Lucky? How? You've been through a lot growing up. It wasn't the nicest life, until we met anyway."
That got a warm smile.
"I just meant that I didn't really get beat up or anything like Boy, I mean, Tyler did. It sounds like he got hurt a lot for doing practically nothing wrong. It doesn't sound like he got any love or hugs or friends." By that time he had tears in his eyes. He had such a loving, caring soul.
"But you know that in some ways you're just like him, don't you? I mean, we don't really know that for sure but, since we don't know who you were before you became Andrew James Vitale, you could easily have been one of the babies that was taken from his mom."
"Yeah, I haven't thought much about that until today when we did that test thing in my mouth. That's pretty scary."
"I know. We just need to pray that we'll be taken care of. I don't mean I want to see anything happen to your real, your blood family. I just don't want to lose you as my son."
He set his drink down on an end table and scooted into me, taking my arm and wrapping it around him.
"I don't either. I've been the happ . . . Hm-m," started AJ.
"What? What were you going to say?"
"I was going to say that I've been the happiest since I met you but it's not true," he said as seriously as he can get sometimes.
"Huh? You mean you aren't happy all the time now?"
"That's not it. It's just that I can't remember a time when I was happy before I met you."
He looked up at me and smiled.
"Ah-h-h, I get it now," I said.
"That doesn't count the first week or so when we didn't get along so well, though. 'Member?"
"Oh my gosh, do I ever. I'm sure sorry about that. Meeting Dan and talking to him sure helped a lot."
"Yeah. I'll say it did."
He snuggled into me even more and I squeezed a bit too.
"Deputy Dan Perkins, speaking. How may I help you?"
"Dan? That you, boy?" asked the caller.
"Jeb Harding? Yes, it's me. What can I do for you?"
"I've got kind of a strange thing going on. I didn't know if it was really so strange as much as tragic. Let me back up. I got a call about my daughter committing suicide over in the Midwest where she moved after she got hitched to some . . . Well, the marriage didn't last too long. But I also found out that she had a daughter, my granddaughter, and she was killed as well."
"Good grief, Jeb. I'm so sorry for your loss, losses, actually. Is there anything I can do?"
"Well, that's just it. The story gets worse actually. See my granddaughter had a baby and it was taken when she was murdered. Now, I know you've mentioned the investigations you've been doing and . . ."
"Wait a minute! Excuse me for interrupting, Jeb, but could you hold while I get some of the reports we've been working on?"
"Oh um, sure. Whatever you need to do."
"Okay, I'm back. Something clicked in my memory and I had to follow up on it. Could you tell me the state in the Midwest where your daughter and granddaughter lived?"
Jeb told him the state, which of course, was the state in which one of the alleged abductors was caught.
"Jeb, I think we need to talk in some depth about that. Is it possible that you have anything that might provide us with the identity of the baby? Like maybe a footprint on the baby's birth certificate or a lock of hair?"
"Well, I have pictures. To tell you the truth, I have a whole box of my daughter's that was sent to me. I haven't been through all of it. I just saw some of the photos."
"Well, once again, Jeb, I'm so sorry that it happened. Tell you what, the weekend is upon us. Would it be okay if I came over tomorrow? I could take the boys to Tim's to run off some energy and walk over from there? How's that sound?"
"Fine, fine. Sounds great. You could even ask Tim to come if you wanted. I've been counting on him more than he realizes, I think. I've told him several things that are of some importance to me. And nothing is more important right now than finding that baby."
"Yes, sir. I understand completely. I'll see you tomorrow then."
After an hour or so, Linda Sue came out of Tyler's hospital room and looked around until she saw AJ and me.
"Oh, guys, thank you for sticking around. I can't believe the miracle that just happened. In a way, I want him all to myself, but then again, I want to share with him every good thing there is and you two are certainly in that category."
AJ sat up smiling as bright as ever at the compliment. He certainly was a great gift to all of us.
"Thank you, Linda Sue," I said. "It's almost as though he was becoming family and now we're all one family, happily ever after, I hope."
"Yes, I feel the same way. Well, Tim, could you get Tyler and I some cold drinks? It's so stuffy in there and almost muggy after all the bawling we've done in the last hour. You should get something too. Then will you both come back in and join us? Tyler wants you two and Dan to be a part of some of this too. He may have questions for you. I never know what he'll come up with next. It's all so very interesting - wonderful and interesting." She gleamed, she shone, she glowed as only a new mother could have.
"We'll hurry. AJ, with me or stay here?"
"Um, you! She made me want to be with you all the more." He smiled too.
"That's so sweet, AJ. You certainly love your dad, don't you?"
"Yes, ma'am. He's the best." And off he walked just as proudly as a prince.
I think one of the best things I liked about AJ was that his pride was in who he knew or what he'd done to make something better for someone. He always had a lot to do with that event or person, but it was never like it was about him. It was always about what they took out of it; how it helped them or made the other person feel special. And right then, hearing what he'd just said, I was feeling pretty special.
A quick run to the cafeteria netted us four large drinks. AJ and I debated what to get Tyler. We decided that this was probably a first for him, in a long line of firsts. Of course, AJ insisted on root beer, but I didn't think that was the place to start. I suggested we all have lemonade, something that was easy to find after his hospital stay and maybe just a tad more natural.
When we got back to the room we knocked and the door swung open. The drape was around the bed and we heard voices as Linda Sue's arm disappeared behind the screen.
"Now, honey, we just want to change some of those dressings. We have to lower your coverings, baring all. Is it okay for your mom to stay in here with us?"
"Why do you ask? If she's my mom I guess I'm hers too so she can see all of me if she wants. I have nothing to hide from someone that's family, like a mom."
AJ giggled into his mouth. He wasn't ashamed to run around in the buff, at least from the bath sometimes, but to hear it from someone else must have been funny.
What was interesting to me was the fact that Tyler hadn't said the word 'love' yet. He'd heard it from us, I'm sure, but I imagined it may take a while for it to sink in; for him to really understand its significance, though it may happen quicker after the day's revelation.
Soon enough the curtain was pulled back and three smiling faces emerged, two on their feet and one still in the bed.
"Oh, my friend AJ, you and your dad are still here. It's a very good day, isn't it?"
AJ was absolutely beaming. I didn't know if it was because Tyler talked to him first, like old friends, or if he was so happy that Tyler spoke up without being prompted. Maybe it was both and the fact that Tyler sounded the happiest he'd been up to then.
"It is a very good day, Tyler. You have your mom back to love and I have my dad to love. Do you know the word adopt?"
Tyler did the look he does when he reaches into his bag of tricks, or knowledge and comes up with: "Adopt: Legally take another's child and bring it up as one's own."
"Yeah! Well, Dad's gonna do that to me cuz . . ."
"NO-O-O!" cried Tyler. His legs came up and he grabbed them and almost shook the whole bed.
"Tyler, honey, what's the matter? It's all okay," explained Linda Sue.
"But that's what that old man and that sheriff guy were doing, wasn't it? Taking children from their parents and . . ."
"Oh, honey, no. Please calm down and let us explain. See, AJ no longer has a family. You heard that Tim found him when he didn't even have a place to stay, not even a barn."
"Oh. I'm sorry, AJ. I, uh, forgot," apologized Tyler through his sniffles.
"It's okay, Tyler. After Dad found me and we got to know each other really good, we decided we wanted to make it permanent. And when it's done right it's called an adoption and everyone is happy, huh?" asked AJ, looking up at me.
"He's right on, Tyler. I get the best kid ever and he has to put up with me. But I think it all adds up to a win-win."
AJ grabbed my arm and squeezed it, smiling at Tyler, who realized the difference between what went on at the farm and our situation. He was quick to turn his fear into a big smile as well.
"Then, are you going to adopt me as your son, Linda . . . I mean Mo . . . Wait! I'm confused. If you're already my mom, then I'm not exactly like AJ anymore, am I."
I was unsure if that might have hit a sore spot in AJ but I got my answer right away.
"No, Tyler. That's the neat part for you. You already have family. All you have to do is go live with your mom again. Swell, huh?" said AJ, walking up to the bed and raising his hand for a high-five.
Of course, Tyler just stared at his open palm in the air, not knowing what it was doing up there.
"Oops," laughed AJ. He took Tyler's hand, opened it and then connected both of them in the air while holding onto Tyler's wrist. "There." Slap!
And of course, Tyler still had no idea what had just happened much less why. It was clearly evident on his face.
"Tyler. Look up 'high-five' in your memory place. What's it say?" asked AJ.
I was kind of aghast. No one had asked such a thing of him so openly.
But Tyler went about it like it was a usual thing.
"Hm-m, High means: At or to a considerable or specified height. And five is the number after four."
See, we didn't know that he had no slang in his vocabulary yet. He hadn't known my boys long enough!
"Okay, so five is the number of your fingers and high means your fingers are up here," said AJ, raising his hand to the appropriate height. "So if we both do that," he further explained, raising Tyler's elbow, "and slap our hands together, it's called a high-five!"
"Oh. Why?" asked Tyler, his hand still up in the air.
"Um, because!" answered AJ.
"Tyler, there's going to be a lot of odd things to get used to," I added. "I think it's just a fad. A fad is . . ."
"A temporary fashion, notion, manner of conduct, etc., especially one followed enthusiastically by a group."
"Um, yes. They're also usually short-lived. I mean they don't always stay around a long time."
"O-o-o-o-h," he said, then seeing his hand was still in the air, pulled it down and smiled at us, a bit embarrassed.
"You're going to have your hands full, Linda Sue," I told the renewed mom.
"Yes, but it'll be as interesting and wonderful as it will be exhausting." She smiled too. It looked good on everyone in the room.
My cell phone rang and I went out into the hall to answer it. I didn't recognize the number.
"Hello, Tim McGill."
"Pop?" I heard with a lot of racket behind him. It sounded like he was in a noisy mall or somewhere. There was such a mish-mash of loud voices I couldn't hear clearly.
"Jeffy? Is that you? I can't hear you very well."
The volume was lower when he spoke again.
"Could you please come and get me? I'm at Elliot's and his mom and dad are having a tizzy fit over someone being here with him, up in his bedroom."
"Is everything okay for Elliot? It sounds pretty loud. I'm worried it may escalate into something physical."
"He said it's okay. They just yell a lot. Could you come now? It's really awkward here. I'll probably be outside."
"Of course, son. Tell me his address and I'll be right there. We're at the hospital so it won't take as long as if we were home."
"Good 'cuz it's reminding me of my home - my old home before you guys. I don't like it at all."
"I'll be right there after we say our goodbyes. Now, the address?"
I heard him muffle the phone and call to Elliot for his address. There was a minute of near silence. I could still hear what I assumed was Elliot's mom and dad still talking very loudly but I couldn't tell what they were saying. I also assumed that Elliot wasn't involved since he was probably writing down his information for Jeffy to give me. Then I heard,
"And your phone number, Elliot. Here's ours. I don't have a cell phone yet.
"Okay, Pop, I got the address. It's . . ."
I went back into the room after hanging up with Jeffy. I explained the situation and said we'd love to come back the next time Linda Sue would be there.
"Oh, Tim, you don't need to wait for me, though I may just camp out here from now on."
"Really?" asked Tyler, with an excited expression on his face.
"Well, honey, they may not let me but I plan on being here more than I'm not. We have a lot of living to make up, don't we, sweetie?"
"Um, yeah," said Tyler, blushing as he looked up and smiled at us.
"Come on, AJ. We have a boy to go rescue. I'll explain what little I know in the car."
"Another rescue too. . .?" stated Tyler.
Linda Sue quickly stopped him and started to explain what I meant as we walked out.
Jeffy was waiting on the short retaining wall around the front of the yard at the address he'd given me. When he opened the door we could hear more yelling from inside Elliot's house.
"Whew! What a mess. I should have realized that something like that might happen when we got in the car at the school."
"What happened, Jeffy?" asked A.J.
"Man, she's a work. She had to stop at the store. She made us come in with her the whole time, like right there with her. Then on the way home after almost an hour in the store, she was interrogating Elliot about me, but she would never talk to me like ask me something directly. He told her exactly what we were going to do. He was going to tutor me in math and science."
"She kept saying, 'No games, Elliot. You know what I mean.' Elliot would turn red and roll his eyes as he looked at me."
"What did she mean by that, Jeffy? Did you ever find out?"
"Not really. We started to go upstairs to his bedroom and she said no, to work at the dining room table. Every time she said something like that, heck, anything she said, it came out like an order, a command from his sergeant. Oops! Well, you know what I mean, don'tcha. Pop?"
"Yes, I do. You mean like a drill sergeant."
"Yeah, the mean kind. It really reminded me of my stepdad. There was never any pleasing him and everything was so loud all the time, or he'd ignore me just like she did."
"Wow! How'd you stand that, Jeffy?"
"I couldn't stand it, squirt. But she said she had to leave to go pick up his dad from a business trip he'd been on, so we knew we had plenty of time to talk and stuff."
"Wait a minute. So, you didn't keep working on your homework or tutoring, I take it?"
"Um, no, we kinda went up to his room. But there was nothing to do there. All he had in his room was his bed and a dresser. He didn't even have a desk. They never let him study up there or anything. I asked him about games and he said they'd never allow it.
"I asked if she was mad at me about something and he just said they were both like that about anyone I brought home. Then he said I was the first one that would even be seen with him that whole year!"
"Wow, the school year's almost up," said AJ.
"I know. That's when he started crying. We were sitting on the bed and he hung on me as he cried. It was, well, it felt, um, awkward, kinda." Jeffy was blushing and looking down into his lap.
"Why?" asked my nosey little pipsqueak.
"Well, um, because . . . I'm uh, not sure, AJ. I just held on and then when he was done he kissed my cheek. Oh, maybe I shouldn't have said that part."
"Yes, why, Jeffy? You know you can talk about anything to me, don't you?"
"Yes, sir, but hearing it and then doin' it are two different things. It's hard to get to. You're the first adult, heck, the first anyone I've been able ta trust since my dad died. I knew I could talk to him about most anything but I didn't have anything to tell him. Now, that kinda stuff is so big. It's hard say and, well, like now, I don't know what I'd say."
"Did Elliot mention it to you, like why he did that?" I asked.
"Not exactly. He sat up real straight and pushed himself away from me a little and said he was sorry."
"Why was he sorry?" asked my little interrogator.
"We didn't get that far. Right after he pulled away the front door opened. Elliot said, 'Oh shit! I'm dead,' and then we heard nothing but yelling until I called you."
"They never got physical, did they?" I asked.
"Yeah, or did they try to hit ya or anything?" asked AJ.
"Bro, it's the same thing, and no, they didn't raise a hand to either of us, just yelled. I don't think his dad looked at me once the whole time. I just stood off to the side. I didn't try to listen and they were all going at it at the same time. It was horrible. That's when I called you, Pop."
"Well, I'm glad you did. Maybe we need to think about getting you a cell phone of your own just for occasions like this and for your safety."
"Oh, oh, yeah, Dad! We both need 'em to be safe!" said AJ.
"I think Jeffy needs one, po-dunk. I think you need to be with me or where there is always an adult present for a while."
"Awe. But I'm old enough. I'm almost thirteen ya know."
As we pulled up to the front of the house, Jeb happened to be walking along the road, almost to our driveway.
"Hey, neighbor. Good timing. I was just coming over to talk with you."
"Really, Jeb. I thought you were going to invite yourself for dinner," I retorted.
"Ha ha! Well, I planned it late enough and planned on staying long enough for you to invite me. Haha!"
"Yeah, Dad, can he stay?" asked AJ.
"I suppose if you're willing to share your portion with him," I kidded.
After dinner, while Jeffy finally persuaded AJ to help him with the dishes, saying they could hear everything well enough from in there, Jeb told me of his last few days and his talk with Dan about his family.
"So, I guess I had a granddaughter, even a little great-grandson. I didn't even know to miss them until I couldn't have them. Funny, don'tcha know?"
"Yes, it's a little disconcerting when you miss something that you never really had, in my case, for very long," I answered.
Jeb thought a minute before he went on. "Yes, I think you do know more about how I feel than I realized. You only had your daughter for a month, right? That was hard, wasn't it?"
"The hardest. But I've gained another family since then," I said, pointing over my shoulder toward the two gawkers in the kitchen. "And I don't plan on giving them up any time soon."
"No, I wouldn't let them go. You know, it's your fault, don'tcha? Actually, more like little AJ's fault."
"What'd I do now?" asked the pipsqueak, walking into the dining room drying a bowl.
"Oh, nothing. You just got me going about kids and family again. Actually, little one, I've never felt so complete since you came over and stole my berries."
"Oops!" said AJ as he turned to go back into the kitchen.
"Ha, ha, ha! It's true, you know. I never even gave it a thought until we got together. Been the best few months o' my life lately. Addin' Daniel to the mix just made it all that much better. I feel years younger just knowin' you all."
And a tear dropped into his lap.
"Okay, 'nough of that! Dan said he'd come by this Saturday if it was okay with you and leave his boys over ta here whilst you and he moseyed on over to talk about the ramifications of what could develop from my discovery and his."
"Sounds good to me." I turned toward the kitchen. "Boys, you good with Dan's clan coming by and goofing off here for a couple of hours Saturday? We might plan something to do together later, probably barbecue for sure."
"Yes, sir. You mean all of them, Enrique too?" asked Jeffy.
"Well, of course, Enrique too, silly," laughed AJ. "Why wouldn't he come?"
"It's just that we kinda became good friends after, well, you know," answered Jeffy, more to me, I think, then AJ. He was blushing again when he was done talking.
"So, you hooligans gonna take an old man home to his roost or what?" shouted Jeb, a little later.
"What old man? I don't see an old man. Do you see an old man, Jeffy?" said AJ, grinning from ear to ear. He thought he was so clever.
"Ha ha! Thank you, little young man. You certainly make my day. Say, if Tim ever gets tired of you, you can come over ta my place and live."
"Wow! Really?" asked AJ, all pepped up.
"Sure, I've got gardens to turn over, rooms to paint, heck, the whole outside too!"
"Hey, I'm not your slave," said AJ, and then realized what he had said. "Oops! I didn't mean anything about Boy, I mean Tyler, Dad. Really."
"It's okay, son. Mr. Harding was just ribbing you. And you answered in fun. That's just great."
"Yeah, I may have to force you to hug me once in a while, but you've always been pretty special to me, AJ. Always been special. Now, you, Daniel Jeffrey, you're becoming special too."
"Well, you and I are going to talk business, aren't we? About fixin' up the old place. Making it into a showplace again. Right?" He spoke with a gleam in his eye. He was so enjoying himself.
"Oh, that! Sure. I'd love to try, sir. I don't know how good I'll be, but I'd sure like ta try." And I could see the pride welling up in Jeffy just then too, by the way, he smiled at his friend.
"Well, let's start with how good you two scamps take an old, okay, me home!"
"Sounds good to me," answered Jeffy.
AJ started walking past the other two to get the door then turned back and said to me, "Dad, we'll be moseying for a while until we get Mr. Harding home. Don't wait up."
I asked Jeffy about Elliot when I picked them up the next day. He said he seemed fine. Jeffy asked him to come over and Elliot said they should wait for a while. In the meantime, Jeffy was looking for another tutor.
AJ asked if we could go up to the hospital. Jeffy was all for it since he hadn't been up there the day before when Dan introduced Tyler to his mom.
I was okay with it. I found Tyler very fascinating. If the story ever got out about what he'd been through he'd have been on every morning show across the country, and Dr. Phil's, no doubt. I'm glad it never did get outside of our community. That was probably thanks to Dan and the other deputies, and Tyler's mother.
When we arrived I tapped on the door lightly. We heard a quiet, "Come in."
Linda Sue was sitting next to a sleeping boy. I swear he even had a smile on his face as he slept.
"Since yesterday, after we found out he was really my son, it's like he's just let down. He sleeps a lot more and so deeply. I think it's a good sign. He said he could never do that at the barn, of course. He was always afraid the old man would come in and kick the daylights out of him." She sighed heavily but still had a slight smile. "It's just so sad to know some of what he's been through all these years, but I'm so glad to have him back. I don't care what shape he's in."
"I think he's in great shape, Mrs. Cottington," said Jeffy. "Oh yeah. Congratulations on getting your son back to ya. That's so cool."
"Thank you, Daniel. Well, he still needs to fill out a lot, in my opinion. Oh, we shared a piece of cake last night. He was so cute when he put it in his mouth. Everything is so new to him, poor child. I just love him to pieces. The strange thing is, I'd have loved him even if he wasn't mine, but now I don't have to share him." She gave us a silent giggle. She was absolutely radiating her love and devotion to that boy, her boy. She was as cute to see in all her motherhood as Tyler was in his curiosities.
"Uh-huh!" said AJ, protesting the 'I don't have to share him' line.
"Oh, AJ, he can't get enough of you and all the boys, Jeffy, even Ralph. He's never been with boys his age or younger. It's a new experience that he loves and I'd never keep that from him or from you."
"Whew! 'Cuz I think he's neat. Do you think he could come to my school and talk about . . ."
"No!" said both Linda Sue and I in unison.
"AJ," I explained, "How would you like to be up in front of your class telling them about what you did to survive, even what and who you had to avoid to survive your time on the streets? It wouldn't feel very nice or fun, would it?"
"Yuck, AJ. I know I couldn't do it and I think you had it a lot rougher than me," said Jeffy.
"Yeah, I see what you mean, Dad. Sorry. I never saw it like that. I was only thinking of me that time."
"Well, AJ, only thinking of you is so rare for you that no one will hold it against you," I assured him.
"M-m-m. Oh, wow, you guys are here," said Tyler just waking up, rubbing his eyes. "Did you just get here? I'm sorry I was . . . Oh, sorry, Mom. I mean . . . Oh, I don't know what I mean."
Tyler was a little confused, Linda Sue explained.
"It's alright, Tyler. Guys, Tyler and I discussed some things last night and this morning. I've been trying to get him to quit apologizing all the time. It's all a part of life, Tyler. People, especially in hospitals, sleep all the time. That's like your job to get better, healthy. It's okay if you're not awake when they get here."
"Okay, I understand, but I sure didn't want to miss them, either."
"We wouldn't a let ya miss us, Tyler," laughed AJ. I'da jumped on you first."
"Really? Wow!" grinned Tyler.
"No, Tyler," corrected Jeffy with a pompous smile. "I woulda stopped him, sat on him 'til he calmed down and then gently, softly (he went up to Tyler and put his hand on his arm) tapped your arm until you were awake."
"What!" said AJ. "Nu-huh!" But he was laughing as much as the rest of us.
Even Tyler sported a very nice looking smile. Then his eyes got that look to say he was delving into his morgue of information to come up with,
"Pipsqueak: a contemptibly small or unimportant person; a twerp."
"What? A twerp? Am Not!" argued AJ.
"Oops! That's what it means, Tyler? Sorry, AJ," said Jeffy. "You know Pop called you that first."
"Yeah. What about that, Dad? A twerp?"
"AJ, think back to the little fella I was trying to rescue on the streets who had me putting my foot in my mouth after every sentence, partly because of your stubbornness. That guy was not only a twerp but pretty contemptible at times. Luckily, while the nickname may have stayed on, the meaning changed to a cute, adorable young boy that turned out to be a hero to lots of people."
"But, we don't have to call you that anymore. I wouldn't want to offend you."
"Yeah, little bro, we can always think of something else to get you with," said Jeffy with a smirk.
"Wait, no, it's okay. Really, it is. I, uh, I like it now. It means you guys care and I don't care what it means anymore. I care about you guys."
I held open my arms to hug AJ and he stepped right up. Then he moved over to Jeffy when his older brother held out his arms and began to tickle his little brother after a quick hug. AJ wriggled to the floor, laughing hysterically.
I looked up at Tyler and saw the amazed look on his face along with a big grin and sparkling eyes.
"Tyler," said Linda Sue, "That's what being a part of a family, a loving family is all about."
"Are you going to do that thing to make me laugh too, Mom?"
"That thing? Oh, tickling?"
"Tickling? Um, I guess," answered Tyler. He just started to delve when someone piped up.
"Tickling means using your fingers to wiggle them around in your ribs, the bottoms of your feet and your pits," explained AJ, from the floor where he was recovering, and pointing to his armpits.
Tyler leaned over to look down at AJ. "I like that definition better than my book tells me."
"Well, to answer your question, Tyler, I might have to send you over to their house to experience tickling, or they can come and spend the night with you. But I make no promises that you're totally safe from me. Your father and I had some raucous times on the sofa many years ago."
"Will you tell me about my father some time, Mom? I'd like to know what he was like."
"That I will, my lovely boy; that I will. We have a lot of talking and history to share with each other, don't we?"
"Oh, but you don't want to know about my life. It was nothing like now. It was . . ."
The mood changed for just a second until AJ got up off the floor and jumped up on the bed.
They just grinned back and forth for a few seconds, then AJ looked at me and Tyler looked at his mom.
"Hey, Tyler? How do you know so much stuff? Like, how do you know all those meanings and they just come out like nothin' every time?" asked AJ.
"Um, well, when no one wanted anything or had me doing work, I had some boxes that I'd found back in the barn in a little room. There were lots of books in those boxes that covered about every subject possible, to me. There were even books to teach reading to small children and to adults that never had the chance, I suppose."
"Like you?" asked AJ.
"Yes, but under happier conditions," answered Tyler with a shudder.
"I'm guessin' there were dictionaries too, but that doesn't answer how you come up with the definitions like you looked them up in the books, unless . . . Oh man! You mean you memorized a dictionary?"
"Well, no," said Tyler.
"Then how . . .?" asked Jeffy before Tyler went on.
"Um, I memorized two different dictionaries, but I like the one called Webster's the best."
"Wow, you must have been really bored stiff, huh?" asked my littlest.
"Oh, not so often. It was more that I knew they'd find my books and take them away so I needed a way to keep them where they couldn't find them."
AJ looked at me and said, "I'da prob'ly dug a hole or piled 'em under some hay. So, that means you memorized them. Wo-ow!"
"That's so cool, Tyler," commented Jeffy. "It's so amazing to even think about doing that."
"I guess it just came easy. It only took a year or so to do the dictionaries. But the other books I learned were much faster. Soon, it became like a game to see if I could do it quicker than the last time and still retain the same level of comprehension."
"Huh?" said AJ, looking at me again.
"He means he wanted to see if he could remember every word after all that work of memorizing."
"Hm-m. I'm guessing there weren't any slang dictionaries in the boxes, were there, Tyler?"
"Slang? Um, no. I didn't see anything that indicated slang terms. Oh, like high-five?"
"Yes, and a few other words I'm sure you've come across," I added.
"Oh, yes. I remember Luanne Ma'am saying two words I didn't know. One was folks and the other was momma, though, thinking about it now, it must be a version of mom, maybe."
"Exactly, Tyler," said his mom with a smile. "And folks is another name for parents or sometimes it refers to your family."
"Mom, you sure are smart. You seem to have all the answers."
"No, honey. Believe me, I know some things from my schooling and such but my knowledge is pretty average compared to others, like Tim, for instance."
"Schooling. I'd like to do that, Mom. May I?"
"Oh, absolutely, Tyler, though you may be teaching the class by the second week."
We all had a good laugh at that, except for Tyler and AJ who nodded their heads.
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar