Ten Steps Down

Chapter Fourteen

Christmas break was about to come to an end all too soon for James and me. Nicole spent a lot of time with us during the break. She hadn't made friends in the neighborhood yet, and became bored while Dan was working at home. Mom had suggested that she spend the days with us. I would usually pick her up and Dan would join us in the evening for dinner before returning home. I learned a lot about my sister during the two week Christmas break. I soon discovered that she also liked to read.

"Where did Nicole disappear to?" Mom asked, one cold snowy day during the break.

"I haven't seen her," I said. "I'll check on her."

"Tell her that I'm going to make some brownies if she wants to help," Mom said.

I was sure that I'd find her in James' old room, the room that she now considered hers, watching TV. 'I'll bet she is in the basement playing games with James,' I thought when I didn't find her in her room. However, James was in his room on his computer. "Have you seen Nicole?" I asked.

"I think she is in the living room," James answered, without looking away from the computer.

"What are you reading?" I asked, when I found Nicole wrapped in throw blanket and absorbed in a book.

"From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," Nicole answered, as she peaked over the top of her book. "It's a wonderful book about a girl and her brother that ran away to the museum."

"It sounds interesting," I said. "But Mom said that she is going to make brownies if you want to help."

"Yeah, I do," Nicole said, as she bookmarked her book.

Mom was busy assembling the ingredients for the brownies when I returned to the kitchen with Nicole. "Let me wash my hands and I'll help," Nicole offered. Nicole had learned that nobody touches food in Mom's kitchen without first washing their hands.

I was enjoying watching Mom instruct Nicole in the art of making perfect brownies when Dad came in from the den and said, "We are under a blizzard warning," he said. "We had better go get our chores done before it gets worse. Where is your brother?"

"He was in his room the last time I saw him," I said. "I'll go get him."

"I want to go help," Nicole said.

"Oh, Honey, you didn't bring the right warm clothes for that," Mom said. "The guys have insulated coveralls. All you have is your heavy coat. Besides, we're not finished with the brownies."

"Yeah, we can have them ready when the guys come back inside," Nicole agreed.

"Dad said that we need to go do our chores now before the weather gets worse," I said, when I found James in his room reading.

"Alright, I'll be right there," James said.

We were hit by a blast of cold blowing snow as we made our way to the barns. "We could lose power if this wind keeps up," Dad said, as we worked refilling the feeders.

"If the power goes off how will we keep the water from freezing?" James asked.

"The automatic generators will come on," Dad explained. "A few years ago I lost several thousand dollars when the power went off and most of the young piglets died. After that, I bought automatic generators for the barns and the house. And wouldn't you know it, I've never needed them. Now, while I finish up here you boys go put out extra feed and hay for the cattle and horses. They need extra feed to keep warm when it's cold like this."

By the time we finished the chores the weather had become even worse. The wind was stronger and we could hardly see the house. We took off our coveralls and boots in the mud room since we knew better than to track snow into Mom's kitchen.

"The weather is getting worse out there," Dad said, as he headed for the coffee maker. "We need to call Dan and tell him not to try to make it out here to pick up Nicole."

"He already called and said that roads were too dangerous," Mom said.

"I'm going to call Grandma and see if she's okay," I said, when the power went off and the emergency generators came on.

"Yes, please do," Mom said. "Then call Dan."

"Grandma, do you have electricity?" I asked, when Grandma answered.

"I believe that most of the town is without electricity," Grandma said. "But the apartments have generators, and we are all doing fine here."

After making sure that Grandma had everything she needed I called Dan, but there was no answer. "Dan didn't answer," I said after making the calls.

"If he only has a cordless phone it wouldn't work without electricity," Dad said. "Try his cell phone."

Before I could make the call the phone rang. "Did you just call?" Dan asked.

"Yes, we were worried that you didn't have electricity," I said.

"The electricity is off here," Dan said. "But I have a portable generator. I was getting it started when you called. It is large enough to run the furnace, the TV, my computer, and a few other things. Do you have electricity out there?"

"The electricity is off here too, but we have generators too," I explained. "I called Grandma and she said the apartments have generators also."

"I should have sent extra clothes with Nicole," Dan said.

"Nicole always has clothes here," I said. "This is her second home. Do you want to talk to her?"

"Yes, I just want to assure her that everything is fine," Dan said.

"Nicole, I believe these are the best brownies I've ever had," Dad said, after Nicole finished her conversation with Dan.

"Aunt Libby helped," Nicole said with a broad grin.

When we woke the next morning it was still snowing, but the wind had subsided some. I looked out the window and saw that the snow was deep with huge drifts.

"We sure got a lot of snow," I said, as I poured myself a cup of coffee.

"Yes, it has been years since we've had a storm like this," Dad said.

"Good morning, sleepyheads," Mom said when James and Nicole both joined us. "Breakfast will be ready soon."

"The wind was so loud that it woke me up several times," James said with a yawn. "Nicole, do you want a glass of orange juice too?"

"Yes, please," Nicole said.

"Before you sit down, you need to let Jake out to do his business or else you'll have to clean up his mess in the garage," Dad said.

"Dad, Jake can't get out because the drift is too high at the door," James said, when he returned from the garage.

"Bring him through the house and let him out the front door," Dad said. "There should be less snow there since it faces the south. After breakfast I'll use the tractor and plow the drive."

"Take a towel and dry Jake off when he comes back in," Mom ordered. "I don't want him getting snow on my floor."

"Wow, Jake completely disappeared in the snow," James said, when he came back in.

"Yes, we were just talking about that," Dad said.

"I'm making omelets for breakfast," Mom said. "Nicole, the rest of us like omelets, how about you?"

"I've never had an omelet," Nicole said.

"If you don't like it I'll make you a pancake," Mom said.

"I'm sure I'll like it," Nicole said. "You make good food."

"James, you had better go let Jake back in," Dad said, when we heard Jake barking at the door.

"What in the world!" Mom exclaimed, as Jake came running through the kitchen with James chasing him with a towel in hand.

"I'm sorry, Mom," James apologized. "He ran right past me when I opened the door to let him in."

"Take him in the garage and dry him off," Mom ordered. "Craig, get some towels and clean up any snow he brought in. Nicole, would you like to make the toast?"

"Sure," Nicole said, always happy to please Mom.

"This is really good," Nicole said, as she savored her first omelet.

"I guess I'll have to teach your daddy how to make them," Mom smiled.

"Well, guys, let's go clear the drive," Dad said, as he finished his cup of coffee. "Let me get what I can with the tractor and then you guys take the snow shovels and clear the snow next to the house."

"Well, James, it looks like Dad gets the easy job and we get to do the manual labor," I joked.

"That's the privilege of being old and the boss," Dad laughed.

I was surprised at how skilled Dad was at plowing the drive with the tractor. There was very little for James and me to shovel. After clearing the drive, Dad cleared a path to the barns. While Dad finished plowing the snow, James and I decided to check the feeders and put out more hay for the cattle and horses.

"It's better to get our chores over with while we're already dressed for the cold," James reasoned.

Mom had hot chocolate ready for us when we came inside. The combination of the warm house and the hot chocolate gave me a tranquil feeling. The house seemed filled with love as we sipped our hot chocolate and talked about the winter storm.

"I wonder if we'll have school Monday," James said.

"I'm sure you will," Mom said with a big smile.

"I don't know if they will get all of the bus routes cleared by then," Dad said. "I did see them plowing the highway. But, remember, there are a lot of rural roads that the buses will travel on."

"I'm ready to go back to school," James admitted.

"I have to go to a new school," Nicole said. "I don't know anyone there either."

"You'll like it there," I said. "That was my first school."

"Oh, Honey, you'll make friends there quickly," Mom said, as she walked over and gave Nicole a hug.

"I hope so," Nicole said.

"Oh, while you guys were out working, Dan called and said that the electricity is back on in his neighborhood," Mom said. "I called Margaret and it's still off in her neighborhood. We get to keep Nicole at least for another day. Dan said that they still haven't plowed his street."

By Monday the major streets and roads were cleared, but many secondary roads were still nearly impassable. This gave us an extra day of Christmas break. However, both James and I were ready to go back to school.

"Your dad will be driving you boys to school today," Mom said, as James and I ate breakfast Tuesday morning. "They announced that not all of the parking lots are cleared and there will be limited parking. It may be next week before you can drive."

"I could drop James off at his school and then I could park at the church across the street from my school," I offered. "That way Dad wouldn't have to drive us."

"I'm not that bad of a driver," Dad laughed.

"Craig, you don't have permission to park there," Mom said. "We don't know if their parking lot is cleared either. You can either ride with your dad or ride the bus. Anyway, I need to go grocery shopping and I'll go when your dad drives you to school. You guys ate almost everything in my pantry."

"I recall seeing you eating too," Dad teased.

"I wonder if Grandma needs to go shopping, too," I said.

"I hadn't thought of that," Mom said, as she gave Dad a stern look. "I'll call her and see if she wants to go with us."

I could see why students were discouraged from driving to school when we arrived. When the driveways and walkways had been cleared the snow had been pushed into the parking lot, forming huge piles. Students who normally hung around the entrance quickly went inside the school to avoid the cold wind.

"They need to haul those piles of snow away," Dad mused, as he waited to turn into the drop-off point at the school.

"The school district is on a tight budget," Mom explained. "I don't know where we would find the money to pay for it."

"The construction companies aren't doing much this time of the year," Dad said. "I'll call around and see if they would donate their time and equipment to do the work."

"Dad, let me out here," I said. "It looks like there is a traffic jam turning into the school. When school is out I'll walk over to the church and you can pick me up there."

"I'll walk from here to my school, too," James said. "I'll walk over to the church after school, also."

"Good idea, guys," Dad said.

Most of the students were happy to be back in school after the Christmas break. However, for the most part we were simply happy to get out of the house. Most of the teachers seemed to load us down with homework.

As I left school to meet Dad, I noticed that dump trucks were hauling snow out of the parking lots. "Maybe we can drive to school tomorrow," Rachel said, as she opened the door to her mother's car.

"I wouldn't bet on it," I said. "It looks like they're just getting started and there's still a lot of snow in those piles."

"I hope they get it cleared soon," Seth said. "I hate riding the bus. I have to go to work and the bus gets me home late."

"Come with me and I'll get Dad to give you a ride home," I said.

"Man, thanks," Seth said. "Where is your dad?"

"Over there in the church parking lot," I said.

Dad still had the motor running when Seth and I got to the SUV. James was sitting in the front seat with a big grin. We always had a running contest as to who got to ride "shotgun" when we rode with Dad.

"Well hello, stranger," Dad said when Seth and I got into the SUV. "We haven't seen you in a while."

"I've been kinda busy," Seth answered, somewhat embarrassed.

"Dad, Seth needs a ride home," I said. "He has to go to work and the bus gets him home late."

"I suppose I could do that," Dad said with a grin.

"How are you doing, squirt?" Seth asked, as he yanked James' stocking cap off and mussed his hair. The static electricity caused James' hair to go in every direction.

"Hey, don't make me have Dad stop and let me kick your ass," James laughed. He had apparently forgiven Seth for his attitude when I decided to come out to our friends.

"Thank you for the ride," Seth said, when we pulled into his driveway. Maybe we can drive tomorrow."

"No, they won't have the parking lots cleared until tomorrow," Dad said. "I'll give you a ride home tomorrow.

"Did you already feed?" James asked Dad, when we pulled into the drive and saw fresh hay out for the livestock.

Yes, I did," Dad said. "By the time you guys get home from school there isn't a lot of daylight left. Besides, I get bored cooped up in the house."

James and I had just finished loading the dishwasher after dinner when Mom said, "You boys sit down. Your dad and I need to discuss something with you."

"Is something wrong?" James asked with a worried look.

"No, Honey," Mom said, as she took James' hand. "Jason called and he and Ryan will be here this weekend. James, Jason has found your paternal grandparents."

"They're not going to try and take me, are they?" James asked in panic.

"Jason said that they don't know about you yet," Mom explained. "The decision will be yours, if you want to make contact. Jason will explain everything to you this weekend."

"How could they not know about me?" James asked.

"Your biological father worked for a company that constructed cell phone towers," Mom began. "He met your biological mother when he was working on a tower here. Before you were born, he fell from the tower and was killed. Your mom never told your grandparents about you."

"You're my mom," James objected.

"I guess I should have said your biological mom," Mom smiled as she hugged James.

The remainder of the week seemed to move slowly. Dad drove us to school one more day before the massive piles of snow were removed from the parking lots. James was somewhat withdrawn after learning that he had grandparents. James greeted Uncle Jason and Uncle Ryan at the door when they arrived on Friday. I could tell that James wanted information from Uncle Jason right then, but he didn't press the subject. In our family it seemed that important family matters were discussed after dinner.

James helped Mom get dinner on the table, and was up loading the dishwasher almost before we finished eating. Finally, Mom said, "Let's take our coffee to the den, and Jason can tell us what he knows."

"James, we found your grandparents," Uncle Jason began.

"I know, I know," James said, unable to hide his impatience.

"They live in Pratt," Uncle Jason continued with a smile.

"Where is Pratt?" James asked.

"Pratt is west of Wichita," Uncle Jason said. "Your biological dad grew up there. Your grandparents are Wendell and Debra Harrington, both are teachers in Pratt. They have no idea that you exist. Your dad died not knowing that your biological mom was pregnant. You also have an aunt and an uncle. I don't know if they have children, but you could have cousins."

"How did you find this out?" I asked.

"Remember Troy, who did the investigation for your friend Seth?" Uncle Jason asked and then continued without waiting for an answer. "Troy found your biological mom living in Garden City. He gave her $100 and she talked. For an extra $50 he even got some pictures for you, Libby."

Mom beamed when she opened the envelope that Uncle Jason handed her. "These are so cute," she said, when she saw the half dozen or so pictures.

"Could my grandparents take me from Mom and Dad?" James asked.

"That would be almost impossible," Uncle Jason said. "Adoptions are almost never reversed."

"I want to meet them, but I don't want to leave here," James said. "Mom and Dad are my parents and this is my home. Tell them that if they go to court to take me away and win that when I turn eighteen I will leave and never see them again."

"I'll call them Monday and tell them that I'm your attorney," Uncle Jason said. "They will be more apt to listen to what I have to say if I call as your attorney than if I call as your uncle."

"Could you call now?" The impatient James asked.

"Alright," Uncle Jason laughed, as he looked through his papers for the phone number. "I'll put my phone on speaker so you can hear what is being said. Please don't talk until I say it is okay."

"Alright," James agreed.

"May I speak with Wendell or Debra Harrington?" Uncle Jason asked when a female voice answered the phone.

"This is Debra Harrington," she said.

"I'm Jason Morris, and I'm an attorney representing James Turner," Uncle Jason said.

"I'm sorry, but I don't know a James Turner," Debra said.

"I know you don't," Uncle Jason said. "James is Shawn Harrington's biological son.

"What kind of cruel joke is this?" Debra asked. "My son was killed in an accident."

"Yes, I'm aware of that," Uncle Jason said. "James was born just after your son died."

"Are you sure that he is Shawn's son?" Debra asked.

"Yes, we're very sure, but the only way to be certain is with a DNA test," Uncle Jason said.

"Where is James now?" Debra asked.

"He has been adopted by a very nice couple in Brown County," Uncle Jason said. "He is very happy and loved."

"If he is Shawn's son, we want him to come and live with us," Debra said.

James started to speak, but Uncle Jason motioned for him to remain silent before continuing. "James has already stated that he doesn't want to be taken from his adopted family. He has stated that if you attempt to take him, he would not be willing to be a part of your life."

"What if we got an attorney and went to court?" Debra asked.

"It isn't likely that the adoption would be reversed," Uncle Jason said. "However, in the unlikely case that it was, James has said that when he turned eighteen he would leave and no longer be in your life."

"We want to do what is best for James," Debra said. "If he is happy where he is, we would like to be his grandparents. Could we see him?"

"I think that can be arranged," Uncle Jason said. "James is here with me, if you would like to talk to him."

"Oh, yes, I'd love that," Debra said.

Uncle Jason took the phone off of speaker, handed it to James and said, "You can take it to your room and talk in private."

"No, that's okay," James said, as he took the phone.

"Your Uncle Jason is right," Mom said. "You should talk in private."

"Alright," James agreed as he said, "Hello."

After about fifteen minutes, James came back into the den and said, "Grandma wants to meet me, could we go there next weekend?"

"I suppose we could," Dad said. "But we'll have to see if Jon or Seth can do our chores for us."

"Why don't your grandparents just come here?" Mom asked.

"I want to meet my aunt and uncle too," James said. "If we go there, I get to meet everybody."

"Alright, we'll call and let them know after we find out if we can get one of the guys to do our chores," Dad said.

It was decided that Dad would do the chores early Friday. Jon would be the one doing the chores for us Saturday since Seth had to work. And we would be back home Sunday to do them.

By Friday James was beside himself in anticipation of meeting his grandparents. He packed and repacked several times during the week. He hardly touched his breakfast until Mom threatened postponement of the trip.

Soon after James and I arrived home we were on the way to Pratt. "I wonder if they will like me," James asked.

"I doubt it," I teased.

"Craig, don't tease him," Mom scolded me. "He's hyper enough as it is."

With only a stop in El Dorado for dinner at a Chinese restaurant, we were checked into our rooms by 8:30. James and I shared a room with double beds next to the room Mom and Dad had. "What time are we going for breakfast?" James asked before we went into our room.

"Probably about 8:00," Mom said.

"Why so late?" James asked.

"James, we told your grandma we would be there around 10:00," Mom said. "There is no need to get up for breakfast any earlier."

I woke the next morning when I heard the shower. When I checked my watch I saw that it was only 6:10. "What are you doing up so early?" I asked James, when he came out of the bathroom.

"I woke up early," James said. "You can have the shower now."

"I guess I'd may as well since I'm awake," I said.

"While you're in the shower I'll make a pot of coffee," James said.

"Do you know how to make coffee?" I asked.

"It's pre-packaged," James said. "Even you could make it."

"If it could be screwed up, you could do it," I teased.

"I wonder if Mom and Dad are awake," James said, when I came out of the shower.

"Maybe they are since they are used to getting up early," I said.

"I'll call their room and find out," James said.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," I said. "If you wake them up Dad could be a bear. Besides, Mom said that she would call us before we went down for breakfast."

"I'll bet they're already awake," James argued.

"Do you want to take that chance?" I asked.

"I guess not," James admitted.

When Mom called at about 7:30, James ran to answer the phone before I could even put my coffee down.

"Yeah, we're awake," I heard James say. "We've already had our showers. Okay, we'll see you in a few minutes."

After taking advantage of the free hot breakfast provided by the hotel, we decided to go find the Harrington's house. Dad was a great navigator and found the house with little effort. It was a large well maintained older house.

James was obviously nervous when we got out of the SUV. He followed Mom and Dad up the walkway rather than leading the way. After ringing the doorbell, Mom pushed James in front of her.

"Oh, my goodness, you look just like Shawn," the woman who answered the door said when she saw James and wrapped him in a hug. "Everybody come in out of the cold. Wendell is in the den."

Although the house was an older home, it was smartly decorated. The den was a cozy room with a TV, couch, a recliner, an overstuffed chair with a matching ottoman, and various family pictures.

"Wendell, this is our grandson James," Debra said.

"I could tell immediately," Wendell said, as he stood and gave James a big hug.

"Where are my manners?" Debra said. "I was so surprised at how much James looked like Shawn that I didn't introduce myself. I'm Debra and this is Wendell."

"I'm Libby, this is my husband Don, and this is our other son Craig," Mom said.

"Could I get you something to drink?" Debra asked.

"No thank you," Mom said. "We just had breakfast."

"What time did you get here?" Wendell asked.

"About 8:30 last night," Dad said.

"I didn't realize you were coming to town last night," Debra said. "You should have let me know, you could have stayed here. We have plenty of room."

"Thank you, but we didn't want to impose until we got to know you better," Mom said. "I almost forgot, Jason managed to get some pictures of James when he was a baby. I had copies made for you."

"Jason, your attorney?" Debra asked.

"Yes, Jason is also my brother," Mom said.

"Thank you for the pictures," Debra said. "I'll have copies made of Shawn's pictures for James."

"Uncle Jason said that I have an aunt and an uncle," James said.

"Yes, you do," Debra said. "Amber and her family live here, and they should be here soon. Justin is a senior at Wichita State University, and one can never tell when he will show up. You also have a great-grandma, too. My mother is 75 and lives near here. She will also be here today. You also have great-aunts and great-uncles. You'll eventually meet everybody."

"Does Justin look like my dad?" James asked, then looked at Dad as if to apologize. Dad gave him a smile of approval.

"As a matter of fact, he does," Debra said. "Now if you'll excuse me while I go to the kitchen and make lunch."

"May I help you?" Mom asked.

"You're welcome to come and keep me company," Debra said. "But it is just soup and sandwiches. We're having roast beef for dinner."

In a few minutes, Debra came back into the room with a young man that looked like James. "This is our son Justin," she said. "I'll let everybody introduce themselves while I get back to finishing lunch."

Justin was friendly and spent a lot of time talking to James about his dad. He included me in the conversation as much as possible.

"James and Craig, would you like to see Shawn's trophies?" Justin asked after lunch.

"Sure," James quickly answered.

"This was Shawn's room," Justin said. "He was a pretty good wrestler and football player."

"I wanted to go out for wrestling," James said. "But I have to wait until next year because of the wreck."

"What wreck was that?" Justin asked.

"A woman ran a red light in Topeka and hit us," James said. "I was in the hospital for several days."

"He had some good doctors," I said. "His spleen was fractured. They used to remove it when that happened, but now they give blood transfusions."

"I always thought they removed it," Justin said.

"Wow, this trophy is for district wrestling champion," James said, as he examined a trophy.

"Yes, Shawn won that his senior year of high school," Justin said. "That one there is for third place in the state."

"James, you should have these," Wendell said from the doorway.

"Really?" James excitedly asked.

"They are as much yours as ours," Wendell said. "Justin, go to see if you can find a box to put these in for James. This can be your room when you come to visit again. I hope you will come and see us often."

"Sure, I'd like that," James said.

"Come on downstairs and meet your great-grandma Retha," Wendell said.

"So this is Shawn's bastard son," Retha said, when introduced to James.

Please send your comments or suggestions to Owen Hudson