In the morning I made a good breakfast for us and waited until AJ came down - and waited. It was still early for him when the front door opened and he came in, completely dressed and with something in his cupped hands. He went right past me without a word and tried to get a bowl out of the cupboard, but whatever he had was using up both of his hands.
"Can I help?"
I got no response, so I just watched as he spilled his treasure on the counter.
"Shit!" he said, slamming his hands on the counter.
I got up and got a bowl down and saw blueberries rolling around everywhere.
"Looks like you got quite a haul. I didn't know we had any blueberries on our property."
"Not unless you own the land across the road. That's where I got 'em."
At least he was talking to me.
We both put them into the bowl. It left a ton of twigs and leaves on the counter.
"You need to clean, uh . . ."
He looked up at me like he couldn't believe what I was about to say. He was obviously still pissed at me, but I almost made his attitude even worse.
". . . the berries in the sink. Let me get the colander for you."
I saw his eyes soften, somewhat. I saved the day in the nick of time. Okay, more like saved the taste of cowhide for what I thought wouldn't be for at least another day. I was anxious for Dan to get there.
I handed AJ a plastic colander and he rinsed the berries in the sink.
"If you're ready, I made breakfast. I thought you were still in bed."
"Yeah, I couldn't sleep, so . . ."
"Well, are you hungry now?"
We had a nice, albeit quiet, breakfast. AJ put some berries on his plate and then, almost without looking up, pushed the bowl over to my side of the table.
"Thanks, pal, but you did all the work, so you should get them," I said, not knowing I was stretching my mouth again without thinking, ready to insert my well-chewed shoe.
AJ pushed his half-eaten breakfast away.
"If that's so then I guess I don't deserve this either, do I? After all, you did all the work."
How long would it take me to realize that, with a little forethought, I didn't have to end every conversation with the taste of shoe leather?
"I'm sorry, AJ. You're right. I'd be glad to taste some fresh picked blueberries. Thank you."
"And you're welcome for breakfast, too," I added, hoping he would pick up on the compliment.
"Oh, yeah. Uh-huh," he said, shoving some scrambled egg into his mouth.
I did get some help with the dishes. He was getting better about doing things without as much prodding. He did a good job of loading the dishwasher as I rinsed and handed him the dishes.
After breakfast, he went to his room for a few minutes, then I heard the front door open and close. About ten minutes later there was a knock on the door. I had no idea why he didn't just open it and come in.
I opened the door and almost asked why he didn't just come in when I found Dan standing on the porch all decked out in his sheriff deputy's uniform. He was looking over his shoulder, down the driveway.
"Oh, sorry. I thought it was someone else."
"Nope. Nobody but me, I'm afraid," he laughed.
I ushered him into the kitchen and poured us both some coffee. We settled into the breakfast nook and sipped our hot drinks.
"You know, as I was driving up, I could have sworn I saw someone running across the yard; someone small, maybe young."
"Remember I said I needed to come over this direction to see about some kid that's been around these parts for the last coupla days?"
"Of course, I remember," I answered. "Do you remember that I said I'd help you with your problem then you could help me with mine?"
"Oh, yeah. What's that all about? Do you know about this kid?"
"Um, can I get you more coffee?"
"No, Tim, I've barely tasted what I've got," he answered, squinting his eyes at me. "What's going on?"
"We-e-e-ll, I guess I'll just come out and say it. That young boy you're looking for? I guess you could say he's mine, or, at least, in my care."
"He's . . . What am I missing here? Where'd you get a boy?"
So I spent the next ten or fifteen minutes telling him of the events that led up to meeting AJ and the further events that led us into a relationship of sorts, especially the coincidence of the accident.
"Small world, huh? But good grief, Tim, most guys just get a dog if they're lonely." Dan was a smart-aleck at best, a wise guy more often.
"Well, I couldn't let him go on living like he was. Not with me having all this space and warmth all to myself. He was in desperate need and I had the solution, of sorts. I was worried for his safety too. Is he terrorizing the neighborhood?"
"Oh, no, no; nothing like that. It's just that a couple of people called and said this kid had been around for a week or so and they were concerned because they knew no one around had any young boys in their family and he wasn't in school."
"Yet," I added. "He's a good kid, Dan. But I sure have my hands full, trying to get him adjusted to his new life. It's as though he didn't start living until he came here. Almost everything I try to show him is totally new to him. Hell, even playing catch."
"It happens, Tim. Some of these kids don't have a clue what the world is like beyond their territory. That could be all of a few blocks. With this kid, it sounds like it was more like his apartment, evidently. He'd been deprived of a life until you found him."
"Yeah, well, I guess that's why I called you. You see, I'm not doing this dad or guardian thing very well."
I was distracted for a second as I saw a shadow move across the window next to the kitchen door.
Dan turned to see what I was looking at.
"He's probably scared to death because you called the cops on him," Dan said, expecting a laugh, I'm sure.
Instead, I had a chill. He wouldn't run because there was a uniform in the house, would he?
"I need to get him in school, but until then, I'm having a hell of a time keeping up with him. He's one smart cookie, my friend, and always seems to be on top of every word I say. It's just that I blow it so often, I feel like I may be doing him more harm than good. It's got me worried."
"Well, just remember, while they may not be brittle, they have very little social experience, which keeps them perpetually embarrassed at anything out of the ordinary. The simplest things can seem like mountains to move."
"Tell me! It's all I can do to get him to help me with the chores, like the dishes."
"Ah, so have you explained in detail what's expected of him?"
"Um, yeah, I think."
"Then you haven't. When you were trying to play catch, did you take the time to go over the basics and really teach him how to hold the ball and how to throw? Things like that?"
"Oh, we-e-ll, I may have been lacking a little in that department."
"You need to start being more clear with the boy, Tim. He's new at almost everything you expect of him. He won't pick it up by telepathy. You have to be his teacher, even when he goes back to school.
"Almost everything to a young person like him is a new experience, especially being deprived and secluded as he was. It's kinda like you've got a young Tarzan there that has none of the skills that we all take for granted."
"I suppose. I know I would have been okay if Viv were a part of this. Well, maybe I should say, she would have had everything under control from the first minute. But . . ."
"Hey, before you learned your ABC's and were potty trained, you probably got it wrong a lot. This is a learning experience for both of you. You just need some tools to use, so does he."
"Especially him, like a shield and earplugs to protect him from me."
"Tell you what, Tim, why don't you and your boy come on over to my place this coming Saturday and I think I can guarantee that you'll see some of the things in action that you've hoped for in the last few days. In fact, I'm sure of it."
"Huh? How? Well, you've certainly piqued my interest. Of course, we'll be there. But don't you think you'd better stick around long enough to explain to him who you are and why . . ."
"Naw, besides, I need to go over to the school and tell them to expect one more student tomorrow. If you did it, they'd take that boy away from you so fast your head would be spinning. We can't have that." He stood up and started walking toward the front door.
I detoured to my desk and wrote down what I knew of AJ, his mother, and his last address, approximately. I folded it up and returned to see Dan out.
"Yeah, thanks, but, if he's seen you here, what makes you think he'll ever come back? He probably thinks I set him up to go to foster care. I don't know."
"Why would he need to go anywhere? He's already in foster care with someone that genuinely cares for him. It shows, Tim, your deep concern for his welfare."
Dan opened the door and we walked out onto the front porch. I could feel the heat of the blush overtaking my face. I did care for the boy, pipsqueak though he was.
"HEY, KID!" shouted Dan at the top of his voice.
"Um, his name is AJ," I added, helping, I hope. I also handed him the note I'd written.
"Okay. HEY, AJ, YOUR DAD AND I ARE GREAT FRIENDS AND I WANT YOU TO BE MY FRIEND TOO. OKAY? HE"LL TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT. SEE YOU SATURDAY FOR SOME FUN!"
I was looking every which way, trying to spot a shadow running for the woods or somewhere. As Dan drove off, I stayed on the porch still looking around. I'm sure it was obvious to anyone watching how concerned I was for my boy.
Then it struck me. Dan called me his dad! I almost choked on the thought, the glorious thought that something so wonderful could happen for him, um, us. Oh, I was nowhere near being proud enough to think I was a good dad, but that boy needed someone to love him from then on and I wanted the job. It hit me: that's what I surely wanted, big time. I only hoped he would want that, uh, me, too.
I'd no sooner taken my coat off and wandered back into the kitchen when I heard footsteps on the back porch. Then I saw the same shadow I'd seen earlier. Finally, the back door opened and AJ slowly, cautiously, walked in.
"It's okay, AJ. I'll explain everything. It's all good, really. Please believe me." I found myself almost pleading with him, expecting the taste of shoe leather any second. I so hated the feeling that I might be disappointing him.
He stood inside the door and looked at me with scared, sad eyes. He'd backed up against the back door and seemed to be weighing what little information he had so he could decide his next course of action.
I decided to calm down some and stop the drama. So, I walked over to the counter and got down two mugs and a plate. I turned on the hot water pot and grabbed the cocoa mix out of the other cupboard. I never looked at him. By then I was hoping our regular routine of talking at the table would give him some assurance that everything was somewhat normal. I was sure he knew that my actions were leading to that point.
I put some cookies on the plate and set it on the table. For the first time, I looked up and motioned for him to come over and sit. I was pleased that he did just that.
"You can take off your coat if you're too warm," I said, turning back to the hot chocolate makings.
"I'll just keep it on a little longer, I think."
But he did sit down.
A few minutes of silence had the cocoa made and me sitting down at the table across from him, pushing a mug of the hot liquid toward him.
"I left the house and there was this cop drivin' up. I thought you'd called him on me for somethin'. I didn't know what to think. It was like I was back on the streets again. Why'd you call the cops?"
"I didn't call the cops, AJ."
He started to say something but I held up my hand to stop him.
"I called my best friend. I can't help it if he happens to be a sheriff's deputy. No, AJ, Dan is my good friend. He's probably the one person most responsible for me surviving the loss of my family, my other family. I asked him for some advice about a problem I was having."
AJ didn't look convinced, so I spent the next five minutes highlighting how I'd met Dan and what he'd done for me over the last few days.
"Cryin' and everything?" he asked when I told him about my many breakdowns.
"Man, I'll say. I was a basket case from the minute I got off of that plane from Iraq. It was Dan and his partner that practically carried me to a hotel room so I could sleep and he could keep an eye on me, all night long, I might add."
"Hmmm. Neat guy, to do that, huh?" AJ said into his half-full mug.
"Neat doesn't even begin to describe him, AJ."
Then, as he started to wriggle out of his coat, I told him about how Dan had looked in on me without me knowing, how he'd brought me into the house when I had another breakdown in the yard, and how he'd arranged for guys to show up to be with me, work with me, while I got over my grief.
"Are ya over it yet?"
"I can't imagine that I am. It's only been a week or so and I've lost a life's worth of love."
"Yeah. I guess so, huh?"
"But, AJ, he told me something that has made all the difference to me. He told me from the very beginning that something was already in the making, that he knew that someone was going to come along and fill that void in me, someone very special, very special." I knew I'd said it with some intensity, but it was so clear and precise the way he'd said it. It wasn't as much a promise, certainly not hope, but fact. No doubt whatsoever.
"So, someone's comin' to help you get over all this and you can marry and have another family?"
I thought I heard a quiver in his voice. It didn't click just then as to why that might be. Of course, I couldn't see his eyes. He was still looking into his cocoa, not looking up at me, through all that hair, I was sure.
"Well, that may be, but first, I already have someone very, very special in my life to be with. Like starting a new family already, I hope."
He did look up at that comment.
"Yeah, bud, you! I have you. I know I'm not doing a very good job, but you have no idea how much you mean to me, how much you being here has helped me get over my loss."
"Me?" he said, hopefully. He voice cracked a bit and he coughed.
"AJ, I'm afraid you'll be hearing me apologize a lot for not being good at what I'm supposed to do as a fath . . . as your guardian, foster parent, I guess. But know that I really want to be a good dad, uh, help for you. I don't ever want you to have to think about where you came from, or what you had to go through to get to be twelve, almost thirteen, and I certainly don't want you to ever fear that you'll have to go back to that."
He just stared at me. It was kind of weird, really. After a few seconds, I felt like he'd tuned me out and was going over things in his head. Then he actually shook his head, like to clear those thoughts away.
"So this guy, uh, Dan, he yelled something about seeing him Saturday? What's that all about?" He went back to looking into his drink.
"Oh, actually, that was the first I'd heard about it too, kinda. He invited us over to spend the day at his place. For all I know, he has a pool or something. But he said he'd show me some things that would make me a better, uh . . ."
"Dad?" he finished for me.
"Well, yeah, those were his words. You heard him yell that?"
AJ let out a big sigh and took a drink of his cocoa. Neither of us had touched the cookies. I realized that I hadn't tasted my drink at all.
"Think he'll teach ya to not yell so much all the time?"
"Let's hope so, AJ, let's hope so."
Just after he'd finished his dinner, while he was waiting for me to finish mine, he looked up a little.
"Uh, sir, who is Jeremy?"
"Ha, uh, Jeremy? Who's Jeremy?"
"Yeah, uh, Jeremy."
"Jeremy was my son, a long time ago. He got sick very soon after he was born and, well, never recovered. He wasn't even one year old."
"Oh wow. I'm real sorry. That musta hurt you inside somethin' awful."
"Yes, it was really hard on me. I loved him a lot. How do you know about him, about Jeremy? I didn't tell you and I can think of only one other person that knows about him and he's in Iraq."
"Um, you kinda talked in your sleep. I, uh, last night I came to your door. I was gonna see if you were still awake. But you were asleep and after a coupla minutes of snoring you started getting real jittery and . . . and kinda yelled, 'Not my Jeremy.' I didn't mean ta nose in; it just happened."
"It's okay, AJ. I didn't even know I talked in my sleep. I hope I didn't frighten you."
"No, I wasn't scared really, well, not exactly. I was okay after that. I guess I came in and pulled up the blankets that you'd tossed off. I went back ta bed after that."
"You mean you tucked me in?" I almost chuckled.
"Oh, well, yeah, I guess so." I could see some red on his cheeks through his bangs.
"Thank you for that, AJ. What did you come to my room for, anyway?"
He was moving the mug around on the table as we talked but he was still doing it as I waited for his answer. It was beginning to get on my nerves so I reached out and covered his wrist with my hand, stopping his nervous motion. His head snapped up to look at me, surprised, of course.
"Sorry. It was driving me, I mean, distracting me."
He dropped his head again. "Oh. Sorry. Um, I came into your room, uh, well, I came into your room 'cause, um . . ."
I slowly reached over and lifted his chin so he was looking at me. As our eyes met he tried without success to lower his head.
"AJ, I want you to feel free to talk about or to tell me anything that's on your mind. There must be a ton of stuff flying around in your skull, waiting to come out and I don't want to be the one to hinder you. You can always trust that I’ll always be there for you. That's a promise I always made to my men and it's a promise I'm giving to you, soldier."
"Yeah, right," he said and again tried to lower his head.
"Hey!" I said, not too loud but enough to get his attention again, "I will never break that promise. I swear."
He kinda just stared for a while, and then I finally released his chin. He looked down for a minute then up to me, again.
"I, uh, I was scared when I woke up and didn't remember where I was again. I had to know you were in there, here in the house. Then I was okay again. Sorry." His head dropped again.
I had to wait until I thought I could talk without choking on my words. He always wanted to come off as so strong, so brave, but deep down, he was just a twelve-year-old little boy that had been through hell.
"You're safe here, boy. But you'd be a lot safer if I knew when you were going to take off like you do. That isn't very safe at all."
"Yeah, well, you can know I'm gonna do it again when you scream at me like you did. I ain't waitin' 'round for the shi . . . for stuff to hit the fan. Besides, I was only out at that garage, on the other side, just thinkin' and stuff."
After a few minutes with both of us looking into our drinks, I heard his chair move, thinking he was done for now. Instead, he got up and walked around the table and laid his hand on my shoulder. I'd watched him the whole way wondering what he had in mind.
"Um, you really had it rough with losin' all those people close to ya, huh?"
I twisted my head around to see him looking down at me. I smiled my best smile.
"I suppose, but now, AJ, I've got someone that I'm growing fonder of every day."
He gave me a half smile, for just a few seconds and then actually took his cup and put it into the dishwasher. I was stunned.
"AJ," I practically whispered to his back as he was leaving the room. He stopped and turned with that same half smile glowing on his cute face. "Thank you for that."
He looked at the dishwasher and then back at me. "You're welcome, um, dad?"
Wow! I was stunned again. But I held myself together. I figured he asked it like a question, asking my permission to call me that.
"Yes, oh yes, son, and thank you for that too."
True to his word, Dan had called the school and set up everything for AJ to attend. Somehow, he even found a birth certificate. AJ was twelve and a half.
Getting the boy up that first morning was one of hardest things I had to do until I brought in a glass of water. One drop on his forehead and he was running to the bathroom.
After taking him in to see the attendance person at the desk, he was given the room number of his classroom and the name of his teacher. We decided to keep him back a grade but I knew he'd catch up. He was a smart cookie.
When AJ came out that afternoon, he looked really tired. It had been a really intensive day for him, something I'm sure he'd never experienced before. It seemed like there was always something new in his life. After all, he was really only a few weeks old, in some ways.
He was almost asleep in the truck until I asked him if he'd like a milkshake and then go shopping for the school supplies his teacher said he needed. He had a list.
Over a chocolate milkshake, I asked him how his day went. If I'd known it was going to be so difficult getting anything out of him, I'd have brought a crowbar. Actually, once he got some of the sweet liquid in him he was more outgoing.
He seemed to like his teacher, a Ms. Spear. He said most every subject was too confusing for him. I promised him it would make more sense as he got into them. I also promised any help I could give to make it easier, of course.
He said he didn't like the P.E. teacher very much. He was big and seemed to yell a lot. AJ looked straight at me when he said that, then continued. He said the man even took one kid by the arm and made him sit down when he goofed off. He could tell it hurt the kid.
He didn't talk about any of the kids, though and I didn't push it. I let him bring up the subjects he talked about with a little prodding along the way.
We went back to Wal-Mart to fill out his list and he was very proud of the new supplies we got him. I even got him a backpack. He didn't, however, want the Sponge Bob lunch box. We did have a laugh over that, until I mentioned it matched his undies, then he took a playful swing at me and looked around to see if anyone heard me.
It was Wednesday and he had two more days of school left until the weekend.
The rest of the week, well, the two days until the weekend, really drug by for me. I missed my boy so much. I was usually in front of the school several minutes before the bell rang. He was too tired to notice and had too much on his plate all of a sudden.
I was sitting out in front of the school on that Friday waiting for my boy. Hmmm, that sounded so good. I'd been sitting there a few minutes when that same old green pick up came rumbling by, fuming like a chain smoker. It was when it slowed down that I saw that Jarod Brown kid was driving. He looked over at me, then quickly high-tailed it out of there. Good!
When I saw AJ come out, as he rushed toward the front steps, he just pushed aside some kid, then made his way to the truck. Of course, he wasn't smiling, but he had several books under his arm so I guess he was going to at least look like he was studying. He was also as quiet as he normally was.
I drove for about five minutes before I pulled over and stopped on a side road still another five minutes from home.
"What? Did you move or something while I was at school?" he asked, barely looking over the dashboard at the unfamiliar surroundings.
I turned off the engine and swiveled in my seat to face him as much as I could with a steering wheel in the way. He immediately bristled, sat straight up, and pushed himself back until he was jammed into the corner, between the door and his seat. His stare at me showed his fear that something was wrong, really wrong.
"You just pushed that kid when you came out of school, AJ. You almost knocked him over. What's the deal with that?" I was talking pretty quietly. It wasn't a huge problem, yet.
"I did? Who was it?" He looked sincere, as though he really hadn't even noticed, but that didn't make it any better. He also seemed to relax some.
"Wow. I can't believe you could just plow over someone and not even know they existed. How could you be so inconsiderate? Don't people mean anything to you?"
He looked into his lap and then looked up, staring out the front, not at me.
"I went a long time thinking that people didn't give a shi . . . a rat's ass about me. All I did was duck outta their way unless I was doing that begging crap. Everything about most other people was either pretty scary or embarrassing. I was lucky if they all treated me like, like I wasn't even there."
I saw the streaks of tears on his face and sat back a bit. It's not like I'd forgotten what he'd been through. Maybe I just expected him to have changed by that time. For all I knew it might have been some of his fellow homeless kids that were part of his bad time on the streets, treating him poorly. Well, it sure was that Jarod kid and his pals.
I reached out to lay my hand on his shoulder but he noticed and cringed a little, so I put it back in my lap.
"I know you went through a ton of crap out there, AJ. I also know that we're doing everything we can to make that be a distant past for you. But you need to be aware of who you are now, of where you are and, especially, you need to be aware of those around you.
"You may not know them and they may even be people that did treat you poorly at some time but your job is to treat them like you would want to be treated. Take notice of other's needs, especially now that your needs are being met a little more each day, I hope. You have a lot to give and be thankful for."
He seemed to relax a bit. I was glad of that.
"Hmph! I know that one. They kept saying it at the mission while we'd eat. 'Do unto others as you'd have them do it to you.' But I didn't have nothing to give them. I don't think I have anything now, that I know of."
"You have a lot to give, AJ. It doesn't take a lot, something huge. It just takes being aware of those around you and seeing if they need help or understanding or just someone to talk to. Remember the first time you came to the house? We just talked for a while. That was special for me. I needed it, even though I didn't do a very good job of showing it at the time."
"Ha, I'll say. But I still don't know what you mean. How can I make a difference with any of them kids?"
"AJ, I guarantee, if you just take the time to notice others, you'll see what you can do when the time comes. Remember I said my good friend, Dan, told me, just a little while ago, that an opportunity is already being started somewhere, somehow. When it comes your way, you'll know the right thing to do, I promise."
There was just silence for a couple of minutes. I hoped he was thinking about what I said.
"Can we go home now? I gotta pee."
I turned around and started the truck. We drove in silence until I turned into the driveway.
"Did it?" he asked.
"What? Did what?"
"Did the opportunity Dan talked about, did it start?"
"Oh yes, my young friend. It’s started alright," I answered as I looked at my most precious gift.
"Oh, yeah," he said, blushing.
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar