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Chapter 3: Knowing Yura - II
The next morning, when I awoke, I realized that the door to my room was ajar. I usually slept with the blinds drawn, so when a single sliver of sunlight fell across the bed from the open door, it woke me up. It was the sunlight penetrating from the hallway. I thought it strange. I never would have left the bedroom door open, so I got up to investigate. I was completely unprepared for the sight of this dark, imposing heap on the floor which automatically drew my eye. As I rose from the bed, I saw that the unfamiliar obstruction on the floor was Yura, asleep at the foot of my bed. He was lying on the floor shirtless, wearing only his SpongeBob pajama bottoms. He was curled into the embryo position, his head resting on one of his pillows, which he had evidently brought with him into my room. I stopped and stared at the sweet little bundle on my floor, momentarily confused and unable to work out quite what was going on.
My movement caused him to stir, and at that moment he started to wake up. I reached for my bathrobe and put it on, sitting down on the end of the bed, looking down at him. He twisted slightly, executing a long, slow-motion stretch, just like a cat, and opened his eyes. He spotted me straight away, sitting there above him, and seemed to smile.
"Good morning," I said.
He turned so that he was lying flat, and stretched his arms above his head, his eyes straining against the dull morning light.
"Morning," he said, contentedly.
"Uh huh," he nodded, affirmatively.
"So what's going on?" I asked him.
I suspected he had wet the bed again.
He raised his head and looked around, probably to re-orientate himself and confirm where he was, and then collapsed back onto the pillow.
"I had a nightmare," he said, "I was scared, so I came in here to be with you."
"You didn't wet the bed?"
"No," he said, with genuine sincerity, smiling nervously at the suggestion.
"So why didn't you just wake me up?"
He shrugged indifferently, even as he lay there at my feet.
"I didn't want to disturb you," he said, plainly.
I stared at him blankly for a few seconds trying to work out if this kid was for real. He had a nightmare and was scared, and he came into my room in the night because he wanted to be close to me, but was too considerate to wake me up? It was just too quaint. I wondered if perhaps the poor boy had feared an adverse reaction for disturbing me.
"Really?" I asked, incredulous.
He shrugged again, apparently thinking it no big deal.
I reached out, extending a hand down to him.
"C'mon little buddy, get up. We can't have you sleeping on the floor."
He allowed me to grab his little fist in mine, and I pulled him up. He sprang up to a standing position in one swift movement. He was incredibly cute as he stood there in his pajama bottoms. I looked up at him, holding onto both his hands.
"Listen to me little buddy," I said, very distinctly, "Don't be afraid to wake me up. Next time you have a nightmare, just call me, or come and get me. I promise I don't mind. Understood?"
His clear cobalt-blue eyes looked down at me, looking into each of my eyes in turn, and I could see he was thinking it over, trying to decide if I was serious or not. Evidently he decided that I was and, after a momentary hesitation of uncertainty, he nodded.
"Good," I said, letting go of his hands, "Now, why don't you go downstairs and watch some TV or something. I'll take a shower, and then fix us some breakfast."
He gave a series of nods, apparently reassured, and turned to go, even stooping to collect his pillow from the floor on the way out. Just as he reached the threshold, he opened the door, but paused and turned. He stood there clutching a corner of the pillow in one hand.
"I don't really like being on my own," he explained, very matter-of-factly, "They used to lock me in a room on my own."
"Who?" I asked.
"Oh, you know..."
"I see," I said, saving him any further explanation.
"I still have nightmares about it," he added.
It was an extraordinarily candid statement, related in such an un-self-pitying manner. He seemed to think nothing of it, but to me it was a watershed statement. It was a seminal moment because it was the first time Yura had shared anything quite so personal with me. He was already opening up to me and I felt quite humbled that he should trust me with such intimate revelations.
He shuffled off and I went into the bathroom, switching on the light, and stood in front of the mirror, musing over what had just happened. The thought of Yura waking up in the dark, frightened and lonely, and coming into my room in the night without waking me, was very moving. Was it really conceivable that this kid was so considerate, so acutely aware of other people, that even in his own moment of distress, he had the presence of mind to think of others? The sheer altruism of that simple act was almost beyond me - this kid was only ten years old and yet had a maturity and wisdom way beyond his years. Yura was so remarkable. Sometimes he simply took my breath away.
It turned out to be a day where we both found out a lot about each other. After breakfast I thought I would use some of my old bonding strategies. There were plenty of activities I had employed when working with the street kids, just to promote good relations with them, to get them to trust me, and most of all to offer them some guidance on just doing very ordinary, unremarkable things. Some of those street kids lacked even the most basic social skills, and when you took them out into the community they could not relate to people on even the most fundamental level. Although Yura was not like that. Yura actually had very good social skills. He was mature and thoughtful and considerate, and from what I could see, was exceptionally astute and intelligent for his age. But I thought we would spend the day together and perhaps get to know each other better. The events of the morning had already set the tone for what followed, so I thought it appropriate somehow.
We spent the day engaged in various activities around the house. After breakfast we went down into the games room in the basement. The basement had a low ceiling, but was quite a large open space, with a small gym situated at one end, then a little walk-through lounge area with sofas and a cocktail bar in the middle. At the far end was a pool table and a darts board. It was an ideal place for hanging out or entertaining. We had not made much use of it so far. I asked Yura if he would like me to teach him how to play pool. He seemed fairly indifferent about it, but nevertheless agreed, although it was a pleasurable if at times frustrating experience. We circled the table, taking turns, chatting idly, and it allowed me to interact with him in a very intimate way. As we played, I showed him how to hold the cue, how to aim and how to shoot the balls into the pockets. I demonstrated, then I leaned in over his diminutive little body as he bent down and I guided his hands on the cue. His graceful little fingers curled lightly around the polished wood as he reached across the big table. When he practiced on his own, he missed the first few shots while he adjusted to the feel of the cue. When he did hit one of the balls, it was too hard, so that it bounced back off the cushion and went spinning across the table erratically. Yura looked up at me with a frown of frustration.
"Go on little buddy," I said, encouraging him, "try again."
He huffed, already losing patience with himself and looked away, annoyed. It never ceased to amaze me how easily little boys became frustrated, sometimes over the most trivial things.
"Go on, you can do it," I said, with a positive tone.
Yura looked back at me, clearly unsure. I just nodded emphatically, insisting that he have another go.
Resignedly, Yura leaned in and reached across the table, this time taking a few moments to focus. He took another shot, and this time he struck the ball slickly and with just the right amount of pressure. We both watched as it rolled smoothly and dropped straight into the pocket. I clapped my hands in congratulations.
Straightening up, Yura looked across at me with a satisfied grin. I nodded approvingly, and I saw the gratitude in his eyes, his frustration of a moment ago now clearly assuaged. Then he did something really quite unexpected. He stepped towards me and threw his arms around my waist, burying his face in my chest. It was a gesture of appreciation. His joy was palpable. For me, it was a lovely little boymoment. I ruffled his hair affectionately, pleased that he was so happy with his little achievement. I squeezed his shoulders, and wondered if this was maybe the first time anybody had ever shown this little boy any semblance of patience and encouragement.
Later, I suggested we do some cooking. I knew from experience that cooking was always a good bonding activity. It was reasonably safe and something we could do together without having to leave the house. I remember asking Yura if he liked tiramisu. He flashed me a puzzled expression and confessed that he didn't think he had ever tried it. Since tiramisu was my specialty, and didn't actually involve any cooking, I decided it would be the perfect recipe to get him involved. So it was that I found a rather nifty pair of aprons in the kitchen drawer: one had a Bart Simpson motif, which I gave to Yura. I took the other one which had Homer Simpson on it. I didn't particularly like Homer Simpson. I thought Homer Simpson was a dumbass. But I wore it anyway because I thought the shared theme lent us a sense of unity.
We managed to get all the ingredients together and assembled them all on the central island of the cavernous kitchen. I loved cooking, so I was able to appreciate the advantages of having such a well-equipped and spacious kitchen in the house. Yura looked quite cute in his apron, which I drew up around his waist because it was a little too long, and tied it for him. He quickly fell into his role, taking the task in hand quite seriously and I could see he was determined to give it his best shot. He was so compliant, so cooperative and enthusiastic. Why couldn't all boys be like Yura?
Soon we set into a comfortable little rhythm as we worked, mixing the mascarpone and arranging the sponge fingers. I gave him the task of dipping the sponge fingers into the hot chocolate and arranging them into the bottom of the tray. I always used hot chocolate instead of coffee because it was infinitely more appealing to young boys. As we worked, we chatted idly. Yura was talking about Vladik. He liked talking about Vladik. His whole face brightened and he always sounded upbeat and happy when he was talking of Vladik.
"Oh yeh, we were in a lot of videos together. That's why we became such good friends," Yura was saying, "Vladik was funny. He always made me laugh. Sometimes we were locked in the room together and we talked about escaping. We made up stories about how we would run away and what we would do when we got out. We talked about going to a place where there were no adults, where we could live together in peace, just us, with no one to make us do things we didn't want to do, and we could go out and play and just be ourselves. Vladik used to cuddle me in the night when I cried. He knew I was afraid of being alone. He looked after me."
I was stunned at how revealing that was. As I listened, I stirred the mascarpone mix, cradling the bowl. I slowed down and flashed him a pained, sympathetic look.
"You must have been very close," I remarked, probing a little.
He looked up, a freshly dipped sponge finger still suspended in his little hand.
"Vladik was my best friend," he said, emphatically, but didn't elaborate any further.
He was so sparing with some of his responses, that it was almost as though he deliberately censored himself from giving too much away. His pauses and his timing made his conversation quite dramatic. Talking to Yura felt quite theatrical at times.
He carried on arranging the sponge fingers in the tray, then drew a deep breath, maybe sensing that the conversation was getting a little heavy.
"What about you?" he asked, with a brighter tone in his voice, "Did you ever have a best friend?"
"Yes," I nodded, "A very long time ago."
I put the mixing bowl down and pulled out the leather wallet which was in my back pocket. I flipped it open, and showed Yura the photo I still kept in there. He wiped his hands on his apron, smearing it with little smudges of chocolate, then he moved around the corner of the island to stand next to me. He grabbed my open wallet and pulled it towards him. He stared for a few seconds at the photo of John. It wasn't even a particularly good photo - but it was all I had. It was just a head and shoulders shot, taken on a trip to Europe. He was standing on some windswept bridge when I took it, squinting into the sun, and he was smiling a toothy smile, all trim blond beard and sunglasses.
"Oh cool," said Yura, "Who's that?"
"That's John," I said, introducing him as though he was in the room with us, "He was my father, and my best friend."
"Cool," Yura said again, sounding pleased for me, "Where is he now?"
"He died," I said, plainly, and sat down on one of the high wooden stools, my open wallet still in my hand.
Yura looked sad.
"Oh. Sorry," he said, sounding really quite solicitous.
We went on looking at the photo together for a while longer. I could sense Yura mulling things over in his mind.
"You must have really loved him."
That was such an insightful statement that it caught me completely by surprise. It was so perceptive and mature. Yura knew. He understood immediately.
"Yes," I said, honestly, "He was my father, my teacher and my friend."
As I was sitting there, looking at the photograph, reminiscing over John, I will never forget what Yura did then. It is a moment that I will treasure and remember forever. He stood next to me for a few prolonged moments just looking at the photograph with me. Then, tentatively, he reached out and put his little palm on the back of my hand as it rested on the counter top, still holding the photo out in front of me. The warmth of his little hand on mine was strangely comforting. He looked at my face as he did so, as though watching for my reaction. He was so astute, so tuned-in to other people's feelings that he automatically sensed my emotions, and I took it as a gesture of his sympathy and solidarity. It was a touching little boymoment. It was an endless mystery to me that despite the wrongs this little boy had suffered, despite the awful hurt that had been done to him, he could be so capable of showing consideration to other people. I looked at him and smiled, and put my other hand over his, as though to thank him for his sensitivity and to acknowledge his gesture.
When the moment had passed, I put my wallet away in my back pocket and we carried on.
"I never had a father," Yura said, shifting back to the other side and picking up the sponge fingers again.
Now it was my turn to feel sorry for him. The way he said, "I never had a father," in such a resigned, matter-of-fact way, touched me deeply. It was as though he had come to terms with it as something that was lost forever. Sometimes the things he said left me breathless. His words were always couched in genuine childhood innocence, and yet he could also display extraordinary maturity and wisdom. He was such a paradox.
"I never had a proper family," he went on, "I grew up in a children's home. Maybe if there had been someone there to look after me..."
He let his words trail off, but then his chain of thought seemed to bring other memories to the fore.
"It was horrible in the children's home," he said, and he studiously continued arranging the sponge fingers in the bottom of the tray, "There was one man in particular, his name was Kirilenko. He used to like watching me pee."
He looked up at me with a quite serious stare, and blinked deliberately, his long eyelashes making a seductive down-up sweep.
"I still have trouble peeing. I can never do it in a public place."
I watched his expression change from detached conversation, to solemn contemplation, and then to pained reminiscence.
"Other times he would come into my bed at night and do stuff to me," he said, and I could see that even as the words left his mouth, they touched off a memory that was profoundly painful to him.
"It hurt," he went on, in a strained whisper.
His painful memory transformed into suppressed anger, and I could sense the rage in his expression. Poor boy. Not only had he been exploited by the pornographers, but his life even before that was characterized by institutionalized abuse. Regrettably, it was a familiar pattern.
I moved around and threw an arm around his shoulders, giving him an affectionate squeeze. It had not been my intention to revisit painful memories. I had only wanted him to unburden himself, but now all I had succeeded in doing was upsetting him. I cursed myself for being so tactless and stupid.
Yura had a lot of issues to contend with. His experiences had clearly affected him psychologically, although I remembered that a child psychotherapist had already been assigned to work with him, courtesy of the Moscow Police.
"You know that's the kind of thing you should talk to your therapist about," I suggested, giving his shoulders another squeeze.
He didn't seem impressed by that.
"I had one of those in Moscow," he said, almost contemptuously, "She didn't really help."
I let him go and moved away.
"Those people are trained and experienced. They can really help you if you give them a chance."
"I'd rather talk to YOU," he confessed, holding up his sticky hands, apparently happy with the arrangement of the sponge fingers.
"I'm not trained to help you with things like that," I said, discouraging the idea.
He looked up me appealingly.
"Then you should be. You'd be good at it," he said emphatically, "You understand."
He was looking at me in a very admiring way, and he paused, cocking his head thoughtfully.
"You know Mark, you're a really nice person."
I stared for a moment utterly amazed by his forthrightness and his ability to express himself so candidly and sincerely. I looked at him, standing there so cutely in that apron, the motif on his chest of the yellow-haired Bart Simpson, with that infuriatingly inane expression and that eternal orange t-shirt, sailing through the air on his skateboard.
"Thanks little buddy. That's a really nice thing to say."
And then I had to turn away. I felt the sting of tears in my eyes and I didn't want him to see me welling up. I stuck my knuckles firmly between my teeth and tried to choke back my emotions. Coming from the lips of a ten year old boy, it was probably one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me. But then Yura had a habit of doing that. So many of the things that Yura said managed to bring a tear to my eye.
The rest of the day passed off pretty uneventfully. It had been a long day, and we were both tired, so after dinner I encouraged Yura to go to bed early. I waited until he was in bed and turned his light out. I had time to slope off to the little office upstairs to catch up on some work. There was a small book-lined study at the other end of the upstairs hallway, with a computer desk and an impressive collection of books. It was perfect for catching up on messages and making calls or just some quiet time away from the rest of the house. I thought I had better check and see if my unit had been in touch, or if Nikolayev had left further instructions. I spent about an hour just catching up on emails and then thought I had better go to bed myself.
I returned to my room and decided to slip out onto the terrace for a bit. My bedroom, across the hall from Yura's room, had a convenient little terrace which overlooked the well-kept grounds at the back of the house. It was nice and cool out there, a balmy evening with a cool breeze - just the right climate for reflection. I was pleased with the way things were developing with Yura and I felt we were bonding really well. I decided to reward myself with a cigarette. I rarely smoked these days. My cigarettes were so few and far between that it was almost a special treat when I did allow myself one. That was another throwback to my life with John. He was very healthy. He exercised every day, played sports and swam. He was the one who got me into the routine of working out regularly, keeping fit and eating right. On the whole he taught me to be fairly disciplined. I had smoked the occasional joint, sometimes experimented with other things, but it never became a habit.
I was barely into my cigarette when I was startled by the glass door of the terrace sliding open behind me. It was Yura. He stepped out onto the terrace, leaving the sliding door wide open. He was barefoot and shirtless, as usual, wearing only his now familiar SpongeBob pajama bottoms.
"Hey little buddy, what....?"
"Couldn't sleep," he announced.
He paused on the threshold just watching me for a moment, and spotted the cigarette in my hand. He stepped towards me, and reached out, nodding towards the cigarette smoldering away between my fingers.
"You want this?"
He had wrested the smoldering white stick from between my fingers almost before I had finished speaking, and took a long, deep drag, savoring the smoke with all the aplomb of a seasoned smoker. He exhaled with relish, blowing a thin stream of blue smoke up into the air. Then he looked at me and put a finger to his lips. It was something to the effect that nobody was to know. I was delighted that he was building alliances with me. I nodded with a knowing smile, allowing myself the boyish pleasure of being in league with him.
I watched him as he smoked, not altogether surprised that he was out here now. It was getting late and I knew he was just stalling. He took a couple more drags and offered the cigarette back.
"It's okay, you finish it," I said, waving it away.
He thanked me and continued puffing away, turning to admire the view from the terrace. I stepped up next to him and we both continued to take in the view together. It was a clear, midnight blue sky, dotted with the tiny little pinholes of light of the many distant stars that were too numerous to count.
"Beautiful isn't it?" I ventured.
"Uh huh," he affirmed.
"Aren't you cold?" I asked him, touching his shirtless body gently on his upper arm.
He turned to me and smiled, shaking his head as though I had said something vaguely ridiculous, perhaps complimented by my concern. I reflected on the miraculous transformation in his mood in such a short time. I was seeing him smile more and more - a welcome counterpoint to the tears he had shed when he first arrived. He really did have a beautiful smile. His thin, pink lips parted just enough to expose his perfect little teeth, and tiny dimples formed in his cheeks just above the corners of his lips, like quotation marks. This little boy had something very special, and it was particularly evident when he smiled. It was something endearing and intriguing, at once charming and playful, yet complex and mysterious.
He continued smoking away and staring out into the grounds below, which stretched away before us into the darkness. Whilst he did so, he leaned over the balustrade, oblivious in his near-nakedness, surveying what was below and looking around inquisitively as though looking for something to do whilst he finished the cigarette. As he did so, I stepped back slightly and watched him. I was in awe of his beauty. There was already a hint of the slim waist and broad shoulders that were going to make him a very handsome man one day. I imagined how the pornographers must have relished ever having got hold of a kid like Yura. His looks would have been particularly prized, and he had no doubt suffered because of that. But even as these thoughts came to my mind, Yura flicked the spent cigarette over the balustrade and turned to look over at me. I stepped towards him, and we both turned and looked out together, leaning over the balustrade side by side, admiring the night sky. Then, without any prompting from me, he shuffled closer and I felt him put his little arm around my waist, gently tilting his sweet head against my elbow. It felt like such a natural and affectionate gesture. We had shared so many hugs and tender moments that it seemed the only appropriate response was to reciprocate by putting my arm around his shoulders. He was such a tactile little boy. He enjoyed closeness and was quite responsive to gestures and touch. Despite what he had suffered, he still appreciated and seemed to welcome bodily contact. I pulled his shirtless little body closer to me and couldn't help stroking his smooth back in a very fatherly way, rubbing him up and down a little as though to warm him up. We stayed linked together, enjoying the view and each other's presence and we remained like that for a good long time. It was another perfect little boymoment.
It was Yura who broke the reverie. Even as his head was tilted against me, his thick hair brushing against my arm, he took hold of my wrist and squeezed it, as if to attract my attention. He looked up at me longingly and questioningly.
"Can I sleep in your room tonight?"
His request was very plain, and was delivered simply and innocently. It tripped off his little tongue so easily, it was as though it was the most natural thing in the world. And yet it caught me off guard. I wondered if it had anything to do with his fear of being alone. He wet the bed and was prone to nightmares, so he certainly had plenty of reasons not to sleep in his own bed. Then, a more sinister side of me wondered if he was only saying that because he had been groomed to think that way. Perhaps, after what he had been through, he had been conditioned to seek the affections of older men. And I wondered if maybe there was something in my expression, my demeanor, that had given him an unwitting sign, fearing that he may have misinterpreted my intentions towards him. But I dismissed it. Yura was more perceptive than that. He was too intelligent, too aware, and I had no doubt that he knew I could never do anything untoward with him. No, his request was an innocent one, but one which immediately threw me into a quandary and I was torn for a few moments between on the one hand feeling that having Yura asleep in my room was not really appropriate, and wanting to accede to his request and assuage his fears on the other.
"Okay," I said, "You can get into my bed until you fall asleep, and then I'll put you in your own bed. How about that?"
Still holding onto my wrist, Yura squeezed it tightly, and nodded acquiescently. I guess he thought it was as much as he could hope for and accepted my compromise. I could feel the urgency in his grip. I stared down benevolently into his hopeful little face. Looking down at him, I recognized his expression and the needy way he was clinging to me. He had that familiar look, the look I had learned to recognize from the street kids. It was the same indefatigable specter that was ever-present in their eyes. That haunted, hungry look. The look of fear and neglect. The look of neediness and longing - the longing for warm, nurturing, fatherly reassurance. I saw the way his piercingly blue eyes were shining up at me, like two little liquid pools of pure innocence, and I wondered how anybody could ever bring themselves to harm such a beautiful creature.
Coming in from the terrace, I closed the sliding boor behind us. Once inside, Yura let go of my wrist and left me standing in the middle of the room. Silently, he went over to the light switch, reached up and dimmed the lights a little, then single-mindedly pulled back the covers on my bed and slipped inside. I sat on the bed next to him, on top of the covers and still fully clothed, and waited for him to fall asleep. Yura wriggled about a little under the comforter, trying to settle, and then turned slightly onto his side. He laid with his head nestling on the pillow, looking over at me. He smiled contentedly, apparently reassured by my presence. It was an expression of his trust and evidence of our budding rapport that he was comfortable enough to fall asleep with me watching over him. I looked down at him, peering deeply into his crystal blue eyes, with those long seductive eyelashes, and I couldn't help reaching over and giving him a gentle stroke, lightly tousling his thick black hair, brushing it gently off his face. He seemed to like that. Then he suddenly piped up, and spoke very quietly.
"You're so kind to me," he said, almost in a whisper, "I've never met anybody as nice as you."
It was said with such honesty and sincerity, with the trusting innocence that only a boy of his age could possess. It was the second time he had complimented me in that way today. And once again, in that inimitable way I soon learned characterized so many of the things he said, it brought to my eye a little tear of emotion.
Soon, Yura was quiet. He eventually closed his eyes and I sensed his little body relax completely. I watched and listened, captivated by his breathing, which slowed almost to a sigh. His breathing became long and deep, and I could see his smooth back rising and falling very slowly with each sighing breath. The childish exuberance and the trials of the day had at last caught up with him. He had finally succumbed to his boyish exhaustion and was asleep in no time.
As he slept, I contemplated this strange paradox of a boy, this enigmatic little person that was so full of contrasts and contradictions. Yura was a little boy with a lot of problems. He was prone to wetting the bed and was plagued by nightmares. He was a pivotal element in this international police operation, possibly the last surviving witness in the entire investigation. His life was in flux and his future was uncertain. On the surface, he was just a little boy that was embroiled in events that he had no control over. But to me, he was a prince, a very special little person that I absolutely adored. As I sat there, propped up on the bed with this lovely little boy resting next to me, I felt a very special connection with him. I was so enamored with this little boy, who had come into my life in the most unusual circumstances, and whom I had met barely more than a couple of days ago. He was making such an impact on me that I was beginning to feel a deep and tangible bond developing. I didn't know how long I was going to be on this assignment, or how long this wonderful little boy was going to be in my life, but I knew then, despite the impossibility of the situation, that I wanted it to go on. During the course of only a matter of days, this little boy had made such an impression on me, with his complexity, his vitality, his precocity and his charm. I was deeply drawn to him. It was a strange feeling, all the more unfathomable in its strangeness because he was so young. Watching this little bundle sleeping there so serenely was an exquisite pleasure, and at this moment I felt suddenly very protective of him. I wanted to take care of him and protect him for as long as I could. In a silent gesture of affection, I reached over and drew the bedcovers up over him, and let him sleep, for the moment at least, peaceful and content.