© 2013 Cosmo

This Story is works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Chapter 3: Remembering Joey

After dropping Ben off, and the impromptu encounter with his somewhat erratic mother, I made a short detour before heading home. My heart sank because I remembered I had meant to pop into the grocery store on the way home. It was only because I knew that at this moment in time there was very little in my refrigerator except some stale cheese and the usual array of almost depleted condiments. There were probably some vegetables that were no doubt past their best, but nothing I could really make a meal out of. Not that I was in the mood for cooking. It was probably going to have to be one of those miserable little microwave meals, conservatively portioned into a little plastic tub, hermetically sealed with a film lid that was always impossible to peel off without resorting to a sharp knife. To think that I once fancied myself as a gourmet chef, cooking up all sorts of interesting and nutritional meals. But that was when I had a reason to cook. That was when going to the store was something that I relished, before it became just a mundane chore. Going to the store used to be a focus for Joey and I, for what can be more exciting than negotiating what you would like to eat? And Joey and I loved cooking, so it was also like a little hobby for us, buying ingredients and looking for obscure items from the long lists we made up in advance. We looked forward to our afternoons in the kitchen, clad in matching aprons, chopping and stirring and mixing. It was a chance to spend time absorbed in something we loved doing together. Alas, those days were gone. Now there were no lists, no shopping expeditions, no long sweaty afternoons in a steamy kitchen. Cooking was merely a nutritional necessity and shopping was no longer a fun pastime or an excuse to spend time with my boy. It was simply a tiresome errand that had to be accomplished.

The rain was still coming down hard even as I pulled into the tiny parking lot at the convenience store. I pulled my collar up as I emerged from the car, figuring that the entrance was close enough not to warrant the umbrella, and dashed inside.

The local store was one of those independently owned grocery stores that was always slightly overstocked and where the aisles were claustrophobically narrowed by piles of additional products that wouldn't fit on the already bulging shelves. There was no real thought behind the merchandising in one of these places, since products seemed to be placed willy-nilly wherever there was empty space. There wasn't the patronizing and slightly cynical promotional verbiage of the larger, more organized grocery chains. The upside of course was that you were not relentlessly bombarded at every turn by luminous signage imploring you to spend more money and proclaiming all manner of discounts and special offers.

No sooner had I entered the store, I was reminded all the more starkly why I really didn't like being in these places at all. I was immediately confronted by one of the things that made it all the more of a disincentive, and that was seeing the other dads in there with their boys. Sure enough, as I was deliberating over what to have for dinner, procrastinating for rather too long over buying a readymade pizza, I saw a tall, handsome dad with his arm resting ever so naturally on his boy's shoulder. I guess the boy must have been about twelve or thirteen. The age that Joey would have been if he was still around. They were coming towards me, ambling down the aisle together with such enviable familiarity, like you could tell they were physically very comfortable with each other. And this boy had all the handsome attributes of his dad - the same wholesome features, the thick, carefully groomed head of hair, the well-defined limbs and long, sturdy legs - and was dressed in clean, immaculately pressed casuals, with expensive limited-edition sneakers. Yes, here was a boy who was clearly loved and well cared for, who probably had a myriad of after school pursuits that his dad encouraged him in, and who went on weekends away in a big family SUV and who was lavished with love and affection by his proud dad. And on seeing that, I remembered how it used to be for me, when I had caught the envious stares of the other dads, sneaking an approving glance at my boy. Joey was a beautiful boy. Wherever we went people always commented on his cuteness and good looks. I remembered how proud I was of that, how pleasing it was to be able to say that I was his dad, and how much satisfaction I got from being seen with him. Alas, those days were gone.

Suddenly depressed and demoralized, I regretted ever coming in here. I grabbed the nearest pizza, tossed it into the hand basket with the few other oddities I had acquired, and made straight for the checkout, resolved to get out of there as quickly as I decently could. I threw a couple of greenbacks at the young cashier in such haste that he must have wondered what the hell was wrong with me. But that was an occupational hazard these days. It was impossible to be out in public without being repeatedly reminded of what I had lost. As long as there were boys in the world, I would forever be reminded of Joey and the fact that he was gone.

It was still raining when I eased the car into the garage and burst into the kitchen trying to carry my grocery bag and the big pile of student assignments that I had brought home to work on over the weekend. I dumped everything on the counter, switched on the light, and immediately went upstairs to kick off my shoes and get changed. And so it went - ahead of me was another evening of pottering about the house on my own, and nothing but a long weekend of solitude to look forward to.

The house held so many reminders of the little boy that had once laughed and played within these walls. Memories of Joey were everywhere. Everything reminded me of a life unlived, an existence cut short, dreams never to come true and aspirations never to be realized. Sometimes the loss was difficult to bear. Sometimes the thought that I was going to have to go through the rest of my life without Joey seemed overwhelming. The many long years that I had left to live out my life seemed like a chore, a lifetime sentence, an endless sea of uncountable days that I was to suffer the loss of being without him. How would I ever live out those days knowing I could never see him or speak to him again? How could I ever acquiesce to living in a world without him in it? Sometimes the finality of it was just so cruel, so inconceivable, that it brought me dangerously close to questioning the point of my own existence. For how could anything ever matter at all without Joey? None of the beauty and wonder of the world was of any consequence without Joey to share it with, knowing that he should have been here with me now, in my presence, in this very house, with his whole life left to live. What was the point of anything now? Oh Joey, why did you leave me? You were so perfect and you made my life so complete. Damn you Joey. Why did you have to die?

Yes, I was still grieving. I knew that. I had never quite recovered from Joey's death. Oh, I had accepted it. I accepted it the day we learned of his illness. I had even tried bereavement counseling, but it was not for me. There was certainly no shortage of experts offering help and advice. There were all manner of therapists and self help groups; the usual proliferation of determined do-gooders that genuinely felt they could make a difference. In most cases they probably could. But it did nothing for me. I had tried the bereavement groups for those who had lost children, but they seemed to be frequented by couples who somehow appeared to enjoy wallowing in their own self-pity. It was as though they came week after week just to reopen their wounds, talking endlessly of 'closure' and 'coming to terms', or sat around in a circle week after week repeating the same old stuff, talking of how their child was with God now; or trying to make sense of it all by convincing themselves that God needed another angel. That seemed to me to be a ridiculous notion. I mean, if he really needed another angel, couldn't he have just MADE one? It was beyond me how some of these people had been attending the group for so long, yet they were still no closer to any resolution. After the first few weeks I just stopped going. What was the point of it all anyway? How could they ever really know how Joey's death had affected me? They couldn't know the rudiments of my relationship with Joey. My relationship with Joey was special. Joey was not like other boys. Most people never really believed the depth of the love I had for him. Because Joey was adopted, they seemed to regard that as in some way not as genuine, like my love for him was somehow contrived because he wasn't my own flesh and blood. But that wasn't true at all. Sometimes people asked me if I loved Joey any less because he was adopted. Sometimes I wondered about that myself. I wondered if I could ever have loved that boy any more than I did. I wondered if that was even possible. I only knew that I loved that boy with all my strength and all my heart. When I looked at him, and saw how beautiful and intricate and perfect he was, how intelligent and deep he was, and how he was so full of vitality and precocity and mischief, I couldn't say I loved him any less. I loved him as much as if he was my own. I loved him as much as any father could love a son, perhaps even more. Considering the deep emotional and physical attachment we had, in some ways our relationship was far deeper, far more profound and stronger, and was all the more meaningful because of the fact that I had chosen him, that we came to be together as a result of the adverse circumstances he had had to overcome, an aspect of fatherhood which most fathers never had reason to ponder.

Sometimes, on these long lonely evenings, I went into Joey's room. Sometimes I just wanted to be where I could most feel his presence, and there was nothing more personal to him than his bedroom. Sometimes, when I was feeling particularly low, I would go in and just look around, trying to imagine that Joey was still there, maybe sitting cross-legged on the floor, headphones clamped around his head, oblivious to the outside world, lost amongst a pile of scattered CDs, all of them divorced from their cases. Maybe he would be at the little workstation in the corner, playing on some computer game or chatting endlessly to his friends online. Or maybe he would be stretched out on his bed, lying on his side propped up on one elbow, reading a book, or perhaps sitting up with a big mound of pillows behind his head, laughing sporadically at some sci-fi flick he had probably seen countless times already. Sometimes I laid on his bed, gaining comfort from occupying the same space that he would have done. I recalled the times we had lain here together, when I had stayed to watch over him until he fell asleep. I still had this little imaginary indentation on my shoulder, the space where Joey's sweet head would have lain, resting on me, his little body draped across me as he slept, rising and falling with my own breathing. Sometimes I even peeled back the covers and got into his bed, burying my face into his pillow trying to detect if there was any hint of his smell remaining on his bedclothes. I don't know if there was, but I was comforted by the thought that they still retained some of his essence - that some semblance of his aura was still on them.

So this was the pattern of my days. I cooked the ready made pizza, and found it a struggle to finish it, preferring instead to ease my plight with a big highball of bourbon. That certainly took the edge off the hopelessness of my predicament. Indeed, sometimes it was the only thing that got me through the evening. A few of those and I was ready to seek refuge in my own bed. That night, I went back to my own room feeling lonely and abandoned, and I stiffly, hesitantly got into my bed. I grabbed one of my oversized pillows and hugged it against me. I laid there and buried my face into the cool, yielding softness and clutched it tightly, wishing that it was Joey. At times like these the deprivation was so deep that it was almost like I carried this heavy weight around inside me. The grief of losing Joey was like a heavy stone on my heart, so tangible that it was like a physical pain that never went away. And sometimes, I slept like that, with the pillow in my arms and my heart hurting because I missed Joey so much.

Gradually, and quite inadvertently, my thoughts turned to Ben. I thought about our encounter earlier when he had come to see me after school. I almost felt guilty for sending him away to walk home in the rain. Even as I watched him leave the classroom, I knew that Ben was a young man with problems. In fact Ben had aroused my concern by his constant hanging around after school and between lessons. It was like there was something on his mind. I had noticed it the very first time he did it. I didn't know the full extent of his problems, but something told me that, given time, Ben would eventually confide in me. Why else would he be hanging around after school trying to solicit my attention?

But I was glad I had dropped him home. Despite the negative vibes I got from his feckless mother, the memory of it left me with a lingering feeling of joy. I didn't really know why. He was just a student whom I happened to have driven home after school. He was an unfortunate boy with a dubious background who came from a disjointed household. It was nothing new. I had known plenty of boys from dysfunctional families. Scores of them had been through my classroom over the years. Indeed, some of them had been memorable for their sheer truculence and disruptiveness. But Ben wasn't like that. Ben wasn't the prescribed delinquent with a checkered history of truancy and minor offending. Ben wasn't the usual troubled youth with an inherent distrust of adults and a token grudge against authority. No, Ben was more multifaceted than that. Ben was deeper, more perceptive, more aware.

I thought a lot about Ben that whole weekend. And every time I pondered the enigma of this boy, the very thought of him gave me goose bumps. Not the goose bumps of something sad or sinister, but the goose bumps of something warm and fuzzy; a strange cocktail of emotions that conjured up feelings of needing to nurture and protect this boy; feelings of wanting to father him and minister to him; feelings that lay within that occluded twilight zone that tarried somewhere between fatherhood and companionship. That was a nice feeling, but one that was slightly daunting and risky. Risky because I knew that Ben was a veritable minefield of problems and pitfalls, and daunting because it struck me that the only other time I had felt this same heady cocktail of emotions had been the day I first set eyes on Joey. It was the same dizzying feeling of certainty and knowingness, the same inexplicable effusion of love and affection I had felt then.

* * * * * *

I still remember the very first time I saw Joey at the children's home. It was quite a memorable occasion, not more so than because the home itself was run by Sandra, who was a friend of mine. I was a residential children's home inspector, which was something I did in addition to my regular teaching job. Residential children's home inspectors were mostly part time, and many were from a teaching background, like me. It didn't take up too much of my spare time and brought in additional income. It gave me an opportunity to travel about, all expenses paid, and I got to visit some interesting places. Sandra had landed a very well paid job as Housemother of this residential children's home way out in the leafy suburbs, and it seemed to suit her well. This was the first time I had visited this particular residential home, and the first since Sandra took up her new position.

The home itself was called South Park. It struck me as ironic that this particular establishment should have the same name as the infamous TV series, though I knew it had probably been there long before the controversial animation was even conceived. The building itself was very imposing, almost gothic-looking in appearance, and quite forbidding from the outside. Perhaps it had once been the ancestral home of some well-to-do family, the sprawling, purpose-built mansion of some accomplished business magnate who had more money than style. Sandra greeted me in the parking lot, which was merely an area of gravel-covered yard at the front of the building.

Sandra was a large, robust black woman, with a loud foghorn of a voice and ample breasts. She was the quintessential earth-mother, and her large stature instantly implied a nurturing benevolence, and was at the same time very imposing. She had tight black afro hair that was always shorn fairly short and wore long, dangly earrings that always distracted you when you talked to her.

"Julian! How are you?" Sandra cawed, sounding genuinely pleased to see me.

Sandra was one of those types that always had to hug everybody, and as she stepped up to welcome me, she leaned in for a quick embrace and a cheek to cheek kiss. I didn't mind. I had known Sandra for a long time. She and I were at university together when we were both young, fresh-faced and idealistic students. She had chosen to go the social work route, and I had gone into teaching. Though we saw each other only very occasionally, I considered her to be a very good friend.

"Very well," I said, "And you?" as we stepped apart to get a good look at one other.

It had been a good few months since we had last seen each other. Thank goodness our work still gave us reason to stay in touch.

Sandra showed me inside, our feet crunching on the gravel as we walked from the car, and we talked animatedly as we went.

Sandra invited me up to her little office which was just off the first floor landing, a poky little space which was overflowing with books. On the walls were Sandra's framed diplomas. A large oak desk took up most of the space, and was covered with piles of books, papers and manila folders.

"Take a seat," said Sandra, gesturing to the chairs by the coffee table.

There was a small, round coffee table and two chairs over to one side. Even the coffee table had a pile of books on it. The small bookcase was almost creaking under the weight of books, stuffed to the gunwales with books and papers. There was a small, high window at one end of the room, which was too high to look out of, and even the window sill had books on it.

Sandra made tea and we sat for a while catching up on our news. She told me that she had only recently taken up this position, and had been at South Park for about six months. The home itself had just undergone a major shakeup, because of the serious allegations that had plagued her predecessors. All the former staff at South Park had been suspected of child abuse and corruption. There were rumors of sexual exploitation, sex parties, beatings and rapes. The local press had of course whipped up the usual hysteria, which only inflamed the situation. Some of the alleged victims had given statements to the police, but their testimonies were thought to be too unreliable. Most of them were troubled young boys with a history of dishonesty. Their statements were full of holes and none of them corroborated each other. Some of their stories were so incredible that they invited ridicule. All the allegations were followed up. Nothing was overlooked, but the police investigation had revealed nothing. No charges were ever brought, though it was felt that this was largely due to lack of any forensic evidence. Even though no one was charged or convicted, all the former staff at South Park were either dismissed or resigned. There was enough evidence of financial mismanagement to justify a clean sweep. It was generally felt that a completely new administration was needed, to restore confidence and morale at the home, and Sandra was the vanguard of the new changes. She had brought in her own team of new staff, and was gradually getting South Park back to normal and out of the headlines.

After taking tea with Sandra, she showed me around and I got down to business, putting my inspector's aura on and taking out my clipboard from my leather briefcase. I had a checklist of things to inspect and report back on. There were forty places at South Park, all boys, all of whom had their own rooms. They lived and went to school on the premises. My job was to inspect the residential and educational facilities, and make notes using a checklist. The inspection itself went very well, and I ran through the whole gamut of criteria, everything from checking fire extinguishers to the food in the cupboards. I looked at the children's case files and the staff log books to check that everything was up to date and in order.

Later, when I had gathered as much information as I could and made copious notes on the facilities, Sandra took me on a tour of the communal areas. Outside, around the back of the building, there was a large open area. This was where the boys spent their leisure and break times. There was a big asphalt yard, and beyond that there was a ball court, surrounded by a high fence which was used for playing tennis and basketball and the like. To one side there was a climbing frame, where the younger boys were being supervised by one of the other members of staff. I surveyed the yard and saw from a distance how some of the boys had spread themselves around and were variously either running about with a little tennis ball, or were clambering all over the climbing frame. The yard echoed with the shrill screams of little boys having fun.

The back of the building opened out onto the yard through a set of double doors, and we moved over towards the open doors, still chatting. We were about to walk past when I heard a high-pitched shout emanate from inside and a large redheaded boy dashed out, narrowly avoiding running into me. He looked like he was running away from something.

"Gary, slow down!" Sandra shouted after him.

As we came past the open door, I peered into the room. It was largely empty, with little padded sofas and beanbags laid out, and various toys and games for the boys to play with. And there, huddled alone on the floor, was a little boy looking sullen and hurt. He was sitting with his legs splayed out, and before him was an upturned Monopoly board. It appeared that he had been amusing himself on his own, but the redheaded boy had upset the board, so that all the little plastic pieces were scattered around about. The little boy sat there, surveying the scattered pieces which only moments ago he had so proudly and meticulously arranged on the board. He looked on the verge of tears. But he was studiously holding himself together, trying very hard not to be overwhelmed, bravely riding out the upset. I felt so sorry for him sitting there forlornly.

As Sandra and I stood at the door talking, I watched this little boy for a while, struck by how pretty he was. I guessed he was about six or seven years old, with large, round eyes and a small pointed, pixie-like nose. But the most striking thing about him was that his hair was such a light shade of blond it was almost white. It was longish and slightly unkempt and covered his cute head in a thick, ruffled mop of whiteness. It was probably in need of a trim, I thought. On closer inspection, I decided he looked rather soiled and neglected all over. For one thing he was wearing loose pants which were jutting out at the knees - a sure sign of continuous wear, and a rather grubby looking singlet which had stains on it. A singlet was essentially underwear, and since the boy had no socks on, he looked almost undressed. On top of that, he kept wiping his nose with the back of his hand. His nose was running, and he seemed to have a constant little crust of drying liquid on his top lip, which was obviously irritating him. I watched the boy for a while, still smarting from the upset of having his solo game of Monopoly so rudely curtailed, and yet he determinedly set about resetting the Monopoly board and got on his hands and knees collecting up the scattered pieces. In the few seconds that I watched him, I wondered why this boy looked so neglected. I wondered why he was inside, when all the other kids were outside, and why he was on his own. I don't know why, but my heart just melted for the little guy.

"Mind if I talk to him?" I asked Sandra.

"Be my guest," she replied.

I went into the almost empty room and got down on my knees to talk to the boy.

"Hi there," I said, in a bright, loud, confident tone.

He seemed intent on placing the pieces back on the board and didn't raise his eyes to look at me, as though he was resolved to allow no interruptions.

"My name's Julian. What's your name?" I asked him.

He didn't reply, just went right on with his game.

I sat down on the floor opposite him, not ready to give up so easily, and I started picking up some of the little plastic houses and hotels and put them back in the middle of the board for him. I watched his eyelashes as he was looking down and he definitely glanced up to see me do it. Then I picked up the scattered cards and started sorting them into 'chance' and 'community chest' piles. I spotted him glance over momentarily, anxious not to be seen looking, but pretended to be preoccupied with the pieces on his side of the board. I deliberately put the two piles of cards in the wrong place on the board. He saw me do it and that seemed to cause him to stop and look up. He had the most beautiful, bright, cobalt blue eyes and two little smudges of whitish blond eyebrows, the same shade as the rest of his hair. That was accentuated by a high forehead which gave him a brave, smoldering, haunting expression. He also had lips that were strawberry red in color, and quite a pronounced Cupid's Bow which gave him a beautiful little rosebud mouth. A pity his top lip was shiny with the liquid running out of his nose. But runny nose aside, he was an extremely good looking boy. Defiantly, and I thought very comically, he steeled his jaw and pursed his little lips, giving me a look of mock exasperation at where I had placed the cards, and emphatically swapped the little piles of cards into their rightful places. I gave a little laugh, exhaling sharply through my nose.

"Sorry," I said, and decided I'd better leave him to it.

He didn't reply, just carried on tidying up the board. I knew from experience that you couldn't get a boy to talk to you if he didn't want to. I helped to gather up the toy banknotes and to shuffle the piles of little notes together. Then after quite a long time, he spoke.

"That's okay," he said, without looking up.

He spoke to me! And he had such a cute little boy voice, so high-pitched it was almost cartoon-like. My heart soared with joy.

I put the toy banknotes down on the board for him and carried on watching him for a good long time. I observed the precision with which his little hands sorted through the piles of toy money. His nimble little fingers were sorting and counting the notes, meticulously placing them into separate piles for each denomination. I admired his patience and his attention to detail.

As I watched this fascinating boy, I noticed how he was sitting with his legs spread out before him, and he was leaning well forward over the game board, his little back arched over in concentration. His bare little boy feet were pointing towards me. His soles were dirty, but his little toes were so neat and rounded and perfect, just like the rest of him. Beneath his grubby singlet I could see his exposed chest and neck and shoulders. His composition was extremely pleasing. I could see the beginnings of the shallow little groove that ran down the centre of his chest, disappearing under the low front of his singlet. His little body was so tight and lean, with thin little arms and such good muscle definition that hinted at what a beautiful preteen boy he was growing into.

I decided to do what I always did when trying to build bridges with new boys. I took out a packet of jelly candy from my inside pocket. I took one and started chewing on it, then I offered him one, across the game board. He looked, but didn't stop to take one. I knew from my training that some disturbed or traumatized kids wouldn't take anything if it was offered directly. So I prized out one of the brightly colored jelly sweets from the packet and left it on the center of the board, directly in front of him. He paused momentarily from his activities to pick it up. He popped it into his mouth without hesitation and bit into it, his little cheeks bulging as he chewed. But he didn't say anything.

His reticence bothered me a little, so I got up and went back over towards the door where I was out of earshot of the boy. Sandra was stood looking out of the open door, still watching the kids in the yard.

"What's the story with that little boy?" I asked her.

Sandra turned and looked at me with a rather bemused expression, then gazed past me at the little blond boy on the floor. It was strange, I thought, that she didn't seem too concerned. Perhaps because she saw these kind of incidents every day she had become a little desensitized to it.

"Oh that's Joey," she said, "One of our ongoing enigmas. We don't know much about him. He came to us with no file, no case history. We don't even know his real name. He rarely speaks and won't really talk to anybody."

"How old is he?"

"He's eight," said Sandra, "but he's small for his age."

"Why is he here? Surely he should be in a foster placement?"

Sandra shook her head.

"He's had endless foster placements. The last one broke down two days ago."

"What happened?" I asked, curious.

"The foster carers couldn't cope. He went off on a tantrum and they couldn't subdue him. He was hysterical, so they had to bring him back here."

I was horrified.

"What? Like returning faulty goods to the store?"

Sandra smiled, clearly thinking that a little melodramatic.

"It wasn't a good match," she said, anxious not to cast aspersions.

I got the impression she was downplaying what really happened.

"How could the social workers get it so wrong?"

"He's a difficult case," said Sandra, "No one can make any progress with him. The trouble is, we know he's keeping something to himself, but he just won't talk about it."

Then Sandra turned away from the boy, and stepped closer to me, as if to confide something.

"One thing I'm sure of," she murmured, quietly, "Is that something awful happened to that little boy. He's probably severely traumatized. But we just don't know what it is."

As I stood with Sandra, listening to her telling me about this little boy's plight, I watched him from across the room, still studiously playing with the Monopoly stuff, intermittently moving the tokens on the board and rolling the dice, quite happily playing a game all by himself, and something within me was profoundly moved. I don't know why. I don't know how. It wasn't a sentiment I was easily given to, but something about this boy struck me deeply. It was the strangest of feelings. I was suddenly and inexplicably overwhelmed with a vast and overpowering effusion of love for this little boy. It was so tangible and so profound, that it stayed with me for a very long time afterwards.

Before I left, I went back over to Joey and reached down, placing my remaining packet of jelly candy onto the Monopoly board for him, as a little token of my affection - alas, all I had to give him at that moment.

"For you," I said.

And just as I turned and stepped away, he spoke after me:

"Thank you," he said simply, in his pretty treble voice.

I turned back to look at him and he was already focusing back on his game, not looking up at me at all. But something told me that he had seen me out of the corner of his eye, and I smiled to myself.

"You're welcome," I said, as I walked away.

And that was my very first meeting with Joey.

But, thank goodness it was not the last.

I visited South Park again some six months later, when I fully expected Sandra to tell me that Joey had moved on. Most of the boys were found placements within a very short time, so I was stunned to learn that Joey was still there. It was worrying, but secretly I was jubilant. It was almost as if I had been waiting to see him again and I was overjoyed that he was still there.

The second time I saw Joey, I knew I was going to take the opportunity to get to know him a little better. One of the things I had full remit to do during an inspection was to ask any of the boys at random if he would like to show me his room, so I could see what the living conditions were like. I was free to ask any resident anything I wanted. Sandra was not supposed to accompany me here, as I was required to get a completely uninhibited view from the residents and they were supposed to feel free to tell me what they thought about it in confidence. It also encouraged whistle-blowing, one of a number measures implemented by the new regime at South Park. I knew straight away that I was going to ask Joey. It was a way of getting to spend some time with him one-to-one and an opportunity to find out a little more about him. So, when I had finished my inspection, I asked Sandra to see if Joey would agree to see me.

Sandra took me to Joey's room and she knocked respectfully and went in. I could hear her negotiating with Joey for a few seconds, asking him if he wouldn't mind showing me his room. Luckily he said "Sure", and I was promptly ushered inside. Sandra left me to it, and tactfully withdrew, gently closing the door behind her. Joey was sitting on his bed expectantly, his cobalt blue eyes shining like two little gems, a contrast to that whitish blond hair that somehow seemed fuller and thicker than before. It was certainly neater than last time, a little shorter and rather more carefully groomed. He seemed quite nicely dressed and very relaxed. That was always a good sign. I always noted their appearance, their clothes and their grooming. It was a good indicator of how well they were coping and indeed how well they were taken care of. To my great delight, Joey confessed to having recognized me from our first encounter.

Joey let me sit on his little bed, which was quite low, and I surveyed the room. The resident's bedrooms were quite functional, with a built-in closet in one corner, a little writing desk over by the window, and a little washbasin and mirror in the other corner. Joey's things were scattered round about, and there was plenty of evidence of his creativity from the many colored drawings that were haphazardly taped to the wall above his bed.

In complete contrast to our first encounter, Joey was this time very talkative and outgoing and made conversation very easily. He had come a long way from the taciturn and aloof boy I had observed first time around. He seemed to have made himself at home here, and was at ease with the regime and the other boys. He enjoyed telling me about his life and the things he was interested in. Nothing beats idle boys-talk. He insisted on showing me his electronic keyboard. Sitting cross-legged on his rumpled bed, he demonstrated his rendition of 'Yellow Submarine'. He was really quite good. It was delightful to see how his nimble fingers flew across the keys. I noticed he had a little model of a Ferrari Formula One car on his dresser, so we talked about motor racing for a while. He was into cars, especially sports cars and supercars. To my delight, we had discovered a mutual hobby. He was a very interesting and engaging little boy and I chatted to him for a good long time. I found myself totally absorbed by him, and was amazed by his capacity to draw me into his little world. He had such an infectious personality, and was so utterly engaging, that he took me right out of myself and made me forget all the circumstances of my life. All that mattered, in all the time I was with him, was him and me in that room, talking. I swear I had never known anyone who could do that, who could make me forget everything else and focus my attention solely on living for the moment. For the first time I realized there was something quite special about this little boy, something inexplicable. He had an indefinable quality, something extraordinary and profound which I had never before encountered.

Meeting Joey again was wonderful. Oh, the joy of that brief time we spent together! He was such a pleasant and charming boy. But I felt so sorry for him. I couldn't understand why he was still here. According to Sandra, Joey was frequently overlooked for a foster care placement and claimed that he was difficult to place. It wasn't until that second visit that it became clear to me that it was up to me to intervene. It was as if something in my heart told me that I had to do something for this boy, that maybe he was meant to be with me. It was stupid. I was a confirmed bachelor - I had no space for kids or partners in my life. It was the most outrageous idea ever. And yet I knew that it was something I had to pursue. Seeing Joey that second time, having made his acquaintance and having had the opportunity to chat to him in the intimacy of his little room, to have actually made some small inroad into getting to see his real personality, simply reaffirmed the same sentiment that I had experienced the first time we met. I still remembered how the impact of our first meeting had stayed with me for so long afterwards, how his presence lingered. It only consolidated the fact that I had fallen secretly and incontrovertibly in love with him.

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