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Chapter 12: Recovery
Over the next few days, as I battled with the flu, my condition deteriorated. Reputedly, I was getting better, but actually I felt worse than ever. I was still achy and feverish and spent much of the time feeling dizzy and nauseous. My head was very congested and I was constantly coughing and sneezing. I couldn't eat anything, and when I did manage to swallow something, I invariably threw it back up again later. I slept a lot of the time, descending into a deep delirium where I would toss and turn, unable to settle, sometimes throwing off the covers because I was overheating, at others snuggling deep into the bed because I was unable to get warm. I seemed to have a constant patch of damp sweat on my temples. The worst thing was that I couldn't think straight. I was barely aware of time passing, of what time of day it was or what day of the week it was, as though I had lost all synchronization with the real world. I was continually tired and became so weak that I couldn't even get out of bed. Simply getting up to go to the bathroom was exhausting. Julian encouraged me, but it was a painstaking and time consuming task. I could barely stand up, and it took all the energy I had just to walk across the room.
This period of disengagement with the real world also provided an opportunity to reflect on my life. I was aware that everything was in a state of flux while I recovered, and that there were things that would need to be resolved once I was better. In my moments of clarity I laid in bed and pondered my predicament. Sometimes I stared out of the window at the sky, content to let the world carry on without me. Out there, my life had disintegrated, or at any rate the old life I had known. I wondered if I ever could or would go back to it. And if not, I speculated on what was going to happen to me. I had plenty of time to run through the various scenarios in my mind. In doing so, I also could not forget the terrible events that had led to me being here. I recalled random scenes from the dreadful confrontation with my mom. I tried to make sense of what had happened. But there was no making sense of it. I was unable to forget the awful things that she said, and most of all the fear in Petey's eyes.
One of the nicer things about staying with Julian, apart from not having to go to school, was that Julian spent a lot of time with me. When he was not nursing me, he sat for long periods by my bed. When I was awake, we just talked or watched TV together. Joey's room had a rather snazzy plasma TV on the wall. It was reassuring that Julian sat with me as I fell asleep, and was invariably there when I woke up too. I spoke to Petey on the phone every day. He was still on an extended sleepover at Mikey's house. It was an informal, if all too convenient arrangement, which I suspected was probably down to Julian. Petey didn't seem to mind, but he soon began to question the permanency of it and sometimes asked me when we could both go back home. For my part, I wasn't sure whether I really wanted to go back to all that.
Inevitably, we were visited by social workers from the Department for Children and Families. In one way I was encouraged that they acted so promptly in response to my call, but in another I almost wished they had waited until Ben was feeling better. I guess they had to treat the matter with the urgency it deserved - a child being thrown onto the street by his parents was a grave issue, and they were sufficiently concerned to look into it immediately.
When the social workers called, it was an unannounced visit, no doubt designed to catch us on the hop and so present an unabashed picture of the circumstances that Ben was now living under. Actually, I had thought it rather inconvenient, since Ben was not yet fully recovered. He was only just well enough to have graduated to spending time downstairs and was at that moment still in his pajamas, stretched out on the sofa in the drawing room, drowsing. In fact, he looked like he had drifted off to sleep. He was snuggled under a blanket. The TV was on, with the volume turned down, and the blazing logs in the fireplace were emitting a welcoming blast of heat. It was almost a pity to disturb him.
"Can't this wait?" I asked the social worker, as she stood on the porch proffering her ID.
"I'm afraid not," she said, and had already mounted the steps to enter before I had even invited her in.
She was followed by her sheepish sidekick, a young, bumbling assistant who had been hovering behind her on the porch. As they entered, he nearly dropped the unwieldy clutch of dog-eared files and papers he was struggling to carry. I wondered why he didn't just get himself a briefcase.
I invited them to take a seat. They chose to sit on the armchairs opposite Ben, which I found somewhat confrontational, and they perched right on the edges of their seats, like they were uneasy. The social worker was a rather standoffish woman, a prim, schoolmarm type, with very distinctive horn-rimmed spectacles and salt and pepper hair which was tied up in a bun. She was thin and gooselike and had a habit of addressing you by peering over the top of her spectacles in a rather haughty and patronizing manner. The young assistant who accompanied her was clearly a rookie. A student social worker, who was apparently still learning the ropes. He was a keen lapdog type, full of good intentions and fresh-faced idealism, not yet jaded by the soulless apparatus of the faceless, lumbering regime of which he had just become an integral part, and yet also appearing slightly incompetent. He was forgetful, hesitant and uncertain, and my lack of confidence in him was further heightened by the fact that he kept dropping things, which only added an air of clumsiness to his ineptitude.
I offered them both coffee, or any drink they wanted, just to make the atmosphere less formal, but the schoolmarm refused. I had a feeling that the sidekick was tempted to accept, but didn't dare overrule his boss, so he kept quiet. I wondered if the schoolmarm felt obliged to decline my offer in case it was seen as in any way intended to interfere with her objectivity. But that was not how I saw it. They were two people doing a job, and I was just being polite. I treated them as I would any guest in my house. But apparently the Department were suspicious of such gestures. It was clear that they were only interested in pursuing their objective, which was to interview Ben.
I went over to Ben, who was very still and peaceful. His arms were tucked under the blanket and his head was turned slightly towards the back of the sofa with his eyes closed. I gently jiggled his shoulder, so that he opened his eyes and executed a cute little boy yawn. I explained what was happening. He was irritated by the disturbance, and a little wary of the two strangers sitting opposite, but he was nevertheless compliant. When they started questioning Ben, the sidekick took out a notepad, opening a fresh page on his lap. Then he couldn't get his pen to work and had to rummage in his pockets for another.
There followed about an hour of vague questioning during which Ben told them everything that happened, exactly as he told me. I admired his fortitude in dealing with the social workers' enquiries, which I could see vexed and confused him. The schoolmarm's approach was neither linear nor focused. In fact, it appeared scattered and random. I understood that she felt obliged to clarify where necessary, but her line of questioning sounded more like she was scrabbling around to find an angle with which to discredit Ben's testimony. Ben handled it well, but I could tell that even he was thrown by the nature of some of her questions.
When it came to the matter of Ben staying with me, the schoolmarm had a distinctly disapproving outlook on what she considered to be a wholly unsatisfactory arrangement. At this point she turned her focus onto me.
"This is highly irregular, Mr Sheppard," she said, as though the whole thing had left a bad taste in her mouth, "Ben should really be in emergency foster care."
"I know," I said, "But he's still recovering from the flu, and I'm happy for him to stay here."
She raised her eyebrows, apparently suspicious of that, and peered at me over the rim of her spectacles.
"Why are you so interested in his welfare?" she enquired, emphasizing the 'you' as though this shouldn't be any of my business.
Her question was somewhat accusatory, and loaded with suspicion.
"I care about him, that's all," I replied.
"Do you indeed? And just what exactly is your relationship with him?"
"Relationship?" I echoed, thinking that an odd word to use, "I'm his teacher."
"Hmm," she pondered, determined to have a problem with that, "Then this arrangement is completely unsanctioned. That won't do at all."
"Surely it must be better than putting him into care," I appealed to her.
"Are you a registered foster carer, Mr Sheppard?"
"Please call me Julian," I said, thinking her approach rather too formal, "And no, of course I'm not."
She knew I wasn't.
"Then I suggest you let me decide where he should be placed."
"I just thought that it would be better for him to stay with someone he knows."
"I'll be the judge of that, Mr Sheppard," she replied, ignoring my request for her to address me by my first name, and simultaneously consigning my opinion to the trash.
Clearly she was unable or unwilling to accept that even this informal arrangement had to be preferable to placing Ben with a complete stranger, even if they were a registered foster carer. But I knew there was no point in pursuing it. The intransigence and lack of empathy in her eyes told me that altruism and benevolence were not her objectives here. She was so steeped in fulfilling the legislation that what Ben wanted was not even a consideration.
At the end of it, having questioned Ben thoroughly about what happened, the social workers simultaneously got up to leave. What struck me in particular about these social workers was that they didn't come across as being particularly benevolent, even though I did not doubt their good intentions. They were doing a job that required at least a modicum of compassion, and yet they seemed so clinical and remote - with no inkling of altruism or empathy. They were quite distant and cold, as though they had no appreciation of Ben's predicament. It was as if these people were mere drones, there to serve the immovable and unquestionable demands of the faceless entity that had enslaved them - an entity that had long ago ceased to be cognizant with its own raison d'ˆtre.
As I saw them out, I asked what was going to happen now.
"We'll be in touch," said the schoolmarm curtly, as though deliberately trying to be evasive.
And that was all she was prepared to say. As I closed the front door, her vague and elusive parting shot left me feeling somewhat peeved and frustrated.
It was the social worker's visit that prompted me to finally pick up the phone and make that call to Sandra, as I had promised Ben that I would. It had been a while since we had last been in contact, so Sandra was inordinately happy to hear from me. I explained briefly the situation regarding Ben, and she invited us to visit her. She agreed that it would be good for us to catch up, as well as provide an opportunity to discuss our options. Sandra was neither an attorney nor a social worker, but she had an intimate knowledge of the care system. She was an approved foster carer and had many long years of dealing with people in the social work field. She had dealt with children in care as a Housemother at South Park and had herself fostered many children, both in long-term placements and respite care. Consequently, she had dealt with the entire spectrum of challenges and obstacles that fostering entailed. I was pretty confident that she, if anybody, could brief Ben and I on the possible outcomes for him. For the moment, Ben was too ill to leave the house, but I arranged for us to visit Sandra as soon as Ben was well enough.
As we entered a period of limbo, waiting for the Department to decide what they were going to do, I focused on helping Ben to recover. The flu really knocked him sideways, and it was sometimes very distressing to see how much it had weakened and demoralized him. I spent as much time as I could with him. The nice thing was that it gave us an opportunity to bond, so I would spend long periods sitting on the side of his bed, or at the end of the sofa, just talking to him. We had many long, intimate conversations during which he shared his fears and insecurities, and his hopes for the future. The rest of the time, when Ben was too tired to talk, we just watched TV together and he would lapse in and out of sleep. At various times, when I was sitting on the sofa with Ben, he would look over and just smile, and I would smile back, both of us just appreciating one another's company, simply enjoying the prevailing mood of togetherness and not really feeling the need to say anything. It was odd how quickly we had settled into this comfortable, easygoing rapport, which felt quite natural for both of us.
When we were not watching TV, Ben would press me to tell him things about Joey. He seemed genuinely curious about the boy who had once inhabited this house, whose things were all still as he had left them, whose pajamas he was wearing and whose bed he was sleeping in. Naturally I was quite happy to reminisce about Joey. What I liked about Ben was that he showed a real interest, and appeared intent on drawing these things out of me, to get me to confide in him as much as he had with me. And so, invariably, Ben would sit up in bed, with a mound of pillows behind his head, or snuggled on the sofa drinking a big mug of hot chocolate, and I would perch on the end somewhere sipping bourbon on the rocks, and I conveyed to him in every detail all the things I remembered about Joey.
The downside of reminiscing about Joey is that it also brought to the surface many poignant emotions. Emotions that were still very raw, bound up in the memories that were so deeply ingrained that sometimes it felt like Joey was still around, like his spirit was still with me. Or maybe it was just an echo, a specter of his former existence that I subconsciously held onto because I was afraid I might forget him. But I knew I never could forget him. Sometimes, the enormity of my loss was so unfathomable that it was difficult to believe that Joey was actually gone. It was incomprehensible that the boy who had made such a powerful impact on my life was no longer here. I confessed to Ben that I still thought about Joey a lot, and even now, at certain times of the day, I imagined what we might have been doing if he was still with me, and how much he would have grown. It was a shame that I never got to see Joey grow up, although he grew some in the years he was with me, which was never more apparent than when he got to about nine or ten and started to lose the rounded softness of his little boy curves and put on a growth spurt of several inches. Within a very short time, as he approached his tenth birthday, he started to even out. He grew taller and slimmer, his limbs grew longer and thicker. His face was still boyish, but his jaw was fuller, so that you could almost make out the beginnings of the handsome young man he was destined to grow into. He would have been twelve years old now, the same age as Ben, heading for teendom, just on the cusp of adolescence.
I told Ben as much as I could remember. I told him about the good times and the bad times. Whilst I certainly relished the good times, I had to admit that bringing up Joey had sometimes been something of a struggle. But it was a worthwhile struggle, which overcame the adversity of his early life, and I hoped had more than compensated for the dark days he had spent at South Park. He was still a slightly needy and insecure boy at times. He was always asking me "Daddy, do you love me?" It was as if he needed constant reassurance, like he needed to hear me say it over and over. And of course I didn't hesitate to reply "Yes Joey, I love you very much," and he would reply, "I love you too daddy." I swear those were the best words in the English language.
Of course, it wasn't always pleasant. Joey had his dark side too, just like any other kid. Like all boys, he could get into a few scrapes, and had his fair share of spats with the other boys at school, especially if he was challenged and forced to fight his corner. But it never became a serious issue. Most of his friends knew he was adopted and accepted it in a very unassuming and non-judgmental way, in that inconsequential manner that all kids have. The worst times were when Joey was having one of his sulkfests. He always had difficulty accepting my decisions if I ever said no to him. He had a habit of sitting on the chair backwards, with his head down, forehead resting on the chair back, and his arms up covering his eyes, forming a barrier, and he would whine away in that 'feel sorry for me' voice of his, every sentence in a slightly higher pitch than normal. And he could whine like that for ages. If it was a particularly bad one, he would shed a little tear or two as well. He would grind his little fists into his teary eyes in that inimitable way that all children have, and I couldn't help but to feel a little pang of regret when he did that. He sure knew how to tug at my heartstrings.
What was particularly humbling were the rare occasions when we were out in the yard on a warm summer's day, doing some household chore or man-boy task of some kind, like recoating the garden fence, mowing the lawn or fixing the deck. On one occasion we were repairing his bike. It was hot, sweaty, physical work, conducted in the open air under the blazing sun, so to avoid the discomfort of having a wet shirt sticking to my back, it was easier to work shirtless. To my amazement, and delight, Joey took his little t-shirt off too, and hung it across the fencepost next to mine. Then he knelt down opposite me, both of us studiously looking over the gears of his upturned bike, like surgeons over an operating table. I was so humbled by this boy, so flattered that he held me in such esteem that he wanted to copy me. He wanted to emulate everything I did. He wanted so much to be like his dad. To have a boy want to be just like him is a great honor for a man. It is a privilege that every father should recognize and appreciate; a humbling gesture which deserves due deference.
Joey astonished me sometimes too. He really impressed me on occasion. Like the time when he learned of the poor, poverty stricken children in South America, and had seen the appeal for donations on the TV. He came to me later holding his favorite toy in his hand. And he said that he wanted to send it to the poor boys who had no toys to play with. What amazed me was not that he was getting rid of some toy that he had lost interest in, that he had no further use for. No. It was amazing simply because it was a toy he loved and valued. To me, that was infinitely more of a sacrifice. Joey understood that donating something was not about passing off unwanted goods - it was about sacrificing something of your own that you would actually feel the absence of. That was the kind of boy Joey was. He was just a wonderful human being. Joey really was unique amongst boys of his age. He really did 'get it'. He had a good head on his shoulders and showed amazing insight and maturity at times. He was also a pacifier and a peacemaker, a natural unifier and facilitator who always brought his friends together. He had a real flair for smoothing things over and making enemies become friends. That was why he really didn't deserve what happened to him. Not that any child deserved it. Nor any human being, for that matter. It was an inappropriate and ignoble end for a little boy with so much promise. His suffering was disproportionate to all the goodwill he created.
Ben was drawn into these reminiscences so completely that there was a look of wonder and fascination on his face every time I talked about Joey. I could see he had a genuine affinity for these stories and what they meant to me. And once again, when I had finished relating another string of fond memories, he saw the moistness in my eyes.
"I miss him," I said, sitting on the end of the sofa, "I still feel his absence, even after all this time."
"But it won't always feel like that will it?" Ben said, perceptively, still snuggled under his blanket, his pretty almond eyes as bright and alert as ever.
That struck me as a very profound and insightful remark.
"What do you mean?"
"It's only been a year since you lost Joey right?" he said.
"Yes," I nodded, anxious to hear what he was driving at.
"Two years down the line, or five years, you might feel differently."
I shrugged vaguely, not really convinced, and not ready to think about how the passing of time would ameliorate my pain. In fact, I could hardly encompass the future at all.
"What, time heals all wounds and all that?" I said, with derision.
"No," Ben said, thoughtfully, "Time doesn't heal the wounds, but at some point you will get tired of grieving."
I was stunned by that observation. I looked at Ben - this pretty, intelligent boy, half submerged under the blanket, propped up on a couple of cushions - the words he had just spoken reverberating in the atmosphere, and I wondered how such a young mind could be so perceptive and have such a depth of wisdom and understanding. Only people who had suffered themselves could ever elicit such qualified remarks. My estimation of him instantly rose by several hundred points.
"It's like there's this void I carry around with me," I explained, holding my clenched fist to my breast, as though to indicate where the gap was inside me, "Like there's this empty space in my heart where Joey used to be."
I could see the absolute empathy in Ben's gray-green eyes - the look of complete understanding, as though he really did grasp the concept I was driving at. He nodded, pursing his lips in regretful acceptance. Then after a few minutes of quiet assimilation, he drew a silent little breath and turned towards me.
"Julian? Do you think maybe I might be able to help you with that?"
"What can you do?" I replied, with a note of skepticism, prematurely belittling whatever he was about to postulate.
"I thought that I could... I mean if you felt like it... that maybe... you would let me fill that void for you."
It was a wonderful sentiment, delivered with such grace and amity and with such humble, unassuming phraseology. Ben had such a beautiful way with words.
"Adopt me," he said, for a moment sounding like he was making a plea for clemency, at the same time reducing what was ordinarily a complex, bureaucratic and long-drawn out process to a simple accession, as though it was merely a question of convincing me to take him in.
I huffed hopelessly, knowing that it really was very unlikely and, at this moment at least, not a realistic option.
"I can't do that Ben," I replied.
"You did it for Joey," he said reproachfully, muttering under his breath, looking down.
"Joey was an orphan," I reminded him.
"What I mean is, if you've done it before, you could do it again. You would make a perfect dad."
"Thank you Ben, but it's really not an option at the moment."
Ben's hopeful expression dissipated, seeing that I was not amenable to the idea.
"But why not? My mom doesn't want me."
"She may not want you, but she's still responsible for you, and she can't just pass off that responsibility to someone else," I replied, trying to inject some reality into the matter.
"I don't want to live with her either," Ben went on.
"You're a minor," I reminded him, "You don't get to decide who you want to live with."
I was fending off his entreaties one by one, and with each one I could see the hope slowly draining from him.
"Don't you want me?" he asked, hurt, at the same time putting on a cute, adorable little boy frown that was designed to appeal to my better nature.
I took a deep breath and put on a more conciliatory tone, feeling slightly sorry for him. The truth is, he had little idea how much affection I really had for him. He was a dear, sweet boy, and I had felt drawn to him ever since that rainy afternoon when I had first given him a lift home after school. I adored this boy. Loved him even. But, much as I would have liked nothing more than to adopt Ben, I knew I had to quell my affections. I had to curb my unbridled fondness for this boy, because adopting him was so unlikely that it wouldn't have been fair for me to give him false hope. Nor to raise my own expectations, for that matter.
"It's not that," I replied, "I would like nothing more than to have you as my son, but we don't know what the Department is going to decide. Even if they put you into care, adoption is highly unlikely."
"It's not fair," he said, with a note of self-pity.
For a moment he almost sounded like Joey. "It's not fair" was the perennial refrain of all young boys, and Joey was no exception.
"No, it isn't," I said, agreeing with him, "It's very unfair. But that's the law."
I could see that he was wounded by my failure to subscribe to his initiative. I saw how his demeanor quickly collapsed, the optimism instantly draining from his expression, and I was suddenly filled with pity and regret.
"How about this," I suggested, anxious to restore some optimism, "Why don't we talk to Sandra about it?"
He nodded, perhaps appeased that he had at least salvaged some remaining ray of hope, and for the moment appearing content that the matter was still open to discussion.
When Ben was feeling better, we were finally able to visit Sandra. It had been a long time since I last saw her, and I was looking forward to seeing her again. So we took the car out into the leafy suburbs, and it was even warm enough to drive with the top down. For his part, I could see that Ben had made a special effort for this visit. With the flu now behind him, Ben was once again chirpy and alert. He looked particularly nicely groomed, all the more striking and well-presented than he had been recently. He was neatly dressed, wearing one of Joey's casual shirts, a checkered pattern with a button-down collar, and slacks instead of jeans. It was a combination I had seen Joey wear countless times, so that as I was driving, it could almost have been Joey sitting there on the passenger side. The same diminutive little figure on the seat next to me, about the same height and build, except that this handsome boy had a head of dark, spiky hair, instead of Joey's ruffled whitish-blond mop.
Sandra's home was an impressive building, with two storeys and a basement, sprawling over a sizeable plot, built in an almost mock-colonial style. When she opened the door to us standing on the stoop, she greeted us loudly and stepped out, insisting on a demonstrative and affectionate hug. Ben watched as I was greeted passionately by this large, robust black woman with a foghorn voice and tightly shorn afro hair. When I introduced her to Ben, she bent down to give his shoulders a squeeze and a passing cheek-to-cheek hug that was rather more reserved.
Sandra invited us in and introduced us to her little foster child, Finn, who was only five years old. I wasn't expecting that Sandra would have a small boy staying with her. She said Finn was an emergency placement. His single mother had had to go into hospital for urgent surgery, and he had been placed in Sandra's care for the duration. Emergency placements of that kind were unusual, and the availability of appropriate foster carers for such eventualities was limited, but Sandra had once again stepped in and saved the day.
With the formalities over, we sat on Sandra's terrace, a paved area which looked out over the luscious green garden at the back of her house. As usual, Sandra made tea. We loved taking tea together. Sandra and I always drank tea, for as far back as I could remember. She also prepared a jug of iced tea for Ben, which had lots of ice cubes and slices of lemon floating around in it. Ben admitted that he had never tried iced-tea before, but I liked that he was so readily prepared to try it. Ben joined us at the little metal garden table, and he lifted the heavy glass to his lips, siphoning off a few sips through the bendy straw that Sandra had popped into it. He seemed to like it. Ben seemed very attentive and engaged the whole time. He was very polite to Sandra. For her part, Sandra was very animated and talkative, turning enthusiastically from me to Ben and back to me again. She was wearing very big earrings, large hoops of gold that hung heavily from her earlobes. They dangled against the side of her neck as she was talking, swinging precariously every time she turned her head. They were so large that I wondered whether there shouldn't have been some little mynah bird swinging from each one.
As we talked, Finn was ambling about happily on the grass. He was a pretty little thing, at that moment dressed in only his underwear, imperturbably playing on his own, wearing the cutest little Scooby Doo briefs. It appeared that this was his default mode, though Sandra didn't seem to mind. She had a no-nonsense, laissez-faire approach to childrearing, and didn't fuss over what she considered to be natural childish behavior. She believed in allowing children to explore and be themselves. She was vigilant, without being overprotective. Luckily, it was a warm day. Sandra told us that Finn had mixed parentage, which explained why his skin tone was a beautiful caramel color, a stark contrast to Finn's eyes that were a bright emerald green. But he had straight black hair and very European features. It was a stunning combination. It was clear that he was going to be a very cute preteen, and thereafter a handsome young man. But what I liked best of all was that he kept on pestering Sandra, even as she was trying to conduct this rather disjointed conversation with Ben and me. Finn kept on wanting to be picked up and cuddled to the point where Sandra eventually sent him away in annoyance. At that point he turned and toddled over to me and literally fell into my lap, wanting to be held. Such a loving, tactile little boy. Of course I responded, almost automatically. In that instant all the dormant fatherly instincts in me kicked in and I scooped the little boy up in my arms. He fell against me and wrapped his little arms around me and I felt the heat of his tiny frame pressing into me. He was warm and soft. His young, unblemished skin was like silk, and his hair smelled of baby shampoo. In that instant, all the memories of fathering Joey flashed briefly through my memory, along with all the profound emotions that went with it, so much so that I wanted to hug and squeeze that little boy just as I would have done with Joey. I stroked his back, and then allowed him to turn around and settle on my lap. He seemed content then. I swear, for the brief time that warm little bundle sat in my lap, it was a rare pleasure. He calmed down and let me stroke him as I chatted with Sandra, and she smiled an approving little grin that Finn had finally quieted down and was getting the attention he wanted, even if it was from this man whom he had never met before. But I think he sensed, as children always do, that I was someone he was safe with, someone who was warm and kind and benevolent.
When eventually Finn grew restless, he climbed down from my lap. Sufficiently emboldened by our presence, he then went over to Ben. Ben had been flashing him friendly little grins and making funny faces to make him smile. Evidently his ploy worked because Finn was drawn towards him and I was amazed at how easily Ben slipped into playing with him. Ben got up from his chair and went to join him on the grass. They sat on the lawn for a good long while playing with a pack of cards, and Ben showed him how to play slapjack. At the same time they were giggling away merrily on their own. Ben was a natural with this boy, and seemed to have this inherent propensity to relate to this younger boy, which I had no doubt was due to his experience of having a younger brother. It was a heartwarming sight to see these two boys who had only just met each other, playing together in such perfect harmony.
When they had finished playing, Ben left Finn to amuse himself with the deck of cards and came to sit with us at the little metal garden table to finish his drink. And as he did so, we spoke with Sandra about what she thought might happen.
"We have to wait and see what the Department decides to do," Sandra explained, "They will interview your mom, just like they did you, and try to establish what really happened. Then they will decide if further action needs to be taken. Now, if things happened exactly as you describe, then it is quite likely that they will take you and your brother into care. The Department will not be happy that your mom knowingly and willingly put you at risk. Throwing a child onto the street is very serious. She could be charged with child neglect, which is a felony. She may even be charged with child endangerment. That could mean a prison sentence."
I could see Ben swallow hard at this news, clearly only just beginning to comprehend how grave this was, and possibly not relishing the prospect of his mom being imprisoned. But he seemed to quickly assimilate that information, and began asking questions. Ben seemed very engaged in the matter. He truly impressed me with the complexity and maturity of his questions. It was clear that he had given them a lot of thought and that he had taken the time to prepare his queries in advance.
"How long would I have to be in care?"
"Until they decide what to do with your mom," said Sandra, "While the Department investigate, and decide if they will bring charges. Then there could be legal proceedings. It could be a long while."
"What's going to happen to me after that?" Ben asked, meekly.
"What would you like to happen?" Sandra asked him, and it was the first time I had witnessed anybody directly seeking his wishes on the matter.
"I wish that Petey and I could go and live with Julian," he said, without hesitation, and it was significant that he included his younger brother in that aspiration, affirming that they came as a package.
Sandra turned to me, suddenly looking very serious.
"What do you think Julian? Do you want Ben and his brother to come and live with you?"
I was slightly unprepared for the directness of her question. I shrugged and made an expansive gesture.
"Of course I do. But..." and I turned towards Ben to address him directly, "We've already talked about this. I just can't see how."
"There is a way," Sandra replied, with a tone of absolute certainty.
We both stared at her, our interest piqued, waiting on her words of wisdom.
"Private adoption," she said at last.
Ben and I exchanged glances, perhaps alerted by the fact that adoption - the subject we had both previously postulated in private - was now being raised by Sandra without having been prompted by either of us.
"How does that work?" Ben asked.
"Most adoptions in this state are done privately now," she explained, "If you think your mom could be persuaded to sign you over to Julian, and both parties are in agreement, an adoption can be arranged between you."
"You really think that's possible?" Ben asked.
"Yes, if your mom is willing to give up custody of you," said Sandra.
"But she can be forced to give up custody, right?" I asked.
"If she is forced to give up custody of Ben against her will, then she'll have no control over who adopts him. You know what that means?"
Sandra's brown eyes bored right into me as she said it.
"It means that neither of you will have a say in what happens. Ben will become a ward of the state, and it will be up to the Department to decide what happens to him."
Her statement left no doubt in my mind as to the implications of that.
"No, the only way forward is to try and get her to agree to sign Ben over to you willingly," Sandra concluded, "It will be in her interests to cooperate, especially if she still wants visitation. And if she is charged, adoption could be part of any plea bargain."
And no sooner had Sandra finished her sentence, Ben's gray-green eyes were already focused on me, emitting a subdued but triumphant sparkle, thus confirming that at last we had hit upon the ideal solution. It was suddenly very clear what we had to do.
"But first," Sandra went on, leaning forward meaningfully, and addressing Ben, "we'll have to wait and see what the Department decides to do. If they decide to put you into temporary foster care, you'll need a good foster home."
Ben nodded, fully acquiescent to that eventuality. I guessed, for him, anything was better than going back home.
"So, how would you like to stay here with me?" Sandra asked him.
Ben looked taken aback. I too was a little surprised.
"Really? Can you do that?" I asked.
Sandra nodded knowingly.
"We'll still have to go through the official channels," Sandra explained, "But if they need a foster home, I can ask them to consider me."
"How can you be so sure they'll agree to that?" I asked.
Sandra smiled slyly.
"Because good foster homes are hard to come by in this state," she replied, "And because I happen to have a vacancy. There's a spare bedroom upstairs."
Then she turned back to Ben.
"Would you like that Ben? Would you like to live here with me for a while?"
"Yes," said Ben, without hesitation, looking around at Sandra's big house and Finn playing happily on the lawn, and he smiled humbly at Sandra, "I'd like that very much."
Sandra had a lot of influence in these matters and always knew exactly what to do. She was a valuable ally in these situations, as well as being my oldest and dearest friend. Good old Sandra. I already owed her a lot. Indeed, without Sandra there would have been no Joey.
Julian's friend Sandra turned out to be incredibly accurate. Everything turned out exactly as she had predicted. Within days, things started to happen. I was amazed at how swiftly the Department moved. As we expected, my mom was interviewed. She was charged with child neglect. Both Petey and I were taken into care. Sandra formally applied to foster us. So Petey and I were going to be reunited, and best of all, we were going to stay with Sandra. She had fixed everything. I don't know how she did it, but she did.
The day that I was due to move to Sandra's house, the Department arranged a car to pick me up. As we waited for the car to arrive, Julian helped to prepare a small holdall for me, with some of Joey's clothes. He let me take whatever I wanted. Of course, I had nothing of my own, except for the clothes in which I had originally pitched up at his house the night my mom threw me out. I was in Joey's room, stuffing the last few things into the holdall, which was lying unzipped on the bed. As I was packing, Julian came in.
"I have something for you," he said.
I turned to see what it was. Julian was stood there proffering a shiny new smartphone. I had never seen the phone before. I looked at it, slightly confused by his gesture.
"What?" I said, not really understanding his intentions.
Julian thrust the phone towards me, eager to bestow it upon me.
"It was Joey's phone," he said, "I want you to have it."
I stepped back, almost subconsciously, not wanting to take it, perhaps even somewhat repelled by it.
"No," I said, "I can't."
"Take it," Julian insisted, "It's all paid for. It's just lying there doing nothing. You may as well have it."
I shook my head, feeling that this was too generous, too magnanimous a gesture.
"No," I said again.
"Please take it," he went on, "I want you to stay in touch while you're at Sandra's."
He took my hand and thrust it into my palm, curling his big hand around my fingers to ensure that I had a proper hold of it.
"My number is on speed dial," he said, "You can call me whenever you want, okay?"
I looked at the shiny metal device in my palm. It sure was a nice phone, neat and compact and in virtually pristine condition, like it had never been used. I could hardly believe he was giving it to me. I looked up at him, incredulous but grateful.
"Thank you," I said, and stuffed the phone into the holdall with the rest of my things.
As I zipped up the holdall, getting set to take it downstairs, I felt very emotional. Not only because of Julian's kind gesture, but because I realized that my time with Julian had come to an end. Whilst I was pleased to be going to stay with Sandra, and overjoyed at the prospect of being reunited with Petey, I was sad to be leaving Julian. Though I had only been with him for a short time, we had settled into a familiar routine. Living with Julian had been a real pleasure, easygoing and effortless. We were very comfortable together. It occurred to me just how close we had grown. We had shared so much and bonded so closely. Now I felt like I was abandoning him. After all he had done for me, it was almost ungrateful of me. A sudden sadness overwhelmed me. Julian saw the tears welling up in my eyes as I stood there, and he held out his arms with a resigned expression, in readiness for a hug. I threw myself into his arms, and he held me tightly, and with true affection. I don't know why, but I burst into tears in his embrace.
"Thank you for looking after me," I said, through my tears, knowing that this was my last chance to tell him how much I appreciated everything he had done for me.
A few muted little sobs escaped me, and I blubbed into his shirt. I felt slightly foolish, crying like a little kid, but Julian was as usual very accepting and non-judgmental. I could feel him running his splayed fingers through my hair, stroking my head as he embraced me.
"Not at all," said Julian, dismissing my expression of gratitude, "Just promise me you'll stay in touch while you're at Sandra's."
I nodded, still muffled against him, but resigned to the inevitability that my time with Julian had now come to an end. At that moment I realized that I loved Julian, and I didn't really want to leave him. I promised myself there and then, that this was only a temporary separation. I belonged here and I would be back some day. As the car arrived to take me to Sandra's, Julian escorted me out to the driveway, and I saw that he too had tears in his eyes.