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 14: Sinking
Sandra said I had to be examined by the doctor. She explained that Julian was being investigated by the Department. That was why Julian couldn't see me anymore, because apparently my mom had lodged a complaint about him. For my part, I wondered what awful thing Julian was supposed to have done to be suspended from his job and forbidden to see me. I had already told Principal Perkins and the social worker everything I knew. I had given them a detailed account of what had happened between us, right back to the first day that Julian and I began to get to know each other. But apparently it wasn't enough. So I agreed to the examination. I agreed because it was the only way to prove that Julian was innocent. I wanted to show them that Julian was an honest and decent man, and he would never do anything to harm me.
I already had a sense of foreboding as soon as I entered the doctor's office, which felt very much like I had been delivered into the lion's den. The doctor's office was a poky little space, with most of the room taken up by an enormous desk, which was pushed against one wall. There were cupboards and bookcases all cluttered with files and books and other paraphernalia, which just added to the general claustrophobia of the place. The doctor was a mature, gray-haired guy with a long white coat and thick spectacles. He was polite enough, but the entire encounter with him was awkward and uncomfortable.
First, the doctor asked me to undress down to my underwear and examined me all over. He looked at my arms and legs, probably looking for bruises. He prodded my back and my chest, and even examined my head, parting my hair and pressing his fingers into different parts of my scalp. I guess he was looking for bumps. Then he had me sit up on the high bed. He had one of those adjustable beds on which he laid a disposable paper cover. I sat on there with my legs dangling over the edge. Then the doctor donned a pair of surgical gloves and asked me to spread my legs. He hooked his finger over the waistband of my underwear and lowered the front of my boxer briefs, and spent a very long time peering between my legs, looking at my crotch so closely that I could actually feel his breath on my skin. He touched me gently, took my thing between his fingers, pulled the skin back and forth, and rolled it around in his fingertips like it was an object of curiosity - handling it in quite a clinical and detached way. When he had finished, he let the elastic waistband of my underwear snap back into place.
Next, the doctor had me hop up onto the bed and crouch down on my knees with my butt sticking up in the air. The doctor - still wearing his surgical gloves - moved around behind me, lowered my boxer briefs a little way down my thighs, and bent over to peer closely at my butt. He spent a very long time looking at my butt, scrutinizing it from every conceivable angle, as though he expected to see daylight at the other end. I couldn't imagine what he could find so interesting about my butt. Then he took out a large cotton-tipped swab and rubbed it all over my butt, even pushing it in slightly. It hurt a little and I recoiled at the sensitivity. It occurred to me, as I was kneeling there with the doctor doing these strange things to me, that this was infinitely more intrusive than anything Julian had ever done to me. For a usually quite shy boy like me, the entire examination proved to be shockingly intimate. I thought it ironic that I had to suffer this almost abusive ordeal in order to prove that Julian had not abused me. It struck me as the ultimate paradox.
When he was done, the doctor peeled off his gloves with an air of resignation, perhaps disappointed that he hadn't found anything of interest. Then he stepped out of the room and left me alone to get dressed. Forlornly, I hopped down from the bed and started putting my clothes back on, relieved that at least that part of the examination was over.
Once I was dressed, the doctor came back in and sat me down at his desk. Then he opened a fresh page in his notepad, his fountain pen poised to take notes, and started questioning me. He seemed very unemotional as he was doing this. He was quite monotone and deadpan, almost as though the whole process bored him. Either that, or he had done this so many times it had become a humdrum routine for him.
"Do you know why you came to see me today?" he began.
It was a somewhat cryptic question. I wondered if he was trying to catch me out in some way.
"Is it about Mr Sheppard?" I asked.
"Yes, Benjamin. This is very important," he was saying, with a very stern and sanctimonious expression, "You must be honest with me now."
He called me Benjamin. I didn't like being called Benjamin. It sounded too formal and grown up. I liked people to call me Ben. Ben was more friendly, open and affectionate. This doctor didn't seem to grasp that at all. I didn't like this doctor very much.
"You see Benjamin, if anything bad has happened to you, I need to know. I can't help you unless you tell me the truth," the doctor went on.
I nodded. I had never intended to tell him anything other than the truth.
He then began a series of questions which sounded very much like they had been pre-prepared, all phrased in such a way that you could tell he was choosing his words carefully, because they didn't sound natural at all.
"How often were you alone with Mr Sheppard?"
I shrugged. I hadn't counted the occasions, and I hadn't expected that I would have to keep track.
"Only the times we were rehearsing the school play. Then there was the day he took me to the mall, and I guess the night I ran away."
"What happened that night?"
"He let me stay at his house. Then I got ill and ended up staying for a few days."
"Tell me about that."
I stared at the doctor blankly, totally at a loss as to what he expected me to say.
"It was great staying with Jul... I mean Mr Sheppard. We got on very well."
Apparently that wasn't the answer he was expecting. The doctor leaned closer to probe further, pushing his thick spectacles back up his nose.
"When you were alone with him, did Mr Sheppard ever do or say anything that you didn't like?"
"No," I replied, without hesitation.
"Did he ever try to take your clothes off or touch you in any way that you didn't like?"
"Did he ever threaten you, or force you to keep secrets?"
All these questions struck me as somewhat irrelevant and seemed to be worded in such a way as to imply that something untoward had taken place. This doctor was getting it all wrong and I sensed he was trying to twist things to fit some other agenda. He appeared to be trying to establish that there had been some kind of coercion and subterfuge, that Julian had forced me into doing forbidden things with him, that he had somehow duped and subjugated me. That didn't make any sense to me. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth.
"Did he ever try to get you to do anything you didn't want to?"
"No," I replied with a huff, becoming riled and impatient by the nature of his questions.
In fact it was the doctor himself who made me feel flustered and ashamed, and he was far more threatening to me than Julian could ever be. I looked at this so-called expert, who had ogled my body all over in such an impersonal and clinical way, and who was now firing questions at me, and the whole ordeal made me feel vulnerable and intimidated. It was a little frustrating because I didn't know what he wanted me to say. In my mind, I only knew that Julian had always been kind and considerate towards me. He was a good man. He had looked after me and I knew he cared about me. We had a good relationship, and he was genuinely affectionate and benevolent. Why would he ever want to do anything to risk spoiling that?
The questions went on for a good long while, probing every facet of my relationship with Julian, including everything we had ever done together, right down to the most sensitive subjects of our conversations. I told the doctor everything that Julian and I had talked about, including my confiding in him about being gay, and the things he had told me about losing his son Joey. Actually, those were things that I would have preferred to keep private. They were between me and Julian. But I guess I had no choice.
When I finally emerged from the doctor's office, Sandra was waiting for me in the receptionist's room. I came out with my head down, somewhat cowed, embarrassed and demoralized. The doctor's probing and fingering left me feeling soiled and violated. Sandra had that look of total empathy on her face. She smiled encouragingly at me, and I knew that she understood exactly how I was feeling at that moment.
"For chrissakes Joey, be careful!"
"Sorry daddy," he replied.
"What is it with you today?" I went on, "You're dropping stuff all over the place."
I snatched a big handful of kitchen paper and stooped to mop up the cranberry juice he had just spilled. His now empty glass lay tipped over on its side, its contents trailing onto the kitchen floor and forming a little pool of translucent red liquid on the countertop. He watched me sheepishly, still perched on one of the high stools at the central island.
"Sorry daddy," he said again, "It was an accident."
Righting his glass, I wiped up the sticky little puddle from the floor and tossed the soggy paper towels into the trash. Straightening up, I saw how scared Joey looked. As I went on tidying up the kitchen, Joey hopped down from his stool and slinked away silently. I felt so sorry for him. He was always a bit unnerved when I raised my voice. I invariably regretted those occasional flashes of anger. He was a good kid really, although it appeared he was becoming inordinately careless these days. There were rather too many of these little 'accidents'. Yesterday he had fallen out of bed in the morning, got tangled in his bedclothes and went tumbling unceremoniously onto the floor with a thud. Then today he had already tripped coming down the stairs because he had forgotten to tie his shoelaces. It was one thing after another.
That was the first time I ever remember wondering if these random events were in any way connected with Joey's sudden and inexplicable headaches. The first few times Joey started complaining of headaches, I thought it very unusual. He had never asked for painkillers before, and I would have discouraged him from becoming dependant on such things, but I figured it must be bad if he was asking for something for the pain. After the first time, it went away for a while and I thought nothing more of it. But when the headaches started happening more frequently, I began to suspect that the two things might be linked.
And so, what began as a vague notion was crystallized even further by what occurred the very next day.
I was in the kitchen washing dishes when I heard a loud thud in the bathroom upstairs, as though Joey had dropped something pretty weighty. It shook the ceiling momentarily. I called out.
"Hey Joey? Are you okay?"
Still no answer.
I left the dishes and decided to go upstairs to listen at the bathroom door.
I didn't wait. I went straight in. Joey never locked the door.
Inside, Joey was lying face down on the bathroom floor, with his pants around his ankles. He had tipped over off the toilet and was just starting to stir as I bent down to see to him. He had hit his head and was a little groggy.
"Joey? What happened?"
He looked up at me with a frightened look, as though trying to remember where he was. His eyes were glazed and distant and he couldn't speak for a few moments.
I picked him up, taking his full weight in my arms, and hauled him to his feet. His slim little frame was imperceptibly light. He stood there and swayed uncertainly for a moment, still slightly disorientated. I helped him to pull his pants and underwear back up and sat him down on the lid of the toilet. I knelt beside him, stroking his back and smoothing his hair. He regained his equilibrium very quickly and seemed fine only a few seconds later. When it had passed, he smiled and jumped up off the toilet to continue going about his business, almost as though nothing had happened. Still, it was profoundly disconcerting to see him like that, and I'm sure he was pretty shaken up by it himself.
Thereafter, in the weeks that followed, there were more odd little moments where Joey would trip or slip, drop things or knock stuff over, or he would zone out inexplicably, sometimes in mid-sentence, completely unable to recall what he had just said. He would stop, suddenly frightened by these spontaneous little lapses, and look at me, wide-eyed with confusion. You could see the fear in his eyes because he didn't understand what was happening to him.
The worst and perhaps most decisive incident occurred at the mall several weeks later. There had been no recurrence for a while and Joey had been fine all day. We had spent a pleasant afternoon at the mall, shopping and conducting our usual series of negotiations as Joey tried to wheedle out of me whatever he could in terms of goods or spending money. It was expected that he would demand an inordinate number of things whenever we visited the mall, just as it was accepted that I would decline most of them - but that was okay as long as he succeeded in getting at least one of his requests granted. It was a given that he would always come away with something - a new baseball cap, a t-shirt, a video game, a CD. So it was that we had stopped briefly by one of the candy stalls in the main aisle, and I suddenly became aware of Joey looking rather unsteady next to me. I caught an unexpected movement just out of the corner of my eye. He seemed to sway for a moment. I knew immediately what was happening. I dropped the bags I was holding and quickly grabbed Joey. At that instant, his knees gave way and he was collapsing. I managed to take hold of him just in time, swooping him up in my arms. I was unprepared for his weight and nearly dropped him, almost sinking to my knees myself. I called for help and luckily several passing shoppers dashed over to assist me. What followed was a chaotic scene which drew the attention of the mall's security staff and, in turn, the paramedics, who arrived within minutes. All I remember was Joey lying on the cold, hard polished floor of the mall, propped up in my arms, surrounded by curious onlookers. He was quickly revived by the paramedics who established that he had had some kind of seizure and had actually lost consciousness.
That incident at the mall was pretty much the final straw. I knew that these momentary lapses that Joey was suffering could not be attributed to anything trivial. They were not just going to go away. In fact they seemed to be getting more acute. There was really nothing else for it. The only logical conclusion was a visit to the doctor. I called and made an appointment to see Dr Shapiro. He was a good doctor, one of the best pediatricians in the country. He would be able to sort it out. Dr Shapiro would diagnose the problem, write a prescription, and Joey would be as right as rain in no time. Except that Joey wasn't as right as rain. Little did I suspect then that it was just the beginning, and that there was actually no prescription for what Joey had.
It was hard watching Joey undergoing a quite grueling battery of tests and scans. It seemed all I could do was stand by while his tiny body was subjected to all manner of unpleasant little ordeals. He was continually being asked to undress, quiescently allowing a succession of orderlies and medical experts to prod and examine him. It was as though needles were repeatedly being inserted into his arm, drawing endless blood samples for testing. That was to exclude the possibility that his symptoms were being caused by some underlying infection. That was the bit that Joey hated most of all, and although he didn't protest, I saw his pretty blue eyes welling up with tears as the needle was inserted into his thin little arm. He said nothing, but you could tell it had hurt. He tried to hide his tears, and stifle his cries, and my heart just melted for him. He was such a brave little guy. He endured it all with his usual quiet acceptance, and an impressive degree of stoicism of the type that only a boy of his magnitude could muster.
The corresponding lab reports swiftly followed. As usual it was not straightforward. The doctors were baffled. When the initial investigations proved inconclusive, everything stepped up a gear. Dr Shapiro said he suspected that Joey's symptoms were a result of pressure on the brain, although he could not be sure. He ordered both CT and MRI scans to establish what was causing Joey's headaches and these mysterious random lapses, which he likened to a mild form of epilepsy. It was an arduous, harrowing series of visits to the hospital and the pediatric clinic, initiating test after test until finally they determined a proper diagnosis.
I will never forget the very moment that Dr Shapiro gave me his definitive diagnosis. It will forever be perhaps the most poignant and keenly felt moments of my entire life. I was in his office, watching Joey through the glass partition. There was a little playroom next door, with a full length window between the two rooms so that the children could be watched as they amused themselves. I was standing there observing Joey on the other side of the glass, at that moment still innocent of the knowledge that was about to blow his whole world apart - oblivious to the horror he was about to be forced to confront. I remember quite clearly that he was playing with another smaller boy who was also at the clinic with his mom that day. Joey always made friends very easily. They were engrossed in a big pile of Lego at the time, fishing for the right pieces from an enormous plastic tub, studiously building what appeared to be a racing car. It was always a car of some kind. Joey loved cars. At that moment Joey was focused only on amusing himself and passing the time during this otherwise routine and unremarkable visit to the pediatrician. Dr Shapiro told me that he had suspected a brain tumor and had ordered a biopsy. He now had the results of the biopsy. And as his words gradually found coherence in my mind, and embedded themselves into my consciousness, it was as though in that single instant, all my internal organs turned to jelly. My entire existence was suddenly in freefall - everything I had learned and believed about life no longer applied. In that one instant, the whole world turned upside down, never to be the same again.
Apparently it was a very rare form of cancer. There were only a handful of known cases worldwide which only affected children. It was a particularly aggressive type of tumor, in a difficult location, deep within the skull, at the base of the brain. Virtually inaccessible. Initially Dr Shapiro wasn't very hopeful and started talking of what he referred to as palliative care rather than treatment or cure. He recommended medication to relieve the pressure on Joey's skull, and stop him suffering any further seizures. The possibility of successful surgery was remote, he explained, and radiotherapy or chemotherapy was out of the question - the tumor was simply too advanced.
Of course I asked Dr Shapiro the usual questions, which I had no doubt he both expected and had heard many times before.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, beyond doubt," he replied.
"You couldn't have made a mistake?"
"Isn't there anything you can do?"
On the way home, my heart was breaking. How was I to tell this boy that his very existence was in the balance, that his future could be about to be taken away from him? The weight of that responsibility was compounded only by the terrible sense of grief that had already taken hold of me. I even remember glancing over at Joey as he was sitting next to me in the car on the drive home, resentful of the obligation of having to tell him. Right then, he was oblivious, he still had a life and a future. Within a very short while, I was going to deprive him of that certainty. I actually took exception to being put in this position, of having to be the one to tell him this awful thing. It was strange, but the first involuntary thought I had was that this eventuality had never been part of the bargain. Having to confront the end of this boy's life was not something I had signed up for when I decided to adopt him. It was something I could never have anticipated, it was unscripted, not part of the plan, extraneous to the commitment I made when I agreed to look after him. I considered not telling him, for as long as he didn't know the truth, we could continue to have the blissful existence we had become accustomed to. But I knew that was not a real option. He needed to know. Putting it off would benefit nobody. It was only my own weakness that caused me to waver. I was all he had. It was up to me to be straight with him. And yet, despite this eventuality being out of my hands, I felt that I had failed him. I had signed up to look after him and nurture him and keep him from harm. I had agreed to guarantee his safety and his wellbeing, and yet I was the one who was about to take all that away from him. What a horrible irony for any parent to be faced with.
Strangely, when I told him, later that evening, as we sat opposite each other at the central island in the kitchen, Joey was completely calm and attentive. He seemed to have assimilated everything I told him and fully understood what was happening. He was such a brave little boy. And when I had finished explaining, he didn't cry or lose control, or do anything adverse. There was no denial, no anger, no recrimination. Nothing that would suggest that this little boy had just been forced to confront his own mortality. Instead, he looked at me, slightly shell-shocked, but not at all distraught.
"I'm not afraid," he said, those beautiful eyes of his sparkling with vitality, glinting their supernatural hue of cobalt blue.
"No," he said, emphatically, "I'm not afraid. I just don't want to go through it alone."
What courageous words for such a little guy. Joey's maturity was breathtaking sometimes.
"I won't let that happen," I reassured him.
"Promise? You're not going to leave me?"
And he was looking at me appealingly, pensive and hopeful. I knew straight away what was behind that question. Knowing that he was adopted always left an underlying doubt in his mind that perhaps I could always un-adopt him. Adopted children could never have the same certainty that birth children had.
"Of course not. I'll be with you every step of the way."
He looked questioningly into both my eyes as though he was trying to see into my soul, weighing up my sincerity, and he smiled an uncertain little half-smile and then looked down, his lips turned down in regret.
"I'm sorry daddy," he said, suddenly downbeat.
I was confused and surprised by his sudden apology. It was odd and unexpected and felt inappropriate somehow. I looked at him, baffled.
"For getting ill," he said, "I didn't mean to daddy, honest."
There was just no adequate response to that. That this boy who had just found out his life was in the balance should think to apologize to me? There was just no script in my archive for that. It was almost as though he regretted disappointing me, because he realized that this special bond that we shared wasn't going to be forever. He was apologizing for depriving me of fatherhood. All I could do was jump down from my seat and embrace him. I held him close and hugged him tightly, even as he was still sitting there on that stool, desperately clutching him to my breast, and pressing him into me with all my strength. And I pressed my face into his cornsilk hair as I hugged him, partly because his words melted my heart, and partly because I didn't want him to see me cry. How easily this boy wrested tears from me.
Joey slept with me that night. He always slept in my bed when he was upset or unwell. Not that I could sleep. The welcome reprieve of sleep eluded me that night. I recall lying there in the semi-darkness, the clock ticking away insistently on the nightstand, as I watched the comatose little figure in the bed next to me. I looked upon the litheness of his tiny frame, in perfect repose, and enjoyed listening to the silent syncopated sighs of his breathing in rhythm with the gentle rising and falling of his delicate little ribs. I marveled at his pretty features and that clear, unblemished complexion with skin that was as smooth as alabaster, the moist, ruby-red little lips and the unruly mop of white flaxen hair, and wondered how much longer I was going to be afforded this privilege, the rare pleasure of admiring this boy's inordinate splendor. He was so beautiful, so flawless, and he was growing into such a wonderful human being. He was such a bright, charming and vivacious little boy, still in that magical phase of unspoiled preteen purity, full of life, energy and love. It was inconceivable that such innocence could be corrupted by something so undeserved, something so pernicious and destructive. How could it be that he was condemned to suffer this terrible wrong? How I wished there was some way that Joey's illness could be transferred into me. I would gladly have changed places with Joey if it meant that I could suffer this on his behalf. I would have sacrificed my own life if it meant Joey could have lived. There was this horrible thing festering away inside him. Why couldn't they let me have it instead? Why couldn't I take it from him? If it had to be, why not inside me? Why this innocent ten-year-old boy, this sweet, beautiful, intelligent child who had so much promise and who had already suffered so much?
The weeks that followed were like a slow and agonizing descent into the very depths of hell itself. It was like my whole life was imploding, as though Joey and I were falling, being sucked into the mire, sinking irrevocably into the quicksand of something that was terrible and frightening. It is strange how your priorities change when life itself can no longer be taken for granted. In any normal circumstances the ordinary challenges of everyday life were quite enough to contend with. But in these circumstances they actually seemed rather insignificant. It affected the way you regarded other people's relatively trivial tribulations, which made you want to tell them to keep a sense of proportion and be thankful that they didn't have to contend with this huge burden that I had to bear. When you have already plumbed the depths of that most horrific of all scenarios, everyday life is like a walk in the park. But the biggest effect it had was on the fact that I could no longer make conversation in the same way. I stopped making long term plans. I never referred to the future, not next year, or next week, not even tomorrow. There was no tomorrow anymore. For this little boy, there was no future beyond the next few months. Something terrible awaited. It was a bleak and demoralizing outlook, the prospect of which filled me with fear and trepidation. I cannot describe the utter terror, the sheer hopelessness and despair.
At Sandra's house the days were very long. Since I didn't go to school regularly, there was nothing much to occupy my mind. One day seemed to blend into another, without anything to break up the monotony of the day. Inevitably, I thought about Tony a lot. I missed him terribly and longed to hear from him again. My longing was all the more tangible from the knowledge that he was so far away and out of reach. I tried to be patient. I waited and waited for him to contact me, but there was no word from him. I didn't hear anything from Tony at all. I was heartbroken.
To compound my misery, Petey and I had to attend a case conference with our mom. It was a meeting called by the Department involving all the social workers and other experts involved in our case. The Department had to make a decision concerning our long term care, and what was going to happen to Petey and me. As well as that, they were still in the process of deciding whether there was enough evidence - and whether it was in their interests - to prosecute our mom. She had been charged with child neglect, which could even result in a prison sentence. I was sure that our mom would not take too kindly to that. In fact she would most likely be aggrieved by the whole thing. The fact that Petey had also been taken into care could only serve to entrench her bitterness and hostility even further, so I expected the worst. I knew it wasn't going to be pleasant seeing our mom again. But as usual, we didn't have any choice in the matter.
When the day came, both Petey and I were nervous and apprehensive. Sandra woke both of us very early to get ready for the drive all the way across town to the county offices where the Department was based. For my part, I felt a horrible sense of doom in the pit of my stomach, very much mindful that my life was in the hands of other people. Ever since my mom had thrown me out, it seemed I had no control over my own future. I had no power to influence events, and was very much reliant on the compassion and common sense of others. I was now at the mercy of a bunch of assorted experts who were making choices for me, and were now responsible for negotiating every momentous, life-changing decision on my behalf.
When we arrived, Sandra pulled up in the parking lot next to a modern new office building, which looked a bit forbidding and impersonal, all mirrored glass and steel on the outside. Petey nervously held my hand as we went inside. There was a revolving door, and a big, airy lobby where there was a reception desk and two banks of elevators. It was a busy place. We spent ages waiting around in the lobby, without anybody being able to tell us what was going on. That only added to the general sense of disorientation and alienation, until finally we were called into the conference room which was secreted somewhere off one of the many corridors.
It was very intimidating to see how many people there were in the conference room. As we entered the room, the long conference table was cluttered with papers, thick bundles of files, laptops and tablets, mingling with the water carafes and notepads. The lights were blindingly bright and the air conditioning was set just a little too far on the cool side. The doctor who had examined me was there, so was the social worker who had first interviewed me, along with her assistant. The meeting was being chaired by a rather authoritative looking man, a senior social worker who was dealing with the case, and was probably their boss. At the far end of the table were two empty seats, those of my mom and her key worker - the poor social worker who had been assigned to handle her case. They were late. Which didn't surprise me in the least.
It was decided to begin the meeting anyway. When everyone present had settled down, the chairman introduced everybody and began the meeting. There was a lot of talk that I didn't understand, about reports and recommendations. He talked of 'case notes' and 'case files'. Everything for them was 'a case', as though they were referring to a mere amassing of documents, not the lives of real people. The chairman went around the table inviting input from each person. Everybody spoke in turn to offer their respective views. The doctor gave his report on his examination, and Sandra gave an account of how the placement was going. The only ones who didn't get to speak were Petey and me.
The meeting hadn't progressed very far when it was disrupted by my mom's arrival. The meeting paused, and whoever was speaking at that moment was temporarily drowned out by the commotion emanating from outside in the corridor. We could hear a lot of grumbling and raised voices. I knew it was my mom, and I knew she must have been drinking. The door burst open violently and she seemed to stumble into the room, red-faced and flustered. She glared at everybody, as though this whole thing was a terrible inconvenience to her. She headed for her seat, slightly unsteadily, with no apology or explanation. Her key worker, a rather reserved and meek looking young man, wearing a rumpled suit and weighed down by a big bundle of papers, followed on sheepishly, no doubt embarrassed by her state of intoxication.
My mom took her seat next to her key worker and she sat there leering at us from across the table. When I saw my mom like that, I knew that she was not interested in this meeting. At the very least she wasn't making any efforts to create a good impression. She was probably only here because she had been compelled to be. What was worse, my mom didn't really seem pleased to see us. Not even Petey. Not that it mattered to me. She had already made it quite clear what she thought of me. This meeting was momentous only because it was the first time I had seen her since the night she threw me out. It was hard for me to put aside the memory of the things she said - that I disgusted her, that I was an accident, that she never wanted me. Worse still her cruel assertion that Petey was a failed abortion. Not forgetting that she stole all the hard-earned cash I had saved and spent it on booze. She was a pitiful sight, with her reddened eyes and greasy skin. I pitied her, but it was still difficult to see beyond her treachery and betrayal.
As the meeting continued, my mom wasn't really engaged in what was being said and seemed distracted. She was muttering to the people next to her, clearly unhappy about something. She was slurring and uncoordinated - which I don't think helped her cause. She was very vocal and argumentative, and attracted a few disapproving stares from the other people around the table. The chairman persevered.
"We now have all the reports," the chairman went on, "and it is our recommendation that Benjamin remain in interim foster care."
There was general consensus all round, with lots of nodding and murmurs of approval. At any rate no one disagreed or appeared about to raise any objection.
I turned to Sandra.
"What does that mean?" I asked, quietly.
"It means you're not going back home," Sandra whispered, leaning over confidentially.
I smiled, relieved that I was going to remain with Sandra, at least for the time being.
"Are there any recommendations regarding Peter?" the chairman asked.
My mom's key worker then rather hesitantly piped up. It was clear he was either very timid or at any rate inexperienced at addressing such meetings.
"We request that Peter be returned home in due course," he began, in a very quiet voice.
"There are no objections to Peter returning home, provided his mother agrees to attend a twelve-step program," the chairman pointed out.
"That has already been agreed," the key worker replied.
"Is that true?" the chairman asked, leaning forward across the table and looking directly at my mom.
"Yeah, whatever," she said flippantly, apparently totally quiescent to whatever was being postulated, without any guarantee that she had even understood the question.
"It is a precondition," said her key worker, defending her corner, "We accept that Peter can only return if she attends and completes the twelve-step program."
"Of course there is still the issue of the outstanding criminal charges," the chairman went on, scanning the papers on the table in front of him.
"We are cooperating fully on that," the key worker affirmed.
The chairman seemed satisfied with that. I wasn't in the least convinced. Whether my mom would ever attend a twelve-step program, or rehab of any kind, was questionable. I suspected it was just a ploy to feign cooperation, to get herself off the hook, or at least lessen her sentence. She didn't really want Petey back. I was sure that her motives were entirely selfish.
At this point, the chairman concluded the meeting and thanked everybody for attending. Everyone started collecting up their bundles of papers and simultaneously got up to leave. I was surprised that the whole thing was over so quickly and confused because I didn't feel that anything had really been resolved.
"What happens now?" I asked Sandra.
"We wait for the outcome of the trial," she replied, "Then there'll probably be another meeting."
"Another one?" I said, shaking my head in disbelief at the extent of the bureaucracy in which we seemed to have unwittingly become enmeshed.
Sandra nodded resignedly, acknowledging the protracted slowness of the lumbering regime that she was no doubt accustomed to dealing with, the painful, halting progress of which we had no choice but to collude with.
I was disappointed. Disappointed that there was still so much to be resolved. Everything was still undecided. I was also horrified that they would ever consider letting Petey go back home. What frightened me even more was that they didn't consider Petey's situation to be the same as mine. This was the first time it ever became clear to me that our respective fates were not considered to be irrevocably linked, as I had always believed.
"Why don't we ask my mom about an adoption?" I asked Sandra, as the other people in the room started to file out.
Sandra looked at me, doubtful for a moment, as if trying to assess whether I was serious.
"You want to?" she asked.
I nodded emphatically. I had wanted to raise the matter ever since Sandra had first suggested it as a possible option, and this might be our one and only chance.
"Come on then," she said, already galvanized by the idea, "Let's catch your mom before she goes."
Sandra took Petey's hand and led us back out to the lobby area where everybody was already preparing to leave the building. We managed to catch up with my mom who was already headed for the revolving door with her key worker.
"Mom!" I called out, and my voice echoed slightly around the big airy lobby.
My mom stopped and turned rather hesitantly, and stood there swaying slightly, squinting across at me as though somewhat oversensitive to the bright lights of the lobby.
"What?" she replied curtly, with a tone that implied there was something more important that I was keeping her from.
Still standing some distance away from her, I spoke in a very quiet voice.
"There's something I want to ask you."
She walked a few steps towards me, leaving her key worker in his rumpled suit standing by the revolving door, watching but almost out of earshot.
"What is it?" she growled impatiently.
I stepped closer to her, leaving Sandra and Petey standing somewhere behind me. I noticed that my mom couldn't even look me in the eye.
"I... I wanted to ask if you would be willing to let Julian adopt us?"
At that, she glared at me, both skeptical and insulted.
"Adopt YOU?" she exclaimed, as though it was inconceivable that anybody would ever volunteer to do such a thing.
"Yeah..." I stammered, already expecting an adverse reaction, but nevertheless steeled against her hostility, "I know you don't what me. If you agree to an adoption, Petey and I would be looked after and you wouldn't need to worry about us anymore."
She stiffened as she stood there, her antagonism only heightened by my plaintive tones.
"What?" she exclaimed, incredulous, and turned her disgusted expression towards Sandra, somewhere off to the side of me.
"Did YOU put him up to this?" she demanded.
Sandra, always calm, always laid back, merely shook her head. Sandra was always eager to give everybody a fair hearing, never taking sides, never making judgments. But it wasn't necessary to make assumptions about our mom - she was a wino and felt no inclination to disguise it.
"I don't need to," Sandra replied, coolly, "Ben knows his own mind."
And then, as if from nowhere, a loud and piercing cry emanated, like that of a wounded animal.
"Never!" my mom crowed, "I'll never let that man adopt you!"
Her proclamation attracted the stares of other people in the lobby, the staff at the reception desk and the various others that were either milling around or waiting for the elevators.
At this point, Sandra stepped forward, still holding Petey by the hand.
"But why? It's clear you don't want Ben. Why prevent his happiness? Doesn't he deserve that?"
Without answering Sandra directly, my mom turned back to me and scowled, curling her lip in contempt.
"You can go to hell for all I care!"
"But it would help your case tremendously if you would only show some compassion," Sandra tried to reason, "Cooperate with us and it will look more favorable for you in court."
And then my mom, ever more obstinate for Sandra's logic, stepped even closer to me and boomed out.
"Not only will I never cooperate with you, I'll make sure you never get adopted!"
"Please don't do that," Sandra appealed to her, "I beg of you."
"Now you listen to me you little shit," my mom began, pointing an accusing finger at me, "If you try and force me to do anything, I'll make sure you never see your brother again!"
Sandra huffed. Even she was struggling to retain her composure in the face of such intransigence.
"But you can't do that. Don't you see, that's unreasonable."
"I don't care!" my mom snapped back.
At this point, her key worker intervened and came up to take her away, concerned at the raised voices and angry exchange. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away, hurriedly ushering her back towards the revolving door. As she was about to step through it, she twisted around just enough to call back over her shoulder.
"You hear me? You'll never see your little brother again!"
Her threatening tones reverberated in my ears even as she meandered her way out of the building. And those words continued to echo through my mind even as we watched her being led away.
Those words continued to haunt me on the drive home. It was on the whole an unpleasant exchange, which left me reeling and in a state of shock. I was very quiet and subdued in the car. So was Petey. I would have preferred for him not to have witnessed all that. But there it was. Our mom was a bitter, dejected, twisted woman, whose life was clearly out of control. I felt sorry for her but I couldn't help her. No one could. All that mattered now was Petey. Petey and me.
Later that night, I awoke from a very deep sleep to the sound of sniffling. The still of night was disturbed by the sound of gentle little sobs emanating from somewhere in the darkness. I thought it was coming from Finn's room. But it wasn't Finn because Finn had already gone back home to his mom. Petey was in Finn's room now. It was the room just next to mine. The sniffling woke me up and I realized it was Petey, crying softly, muffled under his comforter. Poor Petey. The trauma of the day had probably finally caught up with him. I forsook the warmth of my bed and padded out onto the darkened passageway in my bare feet, wearing only my sleep shorts. Petey's door was ajar, so I went in, slowly feeling my way against the walls of his room in the semi-darkness and over to Petey's bed. Sure enough, I could see his little shoulders shuddering under the comforter. I peeled back the covers and he was curled up with his little fists in his eyes and I could see the wetness of the baby tears on his face glistening in the half-light. I got into his bed, clambering over him, and settled alongside him, pulling the covers back up over us both. He was still sobbing. I reached over and curled myself around him, as was his favorite position, and I stroked him, just like we used to do at home.
"What's the matter Petey?"
"Oh Benny!" he blubbed, "I don't want you to go away."
"Shh, don't cry Petey. It'll be okay."
Petey was inconsolable, the violent shudders of his little body a testament to the depth of his grief. I held onto him tightly, stroked him and caressed him, willing him to stop crying.
"Don't cry Petey."
"But what if I never see you again?" he sobbed.
"That won't happen, Petey."
He seemed pacified by my certainty, and twisted his little body around to face me in the bed. Still half submerged under the comforter, his moptop hair all mussed up, he wiped his eyes and looked at me, curious to know more.
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because I have a plan," I said, cryptically.
At that he stopped crying, and seemed to settle back down ready to go to sleep. He wriggled about in the bed to get comfortable, and he even pulled my arms around him tighter, wanting to go to sleep with me spooning him.
"Trust me," I reassured him, "I won't let them separate us."
I hugged him and kissed him behind his ear. He laid there on his side, staring out into the darkness, and I watched over him protectively, waiting for him to go back to sleep. And as I surveyed this tiny boy who had already suffered so much in his short life, I wondered if our mom really was going to stop me from seeing him. Could she really be so cruel as to separate us? How would I ever live without Petey? Petey - the only thing that was ever good in my life, the only one who was always there for me, my little brother, my buddy, my comrade in arms, the little soldier who had fought this lifelong campaign alongside me. We had lived this intolerable childhood together, united in our common sufferance. I cursed our mom for causing him so much grief, for inducing so much pain and heartache into the life of this innocent little kid. Damn her. Damn her selfishness. Damn her drinking. There was no chance now of our dream becoming reality. Any aspirations of going to live with Julian were now dashed. The chance of adoption, which I had hoped and prayed for, was gone forever, and with it the one thing which could have saved us both and might have mended our lives once and for all.