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Chapter 17: A New Beginning(Revised)
We knew that the boys were on the beach. We couldn't see them, but that was where the trail had led us. The beach was apparently deserted. The midday sun, almost directly overhead, bathed the sand in bright sunlight, the heat tempered only by the bracing breeze and a coolness in the air that was blowing in from the sea. Further along, the sand gave way to a finger of rock that protruded out into the ocean, like a natural breakwater. Somewhere on the other side of those rocks, we hoped, we would find the boys.
The social worker was already preparing to descend from the wooden jetty and down onto the powdery sand, all set to create a grand and all-consuming confrontation. Actually, I found her presence more of a liability than a reassurance. I knew that if the boys saw her there, she risked frightening them and perhaps even causing them to flee.
"No," said Sandra, holding out an arm to bar her from going any further.
The schoolmarm looked at Sandra incredulously, apparently about to object.
"Let Julian go," Sandra suggested, before the schoolmarm could demand an explanation, "Ben knows him and trusts him."
For the first time ever I saw the social worker relinquish an opportunity to take control, and apparently bowed to Sandra's wishes. The look on her face told me that she wasn't altogether happy with that proposition, but could think of no good reason for objecting. There was something about Sandra's maturity and wisdom that was strangely compelling and inspired a level of gravitas that was difficult to dismiss.
"Go Julian," she said, turning to me, "They won't be scared of you."
"Sure?" I said, somewhat doubtful, and still fearful of frightening the boys.
"Are you kidding?" Sandra replied, "Ben idolizes you. He talks about you all the time."
"Oh yes," said Sandra, nodding, "He'll listen to you."
So I went. Sandra and the schoolmarm stayed behind, waiting on the jetty, and I was pleased that it was now down to me to bring the boys safely home.
Instead of simply approaching from beach level, I thought I would apply a little more stealth and headed towards the higher rocks. They were too high to see what was on the other side, so for the moment at least the boys wouldn't see me approach. I tentatively clambered up towards the highest point of the rocks, clumsily slipping and occasionally losing my footing on the steeper parts, and grappling precariously on the others. My shoes weren't really suited to this, and I tore my fingers slightly on the jagged edges trying to cling on.
Somehow, I struggled up to the crest of the rocks. At the top, I was able to peer over, so that the stretch of beach beyond the rocks was just visible, and I could look down onto the vast expanse of sand that undulated down towards the shore. The first thing I noticed were two backpacks secreted amongst the rocks, and further down some clothing apparently scattered randomly on the sand. They were clearly children's clothes, kiddie-sized jackets and hoodies, jeans, sneakers and crumpled socks. I knew then that the boys must be close by.
I tentatively negotiated the rocks, and descended to the beach on the opposite side. Lowering myself down, I slipped part of the way, causing some loose little boulders to cascade down before me. I almost fell the last few feet, sliding uncontrollably until I hit beach level, landing with a slight jolt. It took me a few seconds to steady myself on the firm ground and get my bearings.
I turned and surveyed the beach. The first thing I saw was the diminutive figure of a little dark-haired boy sitting out on the beach in his underwear. I knew that this boy must be Petey. He was planted in the wet sand with his legs folded up underneath him, so that he was sitting on his ankles, in that inimitable way that all little kids have. He had positioned himself just on the periphery of where the waves tumbled up onto the beach, only to recede again, and was busily digging his fingers into the sand around him, drawing patterns and pulling up big handfuls of clayey sand to play with. Then, every time a wave crept up around him, his patterns were erased, leaving him sitting once again on a blank canvas of creamy sand. He seemed so happy playing there on his own, staring out to sea, apparently unaware of his predicament, or at any rate temporarily reprieved from it, for the moment engrossed in his own imagination and totally consumed by these simple boyish pleasures.
Slowly, I circumnavigated the rocks, staying in their shade, not yet ready to make my presence known, and looked around. Further along, I caught sight of Ben. He was there, huddled on a craggy ledge, just above the point where the rocks disappeared below the water. He was keeping vigil, no doubt watching out for Petey. He was shirtless and barefoot, and had rolled his jeans up to his knees. I only saw him from behind, but I knew it was Ben. His slim, diminutive frame cut a very forlorn figure, curled up on that rock, his supple back curved over ever so lithely so that you could see the notches in his spine. He was hugging his legs, which were folded up against his chest, with his chin resting on his knees. At that moment I could see both boys. They were safe and apparently unharmed, and I was pleased that it was me who found them.
I stood and just watched Ben in silence for a few moments. This was the first time I had seen Ben in many weeks. The sight of him, at that moment unaware of my presence, gladdened my heart and lifted the weight of concern that had borne down upon me since the moment I had been told the boys were missing, and I realized then just how much I had missed Ben. The separation we had been forced to endure over the last few weeks had been harsh and unnecessary, given that we had such a strong bond. And there WAS a bond between us - of that there could be no doubt - a genuine amity and affection that made the circumstances that had kept us away from each other seem particularly cruel. Oh, how I had missed this boy!
I stayed fairly close to the rocks, to avoid startling the boys, and watched as Ben stood up, jumping down from the rocks, picking his way back down onto the beach and meandering towards the water, closer to where Petey was playing. I followed him down onto the beach, leaving the cover of the rocks behind and venturing out onto the flat expanse of open sand. I padded on silently behind him, keeping a clear distance.
At first, Ben didn't see me. He walked down towards the water with his hands in his pockets, leaving perfect little footprints in the pristine sand. Turning slightly, he stopped, looking out to sea, holding up a hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. Then he paused for a moment, and cocked his head uncertainly. Perhaps he had become aware of someone watching him. He turned to focus on something behind him, and that was when he spotted me. At first he was startled, and stiffened on seeing me, but a split-second later there was the familiar glint of recognition in his expression. Our eyes met, and he froze, glancing briefly over to where Petey was playing. I could tell that his first thought was for Petey, and that he was momentarily torn between running and staying.
"Hello Ben," I called out to him, over the rushing of the waves.
Ben looked frightened. I could see his flat tummy tighten as he inhaled, visibly gasping with the shock. His hands withdrew from his pockets. The look in his eyes told me that he wanted to flee, but at the same time was actually pleased to see me.
"Don't run Ben," I pleaded with him, holding up my hands in a calming gesture.
He eyed me suspiciously, still poised to bolt if he had to.
"You haven't come to take us back have you?"
Considering that we hadn't seen each other in such a long time, it was not the greeting I expected. It was guarded, apprehensive and unwelcoming.
I shook my head, and gave him a resigned expression, to show that I wasn't about to cause a confrontation. I was just relieved to see them.
"No," I said, with a subdued tone, "I'm just pleased that you're okay."
There was a moment of hesitation where I could see Ben considering the authenticity of my reply, and his slightly querulous expression betrayed the fact that he was still wary.
"You mean, you're not angry with me?"
"No," I replied, softly, "I'm not angry. I could never be angry with you."
"Am I in trouble?"
"No Ben," I said again, "It's good news. Everything's going to be alright."
Ben looked suspicious, clearly not convinced.
"It's true," I reassured him, beaming with sincerity, "Your mom didn't go to her twelve step program. You're both going to be adopted."
Ben started to drop his protective stance. His arms dropped to his sides and his body language instantly relaxed.
"By you?" he asked curtly, his tone mellowing.
"If you want."
He hesitated a moment more, as the implication resolved itself in his mind, momentarily taking on a succession of different expressions, a medley of suspicion, doubt, confusion and then finally relief. I held out my arms to him, benevolent and forgiving, inviting him to come to me. His demeanor melted, and he suddenly sprang forward, darting towards me across the small expanse of sand that was separating us. He leapt onto me with his arms outstretched, and latched onto me tightly.
"Of course I want!" he cried out, simultaneously bursting into tears.
I squeezed him back in a gesture of love and affection that was absolutely exquisite. I enjoyed the fact that, despite our separation, he readily submitted to the comfort of my embrace. Holding Ben close like that felt good. I stroked his bare back. His skin was damp but warmed by the sun, and his body felt lithe and slim in my arms. We stayed like that for a few long seconds, appreciating this special moment of reconciliation, and I ruffled his hair affectionately, even as he cried.
"Ben, I missed you so much."
"I missed you too," he blubbered, muffled against me.
Ben clasped me tightly. The trauma of the last two days was apparent in his sudden release of emotion. I could feel his anguish all through his lean frame, at that moment his body wracked with angst and regret.
"I thought that... I might have ruined everything," he bawled.
"Never," I said, whispering tenderly in his ear.
And he carried on crying, sobbing softly in my arms. In all the time I had known Ben, he had cried in my arms many times, it seemed. But the way Ben cried at that moment was not the way he cried the night he ran away. That night, at my house, when he turned up on my doorstep soaked and bedraggled, his sobs had been the sobs of trauma and self-pity. These sobs were altogether softer, still tinged with childish sorrow, but more an expression of lament for his actions, they were the tears of joy that I was here, of relief for having found him, and of happiness that all the painful issues in his life were finally resolved.
"It's okay Ben. Everything's going to be alright," I was saying, rubbing his back and clasping him to me, soothing him, reassuring him, and reciprocating his affection.
When Ben had finally regained his equilibrium, I let him go. As Ben loosened his embrace and stepped back, wiping his tears, we looked down and saw the little figure of Petey standing there. He had come over from playing in the sand, and had sidled up to us unnoticed. He was now standing there looking up at us expectantly, his expression fixed in boyish wonder, patiently waiting for his turn to receive some affection.
"Hi, I'm Petey," he said, politely.
What a delightful, well-mannered little boy, with a sweet voice that was so high-pitched it was almost cartoon-like.
I realized that this was the first time I had ever met Petey, and when I first set eyes on him I was beguiled by the same instant affection as the very first time I met Joey. At once I was breathless and awestruck by his beauty. Petey was the most perfect little boy, a slight, slender little stripling, but cute as a button. He had such similar features to Ben that he could almost have passed for a younger version of Ben. In fact, they were so alike that you knew instantly they were brothers. He had the same matching almond-shaped eyes with that distinctive gray-green hue. But Petey's hair was somewhat straight, not thick and spiky and ruffled like Ben's, but finer, wispier, a perfect moptop, adorning his head like a fluffy little halo. Right now, his hair was slightly damp, clumping together into little rats-tails which were wet at the tips from where he had splashed about on the beach. His lean little body was peppered with droplets of seawater from where he had been sprayed by the waves. He was only a mere slip of a boy, but he had a perfect physique, clearly the beginnings of the handsome youngster he was going to grow into. He was wearing only a pair of thin tighty-whiteys that were soaked through from his escapade on the beach, the butt area and the back of his slender thighs smeared in a powdery brown film from where had been sitting in the sand. The skin on his calves and forearms was golden and silky and had a warm, healthy glow to it, his faintly tanned skin tone accentuated by the whiteness of his undies. On his forearms was a fine dusting of peach fuzz, the sparse little hairs glinting translucently in the afternoon sun. His complexion was smooth and silky, although his nose was reddened from the freshness of the sea breeze, and his ruddy little cheeks were grimy from having slept amongst the rocks. He looked slightly soiled all over from his ordeal, but he was indescribably cute. I was so overwhelmed with instantaneous love for this boy, that I dropped to my knees in the damp sand to take him in my arms.
"I'm Julian," I said, reciprocating, and held out my arms in a welcome greeting.
His delicate little frame quiescently fell into my embrace, his thin little arms grabbing me around the neck. It was gratifying to see how readily accepting he was of me, and that he was every bit as tactile and affectionate as Ben. I gave him a meaningful squeeze and I could feel his little boy softness. At the same time I caught a whiff of that distinctive little boy smell that reminded me so much of Joey, the heady aroma of little boy pheromone, all bound up with the saltiness of the seawater.
When I let him go, I stood up and made to move off, offering to lead them both away and back to safety.
"Come on, let's go. Let me take you home," I said.
But Petey seemed reluctant to go.
"Couldn't we stay a little longer?" he implored me.
I hesitated, poised with my arm outstretched, as if to guide them away to safety, but disarmed by this little boy's tender appeal. My heart was already melting for him. I looked at Petey's hopeful little face, pleading with me.
"But there are people looking for you," I explained, "I need to let them know that you're safe."
"Surely they can wait a little while," said Petey, eager to reason with me.
"This is the first time Petey has ever been in the sea," he explained.
"Okay," I said, "I guess we don't need to go back just yet. But let's get you cleaned up and have something to eat first."
Petey nodded in agreement, even managing a little smile. I could tell straight away that he was an obedient, well-behaved and compliant little boy who was easy to get along with.
Then the most extraordinary thing happened. As we set off to walk along the beach, little Petey took my hand and looked up at me. It was an unsolicited, spontaneous gesture, and yet it seemed so natural, the way his damp, sandy little paw slipped ever so comfortably into my larger hand, and his delicate little digits tightened around my palm. I smiled down at him and as he looked up at me I saw the innocent love light shining in his pretty gray-green eyes, illuminated by the loving adoration that only a boy of such tender years could convey.
"Are you going to be our new dad?" he asked, tentatively.
"Yes," I said, proudly, "I'm going to be the dad you never had."
"Yay!" Petey exclaimed, "I can't wait to tell Mikey that I've got a new daddy!"
Whilst his immediate thought was his anticipation of telling his best friend, it was a flattering comment. I was chuffed because the deeper connotations of that sentiment indicated how much this little boy felt his life was defined by the absence of a father.
The boys dressed, gathering up their belongings from where they were scattered about the beach. We headed for a beachfront diner that we spotted further along the seafront, perched high up on the top of a steep embankment. A diagonal pathway had been cut into the face of the rocks, which the boys somehow still had the energy to ascend. Their excitement was perhaps invigorated not so much by their hunger, but by the prospect of the view that it afforded at the top. They ran up the pathway, still carrying their little backpacks, leaving me bringing up the rear, my energy still somewhat sapped from scaling the rocks earlier.
Whilst the boys ran on ahead, I had an opportunity to take out my cellphone and immediately called Sandra to let her know that the boys were okay. I told her exactly where we were going and that everything was under control. Sandra was relieved and delighted. She was still with the social worker, and there was a police liaison officer waiting for us. I told her we might be some time. As the boys' de facto foster parent, Sandra was still very much in charge, so she assured me she would keep everyone at bay until we were ready to come home. Gracious as always, she said she would be waiting for us.
There were no other customers in the diner, so we were the only ones in there, apart from the young waitress who was lounging across the greasy counter looking bored and listless. First I took the boys into the restrooms to get cleaned up. They were still wearing the same matted and slightly soiled clothes from the day before, and were both in need of a good wash. It was encouraging that Ben had at least had the foresight to pack a change of clothes.
In the restroom, I watched the boys together and it was heartening to see how Ben ministered to Petey as they washed and changed. Petey slipped his hoodie up over his head, trying to take it off, and his rumpled t-shirt rode up with it, exposing his midriff. The hoodie got stuck around his head, so that Ben had to help him. Petey then lifted his arms, ready for Ben to peel off his t-shirt for him. It was lovely to witness how the boys interacted, so that you could see the genuine love and affection between them. It occurred to me then how cruel it would have been to separate them. When they were both shirtless, they filled two basins with hot water and started splashing their faces. Petey couldn't reach over the basin far enough, so I helped him. My natural fatherly instincts just seemed to come to the fore, so I washed his face for him, splashing copious amounts of warm water onto him. When I had finished, I took a wad of paper towels and cradled Petey's little head in the crook of my arm, gently drying his face with little dabs. Obediently, he stood there and let me dry him off, his eyes screwed shut, smiling faintly, almost as though he enjoyed the attention. At that moment it really did feel like I was his dad, protectively cleaning the dirt from my little boy's face. After that, I helped Petey to wipe away the sand that was trapped between his toes. I got down on my knees and he lifted each foot for me, resting it on my knee, as I meticulously swabbed in and around his perfect little toes. What an attentive and obliging little boy he was.
Afterwards, both boys seemed somewhat fresher and reasonably well groomed considering they had both spent the night out on the beach. Then, a little more composed, we all sat together in a booth by the window, ready for some well deserved sustenance. The afternoon sun penetrated warmly through the glass, illuminating us all in a celebratory ray of light, which given the preceding twenty four hours, was an exaltation of just what an achievement this was. Here we were, all three of us, together at last, tired and maybe still a little grubby, but relatively intact.
The waitress ambled over nonchalantly, handed round the menus and reached for a pencil that she had stuck behind her ear. She pulled out an order pad from the narrow little apron that was hung around her waist. The laminated menu was greasy and flyblown, one of those order cards that had washed-out pictures of the fare on offer. The boys cleverly reverted to that well-known universal language: pointing. They simply looked at the menu and jabbed their fingers at the image of what they wanted. They also seemed to be more or less in agreement with each other. They ordered an enormous pizza to share. I just settled for coffee.
Strangely, it wasn't until their order arrived and they had already started attacking the oversized pizza that it occurred to Ben to ask me the obvious question. I was sat there, revived and consoled by the hot coffee, filled with awe by the two boys on the other side of the table. And then, apparently unprompted, Ben looked up at me as he munched, his lips and chin already smeared with tomato sauce and strings of melted mozzarella.
"So how did you find us?"
I smiled smugly and took another sip of coffee before answering.
"CCTV," I said, simply.
That didn't seem to surprise Ben. He simply smiled resignedly.
"You were seen at the truck stop yesterday," I went on, "And the bus terminal too."
Ben nodded in acknowledgement, perhaps admitting that he had overlooked the usually passive technology that had unwittingly tracked their movements, and which had helped the police to locate them. But he made no comment, perhaps secretly relieved that it had led me to them.
"Tell Sandra that I'm sorry," he said, perhaps recalling the events of yesterday, and the arduous trek that had led them here.
"You can tell her yourself," I said, "She's waiting for you."
Ben grinned sheepishly, taking another bite of the floppy slice of pizza that was suspended in his hand.
"I tried your phone," I explained, assuming that he still had the smartphone I had given him.
"Out of juice," he replied, with his mouth full.
"Never mind," I said, "You're safe, that's all that matters."
And with that, Ben went back to the pizza.
Both boys ate heartily and enthusiastically, so that it was easy to see they were both ravenous. When they had consumed the pizza, they even pleaded for ice cream. I was in no frame of mind to deny them anything. So I let them order the most elaborate desserts they could find - ice cream sundaes.
When they came, their sundaes were like works of art. They were enormous, with hot fudge sauce, whipped cream, chopped nuts, chocolate sprinkles, vanilla wafers and a maraschino cherry. When they were set down in front of them their eyes widened in such a way that it thrilled me to see how such a simple thing could induce so much pleasure. Ben just dived in, carving out big spoonfuls with obvious relish. Petey sat there admiring his for a good few moments, his little face obscured by the towering concoction before him, as though not sure what to do. I leaned over, picked up the long-handled spoon, and offered him a spoonful. He didn't know what I intended, but I nodded at the spoon, with a big dollop of ice cream on the end, reassuring him that I wanted to do this for him. He complicitly opened his mouth and I fed it to him. I enjoyed feeding him. I loved doing it for Petey just as much as I did for Joey. There is nothing nicer than a father feeding his boy, such a loving, affectionate gesture, with its nourishing and nurturing overtones. Ben watched this with an approving smile, perhaps already imagining how we would all get along together. Petey pursed his little lips around every spoonful, clearly enjoying the ice cream but also relishing the attention, as all boys invariably do.
I seriously doubted that either boy would finish their sundaes. I should never have doubted them. They easily polished off the lot in next to no time. I wondered how long it had been since these boys had been able to indulge in such things, and how much they had missed out on the type of things that other kids just took for granted. I was only too happy that I was able to do this simple thing for them. I didn't think I could ever derive so much pleasure from watching little boys eat.
When Ben had finished, he sat back, pushing the empty sundae glass away, clearly sated, and we both watched Petey, clutching the long-handled spoon, totally engrossed in scraping the last of the liquid ice cream in the bottom of his glass. Then Ben focused on me, now ready to discuss practicalities with me.
"Sandra said that if we want to be adopted, we might have to get an attorney."
"That's right," I said, "And I will probably have to get one as well."
"But why? Petey and I both want it."
"What you want may not necessarily be what's best for you," I said.
Ben flashed me a puzzled and scornful expression.
"How could it not be?" he asked, disdainfully.
"It's just to make sure that everyone makes the right decision for you," I explained, "and don't forget that your mom still has rights too. She may get an attorney and fight the adoption."
Ben looked down in hopelessness.
"Why does it have to be so complicated?" he asked, shaking his head in despair.
Then he looked up and addressed me with a more philosophical tone.
"I don't need no attorney to tell me what's right," said Ben, "I know it's right. I've always known it, since that day you first took me home after school."
"I think I've always known it too," I confessed, remembering that fateful day with some fondness.
Ben nodded vigorously, bolstered by my consensus.
"I always knew you were someone very special," he said.
And he looked up at me as he said it, his gray-green eyes glinting appealingly. It was a remark of immense candor and sincerity, and I appreciated his openness.
"I realize now that you were right all along," he went on, "When you asked me to be in the school play, you were right - I did make new friends. I got to know Tony... and you of course. I was lucky. If you hadn't been there the night my mom threw me out, I dunno what I would've done."
I was stunned by that remark, which was so frank that it was almost an admission of his own vulnerability. Ben's conclusions had great depth and understanding. His postulations were remarkably mature and observant. At times, his perception and astuteness was incredible. Way beyond his tender years.
"You know Ben, you're a really smart kid."
"Thanks," said Ben, chuffed, "I had a good teacher."
And I could see the mischievous little glimmer in his eyes as he said that, a thinly disguised little compliment clearly aimed at me.
"Do you really mean that?"
Ben nodded. And then, after a short pause, he elaborated.
"You're the only person that ever told me I was smart," Ben explained, "At school, you said my work was very promising and that you were proud of me. It was the only time I can ever remember anybody saying anything nice like that. Apart from Petey, no one ever told me I was good at anything or that they were proud of me. That's what fathers are for, but I never had a father to tell me those things."
Once again, as I had come to recognize in Ben, he struck me absolutely dumb by his fluency and his articulacy. Ben had a quite natural propensity to voice his thoughts with such eloquence. In that unique and distinctive way of all good wordsmiths, he had this uncanny flair for finding just the right expression and encapsulating his thoughts in a very colorful and poetic way. I swear he was going to be a very accomplished writer one day.
"You're very special too," I said, reciprocating, "You were the only person I ever talked to about Joey. Thank you for being there."
And in expressing my thanks, I recalled briefly the night I had stood alone on that bridge on the anniversary of Joey's death. I shuddered inwardly at the thought of it.
"It was nothing," said Ben, shrugging it off, "I loved hearing your stories about Joey."
"Really? I'm sorry. I shouldn't have burdened you with all that."
He shook his head, not in the least resentful.
"It's okay, really," said Ben, "All that stuff you told me about Joey was like you painted a portrait for me. It was such a good picture, I almost feel I knew him."
It was a beautiful turn of phrase. Ben really was good with words. More than that, it was quite true, and a very apt description of the stuff I had shared with him. All the random memories I had related to him were like little vignettes, brief sketches yielding mere glimpses, disjointed fragments of the larger picture. They may have been somewhat meaningless when taken out of context, but each individual memory, each single recollection, was a solitary component, one of the many fine details which collectively aggregated into a tangible composition. That was all that was left now, a series of memories, each one a minute brushstroke representing a solitary sweep of the artist's hand, which together formed the portrait of the boy who was once the center of my life.
"Thank you," I said again, "You don't know how much that means to me."
Then Ben looked over at me, his expression now slightly mischievous, and I knew he was about to pitch some kind of request.
"Will you do something for me?" Ben pleaded, clearly feeling he was entitled to ask something in return.
"Yes Ben, anything."
"If we're going to come and live with you, please don't drink anymore," he said plaintively.
It was an honest, straightforward, heartfelt appeal, and I could see from his expression that it meant a lot to him. It was the one thing that I knew he considered non-negotiable. Ben had probably seen too much of the adults around him drinking. Indeed, it was the most likely root of most of his problems. It was not surprising that he needed reassurance that alcohol would no longer be a wildcard in his life. It made good sense to me, and right now I knew it was the most important undertaking I could give him to demonstrate my sincerity.
"I won't," I said solemnly, "I promise."
And I meant it too. Drinking had caused me too many problems. This was a fresh start, a new beginning, and I wasn't going to let anything jeopardize that.
"We ARE going to come and live with you, aren't we?" Ben asked, seeking reassurance, even if only to hear me say it, and I saw his hopeful expression and the optimism in his eyes.
"I hope so," I replied, nodding assuredly, "I'm going to do everything I can."
Ultimately, I knew that we were going to be together. I told Ben that I would speak to my attorney. Tomorrow, we would set up a meeting and I would instruct him to make a formal application to begin the process of adoption. It wasn't going to be easy, but ultimately it was the right thing to do. Both Ben and Petey were chuffed by the news. Soon, we hoped, they would both be coming home with me. They belonged together, and I would be father to not one, but two wonderful young boys.
Sandra and the social worker, accompanied by the police liaison officer, made a very low-key appearance at the diner. It was not the grand and melodramatic denouement I had feared. Actually, as soon as she appeared in the doorway, the boys both ran up to Sandra and embraced her, at once apologetic and happy to see her. She hugged them both warmly and lovingly, every bit as much as if she had been their real mom. I was surprised at how much affection the boys had for her. The schoolmarm social worker said very little, other than to express relief that the boys were okay. I think even she showed a more human side to her, and the joy of finding the boys was clearly etched on her face. Everyone was happy to let me take the boys for one last walk along the beach, while they made arrangements for the trip home.
So, now nourished and rested, and somewhat more relaxed, we finally made our way back down to the beach, to allow the boys one final excursion on the seafront. No longer burdened by their backpacks, Ben and Petey were able to run ahead excitedly, exuberant and trouble-free. Ironically, the sea marked the end of their odyssey, the furthest extent to which their little escapade could possibly go, and yet it was the one place where Ben and Petey had never been. So it was all the more poignant now, when all their issues were resolved, that this was the place they wanted to be, like their payoff for finally overcoming their adversities. So, with their tummies full of ice cream, we all took a long walk along the beach, idling along, laughing and chatting animatedly. We clambered over the many rocks, exploring the rock pools, picking up seashells, enjoying the sheer wonder of their shapes and colors. We walked and walked, unaware of the time, just soaking up each other's company and totally immersed in our private little affair, as though we had shed all our cares and responsibilities, even if just for a short time. We must have walked for miles.
Ben and I were talking, at the same time negotiating some more rocks that sporadically littered the beach, breaking up the flat expanse of sand with protrusions that were slimy with sea foam. Petey was running on ahead, enthusiastically climbing the rocks, jumping and hopping from rock to rock, with Ben and I following on close behind. Petey wavered a little, as though about to lose his balance, then suddenly lost his footing and fell. There was an audible knock where his head hit the rocks. Ben and I froze momentarily. We both ran over to him. He was curled up on the rock, holding his head, but there were no tears. He was totally silent. I knelt down to help him up, and he reached out for me, instinctively throwing his little arms around me. Then the tears came. For a few moments he squealed in my embrace, the high-pitched cries of a little soul in distress. But he quickly recovered. When the initial trauma had passed, I held him out in front of me, still kneeling before him, to take a look at his head. He had a tiny scratch on his forehead, a slight contusion, with some sandy grit embedded on the surface of the skin, but nothing too severe. I wiped the debris away with my finger.
"It's okay, nothing serious," I concluded.
Petey stared wondrously at me through his teary eyes, comforted and silenced by my tenderness.
"But it hurts daddy," he said, putting on his little boy 'feel sorry for me' voice, just like Joey used to do.
It was significant, and quite noticeable, that he instantly felt comfortable enough to be calling me daddy, as though he had waited all his life to be able to do that.
"You'll survive," I reassured him, with a smile.
I was about to let him go, but he reached out for me, putting his little arms around my neck, not wanting to be released.
"Kiss it better," he pleaded, his little high-pitched voice begging for sympathy.
I pulled him towards me, willingly acceding to his demand, and gave him a quick kiss on his forehead where the bruise was. He looked at me slightly nonplussed.
"No. Do it prop-ly," he said, clearly not satisfied with that.
His pretty gray-green eyes were still glazed with tears, and my heart just melted. Still holding his head in my big hands, I pulled his sweet little head towards me one more time and this time I kissed his wound harder, longer and with more meaning, and his little frame melted into my arms. He seemed more satisfied with that, perhaps reassured that at last he was receiving the attention that he had never had. He closed his eyes and embraced me, his little arms holding me tightly. He was such a loving little boy, and I concluded that it was probably the first time that any adult had shown this little boy such care and affection. I realized also, that with this single loving gesture, my fathering of this little boy had already begun.
I picked Petey up and carried him, supporting his tiny frame with an arm under his butt. I was surprised at how light he was. He fell against me, affectionately clasping me around the neck, and his little head resting on my shoulder. There was a promenade bordering the beach, so we climbed the shallow concrete steps up to a wooden bench that was behind the sea wall, set well back from the beach. The bench was facing out to sea, so it seemed to call out to us. The promenade, like the beach, was deserted. So it was the perfect spot for us to sit and reflect for a while. We sat down, me in the middle with the boys either side of me. Little Petey laid down, drew up his legs, and promptly prepared to go to sleep, with his head on my lap, curled up on the bench next to me like a little cat. The poor boy was exhausted, his fleeting trauma of a few moments ago and the ordeal of the last two days all but forgotten.
Ben and I just sat there, on that wooden bench, staring out to sea. For a while we didn't say anything. We were just overawed and overjoyed at the wonderfully exhausting day we had had, and the fact that we were here, together and relatively unscathed. Then he seemed to look around at me, as though he had something on his mind. He didn't say anything, just smiled. I returned his smile. Words were not needed. Then he did something which I shall never forget. Totally unbidden by me, he shifted closer, edging towards me until his body was pressed right up close to me. Then he slipped a hand under my elbow and intertwined his arm with mine, so that we were locked together. It was a sign of his acceptance. Not just his acceptance, but his aspiration, the final confirmation I needed that he was now my boy. He wanted me. And I wanted him. He tipped towards me, his head resting on my shoulder and I reciprocated by pulling him closer with an arm around his shoulders. And we sat like that for a good long time, both of us enjoying the moment and watching the fading sunlight bouncing off the rippling surface of the sea. In silent contemplation, we tracked the almost transparent silhouettes of the oil tankers and cargo ships, like gray ghosts gliding serenely across the distant horizon. By now, afternoon was turning into evening, and the lemon-yellow sun had just started melting into the sea, creating a fiery orange glow in the sky, the dying embers of this auspicious day. It was beautiful.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, Ben broke the idyll.
"I love you Julian."
His words brought the sting of tears to my eyes. I had not heard those words in so long. He had never said that to me before, and yet, he said it so plainly, so effortlessly, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. And his words sounded good. His words were pleasing to my ears. They were soothing and comforting, and induced in me a strange feeling of peacefulness and calm. It was as though, with that one single phrase, Ben had brought to a close the painful arduous period of my life that had started with Joey's illness and had culminated in his death, the long, lonely road of dealing with his loss, the struggle of overcoming the grief and coping with the void that his absence had created in my life. Ben had brought new meaning into my life. Just being with this boy, in his presence, gave me an overwhelming, almost dizzying feeling of intoxication. He was like a breath of fresh air, like the vents had been opened after a long spell of being sealed inside. It really was like a veil being lifted, like I could breathe again, like coming up for air, breaking the surface after a long spell of dredging around on the seabed. And in uniting with these two adorable boys who had been so starved of affection, who had been abused and neglected and were never really loved - we had each assuaged the other's suffering and mutually mended each other's lives.
I looked over at Ben sitting there next to me. He was such a pretty boy, utterly adorable, an almost perfect specimen of the human male child. I looked upon this fine young creature with the clear white complexion and thick black hair and those mysterious gray-green eyes, and I was suddenly filled by an overwhelming effusion of love for this beautiful boy - this beautiful boy who was now going to be my son.
"I love you too Ben," I replied.
And no sooner had the words left my lips I realized just how long it had been since I had had the exquisite pleasure of saying that to someone.
Ben seemed bolstered by my words, and snuggled even closer, holding me tighter as though trying to bury himself in my embrace. And I knew then that they were the right words. Right for him. Right for us. Right for this moment.
Just then, I became aware of the fluttering of feathers. There was a whipping up of the air in close proximity, caused by the flapping of wings, then silence. I felt the familiar sense of eyes watching me. I looked and it was a beautiful, shiny seagull. He had landed on top of the promenade wall and was standing watching us, only a few feet away. He stared at us expectantly, with that fearsome looking bill, webbed feet, powerful rounded breast and pure white plumage. We both sat there looking at this magnificent creature, totally still, totally quiet, only the rushing sound of the waves crashing ashore to break the silence. And in those few moments I remembered Joey's words. I remembered that incident on the way back from Mexico, when we had buried the coyote by the roadside, and how we talked about what happens to you when you die. Joey had told me then that he wanted to come back as a seagull. How heartwarming it was to have this magnificent specimen sitting there looking at us. And at that moment it was as though I could feel Joey, like he was somewhere close, or that his spirit was nearby. Maybe Joey was here now, watching me with Ben. Maybe he was seeing all this and giving me his blessing. Maybe he was telling me that it was going to be okay. Maybe he was saying "That's right, go ahead. Enjoy your time with Ben. Look after him, like you looked after me. Care for him, and stay with him, for I know he will be with you for a very long time." And I found those thoughts strangely comforting and vindicating. Thank you Joey. That was all I ever wanted. I looked up at the crimson sky, feeling the warmth of Ben's diminutive little body basking against mine, and Petey's sweet little head asleep in my lap, and I smiled to myself as we sat there. At that moment, I knew. All was calm. All was right. Everything was in perfect harmony. For the first time in a long, long while, I just knew, everything really was going to be alright.
I woke up with the sun streaming through the windows of Joey's room. I was lying in Joey's bed, snuggled deep into the luxurious sheets of his heavy comforter. I still thought of it as Joey's room, even though it was really my room now. I liked to think that Joey had left it to me, that I was kind of looking after it for him. I thought I had better get up. I didn't really know what time it was. I could sense that it was already late, but I didn't want Julian to think I was lazy or anything like that. So I rolled back the covers and donned Julian's oversized bathrobe - I liked wearing Julian's bathrobe, even though he had bought me one of my own. It reminded me of the first time I had worn it, that fateful night when my mom threw me out, and I had turned up at Julian's door, soaked to the skin.
I ambled downstairs and spotted Petey in the drawing room. He was already up and sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, as was his habit. He was still in his undies, and he was holding an enormous mug of hot chocolate in his lap, no doubt lingering over the sweet milky drink that had left a sticky little brown moustache on his top lip. As usual he had the volume turned up a tad too far and was sitting too close to the screen, utterly mesmerized by the cartoon antics. Squidward and Patrick were up to their usual shenanigans at the Krusty Krab.
I headed straight for the kitchen, where I could see Julian was already up and dressed and busy making breakfast. I stood on the threshold of the sun-filled kitchen, looking approvingly at the little feast that Julian had prepared. He smiled on seeing me, but said nothing. It was the friendliest, most benevolent smile I had ever received, and I returned it with the same amity and grace. Words were not needed. To my delight, Julian had fixed breakfast for us all, and he had laid everything out on the central island. There was a big plate of eggs, fluffy and yellow, with toast and orange juice. And as I sat down, pulling up one of the high stools at the central island, there was an overwhelming feeling of love and acceptance in the air, the quiet, calm assuredness of being with someone who had real affection for me. My mood was light and carefree, blyth and unburdened. The criticism and disapproval that I had previously become so accustomed to, was now gone. The endless nagging that I used to have perpetually hanging over me, that had become such a relentless, festering sore to my self-esteem, was now banished. It was amazing, because it made me realize just how much negativity I had been subjected to, so much so that I actually felt its absence. Things were very different now. The weight of oppression that routinely assailed me at home, was no longer there. There was no hectoring voice quacking negativity into my ears, no haranguing, no put-downs, no quips or jibes, no questions or demands. All there was right now was Julian sitting opposite me, pouring orange juice and smiling affectionately at me, reassuring me with his presence. He demanded nothing, and volunteered nothing. He just let me be and allowed us both to bask in the warmth of our mutual affection. I looked at Julian and realized just how much I was in awe of this man, and how much I loved him for who he was and for what he had done for Petey and me. We could both talk freely about having a father now. There was no more awkwardness around the other boys because they had fathers and I didn't. I no longer had to feel inferior because I never had the opportunity to do all the things the other boys did with their fathers. I no longer had to feel guilty that for some reason we were never worthy of our father's love, ashamed that my father never loved us enough to stick around. I could walk into school knowing that we had a father who loved us. For the first time in my life I felt I was with somebody who actually cared for me - was genuinely interested in my existence and had my welfare at heart. I felt the stirrings of something truly real, something I had always craved, but had been denied me; something I knew existed but had never experienced: the fuzzy warmth of a nurturing and benevolent father figure. I felt safe, I felt protected, I felt looked after. For the first time in my life, I felt loved.
As I sat down at the central island, Julian picked up an envelope that had been propped there against the cereal box, and passed it to me.
"This came for you," he said, meaningfully.
I took this unanticipated item of mail and scrutinized the envelope. The address was handwritten, with my name on the front. I didn't recognize the handwriting, but there was a Hong Kong postage stamp in the corner. I looked up at Julian, already encouraged by the evidence, and smiled. It could only be from Tony. Julian sat down opposite to watch me open it.
Without hesitation, I stuck a finger under the corner of the flap and roughly ripped along the seam, impetuously putting my hand in to retrieve the contents. It was a thick, neatly folded greetings card, on the cover of which was a pretty slick graphic. The picture on the front was a painting of two young boys sitting on a hillside, clearly best friends. Their mouths were agape, seemingly in wonder, their heads tilted up towards the night sky, which was beautifully strewn with an array of stars and a full moon. The inscription beneath it said simply 'Stargazers'.
What a beautifully clever message, undoubtedly a reference to that first poignant evening we had spent together when we had gone up to Tony's bedroom and he had taken me up to the roof deck to show me his telescope.
Inside the card there was a simple handwritten message, short but heartfelt, in which Tony apologized for not getting in touch sooner. He explained that it had taken longer than he anticipated to get settled in his new home and new school, but now everything was sorted out. He went on to express his wish for us to stay in touch and, if I was still willing, extended an invitation for me to visit him in Hong Kong. My heart soared. So he was true to his word. He did want to stay in touch! Perhaps it was my good fortune to receive this invitation now, when the circumstances of my life had finally resolved themselves. Now, I was actually in a position to go, and Julian said he would pay for my trip. He even said that Tony could come visit me one day, and he could stay with us when he did. So, our friendship could flourish. The boy I loved, the boy I had revered and admired for so long from afar, with whom I had shared so much, the one true friend I thought I had lost, was once again back in my life. So, as it turned out, I didn't lose Tony after all.