© 2003 Jess Mercer

Pan Handler

One

It's hell being alone and without friends in a new life, but that describes me to a T. School was bad enough, because I didn't have any real friends. Being the class 'brain' I had others 'cozy up', but I learned early on they just wanted me to do their homework. Anyway, I graduated from a private academic high school at sixteen, and now I'm in my first semester at the state university. My parents are the cool, unemotional type and thought their brilliant son could hack it alone, so they packed me off. In their way, I suppose they love me, but it's without the affection I've always felt a need for.

Uncertain of having me in a dorm with older students, especially with my lack of social skills, they found a nice studio flat in a secure building for me which only adds to my isolation. So here I am on a Saturday morning wandering around in a large mall to give myself some feeling of being with other people. I'm about to leave when a small voice says, "Will you give me some money so I can get somethin' to eat?"

I hate panhandlers and I'm about to snap a sour, 'No', until I turn to look at the speaker. He's a skinny little kid not more than nine or ten, dressed in dirty ragged jeans and an equally grubby T-shirt. What stopped my intended reply are the too short, battered wooden crutches that support him. From the way the jeans leg is tied up in a knot, his right leg has to be missing just above the knee.

He looks in need of a good meal, and the food court is only a few steps away, so I nod. "Okay. I'll buy you something. Come on."

His instant smile reveals a beauty crying to be released from behind the dirt on his face and clothing. It melts my loneliness. I lead him to the one place that serves full meals instead of the usual junk food and we sit down at a small table.

The waiter comes over, but instead of handing me a menu, he looks at the kid and growls, "You again. I thought I told you not to come back. Get out."

"If he's not welcome, then neither am I. I was going to order for both of us, but you can forget it. Come on, kid, let's split."

"I didn't mean you," the waiter says hastily. "I meant him. He's always grabbing rolls and stuff people leave on their plates. Steals tips, too, if he can."

"No matter. If my guest can't be treated with courtesy, we'll go elsewhere."

The waiter's face flushes and he hands us menus without saying anything else. After he's left us alone, I make several suggestions to the kid, pleased when he asks if he can have a hot turkey sandwich with creamed potatoes and green beans. I decide to have the same. I signal the waiter and order, ordering milk for us to drink. The food is good and the kid tucks in as if he hasn't eaten for a week, but I take notice of the slow sullen service and retaliate by leaving a five percent tip.

Once we're out in the mall again, the kid lays his small hand on my arm. "Thanks, mister, that was real good. I ain't had nothing since yesterday."

Not expecting this display of manners, I motion toward a bench. When we're seated, I tell the kid my name's Trav, and ask his.

"Mike. I'm ten."

"Do you live near here?"

He shakes his head. "Across town. I come here cause sometimes somebody will give me money or buy me somethin' to eat, like you. If they don't I get what I can from what people leave."

"Don't you eat at school?"

"Ain't going this year cause I ain't got no clothes and I'm dirty."

"What about your parents?"

I see tears come to his beautiful blue eyes as he shakes his head. "Don't got no momma, and my daddy's drunk most all the time."

He starts to pick up his crutches, but on impulse I stop him.

"Would you like to come home with me and take a bath? I'll buy you something to wear."

"Please. That'ud make me feel real good." His voice is tremulous and he seems close to tears.

With a generous allowance and some money my grandmother left me, I can easily afford to help him. I've never felt this way before and I like it. The clerk in a discount clothing store is reluctant to measure the kid, but does at my insistence and looks more cheerful when I select two three-paks of bikini briefs and T-shirts, four pairs of sox, two pair of jeans, and a half dozen wash-and-wear shirts. I finish with a sweater and a pair of loafers. Before we leave the mall, I find a drug store that carries crutches, and buy him a new pair, telling the clerk to trash the old ones.

I take the shopping bag and lead Mike out to my small motorbike, all I'm licensed to drive at my age. The crutches are a bit of a problem, but I finally secure them in the carrier over the rear wheel by using my belt. "Okay, Mike, sit behind me and hang on tight."

At my flat, I take the kid immediately to the bathroom and fill the tub while he strips off the rags he's wearing. I lift him in the tub, and decide to bathe him myself. By the time I've washed his long hair, and gotten the first layer of grime off him, I have to drain the tub and fill it again. He doesn't say a word the entire time, just giving me a happy smile.

After I've lifted him from the tub and dried him off, I hand him a toothbrush and hold him up while he brushes, surprised at the soundness of his white teeth.

When he finishes, his smile is brilliant. I pick him up to carry him back into the main room to dress him, but his arms wind around my neck tightly. "I feel so good. I wish I could live with you forever," he says.

Now it's me who has tears in his eyes as full realization of my loneliness crashes in. My family is not one for hugs like the one I'm getting now from the beautiful blue eyed, blond angel I'm holding; one no artist ever equaled in paint. "I wish you could, too. Don't you bathe at home?"

"Can't. Ain't got no water 'cept what I get from the neighbor's spigot, cause daddy ain't paid the bill.

I sit down in my large soft chair holding him on my lap, and begin to stroke his soft hair. He snuggles against me, and I can't resist placing a kiss on his forehead. "You're so beautiful," I whisper. His arms go around my neck again, and when he kisses me my heart is lost. "I love you, Mike."

We must have slept, for I awake when Mike moves and see it's nearly four. I kiss him and carry him to the sofa, then take his new clothes from the bag. He waits for me to dress him, which I do with loving touches. I finally stand him on his crutches and pin up the empty jeans leg in a neat fold. He's so gorgeous, I grab my camera and take several shots of him.

When I ask, "You want me to take you home now?"

He throws his arms around my waist and hangs on. "I want to stay with you."

"That's impossible, but you can come see me any time you want."

"Please," he says in a heart-rending wail. "If I go home my daddy will beat me and take all my new clothes."

"Why would he do that?"

Mike starts to cry. "He'll trade 'em to somebody for whisky, an' I won't have nothing to wear."

What can I do? I'll let him stay the night and tomorrow so he will have a little pleasure. If there was any way, I'd keep him, but I know there's not a chance.

"You can stay tonight and tomorrow, if you want to. I'll wash what you were wearing so you can wear it home and your daddy won't know. You can come here and get your new clothes whenever you want," I tell him, giving him another kiss.

His hug says it all.

I'm really happy to walk into a decent restaurant for dinner with this adorable child by my side. He doesn't go unnoticed by others, either. I overhear several women comment on his beauty, and mention his missing leg in sorrowful tones. Our dinner is great, and he eats more slowly than at lunch. On our way out, I'm asked more than once if he's my little brother. I find it surprisingly easy to say yes, all the time wishing he were.

Back at my flat, Mike climbs in my lap and snuggles against me contentedly, starved for the love and security I find easy to give him. I bring up the cartoon channel on the TV. Yeah, I like it too, and laugh as much at Mike's delight as I do at the cartoons.

After Mike has yawned several times, I pull out the sofa bed and begin to get ready for bed. When I question why Mike hasn't undressed, he replies that he wants me to do it. Why not give myself the pleasure if that's what he wants?

I'm in the habit of sleeping in my briefs, much to my mother's dismay, so I strip Mike to his as well, and we crawl in bed. Instantly he's lying so close my arms go around him. He almost purrs in contentment before saying, "Love me again like you did before."

"What do you mean?"

"Like when you give me my bath. I like the way you touch me. It feels real good."

I may be gay, but I've never had thoughts of little kids, much less found them attractive until now. I kiss him and begin to stroke his hair. He murmurs in pleasure.

I rub his foot and gently massage my way up his leg, feeling the muscles formed from bearing all his weight. "Rub my other one," he begs. I caress his little stump, suddenly seized by an impulse to kiss it. His skin is soft as the finest silk, bringing a delightful sensation to my lips. His arms go around my neck in a hug. I hadn't realized before how muscular they are from his having used crutches, but he comes close to strangling me.

"I love you," he says, then kisses me. "Please let me stay, Trav. I'll be real good."

I start crying, overwhelmed by a feeling of being needed and wanting to keep this angel with me.

I feel his fingers brushing away my tears. "Don't cry. You make me feel good."

I pull him closer. "I love you so much, Mike. Go to sleep now, and we'll talk tomorrow."

He goes to sleep immediately, but the turmoil in my mind keeps me awake for quite a while. I can't believe I've fallen so totally in love in so short a time. It's a strange feeling for me to have logic battling emotion.

I awake the next morning when Mike goes into the bath. He comes back with a smile and says, "I pulled the skin back when I peed, just like you showed me."

"You're a good boy, Mike," I reply and kiss him. "Let's get dressed and find some breakfast."

I have some orange juice in the fridge, so I pour a couple of glasses, and fix some bacon, eggs, and toast. He spreads strawberry jam liberally on his toast and asks for milk. I have my usual cup of hot tea.

"What you want to do today?"

"Can we go for a ride on your bike?"

"Sure."

It's warm out, a great day for riding around, then I remember the amusement park I heard some of the guys at school mention. I still like some of the rides, and I'm betting Mike will, too, so I head that way.

I don't do any of the adult rides as I had planned, I get such a kick out of watching Mike's delight on the rides for kids. He doesn't miss a one. The last is a small roller-coaster that the attendant says I'll have to ride with him because of his leg. I have a thing about heights, so it's quite high enough for me. After giving Mike's crutches to the attendant to hold, I hold Mike tightly and add my cries to his as we speed through the first dip.

"That was a lot of fun," Mike says when we're back on solid ground.

I hug him. "I'm glad you were along to protect me. I don't like being so high off the ground."

"I won't let anything happen to you, Trav. I love you."

"I love you, too." We had only a hamburger for lunch at the park, so I'm ready to eat again. "Let's go get some dinner. I'm hungry."

"Me, too."

"Want to show me where you live?" I ask when we take off.

"Unh, unh."

"Please, Mike. I need to know."

"Don't make me go home."

"Not just yet. We haven't eaten."

"Okay."

I follow his directions to a crummy part of town. At last he points to a ramshackle house where a filthy fat man is sitting on the steps swigging down the last tin of beer from a six-pack. When I slow he looks up. "Where you been, you one-legged freak!" He yells at Mike. "I'm gonna whup your ass."

Like hell! I put the gas to my bike. With Mike holding on to me tightly, I can feel him quivering with fear. A few minutes later, I pull into the parking lot of a small restaurant where I eat most of the time. I lift Mike off and hug him until he's calm.

"Told you he'd be mad," he says.

"Mad, hell, he's drunk. Let's eat and go home."

Mike gives me a little smile and holds my hand for a second before taking his crutches. All through our dinner I look at him wondering what to do. No way I'll make him go back home, but I know he should be in school. If I call my dad, maybe he'll have some idea of what to do. He's a judge, so I figure he's had similar cases. If he's not busy he might consider helping me, because I don't ask for much. I wish I were old enough to adopt Mike.

After we've gotten back to my flat, Mike crawls up in my lap again and sighs contentedly, as we watch more cartoons. In my mind rages a battle between love and reason, especially when I think of the man he says is his father. My first class on Monday is a nine o'clock lecture, so I have a little time to fix breakfast for Mike and me.

"Are you going to school?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "Told you I ain't going this year."

"But you need to. Besides, I've got to go to my classes in a little while."

He looks at me, and I see a tear being to trickle down his cheek. "Please let me stay with you. I'll go to school if you do."

What can I do with him? But seeing him crying is more than I can take. I pull him into a hug and kiss him on the forehead. "Will you be okay if I leave you here?"

"Unh, hunh."

"Can you fix yourself a sandwich for lunch? There's lots of stuff in the fridge."

His smile is more beautiful than ever. "I have to fix everything I get to eat. I'll be real careful."

"Okay. You can watch TV or something while I'm gone. Don't go out, because the door will lock and you can't get back in."

"I love you, Trav," he says hugging me.

My classes for the day seem a lot more interesting and speed by. My last class, a lab, is over at three, before I consciously wonder how Mike has gotten along, so I push my bike on the way back to my flat. When I open the door, the TV's going, but Mike's curled up in my chair asleep. I drop my books on my desk, take a leak, then check the kitchen. He obviously had something for lunch, for the dish he used is washed and stacked in the drain rack, and the odor of cooked bacon is still strong.

I lean over and kiss my angel. "Trav!" He cries and throws himself into my arms.

"How'd you do?"

"Good. I made a BLT and had some milk for dinner."

"You did?"

"I cooked the bacon in the microwave like you did this morning. It was real good."

I can hardly believe a ten year old had been so observant. This kid is a lot smarter than I thought. "What you want to do, Mike?"

"Can we go to ride again?"

"Sure." It's nice out and he's been cooped up all day.

We're riding along slowly when a cop car pulls alongside and the officer motions me over. Oh, hell! He gets out of the car and walks slowly over to us.

"Are you aware of the helmet law?" He asks me.

"No, sir. No one said anything when I got my license."

"It's a city ordinance. There's a bike shop two blocks down. If you'll follow me there and get helmets for you and your little brother, I won't give you a ticket this time."

"Thank you, sir." We follow him, and Mike and I are soon fitted with helmets. The officer smiles at us, and pats Mike on the shoulder when we leave.

We stop in a park, and I push Mike in the swing for a while, then we get on the seesaw. Yeah, it's kid stuff, but he's having a blast. Guess with an old man like his, he hasn't had much fun.

It's dinner time before we leave, I take him back to the little family restaurant where I usually eat. He tucks into a big dinner again, surprising me when he eats all of his vegetables without a complaint. Once he's watching TV, I call my dad, and ask if I can come home after classes next Friday, saying I want to talk over a problem I'm having. It's only sixty miles, but I know he won't let me put the bike on a highway. Once I've assured him it has nothing to do with school, but something troubling me personally, he agrees to drive up and get me.

I have no desire to touch Mike sexually, tho each evening when we get into bed, he wants me to rub his back and stump. The mere joy of the love I feel coursing through me when he snuggles against me is sufficient. I take him out each afternoon to play in the park, or for a ride on my bike which he loves. Often we stop for an ice cream at a dairy bar. I've never had such a wonderful time before he came into my life.

When I ride up after my last class on Friday, I see my dad's Mercedes in my parking place. Oh, hell, he's gotten here before me, and he has a key! When I open the door to my flat, I see dad sitting in my chair glowering at Mike who's huddled in one corner of the sofa, looking terrified. He's been crying.

"Travis, who is this child and what is he doing in your flat?" My dad snaps.

"Hi, dad. Been here long?"

"Long enough. Don't try to evade my question."

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about. Can't it wait until we're home?"

"I suppose, but you have a lot of explaining to do. Now send him on his way and let's go."

"He's coming with us, dad."

"Are you insane?" He yells.

"No, sir, but he's got nowhere else to go. I'll show you why on the way."

Dad stands and gives me a grim look I know all too well. "I'll never know why I'm letting you talk me into something I know I'll regret. Well, come along if we're going."

I pull Mike up into my arms and hug him. "I packed your clothes with mine. Don't be scared of dad. He won't hurt you."

I start to let Mike sit on my lap, but dad snaps that he'll sit in back with the seatbelt on. I direct dad to the street Mike lives on, and hear dad's sniff of disdain. Luck is with me, because Mike's dad is again sitting on the steps drinking beer. He looks filthier than ever.

"Dear God," dad mutters, "that can't be his father."

"Sure is. He threatened to beat the shit out of Mike when I brought him home."

"What about his mother?"

"Mike says she's dead."

"Is he in school?"

"No, sir. He was filthy and begging for food when I found him. I got him some clothes, but he said if his dad saw them, he would take them to trade for liquor. When he threatened Mike, I took him back home with me."

Since dad's stopped directly in front of the house, Mike's father finally looks up and sees Mike. He pulls himself up and starts to stagger toward us. "Come 'ere you lil bastard. You gonna get two beatin's fer running away."

Dad steps out of the car. "Now see here, there's no call to speak that way to a child."

Mike's dad stops and looks dad over. "What business is it of your'n? Gimme ten bucks and he'll blow ya. That's all a one legged freak like him's good fer."

I never saw my dad lose his cool before, but I see the blood rush to his face. He looks back at Mike and me, then takes out his wallet and throws a twenty at the man. "I'll take the kid for the weekend."

Mike's dad looks surprised, then reaches down to pick up the twenty, almost falling on his face. "Deal," he says with a broken toothed grin.

Dad looks absolutely apoplectic when he gets back in the car and lays rubber on the take-off. A little further on he slows and glances at me. "I can't believe this, Travis. I thought I had seen most every type of low life in my courtroom, but it's unthinkable for a parent to prostitute his son. How old is Mike?"

"Ten."

"Dear God!" My dad exclaims again. Then, to my shock, he reaches over and squeezes my hand. "We need to talk about this, son, but I want you to know now that I am proud of you for removing Mike from such surroundings."

My mouth drops open and I can only stare at my dad. Other than being proud of my graduating from high school so early, this is the only other time he's ever said he's proud of something I've done.

"Thank you, sir," I say and settle back to relax. If I were holding Mike in my arms right now, everything would be perfect.

Despite the weekend traffic, we're home in just over an hour. How dad escapes being pulled, I'll never know, but cops tend to ignore him.

When I lift Mike out of the car and hand him his crutches, he doesn't move, just keeps looking at our house. "Come on, Mike, let's put our stuff in my room."

I take my weekend bag from the boot and start to walk to the house, shocked to see my dad pat Mike on the head and hear him say, "Come along, young man," in a soft voice.

My mother meets us at the door, gives me a peck on the cheek, then looks at Mike and raises her eyebrows. Dad gives her a 'later' look, and says, "This is Mike, Katherine. He will be here for the weekend with Travis."

"How do you do, Mike," mom says.

He gives her a tiny smile, but presses closer to me.

"Come on, Mike. Let's go to my room, then we'll have some fun."

"Don't you think you should carry him up the stairs, Travis?" Mother asks.

"He's fine." Mike can go up steps on his crutches as quickly as I can on two legs.

Mike hasn't said a word, but when I shut the door to my room, he says, "Am I really gonna have to do it to your daddy tonight?"

It takes a moment for me to remember. "Lord, no! Why would you ask that?"

"He give my daddy some money. When men do that, I always gotta do it."

I grab him in a tight hug. "He did that so your dad would let you come with us. You won't ever have to do that again."

"I won't?"

"Never. I brought you home with me so I can talk to my dad about getting you some place safe to live so you can go to school and have fun."

He hugs me back. "I wanna live with you, Trav. I love you."

"I'll ask dad, but I don't think it'll happen. I'm too young."

I see tears and kiss him. "Let's go have some fun. You like trains?"

"Yeah."

"Okay." I take him up to my old playroom where my electric trains are still set up. Mike looks at them wide eyed and, after I show him how to run them, he sits on a stool and breaks into a huge grin. When one of the locomotives jumps the track on a curve, he's about to cry, but I re-rail it and squeeze his shoulder to assure him nothing is broken, his grin returns.

It's my dad who comes up to call us to dinner. He smiles at Mike's obvious joy, and puts his hand on my shoulder. "You are acting like a father, Travis. I remember how happy you were when you got those trains for Christmas, and Mike looks just as happy as you did."

"I wish I were Mike's father, dad. He's the best little guy I could ever want."

In reply, my dad squeezes my shoulder and smiles. I'm not believing this, but I'm praying his mood continues. I tell him what Mike told me about money and sex. Dad looks horrified again.

Mother likes a balanced table, but I seat Mike next to me, and put my arm around his shoulders. Agnes brings in dinner. She's been cooking for us ever since I can remember and she never says anything while serving, but I see her smile when she sees Mike. She serves my parents then goes back into the kitchen and brings my plate and one I can see she's fixed special for Mike. He almost shovels his food down, even the broccoli with buttery sauce which I still don't like, but at our table you eat what's set before you or else. Mother, a stickler for manners, watches with raised eyebrows, then asks, "Travis, does that child get anything to eat?"

"Since he's been with me he's had good meals, mother."

Dessert is mixed fresh fruit in a liqueur, but I ask Agnes to bring him some vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup.

"Oh, boy, ice cream!" He exclaims when Agnes set it in front of him. I see mother give him an indulgent smile, and hope she'll warm up to him.

After dinner, I take Mike back up to the playroom where he runs my trains until his bedtime. He makes no complaint until he sees that he's to sleep in one of the guest rooms, then he howls that he wants to sleep with me. My mother doesn't know what to say, but my father looks at me. "Well?"

"He has bad dreams, so let him sleep with me where he feels safe. I mean we sleep together at my flat, so what's the difference?" I haven't come out to my parents, though I have a feeling they are suspicious.

My mother capitulates. "If it will stop his crying."

I hug Mike and take him into my room. After he's finished getting ready for bed, I tuck him in, and give him a kiss. "I've got to talk with my dad, so you go to sleep and I'll be back in a little while."

"You sure?"

"You know I won't leave you, buddy. I'll leave the nightlight on in the bath."

"Okay."

I can tell my mother and father have been talking when I walk into dad's study. He takes a sip of his drink and looks at me. "What do you want from us, son?"

"Is there any way I can possibly have custody of Mike?" I already know his answer.

"You're under age, as you well know. Also, the child has a parent and a home. I will be the first to admit that it's miserable and I respect your desire to give him a better life, but it simply cannot be."

"No way?"

Dad shakes his head. "You have already placed yourself in legal jeopardy by having him live with you this past week. I will inform social services about his situation and he will most likely be placed in foster care, but that's it as far as alternatives go."

I was never allowed to have a pet, but I decide to go for broke. "Dad, mother, would you consider taking him, only let him live with me?"

"Are you asking us to adopt an urchin?" My mother exclaims, while my dad chokes on his drink.

"If that's what it takes. I love Mike and he loves me. I'll take good care of him."

"How can you possibly care for a child, especially a crippled one, when you have your education to consider?" Dad asks.

"He'll be in school, and I'll arrange my class schedule so I'll be home when he is. Besides, I've been taking care of him all week."

"You have apparently done well by him this past week, and he does seem attached to you," my dad admits. He turns to mother, "I wish to have a private talk with Travis, Katherine."

After mother has left and dad has closed the door, he fixes me with that gimlet eye he's noted for using on witnesses. "Travis, I am going to ask you a question and I want, no, I demand a truthful answer."

Uh, oh! This is bad. "Sir?"

"Are you gay?"

Oh, shit! How could he have twigged on to that? But I've got to answer, so I look him straight in the eyes. "Yes, sir."

He closes his eyes for a second, then asks the worst question of all. "Have you molested that child?"

"Ugh... not exactly."

"What do you mean by that?"

"He was so dirty I gave him a bath when I brought him home. He... ugh... he thinks you have to touch him sexually to love him."

"And you took advantage of that?"

"No, sir, but he's not circumcised. He was filthy, so I did touch him there when I washed him and showed him how to keep himself clean. All I've done since is hug him and kiss him."

Dad looks at me with an expression I can't interpret. I mean he doesn't look pissed off or anything. "I don't like it, but I can accept your being gay, Travis. Bathing a child his age is not usual, but if you have been truthful with me I can see no criminal act."

"I'm telling you the truth, dad. I haven't done it since, but he needed to learn to keep clean."

Dad has a thoughtful look now. "I suppose that given his home life and his father's prostituting him for money, that would be what he equates with love. At least you had the good sense not to touch him with sexual intent. He does seem quite content with you."

"He says he wants to live with me forever. That's what I want, too."

"You love him that much?"

"More than anything."

"Damn it! I'm at a loss."

My dad? Never! "What about what I said? You and mother get custody and let him live with me."

"Perhaps we were wrong in not letting you have a pet when you were growing up, but you know how your mother feels about animals."

"Yes, sir."

"However, Mike is a human being, not an animal to be cast off when you tire of him. Have you thought of that?"

"Yes, sir. I think about him all the time. I love him and I want to see him have some fun like all kids his age. He's too young to be forced into having sex with older men just because his dad wants money for liquor."

"That's not going to happen again. The university is within my district, so I'll have social service on the case first thing Monday morning."

"What about Mike?"

"Let me consider the situation, and we'll talk tomorrow morning."

I'm bursting with happiness. It may be premature, but when dad says he wants to think, it means he's serious. I stand and hold out my hand which he squeezes tightly. "Your actions have shown an amazing maturity for someone your age. You have become a fine young man, Travis, and while I don't often say it, I love you. We'll say nothing about your being gay to your mother."

I hug my dad. He stiffens at first, then to my surprise returns my hug. "Thank you, sir."

The moment I crawl into bed, Mike snuggles up to me in his sleep. I pray things will work out for us both, so I can keep the feeling I have.

Immediately after breakfast, dad goes into his study and shuts the door, a sure sign he doesn't wish to be disturbed. Mother goes to meet some of her friends at the country club. It's going to be a very warm day, so the idea of getting in the small swimming pool out back seems good. That's when it dawns on me that Mike doesn't have any trunks, but what the hell, his bikini briefs will do.

He seems wary of getting in the pool until I lift him down and help him stand in the shallow end, then he begins to splash happily.

I carry him into deeper water and toss him up in the air. He splashes under and comes up shaking his head and snorting to get the water out of his nose, but laughs. "More, Trav!"

After a few more tosses, I hold him up until he can dog-paddle enough to stay afloat. While he's hanging on to me for a rest, chortling in glee, I happen to look up to see my dad standing on the patio watching us with another smile on his face. Damn! I've seen more smiles from him this weekend than I ever have before. Guess since he got to be a judge, he's gotten out of the habit.

"That looks like fun, Travis, I think I'll join you."

My old man in the pool with a kid? Unbelievable! But a few minutes later he comes out and dives in. Mike looks a little scared when dad swims over to us and takes him in his arms. "May I give you a toss, Mike? I can throw you higher than Travis can."

Mike nods, and dad tosses him up far higher than I could. He hits the water so hard, I'm almost drowned by the splash, but Mike comes up and paddles the short distance back to my dad. "Again," he demands.

I'm in shock seeing my dad acting no older than I, even more to see Mike responding to him. The three of us play in the water until my mother comes back from the club and stands looking at us with an expression of amazement. Mike is hanging on to dad, his arms around his neck.

"There you are, dear," my dad says. "I didn't realize we had been out here so long. Let's get ready for lunch, boys."

As he prepares to hand Mike to me, Mike hugs him. "You're fun. I like you."

"I like you, too, Mike. Now go with Travis and get dressed."

Mike and I shower together, then I dress him. His hair was so long and stringy, I had taken him for a haircut on Thursday. It may be our having spent so much time in the pool, but when I comb his hair he has a stubborn cowlick I can't make stay down. So what? On him it's adorable. He looks like a little Tom Sawyer.

"I must say that I was surprised to see you in the pool, Trav." Mother says to dad over lunch. Since I'm a junior, I get called by my full name at home.

"I haven't enjoyed myself so much since Travis was Mike's age. I really should go in more often. That young man," he says indicating Mike, "is quite a handfull."

Good, I think to myself, the old man's hooked, but I've seen no sign mother has softened up a bit.

"I wish to speak with you after lunch, Katherine. Travis, you and Mike play with your trains or something."

"Yes, sir."

Mike wants to take a ride, so we get on my old ten-speed and ride downtown where I stop to get him a popsicle. By the time he's finished it, his face and hands are a sticky orange all over. I wet my handkerchief at the park water fountain and scrub him down as best I can, but there's nothing I can do about the stains on his shirt. Had it been me, mother would have yelled at me for messing up my shirt, but Mike's so happy I can't do the same to him. I realize then that if things work out and Mike stays with me, there's a serious danger of his becoming a spoiled brat, for knowing what I do about his life, there's no way I can be the disciplinarian my mother is. I know dad's thought much the same thing, so I'm hoping that doesn't sway his decision. Back home, I hustle him up to change his shirt before mother sees it, then we play with my trains again.

When dad calls us to dinner, he gives me a 'later' look, and asks what Mike and I have been doing.

"Trav bought me a popsicle and I got real messy," Mike declares, "but he got me all clean again."

Mother gives me an astonished look, while dad smiles at Mike. "You would like to live with Travis, wouldn't you?"

"Yeah. I'll be real good, and go to school, and everything."

"You aren't going to school?" My mother asks.

"Unh, unh. I was real dirty 'til Trav took me home with him. He got me some new clothes so I can go, but if he makes me go home, my daddy'll take 'em away."

"Why would he do that?"

"He'll trade 'em to somebody for whisky."

Mother looks horrified, especially after dad tells her it's the truth. She shakes her head, so I'm guessing he's already told her about what Mike was made to do with men. She gives Mike a thin smile and says nothing more.

Sunday morning, Mike and I sleep in. Mother goes to church, and dad's in his study reading the papers. When Mike and I come down for breakfast, I see dad has left the comics next to Mike's place at the table. Good sign!

It's getting cloudy, so after we've eaten, Mike and I go back up to play with the trains, until dinner. While he's playing, I pack our stuff, because dad will take us home as soon as we've eaten. He hates weekend traffic in a university town and likes to go before the students begin to come back.

Dad must really like Mike, because he lifts the center armrest and puts Mike in the front seat between us. His car has a third seatbelt in front. He usually says little when he's driving, but he listens to Mike's steady chatter, and answers his questions.

When he pulls up in front of my flat, he tells me, "Travis, I do not want you to do anything about Mike's schooling just yet. I will let you know what I decide about all of this very soon."

"Yes, sir. And thanks. It's been a great weekend."

Dad lifts Mike out and holds him while I get his crutches. "I love you, gran'pop. You're fun," Mike says and holds out his arms.

I can't believe dad smiles and hugs him. "I love you, too, Mike. Be a good boy."

"I will."

I've got a killer calculus test coming on Tuesday, so Monday afternoon I take Mike to a shop and buy him several comic books in hopes they'll keep him quiet while I study, for I don't want the distraction of the TV. When I explain to Mike why, he's good as gold and doesn't make a sound until bedtime.

I've never walked out of a test feeling as confident as I do when it's over Tuesday. I push to get home, because I know it's Mike who has made me feel so relaxed and good about it. He hugs me and says the phone rang, but he didn't answer it.

"That's fine. If it's important they'll call back. Want to go play in the park?"

"Yeah!"

Until Mike, I've never been one for a lot of exercise, but now it's fun. He loves for me to hold his hands and swing him round and round until I'm dizzy. When I have to stop, he hops to the swing and begs me to push him. If he had both legs, there would be no way I could keep up with him. I'm worn out just trying as it is, but I notice I feel better when I get up each morning.

I'm out of class at noon on Thursdays, so Mike and I are just home from eating dinner at the restaurant when dad shows up at my flat with a woman who looks in her thirties. He introduces her to me. Mike yells, "Granpop," and hugs dad. After he shows dad the electric racecar set I bought him, and has settled down to play with it, dad and the woman sit down.

I'm a little uncomfortable with her giving me the once over several times while dad's talking about how comfortable Mike is in his present surroundings. Finally she says, "Travis is far too young to accept such a responsibility, your honor."

"The responsibility will be mine, but I assure you that Travis is far more mature than he appears. There is a fine private school here, as you well know, and Mike will be entered there. Travis will carry him to school and pick him up each day. He takes Mike to the park to play each afternoon, and he sees that Mike gets a well balanced diet and no junk food."

"What about the sleeping arrangements? I don't see a bed."

"Mike needs the security of sleeping with Travis at the moment. This is a queen size hide-a-bed, so they have plenty of room."

She shakes her head. "Mike must have his own bed."

"Very well, I'll see that they move into a two bedroom flat."

"I don't like this at all," she argues.

"You want to send him back to his father after all I've shown you today?"

"He absolutely cannot go back home, but I feel he needs the guidance of someone older than Travis, preferably a woman."

"Mike," dad calls, "come here a minute."

Mike stops playing and jumps into dad's lap, looking up at him.

"Do you like living with Travis?"

"Oh, yes, gran'pop. I want to stay with Trav forever. We have a good time."

"Will you go to school and mind Travis when he tells you to do something?"

"I promise. I love Trav. I love you, too, gran'pop."

Dad sets Mike back down, and turns to the woman with a satisfied look. "You wish to take him from us after seeing his happiness?"

"He does seem happy here, but he will adjust quickly to a good foster home."

When I look at dad, I can tell she's just pushed him over the line. He looks at me. "Travis, step into your bathroom, I need a word with you in private."

"Yes, sir."

Once he's shut the door he looks at me. "I don't like to do this, but can you cut your classes tomorrow?"

"Yes, sir. They are my easy ones, so no problem."

He pulls a fifty from his billfold and hands it to me. "I want you to take Mike downtown right now, and get him a nice looking pair of slacks. Tomorrow morning at nine, you will bring Mike to the courthouse for a hearing before the juvenile judge. I'll be there with an attorney to represent both of us. If the judge rules against my custody of Mike, and objects to his living with you, we'll appeal the decision."

"What's going to happen to Mike in the meantime?"

Dad suddenly looks unhappy. "They may take him to the shelter."

"Please, dad, no. It'll kill him."

"I know, but my hands are tied until the judge rules. If it's negative, I can do nothing until the appeal is filed. By law I must recuse myself from hearing the appeal, but I'll get it set with a friend who knows me. I'll speed it along as much as I can."

"Thanks, dad."

The woman is itching to leave when we go back, but dad says. "We'll see you tomorrow, son. Remember what I told you."

"Yes, sir."

Mike sees dad about to leave and hops over to him for a hug. "Come back to see me, gran'pop?"

"Will tomorrow be soon enough?"

"Yes!" Mike hugs him.

As soon as dad and that woman are gone, I tell Mike we're going for a ride, so he's happy.

The next morning I put on my dark suit because it makes me look older, and by the time I've finished dressing Mike, he's never looked more adorable. The navy blue slacks and light blue shirt bring out the colour of his eyes, and I finally subdue the cowlick, though I don't expect it to stay down long.

"Why we all dressed up, Trav?"

"We have to go to court to see if you can continue to live with me."

"Noooo!" Mike howls.

I hug him. "That's the way it's done, buddy. Be a big boy for me and gran'pop. And you mustn't say anything while we're there unless my dad says it's okay."

"I don't wanna."

"I know. I don't want to either, but if we don't go, they'll put me in jail and take you away for good. You don't want that, do you?"

"No. I love you, Trav."

I wipe his tears, and make him blow his nose. "I love you too, babe. Let's go. Gran'pop is waiting."

The minute the lawyer representing us speaks to me and Mike I like him. When we go in the courtroom, there's no one else there, except the clerk, a deputy, and that old bat from social service dad brought to the house. When Mike sees her, he sticks his tongue out at her. Not nice, but I have to stifle a giggle. I wish she'd croak on the spot.

The judge is a woman with a kind expression, but I know from watching the proceedings in dad's court that this means nothing. She says the hearing is informal and asks us all to identify ourselves. I have to tell Mike it's okay for him to tell her his name.

The woman from social service talks for nearly half an hour, a lot of it psychological bull, before dad has his chance. Our attorney lays the basics out very straight and dad has a few words, then the judge gets to me.

"Travis, it is my understanding that you are an exceptionally bright young man already in the university, and that if this court grants your father custody of Michael he will be living with you while he is in school. Are you even aware of the responsibility this will place on you?"

Our attorney nods at me, so I answer. "Yes, your honor. I have taken care of Mike for nearly two weeks now, and it has been a joy for me."

She looks surprised. "And has that affected your work?"

"Yes, ma'am. My grades on the tests I have taken since Mike has been with me have been 4.0, and I feel much better physically." That really makes her blink.

"To what do you attribute that?"

"I take Mike to play in the park every afternoon that's nice. He gives me a reason to exercise by playing with him. When I need to study, he reads, so he doesn't distract me."

"What about discipline? Children that age occasionally need a firm hand."

"Not Mike. You won't find a nicer kid anywhere."

She asks a lot more questions about how I would handle problems such as if Mike got sick, money, food, all the usual stuff I guess parents learn about. Dad seems pleased with the way I handled myself when the judge finishes her questions of me.

She has only one question to ask Mike. "I love Trav and gran'pop. I want to live with them forever," he says emphatically.

After a few more general comments, she says she will give her decision in an hour. Dad and our lawyer stop outside to talk while I take Mike across the street for an ice cream. We get back just in time to see the deputy wave for us to come on.

"It is the decision of this court that the child Michael Ferris be placed in the care of social services. This hearing is dismissed."

Our lawyer stands immediately. "We serve notice of appeal, your honor. Is there no way Michael's situation can remain unchanged until that time?"

"Intent to appeal is noted. Social service will take immediate custody."

When the woman from social service comes over to take Mike, he realizes he has to go with her. "Noooo! I hate you!" He screams and almost knocks me down when he throws himself at me and holds on tight as he can. The deputy comes over and tries to peel Mike off me. I'm still holding him, but dad nods at me so I have to let go.

The woman picks up his crutches and the deputy starts to follow her out. The way Mike is screaming and kicking at the deputy with his one foot tears me up. I want to scream, too, but I just stand there crying as hard as I ever have and pick up a chair to bust against the table, but Dad puts his arm around me, and I see tears in his eyes.

Our lawyer looks in total shock. "I'll get on this immediately," he assures us.

"Like right now. I want to hear from you by the end of the day," my dad snaps. "I'll be at Travis' flat. You have his number."

Somehow, dad and I manage to get to his car and we drive off. He stops at a liquor store and comes out with a pint of Canadian blend, then we go on to my flat.

"I don't suppose you feel like going to your classes," he says.

"No, sir. What happened?"

"I'll be damned if I know! Judge Morrisey is supposed to be pretty open minded, but I didn't see that this morning. I thought we presented a good case." He grabs a glass from my cabinet and opens the liquor. Suddenly he slams the bottle down so hard I think it'll break. "God dammit!" He yells. "This place is empty without Mike."

That sets me off again. I flop down on the sofa bawling. Dad comes over and sits down beside me, his arm goes around my shoulders and he pulls me in a hug.

"I'm sorry, son. Let it out."

By the time I regain some control, dad's suit is wet from my tears. It's the first time he's ever held me like this.

Finally he gets up and fixes his drink. Then he fixes me a weak one with ginger ale and holds it out. "I think you need this, son." Then, he sits down beside me again.

"What went wrong, dad?"

"I wish I knew, but you'd better believe I'll find out if at all possible. I wish there was something more we could do, but I know Si is doing his best. I hope he can get Judge Eddy to take the appeal."

We sit looking at each other until dad gets up. "We might as well go have some lunch. Your answering machine is on, and Si has my pager number."

Somehow we manage to eat a little, but our plates are far from empty when we leave. Back at my flat I read over some material for tomorrow's classes, but I know darn well I won't remember it. Dad plays with the morning paper. When the phone rings, we both jump up. Dad grabs it first.

He listens for a while then says, "Damn! I know you tried, Si, and I appreciate it. We'll see you Monday morning, then." He hangs up.

"Eddy is swamped with cases to finish up tomorrow. It's only because of me that he's made time to hear our appeal on Monday morning. I hate for you to miss more classes, but I know you want to be there."

"Try and keep me away. Is Mike going to have to stay wherever they took him?"

"I'm afraid so, son. Go to classes tomorrow and try to stay calm."

"I can't. I miss the little guy so bad."

"So do I. I might as well get on home. There's nothing I can do by staying here."

I hug him. "Thanks, dad. I don't know what I'd do without you."

He hugs me back. "If there's anything good come out of this, it's made me realize how much I missed by not being a better father to you in the past. I'm not going to let that happen with Mike, and I'm going to try to do better by you, son. I love you."

"I love you, dad. I'll be ready any time you come on Monday."

I especially like my Friday classes, but for all I was aware, I might as well have stayed home. One of my professors asked if something were bothering me. I told him it was a personal problem and I would have to be in court on Monday. I left him looking at me, shaking his head.

Saturday and Sunday were more hell. I kept looking at my watch thinking it was time for me and Mike to go play in the park, and each time I cried. I never liked liquor, but I was so worn out Sunday night, I fixed a drink out of the bottle my dad had left, gulped it down and went to bed.

I was up so early, I had to wait over an hour before my dad showed up. He didn't look much better than I felt. I fixed us both a cup of coffee, and sat down at the table with him.

"I want you to know that no matter what happens today, I will pursue this until I get satisfaction, son. Mike is too special a boy to be shuffled around by the social services bureaucracy. I'm certain Hank Eddy will recognize that. Let me warn you now that he will not stand for any disruptions in his courtroom, so no matter how you feel, keep quiet unless he asks you something directly."

"Yes, sir."

"Very well. Let's get going."

The courtroom is over half full of people when we get there. We find seats near the front and dad nods at several people. Suddenly I hear a yell from the back of the courtroom. It's Mike! He tries to come to me, but the deputy grabs his arm and pulls him back. When he does, Mike swings his foot up and connects. The guard gasps, and doubles over in pain clutching his crotch. The woman is behind him and can't get past, as Mike swings on his crutches wildly to get to me. I grab him up in my arms and kiss him. "I love you, Mike," I whisper. Then he's wriggling to get into my dad's arms. "Gran'pop!"

Dad gives him a kiss, too, just as the clerk calls the opening of court. From the corner of my eye, I see the judge looking at us, then nod. About that time, the woman comes up and reaches for Mike. He lets out a scream, "I hate you! You're mean!"

"Be quiet, Mike," Dad whispers and hands Mike to me; the judge is pounding his gavel hard enough to break it.

"I will not tolerate such outbursts, however considering the age of the child, I will overlook it this time. I will hear the appeal first. Take your seat, Miss Ames."

"But your honor, I must have the child with me."

"For what reason? He obviously cares deeply for the young man holding him, and he is perfectly safe in this courtroom. Now sit down."

"But your honor..."

"I told you to sit down. If you say one more word I will cite you for contempt. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir," she says meekly and sits across the aisle, glaring at me.

The judge points to my dad. "Come to the bench."

My dad goes up and he and the judge have a long whispered conversation. I see the judge nod several times, then dad comes back with a solemn face that bothers me until he nudges me in the ribs with his elbow and winks. I know better than to even whisper, besides, I'm busy soaking up the love I feel pouring from Mike sitting on my lap. I'm pissed off that he's wearing the same clothes he had on when they took him, and I can smell that neither they nor Mike have been washed. I can tell my dad has picked up on it, too.

After a lot more of the psychological crap from the woman from social services and their lawyer, the judge finally tells them to shut up. My dad stands and nods at the judge, who calls him to the bench again. When the other lawyer tries to go, too, the judge tells him to sit down. My dad whispers to the judge again, and suddenly the judge is calling my name and asking me to bring Mike up there.

Mike has his arms around my neck as tight as he can get them, and I can feel him shaking. I have a little trouble getting him to turn lose of me so I can hold him up for the judge to look at him closer. "He's scared, your honor," I dare to say.

The judge nods. "I'm not surprised, at his age. Son," he says to Mike, "do you like the young man holding you?"

Mike wipes at his tears. "I love Trav and Gran'pop. Why'd she take me away?"

The judge glowers at the woman from social services. "Because, son, some people let their sense of power go to their heads. You should never have been taken from the people you love in the first place. They obviously cared for you far better than you were cared for over the weekend."

"I ob..." their lawyer begins, but the judge points to him and snarls, "Don't interrupt me when I'm speaking to someone else. I'll hear your objection when I'm good and ready."

"Now, young man," he says to me, "are you willing to take on such a formidable responsibility at your age?"

I can't help but grin. "Yes, sir. I love Mike, and so does my father. Mike will always come first with me."

"If your parents are granted custody and the boy lives with you while he is in school, are you willing to let an officer of this court make unannounced visits to your home to see how you are coping?"

"Any time, your honor, but I would like to ask that it not be her." I jerk my head in her direction.

"You may rest assured it will not be. Because of the unusual situation, you may see me from time to time."

"You will be welcome, sir."

"Take the boy and return to your seat while I finish."

I take Mike and go back to where we were sitting. Dad joins us. The lawyer tries to object to some of the things the judge said about social services, but the judge cuts him off short and orders him to sit down. Then he tells me and Dad to stand. When we do, he nods at us and rules on the appeal in our favor. Dad's smiling broadly, but it takes a moment for it to sink in that Mike is mine. I hug him. "I love you, Mike."

Dad walks over and snatches Mike's crutches from the woman, and hands them to him. "Let's go home, son. The judge said you can live with Trav."

Mike looks at us for a moment then lets out yell that startles everyone. "Trav's gonna be my daddy!" He grabs his crutches and is behind the judge's bench so fast that even the deputy can't catch him. He throws his arms around the judge's neck and hugs him. The clerk of court is sitting there with her mouth wide open, and the deputy is looking at the judge not knowing what to do.

When Mike lets go of the judge, he goes, "Harrumph! This is not exactly the reaction I usually get from a petitioner, but it's certainly welcome." He sets Mike down gently and bangs his gavel. "Next case," he calls as I pick Mike up and carry him outside.

Two

On our way home from the court, dad asks, "Is your class work up to date, Travis?"

"Yes, sir. I'm a little ahead in two of my classes."

"You know how I feel about your missing classes, Travis, but I want you to cut tomorrow and possibly Wednesday if it will not jeopardize your standing."

"It won't. I haven't used any of my cuts."

"Excellent. I want you to be with me when I take Mike to Country Day to enroll him. They need to understand that you're assuming the responsibility at least locally. After we have lunch, we'll do some shopping for this young man. I believe they have uniforms at Country Day."

Mike's little hand grabs Dad's arm so suddenly the car swerves a little. "Don't do that, Mike," dad says sharply, "it's dangerous."

"I'm sorry, gran'pop," Mike says, tears flowing down his cheeks.

"What's wrong, Mike?" I ask, wiping his face.

He reaches up to hug me. "I don't want to go 'way."

I lean down and hug him. "You're not going away, babe. The judge said you could live with me."

"But Gran'pop said he was sending me to Country Day."

I smile at him. "That's your school. You'll be going there to school while I'm in school. I'll take you every morning and pick you up in the afternoon when school is out. You'll study real hard for gran'pa and me, won't you?"

"Unh huh," but he doesn't sound convinced.

When dad has parked and gotten out of the car, I begin to realize how quickly Mike picks up on things. Instead of taking his crutches or holding out his arms to me, he holds them out to dad. When dad picks him up, he wraps his arms around dad's neck and clings like a limpet. I never believed I'd see a kid bewitch the old man, but Mike seems to have succeeded brilliantly.

"Travis, I'll speak to the manager about your moving into a two bedroom flat as soon as one comes available. Sooner or later Mike is going to want a room of his own and you must have one to show Hank Eddy or whomever he sends to check on Mike. I know he will because of your age."

"Yes, sir."

After lunch dad drives us out to the manicured campus of a small school not very far from the university and just outside the city limits. He parks in front of the bigger of three buildings and we get out to enter the imposing edifice.

"Is this where Mike will be going to school?" I ask.

"He will be in one of the other buildings. This is the high school and offices," dad says opening the door marked Headmaster.

"May I help you?" The secretary asks after Mike and I are beside dad.

"I wish to enter my ward."

She smiles at me. "Of course. And what grade are you in young man?"

"My son is at the university. I am referring to Michael here. Now, may I speak with the headmaster?"

"He has someone with him at the moment. If you will have a seat he should be available shortly. Have you completed the admittance forms?"

"No. This is not an ordinary situation so I wish to explain it to Dr. Wetherby in detail."

She brings a large brown envelope over and hands it to dad. "This is all of the informative material and forms for new student's parents. You may wish to look at it while you're waiting."

Dad opens the envelope and takes out a couple of forms. He looks them over, then uncaps his pen and begins to fill them out. Mike tells us what school he attended, the little that he did and answers a few other questions, things we'd not thought to ask him. But there are several things dad shows me that I can't answer nor can Mike, so dad slips the forms back in the envelope.

The secretary says, "Dr. Wetherby will see you now, Mr. Somerville."

Whatever I expected, Dr. Wetherby isn't it. He looks a lot younger than my dad and is built like an athlete. When he looks at dad, he sort of goes pale. "Judge Somerville, sorry to have kept you waiting, sir. Please, come in and have a seat."

"Have I met you before, sir?" Dad asks.

Wetherby blushes. "A few months ago, sir. I received a speeding ticket."

"Then let us hope your older students don't follow your example."

"No, Sir."

"I wish to enter my son, Michael, immediately. Travis is acting in loco parentis as he is a student at the university and defacto father to Michael. He is to be contacted first should there be a need. Our primary residence is in Bayboro."

My father goes on to explain as much of the situation to Wetherby as he thinks he needs to know.

Wetherby clears his throat when dad finishes. "If I may suggest, I'd prefer not to place Michael in any grade until we've had the opportunity to test him in each subject area. I'll have our counselor do that tomorrow morning."

Dad looks pleased. "I expected no less. We will be here at nine."

He picks up Mike with a smile. "Let's go get you some clothes for school, son."

It's only when the clerk in the large department store measures Mike's long pants and looks at dad questioningly that we think of his missing leg. Dad tells him to have the pants leg hemmed the same as the other then says he'll pick them up tomorrow afternoon.

"Travis," he says when we're back in the car, "Mike needs to be fitted with a prosthetic limb as soon as possible."

"Why? I mean he gets around fine. Neither you nor I thought of it until that man said something."

"True, but he'll want to be able to play with the other kids his age and it will make it easier for him to carry his books and other materials at school." He reaches over and pats Mike on the head. "Wouldn't you like a new leg, Mike?"

"I can get a leg?" Mike asks in an unbelieving voice.

"Of course. I expect you will learn to use it quickly."

"How we do it? Does it take long to grow?"

Dad seldom talks while he's driving so he says, "Tell him, Travis." As he backs out of the parking space.

I put my arm around Mike and squeeze gently. "You can't grow a real leg, Mike. But you can get one made of plastic and stuff that's almost as good. How about that?"

"Yeah!" His smile goes almost from ear to ear.

Dad smiles at me over our dinner. "When Mike's table manners improve I'll take you to my club some evening. I'll depend on you to teach him, Travis."

"Yes, sir." It's beginning to dawn on me that being a parent isn't all fun and games, but I'd not give Mike up for anything.

Just as we're finishing our meal dad's cell phone goes off. He scowls and answers, looking thoroughly annoyed by the time he puts it back in his pocket.

"Travis, I have to be in my office tomorrow morning, will you take Mike to Country Day and be able to pick him up afterwards?"

From dad's expression I'm glad I'm not the one to be facing him in court tomorrow. "Yes, sir. I have only one class and a lab so I will be out by noon."

"Excellent. I will call you tomorrow evening so listen to everything Wetherby mentions regarding Mike. If there's any problem I will be back Wednesday to take care of it. I want to sit down with you and go over your schedule to see how it will work with you taking Mike to school and picking him up."

"The only problem is my Wednesday lab. He gets out at 3 and my lab is not over until 3:30 so I'll be about 45 minutes late. Couldn't he go to the library or something?"

Dad nods. "I'm happy to see you've begun to plan ahead, Travis. Mention it to Wetherby when you go to get Mike tomorrow." He glances at his watch. "I'm going to leave now. I'll see you here Wednesday, I'll pick up Mike at school for you."

"Thank you, sir."

"Come tell gran'pop goodbye, Mike," he says to Mike, holding out his arms.

In an instant Mike is clinging to dad. "You coming back, gran'pop?"

Dad smiles. "I'll pick you up from school Wednesday, how's that?"

Mike hugs him. "I love you, gran'pop."

"I love you, too, Mike. Be a good boy and behave in school."

To my surprise I also get a hug, as he leaves.

The next morning I dress Mike in the navy-blue shorts and pale gray shirt, he's already put on a black sock so I tie the shiny black oxford on his foot. The stump of his right leg is way longer than his shorts. It's not ugly and I like looking at it, but I wish I had a black sock to put over it to give balance to his appearance, however he looks so adorable I grab my digital camera and take a picture of him to send dad.

We eat breakfast at my favorite little restaurant and I take him on to school. He's reluctant to let me leave, but the secretary is nice and assures him I'll be waiting for him at lunch time.

My own classes speed by because I have a bit to catch up on, so I'm a few minutes late getting back to Country Day. When I don't see Mike, I go in to the office. The secretary directs me to the counselor's office where I find Mike sitting in a corner. His face is dirty, streaked with tears, and his shirt is torn. The counselor is talking to him quietly without any apparent response.

"Mike?" I say.

He scrambles up and hops across to me holding out his arms. I grab him in a tight hug as he begins to cry.

"What's wrong, Mike?" I ask.

"I hate this place. They're mean."

I console him for a few minutes and look at the counselor. "What happened?"

"I really don't know. One of the teachers brought him in, but he wouldn't tell me."

I know dad won't accept this as an excuse. "Not satisfactory at all. I want to know in detail what has taken place. Until I do, Mike will not return."

"Young man, you are in no position to make demands."

"We'll see. I don't think you want my father here."

I put Mike down so he can get his crutches and we walk over to Wetherby's office. "I want to see Dr. Wetherby," I tell the secretary.

She looks at Mike with a shocked expression and picks up her phone. Wetherby comes out quickly. "Travis, correct?"

"Yes, sir. I want to know what happened to Mike."

He looks at Mike. "Good heavens. Come in my office."

I sit down and Mike sits on my lap.

"Has Mike told you anything?" Wetherby asks me.

"No."

"I'll talk with the counselor. The morning was spent testing him in the subject areas, but I believe he was sent to lunch with the first group who would be his age."

"Mike, did this happen at lunch?" I ask.

He nods.

"What happened?"

He's calmed enough by now to answer. "Some boys laughed at me. Said I'm a baby and I can't go here cause I don't got but one leg. They kicked my crutches and I fell down, and my lunch went on the floor, and a lady yelled at me." He starts to sniffle again.

I look up and stare at Wetherby until he stammers, "I … I'm not certain how this could happen."

"I hope you're going to find out. My father will be here tomorrow wanting answers."

Wetherby pales and drops his head in his hands. "Oh, God," he mumbles.

I press on. "How did Mike do on his tests? Dad will be calling me tonight."

Wetherby sits back up and picks up his phone. A few minutes later his secretary comes in and hands him a sheet of paper. Looking at it for a moment he sets it down and looks at me.

"By age Mike should be in the fourth grade, but his tests are borderline so I suggest we put him with a tutor at the third level and advance him when he's secure in the basics."

"I'll tell dad, but it sounds reasonable. I'd like to be kept up to date on his progress so I can tell dad when we talk." I put Mike down and stand. "I assume Mike will begin classes tomorrow when dad brings him in."

"No!" Mike yells and wraps his arms around me. "I hate this place!"

"We'll talk about this with gran'pop, okay?" I tell him. "Let's go home and get some lunch."

When Mike doesn't want to eat anything, but keeps sniffling and hanging onto me I think of what our cook used to give me when I was unhappy. I put Mike down on the sofa and tell him I have something good and go pop two cups of milk in the microwave. As soon as they boil I pull them out and stir in instant Nestle hot chocolate mix. The moment I coax Mike into tasting his I know I've found his comfort food. I have to warn him a couple of times not to burn his tongue but he's one huge smile.

"That was soooo good, Trav," he says when he finishes.

I wipe his mouth with a paper napkin. "I like it when the weather's cold or I'm unhappy. It's our special treat, okay?"

He hugs me and says he's hungry.

When dad calls that evening and I tell him about Mike he doesn't explode as I expect, instead he calmly and coldly says, "It won't happen again. I'll be there early enough to take Mike to school myself. I'll see you as soon as you're out of class, son. I'm pleased you went directly to Wetherby with this."

To my surprise, dad arrives while Mike and I are eating breakfast. He has a cup of coffee while he's holding Mike on his lap and talking to him softly. I get a hug as I leave and dad follows me down with Mike. He drives off at the same time as I.

My mind wanders a bit during the first lecture for I'd love to be a fly on the wall of Wetherby's office. I have to stifle a snicker when I think of Wetherby possibly wetting his pants from fright when dad gets started. I saw it happen to one poor schmuck in dad's courtroom.

I get home as soon as possible from my lab. Dad looks like always and Mike runs to greet me. I hug him and put him back down.

"Travis, find something for Mike to wear that's presentable but easily washed. We're going to have lunch and then he has an appointment with a prosthetist. Making a mold of his stump is likely to be messy."

"Yes, sir." Mike follows me into the bedroom and takes off his school uniform while I dig in the dresser drawers. A good pullover shirt and a pair of worn jeans should do.

"Aren't you excited about getting a leg?" I ask when he seems reluctant to dress.

"Gran'pa said the man's gonna put some stuff on my leg and I got to stand real still for a long time. Will it hurt?"

I lean down and kiss him on the forehead. "I don't think so. And maybe you can sit instead of stand."

"You gotta go with me," he says.

"I will. I've got to learn about it so I can help you learn to walk on it."

He seems satisfied and we go to the restaurant I like for lunch. After we've ordered, I ask dad, "How did it go this morning?"

Dad gives a little smile of satisfaction. "Quite the way I expected. Mike pointed out the young man who pushed him and Wetherby and I had a little discussion with him in private. The young man was rather belligerent until I mentioned his father, who I happen to know on a professional basis. I now doubt there will be any further occurrences of similar nature. I also met the tutor assigned to Mike and she has an excellent record for bringing students up to standard. Mike appeared to respond to her so I'm certain he will be functioning at grade level very shortly, at which time Wetherby will move him to the appropriate classes."

As we eat our lunch, I can tell that Mike is getting a little apprehensive about his appointment with the prosthetist. I reach over and pat his hand.

"Smile, babe, in a few days you'll have a new leg and can do what all the other kids do at school."

"Will it hurt?"

I shake my head. "No way. It'll take some getting used to, but then you won't even think about it."

He doesn't look convinced, but finishes his lunch without asking anything else. His grip on my hand gets tighter as we near the professional center.

Almost as soon as we register, a young guy doesn't look much older than I comes into the reception room and looks at Mike with a big grin. "Hey, dude, I'm Nathan, let's go see what I can do for you."

He looks at dad when the three of us stand. "We naturally allow parents with a young client but not siblings. You," he looks at me, "will have to stay here."

Mike presses against me and dad looks at the guy and says firmly, "Michael wants Travis with him and he will be. So will I."

"But …"

"But nothing. We stay with Michael or we find a more sympathetic firm to deal with."

The guy shrugs. "Very well."

I can tell it's inconvenient for Nathan to examine Mike while he's sitting on my lap, but I can't get Mike to sit beside me. I'm pleased when Nathan tries to make a game of it with Mike and I feel Mike relax.

Mike almost goes to sleep in my arms while we're waiting for the cast of his stump to dry. Nathan uses the time to give dad his recommendations for a leg and shows him an example he's working on for an adult. It's a plastic foot, a metal rod up to a complex looking mechanical 'knee' attached to a plastic socket. He recommends a silicone-liner type suspension system for comfort with a lot of activity.

Mike wakes when Nathan eases the cast free and examines it. "You're a good dude," he says to Mike, "you stayed so still we got a perfect one on the first try." He sets the cast aside and wets a cloth with warm water at the sink then washes Mike's stump.

He pats Mike on the head. "Let's go make an appointment with Sherry for when you get your new leg."

"I don't get it now?" Mike asks in a disappointed voice.

"Sorry, dude. I've got to make it for you. It's your leg, so it's going to be special like no one else's. It'll take me a while to make it just right for you, okay?"

"Yeah." Mike grins at him.

"I'll try to be here for the appointment, Travis, but if I'm not, make certain you keep it." Dad says when we're in the car.

"I bet Mike won't let me forget."

"Mike," dad asks, "is there a movie you wish to watch at home?"

"Can I see Harry Potter?" He begs.

"You haven't seen it?" Dad asks in surprise.

Mike shakes his head. "Unh, unh."

"Then we'll stop at Blockbuster. Isn't that near your flat, Travis?"

"Yes, sir."

"And why hasn't Michael seen Harry Potter?"

"He has, sir. I took him to the movie, but it was the second movie. I haven't had time to get the first one for him, but he has the book."

"I hear everyone talking about it and how much their kids enjoy reading the books and seeing the movies. We'll get them for him. I want him to have something to do while you and I have a talk, son. It's time you understood some things."

"Yes, sir."

Mike is beside himself when we come out of Barnes and Noble. Dad has bought him every Harry Potter book beyond the first one, which he has, and a DVD of the movie as well. He placed a special order for the second movie as soon as it's released.

We make one more stop on the way home, the liquor store where dad gets a bottle of Canadian to keep at my flat. A sure sign we'll be having a serious talk.

As soon as Mike has the movie playing, dad mixes his drink then a weaker one for me. When he fixes me a drink I know our talk is going to be ultra serious. He and I sit down at the kitchen table and he begins.

"Travis, there are some things I should have told you before now. I'll try to answer any questions you have, but hear me out. To begin, I'm sure you have wondered why your mother is not more affectionate towards you and, by extension, Michael."

Dad looks me straight in the eyes. "Your mother never wanted children, Travis. I insisted and you are our son, but after that one time, your mother and I have slept apart." Dad blushes slightly. "I have sought my sexual release with a professional who has a very select clientele."

My mind spins! My old man with a whore? Cause he's sure put enough of 'em in jail.

"That may raise the question of why your mother and I ever married in the first place. Your mother had ambitions toward society and, as a new lawyer in an old long-established firm, I needed a beautiful woman's company at social events. From the first your mother was quite popular with the wives of the senior members of the firm so our marriage couldn't have been better for my career.

"I know I didn't take a lot of time with you when you were a kid and I've no real excuse. You always seemed so self-contained and I was so busy working day and night to progress in my career that I didn't think you needed me. Now I can see that was an erroneous conclusion." He smiles at me. "I'm not trying to make up for the past, Travis; I can't as you well know, but I plan to be a part of your life and Michael's if you will let me. I love you both very much, son."

I can't help the tears that stream down my face as I get up and hug my father. He hugs me back and kisses me on the forehead, then pulls back and wipes his eyes with his handkerchief.

Dad polishes off his drink and stands. "I'll leave now, Travis. Keep me posted on Michael's progress and I'll see you in two weeks if not before."

"Yes, sir. Thanks for the talk, father. I really feel good about everything now."

Dad hugs me close. "You're the kind of young man I always prayed you would be, Travis. Don't ever change."

He kisses me and Michael and leaves.

For the next two weeks I have to take the Harry Potter books from Mike in order to get him to study in the evening and go to bed at night.

He complains long and loudly to dad on the phone only to have dad tell him I did the right thing and if he doesn't behave he (dad) will cancel the order for the second movie. Mike comes quickly into line and gives me very little trouble after that.

After I pick up Mike at Country Day and we enter our flat, I see dad watching the news channel on our TV. He looks up as we enter. "Did you forget, Travis?"

"What, sir?"

He looks at his watch. "Michael is supposed to pick up his leg in an hour."

"I guess I did, sir. I had a humongous test in English today. We'll be ready soon as we change clothes."

Mike is excited as he takes Nathan's hand as we walk back to the fitting room. Once Mike's seated on a chair, Nathan takes a silicone liner from a pack and shows Mike how to roll it on his stump. Mike complains it's tight, but Nathan tells me it's only quite snug as it must be to hold the leg securely.

"You won't notice it after you wear it a little while, Mike."

"Where's my leg?"

"Here it is." Nathan lifts a leg unit from the cabinet top behind Mike and hands it to him.

"That don't look like no leg," Mike says.

"Not a real one, but this is hi-tech. You've got something I'll bet none of the other guys at school have. They're gonna be envious. Let's try it."

He slips the socket over the liner and shows Mike and me how the pin on the end of the liner holds it in place. Then he lifts Mike down to the floor and holds him up. "Let's see if you can walk over to the bars and then walk alone just holding on to the bars so you don't fall."

Mike stumbles along with Nathan doing most of the work. By the time he's standing at the parallel bars holding on, he's crying loudly. I rush over and hug him to me.

"What's wrong, Mike? Does the leg hurt?"

He lifts a tear-streaked face to me. "It don't work. I can't walk on it."

I look up at Nathan who is now patting Mike on the back. "Nobody makes it work the first time unless they have a real knee, Mike, and you haven't had your leg for some years now, so you've forgotten how to walk with two legs and your stump lacks most muscle tone. But if you practice you will learn fast. I'll show Travis what to do and he can help you at home, too."

I find out I have to bring Mike in each afternoon to work in therapy until he learns to use the leg. When he whines, I tell him I'll paste a gold star on his socket each afternoon he walks a step or two on his own. Nathan grins and even gets a little box of gold stars from the receptionist and hands them to me, saying they have a special glue that makes them easy to remove from the plastic socket whenever Mike wants.

We do convince Mike to walk out of the building with his leg on and using his crutches though I have to catch him a couple of times when he fails to swing his new leg forward enough to clear a step.

With tears in my eyes, I watch Mike struggle the next afternoon to make the new leg support him without buckling when he lifts his real leg. Despite the coolness of the room, there are beads of sweat on his forehead and I ignore the looks of the therapist whenever Mike swears under his breath. In fact, I'm proud of him for not cutting loose loudly. His swearing is something we work on constantly. Fortunately he hasn't used much bad language at school.

I finally lean down and let him swing into my arms then kiss him. "You're working too hard, love. Relax and take it easy."

"I want this fuckin' thing to work like Nathan said it would, damn it. It won't do nothin'," he yells in frustration.

I hug him close. "You've got to build up some muscle in your stump, too. It's going to take time, but I'm proud of how hard you're working."

"I'm tired, let's go home."

I see the therapist nod and me so I tell Mike to put his jeans back on, he works in shorts, and we'll go. The next morning he refuses to wear it to school, saying there's no need if it doesn't work.

I pick him up after school and we go for another session with the therapist. In place of the woman therapist he had yesterday is a good looking guy looks not much older than I. He grins at Mike and says, "I hear you cussed your leg 'cause it don't work." His grin grows. "I used to cuss mine, too," he pulls up his pants leg and shows us he has a leg similar to Mike's, "now I run, play ball, do anything I want. Want me to show you how?"

"Yeah!" He really has Mike's attention.

He removes Mike's leg and slips a knit sock over his stump. It's attached to a cord that runs over a pulley on the wall and down to a weight. After Mike is standing on his crutches, he shows him how to swing his stump back and forth, pulling the weight up and down.

"I know he'll get tired of this quickly, but it's the best way to build up the muscles in his stump so he can control the leg. I'll give you a stump sock and you can get all the rest of this stuff at the hardware store. Find some place at home to rig it up like this and make him exercise several times each day. It won't be long before he can use the leg, then he won't need to do this." The guy says to me. "You can also encourage him to use the leg with his crutches so he can get used to the weight of it and swinging it back and forth."

"Enough, buddy," he says to Mike. After he's replaced Mike's leg and steadied him between the parallel bars he urges Mike to walk. When Mike makes a couple of steps by himself, the guy high-fives him and grins when I stick a gold star on the stump socket.

Mike hugs me. "I done it, Trav."

I hug him back. "You sure did, and you got a star to prove it. Let's get some ice cream on the way home to celebrate."

"Yeah!"

Since Mike likes this guy, as do I, I ask, "Can you be Mike's therapist all the time he needs one?"

He nods. "Mike's assigned to me, I just happened to be out on business yesterday. My name's Andy, by the way."

"Travis. And thanks."

Before we leave the dairy bar where we stop for Mike's reward, I pick up a box of ice cream bars to use to reward Mike when he does his exercises at home. Call it bribery if you want I remember what worked for me.

By the end of the week Mike can actually walk across the room. A little unsteadily to be sure, but he makes it and his grin goes from ear to ear.

"I did it, Trav!"

I hug him. "I'm so proud of you, Mike. You want to wear your leg to school now?"

He shakes his head. "Unh, unh. I want to walk good."

"Okay. I know Andy is going to be proud of you, too. See if you can use it until we go to bed."

Now that he's discovered he can make the leg do pretty much what he wants, he does his exercises without being reminded and uses the leg from the time he comes in from school until we go to bed. Friday of the next week, Andy says we can abandon the stump exercise with the pulley and for Mike to use the leg constantly as he's walking reasonably well now.

"You wear that leg to school on Monday, okay dude?" He tells Mike.

Mike grins. "Yeah."

Andy pulls off the white lab coat he always wears and puts on a sports coat, then looks at Mike. "You ready, dude?"

Mike looks puzzled. "What for?"

"Didn't I promise to buy you a banana split the day you graduated from therapy?"

Mike shakes his head, so Andy looks at me.

"I don't remember that either," I tell him.

Andy slaps his forehead. "How could I forget to tell you that, Mike, I must be getting old." He reaches down and takes Mike's hand. "So let's go. I can use one myself."

He actually meant it! It's not far to a drug store that still has a soda fountain and the three of us walk there. Andy lifts Mike to the stool and orders three banana splits. Considering that it's five-thirty, this will play hell with our supper, but I don't care, Mike deserves it for working so hard.

It dawns on me Sunday night as I'm laying out Mike's school uniform that tomorrow is the day they change into long pants, so lay out Mike's gray slacks.

I can only shake my head as I watch Mike walk into the school on two legs. I'm happy for him, but he doesn't look like the beautiful little kid with a nice above the knee stump that I rescued a few months ago. In a way he looks funny with a right pants leg extending to the floor and filled. It's lucky I'm a packrat and didn't throw away the right shoe when I bought him new shoes.

Three

Panhandler's Christmas

After Mike had gotten accustomed to school and settled down I set a routine that made it relatively easy for me to get my study done and make a home for Mike, His midterm report is so good dad calls and praises Mike and me for over an hour.

"I'm delighted you were so quick to recognize Mike's potential and place him in a situation where it can be brought to full maturity, Travis. I can hardly wait for your Thanksgiving holiday. I will be down for you Wednesday as soon as your last class is over."

"Thanks, dad. Ah … how about mother?"

"I believe there's some progress, Travis. Don't expect an effusive welcome, but it'll certainly be warmer than it has been. She was very pleased with Mike's report. I assume things are still quiet?"

"Yes, Sir. Since he's had the leg and they've shifted to long pants nobody even thinks of it. He's acting his age now and talking a lot better."

"Excellent. I'm proud of you, son."

Wednesday is a light day for me, only two lectures in the morning. I figure Country Day will be out early so I arrive there just after eleven-thirty the day before Thanksgiving. The kids are in assembly so I'm waiting in the lobby outside the office when dad comes in.

"Dad!"

He comes over and hugs me. "I decided not to wait so I came to pick Mike up since I wasn't sure what time you'd be out of class."

"We got out on time."

"Why don't you ride your motorbike back to your flat and I'll be there as soon as Mike is out."

"That'll be a lot faster and he won't have to ride in the cold."

"Exactly." He pats me on the back. "Run along and we'll see you soon."

I can tell from experience dad wants to have a talk with Wetherby so I head back to our flat. I secure my bike and finish packing the one large suitcase with everything Mike and I will need for the weekend. I'm about to drop it by the door when Dad and Mike come in.

"Look, Trav, gran'pop came to school for me!" Mike says excitedly.

"Sure did. Go put your books away and let's go."

When we're riding with dad, it has become common for Mike and I to sit in the front seat with him. Traffic is heavy, but dad still finds a moment to reach over and pat Mike on the leg.

"I'm proud of the way you have matured so quickly, Mike," dad tells him.

I know this is a reference to the fact that he's been working with the tutor and is easily doing work a year beyond his grade level. As a result, he will enter the second half of the year in the fifth grade.

"I like Mrs. Stevens. She makes learning fun like Trav does."

"Very good."

Mother greets me with the usual peck on the cheek and even manages to give Mike a quick one. I'm hoping this means she's finally warming up to him.

Mike drags me up to the playroom to run the trains. If he can't be outside, this and reading are his favorite pastimes. If tomorrow is a nice day, I'll go blading with him after dinner. We'll both need the exercise after the spread I know mother will have the cook prepare. I just hope they don't have any of their boring friends over to eat with us.

I tell Mike at his bedtime that if he's awake before me he can play games on my computer until I get up. I plan to sleep in and I know mother won't want him downstairs without me to watch him. I just wish she'd relax and love him like dad and I do, but how can I expect that when she's never been affectionate to me.

When I open my eyes my clock reads 9:45. I stretch and see Mike playing computer games quietly. "Mike?"

He jumps up and hops across to jump in bed with me to play. On holidays I love to horse around with him, lifting him with my feet and swaying him back and forth. When he drops to the bed I tickle him as he tried to tickle me. This is the same kind of fun I used to have on Sunday mornings with my dad after he moved into a separate bedroom away from mother. I've told Mike to play with dad. But he's still wary of him in the mornings. I guess because dad can be grumpy without his coffee.

I wash up and get dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, dressing Mike the same. We'll go out to blade after Agnes gives us some breakfast. It's amazing to watch Mike on blades. He's learned to use the leg without stumbling. He loves the slight rise in our driveway because he can fly down without effort. The street dead-ends just beyond our drive so the only cars belong to someone coming to see us.

I'm about ready to call it quits when I have to fly down the drive and grab Mike. There's a big Lincoln coming up our street. The driver blows the horn and waves at me; I recognize my godfather and his wife. Guess they're eating with us which is great. 'Uncle' Matt is cool for an old guy, though Aunt Gert almost smothers me when she hugs me. Poor Mike is going to get it, I know.

This means Mike and I have got to get showered and dressed pronto. He whines as I pull him up the drive to the back door.

Half an hour later Mike and I have showered together and I'm trying to tie his tie against his tugging at it and yelling, "I don't wanna wear it." After I put mine on he relents and looks so gorgeous I grab him in a hug and kiss him.

"Mush," he mumbles and wipes his face with his hand.

The folks are in the living room having a sherry when we go down. I take Mike over to Uncle Matt. As I expected, I get bear-hugged then Uncle Matt says, "And who is this handsome young man, Travis?"

Fortunately dad speaks up. "Matt, meet Michael. Legally he's Katherine's and my son, but in effect Travis is his father, brother, playmate, and whatever. Certainly it was Travis who rescued him from the pure hell he was living in." Dad comes over and puts his hand on my shoulder, squeezing it. "I've never been more proud of Travis and I still am with the remarkable way he's raising Mike."

"Oh, honestly. You men! Bring that precious child over here and let me see him, Travis."

Mike has solemnly shaken hands with Uncle Matt and I take him by the hand and lead him over to Aunt Gert because he's shy around women. She immediately smothers him in a hug turning him loose when he starts to squirm.

"Katherine, he's absolutely adorable! I do admire you for taking on the raising of another child at this point in your life."

I see mother raise her eyebrows. "Oh, he lives with Travis and goes to Country Day. This is strictly between Trav and Travis."

Aunt Gert shakes her head. "He's just too precious! I don't see how you can stand not having him here all the time."

"Really, Gert, I simply haven't the energy to try to keep up with a child that age and irregular as this whole affair is, it seems to have had a most salutary effect on Travis."

Aunt Gert shakes her head again. "Travis is so mature I'm certain anyone would benefit from association with him."

"Trav is fun. I love him," Mike pipes up.

Aunt Gert smiles and pats him on the head. "I'm sure you do, darling. I love Travis, too, and so does his Uncle Matt, so I'm sure we will love you, too, once we get to know you."

We're saved by Agnes appearing at the door and catching mother's attention. Dinner is served.

Once again Mike steals the show. Agnes has just served the first course and mother has picked up her cocktail fork to begin when Mike folds his hands, bows his head and says, "Thank you, God, for Trav and Gran'pa and letting me live with Trav. Amen."

I glance at dad to see him wipe a tear before he says, "Thank you for reminding us all to be thankful, Michael." Dad bows his head as do the rest of us and gives a nice prayer, ending, "… and thank you for giving Travis the wisdom to recognize the need of another and bringing us Michael to love and raise. May he always remind of us of our duty when we forget. Amen."

Mike is on his best behavior at dinner, impressing even mother with his manners. After dessert has been finished, Mike and I are excused to do what we wish. Mike has his tie off before we reach the foot of the stairs. We change back into jeans and go out to skate some more.

Mike and I are both worn out from our blading and play. I fix us a couple of sandwiches and some milk, then take him up to my room to watch the Macy's Christmas parade I recorded earlier. When he falls asleep, I put Mike in my bed and quickly join him.

No sleeping in today. Christmas trees always come in early the Friday morning after Thanksgiving and dad and I always go to the garden center to pick ours out. I don't tell Mike why I wake him, just that we will eat breakfast with dad and go somewhere.

I get us dressed and down to the breakfast nook. Dad looks up from the paper and I shake my head.

"Hi, Mike," he says, "I'm glad you got up early because you and Travis and I have some important business this morning."

"What, Gran'pa?"

"Why we've got to go find a big Christmas tree to put up in two weeks. You want to be all ready for Santa, don't you?"

Mike's eyes get huge. "We gonna have a Christmas tree for real? And Santa will come?"

Dad smiles. "Of course. Doesn't he always?"

Mike shakes his head. "He never come to our house for a long time. Papa said there weren't no Santa. It was all fake."

Dad holds out his arms and pulls Mike into his lap. "Your old papa didn't always tell the truth, Mike. Santa always comes to this house to see us and I know he'll come special for you this year. He told me he would. So you've got to decide what you want him to bring you."

"Really? Let's eat so we can go!" Mike hugs dad and gets down so Agnes can set his plate down.

A cold front came through last night, so we bundle up well. In his cords, black leather boots, padded jacket, and a colorful knit watch cap pulled down over his ears, Mike looks like one of Santa's elves. It's all he can do to sit still while dad is driving us to the garden center.

"Ah, Judge Somerville, I have several trees set aside for you to look at. The boys have just finished unloading the truck."

Dad nods. "I'm sure they'll be up to your usual standard, Bill, but I need a particularly nice one this year for this young man." Dad puts his hand on Mike's shoulder.

Bill grins. "I'll do my best. You follow me, young man and we'll find a perfect tree for you."

We go through the warehouse where bundled trees are stacked against the wall to the far end where the few tall ones are. Bill calls two guys I figure are high school seniors or college age over and they cut the twine binding a tree and thump it against the floor to make the branches fall out. Dad walks around it holding Mike by the hand, then says, "What do you think of this one, Mike?"

Mike looks overwhelmed at the size of the tree. "I … I dunno, gran'pa."

Dad nods and the boys lay the tree aside and open another. To me it looks really good. There's a gap in only one place and we can always put that side against the wall.

Before we choose, they have opened seven trees. "These are the best of the ten foot trees," Bill says.

Dad nods and asks the boys to hold up the tree I thought nice and then another, comparing the two. I like them both so I shrug.

"What about it, Mike? You like this one?" Dad asks, pointing to the one I like best.

Mike nods.

Dad nods at Bill. "That's it. Now, how about a six or seven foot tree."

"Two?" I ask dad.

"Yes. Your mother will have the big one done as usual, but I think you and Mike might enjoy having one in the den to decorate yourselves and that's where Santa will leave his presents this year." Dad winks at me. "Your mother will complain, but having this one will mean Mike can have fun Christmas morning. Frankly, I plan to enjoy it, too, and I hope you will."

I know dad has never been thrilled with the big professionally decorated tree mother always has in the living room. Too, she always complains about the mess unwrapping Christmas makes, so it's never been a happy brawl like a lot of homes have.

We pick a pretty well shaped seven-foot tree. Mike still hasn't taken it in that he and I will decorate the little tree when we come home on Christmas break. Dad pays for the trees and we go back home. Bill will deliver them later.

Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, so I dress Mike then myself and we accompany mother to church. I can see she has doubts about Mike, but I guide him through the Mass. He apparently knows the last hymn and sings out in a pure soprano voice. It's so beautiful I shiver in delight and mother actually smiles down at Mike. I see several of the choir members glance at Mike during the recessional.

"I'm so pleased you decided to accompany me today, Travis. Michael has a beautiful voice. I had no idea that he would know Lo He Comes." She smiles again. "He certainly gave Marjorie Reynolds something to match. She thinks no one has a voice to match hers." Mrs. Reynolds is the paid soprano soloist and not one of mother's favorite people. One look at mother's face tells me she's plotting something. I can only wonder what, but I know it involves Mike.

After dinner dad drives us back to our flat. Mike and I both have classes tomorrow and my exams are coming up in another week.

When Mike gets out of school each day, we get some exercise, blading if the day is nice. After supper we study. Mike has been given second semester fourth grade work which he's doing well, but he does have to study some. I'm laying in for my exams.

We're just in from school when the phone rings. I almost drop over from shock when it's mother asking if I have my keyboard with me. When I tell her I do, she says she's faxing a letter and piece of music from Paul Daven, our church organist, that Mike is to learn. She says goodbye and hangs up, leaving me wondering.

The next morning at school the secretary hands me an envelope just before my first period begins. At my break, I go to the library and read Paul's letter. He tells me to look at Von Himmel Hoch in our worship book. It's short but has fourteen stanzas and he plans to use it for the Christmas Eve processional. There will be all sorts of instrumental accompaniments and one stanza a cappella during the processional itself. He's composed a descant for the thirteenth stanza that he wants Mike to sing and on the last stanza he will play a free accompaniment. Just thinking of that gives me a shiver of pleasure. Mother hates it when he improvises on the melody line, but I love it. Anyway, I'm to teach Mike the descant as if we didn't have enough on us with exams.

When I get home I look up the hymn and it's in the key of C so no problem for me to play. I try the descant and put it with the hymn in my mind - wild! Looking at some of the high notes, C and E, I know Mrs. Reynolds can't reach, I snicker, mother is getting a subtle revenge with Paul's help.

I go pick Mike up at school and tell him I know what he can give mother for Christmas. He shrugs uncaring, not that I blame him, but smiles when I ask if he wants to learn a new Christmas song.

He's as quick picking it up as he is with everything else. After a few rehearsals, he can sing the descant perfectly without my playing more than the hymn alone. It's beautiful and his sweet voice soars. I can hardly wait to hear him rehearse with Mr. Paul as I call him.

I take Mike to the mall two different afternoons to do our Christmas shopping and literally have to drag him out because he's so captivated by it all. It's with reluctance I give him twenty dollars and let him go in a smaller store while I wait outside. I know he's buying my gift and wants to surprise me. There's little I want, but no matter what he gets and how bad I hate it, it'll be the most wonderful gift I ever got. It will be because of the big smile he gives me when he comes out of the store clutching a bag tightly in his hand.

Exams finally over for us, Country Day runs on the same schedule as the university, I pack our things and bring my bike up to the flat, standing it on a thick layer of newspapers. It's against the rules and Mike chortles at the thought of getting away with something against the rules, but no way am I leaving my bike in the parking lot for over three weeks.

Dad picks us up just after we've eaten lunch and reminds Mike that there is a tree waiting to be decorated when we get home. Mike is so excited he bounces on the seat until dad tells him he has to be still or get in the back. Traffic is bad with students going home for the holidays.

I get our bags unpacked then go down to the family room. Dad is moving a chair and points to a lamp table that I help him move out of the way. Mother is watching with an exasperated look.

"Really, Trav, the tree in the living room is quite enough. I can't understand why you insist on having one in here as well."

Dad smiles at her. "This one is for Mike and Travis. Santa will leave his gifts under this one and there'll be no mess in the living room for you to fret about."

"Oh, well." She says and goes to her morning room for a cup of coffee and to look at her mail which Agnes just brought in.

Dad is tall enough to reach the top of this tree easily so he strings the lights while Mike holds them for him. Meanwhile I'm sorting out the ornaments, old ones I love from my childhood but haven't seen since mother insisted on having a decorator do the big tree.

It takes into the evening for us to get all the ornaments on the tree because Dad or I tell Mike the story of each of the special old ones. Then dad adds, "Tomorrow we'll go to the Christmas shop, Mike, and let you choose some that will be special to you because they come from your first Christmas with us."

His little face beams and he hugs dad. "Thank you, thank you. I love you, Gran'pa."

I must admit I enjoy the Christmas shop as much as Mike, but one look at the prices on the limited edition ornaments leaves me gasping. I mean sixty bucks for a glass ornament that could shatter in a heartbeat? Mike is constantly drawn back to a Santa about six inches high. His robe is dark green trimmed in white, His face and hands are a pale gold while his beard and hair are silver. To me it's one of the most subtle ornaments in the collection.

"Gran'pa," Mike says pointing to the Santa, "that's the one I want."

"Good choice." He shows me the price - twenty dollars. "I think you can find a box of ornaments you might like over there." Dad points to the boxed sets at the base of an artificial tree decorated with those from the boxes.

Mike picks smaller brightly colored balls, most with indented centers. They'll go well with what we have on the tree already.

When dad takes Mike's choices to the counter he asks the clerk if they have a way of marking the specialty items. When she says they do, he hands her the Santa and asks that Mike's name and the words 'First Christmas' and the date be placed on the bottom.

From there we drive to the mall, but on the way Mike tells dad when he sees a bike shop and can he look at the bikes. Mike is in the shop by the time dad and I are out of the car. He's running his hand along a dark blue bicycle. He looks up at me.

"Trav, if there is a Santa Claus, I hope this is the bike he brings me."

I look over his head at dad and he winks back at me with a smile, then says to Mike. "I'll bet Santa already has a bicycle just like that in his sleigh ready to bring to you on Christmas morning."

"You think so, Gran'pa?"

"I'm almost certain because one of his elves told me you had been a very good boy, worked hard in school, and never gave Travis any trouble. Boys like that are the kind Santa always comes to see."

"I hope so."

Back in the car, dad says to me, "Travis, I have never allowed you access to the funds in your trust, but I happen to know your mother wants an emerald dinner ring she saw at Barden Jewelers. I'm suggesting that you and Mike buy her the matching earrings using some of that money."

"I'm glad it's something she really wants. Maybe she'll like you know who a little better."

"Considering the cost, she should be enamoured of you both."

The jewelry bought, we are strolling through the mall when we pass a hobby shop. One of the clerks is running a radio-controlled car in the center of the mall. Mike is immediately captivated. With an audience, the young man makes the car do all sorts of things, Mike squealing in delight. Dad looks at me, I nod my head and he takes Mike by the hand and they walk on while I dash into the shop to buy one for Mike.

I meet them at the pastry shop where Mike is having a cup of hot chocolate and an apple turnover while dad drinks his cappuccino. There is a pile of packages on the spare chair. I add my purchases to the pile and start on the cappuccino and apple turnover dad bought for me.

"All done, son?" He asks me.

"Yes, sir. I've got a few things to wrap yet, but I'm mostly ready."

"Who's gonna help me?" Mike asks plaintively. "I can't wrap things so they look pretty."

"I'll help you," I tell him, "and you can help me with some."

"If it's something you don't want Travis to see, I'll try to help you, but I'm not very good," dad says, putting his cup down. "Ready to go home and hang those pretty ornaments that are special, Mike?"

Mike jumps up. "Yeah!"

The tree looks really pretty when we finish. I like it better than the big tree because this one belong to us and is not some professional's wet dream. I go up to my closet and bring down a few things I've already wrapped to place under the tree.

Mike immediately picks one up and starts to shake it, but dad takes it from him. "No, no, Mike. We don't cheat at Christmas. You can find out what's in all the packages Christmas morning."

"Just one?" Mike pleads.

Dad shakes his head. "Not a single one. If you're real good perhaps you can open one after we come home from church on Christmas Eve."

"But that's so long."

"I think Travis can keep you entertained. Maybe it'll snow and we can build a snowman."

"I wish it would!"

The next day Mr. Paul calls and asks me to bring Mike to the church to rehearse the descant after church on Sunday, some of the choir is staying to work on the processional since the choir will be bigger than usual and the hymn stanzas short. I know the soloist will leave as soon as Mass is over.

I practice with Mike a couple of times Sunday and we get to the church just as people are leaving. While the choir are disrobing, Mr. Paul plays Von Himmel Hoch through once then asks Mike to sing the descant. That precious voice soars through the building silencing the few people remaining. At the conclusion Mr. Paul beams at Mike.

"Wonderful young man! You sang it exactly as I heard it in my mind when I was writing it. We'll practice with the choir in a minute and you will lead the procession. When you come into the chancel I want you to come stand beside me just where you are now."

"But I want to sit with Trav," Mike says.

"You sing well enough, Travis. You can robe and walk in right behind Mike. I'll reserve those two places next to me." The choir members are beginning to filter back in. "Mike, I want you to process with Travis but I don't want you to sing at any time. The purity of your voice will be difficult for the women to sing against. You are to sing only the descant on Christmas Eve."

Since I'd been an acolyte, guiding Mike in the procession is no big thing. Mr. Paul seems happy, so Mike and I go home for dinner.

At the table mother is unusually chatty. "Mike, darling, I am so pleased with you. Paul said you sing like an angel and Travis did a fine job of teaching you. I'm looking forward to the Christmas Eve service like never before."

Mike smiles shyly at her and goes back to eating.

When we get to church Christmas Eve I take Mike to the choir room so we can robe, but Mr. Paul says, "I've changed my mind, Mike. You and Travis sit with your parents as usual in the third pew. Mike can sing the descant from there as his voice is strong enough. Then the sopranos won't have to sing against him for the rest of the service. Remember it's stanza thirteen. Mike, I'll point at Travis and he'll tell you when to sing. He can see me from where you'll be sitting." Mr. Paul winks at me. "No sense pissing Mrs. Reynolds off any worse than she will be. I hope this makes her leave, I've had all her prima donna act I can take."

I make a mental note to watch her when Mike sings. It might be funny. Mike and I join our parents. Mike is busy looking around and we enjoy the half hour concert before Mass begins.

The lights go out, the church is completely dark, then Pastor processes down the aisle carrying the Christ candle and reading the preface. When he reaches the chancel, the acolytes light their torches from the Christ candle and light the altar candles, then the advent wreath. Mr. Paul plays the introduction to the processional at full organ, then brings on the antiphonal organ alone as the first three stanzas are sung from the back before the procession begins. The harpist accompanies the fourth stanza and the organ comes back in as the processional begins. The hymn doesn't seem long with all the variations in registration he uses for each stanza. We finish stanza twelve and I whisper, "Okay, Mike." I see Mr. Paul signal the choir to sing softly and on the third note Mike begins the descant singing loudly enough to create echoes.

Mrs. Reynolds looks devastated, her mouth is open, but I can tell she's not singing. Her eyes keep sweeping the congregation to see who is singing the descant. I suddenly hear a sniffle and mother is wiping her eyes. The moment the descant ends, she grabs Mike in a tight hug and kisses him on the forehead. The people standing near us are looking at Mike and silently applauding. Mr. Paul has the organ wide open and his grin goes from ear to ear.

The Mass is as special as Christmas always is and Mike and I sing loudly on all the hymns. His voice seems to inspire the choir because they sing better than I've ever heard them before.

The moment Mass is over a man standing near us says, "That had to have been planned by Paul. Young man you have the voice of an angel and I'll be asking Paul to let us hear more from you."

So many stop to speak to Mike that Mr. Paul has finished the postlude and joined us. "Perfection, Mike! You were wonderful! I could hear you singing all the way through the service and it sent chills up my back. I wish I could have a choir of boys with voices like yours. I know I can't, but I hope you'll sing a solo on occasion." He pats Mike on the head. "Have a merry Christmas, Mike, you, too, Travis."

By the time we're home Mike's euphoria has worn off and he can barely stay awake. I get him undressed and the moment he hits the bed he's asleep even before I can give him a kiss on the forehead. I tuck him in and go back down to help dad be Santa. We lay out several small things we've bought in front of the wrapped gifts. I run out to the garage and bring in the bicycle, wiping off the tires so there'll be no dirty marks on the carpet. Dad places it partially toward the back of the tree so it's not immediately noticeable. With that done, dad puts his arm around my shoulders and hugs me, before fixing small glasses of eggnog for us both.

We sit together on the sofa and enjoy the beauty of the lighted tree before the chaos that will occur when Mike wakes up. Dad reminisces a bit about the years when I was young and believed in Santa, and the joy it brought him. He wishes me the same joy with Mike.

It seems I've hardly gotten to sleep when Mike's tugging at my arm. "Come on, Trav, let's see what Santa brought!"

I manage to shake myself awake enough to hit the bathroom and do a quick wash up. I send Mike to do the same and lay out some nice clothing for us both. Being properly dressed for Christmas breakfast is a must. It's dad who breaks mother's insistence we eat first then have Christmas. She relents and Mike rushes into the family room and stops short.

"Look, Travis! Santa did come!" Immediately he flops down on the floor and begins to play with a toy or two. Dad tells him to take a gift from under the tree, read the name on the tag, and hand it to the proper person. Once that gift has been opened and admired, then another one is taken out.

When Mike opens the remote controlled car he yells in joy and hugs me. I reach for the batteries and put them in, so he can try it. When it bumps a table rather hard, mother suggests he save it to run outside.

Mother actually cries when she opens the tiny velvet case and sees the emerald earrings from Mike and me. She hugs him tightly saying how thoughtful he is and how he thrilled her last night. Considering she spoke kindly when his car hit the table, dad and I know she's finally accepting Mike completely, which is the best present I could have. With the way dad's sitting on the floor by the tree, Mike hasn't yet seen his bike. The gifts have all been opened and dad gets up, saying, "Michael, I can't believe you missed Santa's big gift." Dad rolls the bike out.

Mike just stares at it then starts to cry. "Santa is for real! I wanted it so bad!" He holds the bike and strokes the seat.

"After breakfast Travis and I will take you out and let you ride it," dad tells him.

It's with real regret that Mike and I go back to our flat the day before school starts again. It's been a Christmas in which my prayers were answered and one I doubt Mike will ever forget. A new year awaits us.


Story List
Home