The three women sat drinking coffee after the board meeting ended. One of them looked at the others sadly. "Please think of something. If we don't get some additional money soon, I don't know what will happen. You heard the report Tom gave, and we're still getting requests from the court to take boys with special needs. There's one bedroom in the house we can't use because it's in terrible condition, and there's not enough money left in the budget to feed and clothe one more kid, much less refurbish a room."
"Patricia, we knew things were tight, but not that bad until Tom told us. I'll be glad to give you two hundred to finish out this month. Ann, can't you do the same?"
"Bill will kill me, but, yes. This is local and so important. I'll just cut out our donations to national charities this time."
"Thank you, Beth, Ann. I don't know what I'd do without your support. I don't want you to think I'm unappreciative, but we really need some substantial money. This whole place needs work."
Beth set her cup down and sat up straight. "Why don't we have an auction? Elaine told me she's getting ready to go through her closets. She'll probably send it all to the thrift shop, and they'll sell it for nothing."
"Too true!" Ann exclaimed. "She never wears anything twice. We're the same size and she's got one or two dresses I'd kill to have. I'll buy them if she donates them."
"We can ask some of the others, too. I can certainly stand to get rid of some of the stuff of mother's I've had stored in the attic for years. I know there's a complete set or two of china, and God knows what else."
Patricia clapped her hands. "Now that's an idea. Not many pieces of clothing, because I'm afraid it won't sell, and certainly not flea market junk. But if we could get together nice things people have no use for, like Beth's mother's china, it might just work. I know an appraiser who will donate his time, so we can have the nicer things appraised and set an opening bid. I'll certainly ask some of the better stores to contribute things. This could be a real success."
"Wonderful! Maybe we can get a celebrity to auction for us." Beth said.
"Like who?" Patricia asked.
"Susanna told me her cousin is coming for a visit next month. You know, Jan DeClerq. He's absolutely gorgeous. He was a star player for some hockey team for four years, then he retired all of a sudden this spring. No one knows why."
Ann's eyes widened in surprise. "When did you become a hockey fan, Beth?"
"I'm not, but you can't drag Ken away from the TV when there's a game on. He constantly complains about there not being a professional team in the area. I'm certain Susanna's cousin would draw men to the auction if we could get him. That means we could have things men would buy as well. Even autographed pictures of him. He's so handsome I'd buy one." She giggled. "For Ken, of course."
"That's brilliant, Beth. Would you two help? We can meet at my house next week to begin planning."
The evening of the auction, Beth and Ann paced the backstage area of the civic centre nervously waiting for Patricia. The crowd was larger than expected, and the final musical number of the opening entertainment was about to begin. The stage door opened and Patricia, accompanied by a forlorn teen-aged boy dressed in ragged clothing and on crutches, walked quickly over to them, after pointing the boy to a chair. "I'm sorry I'm late, but I got called to pick up that boy from the police station just as I was going out the door."
A few seconds later, a handsome young man in his mid-twenties came through the same door with a barely perceptible limp. "Sorry to be late. Susanna's still trying to find a place to park."
"You're just in time, Jan. We're almost ready to start the auction, so you and I will go out as soon as the music's over. All you'll have to do is read the number and description of each piece, and ask for bids. Here," she held out several ink marked sheets of paper, "just say you have an opening bid of the amount I've written in by each piece and take it from there. If not, we'll set that piece aside and come back to it later."
"Fine. Who's the boy over there?"
"One I've got to take to the shelter as soon as this is over. I feel so sorry for him. He's lost his parents in an accident and has nowhere to go. The police found him living under the old bridge."
Jan shook his head. "Poor kid. I'll go talk with him for a minute."
"It would be wonderful if you would, but only for a minute. We're almost ready to begin."
A few moments later the boy gave Jan a winsome smile when Jan said something to him in a low voice. Jan came back to Patricia's side as applause for the music began to diminish.
When the hammer dropped on the last item to be auctioned, Patricia's face was a huge smile as she thanked the audience for their generosity. She was about to end the program when Jan stepped back to the microphone. "I have one final bid for an item not actually on auction. I bid five-hundred dollars for a day with the young man who accompanied Mrs. Henderson to this event."
Patricia stifled her surprise, thanked Jan for his bid, and swiftly closed the event.
"What on earth were you thinking of? Children aren't something to be auctioned off." She said to Jan as soon as they were back stage.
Jan smiled. "Do you accept my bid? I want to spend a day with Ben, take him to lunch, buy him some clothes, whatever. And I've promised him an autographed picture, though Lord knows why anyone wants it."
"It's not our policy to let the children at the shelter go out with strangers, but he's hardly a child and he seemed to like you when you were talking to him earlier. I suppose I might arrange something. He has to go back to school, you know."
"He won't be in school on a Saturday, will he? I've been staying with Susanna, but I've found a house I like. I'll be moving in next week, so after that I'll have a place where Ben can be away from the others for a few hours. He dreads being in the shelter with a bunch of young kids."
"I know. But with his handicap there's nowhere else to put him. There aren't any foster homes available just now, even if they would consider taking him."
"Good. It's settled then. I'll write you a cheque."
"With your generous gift, we'll be well over what we hoped to raise. I'll give you my card and we'll make an appointment to discuss your seeing Ben."
A few days later, Jan sat in Patricia's office talking with her about his seeing Ben.
"It will have to be approved by the board first. We again meet in two weeks. But I must tell you we found out the boy is gay." She told him.
"That doesn't change your mind about spending time with him?"
"On the contrary. He needs acceptance by someone even more. Teens can make life hell for anyone who's different."
"How true. I wish I knew a nice man to mentor a boy like Ben. I know at his age, with a handicap, and especially being gay, no one will adopt him. We put him in a separate room from the other boys. It's in dreadful condition and we hadn't planned to use it, but we couldn't have him with the younger boys. We try to limit his contact with them unless a staff member is present, so he's virtually alone."
"Why would you isolate him? That's hardly fair, and it's bad enough for him already."
"You certainly wouldn't condone an older boy touching a younger one in a sexual way, would you?"
"He hasn't done that, has he?"
"No. He's been very cooperative thus far, but we can't afford to take the chance."
"Why should you think he would then? Being gay doesn't mean he wants to attack every boy he sees."
"I know. But some of the staff and the directors. It would be wonderful if somebody, even a gay, wanted to adopt him. They do permit gay adoptions occasionally. I'm not quite certain how I feel about them, but for Ben it would be wonderful. Does that sound awful?"
"Why should it sound awful? Who could better help a gay kid than another gay? At least they would understand the problems he faces and could give him sound advice."
"You're surprisingly knowledgeable about this."
"Why? Because I'm just a dumb jock?"
She blushed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that at all."
"I do have a life outside sports, you know, just as you have a life away from the shelter. If you're worried, I have my degree in child psychology. I need only another eight weeks of clinical experience to get my certification to practice in this state, which is the reason I moved here."
"That's wonderful. This town needs a good child psychologist. The two we occasionally use aren't specialists, so they don't relate at all to the children. You could be wonderful for Ben, if you could get him to open up. He hardly speaks to anyone."
Early on Friday afternoon a week after their talk, Patricia Henderson dropped the phone back in the cradle, wondering why Jan DeClerq wanted to see her so soon again.
Half an hour later, Jan parked his convertible in front of the large Victorian house and looked it over. The exterior needed painting and some minor repair, but in general it appeared as solid as the day it was built in the once fashionable neighborhood where similar homes had been turned into inexpensive flats or rooming houses. He sighed as he started up the walk. Poor kids, I'm glad they have someone who cares as much as Patricia.
She greeted Jan. "It's nice to see you. I did want to thank you again for the wonderful way you handled the auction."
Jan shrugged. "I was glad to do it for the kids. Does Ben's room still need painting?"
"Lord, yes! I hope we can get it done sometime soon."
"Would you accept a volunteer? If you'll let Ben choose a colour he likes, I'll pay for the paint and he and I can do it together."
"It's wonderful of you to offer, but after your generous contribution I couldn't possibly let you do this."
"Why not? When I was in college I worked a couple of summers with a painting contractor, so I'm not exactly an amateur. I want to do this for Ben. Is he back from school?"
She glanced at the clock on her desk. "Be about fifteen minutes yet. Will you have a cup of coffee while we're waiting?"
"Thanks. I'd like that, if I'm not keeping you from other things."
"Not at all. You're the first individual to offer to help us like this. Oh, some of the men from various civic groups spend a day doing little jobs for us from time to time, and we appreciate it, but I've never had a man show up alone with an offer to help a specific child."
"You told me a boy like Ben is not your usual charge. I was quite sincere when I bought a day with him to help him out, so I hope you're going to honor my bid."
"I plan to take it up with the board when we meet next week. Under such special circumstances, I think they'll approve it."
Jan flashed a smile that made her feel so weak she was glad she was sitting. God, what a gorgeous man, she thought. Hearing the screech of brakes on the school bus, she called to her secretary. "Angie, I need to see Ben as soon as he comes in."
Ben stopped in the doorway, his sad face breaking into a radiant smile. "Jan! Did you come to see me?"
"I sure did, buddy. Mrs. Henderson is going to let me paint your room if you'll help. I need to see how big your room is and you've got to decide on a colour. I stopped on the way here and got some paint chips, so let's take a look."
"Oh, wow! Come on, I'll show you."
The small hexagonal room above Patricia's office formed the base of the turret typical of Victorian architecture. Though it had several windows, the large trees outside shaded it heavily. Ben chose a light blue from the paint chips, but after Jan suggested a pale cream to brighten the space he agreed. Noticing the tattered window shades, Jan measured each window.
"What are you doing that for?" Ben asked.
"Going to get you some mini-blinds, so you'll have some privacy. These shades are shot. Want to go with me to get the paint?"
On Monday morning Jan began work, scraping the peeling paint from the upper woodwork, leaving the lower areas for Ben. Each afternoon after school, Ben fell to work with Jan cheerfully. By five on Thursday, a last stroke of the brush had completed the painting. Jan stood on a ladder hanging the blinds as Ben passed them up to him.
The last one hung, Jan climbed down the ladder and draped his arm around Ben's shoulders. "Well, buddy, looks like we're done. Does it suit you?"
Ben's arms closed around Jan. "Oh, man, it was so crummy I never thought it would look this good. I really like it."
"I'm glad." He smiled at Ben. "One more thing to get. I'll be back in a minute."
"Need some help?"
"I can get it."
Jan struggled up the stairs and dropped his awkward burden in the hall. "Hey, Ben! Let's shove your bed to one side for a minute."
When the bed was moved, Jan brought in an inexpensive hexagonal rug patterned in shades of cream and blue and spread it on the floor. He and Ben lifted the single bed back into place and smoothed the rug under it.
The boy stood in the doorway and looked proudly at his transformed room, while Jan made another trip to his car. He pushed past Ben and laid a long box on the bed. "Think you can put this together, buddy?"
"What is it?"
"A halogen floor lamp. You need some good light in here. That bare bulb in the ceiling is hard on your eyes."
Ben eagerly ripped open the box and had the lamp assembled in a few minutes. He placed it near his desk and plugged it in. "Oh, wow, you thought of everything. Hey, it even dims!" When he turned, Jan could see tears in his eyes. "Thanks, Jan. I love you, man."
"I love you, too, Ben. You're a great guy. Why don't you go ask Mrs. Henderson if she would like to see your room. She hasn't been up here since we started work."
"Yeah! She's a nice lady." Ben whirled around on his crutches, and headed for the stairs.
"Oh, Ben, I'm so happy for you. It's lovely," Patricia said, when she stood beside Ben admiring the room. "Jan, you've done a marvelous job."
"Not just me. Ben has worked hard, too. He's a good man."
"I'm sure. I wouldn't believe how quickly you've done all this if I weren't seeing it for myself. Come down and have a cup of coffee with me, Jan. I know Ben wants to put his things back in place."
Jan looked down at his grubby paint smeared jeans and T-shirt. "I'm hardly dressed for that, and I'm in bad need of a shower."
"Nonsense. You're fine."
In her office, Patricia placed a cup of coffee on the corner of her desk for Jan, then took his hand. "I can't begin to tell you how much this means. Ben looks happier than he has since he came here. I'm glad you let him help, it will mean that much more to him. Maybe now with a room he feels is his own, he won't feel so isolated."
"I hope so. He's a fine boy. Did you mention my day with him at the meeting?"
"Goodness! I forgot with all the work you were doing. After I mentioned your credentials, the vote was unanimous that you should not only have your day with Ben, but as many as you wish. They felt it would be good for Ben to see you often."
"That alone makes all the work worthwhile. Thank you."
"I'm happy for Ben. He speaks of you constantly."
"I'll pick him up Saturday morning about eight-thirty."
"They really gonna let me spend all day with you?" Ben asked as he got in Jan's car.
"If that's what you want. I'm sorry it's raining. Let's go home and have some breakfast."
Ben looked at Jan's small Cape Cod when Jan stopped in the drive. "Nice. I like it."
"Come on in. I'm getting hungry."
Ben's mouth dropped open at the sight of the book lined walls of the living room. "Wow! You read all these?"
"Of course. Some of them several times. I enjoy reading."
"I don't like to read much."
"Then you should learn. No matter what you do today, reading is a large part of it, especially with computers. I don't read much poetry, but I like Emily Dickinson. She has one poem that's a favorite of mine. It begins: 'There is no frigate like a book to take us miles away.'"
"What's a frigate?"
Jan pulled a book from a nearby shelf and opened it, then pointed to the picture of a ship. "This is a frigate. They were old time sailing vessels."
"What does she mean then? A book ain't no boat."
Jan smiled. "Simply that when you're reading you can travel to wherever the characters of the book take you. You can use your imagination and live every scene with them, if you wish."
"Don't you have any books about sports? I mean you're a hockey player and all that."
"I have a few. There's one I think you should read. Let me go upstairs and get it. I keep certain books in my room."
"Can I come?"
"If you want."
Ben looked around Jan's large bedroom, much of the wall space lined with more books. "You got books everywhere! You weren't kidding when you said you like to read."
"I don't kid about the things that give me pleasure."
"Where's all your trophies and pictures?"
"At home. I don't much care about showing that stuff off, but my dad does."
"Gee, I'd like to see 'em."
"Maybe I can take you with me for a weekend visit. Dad will love showing it to you. He'll tell you about all the trouble I got into, too." He pulled a book from the shelf, handing it to Ben. The cover illustration a boy about Ben's age seated on a bench, holding his hockey stick, his head down, his expression one of shame.
"Bad Boy," Ben read. "What's it about?"
"Hockey." Jan opened the cover and pointed to the synopsis on the jacket fold.
Ben read it, then looked up. "These guys are the same age as me."
"That's why I picked it out for you. It's a good story about junior league hockey. You probably don't like books with moral endings, but I think you'll like this one."
Ben shrugged. "Okay. With the rain there ain't much else we can do."
To Jan's surprise, Ben stretched out on the sofa, after they had had breakfast, and seemed absorbed in the book. He worked at his computer, stopping from time to time to patiently answer questions Ben asked about the game.
When Ben closed the book that afternoon, he looked at Jan. "This was good. I didn't think I'd like it when I started, but I did."
"I thought you would enjoy it. Did you learn anything?"
"In a way, I suppose. I was surprised when Tully turned out gay. I know how he felt when A.J. put him down, cause I've felt that way. But why would you have a book like this? A guy like you sure ain't gay, and I saw you play a couple of games on TV. You weren't nasty like that kid A.J. either, cause you even got voted most valuable player and all that."
"That stuff sounds good in the media, and everybody likes their ego massaged once in a while, but you soon learn that isn't what counts. When I first started playing I was just like A.J. I was a real smart-ass until a friend wised me up. If I'd kept on going like I was, I would have never gotten anywhere. I'm not proud of who I was then, but I learned a lot and I'm proud of myself now."
"Then why'd you quit? There's guys a lot older than you playing."
Jan smiled. "I'll tell you if you don't go spreading it around."
"I won't, I swear. I like you, Jan."
"This is why." Jan pulled up his right jeans leg enough for Ben to see the prosthetic foot. "I can still skate some, but not enough to play."
Ben stared at it goggle-eyed. "Wha what happened to it?"
"I got my foot broken in the last game I played, gashed by a skate as well. I thought it was getting better, but then it got infected, so they had to take it off."
"Aw, hell! That's not fair for a guy like you."
"It's no more unfair for me than it is for you."
"Yeah, it is. I ain't nothing, but you were a great player. What you gonna do now?"
"What I trained for. I'm a psychologist. After I pass the boards, I may open an office and take a few patients. I saved most of my pay, and with the insurance settlement I don't have to work much if I keep my wants simple."
"Gee. I never thought guys who played professional sports studied other things in school."
"Some don't, but they're fools. What happened to me can happen to any of them. If they don't have professions to fall back on, they're in big trouble."
"Man, you've got it all. You've been a big league hockey player, an' now you can be a doctor like you said. You got this house, an' all your books." He looked at Jan searchingly. "Why you give a damn about a guy like me?"
"For several reasons, Ben. I spoke to you that night at the auction because of your leg. I've already been through the problems of adjustment you're facing, and you looked like you could use a kind word just then."
"Yeah, man. I didn't know what was gonna happen after the cops got me. I couldn't believe it was you when you told me who you were. I mean you look a lot smaller without all your hockey gear on, an' I never thought I'd see you in this town. Made me feel good when you came over to talk to me."
"I'm glad. I would have spoken to you anyway. I like the way you look on your crutches."
"You think I look good with one leg?"
"You're a very handsome young man, one leg or not. Then Mrs. Henderson told me you're gay. That alone is enough of a problem for a guy."
"Don't tell nobody, will you? I can't help it, and everybody puts me down. Those people at the shelter act like I'm gonna rape every kid there, so they stuck me in that old room by myself. Hell, I don't want no little kids. I was just trying to be friendly. I was lonely, until you came to see me."
"I know you were, Ben. That's why I asked them to let me see you."
"I'm glad. After the way we was together when you fixed my room up, I wanted us to be together forever."
"I wish we could be." Jan put his arm around the boy's shoulders and squeezed. "I like having you around."
"Don't it bother you none I'm gay?"
"Not in the least. I'm gay, too."
"No way, man! You ain't never touched me, 'cept for a hug."
"You're only sixteen, Ben. I'm nearly eleven years older than you, so it wouldn't be right."
"Even if I want you to?"
"I like you a lot, Ben, but Mrs. Henderson trusts me with you."
"Like if she knew, you wouldn't get to see me no more?"
"That's it, buddy."
"Anybody know besides me?"
"Just my parents and my best friend on the team. He's gay, too."
"Oh, wow. But you guys are a professional athletes and all."
"If you think all gays have to be sissies, you've a lot to learn, my friend. I have a couple of books by professional jocks who are gay. Most of them are afraid if they come out they will lose their jobs, but being gay doesn't mean you aren't a regular guy in every other way. How long have you known you're gay?"
"Since I was about fourteen, I guess. I never did want to do any of that mushy stuff with girls, but I had a friend I liked a lot."
"Then I hope you'll find another friend at school who feels like you do."
"Naah. There's only one I know about, and he's a real pussy."
Jan held up a finger. "Please don't talk that way, Ben. If he appears effeminate, he'll have a much harder time than you and I."
"Yeah, I guess. But I still don't want nothing to do with a little fag like him."
"I'm not asking you to like him, but try to be a little more compassionate. I imagine he's far lonelier than you, so a smile or kind word could help him a lot."
Ben smiled. "Like you give me. I still can't believe you like me, but I love you, man."
"I love you, too. Now go get your homework done."
"I saw your books, so get to it. I understand you have a lot of catching up to do. I'll help you if you need it."
Ben's frequent weekends with Jan quickly established the boy's presence in the house, Jan welcoming his cheerful companionship.
The leaves had begun to turn. Jan turned the heater in his car on high. He didn't care that people might think him crazy for driving with the top down in cold weather, he enjoyed it. He glanced over at Ben, seeing the boy shiver in his light windbreaker.
"Want me to put the top up?"
"No way. This is fun, and the heater keeps my foot warm."
"Never the less, I don't want you catching a cold. I'm used to being chilled from the ice rink, but you're not." He pulled into a parking place at the mall. "Let's go get you a heavy jacket. You need one."
"You don't have to do that, Jan. You've give me too much already."
"I want to, buddy. Come on."
In the men's department, Ben immediately picked up a waist length jacket in dark blue with a light brown chamois collar. It fit him perfectly. Jan noted it had a quilted fiber-filled lining for warmth.
"Oh, man, this is nice. It feels so soft," Ben said before slipping it off and looking at the price tag. "Wow! A hundred bucks. Too much."
A clerk walked over to them. "That's a fine coat, young man. It fits you perfectly and it's the last one in stock. It's on sale."
"How much?" Asked Jan quickly.
"Good. We'll take it. You have any cords?"
"Over here. They're on sale, also."
Jan found a pair of corduroy slacks that matched the coat, and another in a light brown that went well with the collar. "Try these on, Ben."
"I don't need 'em. I got jeans."
"But you can't wear jeans everywhere. I want you to look good when we go out. Will you let me have them fitted for you?"
"Okay. They'll look cool with the coat."
When Ben came out of the dressing room on the new forearm crutches Jan had gotten for him, Jan asked him to stand straight. After the clerk had pinned the leg where it should be hemmed, he looked at Jan questioningly. Jan gathered the empty portion of the other pants leg in his hand and had the clerk pin the material snugly against the end of Ben's mid-thigh stump.
"Why'd you do that?" Ben asked.
"So you won't have to bother with the excess material. It will look nice tailored over your stump, wait and see. I want you to look really good next weekend, we're taking a trip."
"They gonna let me go with you for the whole Thanksgiving weekend? Where we going?"
"Mrs. Henderson said you could go with me to visit my parents, if you want to."
Ben's face lighted. "Yeah! Wow, a whole four days!"
As they walked through the mall towards the parking lot. Ben stopped at a ticket kiosk to look at a poster advertising a rock group. "I'd really like to go to that. They're cool."
"I've never heard of them."
Ben looked at him in surprise. "No kidding! Where you been, man?"
Jan smiled. "Not my kind of music."
"What you like, then?"
"I went with my parents to the Netherlands a few years ago to visit some of our relatives. I heard several fine organ concerts. I liked the street organs, too, but I liked the carillons most of all."
"Bells. The Dutch are very musical people. They like music all around them, so most cities in the Netherlands have one or more carillons. I liked sitting outdoors with a cup of coffee and listening to them."
"What's so great about listening to a church bell ring?"
Jan shook his head. "A carillon is a set of tuned bells on which they play real music." He smiled at Ben. "I have two or three CD's of carillons. I'll play them for you. My favorite is one in Dordrecht. If you don't like the carillons, I have one of the most famous street organ in the Netherlands, De Arabier. It's in Amsterdam. I think you'll like it."
"Is it like a church organ?"
"No. More like a carrousel organ. It plays popular music."
Ben grinned. "I used to like them." His expression saddened for a moment. "When I was a little guy, my dad used to take me to ride the merry-go-round in the park nearly every Saturday."
When Jan inquired later, the tickets to the rock concert had long been sold out, but knowing how much Ben wanted to go, he shamelessly used his sister's civic contacts to obtain two tickets.
"Oooh. Wow!" Ben's yell, when Jan showed him the tickets, brought Patricia Henderson to Ben's room on the run.
"What is it?" She asked anxiously.
"Look what Jan got! Tickets to the concert. Please let me go."
"As long as you don't have school the next day, and Mr. DeClerq goes with you."
"Thanks, Ms Henderson. You're okay."
When they found their seats Friday night, Jan surreptitiously placed plugs in his ears to bring the sound down to a bearable level, so his ears wouldn't be ringing when the concert was over. He settled back and watched Ben and the other young people standing, screaming, prancing to the incomprehensible waves of sound pouring over them. He smiled at the frantic gyrations of the musicians.
When they were back in the car. Ben grinned happily. "Oh, man, that was super good. Thanks." He noticed Jan's wan smile. "You didn't like it much, did you?"
"Then why'd you take me?"
"Because it was something you wanted."
"You went just so I could go?" He leaned over and hugged Jan. "I love you, man."
As soon as Ben returned from school the next Wednesday afternoon, they left for the airport. Ben thrilled in anticipation of his first flight, but once they were seated in the small plane, he held his crutches firmly when the steward asked for them.
"No way, man. I gotta have 'em."
"I'll return them as soon as we land. For reasons of safety, we can't have them loose during a flight."
"It's okay, Ben. Let him put them in the locker."
"Of course. I let them store mine when I use them."
Jan was happy it was a clear day, for Ben's eyes stayed glued to the window, taking in everything during the low altitude three-hour flight. His smile returned when the steward handed him his crutches.
Ben's eyes widened when Jan finally pulled the rental car into the drive of a large house and stopped. "Here we are, buddy. This is home."
"Your folks live here? Unbelievable, man!"
Jan grinned. "Come on in. I'll get our bags."
The front door of the house swung open. Jan dropped their bags, hugged his mother and father, then put his hand on Ben's shoulder. "This is Ben."
Jan's mother hugged the boy, then Ben's hand was grasped firmly by Jan's father. "You are here welcome, Ben. Come in, lad."
"Jan told me you would show me all his trophies and things."
"Ja. I show you what good player he was before accident." Jan's father winked at Ben. "I tell what bad boy he was also."
Jan grinned. "Now, pop, don't spoil Ben's image of me. He thinks I'm a nice man."
"Okay, not so much tell, then."
"Please, I want to know all about Jan. I've got his picture in my room, but he won't tell me much."
"He is shy boy still. I tell about him some secrets."
Jan was happy to see how quickly Ben became at ease. Over dinner, Jan's father looked at him with a serious expression and asked a question in Dutch. With a startled look, Jan quickly answered in the same language, then relaxed when his father smiled.
"What was that?" Ben asked. "I didn't understand."
"Father asked me something in Dutch." Jan told him.
"Gee, you speak Dutch?"
"Most of the time when I'm here, so I don't forget it. I'll try to remember to speak in English for you."
"Ja. Jan only remember naughty words best." His father told Ben with a smile.
"Just a tease, my man."
Jan talked with his mother after dinner, while his father took Ben to his study to see his collection of pictures and news clippings of Jan's hockey career.
Ben's crutches slipped on a throw rug in the hall as they returned to the living room. Jan jumped up to help him. "I'm not hurt," he said when Jan pulled him up, "but like wow, man, you were a great hockey player. I wish I could have seen you play for real."
"I told you dad likes to brag on me. Don't let him bore you."
"No way. Tomorrow he's going to show me some videos of your games. I wish I could see you skate, though."
"I'm not very good at that anymore, but I'd like to get on the ice again."
"Is settled. I fix for you, so Ben see you skate."
After breakfast, Jan's father bundled them in his car and drove to the rink over Jan's protest. "This is Thanksgiving, dad. It won't be open."
"For you, little while. I ask special."
"Jan!" A deep roar echoed in the rink as Jan stepped on the ice. Seconds later a stocky man's skates sprayed ice chips as he stopped and grabbed Jan in a bear-hug.
"Bruno! You still here?"
"I thought you retired."
"Did. I bought this rink. The guys use it for practice now."
"How are they?"
"You'll see. A few of them are dressing now for a workout."
Six players skated over to Jan, each hugging him and pounding him on the back with cries of welcome. One of them hugged Jan longer than the others. "Is good to see you, Jan. I am miss you much." He looked down. "Good you bring skates. You play wit' us."
"Can't Frenchy. No way I can keep up with you guys now."
"Hey, guys," Frenchy bellowed, "we make easy on poor one-leg Jan, right?"
"Yeah! Come on, Jan."
One of them handed Jan a hockey stick. Ben watched in awe as Jan skated away to join the others in a makeshift game.
"He sure don't skate like he's got just one foot, does he?" He said to Jan's father.
"Oh, ja. Was much better skater when on team. They just for fun play now."
"I wish I could try it. It looks like fun."
"Is fun. If you had leg like Jan, you see. Look!" He said suddenly and pointed. "Jan try favorite trick."
With a sudden twist, Jan sent the puck into the net, then fell.
Frenchy skated over and pulled him up, then slapped him on the rear. "You no forget, we do. You no do again. We watch now."
"Just seeing how much you guys have forgotten."
"Only trick you pull, my friend." He saw Jan wince. "What is wrong?"
"Out of shape, man. You guys play. I'll watch with dad and Ben. Do me a favor, Frenchy?"
"For old lover, anyting."
"Ben wants to meet you guys before we leave, and if there's a team picture anywhere around, I want you guys to autograph it for him. He's a nice kid." Jan leaned closer. "He's gay, too."
Frenchy grinned. "So. Have new lover, now?"
"I love him, Frenchy, but no sex. He's too young."
"Am sorry. He beautiful boy." He slapped Jan on the rear. "Get skate for young friend. You put on him skate. Me and Bruno show him."
"What are you doing?" Ben asked when Jan came back from the supply room with an ice skate and began to untie his shoe.
"You're going to skate with Bruno and Frenchy."
"On one leg? You're nuts!"
When Jan had laced the skate snugly, he stood and, sticking two fingers between his lips, let out a shrill whistle. Frenchy and Bruno skated over and pulled a reluctant Ben up between them.
"Skate good, boy. You wit' tough men." Frenchy growled at Ben, as he and Bruno pulled him along on his skate.
Ben's skate slipped sideways into Bruno's and tripped him. The three of them fell in a pile, Bruno and Frenchy roaring with laughter as they pulled Ben back up. Frenchy slapped Ben so hard on his rear, Ben almost pulled them down again.
"Frenchy, he tell you skate good. Why you no listen?"
Ben's face turned crimson. "I'm sorry."
"We fun you, boy." Frenchy said. "You want try hit puck?" He pushed a hockey stick into Ben's hands and, standing behind him to hold him up, pushed Ben toward the puck.
Ben connected, the puck sailed across the ice toward the goal. With a grin, the goalie fell backwards, the puck sliding across the line.
"Is good!" Bruno roared, slapping Ben on the rear.
"We make Ben first one leg man on team," Frenchy yelled, as the others crowded around to hug Ben.
An hour later, Jan lingered behind as his father and an exhausted, but ecstatic Ben started toward the door. "Thanks, guys. You were great to do this. I really miss you."
"We miss you too, Jan. Ben is good kid. We like." They all hugged Jan before he could leave. Frenchy last, giving him a covert kiss.
"Oh, man, what a great time I had. Can we come back sometime?" Ben asked during the flight home on Sunday afternoon.
"Sure. My parents enjoyed you."'
"Your mom and dad are really nice, Jan, and the guys on the team are super. I can't believe I skated and made a goal. I was scared of Frenchy at first."
"He looks so mean."
Jan closed his eyes for a few seconds, seeing Frenchy as he must have appeared to Ben. The thick black hair, heavy mustache, and slanted dark eyes in a sharp-featured face he found so attractive must have appeared diabolical to the boy.
"Frenchy's a rough player, but at heart he's a sweet guy."
"Yeah. He was nice. Is Frenchy his real name?"
"No, it's Jean-Jacques Charpentier. He's French-Canadian. We call him Frenchy for short."
Ben picked up on Jan's expression. "You still miss him, don't you?"
Caught unaware by Ben's perception, Jan sighed. "Yes, but how did you know?"
"The way you looked at each other. I'm glad you're in the picture they gave me. I want you to autograph it, too."
"You've already got one of me, buddy."
"Yeah, but this one's special. I want your name on it with the other guys'."
Once Ben had the other boys at the shelter crowded around to look at the autographed picture and watch the video Jan's father had made of him skating with the team, Patricia invited Jan into her office for a cup of coffee.
"I've never seen a boy so happy, Jan, but how could Ben ice skate with just one leg?"
Jan grinned. "A couple of friends of mine on the team put him between them. I wish you could have seen Ben. He was thrilled when he shot a goal. The guys were good to him."
"You've been wonderful with him, Jan. He's developing swiftly, and he's completely trustworthy with the younger boys. He's such a help with them, and they adore him." Her smile faded. "Are you still serious about adopting him?"
"Of course I am. Do you have to ask?"
She pushed a form across her desk. "Then sign this."
"What is it?"
"A petition for adoption. It starts the process. I have no idea how far it will get, so please don't get your hopes up."
"That'll be hard, I love Ben." Jan signed, then grasped her hand when she reached for the petition. "Please don't say anything to him. I don't want him hurt if this doesn't happen."
"Nor do I. I'll keep everything as confidential as possible."
Tuesday after their trip, Jan was reading when the phone rang. He answered, and a few seconds later he was speeding toward the shelter. Patricia Henderson was sitting at her desk with a serious expression. When Jan entered, she merely nodded toward Ben, sitting in a chair against the wall. Jan gasped when he looked at the boy. Ben sported a black eye, he held a tissue against his still slightly bleeding nose, his lip was split.
Jan took a few steps and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "What were you doing fighting in school?"
Ben shook his head.
"He won't tell me either, Jan. I'll leave you to talk with him."
"Thanks." He took the chair next to Ben, when she left the room. "Okay, guy, let's hear it."
"No." Ben mumbled sullenly.
"Yes. Look, Ben, people expect fighting during a hockey game. I hate to say it, but that's part of the attraction. But you weren't in a game, and I won't have you fighting at school or anywhere else for that matter, so you might as well tell me."
"I took my picture to school to show some of the guys. When they looked at the guy's autographs, one of 'em asked how I got it. I told him how you took me to meet them." Ben looked up. "He didn't even know who you were. You know what he did? He put his finger on your name and said Jan's a girl's name and girls can't play hockey." Ben scowled. "I ain't lettin' nobody call you a girl."
"Oh, Ben, I'm sorry. Jan is a common name among the Dutch. I thought you remembered it's pronounced Yahn, not Jan. It's John in English. You can call me that if it will help."
"No way! Jan's your name and I like it. It was my fault. I forgot how you told me to say it."
"That's okay, buddy, most people call me Jan. But I don't want you fighting again. Now promise."
"No buts. Promise."
"If you want."
"I do. Now go on up to your room and clean up. You need some help?"
"Good. I'll explain to Mrs. Henderson."
The week before Christmas, Ben helped Jan decorate for the holidays. "Oh, man, this is beautiful," he said wistfully, as he hung the last ornament on the tree. "It's a lot taller than the one at the shelter. Smells so good, too. I wish we had a real one like this, but Ms Henderson said somethin' about fire regulations."
Jan put his arm around Ben. "It does look good, doesn't it? Thanks for your help, buddy."
"I wish I could spend Christmas with you, but Ms Henderson says I've got to stay there and help with the little guys. You goin' to come eat dinner with us?"
"I haven't been invited, Ben, and I wouldn't want to take food from you guys."
"You said you weren't going home, so I want you to come. You won't be taking food from the little guys, you can share mine. I don't eat a lot."
Jan quickly hugged him to keep him from seeing the tears that sprang to his eyes. "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me, Ben. Thank you. Let's wait and see what Mrs. Henderson has planned."
When Jan drove Ben back to the shelter, he was surprised to see Patricia still at her desk. "You're working late tonight."
"Jan, I didn't hear you come in. I'm just trying to clear up a few things."
"Must be important to keep you here so late."
"Have a seat." She got up and closed the office door, then went back to her desk. "I have a terrible decision to make, Jan. I suppose people think because our fundraiser was so successful we don't need additional money. They just don't understand that the money we raised is for the operation of this place, while their Christmas donations are used to provide for little extras for the boys. Now, just when I want them to have a nice Christmas, I have to decide between giving them a special Christmas dinner or some gifts." She pulled a tissue from her desk drawer and wiped her eyes. "I go through this every year, and it doesn't get any easier."
"I know it's hard, but these kids are lucky to have someone who cares as much as you. Will all of them be here for Christmas?"
"No. Four of the boys have permission to be with relatives, so there will be six here. I wish I could let Ben be with you, but I need him to help with them, because I'm giving the staff the holiday. Most of them have children at home, except Tom who stays here at night, and he wants to visit his son. Our daughter and her husband are spending this Christmas with his parents, so Hank and I are coming in Christmas Eve morning and staying until the morning after Christmas."
"Then let me tell you what I have in mind. If you agree, it may help. My parents are coming to spend Christmas with me, so I'd like you and your husband to bring the kids to my house about eleven and have Christmas dinner with us."
"You can't be serious!"
"My house isn't that big, but I think we can all squeeze in. I might ask you to help mom in the kitchen, though."
Patricia squeezed Jan's hand tightly. "Oh, you wonderful man! The boys will love it, and I'll be glad to help your mother. I'd be in the kitchen here, so it's no trouble at all. Hank will help, too."
"Good. Don't worry about cooking; I'll have everything for dinner sent in. All we'll have to do is heat it up, then you and mom can serve the plates. Be alright if I see Ben for a minute before I leave?"
"Of course. Go on up."
"Jan! I thought you'd gone." Ben jumped up from his bed.
"I was talking to Mrs. Henderson. I have a real job for you that has to be done fast and in secret."
"Sure. What you want?"
"I want you to listen to the little guys and make notes of what each of them wants Santa to bring."
"For what? Heck, most of 'em already know there ain't no Santa Claus."
"Yeah? Well they're going to have Santa this year." He winked at Ben. "He even has one leg."
"Yeah. Try to have the list for me by Friday, buddy. We'll have some heavy shopping to do."
Ben called Jan early Christmas Eve morning, his words jumbled in his excitement. But a few minutes later, Jan stopped in front of the shelter and watched Ben swinging toward his car, almost dancing along on his crutches.
He slipped into the car and hugged Jan. "Oh, man, this is wonderful! Ms Henderson said I could stay with you tonight and tomorrow, just like I wanted."
Jan returned the hug. "I'm really happy about that, buddy. Let's get home. Mom and dad want to see you, and mom wants you to help her make cookies."
"They're really here? Great. I like your folks a lot."
"And they like you."
On the way home from church Christmas Eve, Jan sat beside his father who was driving their rented car, Ben and Jan's mother sat in the back. Ben yawned widely. "I'm tired, but I sure had fun helping make the cookies and then wrapping those presents for the little guys. I wish every day was like this."
"I wish it could be for you, Ben. You're a fine young man." Jan's mother said. "But I think you'd better get to bed as soon as we're home. Tomorrow is going to be busy for you."
After breakfast, the four of them sat around the tree. Ben picked up the presents and handed them out. Jan's mother and father were surprised when they opened gift sets of handkerchiefs and read the attached cards. 'Love from Ben.'
Jan's mother hugged Ben. "It's sweet of you to think of us, Ben, but you should have saved your money for yourself."
"Naw, I wanted to. You were so nice that time Jan took me to see you."
"And you were perfect guest. I wish a grandson like you we had, Ben, but," Jan's dad smiled at him, "I think Jan never make one."
"Don't be too sure, dad." Jan opened his gift. "How'd you know I wanted this CD, Ben?"
"Remember you looked at it when we went in that big book store that had them? I asked Ms Henderson to get it for me."
"Thanks, Ben, it's more special because it's from you." He leaned over and pulled a large package from behind the tree. "This is yours, from mom, dad, and me. We hope you like it."
Ben eagerly tore into the wrappings and ripped open the top of the box. His eyes and mouth opened wide. "Oh, Wow!" He carefully unwrapped the components of a compact stereo unit and stared at them. "This ain't the one I looked at. It's way better! Oh, gee! Thanks!" He hugged them all tightly.
"Okay, buddy. I'll take it upstairs to your room, then you help me get the presents for the little guys under the tree. They'll be here before long."
The younger boys looked at everything with bright eyes, but sat in shy quietness whispering to each other and Ben who showed them Jan's books, then proudly took them upstairs to see his new stereo. Dinner was ready by the time they came back down.
Ben and the six boys, with Jan's mother to help them, ate at the dining room table, while the Hendersons, Jan, and his father ate from a card table in the living room.
"Oh, Jan, the boys couldn't believe they were going out for Christmas dinner, and everything is delicious. It's so much nicer than we could have given them at the shelter, but it's such a lot of work for you and your parents." Patricia said.
Jan nodded in the direction of the dining room. "Take a look. Mom's having the time of her life, and the boys are behaving perfectly."
"You're a fine man, Jan. Patricia has never been as happy at her work as she has since you began to help Ben. That let's her devote her time to the little ones and not worry about him." Hank added.
When the boys had eaten all they could hold, they asked to go back in the living room to look at the tree.
"Of course you may." Jan's mother told them. "Why don't you sit on the floor and Ben will read you The Night Before Christmas while we clear the table and have our coffee. My father always read it to me on Christmas Eve. It was special."
Ben read slowly and dramatically, showing the boys each picture in the book. By the time he finished the story, the adults were back in the living room.
"Gee, ain't you goin' to open your Christmas?" One small boy asked, looking at the pile of brightly wrapped gifts beneath the tree.
Jan sat down on the floor next to Ben. "We had our Christmas early this morning. You remember what Ben just read about Santa coming down the chimney?
"Well, when he came down my chimney, he left a lot of presents that weren't for us."
"He did?" Said another small boy, eyes wide.
"Sure did." Jan picked up a gift and read the tag. "This one belongs to Jack. Does anybody know him?"
"Then I guess Santa meant this one for you. Maybe he knew you were all coming here today." He picked up another. "And here's one for Bill."
When all of the boys sat in awed surprise at seeing their Christmas wishes come true, then sprawled on the floor in noisy play, Patricia Henderson hugged Jan. "This couldn't have been a more wonderful day for the boys. How did you know what they each wanted?"
Jan grinned. "Santa had a little inside information."
"Ben! I should have known." She hugged him, too. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Jan told me to keep it a secret. I had a lot of fun helping him."
"You're such a good boy, Ben. Help Hank and me get the boy's coats on. It's time for us to get them back to the shelter."
As six happy boys passed through the entry hall, Jan's mother gave each a bag of the cookies she and Ben had baked, and welcomed six sticky kisses in return. When Patricia reached for her coat, Hank whispered something in her ear. Her eyes widened, she laid her coat back on the chair and closed the door behind her husband and the boys.
"Mr. DeClerq, Hank just told me you put a large electric train set in the back of our station wagon for the boys. I'm almost embarrassed after the generosity you've all shown, but the boys will be delighted. He said he would help them set it up while I stayed a few minutes longer."
"Good," Jan said. "Now that it's a little quieter, wouldn't you like to have another cup of coffee with us?"
"Please, Jan. It's been such a wonderful day for all of us, I hate to see it end."
"It's been our pleasure," he said.
When they had their coffee in hand, Patricia looked at Ben. "I know this has been a good Christmas for you, Ben. Did you get everything you wished for?"
"Sure did. And more."
"Everything? Are you sure?" She insisted.
Ben's smile disappeared. "Well, almost. But I won't ever get that."
"What wish, Ben?" Jan asked.
"This one," Patricia said before Ben could answer. "It's a gift for you, too, Jan." She held out a thick buff-coloured envelope.
Ben moved closer to Jan as Jan opened the envelope and removed a sheaf of legal documents. He read a few lines, dropped the papers, and pulled Ben up, hugging him tightly, tears trickling down his face.
"What?" Ben managed to ask.
"What did you wish for more than anything else in the whole world, Ben?" Patricia asked.
"That I could live with Jan forever." He patted Jan on the back. "Why're you crying, Jan?"
"We both got our Christmas wish, Ben. You're my son."
"Don't I wish!"
Jan wiped his eyes and picked up the papers. "You're Ben DeClerq now. See? The judge approved your adoption."
Jan's parents hugged each other in delight, then hugged Jan and Ben. "We fine grandson got!" Jan's father said with a huge smile. "We love you, Ben."
Unnoticed, Patricia slipped out of the house, feeling a lot like Santa herself.