Boy In A Box
A sequella to Jess Mercer's story "Santa Laughed"
This was written for our dear, tireless editor Rock Hunter, who was the instigator of this story.
(Note: In my mind's eye, I see little Ronnie a couple of years younger than the seven year old in Jess's story. I've portrayed him that way in mine.)
The world was a soft gentle-looking white when Tom opened the front door of the department store and stepped out to start shoveling the snow off the sidewalk. He paused to admire the mechanical Santa rocking away in his chair beside the toasty looking fire with the beautifully decorated Christmas tree on the far side of the window, and chuckled at Santa's "HO HO HO." He sounded so cheerful. Tom then looked down the length of the building, estimating how long it would take him to shovel the entire sidewalk; forty-five minutes he guessed.
Then he noticed a large pile of snow in front of Santa's window, walked over and nudged it with his boot. The snow fell away, exposing a cardboard box. He reached his gloved hand down and grasped a loose flap. The card board ripped as he lifted. Kneeling, he turned the box up right while cursing whoever had left their garbage here. Lifting the other flaps he saw a blonde head of hair and the ears of what looked like a Teddy bear.
"Oh... my... God," he muttered as he ripped the box open exposing the body of a small child wrapped around a teddy bear almost as big as the child. Tom pulled off his gloves and felt the boy's cheeks; they were icy cold. "Dear God, no..." he cried aloud as he gently lifted the child out of the box. Fearful that the child was dead, he carried him quickly into the store, grabbed the phone on the nearest checkout counter and dialed 911.
In less than ten minutes there was an ambulance pulling up in front of the store along with a police cruiser. The EMTs quickly took the child from the man's arms and rushed him to the hospital. The policeman took a statement from Tom and then left him to do his job.
Tom was slow shoveling the snow that morning as he would often stop and wonder if the child was alive. He'd say a silent prayer and then continue shoveling. Half an hour before time for the store to open, the store manager stepped out and watched Tom for a moment, then walked over to him. "If the job is too much for you, young man, I'm sure I can find someone else to do it."
"No, Sir, it's not too much. I'm just worried about the little boy I found in that cardboard box this morning," Tom replied, pointing at the box still lying in front of the window. "I don't even know if he's alive or dead."
The image of a little boy tugging on his pant leg the night before as he locked up the store flashed through the store manager's mind, and he immediately felt guilty for just brushing him aside and heading home. 'I could have at least stopped to see if he had a place to get out of the cold. I knew it was going to snow,' he reprimanded himself. He had Tom tell him the whole story and then rushed inside to call the hospital.
Mrs. Murphy had hot chocolate waiting for the children when they returned. She counted heads as they all rushed out of the bus and into the warm kitchen. 'One short. I must have miscounted,' she thought as she bustled inside and closed the door. When she had one cup left over after giving each child a cup she thought, 'I must have put out one too many.'
It wasn't until she tucked them all into their beds that she realized little Ronnie was missing. "Damn, the child's always going off by himself," she muttered under her breath before calling out, "Where's Ronnie?"
No one could remember seeing him on the bus. Mrs. Murphy bustled into the office and called Mr. Connors. "There's a child missing. Could he be asleep on your bus?"
Mr. Connors quickly donned an overcoat and heavy boots and rushed out to check the bus. As he scurried back to call Mrs. Murphy, he recalled seeing the little boy standing in front of the large Christmas tree and cursed himself for not checking to make sure he wasn't missing anyone. He silently gave thanks that his own brood was safely tucked away in their beds.
Mary Ann lay in her cot scolding herself for not keeping little Ronnie near her. She knew he had a tendency to wander off by himself. She couldn't fault him for it, the way the other children always teased him and called him a crybaby. She wondered where he was, and if he was warm, as she stared out the window at the gently falling snow. She wondered whose name Ronnie had drawn. Who wouldn't get a gift Christmas morning.
Four a.m. The search was called off. The child was nowhere to be found. 'Hell of a way to have to spend Christmas Eve - searching for some snot nosed brat,' thought the old cop who was ready to retire. He had no family and had no empathy for anyone that did. He'd been due to get off duty at midnight, but had to spend four more cold hours looking for the damned little rug rat.
Mrs. Murphy and Mr. Connors sat in the kitchen of the orphanage drinking hot tea. Both were exhausted, and both were filled with guilt for failing their duty to protect the lost child. Neither said anything - lost in their own thoughts - until Mr. Connors glanced at the clock above the stove, sighed and said he'd best be getting home to his wife and children. He couldn't see how this could turn out to be a good Christmas with a child lost and probably frozen in some downtown alley.
Mrs. Murphy nodded and continued brooding. She had no family - well, she had a son - but he'd joined the navy many years ago and then settled in California. She hadn't heard from him in twelve years or more. She'd always felt she'd failed her son somehow, and tried to atone for it by working with the orphans. Now she'd failed little Ronnie. She sighed and sipped her cold tea. Even though the day staff had come in, she continued to sit and worry.
The store clerk remembered bumping into the boy the night before, but said to herself, "I didn't bring him into this world. He wasn't my responsibility, so why should I feel guilty." But secretly she did feel guilty for not even having wondered if the little waif was lost. Still she just sighed and shrugged it off.
The policeman who had taken Tom's statement filed his report and then went to the hospital to see if he could get any more information on the little boy. The EMTs hadn't thought it very promising that the boy would live. The policeman, although young and single, worried about the boy and decided to wait until he knew for certain whether the boy would make it. He sat outside Intensive Care and waited.
When Tom finished his duties for the morning, he drove to the hospital where he found that no news on the boy's condition had been released. The pink lady on the desk pointed out that that in itself was good news. Tom wandered up to Intensive Care, spotted the young policeman, and took a chair next to him to wait.
"Have you heard anything?" Tom asked.
The policeman shook his head. "No, but he must still have a chance, since they are still working on him."
"Hell of a thing to happen on Christmas Eve," Tom muttered.
"Hell of a thing to happen at anytime," the young policeman replied.
"Did you find out anything about the boy?"
The young policeman just shook his head.
They got lost in their own private thoughts until the policeman's pager went off. He looked at it, then pulled out a phone and pushed a couple of buttons. "This is White," he said into the phone. Tom listened to the conversation as the officer confirmed that he was still at the hospital. He could hear the voice on the phone say, "Hey, Chris, things have been moving really slow this morning here at the precinct. Your description of the boy found in the box fits the one we were searching for last night. We're bringing over a woman from the orphanage to identify the kid. Since you're still at the hospital, I assume he's still alive?"
"I haven't gotten any word yet, but that's my assumption too... since they're still working on him."
"Let me know if you hear anything."
A few minutes later a weary doctor came out. The two men sat up and looked inquiringly at the man.
"Is the boy alive, Doc?" Tom asked.
"The little tyke is lucky that it snowed. If it had been a clear night he'd have been frozen solid. The snow probably helped insulate the box he was found in. Thanks to modern techniques, he will live. We warmed his blood as we warmed his outer body. He should soon wake up."
"Can we see him, Doc?"
The doctor recognizing the human need to verify for themselves, smiled. "Sure, as soon as the nurses are done with him."
Again the two men waited.
Tom's mind wandered as he stretched out on the uncomfortable metal chair with his butt hanging off the front edge, his long legs crossed at the ankles stretched out into the aisle. The cop had gone off to the toilet and Tom watched him walk back towards his chair. The fitted black uniform sure looked good on his muscular body. It set off his smooth tanned skin and short black hair. He figured Chris... that was what the cop on the phone had called him... to be maybe five or six years older than himself. He was at least three inches taller and fifty pounds heavier.
Tom was nineteen, living with his mom and dad while going to college. His dad had told him that as long as he kept his grades up he didn't have to work part time like he did. The job was only two hours every morning, sweeping the sidewalks and emptying the trash bins in each department. It paid enough for him to buy his own gas for the car his parents had given him for graduation.
When Chris sat down, Tom said, "I take it you don't have a wife and kids waiting at home."
Chris studied Tom for a moment before answering. He'd been taken with the fellow's looks when he'd earlier taken his report. Now, he wondered if there might be some motivation behind his observation. "No, no wife. Just my mom, and she's aware that I'm here."
Tom wondered why Chris'd said it that way, but shrugged it off. "I still live at home, too."
"Still in school?"
"Yeah, freshman at State."
"Decided a major yet?"
"Law. I want to join my dad's firm."
"Cool. I'm taking a couple of courses a semester. The Department sets my hours around my school schedule."
"Majoring in Law Enforcement?"
Chris grinned. "How'd you guess."
Tom grinned back. "So you still live with your mother?"
"No, my mother lives with me."
"Oh, how is that different?"
"I was living in my own home when my dad passed away a little over a year ago. Mom was lonely living in their big ol' house alone, so I suggested that she sell it and move in with me."
"I see. That is different."
At that moment a female officer walked up accompanying Mrs. Murphy.
"Hi, Chris, have you heard anything?"
"Hey, Beth. They've got the boy stabilized. We should be able to see him soon."
"This is Mrs. Murphy from the orphanage. She's going to verify whether or not he's the little boy that got lost yesterday."
Chris nodded to the woman who held her purse firmly against her stomach with both hands. She nodded back.
Beth knocked on the door, opened it and stuck her head in and explained what she needed, then ushered Mrs. Murphy into the room. Mrs. Murphy took one look at the pale child lying in the bed looking like he was asleep with an IV in each arm and gasped out, "Thank You, God... yes, that's my little Ronnie."
Beth thanked the two nurses and took Mrs. Murphy's arm to lead her back out of the room. Mrs. Murphy resisted and turned to the nurse on the far side of the bed. "He's okay?" she begged.
"Yes, Ma'am. He'll be waking up in a while. You can come back to visit him tomorrow after we move him to a regular room."
"Thank you." She then allowed the officer to escort her out.
Tom watched the two police chatting before Beth led the old woman away. Chris sat back down and Tom leaned towards him and said, "I think she likes you."
"We're friends. She's not my type."
"Oh, so you like them more feminine?"
Chris studied Tom a moment before answering. "Not really."
"So, what is your type?"
"Why are you so interested in 'my type'?"
Tom prayed that he hadn't misread the handsome cop. "Because you are my type."
He knew he'd fucked up as soon as the words were out of his mouth. When he saw the blank - no expression - look on Chris's face he immediately stood and started apologizing.
Chris stood, and Tom started backing away. "Look, I'll just leave. Again, I apologize." He turned to flee.
Tom froze, not looking back. He mentally cringed when he felt a firm hand land on his shoulder, but he wasn't about to show fear, even if it was a cop he was dealing with. He turned around expecting to be punched in the face or gut, and was totally surprised to find himself wrapped in the cop's arms.
"You've got brass balls, Kid."
Chris led him back to sit beside him. He still hadn't responded to Tom's outing himself, and it took a bit of effort for Tom to relax. They conversed about inconsequentials until the nurse opened the door and said that Ronnie was awake.
Chris stopped at the foot of the bed and watched Tom approach the wide-eyed little boy.
"Who are you, Mister?"
"I'm the one who found you asleep in that box this morning."
"I was really cold, but my new teddy bear that Santa gave me helped to keep me warm."
Chris watched Tom reach out and caress the child's cheek. "I'm glad he did, cause you nearly froze to death."
Ronnie looked sad. "Nobody would've missed me if I had."
"That's not true, I would have missed you."
"You don't even know me."
"I'd like to get to know you. And since it was me that found you, I would have been really sad if you had died."
"What's your name, Mister?"
"Oh, I'm Tom."
"I'm Ronnie. You're a nice man, Tom. I like you. I wish I had someone like you to be my daddy."
Tom was for a moment nonplussed, then said without thinking, "I wish I could be your dad."
"You could adopt me. Then I could be your little boy."
"I'm still in school, Ronnie. I still live with my mom and dad."
"Oh." Ronnie looked away from Tom and noticed the policeman standing at the end of his bed. "Why is that policeman crying, Tom? Policemen aren't supposed to cry, are they?"
Tom turned to see Chris brushing the tears off his cheeks. Chris smiled and sniffed. Tom turned back to the little boy and said, "Sometimes they do. Ronnie, this is Chris. He has to finish his report on you."
Chris stepped up beside Tom who had sat down on the edge of Ronnie's bed and stuck out his big hand. "Hi, Ronnie, it's nice to meet you."
Ronnie grasped Chris's forefinger and gravely shook it. "I never met a policeman before. You're really big, Ossifer."
Chris grinned, and Tom laughed. Ronnie wondered what he'd said that was funny.
"The word is officer, can you say that?"
"That's what I said."
"You said ossifer. Say officer."
Tom felt Chris's hand on the back of his neck and fought the urge to lie back against it. He glanced up at him. "He is really big, Ronnie, and handsome, too." He felt Tom's hand tighten on his neck and then let go.
"Ronnie, I need you to tell me how you got lost and ended up in that box. Could you do that for me?"
Tom stood up and backed away to let Chris sit with his little handheld recorder while he listened to Ronnie's story. He stood at the foot of the bed and watched Chris stroke the boy's hair as he told about the other kids calling him a baby, and how he'd wandered away from them and got lost.
A few minutes later as the two men stood outside Ronnie's room, Chris shook Tom's hand, said he'd enjoyed his company and would see him around, then turned and walked away. Tom watched him until he disappeared around a corner, sighed and decided that he'd go home and take a hot shower before going to his afternoon classes. He'd already missed the two morning ones and he had an hour and a half before the next one. As he slid into his little Honda, he wondered about Chris and if he'd ever see him again. He'd promised Ronnie that he'd come visit him at the orphanage, maybe he'd run into Chris there.
It wasn't until they sat for their Christmas dinner that Tom told his parents about finding Ronnie, they agreed that he should keep in touch with the child. Goodness knew he probably didn't have a lot of stable attention in his life. That was his mother's comment.
"If I was a few years older and in a good work situation, I think I'd try to adopt the boy," he told his parents.
"My goodness, Son, you need to be married to do such a thing," his mother exclaimed. "Besides, I would rather have your own children to spoil. We don't even know this boy's background."
"I don't think you'd be saying that if you saw him, Mom. He's a beautiful child."
Tom's father had quietly listened to the conversation while he ate. He laid his fork down and said, "Actually, my Dear, a single person is allowed to adopt in this state. But Tom is right. He would have to have a stable job for at least four years before the court would consider him."
Tom was surprised to hear his mother mutter, "Thank God," as she stood to clear the table and felt a little bereft. He'd always known that she tended to be conscious of her social standing, but until that moment, it hadn't ever really meant much. He glanced at his dad who apparently hadn't heard her, and he felt a tender pity for the man.
He waited with his dad for his mother to bring in the Christmas Pudding. As she proudly carried the flaming dessert to the table, Tom felt estranged from her. It was almost like she was a stranger...a stranger he'd lived with all of his life. He loved her as his mother, but still, he wondered if he really knew her.
He dutifully ate the pudding, which he really detested, then he headed to the hospital to take Ronnie a Teddy bear he'd seen and wished that he was young enough to have one for himself. He'd slept with his old worn teddy bear until he was ten. His mother had casually tossed it out and told him it was time to start growing up. He wondered if maybe that was when he began to think of his mother as this stranger that lived with him and his dad.
Ronnie loved the new bear, but he wasn't going to let go of his special bear. It didn't matter to him that it was torn, Santa had given it to him before he gave any other kids their presents.
Ronnie asked if the big policeman was going to come see him. Tom hoped that he'd run into Chris at the hospital, but even though he stayed past visiting hours, Chris never showed up.
Ronnie was released the day after Christmas and Tom didn't get to see him again until the second weekend of January. All Ronnie could talk about was his big policeman buddy that came to see him almost every day.
It was a beautiful June morning, nearly seven a.m. Tom was sweeping down the side walk in front of the department store when a black and white police cruiser stopped at the curb. Leaning on his broom, Tom suddenly felt guilty for having forgotten the little boy he'd found in the box as he watched the officer get out. His school schedule had been so heavy he'd had little time for anything else. But now that he was only taking three summer classes. He had the time, but hadn't thought of using it to visit the orphanage. He smiled at Chris. "Good Morning, Officer O'Connell. What brings you out this beautiful morning?"
Chris smiled as he sauntered toward the younger man. "Hi, Tom," he said as he looked around, up and down the street, then back at Tom.
Tom watched him wondering what was going on with him. He waited for Chris to say something.
Chris pinked and again looked around before looking into Tom's eyes and said, "I hope that I'm still your type."
It took a couple of seconds for Tom to realize what Chris was saying. "You know you are," he said.
"I get off duty at eight."
"Nine for me," Tom replied.
"So... can I take you to breakfast?"
Out of uniform, Chris looked even better to Tom. His tight black t-shirt showed his torso well. Sitting across the table, he fought the urge to reach over and touch one of the nipples that pushed against the black cotton knit. Chris watched him, and his nubs hardened when he realized what he was looking at so intently.
They'd finished their omelets and were enjoying a second cup of coffee.
"Would you like to come over? My mom volunteers at a retirement home."
Tom studied Chris's face, then asked, "Why didn't you say something that morning in the hospital?"
Chris stared back, his expression serious. "It wouldn't have been fair to you. I was seeing someone at the time."
"And you've now broken it off with him?"
"Her?" Tom asked, feeling stupid. "Oh, shit. I guess I misread you again."
"No, Tom, you didn't. The attraction was mutual. Even more so now."
"So... you have broken it off with...her?"
"That very night."
Tom's eyebrows shot up. "And...it took you six months to...what? Get up enough courage to approach me?"
"No, something happened that morning that changed the course of my life."
Tom nodded for him to explain.
"I met a little boy."
Tom shook his head in confusion.
"I've succeeded in adopting him."
"You adopted little Ronnie."
"Yes, and now that he is legally my son, I'm free to pursue you."
Tom picked up his coffee and downed it, then picked up his napkin and wiped his lips, before he looked at Chris. "I'm sorry Officer O'Connell, I... straight men and daddies are not my type... even if they're as hunky as you." He took out his wallet and extracted a ten, laid it on the table and turned to walk away.
Something in the tone of voice made Tom obey, but he didn't turn around.
"Please come back, sit down and let me finish before you go jumping ship."
Tom turned around and glared defiantly at Chris. Chris had just put himself on the line and it ticked him off that Tom wasn't giving him a chance. He dropped into his stern policeman persona, stood up, pointed at the chair Tom had vacated and said, "Sit down and stop being a drama queen. It doesn't become you."
Tom's mouth fell open, gasping for air like a fish out of water.
"Now. Two things. I am not straight. And this 'Daddy,' I think, is still very much you're type. I invited you to go home with me... not for just a romp in bed, but a quiet place to propose to you."
"Propose to me," Tom stupidly repeated.
"Yeah, propose to you. I want you to be my mate - and help me raise my... our son. You do still want to be his dad...don't you?"
Tom nodded, but still not having regained his footing, he said, "But you haven't even said you love me."
Chris glanced at the young waiter, who was intently watching them with a big smile, then back at Tom. "Look, Tom, for the last six months I've thought of no one but you... and Ronnie. Please, come to the house where I can privately tell you how I feel."
Tom mutely nodded and smiled beatifically, took back the ten that Chris picked up and handed him, then happily followed him out of the restaurant.