The Little Pipsqueak
© 2012 Matthew Templar
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This story is copyrighted by Matthew Templar, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.
When we turned into my property, I looked over to see his reaction. Alright, I was proud of the place. His eyes went wide at first, then he quickly looked over at me as if to see if I'd noticed, then lowered his eyes. It was like he didn't want to acknowledge his excitement or approval, even his interest in his new, if temporary, home. That was okay.
I grinned as he tried to look through his bangs so I wouldn't see him looking. For the first time since I'd come home to an empty house, I was proud of the place and glad that I'd listen to Dan's admonishment to keep the land.
"Well, you think this might do for a few days or so?"
"Yeah, uh, I mean, I s'pose. There gonna be a lot of people runnin' out to greet you or something? Where's your wife?" he asked.
For the first time, it didn't hurt to have my family brought up to me. Okay, it didn't hurt too bad.
Heavy sigh. "I'm not married. I live alone, now."
Without looking, he pointed to my left hand. "You gotta ring on. You divorced?"
We were going to have to go over the intricacies of polite conversation, that was for sure.
"I was married. Can we talk about it a little later, maybe after dinner tonight? At least after we get you settled inside. You need to remind me though."
"'Kay," he answered with no particular enthusiasm in his voice.
We each grabbed a bag and went inside. I had us set down the bags long enough to give him a quick tour of the house. We'd look around outside later. Then we grabbed up the rest of the stuff in the car, along with a bag of groceries I'd picked up at Wal-Mart. After I put away the groceries, we carried his bags upstairs to his bedroom.
"You're kiddin'. Um, pink and purple?" he asked, standing in the doorway of my daughter's nursery, his new room. It had been shades of blue before, when we had Jeremy, but, of course, that changed. There were several large stuffed animals on the floor and a couple of shelves of dolls and toys; even a dollhouse in the corner.
"Yes, we can change it easily. I wasn't expecting a roommate when I went into the city today."
"You just moved in, huh? No chance to paint and stuff? I noticed a lot of the stuff in the house is kinda girlie."
"Let's add that part to the conversation later. Is it okay to sleep in here until we can get it remodeled? I'll even replace the bed." I almost laughed.
"Shit. I didn't even notice that. A crib?" he said, turning to look up at me, his face scrunched up in disbelief.
"He he. Luckily, we got one that could be converted into a twin bed; well, almost that big. I think it will be okay for a day or two. You'll see."
I went over to the dresser and pulled it open. A blast of emotion hit me as I saw my little one's dainty, tiny clothes neatly folded, waiting for her mommy to pull out the day's selection and help her girl put them on. I felt my knees begin to shake before I shook myself and got control again, quickly closing the drawer.
"You okay? You look weird, dude."
"I . . . I'm okay. Look, why don't you go relax in the living room and I'll empty all the drawers and the closet. It shouldn't take too long."
"Sure. You got anything to drink?"
"Of course. Water, OJ, Coke or root beer."
"Yeah. Root beer'd be good."
"Please?" I prompted.
"Uh, yeah, sure, it's okay with me." I'm sure he was asking himself why I wanted his permission.
I let it slide.
By then, we'd both wandered down to the living room. He was about to plunk himself down on the couch, in front of the TV, which was against the far wall.
"Um, why don't you shower and change into some of your new clothes? I think you'd be more comfortable. You could wear some shorts or even pajamas until we can wash your other things. I like to lounge around comfortable. Jeans and stuff sound awfully stiff."
"Yeah," he agreed, looking down at himself. "I suppose I should wash. I might not be too clean."
"Come on," I said, walking back up to his bedroom.
I started to spread out some of the clothes we'd bought on the top of the dresser.
He looked over what was there and picked out the package of PJ's. Then he looked up at me shyly and grabbed the package of three pairs of the heroes underwear. He quickly hid them under the other package when he saw me looking back. That was the cutest I'd ever seen him up to then. He looked like a little boy - the little boy that was hidden inside of him, sneaking a peek, waiting to get out when it was safe to do so. I imagined that he'd had very few opportunities to let go like that. I'm pretty sure he didn't even realize the difference, yet.
I walked away to get his drink.
"You can take your clothes into the bathroom. There's a hamper in there too."
"Oh yeah? Is there a garbage can too?"
"Yes. That's probably a good idea."
A couple minutes later, when I heard him in the bathroom, I knocked on the door to give him his drink. He'd already taken off his shirt when he opened the door. It was quick but I noticed his ribs and saw the bruising they'd taken the other day where the older kids had been kicking him. There looked to be a few other markings too, when he turned to set the drink down. His back was blotched with pink and blue. Some of it looked rather new, but most had been there for a while.
I gasped and he quickly closed the door.
"Okay, I'll be out in a minute," he called from behind the closed door.
"Take your time, AJ. Relax. Let the hot water run over you. There's plenty of hot water and plenty of time. Oh, and wash your hair a couple a' times."
I went to the garage to get some boxes and my toolbox. By the time I heard the shower turn off, I'd gotten most everything into boxes, except one shelf of dolls, the stuffed animals and the dollhouse. I was just starting to rearrange the crib into a bed. A few minutes later, he came out in his new pajamas. He actually looked very cute. He really was just a little boy and he looked it too.
He had shiny, thick brown hair to go with his hazel eyes. His hair was a little too long, but I'd always thought it made little boys look younger, cuter, somehow. I'm not too sure how he could have looked cuter. I was waiting for a smile but I would have waited a long time that night.
He stood just inside the doorway and watched me trying to work a miracle in converting the damn bed. Just as one part fell to the floor while I tried madly to get several parts lined up, he turned and walked out. Thanks a lot! He was back to being a little pipsqueak. I suppose it shouldn't have surprised me that he had no concept of 'teamwork' or helping out; something a normal family, in a normal situation would have taken for granted. I was soon to learn just how much that was true.
After pinching my finger and loosing my grip on the wrench, letting it drop into my nether region, painfully of course, I finally finished and went downstairs to the living room.
I found AJ on the couch with the DVD player remote in his hand, but he was fast asleep. I stood there and stared for a minute or so. I couldn't imagine his story, if he'd ever had a really good night's sleep. At that point, I doubted that he'd ever tell me if I asked.
Wait! Yes, I could imagine what he'd say if I asked him.
I went into the kitchen to start dinner. I was still exhausted and wanted a nice quiet evening. I'd been working for about fifteen minutes when I heard some movement.
"Um, sorry. I guess I fell asleep," said the high-pitched voice from behind me.
"That's okay. It means you needed it and you were relaxed enough to enjoy it, I hope."
"Yeah, I guess so. Here," he said, holding out the empty can of root beer.
"It goes in the recycle bin under the counter over there," I said, pointing to the cupboard.
He took the three steps to the end of the counter and tried to open the door.
"Hey, it's stuck or somethin'."
"Oh, he he, sorry. It's got a kid's safety lock on it." It just struck me funny for some reason.
But before I could get over there and show him how it opened, he set the can on the counter, not too gently, I might add, and walked out, saying, "Whatever."
I almost called him back but decided I'd better get used to picking my fights. And I figured there'd be a few. I didn't fume too much as I worked on his meal.
Dinner was fish, brown rice and broccoli.
We sat at the dining room table, across from each other.
"It's sautéed cod, uh, fish, rice and broccoli. Do you like fish?"
"I don't know. Do I have ta eat the green stuff?"
"Well, I'd appreciate it if you'd try it. I like it, it's good for us and it will be served quite often."
For a minute, he reminded me of a stereotypical teen, moving the fish and rice around on his plate. He finally put a small edge of the fish in his mouth with a kernel or two of rice. Then I could see him look up at me through his bangs as he gummed the food for its flavor.
He grunted and the next thing I noticed, as I finished my third or fourth bite, was a clean plate in front of him. Even the broccoli was gone.
"Good. It looks like you enjoyed it after all."
"'S'alright, I guess."
"Well, you're welcome, then."
"I said . . . never mind."
He pushed the plate away and finished his milk. Then he rose and was halfway into the living room before I'd noticed.
"Sorry to shout, but I didn't want you to get too far. Please sit down again. We need to talk."
"For one thing, we need to discuss some ground rules while you're here. We need to talk about chores and responsibilities and I think I have a couple of questions to answer for you, if you're still interested."
I made him wait until I'd finished eating the last few bites of my meal and then asked him to carry the dishes to the kitchen counter, along with everything else. I figured there'd have to be some lessons before I had him venture into the science of dishwashers. As it was, I had to tell him about every plate and dish, other than our two, until the table was cleared. And then, after his last trip into the kitchen, there was silence, and no AJ.
"AJ, can you please come back in here now? I promise not to raise my voice."
Slowly, he entered the dining room and sat down. You guessed it - his head was down.
"AJ, this is not the Spanish Inquisition. I just want us to talk and get to know each other."
"I gotta know Spanish now?"
I tried very hard not to laugh.
"No, it just means this isn't supposed to be like torture or anything. This is your time to ask any questions you might have of me."
"We know practically nothing about one another. Aren't you curious at all?"
He sort of fidgeted uncomfortably before he spoke. "It's never been too good a thing to ask questions where I come from. Either you get bopped for bein' nosey or whoever you asked about kinda disappears or moves on, anyhow, about the time ya start ta get ta know 'em."
"Just for talking to them?"
"Kinda like they all seem to go sooner or later. Mostly sooner though. That's why I don't have any friends. They're all gone."
"And no family . . . anymore?"
"Nope. My mom died in a car crash a while back with her boyfriend. You know that guy that was beating on me? (I nodded.) Well, my mom was killed with his father, James . . ."
"Brown," we both said in unison.
"Huh? You know him? How . . .?" he asked looking right at me.
"Well, let's just say I've heard of him. I didn't realize he was Jarod's dad, though. Jarod must be really hurting to have lost his dad."
"Ha. Hardly. He was pretty glad he didn't have ta get beat up anymore when his dad got drunk, which was pretty much every night, I guess. That's also why I didn't live at home anymore. That old creep moved into our apartment; left Jarod and his mom high and dry."
"Why'd you leave? O-o-o-h, you mean he started to go after you?"
"No duh! He caught me a coupla times. You saw the bruises on my back I guess. He got his nards rocked by my foot the last time and I ran."
How can people be like that? Of course, alcohol is a big factor in making these 'creeps' go nuts after years of abuse to themselves. I could never figure out the appeal of booze. I hated losing control.
"No wonder Jarod was so mean all the time, huh?" AJ added.
"Yeah, I guess. But this brings up something. I think I owe you some history about me, AJ."
"O - kay?" he said hesitantly.
"I'm not going anywhere. Don't worry."
"Huh? I don't getcha."
"You said everyone left after they talked about themselves. Well, I won't. Now, let me explain about my history. But first, I need to get some papers out of my desk. Don't go away."
I thought I had my story straight. I'd recognized the names, but I had to make sure. As I was getting the police report about the accident from my desk, AJ shouted from the kitchen.
"Hey, is it okay if I have a Coke?"
"Sure. Help yourself."
Within a few minutes, he was at the table, with his Coke, as I was reading through the report, looking to confirm the two names. Just as I thought.
"AJ, I was married to a wonderful woman, for several years. A while after we were married, I went to Iraq on a mission. I was in the Marines."
AJ looked a little bored, probably trying to figure out why I was telling him that.
"I came home after the mission and we became pregnant with my daughter."
He rolled his eyes. Embarrassing stuff, evidently.
"During that time, we found this house. The reason it looks so 'girly,' as you put it, is because my wife loved this house and the gardens very much. She also had it for a year while I was away. She could do anything she wanted to it."
AJ was looking down at the table again, but I could see him blushing through the hair that was hanging in front of his face.
"A month after the baby was born, I was recalled to Iraq on several more missions. I was there for a little over a year when I got the word that my wife and daughter were killed in a head-on car accident."
That got his attention.
"Wow! That musta sucked, bein' stuck over there and all," he said, finally looking up at me.
"Well, to anyone else I would have said, 'you have no idea what I went through,' but maybe you know more about the loss I was feeling than most people."
"Uh, why's that?" he asked, tilting his head a bit.
"I had to make sure I got the story right," I said, holding up the police report.
He looked even more confused.
"AJ, the night my wife and daughter died in that car accident?"
"The car that hit them head on was driven by a drunk driver . . ."
". . . named James Brown. And, as you know, your mother was in the car with him."
"Yeah, so . . . oh my god!" he said, sitting up straight, realizing the connection. "You mean it was Jarod Brown's dad that ran into your wife and baby?"
"Yes, that's exactly what happened, I'm afraid."
It seemed funny to me that instead of falling into a pit of depressing feelings as I relived the accident that took my family, I was more worried about the feelings of the little boy across the table from me.
He didn't say anything for quite a while, maybe still processing the information I had just laid on him. Finally, I broke the silence.
"I'm sorry your mom died, AJ. I think I know about how you must have felt when you heard the news."
"Huh? Oh, well, no, really. My mom wasn't my mom for a long time. She was all strung out and stuff most of the time. She'd come home late, if she came home at all. Even so, she'd blow a gasket if she found out I'd gone out. Man, she'd get so mad. Prob'ly cause of the neighborhood we lived in. If ya noticed, it wasn't the best."
I caught myself slowly nodding my head, in awe. It was the most he had spoken up to then.
"You okay? You really look dumb with your mouth open like that." He gasped a bit when he realized what he'd said. "Oops. Sorry about that. It's just that you weren't movin' or nothin'."
"Well, I'm not used to you talking all that much, saying more than a 'whatever.'"
He gave me a disgusted look and then looked into the top of his Coke can.
"Okay, I'm sorry too, but it's true. So, go on with your story, please," I asked.
"What's ta tell? That creep moved in and I moved out about a day or two before she came up missing."
"How'd you find out about the accident, about your mom dying?"
"One day I walked over from the mission and there was two police cars out front of our 'partment. One of the people that lived there, some old biddy, saw me and yelled at the cops that I was the dead woman's brat. I freaked out and ran and ran. I knew they'd put me in a home or something. I wasn't gonna do that."
"That must have been hard on you to find out that way, that your mother was dead." I tried to show some empathy.
He wasn't showing any signs of emotion though.
"It was okay. I'd pretty much given up on her anyway. It was worse not knowing if she'd come back or not. I was always havin' to go to the mission ta eat and stuff."
"Still, I'm sorry for your loss, AJ. I'm also sorry for what you've had to go through up until now."
He just stared into the Coke can and quietly said, "Yeah, well, okay, I guess."
This is where we both go into the kitchen and he insists on washing the dishes and sweeping, then taking the garbage out! Right! However, this was real life, and AJ had no clue as to what it was to be a polite young man. He'd had no one in his life to look up to, to teach him. There were only those people who wanted something from him, or disappointed him, let him down, over and over again.
"So-o, now whadda we do?" he asked me.
"Let's see. The dishes need to be done. Oh, and let me show you something," I said as I moved into the kitchen.
At least he followed me, though he left the empty can on the dining room table.
"If you'll go get your Coke can, I'll show you something here."
His eyes rolled as he went back into the dining room. I was almost surprised when he came right back. I walked over to the cupboard that had the recycle bin in it.
"See this lever right here?" I asked, pulling open the door an inch until it was stopped by the child-proof lock. I put my finger under it, waiting for him to see what I was talking about.
"AJ, you need to come over here so you can see how to get into these cupboards. I promise I won't bite."
"Ha ha. Very funny. But I haven't had too good o' luck coming when people tell me to."
With my foot in my mouth, I tried to smooth over my mistake.
"AJ, I promise you that all I want for you is to make sure you're safe. I will never touch you or expect anything from you that is inappropriate. I promise."
"Well, ya never know," he said as he moved slowly to the counter where I was standing. He set the can on the counter.
I showed him how to get past the locks and let him try it a couple of times.
"Swell," he said, moving away.
"Sorry, but could you please put the can in the bin?"
"You yelled at me for that? Jeesh."
"I said I'm sorry, and I just raised my voice to get your attention, but you need to put some effort into this plan. We're in this together. I'd like some cooperation."
"So, am I like your slave or something?"
"No! All I'm asking is for you to want to help out some too. I can do everything we need to get by but it would give you some ownership in what goes on if you were to lift a finger now and then." That was a little rough, but he was pissing me off.
"So, sorry. I never owned nothin' before. I ain't rich like you, ya know."
"Okay, let's go back to the table, shall we?"
"S'pose I hafta," he said under his breath.
"Well, you could just. . ." I stopped myself, but it was so hard. Why was this little pint-sized pipsqueak getting on my nerves?
"Ha, gettin' rid of me already?"
"No, AJ, but, like I said, I'd like some cooperation. It's no fun having to drag everything out of you just to do a tiny bit of helping. Can't we both be a part of the plan?"
Heavy sigh. "It's in the dining room, in that chair over there. Please?"
He got the hint, direct as it may have been. He didn't even look at the chair to see if there was something there. He just sat, his head down.
We went over some rules, like helping and dividing up chores. I tried to make it sound like he only had a little to do but he'd roll his eyes every time I added anything to the list. Oh, and I was writing it down. I didn't trust remembering any more than I would have expected him to.
To say we were exhausted by the time we were through would be an understatement. Bed was easily the next plan; finally, something we agreed on.
As I watched him climb into bed I so much wanted to tuck him in. I knew he wouldn't go for it, being the big, brave boy he tried so hard to convey, but I also wouldn't know if I didn't try. It would also tell him a bit more that I cared about his comfort too.
"May I tuck you in?" I asked from the doorway.
"It just means to pull up the blankets and make sure you're covered and warm. It's something we always did to our little girl. She seemed to like it. It kinda showed her we loved her."
"Oh, well, I uh, I got the covers up okay this time, so . . ."
"Oh, okay then," I said somewhat disappointed. "Then sleep tight and don't let the bed bugs bite."
"Huh? Yer kiddin', right?" he said, looking under the covers.
I couldn't help but smile. "It's an old saying, AJ. There's no bugs."
He almost pulled the covers over his head as he said, "Whatever."
I almost stepped on him! I'd walked out of my bedroom to go to the bathroom and I found AJ asleep next to my door. He had his pajamas on but the top had scooted up to his chest and he was pulled into a fetal position. I didn't mean to wake him but I knew he must be freezing out there.
I picked him up, pulling him into my arms, and he groaned, long and slow. He may have thought he was awake but most of him was still asleep.
"Wha . . . Where . . .?" he said, reaching his arms around me.
"I've got you, son. You're safe and I'm carrying you to your bed so you can be warm."
"Oh. 'Kay." Pause. "How come I wasn't in my bed?" he said slowly, quietly.
"I don't know, po-dunk. You tell me."
By then, I was laying him in his bed and he was turning over and pulling up his legs into his tummy again.
As I covered him with his sheet and quilt, he said so softly, "Oh, okay." Pause. "This the tuckin' in thing?" He was immediately asleep again before I could even answer.
I stood over him, looking at the boy that had come into my home just the day before. He looked so innocent, so vulnerable and yet, so comfortable. I guessed that he was concerned again, about being in a strange place but wanting to be sure that he wasn't alone. Maybe if he lay in the doorway, he thought I couldn't leave him. While I was sorry for what he'd been through, I mostly wanted to rejoice that he was finally safe and that I was a part of that safety, a part of his life, the good part of his life, finally. It was about time that he experienced some good.
I slowly, quietly, backed out of his room and wandered back toward my warm bed, the kind of bed I'd enjoyed my whole life. The contrast between what he had and what I'd always taken for granted caused me to shiver. Yes, even while we were bivouacked in that sand box, I was still secure, for the most part, and had a steady place to lay my head.
I figured that this was AJ's first time in his short life to be comfortable, maybe even relaxed.
I remembered that the reason I'd gotten up was to use the bathroom, so I made that detour. Then, relieved, I settled back into my bed and slept.
End of Chapter Five