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.

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Chapter Thirty-three

"My God, Jeffy, what happened to you?"

I'd pulled up in front of the school with AJ and had been waiting for several minutes, when Jeffy came out of the building with a gentleman dressed in a suit. Not a good sign. At least the man wasn't holding him by the scruff of the neck or his ear.

"Mr. Connors?" the man asked when he continued around to my window, allowing Jeffy to get into the truck.

"No, I'm Sgt. McGill, retired. Jeffy, um, Daniel, hopefully will be my son soon, but until then I'm his foster dad. What happened here?" I asked, indicating Jeffy as he slid next to AJ, his head still down.

He finally looked up at me and gave me a half smile. At least I think it was Jeffy. His left eye was swollen shut and he had a bandage taped over that eyebrow as well. His lip had been cut and was badly swollen. His nose looked like it had been bloodied as indicated by the cotton batting stuck up one nostril. His shirt was pretty red with blood stains. When he slid into the seat I heard him gasp in pain and hold his stomach. It was plain to see that he hurt.

"I see, well, you have a wonderful boy here, sir. Normally, even after what he did, he'd probably get three days suspension. But since there are only three days left in the year and he was only protecting someone, I've decided to reward him instead of penalizing him. Daniel," he said, leaning to look at my son through the window, "that's only if you're up to it, of course. You took quite a beating for your friend, Elliot."

Elliot, with the loud parents. He was nowhere to be seen.

"So, my son is a hero for standing up for Elliot?"

"Oh, yes. Elliot is in pretty bad shape actually, and so are two of the three fellows that jumped him, thanks to your son. They're both at Emergency, though there shouldn't be any lasting damage, except to their education next fall. Elliot, we're waiting to hear on, I'm afraid."

I heard some whispering from an excited brother that was sitting, or rather, squirming next to me as he asked, "Wo-ow! Jeffy, you knocked 'em silly? Man, you look awful. What happened, what happened, huh?"

"I have to ask, if he did so well, how come he's so beat up, Mr. um . . . .?"

"Oh! Sorry. I'm Scott Jaeger, the high school's principal. From what we can ascertain, two of the three boys held Jeffy as the third slugged away at him. But then, according to the girls I talked to, Daniel somehow got free, grabbed the handle of a mop and started to wail away on the two boys that stuck around. I don't know where he learned that, but it was sure effective."

I'm not sure if Principal Jaeger noticed AJ's and my heads snap to look over at Jeffy, but when we did, I saw that half smile again, through his swollen lips, accompanied by a bright gleam of knowledge, maybe even satisfaction, in his bruised eyes.

"Wo-ow! Dad, d'ja hear that? I wish I coulda seen it."

"AJ!" I said, trying to not allow the attention to get out of hand.

The principal leaned in again to look at AJ with his eyes intently taking in the boy's features until,

"Ah! AJ! You're our young hero that, with the other boy's help, changed the course of the administrative policies of our whole school district! Sergeant McGill, you seem to be raising a household of heroes."

I don't really know if I was actually blushing at his words, but I certainly know I was very proud to hear his accolades for my boys.

"Thank you, sir, but really, they're pretty much self-taught, I think."

"Huh, uh!" rang the chorus from the two boys sitting in the truck with me.

"So, should I be taking Jeffy, um, Daniel, to Emergency as well? Do we know that he has no internal injuries?"

"To be honest, we only went by what Daniel . . . We call him Daniel now, is that okay?"

"Oh, yes. Just family calls him Jeffy. It's kind of a special name he let us keep."

"Okay, well, we went by what Daniel told us, though I think it might not be a bad idea. Of course, the school district will pick up any expenses."

"Yes, no doubt. Okay, then we're off to spend another evening in the hospital, boys; this time for one of our brave heroes."

"Aw, Pop! Do we hafta?"

"We hafta. Nice to meet you, Principal Jaeger."

When we walked into Emergency, we were greeted by an administrative assistant who took our information and a description of what happened and where. When she heard the high school and Elliot's name she turned to another woman behind her that quickly led us into an examination room.

"Thank you, that was very expeditious of you. Thank you for hurrying us through," I told the lady, who introduced herself as Nurse Sanchez.

"To be quite honest, we were concerned about our recent patient, Elliot Truman, the friend that your young man tried to protect. You see, his injuries have left him in a coma. Now, you not being family, I'm not allowed to discuss his condition with you normally. Quite frankly, you're the only ones that know he's here, except the high school, of course. At least, we haven't heard from his parents. We were wondering if you could shed any light on how to contact them."

"You mean his parents can't be contacted?" I asked her.

"Well, I think someone answered the phone when their number was called to ask them to come down here. If it was one of his parents that answered, I believe they hung up on the caller. I would have assumed that they were rushing to get here, but that was over two hours ago. We haven't heard from them since and they don't answer their phone anymore."

I looked at Jeffy who was looking at me and we both shook our heads. His head went down and I looked at Nurse Sanchez.

"Is there something I should know about their situation, sir?"

"Sergeant McGill, ma'am. Um, Tim McGill. I'm Jeffy's, um, Daniel's foster dad," I said, pointing to Jeffy. "I know very little about the family and Daniel here has only been to their house once, though it was a bit tense."

"I see. Daniel, we could use some help here to avoid getting the police to go to their home. Is there something you can tell us that would help?"

Jeffy looked up when he was addressed. He looked a little worried, not knowing what to say that wouldn't get his friend in trouble. That was a guess on my part until I said,

"Jeffy, it's okay to say what you know. You were there long enough to know if they'd be supportive or not, don't you think?"

"Um, yes sir. I suppose if I had to guess I'd say that, well, Dad, this is hard to say. He's my friend, but his parents are a piece of work."

"Just tell the nurse what you told me after spending some time there that day."

"Okay, well, um, see they didn't like me being over there and when we came downstairs they just yelled at Elliot nonstop. I've never heard so much yellin' even in my house, well, before I got to come live with Pop here."

"And the kind of yelling you observed wasn't very helpful to their son, I take it?"

"No, ma'am. They weren't swearin' or anything like that prob'ly 'cuz I think they're religious or something, but they were still tellin' Elliot what a sinful, horrible person he was, that nothing had changed after all this time and they didn't know what to do with him."

"Oh my! Well, I have a young boy up in intensive care that doesn't need that kind of stimulation. He needs positive input to stir him out of his deep sleep. Oh, much of it is caused by trauma to his brain, bruising and swelling, the doctors suspect, but when he starts to come out, it could have a horrible effect on him if he heard what you just described.

"Now, sir," she said, turning to me, "I know you came here to see after Daniel, but when we've cleared him, would you mind if he were allowed to visit Elliot's room? He'll undoubtedly still be out but we believe that he needs positive reinforcement as soon as possible."

I looked over at Jeffy who tried to perk up when he heard what Nurse Sanchez was asking of him. I also saw him cringe in pain when he straightened up. So did the nurse.

"Okay, I think I have my answer, from Daniel anyway. But we first need to look after our injured one here, don't we, Daniel?"

"I suppose, ma'am."

"So, I'll ask another nurse to start your examination but I think the younger boy needs to wait out in the waiting room."

"How am I going to do that, nurse? I can't be in two places at once and I'm not leaving Daniel or AJ alone."

"Of course. Forgive me. I'll have the other nurse come right in. In the meantime, Daniel, you need to undress down to your underwear and socks and slip on this robe. Perhaps your dad can help to make it less painful. I'll come back in after your examination is over to take you to Elliot's room, if that's okay with you, Sergeant McGill?"

"That's fine. Thank you, nurse. We do want to be supportive of Elliot."

It was AJ that insisted on helping his brother undress; mostly helping with his shoes and slipping out of his jeans when they were around his ankles. Like I've said, these kids have no problem with their bodies exposed to the rest of us, though Jeffy is a bit more reserved than my little streaker, AJ.

The johnny he had on was exactly the same kind Tyler had worn during his stay but this one seemed pretty funny to AJ. His hand was over his giggling mouth as he pointed to the older boy's white briefs showing in the back.

"Okay, quit, pipsqueak! One day you'll have ta wear one of these contraptions too and then we'll see who's laughin'."

Jeffy's speech didn't help much, but AJ quieted down when the nurse came in.

After a thorough exam and even a set of x-rays, Jeffy was told he could dress. The nurse had replaced his bandages and applied something to his lip that stung. He lost the cotton batting in his nose when she'd decided he'd quit bleeding. Then she left us with an ice pack to apply anywhere he was hurting, mostly his lips.

I have to say, it went a lot faster than I thought it would normally be. I think we had Nurse Sanchez to thank for that. She showed up almost as soon as the other nurse left and took us up to intensive care in the children's wing of the hospital.

"Now, let me warn you, Elliot took an awful beating at the hands of those boys. He doesn't look good. Daniel's injuries give you a little idea of what you're about to see, but his are nothing as severe as Elliot's. I might suggest that the young one stay out here, sir. I really do."

"Well, let me see the boy and I'll decide. We just had a young man in here not long ago in pretty bad shape with whip marks and bruising everywhere. AJ handled that surprisingly well. So . . ."

"Oh, yes, you mean the boy that the sheriff's department saved from his kidnappers. It's gone around the hospital several times, especially how fast the young man heeled. It's really amazing considering his injuries. But I have to say, Elliot's injuries look far worse than even that young man's were."

"Yeah, my dad saved him too. He shot the sheriff when he took Tyler and my great grandpa."

"Oh my! I, uh, I didn't know that."

"Sorry, ma'am. What he said is true but it's not something we want spread any farther, if you please. It's not something I'm proud of, having to take the life of someone else."

"But, that means you're both heroes. My, what an amazing family. Well, if anyone can help the boy in there," she said, pointing to the curtain, behind which was Elliot, "You are those people, I believe."

And with that we followed her around the curtain to see the bandaged and bloated face of someone that we were told was Elliot.

"Wo-ow, Dad. He's in bad shape."

"AJ, we're here to say good things to help Elliot recover faster. They say that people that are unconscious can still hear what is being said to them. So let's be positive, guys, okay?"

Jeffy moved to the side of the bed while AJ and I were talking and reached under the blanket, which covered Elliot up to his neck, to extract his hand and hold it.

"Elliot, I'm so sorry I wasn't able to stop them in time to keep you from getting so beat up, but I know you're in there and you're strong enough to pull outa this. And when you do, I'll be here too. We're friends and that won't change. Oh, all three of those jerks got kicked outa school, prob'ly all next year and maybe even jail time, Jaeger said. 'Course, they have to get outa the hospital first, heh, heh! That's for you, Elliot."

There was no indication that Elliot heard him but Jeffy seemed to be sure he felt something in his hand to tell him the message was received.

We stayed about half an hour and left, after all of us told Elliot we'd be back soon.

On our way home, Jeffy was pretty quiet to begin with. AJ wasn't quite as fidgety as he usually was.

"Whadya say, Dad, when ya wanna know what someone's thinkin'?" he asked me.

"Oh, you mean 'a penny for your thoughts'?" I answered.

"Yeah, that's it! Hey, Jeffy . . ." he started.

"Yeah, I heard," Jeffy laughed. It was good to hear him laugh though he yelped a bit and held his chest when he did. "I was just wondering if there was a way ta get some more of his friends up to see him and see if that helps. Ya think they'd let more kids up there, Pop?"

"It wouldn't hurt to ask. I thought that you said you were about his only friend at school."

"Yeah, but I thought maybe some of the other kids would do it if they knew it would help him, like those girls. It was just a thought."

"Dad, what's with his parents? Don't they care about him anymore?" asked AJ.

"I don't know, son. I couldn't give up one of you for love nor money. I'd be here in a minute if I knew you were hurting, especially this severely."

"Yeah, Pop, they're sure weird. It sounded like a lot of their yellin' was about how sinful Elliot was and how nothin' would get him to change. Whadya think they meant by all that, Pop?"

I wasn't one to lie to the boys and, while it was really only supposition based on Jeffy's one time experience, it seemed like it was pretty obvious to me.

"I would guess that, since he's getting bullied at school and his parents are throwing the religion thing at him that they may think he's gay. I'm not saying he is because a lot of kids are tormented in that way even though they aren't gay at all, just thought to be."

"Hmmm, yeah, I see what you mean. That would explain why his parents didn't want him takin' me up to his room, especially when they weren't there. It might also explain the kiss he gave me on my cheek up there, too." By that time Jeffy was blushing.

"Still no reason to hurt someone," said AJ in no uncertain terms. "Those guys deserve what they're gonna get for hurting Elliot and my brother!"

"AJ, I thought you were all for saving the bullies as well as their victims," I asked him.

"Oh, I am, until they go beatin' on my brother. Then they need to get some sense of what it's like to be bullied too. Maybe that'll teach 'em."

"Jeffy, do you know what led to this fight? Were you there when it all started?"

"Nope. Otherwise I'da saved Elliot from a lot more of the pounding he got from those three jackof . . . um, jerks," he said, looking down at AJ.

AJ didn't seem to catch on, thank goodness. He was, for all the crap life had him go through to get to almost thirteen years old, my little naïve one and I was fine with that.

"Let me know if you find out anything tomorrow at school."

"Oh, Pop," said Jeffy, holding his stomach and practically grimacing with every word he uttered, "I don't know if I can make it tomorrow. I'm pretty sore still and Jaeger said I didn't hafta go if I was hurt."

"Oh, you poor baby, that's right," I said leaving no doubt as to the sarcasm I was about to lay onto my oldest son. "Well, I guess we'll just have to sacrifice Elliot to your injuries, especially your idea about getting kids together to visit him, which would include you not seeing him."

"Oh," he said, straightening up in his seat. "I forgot all that. Shit!"

"Awm-m-m, Dad," said AJ, pointing to his brother. "What he sa-a-a-id."

"Yes, you're right, AJ. Let's see. The punishment for swearing is, hmmm, let's see, going back to school to help your friend out."

"Yeah, I figured that's where you were headin'. Okay."

"Jeffy, if you still feel really sore, too sore to go in the morning, we can make some other arrangements to help Elliot, okay?"

"Yeah. It's okay. I wanna hear what happened and stuff anyway, like you said."

That evening, and even the next morning, Jeffy had a hard time getting comfortable and ready for school. AJ practically babied him, asking him if he needed anything, like pillows or a drink that night, and seeing that he had help to get ready for bed and dressed for school. I almost made Jeffy stay home but he insisted that he needed to talk to more people about helping Elliot.

I was very proud of his determination. I was also proud and charmed by how much AJ showed his love for his brother.

While the boys were at school the next day and I was puttering around inside the house someone knocked on the front door.

When I pulled open the front door, there stood Jeb Harding, great grampa to my little one and our good neighbor.

"Well, what a nice surprise, Jeb. Come in and set a spell. Coffee?"

"Ya make good coffee, Tim. Don't mind if I do, thank you," he said leading the way into my kitchen while I was still holding the door open.

I had a pot kept warm and had barely had a cup of it, so I was able to give my friend some pretty fresh java.

"Go-o-o-od coffee, Tim! Say, you're probably wondering what I came all the way over here for, aren't 'cha?"

"Well, I would have asked eventually, but now that you brought it up."

"Ya know, with us bein' relatives, practically, and you doin' so much for the boys and for me, like cartin' us around all over hell and back, I was just thinkin' that you and I should go down to one of them fancy dealers downtown and see about getting' you something bigger and more comfy to use. Whadya think?"

"Jeb, I am so grateful for your kindness, for being so great about your newfound relationship with AJ and, consequently, me, but I don't think it's appropriate to go buying me such a gift as a vehicle. It's too much."

"Well, I kinda figured you'd take that stance. Then here's the deal, it's either AJ's or it's mine until AJ is old enough to drive. In the meantime, since I don't have a license anymore, I need a driver for me and the little varmint all of the time. So, we might as well keep it in your driveway, since I'm designating you as the Harding Family driver. Now whadya got ta say? I'm runnin' outa arguments too, so keep it pretty weak."

I couldn't help but laugh at his ingenuity and reasoning. I just wasn't sure if I wanted him to provide for us in such a huge way, and so soon.

"You haven't got anything ta come back with, have ya?"

"Now give me a minute. I haven't had a week to plan out my defense like you had to work over your ideas."

"Ha ha! That's a good one, Tim. God I love ya and the boys, just like all of ya were my very own. Tim, I truly think Dan was right when he said you all make me feel and look younger. I haven't felt this good since I was eighty! Ha ha!"

"You know what I think? I think you are having the time of your life now that you have a family again. I know I am. Okay, I give in. I don't want to be the one to step on your fun. Just what did you have in mind?"

"Well now, I seen this here huge monstrosity down at the Ford dealer a few weeks back. Oh, it's not huge, huge, but it's big enough for all of us and a coupla friends, plus it still has a pickup bed in the back for you to haul your goods when you get creative in the yard and such. It's got these two side doors on the one side to let people into the backseat and it's a full bench seat. Not some excuse for wedging people inside at their expense. You should see it, Tim."

He was pretty excited and squirming around enough that I was certain he was related to AJ.

"Sounds like you were looking at their king cab, Jeb. Yes, I'll have to admit that I'd love something like that, but I'd never be able to get a new one. Besides, it'll lose lots of value as soon as we drive it off the lot."

"Well, I don't see any problem in that, Tim. Especially if you never drive it back onto their lot," he said, then roared at his own joke.

"Say, I have an idea, Tim. If we were to go a lookin' at it now, we could meet up with the judge afterwards for lunch at the Chinese buffet he loves so much. Whadya think on that?"

"I think it sounds as reasonable as anything else you've come up with this morning. Do you want to call him and see if he'll be available?"

"Naw, already did when we talked about lassoin' you up and takin' you to see the truck. Ha! He's as excited about it all as I am."

"You mean you already . . ." I said in mock disgust, complete with me standing so he could see my hands on my hips.

"Yup! That's what I did, alright! And since you're up, let's go!"

Jeb really was enjoying this adventure! He practically jumped out of the truck when we pulled into the lot of the car dealership he pointed out to me. I didn't hear what the man said that quickly came out to meet us, but I did see Jeb shake his head a little then look over at me.

"Gentleman wants to know if you have anything in mind, Tim."

"Um, yes, sir. What's your pleasure?" asked the plumb man in slacks and tie. "Something in a nice sports SUV, I'll bet?"

He extended his hand as he waited for me to come around the side of the truck. By the time I got there, he'd looked over at Jeb a few times and Jeb seemed to prod him on with his head, in my direction.

"Actually, my friend had something in mind that he'd seen. I don't see one here. It's a . . ."

"Oh, well, we have another lot, you know. I'll tell you what, I'll have one of the lot boys bring the truck around and see if you like it," said the man, walking back into the building.

Jeb just hung his head and shook it slowly.

"Oh, I get it. This is a little more than happening onto a truck that you happened to see that's parked behind this huge building out of sight of the human race, isn't it you old conniver?" I said laughing at his red face.

"Now see here, whippersnapper. Do you know how hard it has been to get you to come over ta here to see this truck? I've been working at it for weeks and you all have to be somewhere else, doing God knows what, when I've been lookin' up your drive to see if anyone's ta home.

"Good God, man, you are hard to grab hold of. So you just stay right there where I can see you and see if you like what I thought would work out for the pack of us."

"It's on its way, boss, I mean, sir, um, Mr. Harding, sir," said the glib salesman as he returned to us.

"Excuse me, um, Mister . . ." I started as I quickly walked up to him.

"Oh, just Jake. Yup, everyone calls me Jake."

"Okay, Jake, you said 'boss' before you said Mr. Harding's name, which you seemed to know. And that would be because he . . .?" I asked in a very leading way.

"Well, when you own the place, then . . ."

"OH MY LORDY! I can't have one secret from nobody, it seems. Jake, go back in there to your desk and get those papers so's Tim here can sign 'em. And remind me never to let you in on any classified secrets."

"Classified, sir?"


The pickup that came around was huge. It looked like it had the largest tires and the biggest bed that stretched the whole length of the lot. The kid that drove it had to hang by his wrist so he could drop to the ground without hurting himself. The cab looked like it could hold the high school's band. All I could think of was it would fill the whole parking lot of anywhere I took it, let alone one or two spaces.

"Oh good grief! JAKE! Jake! Git your fat . . ." Jeb started to say, then looked sheepishly at the young kid that drove up the monstrosity.

"Son, come over here, please."

He strutted right up, proud to be of service to any customer.

"Yes, sir. How can I help you, sir?" he said with a gleaming smile, standing at attention in front of us. His clothes were wet from the waist down and, by the way he walked, it looked like his knee high boots were still filled with water probably from washing cars in the back.

"My boy, do you know who I am?" asked Jeb, cringing just a bit, anticipating the boy's response.

"Yes, sir. You're the most important customer on the lot as far as I'm concerned. That's because, you and your friend are the ones in front of me. I'm here to serve your every need, sir."

Jeb looked over at me with awe in his eyes. It looked like it was all he could do to keep from one of his belly laughs. I'm sure he was proud of the youngster's enthusiasm.

Just then Jake came out with a fist full of paper for us to go over.

"Oh, Josh, is it? You can go back to washing cars now. I'll be helping these gentlemen. So . . ." he said, thinking he'd dismissed the boy and turned to Jeb.

"Give me those papers, Jake!"

"Of course, sir," said Jake proudly, presenting them to Jeb.

Jeb took them, shuffled through them quickly, then tore up the whole lot in one mighty rip!

"Oops! Go back and do it again, Jake. Sorry to be so clumsy." Jeb handed the wad back to a very flustered, bewildered salesman, then turned back to the boy, Josh.

"Now, as I was saying, Josh, I'll bet there is a similar truck back there that is about half the size and pretty much just a normal pickup with a king cab on a normal bed with those fancy rain and snow tires on it that are so popular. Am I right?"

"Why, how did you . . .? Um, yes, sir. In fact, I just detailed it special this morning per Mr. Vincent's specific instructions to me, personally. Oh, he's the owner and general manager of this business, if you didn't know." Again the boy was proud to be informing Jeb that he had been in discussion with his boss's boss, the owner.

"Well, isn't that a coincidence, Josh. I want you to know how wonderful it is to see such a fine boy as you working at my, um, at this car dealership. You seem to have all the right stuff to make a fine salesman someday."

"Oh, thank you sir, but I'm just saving as much as I can to go to art school. I have the promise of a scholarship that should pay for almost all of my tuition and I just need money for housing and supplies and maybe some spending money. It's all very exciting, sir. But enough about me. May I bring that truck around for you to inspect, sir?"

"It would truly be remarkable of you to do that for us, Josh, my boy. See, you may not know it but Dean, I mean, Mr. Vincent had that vehicle prepped just for Sergeant McGill here. As you well know, this beast here is too much for anyone to be driving around every day."

"I'll say, sir. If you don't mind me saying so, I think Mr. Everett, um, Jake was trying to impress you with something bigger, so he could sell you something in between. You know, a little above his regular commission," said Josh practically whispering.

"Ah. I never woulda guessed such a thing, my boy. Now, off you go and hurry but drive safe. I want to be able to see some of your artwork when you graduate."

"Oh, sir, that's what they call a pipe dream. It's just my mom and me and I'm sure there's no way we'll be able to pull it off. But, you know what?" he said as he walked around to jump up for the door handle, "I found one of those matchbook covers with the sketch of Abraham Lincoln in it. I can still send that in and see what they say. It's all very exciting."

As the truck drove off, Jeb slapped his thigh and said, "This is goin' ta cost me a lot more than some truck, Tim. You know that don'tcha?"

"I kinda thought you may be adding to your generosity by the twinkle in your eyes when he started talking about his future, you old softy."

"What! What in tarnation are you talkin' about, Tim," said Jeb, trying to wipe the twinkle from his eyes.

"Right," I said, ignoring him to look in the direction of the gleaming red truck sailing around the corner of the building. Trailing right behind it was a brand new Ford Thunderbird, coming up to park next to Jeb and me.

"Is this what you had in mind, sir?" asked Josh as he easily stepped from the king cab and walked up to us. When he saw Dean Vincent climb out of the T-bird, he practically jumped to attention.

"Ha ha! At ease, Josh. What have I told you about acting like a recruit around here? You are one of our most important team members and don't you forget it."

Having said that, he grabbed Josh and ruffled his head, to which Josh just laughed and tried to straighten out his straw colored bangs.

"Well, you finally got down here to see your place, huh, my friend?" asked Dean Vincent of Jeb.

"I don't need to come by when I know someone as good as you is in control, Dean. By the way, this is Sergeant Timothy McGill, my neighbor and the foster dad of my great grandson, AJ. I told you all about him last week."

"Of course. Pleased to finally meet you, Sergeant. You come with great admiration from my partner here."

"Thank you," I answered, taking his hand to shake as I blushed.

We all looked over at Josh who was kind of backing slowly away from us with his eyes open almost as big as his mouth gaped.

"Now, don't go taking off, Josh. I want you to meet your other boss, Mr. Harding, and his friend and our hero, Sergeant Tim McGill."

"He's my . . . You're my . . ." That was all Josh could say before he started to lose strength in his knees.

Dean and I both grabbed for him and helped him until he regained his strength again.

"Josh," I said, "We're nothing special. Just people like you. Their job is a bit more important right now and I'm just an old retired soldier. So relax and talk with us."

"All of that's bunk, boy. Tim here saved my life less than a month ago. Now, that was after returning from that Iraq place over there and then saving my great grandson from a life on the streets. Hell, you might not be goin' ta art school if it hadn't been for him," said Jeb like it was yesterday's news.

"Art school? What does he . . .? Sir," said Josh to Dean Vincent while scratching his head, "I'm afraid that now I'm even more confused than ever."

"And good reason to be, my boy. See, if anyone can confuse you it's this man right here, Jeb Harding. Just so happens he is half owner of this establishment with me and he is the proud contributor to your every need at art school for as long as it takes."

"But how did he . . .? We just met today. How could he . . .?"

"Now, young man, I do hope they teach you over at that art school just how to complete a sentence or two besides putting pretty colors on some canvas or something."

"Oh, yes, sir! I, uh, I promise that I'll . . . Uh, uh. Oh man, I did it again."

After some discussion and an inspection of the vehicle, led by none other than young Josh, we all walked into the offices to sign papers. Jake was just coming around a corner with more paper when we went into Dean's office and closed the door on him.

"Josh, you'll be getting a little bonus in your next check, since you sold this truck to Mr. Harding here."

"I will? I did?"

"Well, of course. And you did a fine job too. Now go make us proud and shine up some more of the new cars that came in this morning and we'll talk about specifics for you and your mom tomorrow," said Dean, pointing toward the finance window of the company.

Josh waved slowly in awe at the lady sitting at the desk on the phone, who smiled and waved back to her son.

"But that's my . . .? How did you know she had no job, Mr. Vincent?"

"I just made a phone call. I couldn't have you go away and leave your mother stranded. By the way, you didn't tell me she's been without a job for three months and you've been giving everything you make here to her to help pay the bills."

"No, sir. She asked that I didn't. But she's all I have and I love her dearly. She's raised me by herself when my father never came back from Desert Storm."

"Say, Josh, what are you driving these days?" asked the boy's boss.

"Well," said Josh, sitting up proudly. "Two weeks ago my mother let me have enough of my check to buy a brand new ten speed," he said, pointing to a bike chained to a post just outside the employee's entrance to the building.

"Yes, that's kind of what I thought. Listen, I know it isn't much but we just took on an old pickup from our friend, Sergeant McGill. Do you think you could wash it up and then come back in here to sign a bill of sale that says you own it?"

"I, but how . . .? Wait," said the boy, who took a big breath before he continued. "I don't think I should do that, sir. You'll get something for it, won't you?"

"Oh, it doesn't matter. Actually, I'd just sell it at auction. I think we all agree that it's seen better days. But it's still got a few years left in it."

"It's been a good ride for me," I said. Then, looking right at Josh I said, "I'd be honored if you'd take it to make your college experience better. Having one less worry will make your studies go smoother, don't you think?"

"I, uh, I don't know what to say."

"Well, tell him thank you and go get it all spruced up like your boss said to, then take it over to service and tell them to do a damn good job o' checkin' everything out before it's taken off the lot by the owner's good friend. Oh, and tell them it needs a set of those same rain tires they put on the king cab out there," said Jeb shaking his head with a smile on his face.

"Thank you, Sergeant. Thank you, Mr. Vincent and Mr. Harding too, for everything."

Lunch was a real treat. Just listening to those old friends bark back and forth, then start laughing at nothing, like little kids. Every once in a while I'd look up to see the owner, Franklin Wang, walk by shaking his head in disbelief. His look to me was one of sympathy.

"So, young Sergeant McGill, what are your plans going forward?" asked Judge Davenport.

"Going forward, sir?"

"Sure. You have two wonderful boys now, a new truck, a great friend at this table, oh, and this old geezer sitting across from me. He he!"

"Homer, you are hopeless. But I love ya like a brother. There's no upsettin' me these days. Nope, not when I've got me a great grandson in my life, my own driver and a very good friend in Tim, here. Life is good, you know."

"Well, of course it is, Jebediah. Why, I'd say you now have what most people only dream about. Frankly, my friend, it's about time something good happened in your life. It's been touch and go for far too long, if you ask me."

"I agree, judge. Jeb's been such a great help to me and my boys. We probably couldn't have done what we've done without his support and friendship."

"Oh, now stop it, the both of you. You'll have me all sputtering and emotional in a minute. I haven't done anything but set one foot in front of t'other. If I happen to help someone along the way, it was just inevitable."

"Oh, Jeb, stop trying to be so modest. You are a saint to this town and you know it."

"Well, now wait a minute there. You've done your share of straightening things and people out on Tim's behalf and his family. If it hadn't been for you, we'd leave here and go visit young Daniel in a man's prison, if he lived this long. And, I suspect you've got something up your sleeve as far as hitchin' together Tim and his AJ. Am I right?"

"Jeb, will you keep your voice down? I don't know what you mean about them getting together. Why I'm just doing my job as the servant of justice for this county. Oh, by the way, Tim, you should probably be ready for a call from Mrs. Cottington to finalize your papers. She has some work to do with Jeb about custody matters, but it's just a formality, really."

"Okay, sir," I said. "I really have no idea what all that means, though. Are we getting close to a date for the adoption?"

"You bet you are, Tim. Isn't that right, Homer? Anytime now."

"Now, quit talking out of turn, Jebediah. These things take time. If it happens in less time than a year, it's a miracle. So don't put words in my mouth or make promises that I can't keep. Tim, the wheels of justice keep turning, but sometimes you really have to concentrate to see them moving at all. Please be patient."

"Sir, just the knowledge that AJ will be mine at all is enough to keep me patient. We're both excited about that reality but we've been patient before, we can be patient now."

"Good attitude, my boy. And we're excited to see you two together as a family too. Say, are you planning to adopt young Daniel as well?"

"Oh, I'd certainly like that. It's just that I'm not sure how he feels. There's talk about emancipation so he can deal with his finances. I just don't know what's in our future."

"Well, you let me know what you decide, especially let Mrs. Cottington know."

Our lunch ended with a hearty burp from Jeb, which was cause for some teasing by the judge. The judge then had to make haste to get back to his courtroom. I asked Jeb if he'd like to go with me to pick up the kids in the new truck when it was time. He tried to be modest about getting in our way, but I wouldn't have any of that and told him what time to be ready as I dropped him off at his house for a couple of hours.

At the appointed time I wiped off the new truck, with a cloth, not my pride, though it showed well enough, I'm sure. I drove over and got Jeb and we drove, in style and plenty of room, to the grade school for our AJ.

"I sure am a lucky fella', Tim. Ya know that don't cha?"

"Yes, I'd say that you are very lucky. But you know what I think, Jeb? I think you deserve a break in your life like the judge said. I think you've been through your own hell all these years and barely even kept alive. If it hadn't been for how cantankerous you were before we met, I don't think your blood would have kept flowing."

"Ha! You don't hold back, do ya, son? I like that. Well, you're right. I was one pretty sorry fellow and a nasty old man to a lot of people. I suppose one day, well, it might take more, I'll have you drive me around so's I can say 'I'm sorry' to the dozens of people I'm sure I've offended over the years."

"Now, Jeb, I'm sure it can't be dozens" I said, trying to soften his self-evaluation.

"No, you're probably right. But it's only because I haven't been out of this county for years. Ha ha!"

As we drove up to the school the kids were just coming out of the main doors. AJ wasn't usually in front so I normally waited for a few minutes. The line of vehicles along the curb stretched quite a ways and we were several back from where I'd normally be.

When he did come out, he came bursting down the first steps to the top of the second steps that led to the sidewalk. He stopped cold in his tracks and scanned everywhere, after looking at the long line at the curb.

"He is a pipsqueak, Jeb. He doesn't even see us," I said. It wasn't like him to even slow down, usually.

"Tim, look at the hood of your truck," said Jeb with some laughter in his voice.

I looked out and saw bright, shiny, new red.

"Oh, right. I suppose I should get out, huh?"

"Unless you figure on followin' him home in this new truck."

I saw Stewart and his brother and sister come out and stand by AJ. It looked like AJ was explaining that I hadn't showed up yet, waving his arm out at the whole line of cars that were quickly dissipating as soon as their child arrived and they left.

By the time I was standing by the truck they'd turned back toward each other and were talking again. I heard a honk and they both looked behind me to see Kaye Curtain pass by and pull into the curb as many of the cars had taken off with their kids. As she did and the boys followed her with their eyes I saw AJ do a double-take and swing his head back to me. Then his jaw dropped and he even fumbled his backpack in his hand.

He shouted to Stewart who was leaning in the passenger window of their car, I'm guessing to ask if they could take AJ home. Stewart looked back at AJ who pointed to me with one of his best grins. Then AJ jumped down to the sidewalk and skipped over to the truck.

"W-o-o-o-w and double wow, Dad! That's so cool! Where'd you get it? Is something wrong with your truck? Hey, Great Grampa's in there!" he shouted, running to the passenger window.

It took Jeb a few seconds to find the button to lower the window, mumbling all the time.

"Confounded, fancy contraptions! Where's the crank when you need it? Ha ha! My boy, how the heck are you?"

"Great Grampa, you're in a brand new truck. Did you guys steal it or what?" asked an excited AJ.

"No, we didn't, po-dunk. This here snazzy truck is your Dad's. Do you like it?"

Stewart and his mom had come up by then to check out the new wheels.

Stewart asked, "Is it yours, AJ? I mean is it your family's?"

"Yeah! Cool, huh?"

"Well, we need to get over to the high school and pick up your brother, AJ. Good to see you, Kaye."

"And you, Tim. We'll see you Saturday, right?"

"You bet. Can't wait."

"Dad, Dad, can we give Stewart a ride in it, huh?" asked the pipsqueak, pulling on my arm.

"AJ, calm down. Yes, but not today. We can give rides this Saturday at the house. Okay?"

"You bet! Thanks, Dad." Then he turned to Stewart and said, "You can have a ride when . . ."

"AJ, you're so funny sometimes. I'm right here. I heard him too," said Stewart, giggling. He reached around AJ and gave him a hug which I could see AJ return with a big smile. Then the Curtains walked off and I turned to open the back door for AJ.

"Wo-ow! That's so neat! We have our own door and there's so much room back here," he said, jumping in and sliding back and forth a few times on the bench seat to try it out.

AJ was talking non-stop all the way to the school. It wasn't too far, luckily. I looked over at Jeb to see a worried look on his face, though he's enjoyed AJ's constant banter on more than one occasion. When we pulled up in front of the high school the situation was much like at AJ's school.

"Hey! I got an idea. Let's just sit here and see if he can figure out it's us like I did, 'kay?" shouted an excited boy, pretty much right into our ears.

After a few minutes Jeffy made his way to the point where he usually stands until he sees the old truck. He looked to his left then to his right and didn't seem to be at all concerned that he didn't see us. Jeffy was becoming pretty laid back. It did my heart good to know that he was relaxing after the hell he went through just weeks before.

"Ha ha! Dad, he doesn't see us."

"You mean we're invisible, sport?" asked his great grampa.

"No, silly. You know what I mean. Maybe I should . . ."

"Just wait a minute, Mr. Anxious. He's barely started looking," I countered.

"Oh, okay," he said, disgruntled a bit. He slid back and I'm sure just as soon as his back hit the seat he jumped forward again. "Now? Should I . . .?"

"No! My word you are being so funny, AJ. We're going to have to stop by the virtue store and buy you a load of patience, young man," I said.

"Oh, um, in our city?"

Jeb and I both looked at each other with wide eyes, fighting back the blast of laughter that was caught in our throats.

"I'm kidding, AJ. There's no such store."

"Then should I wave? He's looking the other way again."

"Yes, please wave."

AJ quickly jumped out of the truck and started to run the forty feet toward Jeffy, waving the entire way. He left his door open so we could hear him shouting to his brother fairly well.

"Jeffy! Jeffy! It's us! You didn't see us, huh? Know why?" By that time he was in front of his brother, dancing and jumping like the excited boy we loved so much.

"No, little bro. Unless it's because you came in a sporty new red king cab that I didn't recognize." He was looking over his brother's head right at us. Jeb rolled down the window and waved at him.

"Hey! How'd you know all that? I didn't know," exclaimed AJ with his hands on his hips.

"'Cause, silly," answered Jeffy leaning down to look into AJ's disappointed face, "You left the door open when you got out."

"O-o-oh. Oops!" laughed the boy, turning toward us and waving.

Of course we had to take the long way home, even went on a stretch of road that was pretty straight and decent enough to pick up speed enough to cause AJ to whoop.

"So, Pop, is this what I get to learn on? Ya know the judge was pretty upset at my stepdad that I hadn't gotten my permit yet. I sure wouldn't want him to lock you up or anything like that." Jeffy was bound for the theater, just like his brother. Where did they learn this stuff? We didn't even own a television.

"Oh, brother," wailed Jeb and I simultaneously. We looked at each other and laughed.


"Well, since Jeb gave away the other truck, and I don't think I'm buying a second one anytime soon, I guess the answer is yes."

"Yipee!" he cried out, sounding more excited than I'd heard him to date.

"But, it would sure help out on insurance if you took a Driver's Ed. course before you got your license."

After I said that, I looked at Jeb who looked at me with incredulous eyes, like I'd lost my noggin or something. He looked down at his hand that was making like he was feeling money between his fingers. That was to remind me that Jeffy was in no need of saving a few bucks on car insurance or anything else, for that matter.

"Well, it would still help you learn the laws and some practical experience, son."

"Yeah, I figured it'd be a good idea. I wanna do things right. I don't wanna do things half-cocked like the gang used to do. I mean, look at the trouble we tried to get into."

I noticed in the rearview mirror him swing his head around to look at his brother.

"Sorry, bro. I'm never hurting anyone like that again, well, unless they deserve it like those two creeps did. That reminds me, Dad, can we swing by the hospital and visit Elliot? I haven't heard anything about him."

"If that's okay with Jeb, I have no problem with it."

"Sure, sure. My calendar is pretty open tonight. Now tomorrow the President is over for dinner, but other than that, this week is clear," Jeb joked, though sounding as serious as he could.

AJ was right on top of that remark. "Really? Here, with you?" asked our little naïve one, scooting up as far as his seatbelt would allow.

"Oh man, I don't believe it. AJ, he's pulling your leg," explained his brother. "And, before you ask, he's not really pulling your leg. It's just a saying."

"I know that. I'm not stupid, ya know," said AJ, scooting right back and folding his arms in front of him.

"AJ, that was called an exaggeration, an exaggeration so big that it couldn't possibly be true, to most people. Sorry if I led you astray."

"It's okay, Great Grampa," said AJ in a pout. "It's just that you're always driving around in that big black car and I never know what you'll be doin' next. Is that your car?"

"No, no. That's the judge's car and driver. Actually, it's his wife's. She's got all the money, though he does okay as a county judge here. He likes to make sure I get to where he wants me when he wants me there. Ha ha! And it works, though I don't like gettin' all spruced up anymore. Nope, too much work."

The boys laughed at the man's seriousness. They both loved his wit, his charm, his down-home realism. And they both loved him as their own.

Once again I drove Jeb to his house just long enough to get a jacket and comb his hair. Then we went home and, while the boys worked on their homework for a couple of hours, Jeb and I just gabbed. When it came time for dinner, we all eased into the comfort of the spacious new truck and made our way to a dinner place Jeb told me about that served good old country food. The boys lavished in their meal as the two of us oldsters sat in awe, hoping the boys would leave the plates and tablecloth intact when they were full.

After a nice meal and good conversation we drove to the hospital to see Elliot. We went to the children's wing and asked if he was taking visitors. They said he had come out of the coma, but so recently that they asked us to wait until the next day.

I asked if we could talk to Nurse Sanchez. We were told that she was in his room right then but the nurse at the desk said she'd have Nurse Sanchez call me when she came out. The nurse indicated that it could be a while, which bothered both Jeffy and me.

AJ asked if we could get him a gift or a book or something before we left, just to let him know we were thinking of him. I said we'd bring something with us when we came back later. That seemed okay with both boys so we took Jeb home and Jeffy started in on what little homework he had left. AJ had none since the next day was the last day of school for the summer.

Jeffy's homework was studying for a final in the morning.

"Why are they making you do stuff on the last day of school, Jeffy?" asked AJ. Even though he had no work to do we were in front of the book shelf picking out a book for the pipsqueak.

"Our regular teacher in History has been sick and she had the test at home so we have ta do it tomorrow. Oh boy." He didn't sound very enthused.

"Son, are you ready for it?" I asked him.

"I don't know. History isn't my favorite subject but I do okay. I wish I had a memory like Tyler's developed over the years. He'd probably ace it."

"Yeah, he'd tell the teacher the page and paragraph the answer was on, huh?" added AJ.

"Well, I could ask you questions and you could see how you felt about it," I offered Jeffy.

"Ya know, that's a great idea. Thanks, Pop. I'd really like to be able to study with Elliot, but . . ."

"Yes, well, maybe next year things will be better for him," I said.

"I hope. He's a good guy, just gets picked on a lot and has zero support at home," Jeffy added.

While I was quizzing Jeffy the phone rang and AJ jumped up and ran to get it.

"It's the nurse, Dad."

I took the phone from him and said, "Nurse Sanchez, it's a pleasure to talk with you again. How's our patient? We heard he came out of the coma."

"Yes, that's true. Frankly, I'm worried about the boy. He now knows that his family hasn't made any attempt to visit him but he also knows that your family was there for him, and he was told you'd be back tomorrow. That was so helpful of you and your boys, Sergeant McGill. It meant a lot to Elliot, I'm sure."

"But you don't sound very enthusiastic, Nurse. I hope everything is okay."

"Well, he's really depressed. He came away with a broken collar bone and several of his ribs are bruised. He also sustained trauma to his groin and his head, of course. He's going to be here for a while. The thing is I can't send him home if his family is going to ignore him. That wouldn't be safe."

"I agree. If it comes to that, we'd be glad to take him here. I already have the two foster boys that you've met. Looking after Elliot would be a delight for both of them and me."

"That's very kind of you, Sergeant. I will be calling Children Services in the morning. But now, it's been a full day and I need to go home to my family. Oh, please feel free to visit anytime tomorrow."

"We'll be sure to do that. Thank you for all you've done for Elliot, Nurse Sanchez. I know he appreciates it, whether he says it or not."

"Yes, well, he hasn't said but about three words since he's come out of the coma. I'm worried about him. We have someone monitoring him pretty closely."

"I'm sure he'll brighten up when he sees Jeffy and has to endure AJ's antics. Ha! It'll be good for him."

"Hey!" I heard behind me.

"I heard that. That's cute. Well, Sergeant, thank you again. Good night."

End of Chapter Thirty-three

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