The Little Pipsqueak

© 2012-2013 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-seven

"So, my birthday is this weekend, right?" asked AJ after dinner one night. The four of us were all in the living room, just doing what we wanted; nothing special. It was all very relaxing, really.

"Yup. I believe you're going to be a big thirteen. Getting pretty old, huh?"

"Da-a-a-d, I'm not old. You're almost three times older 'en me, ya know. And great grampa, he's gotta be a zillion times older 'en me."

"A zillion? Anyway, little ... oops, big guy, you sounded like you were going to ask something."

"Oh, yeah," he said, crawling on his knees over to where I was sitting in my recliner, then laying his head on my legs. I knew this was going to be a biggie. "Well, um, I was wondering that, if you hadn't picked out something to give me, that is, if you were gonna give me something ..."

I almost said something about how ridiculous that notion was - not buying him a gift - when I realized that this would possibly be the first birthday he'd ever celebrated and even more possible the very first time he'd ever received gifts from someone that loved him. Well, then there was that too. This was the first time he was with someone, a family that loved him. So, instead of putting my foot in my mouth like I did upon occasion around the house, I tried very hard to clear the tear from my eye without him noticing before I answered AJ.

"Okay, if I were?"

"Oh," he said, acting a little taken back. He sat back on his haunches looking up at me.

"Come up here, po-dunk, please," I asked, patting my lap.

"Ya know, I'm getting' kinda big for this, huh?" he said as he gently settled into my favorite seat for him. I'll admit that I was glad that he was on the small side of average then.

"I hope you never feel that way, AJ. It is something I will miss when that happens, though. But we can still love each other, maybe by snuggling on the couch or something."

"Yeah," he agreed, turning to give me a huge grin. Then he settled back and stared, thoughtfully, at the ceiling, his head close enough to mine that I could feel his hair brush the side of my face.

"Well, I was wondering if I could maybe, kinda, sorta, have a ..." he ended up mumbling something that I couldn't understand.

"A what? I couldn't hear you, AJ."

"Puppy, Pop. He's been asking everyone, I think. If everyone got him one we'd have like forty-three of the little fur balls running around on Sunday." Jeffy barely looked up from his new cell phone, the one I'd gotten him for emergencies.

"A puppy? Hmmmm, that's a mighty big responsibility, son."

"Oh, oh, I know, but I can do it. I'd feed him and walk him and brush him and play with him." Mr. Fidget was back and in my lap!

"Easy, boy. Ha! Would you also clean up his messes and make sure there weren't any land mines in the yard, daily?"

"Land mines? What do ... Oh, well, yeah, you mean poop, don't ya?"

"Yes, I mean the kind that inevitably find their way under our shoes and track into the house and the carpet. AJ, there's a lot to do to look after a dog. And what about when we go on vacations, especially if we travel far away?"

"Well, um, are we gonna do that?"

"We may. It's difficult to take a dog with us."

"Um, maybe someone like Stewart could watch him and stuff while we're gone, or Brad even."

"Maybe. Either way, we need to spend more time thinking about all the things a new addition would add to our household. Remember, we're still getting used to our newest animal."

All three of us looked over at Elliot who seemed to be engrossed in his latest book. But as soon as I said that he dropped the book and sat up straight.

"Hey!" he called out. "I'm not a puppy and no one has to clean up my poop!"

We all laughed at that. I was so pleased that Elliot seemed to be back with us by his humor and his quick reactions. It was fun to be able to add him to the growing list of my kids that I could tease.

"Elliot, you never let a good jibe get by, do you?"

"Nope! Especially from you, Pop. You're going to have to bone up on your teases to get past me," he said proudly.

"I guess so."

"Pop, you really thinkin' about getting a dog?" asked Jeffy.

"Oh, I don't know. I've never had one and I doubt that any of you ever had one. I think I need to ask around and determine what kind of impact it would have. Besides, think of how mean it would be when, in a few months, he got smarter than all you guys and had to clean up after you."

I could barely contain my laughter, certainly not after Jeffy called out an attack on me and they started tickling me relentlessly. I had AJ on the floor in seconds, tickling him back. He was a pushover. But I really had to work at the concerted effort of Elliot and Jeffy. I only had two hands and they had two more than I could stop, until I got both of Jeffy's in one hand and finally pushed Elliot away.

"Wow! You guys are almost unstoppable. I was almost a goner if it hadn't been for my sheer strength and intelligence," I boasted.

"Oh brother."

"Whose ready for some dessert, say, some ice cream?"

I didn't even try to beat them into the kitchen.

Linda Sue had asked Dan to accompany her officially to the home of Elliot's parents to try to retrieve some of Elliot's belongings. It had only been a few days since Elliot came to live with us but it was clear that his parents had been fighting tooth and nail before they were going to give up their rights to their only child, Elliot. Oh, they'd agreed to part with his clothes and a couple boxes of incidentals, like study materials and books, but only because he needed those things temporarily 'until they could deal with him again,' Elliot's father told Linda Sue over the phone.

We kept all of this from Elliot's ears and him well away from his parents, of course. The county officially took over the custody and protection of Elliot while he was staying with me, such as they'd done with my other two boys, at least until the time came that I could adopt them. The county had also made it clear to his parents that if they continued to fight with the county authorities, there would be charges issued and carried out, which would undoubtedly include jail time for them and their pastor for the abuse they laid on the boy over the years. Linda Sue wanted to go on with it anyway, as did I, but we also had to take into consideration what it would put Elliot through again.

We found out through Cybil, of all people, that Elliot's parents were told by their pastor to drop any attempts to reunite with their son and to stop fighting the county for custody. Of course, the pastor had little love for the boy, though his wording wasn't quite like that. The parents, ignoring the county's edict, were ready to pursue and had called a large law firm in the nearest large city to hire representation. It happened to be the firm in which Cybil's sister, Lenore, worked as a junior partner.

"Guess what? I have been asked to sit on another case involving the youth of your county."

"You're kidding. What's it about?" asked Cybil of her sister.

"Well, it seems the county took our client's only son because of their religious beliefs. They even have their pastor on their side, of course."

"Um, wait, sis," said Cybil, somewhat confused. "Do you mean that they are going to fight with the people of the county that saved Jeffy, AJ and Tyler, Linda Sue Cottington's son? It would undoubtedly be an almost direct fight against Linda Sue herself, wouldn't it?"

"Oh, well, honestly, I never thought about it like that. Hm-m-m, I think I need to get back to you. Say, how would you like to pick up a few bucks contracting for my firm, baby sister?" she teased.

"I am no longer a baby, I'll have you know. But, yes, of course I would. What would you like ... oh, of course. Work this end of the case, right?"

"You got it!" said her sister.

After one phone call to Linda Sue, the matter became much clearer, especially when she learned that the boys and I wanted to help Elliot by letting him live with us. Before she called her sister back though, she called our house.

"Ms. Hawthorne! Wow, this is so great! I can? Neat! Um, Cybill, how have you been?" asked an excited boy, probably the happiest Cybill had ever heard Jeffy.

"Oh, I've been terrific, Ms... . I mean, Cybill. I love this place and Pop and even the pipsqueak! Ha! And guess what? We're getting' another guy. His name is ... Hey! How did you know his name was Elliot?"

"No kiddin'. Sure he's here. Hold on."

Luckily for Cybill, Jeffy covered the mouthpiece before, "Pop! It's for you-u!"

"Hello?" I said when I got to the phone, taking it from a grinning fifteen year old.

"Sergeant McGill, it's so good to speak with you again. This is ..."

"Cybill, how could I ever forget you? Of course I know it's you. You're our hero, you know, still. To what do I owe this great reunion?"

"Oh, thank you, sir. Um, it seems that my sister, Lenore, belongs to a law firm upstate, as you know, that was asked to take on a case concerning your newest acquisition, Elliot."

"Really? Who would ... Oh my God, Cybill, what are his parents up to now?"

"Hee hee, you guessed it. It seems they want their son back and are willing to fight the county system to do just that. What Lenore and company didn't know were the true circumstances of the case. They were led to believe that Elliot was taken from them because of their religious beliefs. But I had a nice long talk with Ms. Cottington and she explained just what went on in the hospital room that day. Oh, it was their religious beliefs alright; I think they just want someone around to work on, if you know what I mean."

"Yes, well, I wasn't there yet. We all arrived later in the day, but I'll tell you, Elliot was almost despondent by what his parents and that quack pastor were trying to do to him, right in the hospital, no less!" I had to cool off. I was getting all worked up again.

"That's what Ms. Cottington disclosed as well. I think I have enough to call my sister back and suggest she might not want to take this one on. Oh, she already understands that with you and Ms. Cottington involved, there's no way their firm would take the case, even if she didn't have to recuse herself."

"Thank you for that vote of confidence, Cybill. Say, on a lighter note, AJ's birthday is in two weeks and I was wondering if you'd like to come over. You can invite a guest too, or anyone for that matter. The more the merrier. I want it to be a spectacular day for a deserving young man who will be thirteen. Lenore is certainly invited as well."

"Oo-oo, the teens! Look out, sir. That's when they turn on you. I know I rebelled quite a bit for several years. Well, my mother seems to think I'm still rebellious." There was laughter in her voice as she spoke of her family. That was good to hear.

"So, we'll send you the invite and you do with it what you will, but just remember, we think of you and your sister as part of our family. And, I think we discussed this before, please call me Tim."

"Oh great. Thank you for that, um, Tim. That's very kind of you. I'll let sis know when I call her in a few minutes. Until the party then, it was good speaking with you. Say 'hi' to the boys please. It was so good to hear how excited Daniel was on the phone. You should know that he loves you and AJ and his new life."

"Well, it couldn't be as much as we love him, Cybill. It was good talking with you too."

The day of AJ's first birthday celebration was fast approaching. I had several meetings with Dan and Jeb about just what all we wanted to do. I wanted it to be the biggest thing since, well, since Tyler's celebration two weeks before.

"But I want it to be different too, though not too different," I tried to convey.

"Well, that clears it up fer me," laughed Jeb.

"I know what you mean. I was so gung ho about Tyler's that I almost forgot to consider what Tyler might want," said Dan, taking a sip of coffee while we sat at Jeb's kitchen table.

"I think we all agree you did a fantastic job, Dan. I don't think he could have been more pleased," I said.

"Well, thank you. Yes, but it wouldn't have taken much to impress him after all he'd been through."

"No, and we do need to consider that AJ may have been to other kids' parties, but he certainly never had one of his own."

"Don't you think he's just a mite too big fer 'Pin the Tail on the Donkey' and such things?" asked Jeb.

"Yes, but we could do something like a piñata. That would be fun."

"There would probably be enough kids to do some races, like three-legged and that egg and spoon thing. Oh, maybe a water balloon toss," I added enthusiastically, which got me a few laughs.

In the end, we came up with a plan. In appearance it wouldn't be as showy and glittery as Tyler's event, but we planned on some fun things to make up for that. After all, we didn't just want to repeat Tyler's event, and AJ was quite a bit younger, so we could plan younger things.

"But the one thing that I promised above all, we can't forget. You know what that is, right, Dan?"

"Oh, yeah. I think he's looking forward to that more than anything. Maybe mostly because his daddy did promise him," answered Dan with a smile at me.

"Yup. I second that," followed Jeb, slapping the table for effect.

And when the big day came, it was just that - BIG! I think about every kid in the county came to the party. It wouldn't have surprised me if Jeffy and Elliot hadn't posted the event all around town. I know the older boys helped AJ with invitations, something that blessed little AJ deeply.

As they'd check names off the list as they wrote out the envelopes, AJ would look up at me and grin, then lick the envelope and go back for another.

"Take your time writing them out, guys. People have to be able to read them."

"Da-a-a-ad" followed by two "Po-o-op"s.

Lots of the kids knew every game we had come up with except Jeffy, AJ and, of course, Tyler. Even Elliot knew of most of them, having been invited to many parties, whether he'd ever had one or not.

Gifts? Well, he didn't get his cell phone, much to his chagrin. But he got lots of neat toys and even some electronics as well as clothes. Not a puppy!

I don't think AJ had a greedy bone in his body. You know the kind, they want everything in site. No, besides not even knowing to want something, he really still had very little experience in what all was out there. He always seemed to be satisfied with what he had, especially when it meant the people around him. But he had mentioned one thing in passing that I thought would be perfect for him. In fact ...

His last present was rather small. It had taken him most of his presents to get to where he'd just rip it open. I thought he'd never get into his first ever present. He marveled at it for some time, even to the point of looking up at us with a tear in his eye, then over to Stewart who had given him the gift.

Then he started picking at the tape. I had our camcorder and was scanning the crowd of onlookers as I got to Jeffy. He was all smiles for a while until I could see his frustration leaking through his façade.

"AJ, just grab a handful of paper and rip. There's no savin' it ya know."

"Really?" he asked, looking up at me.

"AJ," said Linda Sue, "Remember when Tyler opened his first presents too. He was just as fascinated as you are right now. But school is going to start in a few months."

Everyone laughed so hard. I didn't know Linda Sue had it in her. Of course Dan was hanging all over her, trying not to fall down and his kids were all on the ground laughing. Tyler was nodding agreement, but even he had a nice smile.

"Well, it's just that, well, okay. Here goes!" said my boy and ripped off an edge of the brightly colored wrapping paper, his eyes closed tight like he expected whatever was inside to explode. It didn't but he got to the gift inside, finally. I can remember the gift that Stewart gave him. It was several books of Mark Twain's works, all in matching bindings under their dust covers."

"Wo-ow, Stewart. This is really nice. I, uh, I wanna read them but not right now, 'kay?"

There was a round of laughter after which Stewart agreed.

"Maybe we can read the same book and then talk about it sometime, AJ?"

"Hey! Neat! Yeah!"

When he finally got through to the last gift and even looked to make sure there wasn't anymore, I handed him my gift. Like I said, it was small and lightweight.

"Wo-ow, Dad. What is it?"

"It isn't a puppy, I bet," whispered Jeffy so only Elliot and I heard him.

When he opened the gift he gave me the funniest look.

"Dad, you got me my own garage door opener? Um, thank you."

"No, son. That's the one from the truck," I answered.

"Oh," he said, looking down at it.

Again, Jeffy, even though he had no idea what the real gift was, instituted a little creativity to come up with a suggestion.

"Little bro, if it were given to me, I think I'd try it on the door and see if it still worked or something."

"Oh, um, 'kay."

With that, he got up and walked around the house to our garage and then looked at everyone that had followed him, waiting patiently for all of them to see. The older folk took a little longer, people like Jeb, the judge and his wife and others that came with their kids. He then pointed the device at the door and pushed the button.

"Finally!" said his exasperated brother, eliciting another round of laughter.

As the door slowly rose to the two car garage, we could all see one space filled with car. But the other looked empty until the door rose a little farther.

In the empty space sat four mountain bikes, one a bit smaller than the other three.

Everyone gasped. They did look pretty spectacular, all shining their chrome and various colors.

"Wo-o-o-w, Dad! Four bikes? But I can only ride ... Oh, wow and double wo-ow! Dad, you got bikes for all of us. You guys," he yelled running over and grabbing a hand each from Jeffy and Elliot, not quite shaking them off of their wrists, "You guys, we all get one, huh? Wo-ow, Dad, you think of everything."

And in the next instant I was catching a boy who had run into my arms and hugged me tight.

"Well, (cough, cough) I thought you'd have more fun if we could all go with you. Besides, these guys don't have birthdays for a while and I couldn't wait."

"Pop, pop, that's so great! Thanks tons," shouted Jeffy into my face. "My only bike had training wheels when I was just a little punk."

Then I swung around to notice Elliot in front of a red bike, his hand squeezing the brake. He turned to look at me, a tear line down one cheek, but his eyes were filling, threatening more tears to follow.

"Thank you, sir. I, uh, I never had a bike before. This is so, it's so, well, thank you so much, I guess." Then he turned away and wiped at his eyes.

AJ, tears in his eyes as well, walked over to his newest brother and placed his hand on Elliot's shoulder. Then he turned to look at me.

"Dad, this is even better than the best present ever. It's better because I get to share it with my brothers, oh, and even you."

Have I told you that his smile was contagious? Amidst the "A-w-w's" and such everyone was smiling very nicely.

Dan's team began planning for a bike outing with my boys. Dan and I sat at the sidelines and laughed and shook our heads. I noticed his hair was getting a little gray in spots. Well, if the reason was sitting on the lawn talking about all the places they could go on their bikes, I was prepared.

It had been a good day, but it wasn't over yet.

We'd laughed at AJ a few times when we'd talked, long before that day, about just what he could expect to round out a perfect day. The kids all had time to try out the new bikes, though just around the yard. I think everyone got a try. I rode mine and a few adults played along as well.

Of course, AJ didn't know how to ride but Jeffy said it was no big deal and they'd work on it together the next day. Even so, Jeffy sent AJ gliding down the driveway once, into the arms of Ralph who was there to keep him from going into the street beyond. That's when I looked over at Elliot who still had his hand on the bike grip, just enjoying the feel and the richness that went along with something so spectacular for the young boy.

I constantly marveled at how well these kids adapted after what they'd all gone through, but it still amazed me when I realized what little they had before I got to love them and we all got to love each other, as a real family should.

I walked over to Elliot and gave him a hug. Well, I must have squeezed too hard because the damn burst and the tears wet my shoulder like a heavy rain as he turned into me.

"Why? Why didn't they love me, Pop? Was I so bad that they ...?"

"Oh, Elliot, of course you weren't bad at all. It's just that some people should never have kids. But you know what?"

I felt him shake his head again my shoulder.

"I wouldn't have you as my own if they hadn't brought you into this world. I wouldn't have another boy to tease all the time, you know."

I felt him chuckle then push away, wiping his eyes as he looked up at me.

"You are so unreal," he said. "You're like all the best fathers rolled into one from all the books I've ever read. Thanks for everything, Pop." Then he pulled me back into our hug.

"And thank you for coming into our lives and making us all a little richer, son."

He gasped a little when I called him son, then let out a deep breath.

The main attraction followed a barbeque dinner. Dan brought his barbeque over and, between the two of us, with a few of the other men taking over once in a while, we were able to feed everyone.

I'd bought several side dishes from a deli in town. They were all good and seemed to fill the spaces between smoked brisket and sausages. We had simple hot dogs for the younger kids, but you realize, nothing was simple for the kids that hadn't had these kinds of treats very often. It was all so new still.

I think one of my goals was to have a spread like this and have my boys say, "What? Do we have to? Again?"

Then out came the cake and ice cream. Mr. Wang donated the cake. No, it wasn't a Chinese cake, whatever that might have been. It was simply a great sheet cake with birthday wishes to AJ on the top from one of the best bakeries in the city.

"Dad, this is the best cake I've ever tasted," AJ told me, waving his plastic fork around.

"Could it be because it's the first time you've had one just for you?" his great grampa suggested.

"M-m-m-m-m, yeah. I bet that's it. But I also like to see everyone else liking my cake too. It's kinda like my gift back to them, huh?"

"Ha! It sure is little mite. It sure is," agreed Jeb, chuckling with the rest of us that heard.

After a little time to let things get dark I had to persuade some people to stick around just a bit longer. I'd rented a big popcorn popper that rolled out onto the patio and everyone that wanted some had a bag full. Wouldn't you know, it was the best popcorn AJ had ever tasted too.

Then I made an announcement for everyone to get comfy, whether on the lawn or in a chair and look up.

"Look up?" asked AJ.

"Yes, son. This is for you too. A promise I made long ago to you."

And just then the first of several minutes of fireworks shot up into the night sky, flashing brilliant colors and making the darkness a beautiful canvas of light and sparkles, enhanced by the roaring and pops, even the smells that accompanied the explosive exhibition.

Of course I was more enthralled in watching all three of my boys enjoy it, but it was great to hear the ooos and ahhhhs of the kids of all ages as they took in the spectacular light show.

Believe me it was no simple task to set up. I had to have permits and find a company to set off the show, plus insurance in case something burned down or something. They'd set up at Jeb's so they just had a little ways to go before we could see them perfectly.

And expensive? I never realized how much such a show could cost, even for only a few minutes. But the glow on my boys' faces made every dime worth it and then some.

"Wow, Dad, you did it! You said we'd have fireworks and you did it! Thank you so much," shouted an excited boy as the first of the many rockets shot into the sky.

My gift was a lapful of thirteen year old and holding on to him during all his ooos and ahhhs. I'd go through all that hassle again in a second to know it pleased all my boys so much. I looked down to see the other two at my feet. I'm not sure why it was important to be close, but it had to be the best reason ever because it worked.

I ruffled up two boys' heads of hair but they hardly noticed. I think Jeffy was even drooling a little because his mouth had remained open for so long.

I'm sure it was a magical night for AJ, even for the two older boys. But I know it was a magical, inspiring night for me. For some reason I felt so proud. Oh, surely not from anything I did. But I was so proud that I was given the opportunity to raise three wonderful boys; that I had been chosen to experience so many wonderful firsts in their lives. Right then I committed myself to finding out what other events, experiences, whatever, were still firsts.

No, this was no bucket list. That's something one does before the end. No, this was just the beginning.

For some reason, right then, I thought I saw my Vivian and our little angel sitting in her lap on the side, looking at me, not the fireworks. Of course, when I blinked there was just an empty lounge chair at the edge of the lawn, near one of her flower beds. I felt a tear roll down my cheek but it wasn't from the sadness of losing one family. It was from the joy I had at being given another family. It was a feeling of completeness; that I had sunk so low and was allowed to replace my love for my two girls with volumes of love for my three boys.

"Kinda gets to ya, huh, son," said Jeb, sitting beside me.

"You especially would know, Jeb," I said.

Then I looked over and saw a tear streak on his cheek showing me, I'm sure, that he had experienced that same revelation as I had.

End of Chapter Thirty-seven

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