The Little Pipsqueak
© 2012-2017 Matthew Templar
Thanks again to RCN for his editing wizardry. It makes for a smoother read.
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.
"Simon Chesterfield," the nurse told him.
He was confused. His treatments did that to him sometimes, more times than not, anymore. He was barely aware that the nurse and another doctor were talking to him. It was more like they were explaining something to his dad. He caught some of it. But he still must have looked confused.
Ray, Sr. leaned in and explained to his son, "I believe they're talking about your new roommate, Raymond."
"Oh, but I thought he was just a little guy. That's a huge name for a little guy," said Ray as the door swung open.
"I'm not so little, huh?" said a weak voice from the middle of the bed that two orderlies pushed through the wide door.
'Actually, unless you followed the intravenous lines to the middle of the bed, I just might have missed him,' thought Ray, peering over the rails between the beds.
Eight-year-old Simon Chesterfield was small. He had been fighting his battle against the cancer that tried to claim his body for two long years. Worse though, he'd had two roommates during that time that he got to know, become friends with, only to have them leave him, leave him because they'd lost the same battle that was going on in the boy.
When the bed came to a stop a few feet from Ray's bed he sat up to peer over at the new arrival.
The first thing he noticed was the lack of any hair on the boy's body, at least the parts he could see, from the chest up, though he was partly covered by bright pajamas, appropriate for one so young. His skin was as pale as he'd ever seen before. The boy reminded him of Casper, the friendly ghost. But Ray wasn't laughing.
In a soft, gentle voice, something that was very foreign to Ray's personality, he said, "Um, I'm Ray. I'm glad I finally get someone that I can share this big room with. Oh, and yes, you aren't so little now that I can see you. In fact, I'd say you are a super hero."
"What? Oh, I'm not a super hero guy. I don't have any super powers or nothin'. I just lay here and get radiated and chemoed. Nothin' super about that."
Ray had heard a bit about what Simon had been going through, especially the worst part, the part where he'd lost two friends to cancer since he'd been there.
"Hi, Ray. I'm Simon's mother, Barbara Chesterfield."
The first time Ray noticed the lady was when she approached Ray's bed, having entered right after the orderlies and her son's bed. Complete with a pleasant smile, she reminded Ray of his mother, just a bit younger.
"I hope you don't mind us intruding on your space," she said, then leaned closer to quietly add, "He could really use the distraction of a roommate. It hasn't gone too well for him of late."
Ray didn't know if that meant losing his last roommate or his ordeal with the treatments he was undergoing. Probably both, he figured.
"No, um, it's okay. I don't know what I can do to help, though," Ray said, looking to his dad.
Ray, Sr. walked around the bed and extended his hand to Mrs. Chesterfield.
"Hi, Mrs. Chesterfield. I'm Ray's dad, well, Ray too, um, Raymond Carlton, Sr. actually."
Shaking his hand, Barbara Chesterfield answered, "I'm pleased to meet you. So, you're the senior which makes Ray the junior?"
Then he turned to his son and spoke, "Ray, just be yourself with Simon. I think you'll both get along just fine together. Just no pranks, please."
"I doubt it, Dad. I haven't got the strength to think of 'em, even if I had the strength ta do 'em."
So, after the nurse was done fussing with Simon to make him comfortable, the two boys did their best to feel awkward and unsure of how to start up a friendship.
"What did you mean about me being some super hero guy, Ray? How come you think that?"
The boys were alone while their two parents went for coffee. Those times would turn out to be some of the best times the two boys had together.
"Simon, you've been through a ton o' stuff. I don't know if I could be that strong."
"Oh, well, I learned that you have two choices, I guess, and the second one isn't something I want to do."
"The second . . . ? Oh, um, yeah, I know what you mean. Well, I mean, yeah, but you've proved that you want the first choice, to get outa here, lots and for a long time, huh?"
"I guess. I don't think that makes me a hero, though. I'm just a sick kid."
"Yeah. Hey, then let's get better, beat this crap in us, and get outa here. Whaddya say?"
"Awm-m-m-m. You said c-r-a-p. He he he."
"Hey, Simon, why are those tubes goin' under your shirt and not in your arm, like mine?"
"Oh, it's called a catheter," he said, pulling his pajama top apart to show Ray the answer to his question.
It seems my boys are connected to each other, their friends and family in a way I found it hard to put a total value to. Oh, not because there wasn't any value. No, because it was so overwhelming I had no way to measure it. Their concern for others outweighed almost anything else in their lives, especially when one of their friends was ailing, whether they could do anything about it or not. They were lovers. Period. That's my boys.
We got a call from Ray's mom that he wasn't coming home. That's how Jeffy heard it, anyway, and he almost fainted, I think, when he heard her say it.
"What, Jeffy? What is she saying?" insisted Elliot, standing right next to him, Lewis in his arms, at the kitchen counter.
"Here," was all Jeffy could say, handing Elliot the phone and walking away in a daze or shock or both.
"Mrs. Carlton?" asked Elliot, handing Lewis over to AJ to watch him.
"He what? Like in his chest? Um, okay. That's . . . Yeah, I didn't want to say it to you but you're right, it sounds weird, really weird. So, when . . . ? Oh, okay. Then he kind of gets a week off? Yeah, counting the three days he has to stay over the weekend. Okay. I'll tell everyone. I'm glad he's okay, though," he said nodding at Jeffy.
Jeffy let out a sigh of relief and fell back into the couch next to my recliner.
"Thanks for letting us know, Mrs. Carlton. Yes, he's fine now that he knows Ray is okay. I'll tell him. And, Mrs. Carlton, could you have him call us so we can come and see him as soon as he's home and rested? Thank you. I will. Bye."
"Well? What was that all about? You guys had me all worried until Elliot was talkin' to her," said AJ.
"She said he has to stay in the hospital until Monday because they placed a thing, a catheter, I think, in his chest or something, so they didn't have to keep poking him for his treatments. It's supposed to make it a lot easier on him. He has to stay to let it heal some before they let him come home."
"Oh," said Jeffy. "When she started by sayin' he wasn't comin' home I guess I freaked out. Sorry."
"No, Jeffy. That's understandable. That's not something you want to hear concerning a friend going through what Ray is going through."
"Yeah, I guess."
"Pop, she said he did pretty good this time around but he's still weak."
"That's always good to hear, Elliot. Thanks for relaying that to us."
So much for our road trip. I knew there would be a delay. Come to think of it, it seems rather odd that we had to plan the trip around when Ray was in the hospital so we could visit him, especially when he only lived a few miles away. I knew that the boys would never agree to leave town if he was home. That's what I mean by their caring for others before them.
I'll have to say that church was interesting the next weekend. The fact that Ray couldn't be there started to put a damper on things until Pastor Gooding and Joshua met our gang at the front entrance. Between the two of them they encouraged us to 'be of good cheer,' that there was always some light even in the darkness.
When we went in and the service began, it didn't seem like it was getting any better, though. Oh, the service started out as normal as usual, but at the first hymn things took a turn that I'd never had expected, nor had anyone else in the family.
AJ and Stewart sat together in the middle of a pew in the middle of the church, pretty much where we usually sit. The Curtains were on one side of the boys and I was on the other. Elliot usually sat beside me, with Jeffy and any others in our group sitting behind us. Oh, don't worry, Jeffy didn't feel left out, to say the least. First, Mrs. Carlton sat in that row next to Jeffy. Usually, on the other side of Ray sat his friend, Eva. She started going soon after we did to support Ray and see him, of course, when he was able to come home. This time the space where Ray usually sat was empty as was that of his father. Anyway, Jennifer came with Eva, which Jeffy didn't mind at all, and was usually found sitting next to Jeffy. If Jeb came, he was back there as well.
Well, this particular Sunday, when the hymn started, we all sang as usual, with AJ and Elliot almost leading us with their beautiful voices. Then I noticed several boys about AJ's age sitting in a pew on the other side of the middle aisle and several rows in front of us. They were almost obnoxious in their boisterous actions while giggling and pointing at AJ.
Just about midway through the hymn AJ noticed them and stopped singing right in the middle of the verse. We were all stunned but he was almost in tears. He was fixed on those three boys and was obviously totally intimidated by them. That was very uncharacteristic of AJ, and certainly was noticed by all in the congregation, especially by those boys.
I thought AJ was about to leave the building when Stewart raised his hand to AJ's shoulder, squeezed it and just smiled, nodding his head at his best friend. Elliot was also there to scoot past me and put his arm around his young brother and smile at him in support.
That must have hit the right switch in my young son, because he started in on the third verse with so much power we were all stunned, this time, in a good way. I was very proud of both of them. Both Mrs. Carlton and Jeffy tapped AJ and gave him a thumb's up as encouragement. Soon AJ was singing his heart out through a wonderful, proud smile.
I looked over at the three boys and they were as shocked as anyone, but that could have also been because the woman who sat with them noticed what they had been doing and slapped the back of their heads.
Elliot, one of the politest boys on our planet, must have noticed what the woman did too because he grabbed my arm and started to chuckle, pointing toward the boys, until he caught himself and settled down, singing with the rest of us. The second hymn, as well as the closing hymn, with everyone in the congregation on their feet, was just as wonderful as the first. That is, except for three boys that sat across the aisle and down a few rows in front of us, with their heads down.
"Dad, look," said my little soprano as we enjoyed the fellowship after the service.
He pointed to the three boys, standing in a corner of the hall, getting a good talking to by a man that I assumed was at least one of their fathers. Then he got behind them and, with the lady who put an end to their abuse of my son, herded them over toward us.
"I think these boys have something to say to your son, sir," said the man when they reached us.
After a little encouragement from the adults, the three boys, with their heads buried in their chests, made weak apologies to AJ and Stewart. Our boys were calm through the whole thing. That means they didn't snicker or make it harder on the three. They just stood there and listened. And if that wasn't enough to make me proud of them, their next action almost shocked my socks off me.
The man introduced himself, apologized again for his son and two friends, and reached to shake my boy's hand and that of Stewart.
"Believe me," promised the man, "It won't happen again, will it, boys?" Then he turned to usher the boys out of there.
"So, sir, you guys, we usually go to this brunch place afterwards. Um, do you wanna join us there? Is that okay with you, Dad? Dad?" asked my youngest son.
I think every adult in hearing distance dropped their collective jaws as I had done.
"Um, I, uh, well, uh, sure, sure. It's, uh, fine with me, AJ, if it's okay with you and your wife, Mr. Hardy, and, of course, your boys."
Long story, short - okay, too late for that - they not only joined us, but the five boys sat in their own booth, with Elliot, and were laughing hard enough that we had to tell them to quiet down twice!
But then, that's our guys. And they soon had three new friends.
The rest of us sat at two tables in front of their booth and, I for one, enjoyed the magical change that Stewart and AJ caused in those unsuspecting ex-bullies.
Oh, from that day on, each Sunday found the Hardy family and the other boys, if they attended, in the row directly in front of our families. The funny thing is, the Hardy boy had a pretty good voice.
I talked to the boys that night about the vacation plans I had, though not telling them much more about our destinations except for visiting Ray. They all agreed that we couldn't leave until Ray got back and then went back to the hospital for more treatments. At the time, it was one of the weirdest conversations we'd ever had. But, like I knew down deep, these guys would never budge until they knew Ray was being cared for.
I had to change some plans with one of our destinations, but they were fine with it.
Ray had come home from his second ordeal. He was weak, very weak. But, once again, my boys helped to make him laugh and show far more enthusiasm than the adults would have thought possible. We only stayed a couple of hours on Tuesday and invited them over the next day, to enjoy the weather, but I really didn't think the Carltons would come.
Very soon after we got home from our visit, cellphones began to ring and I was in the middle of negotiations for most of Ray's friends to come over to enjoy the pool. Ray insisted that he was strong enough to do likewise, so the day was planned.
Ray lasted about thirty minutes before he napped under an umbrella on a lounge chair. He didn't seem to be disturbed by the kids in the pool, which included the two girls and Enrique, his brother and little sister. It seemed like someone was always checking on Ray even though his mom was practically standing guard over him to make sure he was doing okay. She'd plastered a bottle of suntan lotion on him, stating that, even though he was under cover, the sun could easily reflect off of the deck and burn him. This was confirmed by Ray Sr., who got just such a sunburn when the two of them went to Mexico some years back. He ended up pretty sore for a couple of days.
When Ray did wake up he waded in the shallow end of the pool, even held Lewis for a while, until the little squirmer tried to jump out of his arms into the vast ocean of water before him. Elliot relieved Ray of the baby and delighted Lewis by practicing his water skills, mostly by dunking him occasionally. Karen was still seeing to it that Lewis had two or three lessons a week, along with Jeffy and AJ developing their skills as well.
The boys told me, after our guests left, the conversation they had with Ray. According to Elliot, Jeffy, the smooth talker, started the conversation.
"Ya know, Dufus, you made us cancel our vacation."
"Wha . . . I did?"
"Wait! Jeffy, what are you doing?" inquired Elliot of his brother. "First, quit calling him names, especially ones you don't want to be called. It's called abuse and you said you'd never do that again. Second, you'd better explain your statement. I'm thinking that may be a form of abuse too."
"Okay, see, I called you dufus . . ."
"Not that statement, Airh . . . ! I mean, Jeffy. The one about our vacation."
"But, guys, it's okay to go. I know I don't get one anytime soon, but there's no reason that you can't. Honest!"
"Oh, yes there is. See our vacation, well, part of it, was comin' to visit you in your torture chamber, up north. So, we can't exactly go visit you up there if you're down here."
"Ah-h-h-h. Oh, and, Elliot, it's okay to call me names like that. I know it's all in fun and I'da come up with one to throw back if I wasn't so tired. Honest."
"Well, that may be, Ray, but we need to be aware of that sort of thing in case someone else hears it from us. We want to set a good example and, even in fun, I would hate for someone to think it's okay to name-call.
"Ah-h-h. I get it."
During the middle of the week, while we were all doing our own thing in the living room, I asked AJ to go up to his bedroom with me.
"Oh. Ha. I thought you was, uh, were sendin' me to my room for somethin' bad."
"Well, tell me what it was you did and I'll consider it," I said seriously.
"What! Nuh-uh! Besides I didn't do it, I mean anything! Hey, you were foolin' with me, huh? See, I can figure it out . . . sometimes."
"Yeah, once a month ago and once now. Ha!" laughed Jeffy.
"Okay, come on. This is all good, little pipsqueak."
I didn't expect the feelings to hit me so strongly when I walked into the boy's room. To look at him as I tried to recover, I think he felt some of it too. While it's true that he went into his room every night, for some reason this time was very different, and we didn't even know why, yet.
We stood there, not speaking, just looking. After a full minute I felt his hand move into mine and I gave it a light squeeze. That feeling was remarkable in and of itself. I couldn't possibly describe it except to say it was like energy passing between us. AJ looked up at me with one of his best smiles. I tried to return it as best I could, knowing I could never match his or the other boys' radiance when they smiled like that.
And, for some reason, I just couldn't speak for a few seconds for fear of bawling my heart out. An era in my life was soon to be passing and it had a profound effect on me and my emotions.
"You're gonna ask me what color we should paint it, aren't ya?"
"Well, how did you . . . ?" I stammered.
"I didn't until I held your hand. It was really weird, Dad."
"I'll say. So, is that something you're interested in doing?"
"Sure, I guess, he answered slowly. "Still, there's a coupla things special about it with these colors and stuff, ya know."
AJ moved further into the room and kind of did a panoramic turn in one spot. Really, except for the color, the only other reminder that it was once a little girl's room was the bench and the pink shelves above it, still laden with a small doll collection that really never got played with by their owner. All the other furniture was AJ's.
Again, a feeling came over me. It was in some way sad, sad enough to cause me a tear, but, at the same time, happy. And when AJ turned to look at me he had one tear as well. When he saw mine he smiled again. The kind of smile that said, 'Yeah, I feel that too.'
"It is special, isn't it, my son?"
He didn't say anything right away as he turned his attention back to the bench and the wall behind it.
"Yeah. It's almost like it isn't mine to change. Or maybe it's like I've always shared it with your little baby daughter. Do you know what I mean?"
With that, he pulled me over to the bench and turned me around and pushed me just hard enough that I sat down on it. Then he crawled, well, actually, he was big enough to just slide into my lap.
"Oof! When did you get so big?"
"Ha. Good stuff to eat and do and lotsa lovin'," he answered.
"I dunno if I truly wanna do it, Dad. It's like takin' it from her or somethin'."
"Wow, AJ, I guess I never thought about how hard it would be when we finally had the time to do it."
"Uh-huh. Um, maybe we could wait a little while longer. I need ta think on this some."
He'd made his decision and rose from my lap and turned to me. Then he took both of my hands and, darned if we didn't share that feeling again, that spark. I know he did because his eyes lit up in surprise. Besides the feeling, a thought came to me so I said,
"What if we . . .?"
At the same time that AJ said, "What if we . . .?"
"Wo-ow, Dad. You felt it too?"
"I guess so. But it came with an idea this time."
"I know, I know!" he exclaimed, jumping around with my hands still in his until I was afraid he'd pull me off the bench!
"You guys okay up there, you weirdos?" Jeffy, of course.
"Yeah and double yeah, Jeffy. Hey, guess what?"
The next thing I knew, after finding myself alone in his bedroom for a full minute, all four of us were sitting at the kitchen table with drinks in front of us.
I think I heard Jeffy say an, 'uh-oh' to Elliot and by the time I arrived, Elliot was returning to the table with drinks.
"Guess what?" announced AJ. "I get to move to a new room!"
Hm-m-m. Funny, that was my idea too!
End of chapter seventy-one