Ryan, Roberts and I spent an hour or so watching Johnny, hoping he might wake up. We all noticed the color in his face returning, as well as his vital signs improving, and when he wrestled against the numerous tubes and wires still connected to his body and rolled on his side. I said enough, time to let him enjoy the sleep we had prayed for over the past several days, or was it weeks. I ordered the lights dimmed in his cubicle, and Ryan ordered a supply of clear broth and fruit juice for him.
We agreed to meet back at ICU at eight o'clock the next morning, and as soon as I finished my afternoon rounds I was rushing to St. Paul's, again admonishing myself to obey the traffic laws instead of letting my big cat have her head. I arrived at the orphanage before the boys' school bus and was getting an update about my practice from my nurse when my cell phone beeped into my ear, announcing I had another call. 'Carl Roberts', I read on the caller ID.
"Hi Adam, Cindy Roberts!" her voice bubbled after I pushed Flash on my cell phone. "Carl just got home, he told me about you guys' day, congratulations! Listen, Carl said you were going to do a work-up on the boy in the morning, I was wondering if your boys would like to go with the kids and I while you are busy." I thanked her for the offer, and started to decline when I thought about it again. She said Carl Junior's soccer game was at nine, though they might enjoy going. "Great, I'll pick them up at the hospital," she suggested after I accepted.
I was looking through the seemingly endless sea of kids bailing out of the three school buses that entered the Children's Home for mine when a pair of golden streaks zapped out of the crowd, shooting toward me at what seemed like the speed of light. Ten or so other kids darted toward the car, ignoring cries from their caregivers.
Ronnie and Mark were still hugging me when the throng of little faces joined us. 'Does Ronnie really own a horse?' 'You got your own pool?', and a dozen or so other questions rang out simultaneously. I was able to answer a few of them before a stern-faced nun began barking like a drill Sergeant, and after several tries rescued us before we were mobbed. 'Time for a party, an open house?' I asked myself as we walked toward the Administration building to sign the boys out. If I had time I decided to stop by St. Paul's tomorrow before picking the boys up from Cindy.
I had to laugh when I pulled up to the order window at McDonald's drive-through. Instead of being greeted with 'May I take your order?' or whatever, the college-aged clerk said, "Two Big Mac's, two Strawberry Malts and one Vanilla. Will there be anything else?" We joked about routines and being creatures of habit while she filled my order, and soon were on the expressway flying toward home.
The boys cheered our four-legged fan club as they ran next to us up the drive, then rushed to them as the horses gathered behind the pasture fence next to the house as soon as I stopped the car. I leaned back against the fender and snickered as the two of them climbed over the six-foot fence and began telling the animals about their week (and I would have sworn all the horses were listening intently, absorbing every detail). Soon they were back over the fence and racing into the house. 'Swimming or riding?' I asked myself as I followed them inside.
I was only a step or two inside when Mark came flying back down the stairs, almost running me over as he rushed back outside. I smiled and shook my head when he returned a couple of seconds later, having retrieved their book bags from the car. 'Yeah, you guys are going to do homework this weekend, SURE!' I thought as I made my way to my bedroom, stripping out of my shirt as I walked. 'They can do what they want, I'm hitting the water!' I decided.
I had just opened a beer when a thin, warm body slipped under my arm, pushing against my stomach. "Thanks Pop, ah Doctor Pop," Mark whispered, wrapping his arms around me. I rubbed his bare back and shoulders for a minute or so before a slightly taller kid hugged me from the other side. "Everything's still, well, our room and clothes and all our stuff are chilled and everything!" Mark added.
I wasn't surprised after I rubbed their bare chests and looked down, seeing they were wearing only swim trunks. "Well, we don't know if we still have a pool, what if it's gone!" I asked, picking them up by their waists. "Guess we still do!!!" I yelled after them after I tossed them into the water. I ignored the complaints from my tired body as we frolicked in the pool for the next hour or so, every time I had decided I needed to rest one of my angels wanted to be tossed into the air again or to lean against me, just saying with their bodies 'I love you'.
I was dying to show them the basement, but gave in after supper when they begged to go riding. Finally about 8:30 I took them downstairs. They were fascinated immediately and before I knew it, it was after eleven, then almost midnight before I got them into bed.
I thought I was going to have to hitch up all six horses to drag the boys out of bed, but after a half hour or so of coaxing, and threatening, they finally came back to life. Since we were running late for my 8:00 appointment I decided to stop at a breakfast buffet instead of cooking, and soon I was risking another traffic ticket as I let my big cat have her morning run. The boys quickly consumed what had to be half their body weight in waffles, eggs, and sausages and arrived at the hospital a couple of minutes before eight.
Cindy and Carl junior were waiting at the entrance to the physician’s parking lot. After we briefly exchanged greetings, I was about to excuse myself when she turned to Ronnie and Mark saying, "We've got a few minutes before Junior's game, if you're hungry I'll buy you two breakfast."
I waited for a second, in case the boys needed any help in tactfully declining, knowing they had to be stuffed. "Yeah, thanks ma'am!" Ronnie replied.
"Yeah, I'm hungry!" Mark chimed in, rushing to Cindy's car.
I was still snickering as I entered ICU. I resisted the urge to lend Cindy my camera and get them to go back to the buffet we had just left, a picture of the manager's face when he saw my two little eating machines return and attack his profits for the second time probably would have made Life Magazine. My grin spread into a smile when I looked into Johnny's cubicle; he was sitting up in bed watching wide-eyed as a nurse sat a food tray in front of him.
"His abdominal wound is certainly healing," she told me as she left the cubical. "He hasn't stopped eating since he woke up. God only knows how much Jell-O and broth last night, that's four poached eggs and three cartons of milk this morning!"
'National Feed the Kid Day?' I asked myself as I reviewed his chart. Ryan and Roberts had just joined me when one of the nurses handed me a business card, saying the owner was in the Waiting Room. My face tightened when I saw it belonged to a Police Detective. "Well, let's see what he wants while the boy eats," I suggested.
The officer wasted no time on formalities when we introduced ourselves. "We understand our John Doe is awake, I need to get a statement from him immediately." I had just begun trying to explain that we were about to evaluate Johnny, that we were not sure he was strong enough to undergo questioning when he interrupted me. "This is an official investigation," he said starting toward the ICU door.
I stepped in front of him blocking the door. "I'm sorry, but as you can see from the sign, Authorized Personnel Only. That does not include you." He spent almost a minute looking me over from head to toe before focusing on my ponytail.
"Step aside, DOCTOR," he growled.
"Please call security," I snapped at the receptionist. I crossed my arms and spread my feet into a slightly defensive stance as I turned back toward the detective. "Where did you go to Medical School, Detective?" He stared at me for several seconds. "Are you prepared to declare this boy is psychologically fit to be interrogated? Accept the responsibility for any harm you might cause to him by questioning him before he is ready?"
"Or medically?" Ryan added, just as two hospital security guards joined us. The cop studied everyone's faces for a second before glaring at me again.
"I see the boy or I'll get a court order," he growled.
"Please call the on-duty Administrator, tell him to bring his lawyer," I told the receptionist. "This discussion is over, you just moved it to one between our lawyers and yours. Guards, NO ONE passes through this door without a staff ID." Without waiting for a response I scanned my Physician ID badge through the security lock and went back into ICU, ignoring the detective's gaping mouth.
"I thought you hippie types were pacifists!" Roberts quipped as soon as we were back in ICU. I tried to ignore him when he snickered, "I'd love to see you at a peace rally!"
My interview with Johnny was much more relaxed than I expected. He was 13-year-old, actually one month to the day older than Ronnie. He freely offered a lot of his personal information as I asked, he was from a small town in Florida, but had been traveling with his dad and brother, homeless, for at least several months. His mother was in a Florida prison, he was fairly sure his dad had been making his money as a burglar. My heart sank as he told me they had been living in a rental storage shed in San Antonio, dad often locking he and his brother in the shed while gone; Johnny was sure for plying his trade.
When he breached the subject of his brother I hesitated, deciding if I thought he was strong enough to push that area, to break the very bad news I had for him. After I was silent for a few seconds he beat me to it. "Eddie's dead, isn't he?" he asked. His face showed more resolve than fear.
"Is Eddie the boy that you were with when the Paramedics found you?" He nodded. "Is Eddie your brother?"
Another nod. "I knew he was dead, well, but. . ." he stopped in mid-sentence. A few tears welled out of his eyes, but he appeared to still be well composed. Like a little trooper he confirmed what the police had suspected, but worse. His father, after drinking all night, made the boys dig two holes in the ground, 'graves' as he put it, before shooting Eddie then Johnny. He remembered waking slightly as he was being buried, and how he dug himself out of the ground after everything got quiet above him, then gave a vague description of his dad and the station wagon they had been traveling in. I almost vomited after I asked why his dad had done it.
"Eddie wet the bed, well the sleeping bag, and Dad got mad," he answered.
After all my years of training, and God only knows the number of abusive situations I had dealt with over the past year or so since I had been in practice, I was speechless. Thankfully he changed the subject for me.
"What's gonna happen to me? I don't wanta go back with my dad, please?" He sniffled as he wiped the tears away with the backs of his hands.
"No, you don't have to go back to your father," I stood up and brushed his strawberry blond hair as I added, "Right now, we are going to get you well. Let's do that first, okay?"
He reached up with his left hand and grasp mine off his forehead, squeezing my ring and little finger. "You're a nice man, sir," he said. He looked at my fingers for a second before adding, "Thanks, sir." I could feel his blood flowing around my little finger as vividly as if it was happening again as we stared at each other.
"How would you like to get out of here, go to a regular hospital room?" Roberts injected. "I want to do a really easy test, it won't hurt, and maybe we can get all these wires unhooked and move you to a room with a TV and, well, I'll try for a window!" After Johnny looked between the two of us a couple of times I nodded my approval to him and Roberts ordered a new EKG.
"Ten A.M., is that close enough to Miller Time?" I joked as the three of us went into the conference area.
"Only if I can invite my personal Shrink, Doctor Daniels!" Ryan answered. "By noon I'd be ready to go find Papa, I'd like to have a long talk in a short row with that man," he added, injecting an extra bit of Texas accent into his statement.
I spent the next twenty minutes or so dictating my notes and a 'Suspected Abuse' report, meeting my obligation to notify government authorities of a suspected incident of child abuse. 'Suspected my ASS!' I thought as I made sure I had included every detail I could release of my work-up that might help find Johnny's Dad. I resisted the urge to end it by asking for ten minutes alone with the gentleman when they found him, and ordered a copy of the report sent directly to our friend the detective.
I felt a little relieved that Ryan authorized moving Johnny to Intermediate Care, where he would be in a normal hospital room, with a TV to watch and window to look out of, and only a small wireless heart monitor attached to him. We could also begin evaluating the damage to his right arm and leg, and by Monday start to design a rehabilitation plan. After calling Cindy on her cell phone I drove to the soccer field. 'Why are we worrying about rehabbing a 13-year-old boy, and from gunshot wounds?' I asked myself a dozen or so times during the fifteen-minute trip. 'This is a sick fucking world!'
After I parked I was trying to psych myself out of my depressed mood as I looked around the six soccer fields, wondering on which one little Carl was playing, wishing I could find Ronnie and Mark and go home so I could hide. 'You are just about a dumb fuck!' I told myself. I thought back on my decisions, I could have gone for the big bucks and easy life, certifying old ladies as emotionally stressed from their divorces, or accident victims being forever unable to work because of the emotional trauma their fake whiplash injury caused. 'This ASSHOLE shot two kids because one of them wet the bed? They didn't even have a bed to wet,' I thought.
I felt my depression sinking in deeper and deeper as I looked for Cindy and the boys. I had about given up and was about to start back toward the car when a little mass of flesh slammed into my thigh.
"Hi Doctor Pop!" Mark's alto voice rang as he wrapped his thin arms around my waist. As I looked down into his bright, happy face I could feel my tension and depression draining, his wide, deep hazel eyes seeming to absorb my pain.
"Hi buddy, where's your brother?" I asked.
"He ran away from home to be a soccer star!" I heard from behind me. Before I could turn Ronnie pushed under my other arm. "Hi Doctor Pop!' I bent and kissed each of them on top of the heads. "Pop! Someone might see! I'm thirteen you know!"
"Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot you were all grown now," I replied, trying to keep the snicker out of my voice. "Everyone, close your eyes," I said, putting my hand next to my mouth, mocking a shout. "Is that better?" I asked, planting another kiss on his forehead. I let him blush for a minute or so before asking, "Where's Mrs. Roberts, you guys ready to go home?" We walked for the better part of a minute. I noticed them exchanging glances and hand signs as we neared the bleachers for one of the fields.
"Ah, Doctor Pop, well, we was sorta wondering, sir," Ronnie began. I waited when either of them called me Sir they were either in trouble or wanted something.
"We WERE SORT OF wondering," I corrected after he didn't continue for a few seconds.
"Yes Sir," was his only response.
"What were you wondering," I tried.
"Well, can Junior go ride the horses with us? Maybe spend the night?"
"Please Pop!" Mark added.
"Did you invite him AGAIN already, or are you asking me first," I asked. They both blushed bright red, then crimson.
"Oh, no sir, we knew to ask you first!" I bit my lip remembering Roberts' statement from yesterday.
I was about to praise them when Mark added, "But Mrs. Roberts said it's okay!" earning him a death glare from his brother I could feel singeing my stomach. I tried a couple of times to force a stern look onto my face and chastise them but gave up as I started snickering. 'Damn, I'm glad I'm not spoiling them!' I thought.
Cindy thanked me several times for 'inviting' little Carl to come to the ranch when we joined her in the bleachers. As soon as the boy finished his soccer game we followed them to their house so he could get a change of clothes and such.
Shortly after we arrived Mark came out of the back area of their house carrying what looked like a black ball of fur. As he approached me I could tell it was actually a very young puppy, his eyes barely open. Cindy told me it was one of the litter of six Black Labrador Retrievers their bitch had given birth to. Ronnie followed behind hugging two more little fur balls, a huge black creature that looked about half-horse, half-dog next to him anxiously sniffing her pups as the boy carried them. I wasn't surprised when Cindy told me she weighed 95 pounds, that the stud weighed 110. I ignored the boys pleading looks, along with Cindy's offer to reserve one for me as I petted the dogs, still amazed at the size of their mother.
Little Carl came into the room as I was petting the big dog, amazed at how friendly and loving she was; it was like petting a hundred pound, two-week-old puppy. I barely noticed as he and his mom exchanged looks and hand signals, but he a little begrudgingly opened his small backpack and took out a piece of heavy wire and some nylon webbing, an orthodontic headgear. "Remember, fourteen hours, today and tomorrow," Cindy admonished him, clearly for my benefit. I suggested I drop Carl off when I took the boys back to St. Paul's tomorrow and we were back in the Jaguar, thankfully going to my new home.
"How about chicken? If you guys can wait till we get home to eat let's get a bucket to go!" I suggested, getting no argument.
I was glad I opted for the 48-piece order at Kentucky Fried Chicken as I watched the boys eat as soon as we got home. I had a breast and thigh, and a few fries from the huge box of them, but within what seemed like seconds the boys were giving each other dirty looks as they picked at the pile of bones on their plates, looking back into the almost beer keg sized bucket as if hoping a few more pieces would appear.
The nays and snorts from our four-legged fan club seemed to announce the end of the meal. In what seemed like a flash all three boys had rushed upstairs, changed out of their shorts into jeans and were rushing to the tack room, dragging me behind. After checking their saddles I rode with them for a few minutes before excusing Zeus and myself and watched them ride off to explore. 'This place wasn't only a good investment, it's therapy! It's becoming my sanity!' I told myself as I watched them ride away.
I surprised myself as I killed a beer in two swallows when I got back to the house. I swam a couple of laps in the pool before opening another and laying back against the steps in the shallow end, letting the cool water from one of the pool's water jets massage my back and shoulders. 'It's not the ranch, it's the boys that are therapy,' I told myself. 'When I'm here alone I have a big house with a bunch of expensive toys to play with when my little buddies are here it's a home.'
I had slept for what turned out to be almost three hours, my head leaning back against the hard concrete pool deck when a gentle set of waves awoke me. "Hi Doctor Pop," Mark's sweet voice rang as he climbed into my lap, his Speedo-clad butt perched on my thigh. "We want to eat some hot dogs, we're gonna cook them okay?" When I looked around I saw smoke coming from the barbeque pit. As I looked again Ronnie and Junior were in the pool. I started to get up, embarrassed, but leaned back and indulged in the warmth of Mark's loving snuggle.
They did a great job, cooking the hot dogs and toasting the buns to perfection, setting out chips, relish and condiments like professionals. I was even more impressed when they cleared our dirty plates from the patio table and quickly reappeared with bowls of sliced peaches topped with whipped cream and sliced cherries, one of my all-time favorite desserts.
The dishes again disappeared when we finished our dessert, Junior even carefully scrubbing the picnic table. A few minutes later, when I went inside to use the restroom, I started getting a little suspicious when I heard the dishwasher running, and noticed a spotless kitchen, even cleaner than before they began supper. When I walked outside and saw a three-way huddle, next to a fresh, unopened beer, I started to wonder how much trouble they, or I, was in.
"Hi Doctor Pop!" Ronnie exclaimed when he saw me. Instantly he and his brother were leading me to the table while Junior opened my beer. I took a deep breath and waited, but not for long. "Ah, well, can we ask you something?" 'I knew it,' I told myself as I nodded my head, trying to keep a straight face.
"We got a neat idea!" Mark announced. "We was wondering. . . I mean we were wondering, sir, well. . ." he trailed off, looking at his big brother as if for support.
"Well, can we stay here tomorrow night?" Ronnie took over. "You can take us to school Monday like we did Wednesday. Well whenever,"
"My mom said she'll come pick me up, sir," Junior added. The look on his face told me he was in on the plot, possibly even his mother was.
"We brought our books and stuff, and everything!" Mark added. I remembered him going back out to the car for the book bags yesterday, making me wonder how long this scheme had been in the making.
I thought about their idea for a few seconds, my only concern was that we were pushing the Big Brother too far, that St. Paul's might wonder what was going on out here. I was about to suggest we talk to the Home, and maybe set something up for next weekend when Mark brought out the heavy artillery, his sad, liver-lipped frown. "Please," he whined, tears welling in his eyes.
Just as an experiment, I stuck my hand out, and instantly had my palm filled with the cordless phone. Again St. Paul's was completely agreeable, I felt the urge to hang up quickly before they offered to deliver the rest of the boys' belongings to the ranch. As soon as I hung up I was beseeched with hugs and thank you's, even from Junior.
"You'd be a neat dad, sir," Junior said, pushing his facebow into my chest as he hugged all three of us. I didn't pay much attention when he offered to put the cordless phone away for us. I was still being crushed by Ronnie and Mark's affection as he took it out of my hand. "Hi Mom, he said okay!" I heard Junior say just before the patio door closed.
The rest of the day went surprisingly quickly. After the boys left for still another ride (and I made a mental note to call my vet, did the poor overworked animals need vitamins or something?). I decided not to rush when I looked out the window and saw all three of the boys racing across the pasture, the other three horses chasing behind as if asking when was their turn.
I called the Roberts' house. Carl was away, and Cindy was very skillful at dodging my subtle inquires about her son's earlier phone call. She did accept my invitation for them to have an early supper with us when she came to pick up Junior.
I called to check on Johnny. He was still hungry but doing well, much more comfortable now that he was out from under the stress of ICU, he had even tried to get out of bed a couple of times. I made still another addition to my To-Do list, to send an 'At-A-Boy' to the hospital, when I learned that both the Physical and Occupational Therapy Departments, when they found out he was out of ICU, had tracked down Roberts to get permission to do their work-ups on him today something almost never done on weekends.
The kids all but insisted on sleeping in the family room, wanting to spread quilts on the floor and watch movies. I watched the first few minutes of one movie with them before I noticed all three of them were sound asleep. I started to turn the movie off, but just lowered the volume slightly, kissed all three of them on the foreheads and crawled up to bed.
Something brushing my hair disturbed my sleep, followed by a small pair of lips kissing my cheek. When I opened my eyes Mark's bright happy smile, accented by the morning's sunlight filtering into my bedroom, greeted me. "Hi Doctor Pop!"
"Hi Pumpkin!" I responded, pulling him against me. Almost immediately a pair of long thin arms wrapped around my neck from behind. As I looked around Ronnie was laying in bed next to me, hugging my neck, Mark and Junior sitting on the edge of my bed. I kissed Ronnie and without thinking put my arm around Junior's thin waist and hugging him.
"Can we go swimming, it's totally neat in the morning!" Mark declared. My grunt was enough approval and all three boys, clad only in their briefs, darted across the bedroom and out the patio door.
"Junior, take off your. . ." I yelled, only to be cut off by three splashes. "headgear," I muttered. 'Yeah well,' I thought as I rushed to my bathroom. After I relieved my bladder I slipped on a pair of swimming trunks before joining them at the pool.
"I'm sorry, I forgot," Junior whimpered, looking at the soaked mass of nylon straps and metal sitting at the edge of the pool. 'Yeah, explain this to your mom, I wonder what that shit costs!' I thought. I just smiled back at him and dove in the water.
We swam for the better part of an hour until tossing three kids around the pool wore me out and I went inside to cook breakfast. After they inhaled a couple of dozen breakfast Tacos and a gallon of milk, we all went riding for most of the morning, exploring the ranch's 400 plus acres of land. I left them to start the pit and prepare lunch/supper, knowing Cindy would be arriving in a couple of hours. Zeus seemed as happy with the weekend as I was when I mounted him and turned him toward the house; without any prompt he bolted into a full gallop. As I tucked my head next to his big neck to give him his head I wondered who was having more fun, him or I.
I had worked in the kitchen for an hour or so when the gate intercom buzzed. It was Cindy, probably a half hour earlier than I expected her.
"Carl and Jennie wanted to come, but couldn't," she said. After I served her a Rum and Coke she looked away for the better part of a minute before asking, "Can we talk? Frankly?"
I took a deep breath. 'Fuck, lady, I don't need any more problems right now!' I thought. 'This is my sanctuary, not a free-be shrink couch!' I nodded my head and took a swig of beer. 'Here we go again.'
"Adam, your boys are probably two of the most wonderful boys I think I have ever met, and they think the sun rises and sets around you. You know that, don't you?" I barely had time to nod again before she continued, "I watched you this morning when they greeted you, it brought tears to my eyes, you love them as much as they love you."
I bit my lip, her statement catching me completely by surprise. "Yes, I love them. I dream of them being with me all the time, especially since I moved out here, I wish they could enjoy this place all the time. But they're here because we belong to Big Brothers, I'm not their dad, I'm way too young to be a dad, especially for kids their age."
"You're already are a Dad, cut the crap, Ronnie and Mark's dad. Adam, besides being a soccer mom I'm also an attorney. I only practice occasionally out of my home, Carl and I decided to raise our kids was more important than my income, but I am Board Certified in Family Law. If you want the boys, I know you do, I'll get them for you." We exchanged several glances before she continued, " No fee, just say okay. Just for knowing they, well, your boys are happy I'd even pay you to let me do this, take this case."
I downed the rest of my beer in a single swallow. Almost automatically I went behind the bar and got another, stopping to make Cindy another rum and coke. That beer lasted about 30 seconds and was gone in almost a single swallow. I got another one and stared out the patio door for a few seconds, watching the herd of huge black horses frocking on top of the hill, three thin boys having even more fun than their mounts. All nine of them looked like they were in heaven as they played together.
"Okay, let's do it, but bill me," I almost whimpered. Cindy and I touched our drinks in a toast before going onto the patio and calling the kids.
To Be Continued…