My Carl


Almost as soon as we sat down to supper I felt assured our young guest would fit in well regarding at least one part of our family life. Just as he had during the boys afternoon snack Mike demonstrated he was a world class eater. Somewhat following the twins lead, he arranged three hot dogs around a mountain of potato salad and a sizable helping of beans.

The boy was also more outgoing than I expected. Carl, I'm sure because his brothers were, chose to eat wearing his headgear. I snickered as he tried one way then another to fit a fully stuffed hot dog bun under his facebow. I was about to tell him he could remove it when he attempted a bite, splattering mustard, catsup and relish all over the metal and his face.

"Wow, you out'a be a crop duster!" Mike giggled, dotting his face with a couple of drops of catsup from his own dog. "Can I borrow a rain coat?"

"I'm gonna get you!" Carl howled as he took a swing at Mike's arm, missing.

"Don't get violent, all you gotta do is smile, I'll be blind for life!" Mike retorted. From the devilish grin he developed as he looked around at the other metal mouthed boys at he table it was clear his comment was meant for everyone. "Kidding guys, just kidding!" He snickered.

I announced everyone could remove their headgear while they ate, and after an almost deafening crash of metal landing on the table they dug into their meal. Two helpings and a large bowl of ice cream later, everyone seemed full. The boys one by one got up and started loading the dishwasher when Mike picked up Jerry's headgear from the table.

"These things are kinda weird!" He exclaimed, looking the appliance over. "What if you met a girl, can you kiss in these things?"

All the boys immediately turned him with angry looks, I was wondering if he was pushing too far. As soon as we saw his genuinely shocked, 'what did I do?' look I think everyone realized his question was innocent of Jerry's Colorado experience. One by one everyone started laughing. Jerry turned crimson red but ended up laughing as hard as everyone else.

"Dude, you don't EVEN wanta know!" Jerry moaned as he snatched his headgear from Mike's hand.

"What did I do? I'm sorry!" Mike whined, his face blushing in almost total embarrassment.

"You're not gonna believe what you said!" Carl stuttered between giggles. "Your gonna freak, I'll tell you later!" He snickered, stuffing a load of dirty dishes in Mike's hand. They both ignored Jerry's dirty looks as they cleared the table.

The kids spent the evening engrossed in the movies Judy rented for them while the other adults and I enjoyed each other's company on the patio. As the chilling night air set in Dad, then Judy excused themselves, Dad going to bed while Judy went home.

Tim and I fortified ourselves with several cans of brewed anti-freeze until about 11 PM, the night chill won. When we went inside all the boys were laying next to each other on the carpet in front of the entertainment center, all of them seemingly dozed off as their current movie played. Binki, perched on top of Carl, seemed to be the only one watching as a Dark Zadar the second looking character nuked twenty-fifth century Washington with his fleet of cucumber shaped space ships. 'Rated G, All Audiences ' I read from the DVD's cover as I watched several city blocks vaporized.

I started to wake the boys and send them to bed, but they looked too comfortable. Grabbing a stack of quilts and comforters from the closet Tim and I tried to cover them without awaking anyone, but without much luck. As one then the next stirred I was really not sure if the blankets or their stomachs had awoken them. The twins followed by Timmy and Mike staggered into the kitchen complaining as if they had not eaten for weeks.

Several dozen cookies and over a gallon of milk later everyone wanted to sleep in the family room. I agreed, provided they lay down, not horseplay all night. After stacking quilts and blankets to make a massive bed across the width of the room I got everyone to go brush their teeth and take care of any other necessities they might have.

I got a hug from the twins when they came back into the room. Shortly Timmy appeared, hugging his dad then me before crawling under the blankets. Carl was giving me an extended embrace when Mike came back into the room. He watched shyly as I kissed Carl's forehead sending him to get under the quilts.

"Are you too old for a goodnight hug?" I asked, turning toward Mike.

His face brightened into a wide smile as he rushed over throwing his long arms around me. He squeezed me gently, tucking his head under my chin. I returned his embrace for several seconds before releasing my grasp, stroking his back a couple of times. Instead of letting go of me he held on, pushing his face deeper into my chest. I hugged him again with one arm, stroking his shoulder with the other.

"Let's get you in bed, okay?" I finally suggested. He continued to cling to me for another second or so. "Come on, we have a busy day tomorrow." I said, kissing the top of his head.

Somewhat reluctantly he released his grasp. I was about to get up and follow him, intending to tuck everyone in when Binki hopped onto the arm of my chair. He raised up on his back feet, and oinked.

"Oh I won't forget you!" I exclaimed, picking him up and snuggling him against me. I carried him over to the boys, dropping him between Carl and Mike.

As I expected Bandit was stretching off the edge of the couch giving me a wide eyed look. After cuddling my furry little friend I deposited him into the pile of blankets. I found myself looking around the room to see if I had missed anyone.

I delayed starting breakfast until about 10 the next morning, to let the kids sleep in. Shortly after I started frying a package of sausages, a pair of sleepy headed twins drifted into the kitchen. None to my surprise Mike was right behind, yawning and stretching. Jerry, then Jeff, drifted over to me giving me a warm hug before turning longingly toward the skillet, pressing their thin backs against me as they paid it homage.

"There's room for three." I said, extending an arm toward Mike. He gave me a sleepy smile as he shuffled over to me, tucking himself under my arm.

"Morning pop." He muttered, pushing against me.

"Good morning to you!" I responded. "Where's your bro, I he still alive?" I asked, gently hugging his bare chest. He softly giggled as he grabbed my forearm with both hands, pulling it tightly against his chest.

"You guys get some OJ and set the table, okay?" I suggested after a minute or so. The twins slipped away rushing toward the refrigerator. Mike continued to hold onto my arm and lean against me.

"How do you like your eggs?" I asked, guiding him directly in front of me. I felt his head push against me as he looked up at me.

"Pretty good I guess." he whimpered in a sleepy voice.

I bit my lip, hoping he was just slow to awaken, not just plain slow.

"How do you like eggs to be cooked when you eat them?" I risked, wondering if I should have offered a multiple choice query.

"Ah, in one of those things." He said, pointing at the skillet.

Hmm, an 'over easy' kid, I told myself, , , he damn sure isn't well done. I reached down and softly poked his tight flat stomach.

"That sure feels empty to me!" I commented. "You go wake up those other sleepy heads and I'll whip up something to fill it." He hesitated briefly before sleepily shuffling off toward the front room.

I was busy frying eggs and grilling toast when Mike, followed by Timmy and finally Carl drifted into the kitchen. I paid little attention when Mike whispered something to Carl but noticed Carl quickly slipped back into the front room. Shortly he reappeared, inserting his facebow into his mouth, grinning sheepishly at me.

A couple pounds of sausage, a loaf and a half of raisin bread toast and well over a dozen eggs later everyone seemed refueled. After I got the kids started shuffling through the shower I ran down to the hardware store and bought a temporary mailbox. I was driving a post into the ground to mount it when a freshly scrubbed kid appeared out the front door of the house.

Instead of coming to me Carl drifted to the stack of broken bricks piled next to the driveway. He spent a minute or so looking at them, pushing at them with is foot before looking over at me. I waved at him before continuing to drive the post into the ground. Instead of returning my wave he darted his eyes back to the bricks.

After a minute he wandered toward the street, surveying the patrol car's skid marks. Starting to worry I set my hammer down and joined him, wrapping my arm around his chest as I pulled his back against me.

"I'm sorry" he whined. "Are you still mad at me?" I was about to respond when he turned toward the half driven post. "I was gonna help you build it! You don't want me to now I'm sorry I did it!"

"I still want to build a new one together, that's just temporary, just until we have time to build a nice one, maybe next weekend. We still have to get the mail don't we? Did you get to think about what would look nice?" All I got was a shrug.

"Do I gotta, , , I mean, well, , , I wanta pay for the new one." He said after a long pause.

"Okay," I replied. "I'm very impressed you offered son, that is a very mature thing to offer!" From the slight jerk I felt in his little frame I'm sure that was not the response he wanted.

"How much does it, well I mean can you take just part of my allowance , well I mean what's it gonna cost?"

"I guess we'll have to figure the cost, that's part of doing it." He slipped under my arm before I could continue. "Well, for the temporary one today, its not too expensive. A couple of extra hugs and a turkey squish should cover it!" I added, poking his ticklish ribs, getting rewarded with a soft giggle.

"The new mailbox is going to be a lot more expensive." I injected as he quit squirming. "I could take it out of your allowance, or you can work it off. You try your BEST at school, and at being the happy Carl I love so much and we'll call the debt square, okay?" He started to turn around to look at me when I added "Oh, and I get extra kid squishes to pay for the interest." Tickling his tight stomach.

After I finished driving the temporary post into the ground Carl helped me bolt the new box onto it. We were picking up our tools when he seemed to drift away again.

"Pop, will you talk to Mike? I mean, can, well, is it okay if Mike wants to talk to you some?" My distressed faced son began. I only got to nod my consent before he continued "His dad don't like him anymore. He, well he thinks he knows what he did when he was with, well, with them, well when we were with them and he hates him now. Please pop he is scared!"

I tried to decider 'he' from 'he' in Carl's statement, but thought better after a few tries. Agreeing to talk to Mike I suggested I would when I could get a few minutes alone with him, but suggested we enjoy our time together too.

I had been considering taking the boys and Dad out to lunch. When Carl and I got inside all the boys were glued to the TV watching another Sci-Fi thriller. Trays of snacks were everywhere and I think Carl's mouth was the only one not stuffed with food. so I decided to wait. We had to return the videos that evening anyway.

I had been surfing the net for an hour or so when the twins came into my bedroom. It was clear from their matching puppy dog eyes they were going to hit me up for something. I hastened my scan of the forum I was reading, while I waited to see who's turn it was to start the sales pitch. I was surprised at how directly they approached me. After a quick hug and couple of seconds of small talk Jerry suggested what a good idea it would be to go to 'The Gazebo'. Jeff added how much I would enjoy myself, that 'I' might even enjoy eating supper there!

Their idea actually was excellent, one I wish I had thought of. The Gazebo was a defunct shopping mall that a group of investors had converted into an indoor, year around amusement park. It offered almost any form of entertainment you might find at a theme park, including shows, a massive video arcade, carnival rides even including a roller coaster, and of course a food court that was large enough to feed even the twins.

I quickly agreed. I was about to suggest they go tell Carl and Mike when I heard a soft giggle, then a high pitched voice whisper 'yeah!' just outside my bedroom door. The twins quickly blushed as they gave the doorsill matching death glares.

"The only thing is, you guys know Carl probably isn't tall enough to get on a lot of the rides." I stated. "Well, that's okay, he'll just have to watch while we have fun."

The sudden silence outside the door was almost deafening. The twins developed puzzled expressions as they snapped their gaze back to me, their faces quickly changing to almost evil grins.

"Yeah whatever, maybe we should just leave him here." Jerry replied.

"Yeah, we could get gramps to BABY SIT." Jeff added, trying to stifle his giggle as we heard a thump next to the doorsill.

"Okay, you guys make sure gramps can BABY sit, and get dressed." I suggested, all three of us trying to keep from laughing.

We remained quiet for several seconds trying to understand the muffled whispers from the hall. Shortly I saw just a bit of metal reflection followed by Carl's long face, his frown so pronounced his lower lip almost covered his facebow.

"Hi turkey, we were just talking about you." I exclaimed, trying to keep my composure. "Interesting you just happened in!"

I guess the harsh death glare he shot Jeff and Jerry was too much as one then the other started laughing, which quickly infected me.

"Sometimes you don't hear what you want when you spy, do you?" I suggested extending my arm toward him. He took a step toward me before I asked. "Where's Mike?" A distraught face and long thin neck slowly crept around the edge of the doorway.

"You're not really gonna leave me here are you?" Carl whimpered. Before I could respond Timmy appeared in the shadows, his face wrought with uncertainty.

"You have to ask your mom and dad." I said toward Timmy. "Of course everyone is going, you guys going to get ready?" I suggested to the group.

Timmy was down the hall and out the front door at lightning speed. Carl started toward his bedroom before he gave the twins one more dirty look and disappeared. We snickered together for a second before I got up, the twins off to their bedroom.

The twins were clearly in the middle of a telepathic synch when I walked into the kitchen. Carl appeared right behind me carrying his headgear in his hand. When I saw the twins eyes flashing toward Carl's appliance and me I knew what they were going to ask. Carl had been in his enough today and really didn't need to wear it during the outing. The twins had worn theirs for several days without even a complaint, and I was considering letting the twins have a few hours without theirs when Timmy burst in, headgear shining. He seemed surprised at the glare he got from the twins.

"Wow, I feel left out!" Mike quipped, bowing his thumb and forefinger in front of his mouth as he entered the room. Carl snickered as he pushed his facebow into his mouth.

"Hey, maybe there will be some girls there, it worked last time!" I teased as I ushered everyone toward the van.

The Gazebo was indeed a perfect choice. Despite the twins' objections that they were too old I purchased the type of admission bracelets that had to match mine before any of them could leave the building. After we agreed to meet in the food court in an hour Timmy and the twins took off to explore. Carl and Mike began cruising from one booth or ride to the next, but without my prompting seemed to be careful to stay in sight of me.

I rode a couple of rides with them, enjoying watching Mike's enthusiasm. The festive atmosphere of the park clearly enthralling him. I put my hand on his shoulder just to guide into line for another ride only to find the kid tightly tucked under my arm, stuck like glue. After the ride I had taken about five steps toward its exit when Mike pushed his way back under my arm. One step later Carl was under the other, both boys tightly against my sides.

"I think someone is enjoying himself!" I said to Mike. "A little different than your small town?" I asked, softly squeezing his bony shoulder.

"This is TOTALLY cool, thanks Mr., , , pop!" he replied, pushing against me. "I wish my dad did stuff with me like you do."

He continued to lean into me. Carl pulled my arm from his shoulder across his chest, holding my forearm against him with both hands. We walked for a second or two as I considered a response. I wanted to talk to him as Carl had asked, and while he is relaxed would be a good time, but I didn't want to ruin his fun. 'Shit, are some of Tim's skill sets rubbing off on me?' I wondered.

"Do you do things with your dad much?" I somewhere between risked and asked.

"No, he never wants to do anything anymore. I don't think he likes me anymore." He said, his voice saddening. "I don't think he wanted me back."

We walked a bit further as I tried to decide how to proceed. I had planned a lighthearted evening of fun, but, , ,

'Meet me at the food court entrance, quickly.' I forced into my conscious thoughts, deciding to try an experiment. I guided my young appendages toward the food court as I mentally broadcast 'You guys get Carl to go with you, I want to talk to Mike alone.'

"Dad!" Rang into my ears as we approached the food court. "We was looking for you guys!" Jerry announced as he ran toward us. The twins quickly summarized their adventures to us, Carl relaying the highlights of our time so far.

"We found this totally bad video game, its totally awesome air combat!" Jeff announced. "But you gotta have four people for it. Come on Carl, your gonna freak when you play it."

Carl hesitated, clearly concerned about leaving his guest out of the action. In the corner of my eye I saw Jerry glare at him for a second or so.

"I was thinking about getting something to drink." I injected.

"Arf, whatever." Jerry responded. "Hey, Mike! Will you baby sit our dad for a little?" Seeing Mike's confused expression he added. "Hey, someone's gotta keep him outa trouble! If he screws up let me know, I'll straighten him out!" he offered, slapping my thigh.

"Come on kid, I'll buy you a cold beer!" I suggested, pulling Mike back under my arm. He hesitantly walked with me to, looking back in Carl's direction several times as we approached a nearby booth. I was able to flash the twins a brief high five as they darted away.

Mike was still somewhat uncomfortable as I ordered two large Root Beers. I guided him toward a water pond nearby. Although man made and in the middle of an urban mall it was very realistic, even to having live ducks and pigeons to feed. I bought two bags of feed before moving to a bench.

"I like it here, I bet its kind of like your home town, isn't it." I asked. "You have a lake at the edge of town don't you?" All I got was a nod from him. "Do you ever go there? Do you and your folks go there for picnics or such?"

"We used to sometimes." He replied, seemingly much more interested in the ducks, our instantly friendly audience (as soon as they saw the feed bags). "We don't go nowhere anymore." He added after a pause.

"How come my parents don't like me anymore? Did my dad tell you why?" He asked, probably more to the ducks than me.

"Why do you think they don't?" I asked.

"My dad don't. He don't want me to talk or nothing no more." After another pause he added "He told my mom he thinks I'm weird now"

"Why do you say that son? I'm not sure you are being fair to your dad when you say that."

"I heard him tell my mom I was! Well he thinks maybe, I got up to go to the bathroom and heard them talking."

"He didn't say he thought you were weird when I talked to him!" I countered.

"He does! He told her that what I did, I mean what happened, well I mean, well when I was gone I got weird that's what he told her, I heard him!"

I was trying to think of a way to respond when the seldom used analytical part of my brain booted up, opening its Thesaurus. Weird equals Odd, Strange or Different I surmised. A reference to the cob web laden leftovers of the countless hours I spent during my college days; Roget's equated this to Queer.

'God, if I only had a telepathic link to my cell phone like I had with the twins I could get Tim to bail me out of this, the brash old biker would have an answer!' Sadly, the phone sat quietly on my hip, either not interested or enjoying its revenge for all the times I failed to recharge it. I bit my lip trying to decide how to proceed.

"Is weird the word your dad used to mom, the exact word?" I asked.

"Well sorta, well not exactly sir." He told the most friendly duck enjoying our feeding.

"Exactly what word did he use?"

"I don't remember." He almost whispered. He started to stand up when I put my arm over his shoulder, but after a pause relaxed back into the bench.

"I thought you wanted to talk. Please don't be afraid of me, and you don't have to say sir unless I'm pissed, okay!" I began. "Still trust me?"

"He said queer, I think that was his words." Mike told the pond more than me. He stared off into the water for several seconds moving away from me on the bench.

"What does the word queer mean, will you define it for me?" I asked, still wishing for a call from Tim (or God). All I got in response was a bony shoulder leaning against my ribs. "What does it mean to you Mike, not to the dictionary but to you?"

"That I'm weird. . . That I'm different now I guess."

I spent a second or so evaluating his expression as well as his input. His innocent face told me to move on.

"When you were rescued, maybe I should say when you found out you were going to get to go home to your parents, how did you feel? I'm sure you were happy to go home, but were you nervous or worried?" I asked.

"Yeah, sorta, I mean yes sir a little." He told the ducks, offering it a few more grains of treat.

"What were you worried about?" I asked the ducks, being careful not to lock eyes with Mike. He paused so long I was starting to be concerned that he might have thought I was talking to our feathered friend.

"Well, you know." He muttered. "Well I did some stuff. Well some dirty stuff. Carl said you know what we did!" He exclaimed, I could feel his eyes studying my face.

"I know what was done to you son, what some very evil people did to you." I replied, turning to look at his taught face. "The only thing I know you did was what you had to do to keep from getting hurt or killed.

"Mom and dad know some of what these people did to you too, they are mad as hell that someone did it, but they know you didn't do anything, , , dirty."

"Well but still they're all mad, they don't want me anymore." He whined, looking back at the ducks.

"You're right about them being mad, your dad is mad as hell, but they are not mad at you." I replied, resting my hand lightly on his shoulder. "Your dad and I had a long talk yesterday, remember?" He responded with a shrug.

"Your parents are mad at what happened to you, at the men that kidnapped you, not at you." No response. "Have you ever gotten angry at someone and acted mad at everyone because you were in a bad mood?" Another small shrug. "Can moms and dads act like that?"

"I don't know." He whispered.

"Yeah you do, don't you. Do you think your parents still love you?"

"I don't know." He told his shoes. "I guess so." He added after a pause.

"I KNOW they do son, I know how much your dad is ripping at his heart because he loves you and wants you to be, , , happy and safe again." I paused before asking "Do you still love your parents?"

"Yeah of course!" He exclaimed. "That's stupid sir, I mean pop!"

"You love your parents, but you are a little uncomfortable since you moved back home. Could they feel the same way and still love you?" He shrugged, then nodded his head in the affirmative.

"Dad is concerned about a lot of the same things you are, getting used to being a family again. Mr. Young and your case worker and your dad are going to talk, I bet if all you guys work together by the next time you come to visit everything will be better, want to bet?" He looked up at me wide eyed. I continued before he could speak.

"Not perfect, but better. But you have to do your part, you have to talk to your case worker and your parents, and be honest. Can you do that?"

"I guess." He whispered.

"Let's give it a try, if you'll try I bet you and your parents will be more comfortable by the next time you visit, do you think?"

"I guess so" He agreed, more to his web footed friend than me.

"Well, we got the ducks fed," I began, "Why don't we find the turkeys and, , ,"

"Next time!" He interrupted, his voice almost shrieking. "You mean next time I get to, well I mean I get to come stay here again?"

"Well, I don't know." I responded. His face melted as if what he thought he had heard was indeed too good to be true. "Only if you want to." I added.

"I wanta, I really do, I do pop!" He howled, pushing against my chest.

"We gotta make sure its okay with your parents, but I'm not worried. I'm sure they will agree. Come on, let's go find everyone, I'm hungry." I suggested.

Somehow I wasn't surprised when the boys found us before we them. We had crossed the food court and hadn't walked twenty feet toward the video arcade when I saw several silver reflections rushing toward me.

"I'm hungry dad" Jeff exclaimed.

"I'm starving!" Jerry added, both of them leaning on me.

Timmy quickly joined in. By their expressions and pleas anyone listening would be convinced they hadn't eaten for two or three days, instead of the two or three hours it actually had been.

Mike and Carl walked beside me as the other boys rushed ahead back into the food court. Mike was just finishing telling Carl for the fourth time how he was going to get to re-visit when we caught up with the others, staring longingly into an all you can eat pizza shop.

Twenty minutes and probably an equal number of large pies later everyone seemed full and happy (except of course for the shocked shop owner). After making everyone wash the tomato sauce and cheese off their facebows the twins and Timmy took off again, agreeing to meet in an hour. I found myself wondering if the meeting was to check in with me or to get me to buy them another snack, but knew better than to ask.

Mike and Carl chose to again stay close to me. As we walked they darted ahead to investigate this or that. Every few minutes this time I found myself with a kid tucked under each arm, Mike being as warm to me as Carl.

After a few minutes Timmy, then the twins reappeared next to us. They were on the way to try out some super ride that they had heard about. They somewhere between invited and demanded Mike and Carl join them. I quickly gave my approval, saying I was going to get a beer and sit down for a while, our original check in time still applied.

I was in line to buy a beer when an Army officer I worked with from time to time walked up to me, along with his wife. They were doing the same thing I was, killing time and resting weary feet while their kids prowled the mall in search of adventure. A beer turned into three as we chatted. Noticing I had to meet the boys in ten minutes I was about to excuse myself when the mall's public address system caught my attention.

"Gazebo guest Christian Miller, please report to the park security office." I picked up on its repeat announcement.

I quickly downed the last of my beer and excused myself. As I rushed toward one of the concessions to ask directions to the security office my mind began to become flooded with concerns. 'Are the boys okay?' 'What kind of shit did the twins get into THIS time?' 'Did Mike, well or maybe Carl or even Timmy screw up?'

'No, its not Timmy' I told myself. The worst behavior I have seem Timmy get into in his 13 years was belching at the dinner table.

"Oh God," I silently prayed "PLEASE let all of them be okay, they're just kids!"

I was rushing out of the food court toward the mall offices when the public address system again summoned me, enhancing my fears. 'Should I have left Mike alone, is he more unstable than I thought?' widening my steps. 'Mike's with Carl, he's ok.' I reassured myself. 'Oh f*** Carl. Not again!'

"Please Lord, let all the cops be okay too. No more this week at least!" I added to my silent request, increasing my pace toward a jog.

To Be Continued…