Toby
By: Jess Mercer
( 2010 by the author)

  The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at...

The undertaker's assistant watched as a tall young man, impeccably dressed in a tailored black suit, a crisp white shirt with a black tie, entered the main door of the funeral home just minutes before closing. The man set a black leather suitcase and matching briefcase down, then walked confidently toward him.

"Mr. Andros?" He asked in a mild British accent.

"This way, please." The assistant led the man to the open door of one of the slumber rooms and stood aside.

With faltering steps, the man approached the casket and at last looked down, his hands immediately covering his face, shoulders shaking.

The assistant was surprised at the display of grief from a stranger. The few peo-ple that had visited during the day had left with solemn expressions, but none of the emotion he witnessed now. He moved to the man, holding out a box of tissues, but the head shook as one hand reached into a pocket and brought out a snowy linen handkerchief. The assistant stepped respectfully back and glanced at his watch.

A few minutes passed before the assistant approached the man once more and said softly, "I'm sorry, sir, but we must close now. Perhaps tomorrow?"

Tears ran down the face that turned toward him. "I'm sorry. My plane was late. Could I speak with someone about the service?"

"The service is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon at two in our chapel."

"Who made the arrangements?"

"I believe his attorney made the arrangements, sir."

A steely edge crept into the man's deep voice. "That will not do at all. I won't have it. I wish to speak to someone in charge. Now."

"There's no one available at this hour, sir. The director will be in at nine tomorrow. I'm certain he will arrange everything to your satisfaction, if you will call on him then."

"I shall. Please call a cab for me."

"Of course, sir."

The next morning the funeral director's usual composure was shattered when the young man before him demanded cancellation of the arrangements and laid out far more elaborate plans for the funeral.

"But Mr. Andros' attorney has approved everything and notice has been published."

"Then have a new notice placed in today's paper. The service will be held in the church Mike loved. I will speak to the pastor as soon as I leave here and let you know."

"May I ask by what right you demand these changes."

"Mike Andros was my father."

The director's mouth dropped open. "You ... you're saying you're his son? Impossible. I've known Mike for years and he never mentioned a son. His attorney said he died without family."

A faint smile twitched the man's lips. "Apparently he never told anyone about me."

The director recovered his composure. "If you will see Mr. Andros' attorney and have him call me, we'll do our best to comply with your wishes, sir."

The secretary was unlocking the door of the law office the next morning when an impeccably dressed man pushed past her and into the lawyer's office with scant observance of the usual courtesies and repeated his demands. The young lawyer's expression of shock surpassed that of the funeral director after he opened the envelope the man had taken from his briefcase and read the power of attorney.

"I'm terribly sorry, sir. Had I known I would have contacted you immediately. I'm afraid Mr. Andros was secretive about a number of things of which I should have been aware, and he left no last letter of instructions, though I begged him to make one. Consequently, I did what I thought necessary to the best of my ability. Please excuse me for a moment."

He picked up the phone and buzzed his secretary who came in moments later and laid a file on his desk. He broke the seal on a document and read to himself, eyebrows rising, then looked at the man seated across the desk. "May I see some proof that you are Tobias Wilhelm?"

Toby reached into his inside coat pocket and handed his passport to the attorney who studied it, comparing the photo to the face of the man across the desk before handing them back.

"Thank you, Mr. Wilhelm. It appears that we are the coexecutors of Mr. Andros' estate. My family and I moved into the house next door to Mike a few years ago. We became casual friends as well as neighbors, and Mike retained me as his attorney when his former attorney retired last year. In all our visits he never alluded to you, nor have I ever seen you at his home, yet in his will he refers to you as his son."

"I'm not surprised that you didn't see me, for my visits were brief. I've been in London for several years now. Mike was my father, though it was not a formal adoption. Our relationship was shared by us alone."

The next afternoon at the church, Toby asked the attorney and his wife to sit with him as the service began. The liturgy and exuberant organ music played as loudly as Mike had loved it, brought comfort to Toby.

As the casket was being lowered into the earth during the benediction, Toby dropped to his knees. When the attorney placed his hand on Toby's shoulder in a futile attempt to comfort him, Toby, tears unashamedly running down his face, looked up at him. He made the sign of the cross and stood. "Everything that has been good in my life is gone," he murmured.

The attorney sent his wife home in their car and shared the limousine with Toby for the drive back to the funeral home.

"May I ask where you're staying?" The attorney asked.

"At home."

The attorney's eyebrows raised. "Where?"

Toby looked surprised until he understood. "Mike's house has always been my home. I assume there is no problem with that."

"Not at all. We'll need to consult on a number of things, Mr. Wilhelm, so I hope you plan to be here for a while."

"I can arrange that. My company certainly owes me the time off."

"May I ask what you do?"

"I'm an economist for an investment bank. I was in our London office when our corresponding bank here thought to call me. That's why I was so late in getting home."

"I see."

As they took their leave at the funeral home, the attorney stopped Mike. "If you would care to join us, my wife and I would like to have you over for a drink and dinner this evening."

"Thank you, but I'd like to be alone tonight."

"Perhaps tomorrow evening, then."

"Yes, I would like that very much. Mike spoke of you often. He felt fortunate to have such good neighbors."

"As I hope we will be to you. About six, then. And please call me John, Mr. Wilhelm."

Toby gave him a slight smile. "I'm Toby."

Once he pressed a drink in Toby's hand, John took his own and sat across from him. "You're obviously a very successful man, so if I'm not being too personal, why did you say all that was good in your life died with Mike?"

Toby took a sip of his drink and set it on the table beside him. He looked at the attorney, astonished at feeling the neighborly warmth and interest. "Because everything good I have had in life came from Mike. I wasn't his son in the physical sense, yet he treated me as though I were. He was everything I ever wanted in a father, kind and loving." He blotted a tear with his handkerchief.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."

"Not at all, but this has hit me hard. I would have been coming home for a lengthy holiday with Mike in just a few more weeks. You can't imagine how I was looking forward to that."

"How did you come to know him?"

"Are you ready for a long story?"

"Of course. I like a solution to a mystery."

Toby's eyes twinkled. "Yes, I rather think I am a mystery to you. I was a thrown-away kid. He rescued me."

John's brow creased in puzzlement. "A thrown-away kid?"

"I believe that now you would call me a street kid. It began like this:

Mike Andros luxurated in a near monastic retirement after thirty years of teaching, finding joy in doing things according to whim rather than a rigid schedule. His income, thanks to prudent investment, remained sufficient for his needs and the new books and classical recordings that filled his time with pleasure. Now that Thanksgiving was nearing, he expanded that enjoyment sitting by the gentle flames on the hearth, a glass of his favorite wine on the table beside him.

He laid the book aside with a frown at the sound of a door banging shut at the rear of the house. He had heard it once or twice before, always assuming it to be the wind catching the cellar door that occasionally failed to latch, but the evening air was still and he'd not been in the cellar for some time. He arose with annoyance. Changing his slippers for a pair of old loafers at the backdoor, he pulled his cardigan tighter and went out into the chill, for the cellar could be entered only from the outside. He quickly covered the few steps to the door.

The latch dangled though the door itself was firmly closed. He pulled it open and fumbled for the switch. A dim light overhead scarce penetrated the gloom as he looked about. The old furnace rumbled contentedly. His turn back toward the door was arrested. Against the foundation wall where a coal bin had been in days before the oil furnace, he barely made out a sizable mound of what appeared to be rags. He sniffed. A sour odor emanated from the pile. 'Wonder how it got there?' he asked himself. 'Can't have that. Could catch fire.' He shrugged. 'Oh, well, it'll wait until tomorrow morning.' He retraced his steps after latching the door.

Dressed in old jeans and a ragged sweater, Mike descended into the cellar, screwed a stronger bulb into the overhead socket, and surveyed the pile with amazement. He recognized the old twin mattress and the thin blanket as ones he had discarded a few weeks before. He stepped closer and opened the plastic trash bag by the mattress to see a few pieces of worn clothing, obviously not dis-
cards of his. A nearby paper bag held an unopened tin of soup, an empty tin of the same, a rusting can opener, and a large cheap pottery mug. His scowl became deeper as he bent to pick up the bags to carry to the trash bin in the garage, for his eye caught a slight movement near the hot water tank. He straightened to see the small door giving access to the crawl space under the rest of the house slowly closing. A few steps and he jerked the door open. Seeing nothing, he returned to the house for his flashlight.

He moved the light over the space until its beam picked out a dirt streaked face. "What are you doing under there?" He demanded.

The figure shrank further behind one of the large foundation pillars.

"Come out, now!"

There was no answer, but the face peered around the pillar once more. In the light, Mike could see how thin and pinched the face, how young it seemed with hair hanging below the figure's shoulders. 'Is it a boy or a girl?' He wondered. 'No matter, I simply can't have this.'

"Come on out." He called again. "I won't hurt you."

The head shook in a negative.

"You must. You simply cannot live under someone's house like this."

With another negative nod, the figure vanished behind the pillar.

'This is intolerable,' Mike thought. "Very well," he called. "I'll leave the door unlatched and you may come out after I'm gone, if you like, but I insist that you get your things and leave."

He dusted himself off and went back into his house to do some cleaning, all the while wondering about the child. Sometime during the early hours of the next morning he awakened to the sound of water running in the pipes in the wall next to his bath. 'That damned commode has hung up again,' he thought as he checked the bathroom. Nothing. 'Must be the one downstairs.' He went down and checked, but all was normal. 'Then it's got to be the one in the utility room. I hope one of the hoses on the washing machine hasn't burst.' He was turning the lock on the door to the garage when the noise ceased. Sleepy, he relocked the door and climbed the stairs to his bed.

When he drove into the garage from a trip to the bank and supermarket early the next afternoon, he saw the door between the garage and the utility room stood ajar. He pushed it open, noticing an unusual moistness in the air. The shower stall behind the door was wet. A damp towel hung over the frame. 'That kid,' he thought.

He opened the outside door and walked to the cellar. The door remained unlatched. When he pulled it open and switched on the light, the first thing to meet his eyes was a pair of worn jeans, two shirts, three sets of underwear, and several pairs of socks, still wet from washing hanging over a piece of nylon cord strung across the room. The emaciated figure darted from the mattress toward the crawl space door.

"Wait," he said softly. "I'm not going to hurt you."

The figure edged closer to the door then paused, looking at him warily. The face was clean and the hair silky, shining in the light.

"Did you shower and wash your clothes sometime last night?"

A quick nod.

Involuntarily, Mike smiled. "I'm glad. You must feel a lot better."

Another nod.

"But surely you must see that you can't live in my cellar like this. Why are you here?"

"It's warm." The answer came in a surprising baritone.

"Haven't you a home?"

A negative shake of the head.

Mike seated himself on a step. "At least come over here and talk to me. Perhaps I can help."

Another shake of the head.

"Very well." Mike got up, dusted off the seat of his jeans and left, leaving the door unlatched.

He agonized over the boy's situation as he went back in to begin preparing dinner. 'It's unthinkable to have him living in the cellar, but if I call the cops they'll probably put the kid in jail, and if he gets in the clutches of social service, I dread to think what might become of him. He at least tries to stay clean, so he's not a hopeless case. And he's made no attempt to enter the house even though I've never locked the door to the garage except at night. What should I do?'

The next evening, an Alberta clipper sent temperatures plunging. As he fixed dinner for himself, Mike thought again of the boy. Obviously he needed good food, a hot meal in this cold, though the heat from the furnace and the hot water tank would keep the small cellar comfortable. He opened the back door and went to the cellar, opening the door.

"Would you like to come in and have dinner with me?" He called.

"No." But the reply was soft.

Back in the kitchen, Mike pulled a tray from the cabinet and set it with a companion to his own dinner, hot soup, slices of roast, a baked potato, and a large serving of celery casserole. He added several cookies and a large glass of milk to the tray, then carried it to the cellar and set it on the top step after switching on the light. The boy, who had been lying on the mattress, sat up quickly and started to stand.

"This is for you. I hope you like it." When the boy made no response, he left, closing the door behind him with a sense of regret.

The next morning the tray sat just outside the kitchen door, the dishes licked clean. A sense of pleasure filled Mike as he retrieved the tray. Twice a day, at lunch and dinner, he set a filled tray on the top step of the cellar. The tray was always returned to the back door after the meal had been eaten. He no longer worried when he heard water running or the flush of the noisy commode in the utility bath. Though he continued to leave the door between the house and the garage unlocked during the day, as was his custom, there was no sign of entry. He came to feel at ease with the idea of the boy being on the premises, though the boy never spoke voluntarily and remained wary.

As he decorated the house for Christmas, he found himself wishing the boy were helping him. When he took a break in his efforts and went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, he glanced through the window just in time to see the boy emerge from the cellar and set off toward the street at the back of the house.

On impulse he set his coffee aside and went to the cellar. He looked through the boy's meager clothing, noting the barely legible size tags remaining on a few garments and guessing at the rest. He replaced everything he had disturbed as he had found it, hoping the boy would not notice. That afternoon, he braved the crowds at the mall and shopped the pre-Christmas sales carefully. He smiled as he placed the now colorfully wrapped packages under the decorated tree.

When he turned on the lights as darkness fell Christmas Eve, he looked through the glass panes of the front door to see the boy standing on the sidewalk gazing at the lights on the tree. When he noticed Mike looking out at him, he ran around the side of the house.

Without much hope of success, Mike went to the cellar door a few minutes later. The light was on. He noted that the room had been swept clean, the cobwebs gone from the dingy overhead. He watched the boy set aside the paperback book he'd been reading and tense.

"Son, it's Christmas Eve. No one should be alone at this time and I am. I have friends, but no family, no one close to share it with me. I'd be grateful if you would come in and spend the evening with me."

When the only response was a softening of the wary gaze, he closed the door and left to prepare dinner, somewhat surprised at the disappointment he felt. As he reached for the tray to fix the boy's dinner, the front doorbell rang. He opened the door, then smiled and opened the door wider. "Thank you for coming. I'm just fixing dinner for us."

The boy slipped in, stopping just inside to stare at the tall tree. Mike noted that the boy was as spotlessly clean as his worn clothes, then gasped in surprise, for there was no hand extending from the left sleeve of the boy's shirt. He wanted to put his hand on the boy's shoulder in welcome, but squelched the impulse, fearful of the boy's reaction.

"Come into the kitchen, we'll eat there."

The boy followed him to the table and took the chair Mike pointed toward. He sat quietly as Mike set the meal on the table and took his own seat. He marveled at the way the boy managed with his one hand and stump. Though the boy remained silent, his wary expression turned into a shy smile.

"Good," he said when he had finished second helpings of most everything.

"I'm glad. What would you like to drink?"

"Cocoa?"

"Of course."

When the cocoa was poured into a large mug and Mike's coffee in an equally large one, he set them on a tray with a plate of cookies and picked it up.

"Wouldn't you like to have it by the fire? We can enjoy the tree."

While Mike set the tray on the coffee table, the boy stood looking at the orna-
ments on the tree.

"I never seen one so big and pretty before," he said as he took a seat in the chair at the other side of the hearth from Mike. "If you're alone, why do you bother?"

"Because often people I barely know stop me before Christmas and ask if I'm going to have the tree. They say seeing it is a part of Christmas for them. That makes it worth the effort."

"Why should you care? I mean you said you didn't know them, so what do you get out of it?"

"The pleasure that it gives others. Christmas is a time for thinking of others and giving, son. That's what it's all about. Surely you know that."

"I ain't never thought about it." He looked at Mike thoughtfully. "Is that how come you didn't call the cops on me?"

Mike nodded.

"And why you shared your food with me? I ain't complainin' cause you cook good, but I ain't nothin' to you."

"But you are."

"Like what?"

"You're sharing this evening with me. It means a lot to have your company, especially on Christmas Eve."

"Why? You don't even know me."

"I may not know your name and this is the first time you've talked with me, but I know you're honest and neat as you can possibly be living in the cellar. You've even taken the trouble to clean it up. That may not seem much to you, but it tells me a lot."

"Such as?"

"First, your honesty. I've never bothered to lock the door from the garage into the house, but I can tell that you've never been inside before tonight. Too, you've showered and washed your clothes, but you've been so careful that my utility bill hasn't gone beyond the amount I always pay. I wish you had helped me with the tree. I had to call a young man I know to help me get it in."

"I'd of helped if I'd knowed."

Mike smiled at him. "Yes, son, I think you would have, but I was afraid to ask because you seemed so afraid of me."

"I was scared you'd call the cops, but after you didn't and was so nice, I'd of done it."

Mike poured him another mug of cocoa and more coffee for himself, then lit the candles on the mantelpiece and switched off the table lamp. With the lights on the tree, the room softened to a warm glow. He added another log to the fire, watching the flames flicker comfortingly.

"Would you tell me your name? I can't keep calling you son."

"It's Toby. But I like it when you call me son. It makes me feel like you want me."

"What about your parents?"

"Ain't got none."

"None?"

"I had a mom, but then she took up with a guy. I don't know where they are an' I don't much care. He beat me up an' threw me out. He didn't want me around and she didn't say nothin' 'bout it." Toby shyly held out his left arm. "That's how come I don't have my hand. He busted it when he beat me up. All I know is it hurt for a long time an' when the cops picked me up an' took me to the shelter, it had got so bad they cut it off. After, I run away. I been takin' care of myself fer almost a year now."

"How did you live?"

"Anywhere I could find outten the weather. When it got cold, I found your cellar. I watched for a couple of days an' when I saw you never went down there, I moved in. I was hoping you wouldn't catch me cause it's warm an' you'd thrown out that mattress an' blanket, so I had it better than I ever had before."

"Was that when I first saw you just before Thanksgiving?"

The boy nodded.

"What did you eat? I saw that bag of cans when I emptied the garbage."

"Whatever I could steal from stores. Sometimes I could get something from the place where they hand out food to people who don't have none. I was glad when you started to give me good stuff to eat. I didn't have to beg ner steal then."

"I wish I had known earlier, I would have helped."

"Naah. It was enough you didn't call the cops on me."

"How old are you, Toby?"

"Fifteen."

"Don't you go to school?"

The boy gave him a rueful look. "I can't go to school dirty and hungry. That's how come I was hiding. I don't have no money fer paper and all that stuff, neither. I liked school cause it was warm and I like learning 'bout things. I had one teacher last year was real good to me." He jumped up.

"You aren't going?"

"I gotta use the toilet."

"Oh. I'll show you."

The boy was such a long time, Mike feared he had slipped out of the house, but he found Toby looking with awe at the shelves of books lining the walls of his study.

"You sure got a lot of books."

"I enjoy reading."

"I like to read, too. I read a lot of books when I was in school, but I couldn't go to the library there after I quit, an' the library downtown wouldn't let me have no card 'cause I didn't have nobody to sign fer me. If I stayed in there too much, they'd run me out. I'd sure like to read some of these books."

"I think we might work something out."

"Really? Thanks, mister."

"My name's Mike, Toby. Let's go back to the fire."

They sat in silence for a long while, the Christmas music from the stereo surrounding them. Toby looked often at the tree with a longing expression while Mike gazed into the flickering flames, lost in thought. Suddenly Toby stood. "I guess I better get back down there," he said softly. "Thanks fer the swell dinner."

Mike glanced at his watch. "I'm leaving for church in a little while. Wouldn't you like to go with me? The music is especially good at Christmas and the sermon is usually excellent. We have a fine pastor."

"You want me to go with you?"

"I'd like that."

"I ain't got nothin' to wear 'cept what I got on. It ain't good enough."

"You'll see other young people wearing jeans as well, so you shouldn't feel out of place. If you'll go with me, I'll wear what I have on."

"You ain't goin' to put on no suit and all?"

"No."

"Well ... "

With the fire screen in place and the lights on the tree turned off, they drove downtown, Toby's face mirroring his pleasure at seeing the lighted decorations of homes along the way and in the business district.

His expression was one of surprise as Mike led him down the aisle of the gothic church to a seat near the front, genuflected, and guided Toby into the pew ahead of him. When he picked up the service book and began to place the markers for the service, Toby whispered, "What do I do?"

"I'll show you. Have you been baptized?"

"I don' know. I don' remember ever being to no church before."

"Then at communion come to the rail with me. Fold your hands and the pastor will bless you."

The members of the brass quarter took their places in the north transept and began with an exuberantly loud fanfare which the organ joined in force. At the end of the prelude the lights suddenly went out, the only light the sanctuary candle suspended from the ceiling near the altar. Mike felt Toby cringe in the unexpected darkness. Bearing the Christ candle, the pastor walked the length of the nave reading the traditional opening of the Christmas liturgy. The acolytes lit their torches from the candle and after one had lighted the candles in the Advent wreath and the pastor had set the Christ candle in place, they moved to light the altar candles. The lights on the tall Chrismon tree flashed on, followed by all of the fixtures. They stood as the organist began the processional carol.

With Mike's guiding finger, Toby followed the liturgy, not joining in the chants, though he seemed fascinated by the Gospel processional and recessional. When Mike passed his arm behind the boy and let his hand rest lightly on the boy's shoulder as the sermon began, he felt the boy flinch, but a moment later relax against the touch and edge closer.

"Christmas is the epitome of love." At the pastor's raised voice Mike glanced at Toby. 'Dear God,' he thought, 'the season of love and this poor boy is not only unloved but unwanted.' During the rest of the homily he waged a mental argument with himself.

He stood to join the line for communion and touched Toby's arm. At the rail the boy knelt beside him and folded his hand around the end of his stump, but jerked back in surprise as the pastor put his hand on his head for the blessing. As the benediction response ended, Mike said, "Merry Christmas, Toby."

Snow was falling heavily when they came out of church. The boy shivered under his thin windbreaker as they got in the car. When he got out of the car in the garage, he would have started toward the utility room door, but Mike grasped his arm. "I know it's Christmas morning, Toby, but won't you spend it all with me? There's more cocoa if you'd like some before bed."

"Yeah, that 'ud be good. I'm cold."

Mike switched on the tree lights and heated cocoa for them both. "Thank you for going to church with me. I hope you didn't feel uncomfortable."

"Maybe a little 'cause it was different, but the music was pretty and all."

When his mug was empty, Toby set it down on the napkin and stood. "I gotta go now. Thanks for everything."

Mike nodded, glanced at his watch, and stood as well. "Yes, I think it's time we should be getting to bed. Come along."

The boy drew back. "I ain't sleepin' with you."

"Good Heaven! Why would you think that? The room across the hall from mine is ready for you. I want you to spend all of Christmas with me and the day began not two hours ago."

"I guess I can spend one night, but it don't seem right."

Toby crawled into the big bed and snuggled beneath the down comforter, asleep even before Mike switched out the light and closed the door.

"Wake up, sleepy head. It's Christmas." Mike's cheerful voice called from the doorway. "I've got the fire going and breakfast is ready."

Toby sat up and rubbed at his eyes, momentarily confused by the strange room and a voice so close. He sat up. "Oh! I'll be there in a minute."

"What's that?" He asked as Mike lifted a waffle from the iron and set it on Toby's plate along side the links of sausage.

"Waffles. I always have them on Christmas morning. It's sort of a tradition for me. Here, put the butter on while it's still hot. There's maple syrup in the pitcher. Eat while it's warm."

"But you ain't got none."

"There's another in the iron. It'll be done in a minute. Eat before it gets cold."

Mike saw his eyes widen in delight at the first bite. The waffle vanished before the next one was done.

"Have another." Mike lifted the waffle from the iron.

"You ain't had none yet."

"I'll take the next one."

"You take half this one. They're good."

"I'm glad you're enjoying them."

Breakfast finished, Toby helped Mike put the dishes in the washer then looked at him. "I gotta go now."

"Why? I asked you to spend Christmas with me and it's not over yet."

"But you got other places to go, don't you? I mean you don't spend all Christmas by yourself, do you?"

"No, Toby. I always have Christmas dinner with friends. This year you're invited, too."

"No way. I don't know 'em. They ain't gonna want no one-armed kid around. Let me go back downstairs."

"If you wish, but we haven't had our Christmas together yet. Let's open our gifts."

"I ain't got none."

"I think I remember seeing one or two under the tree with your name on them."

"Ain't no way. This is the best Christmas I ever had. Please don't spoil it."

"I wouldn't do that. Come on, son."

Once he convinced Toby to sit on the floor by the tree, Mike sat down near him and picked a box from the pile of gifts, handing it to him. "This one is yours, I know."

Toby eagerly ripped the paper and opened the box, taking out a dark plaid wool shirt. "Oh, wow!"

Mike handed him another and began to open one sent to him from friends.

Toby held up a pair of heavy corduroy slacks with a look of amazement. "They're the right size. How'd you know?"

"I looked at your clothes one morning after I saw you go out. I'm sorry I went through your things, but I wanted to get the right size for you."

"I don't care 'bout that, but you ought not to of spent your money on me."

"You need heavy clothes for weather like this. It's still snowing a little. Here." He handed the boy another box.

When the last present was opened, Toby looked at the clothing in the opened boxes surrounding him, then at Mike and started to speak, but Mike stopped him.

"I'm sorry there isn't a special surprise for you, Toby, but I had no idea what you might want."

He watched in amazement as tears welled up in the boy's eyes. "You done give me more Christmas than I ever had before, but you know what I like best?"

"What?"

"When you called me son. I ain't never had no man call me that before."

Mike reached over and put his arm around the boy's shoulders. "I'll be proud to call you son, if you want. This time with you has been special for me. Go put your new clothes on and let's see how you look."

Toby returned dressed in the cords, one of the blending shirts, and a wool sweater. He was running his hand over the clothing. "Makes me feel real good," he told Mike with a smile.

"You look very nice. I'm glad they fit well, I had to guess at the size of a few things. Won't you reconsider and go to dinner with me at my friends?"

"You sure you want me to go?"

"Of course. They'll be pleased to see such a fine looking young man with me." Having called his friends early Christmas Eve morning in hope, he knew their generosity would extend to a small gift or two for Toby.

After they returned home and Toby had changed back into his old jeans and shirt, they watched a Christmas movie on TV. When it ended, Toby began to stack his gifts, then looked at Mike wistfully. "Can I leave these where I slept last night so they won't get dirty? I promise I won't come in less you're home."

He felt a sudden pain at the thought of the boy returning to the drab confines and remembered the resolution he'd reached in church. He grasped Toby's hand and placed it over his heart. "Son, you've made a place for yourself in here. That room is your room and this is your home."

"I don't belong in no place like this an' I ain't got nothing to give you after all you done for me."

"You belong wherever you're wanted, and I want you with me. The gift of your company and seeing you in school making something of yourself is all I ask. Will you give me that, son?"

Toby finished his drink and set the glass on the table beside him. "That's the story. But Mike's greatest gift to me was his invitation to live with him. He sent me back to school, then through college and graduate school. The love of a lonely man made me what I am today."

"Dear Lord! I knew Mike was a thoughtful neighbor and client, but as I told you, he was secretive about a number of things, especially you."

Toby smiled. "He was always afraid someone might find out I was living with him and take me away. By the time I reached eighteen our arrangement had become so ingrained it just continued without either of us thinking about it."

"You are fortunate to have found such a friend."

"I am indeed. That's why I was upset over the arrangements you had made. I knew what Mike wanted, for he spoke of it often to me this past year. I wish I had been with him when ..." His voice trailed off.

"It was sudden. A heart attack. He was gone before he hit the floor. There was no way you could have known."

"I'm glad it was so. Had he had a lingering illness, I'd have come, of course, but it would have been difficult for us both. Mike always resented any form of illness." He saw John looking at his left hand. "Yes?"

The attorney's face flushed slightly. "You said you didn't have your left hand, but you do."

Toby smiled and extended the hand. "This is another gift of Mike's. Each time prosthetic technology has made noticeable improvement, he always saw that I had the latest model immediately. It's difficult to tell it's not real, isn't it?"

"You use it with such ease, I'd never have known. But you mentioned that you work in London. Will you be returning there?"

"I shall have to return next week to complete the project I was working on. It shouldn't take more than a month or six weeks. After that I shall be returning here."

"Good. I know the cleaning service Mike used, so I'll have them give the house a thorough cleaning before you return and I'll have the lawn service I use keep the grass cut. By the time you return we should be able to settle the estate completely as you are his sole heir."

"Thanks."

"Since you have a place in London, have you given any thought as to what you'll do with Mike's house?"

"I'll make arrangements to sub-let my flat and move in permanently as soon as possible."

"But how is that possible with your work?"

"It doesn't make much difference where I live now. With a couple of phone lines for a fax and a modem, I can work here as efficiently as I can anywhere. I'll have to make some trips, but that's a minor inconvenience. It will feel good to be home again, to feel Mike's presence around me. That way I shall not miss him so much."

The End

Posted: 12/10/10