Christmas Companion
By:
Jess Mercer
(© 2008 by the author)
 

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

                                

The very few acquaintances I have invited into my home frequently tell me, in envious tones, that they wish they could be in my situation, but they are unaware of the heavy personal and psychological costs to me.

 

I have a spacious, nicely decorated, sound-proofed apartment on the top floor of a small, highly exclusive office building with secure, enclosed, ground level parking with video surveillance and an armed guard on the security desk in the lobby twenty-four hours a day. A few people I know have laughed at my choice of such a place for a dwelling, but Iím constantly bombarded by offers from top executives working in the building who admire my foresight. The building was planned for only ten floors, the tenth floor entirely occupied by the executive offices of the real estate empire I inherited. Looking over the architects rendering as construction was beginning and for my convenience, I convinced them to add a flat of my own design on the roof, not hard to do since, unknown to the public, the trust controlled by me owns the building. I have a small private lift with only four possible stops, my enclosed parking space in the basement garage, the lobby, my private office, and my flat. There is also a secret staircase from my flat down to my private office. No one other than Mike, my personal secretary, knows when Iím in my office.

 

Not only am I the only residential occupant, but a serpentine brick wall outside my flat hides and acts as a sound barrier for the few rooftop mechanicals required for such a building. The remaining space is a lovely deck and roof garden, with an 'endless' lap pool. I enjoy swimming and while I would have preferred a full size swimming pool, practicality decreed otherwise.

 

I also own a frequently visited log cabin in the mountains in the western part of the state to provide rest and relaxation. My trust fund provides an income sufficient to cover my needs as long as I am not overly extravagant. My father chose executives of highest honesty and moral character to operate the various divisions of his business. They have remained in place and continued as they always have, so I am not bothered with minutiae. However, I am not a totally useless sod for, while it is not a necessity, I do work, at least a little. At age twenty-five, with a PhD in performance, I hold the position of senior adjunct professor of organ at a nearby university, teaching the few advanced seniors in the organ performance major in private sessions. On special occasions, I play at the church I attend to please the pastor who is an organist himself.

 

I will play on Christmas Eve for the regular organist wishes to go out of town to be with his family. This is a special treat for me as I love Christmas, the music, traditions, the High Mass with its pageantry, but most of all, the music! I can play with abandon and get few complaints. There is a thrill in mixing traditional carols with brilliant harmonizations and a sprinkling of carols seldom sung. Iíve always thought it a shame that at most there are only two Sundays in the liturgical Christmas season and so many lovely carols that never get sung because of the brevity of the season, Advent having its own carols.

 

So it is that on Sunday night a week and a half before Christmas, I have been practicing the music I plan to play for my Christmas Eve recital and the High Mass that follows. I am pleased with the registrations I have worked out and saved in the multilevel memory of the organ.

 

The snow is falling lightly enough to be Christmas card beautiful. It lays on the grass, but the warmer pavement melts it for clear driving. When the dead bolt clicks, I withdraw my key and turn. A slight motion in what I perceived to be a pile of rags by the nearest buttress, followed by a tiny moan tweaks my interest.

 

I brush away some of the accumulated snow expecting an animal, instead I lift a woolen cap and see a childís grubby face.

 

"What are you doing out here, son? Itís far too cold."

 

His teeth chatter for a moment. "G g g g-got nowhere else. I heard the organ and hoped maybe a door was open so I could get in out of the cold, but all of them were locked. I got cold and sleepy and this was out o' the wind, so I set down here."

 

"What about going home?"

 

I see his eyes fill with tears. "Haven't one. My old man kicked me out two weeks ago, I guess it was, and mom didn't say nothing."

 

"Dear Lord!" I have to make a decision fast, the temperature is dropping swiftly since the sun has gone down. I know the shelters will be filled to overflowing, they always are on nights like this.

 

"Come along with me. You can get warm and have something to eat." As I pull him up, I catch a whiff of his acrid odor. "Yes, and a bath as well."

 

He pulls against me, but I see he's reaching down so I ease my grip. He lifts a pair of old crutches, pounding them against the pavement to remove the snow, then pulls them under his arms and looks at me.

 

I can see there's no shoe at the end of the right jeans' leg but that's all. He swings cautiously along the few steps to my car. I hit the remote to unlock the doors and he carefully brushes the snow from his clothing before sitting down, a move I appreciate as this Jag XK convertible is my one real extravagance.

 

He looks a bit surprised when I use my key card to open the sliding doors to the enclosed parking area under the building, Once I've parked and gotten out, he joins me at the door of the lift. Again I use my card to summons the car, and when the door slides open, I punch the button for my flat and use the card to activate the lift. My card is the only one, except for the master key used by the head of security, that allows the car to reach the foyer of my flat. I have a control panel in the foyer that I can use to send the car down for guests when the guard calls up to announce them.

 

The lift starts so fast he turns a bit green. "You're not going to be sick, are you?" I ask in alarm.

 

"N n n o, sir. It goes so fast it makes my belly feel funny." He says as the car comes to a smooth halt and the door slides open. I open the door and motion him out. "This is it. Follow me."

 

I lead him into my living room and suddenly realize he's not with me. He's standing just inside the door from the vestibule looking back and forth from my three-manual custom built electronic organ to the ten-foot Christmas tree by wall of glass looking over the city as if he can't decide which is most enticing. I go back and urge him to come with me to the guest bath.

 

"Take off your clothes and I'll wash them for you. There's a robe behind the door you may wear after youíve had a good bath. Shampoo your hair also. When you're done, we'll eat."

 

He stands behind the bathroom door and hands his filthy clothing around it to me, then closes it modestly. I hear the shower start as I enter the utility room conveniently placed next to the bath and near all the bedrooms. Because I knew that the water pressure would hardly register with being this high up, pressure pumps were installed in the basement and a gas water heater placed with the other mechanicals on the roof. Never running out is worth far more than the small additional cost. The pumps ensure there are no screams of anguish from a shower if a toilet is flushed or the washer is started.

 

As I throw his stuff in the washer, I can see that each piece is of highest quality and had been expensive. Once I start the washer, I go look in fridge for something to feed him. My general cleaning woman, a motherly type, can't resist cooking things she finds in the freezer. I have no complaints, but often I have a late on-campus lesson and prefer then to eat at the faculty club with colleagues for convenience. Opening the fridge door, I see she has left me a small pot roast surrounded by potatoes and carrots with some onion for flavor. There is also a bowl of sugar snaps. I haul it all out and begin to slice the meat, adding some of the veggies in the gravy to heat. I heat the sugar snaps separately. There is ample ice cream of various flavors in the freezer for his dessert.

 

I am distracted from the cooking when I look up and see him standing in the doorway to the hall. He would be a beauty with ample good food, some rest, and decent clothing.

 

"Come in and have a seat at the table." I point to the glass-top table set near the window overlooking the nearby countryside and, in the distance, the Interstate.

"Do you wish milk or coffee?"

 

"Milk, please." I admire the manners he has displayed so far, the cultured way he speaks. I pour a glass and hand it to him then set out what I have prepared.

 

"You have yet to tell me your name," I say sitting down at the table. "Mine is Piers Bradfield." My old man thought the name was classic, but I hate it.

 

He looks up through the fringe of hair hanging over his forehead, his eyes dark blue. "Kenny, sir." With that, he resumes shoveling his food in.

 

He eats his ice cream more slowly. "You play that big organ, sir?"

 

"Yes, I do. Thatís primarily my practice instrument, but I play it for relaxation as well."

 

"I hope you'll play it some for me."

 

"If you like. I will be practicing some tomorrow." His smile is sweet.

 

"How old are you, son?"

 

"Twelve, sir."

 

"Mind telling me your full name?" His eyes search mine for a moment, then he nods. "I owe you that for being so kind. I'm Kevin Kenneth Kerry Kinport the fifth."

 

Whoa! That name is constantly in the business news and society news. His father is a hard, unyielding, implacable man who in business practices skates very close to the edge of ethics, occasionally crossing the border thereof. He has to be completely unaware of just how large Bradfield, Inc. is with all of its subsidiary operations for he has tried several times to buy the conglomerate my grandparents founded and has been passed down to me, as if he had the money. I leave the operation to the board and CEO, looking only at the semi-annual reports they send me. And, yes, my PhD major is in  music but I also have an MBA, so I understand the reports thoroughly and don't hesitate to demand explanations and make changes if I'm unhappy.

 

I have to grin at the thought of the covert looks of anguish if I attend a board meeting, for they know I'm unhappy about something. But now I wish to know what caused the son of such a well-known businessman to be in such condition.

 

I frown and shake my head. Why would the son of so wealthy a man be on the street as an obvious throwaway? "Son, why are you out like this?"

 

The child looked up and tears began to trickle down his cheeks, making cleaner runnels on the grubby cheeks. "Because," he sobbed, "my daddy got mad at me and threw me out. He said he didn't want a little cripple like me around. He didn't even let me get any of my clothes. He said he paid for them so they were his."

 

I am filled with anger, knowing that what it would take to support this child in even a modest way would be less than pocket change to his father. I look down at the child again. "He doesn't want you to come home?"

 

"No." He begin to sob.

 

I sit in my favorite recliner with him on my lap, hold him against my chest and  stroking his back until he falls asleep. I carry him to my king-size bed and lay him on the far side, pulling the covers up. He never rouses.

 

The next morning he cries out, waking me. I pull him against me and cuddle him unitl he is fully awake and recognizes me. After I've washed up, I pat him on the back. "That's okay, son, this is my home and you can stay here if you like. Let's get you bathed and have something to eat, then weíll see."

 

"You mean you really want me to stay here with you?"

 

I pull him to me in a light hug. "Yes, if thatís what you want."

 

There is no way I can explain the feeling that came over me when I first saw the child, nor has it lessened. "Now, let's get you cleaned up and comfortable."

 

While the boy is bathing, I punch in my personal attorney's number and inform him of my situation regarding Kenny. He immediately advises me to inform old Kinport that Kenny is with me, that I had rescued him from the cold on a freezing night.

 

To make certain that my ass is covered, for it would be just like old Kinport to accuse me of kidnapping, child molestation, and any number of other things when he finds out Kenny is living with me, I pick up the phone and call his home. After a sharp exchange with his butler or whoever, the old bastard finally gets on the line.

 

" Bradfield here."

 

"Ö"

 

"No, I'm not about to sell any part of my corporation. I'm calling in regard to your son Kenny."

 

"Ö"

 

"What do you mean you have no son?"

 

"ÖĒ

 

"Well and good, if that's the way you wish it, but I will have my lawyer contact you with regard to certain documents I will need in order to fully care for his medical and educational needs."

 

"Ö !"

 

"I would advise you to consult your own attorney and follow his suggestions in this matter. Good day to you, sir."

 

As it would turn out later, it is fortunate that I recorded Kinport's conversation with me. My lawyers make good use of it.

 

Kenny is shy, but after I fixed us a breakfast of pancakes and breakfast sausage links and shown him the phone and how to reach me in my office, I get him settled in with the TV and go down the stairway. I'm sitting at my desk reading year-end reports when the intercom buzzes. "Yes, Mike?"

 

"Thereís a man asking to see you privately, Dr. Bradfield. He says he's an engineer with our Crown division. I know it's unusual, sir, but he's most insistent about the importance of what he has to tell you."

 

I sigh, for I try to stay out of routine business matters, letting divisional executives handle matters of importance, which keeps smooth working relationships in place. "Refer him to the COO of Crown."

 

"I did, sir, but he says it's too important and sensitive to be handled in-division."

 

"Oh, well, bring him in and bring your pad to take notes if it's as important as he believes."

 

The door opens and Mike ushers in a neatly attired middle-aged man. "This is Mr. Warren, sir," Mike says.

 

Warren looks at Mike. "I asked to see the CEO."

 

In no mood to waste time, I say, "You're looking at him, sir, I'm Piers Bradfield. Have a seat and tell me the necessity of my having this important information."

 

"I'm sure you are aware of the little pocket-pro digital projector we placed on the market last fall for the Christmas market."

 

I nod, for I'm fully aware that this little item, expensive though it is, has been responsible for over half of this past year's profits in the Crown Division. In fact, it was their annual report I had been reading when Mike buzzed me.

 

"Well, sir, I was doing some Christmas shopping last weekend and stopped in an electronics discounter to get some CD's for my son. I saw this." He holds out an item that looks almost exactly like our Pocket-Pro.

 

"I have had this in my lab for the past three days, sir, and I know for a fact that it uses components patented by Crown Electronics. They are counterfeit copies and of doubtful quality."

 

He definitely has my undivided attention now. "Can you show me?"

 

"Of course." He takes one of our Pocket-Pro projectors from his other coat pocket and opening it, places to next to the imitation he brought in. Taking the back off the unit, he points to the main chip, the powerful, but tiny, projection tube, and the series of highly polished little lenses. "If you looked closely at the pictures from ours and this one, you could immediately see the quality difference in clarity, sharpness, and detail in our unit. This copy also has inadequate cooling, so it will likely burn up in less than fifty hours."

 

I'm so astounded I can only stare at him and shake my head. "Mike, get us coffee and I am no longer available today."

 

I think a bit more then ask, "And who is responsible for this violation of our patents and this piece of junk?"

 

"I tried to find out, sir, but the store manager could only refer me to his supplier."

"What store was this?"

 

"Price Advantage, sir."

 

"Mike, get me the CEO on the phone."

 

While Mike is on the phone, I have Warren at my computer bringing up the patents he says have been violated.

 

Mike calls me to the phone and whispers, It's Mr. Roberts."

 

"Mr. Roberts, Piers Bradfield here. I regret disturbing you, however a matter has arisen over an item your stores are selling. Could you please inform me of your supplier of Pro-Ject?"

After a few moments on hold, he returns and answers.

 

"Eclipse Components, you say? I've never heard of them."

 

"Ö"

 

"You say they approached you to be their vendor? Most interesting. I thank you for your time and the information, sir."

 

After Iíve replaced the phone, I say, "Mr. Warren please print out the pages you have shown me. Also print out a picture of this piece of junk with the back off as it is now, marking the items they've used on which we hold patents. Mike get on the phone to the state registrar of business and industry and see if they have any information on Eclipse."

 

With Warren and Mike momentarily occupied, I start thinking of how to best handle this. A few moments later, Mike stands up and grins at me.

 

"Well?"

 

"You are in luck. Eclipse is registered in this state. It's your old buddy Kinports. Eclipse is one of their minor companies so far down the organizational list it's virtually lost."

 

My grin grows exponentially. I've got the old bastard where I want him, and revenge for the sake of young Kenny will be all the sweeter.

 

After he's printed out the information I've requested and handed the sheets to me, I stand and shake Mr. Warren's hand. "Sir, I can't thank you enough for persisting in seeing me and insisting that I should be the one to have this information. You will speak of this to no one other than to me, or to Mike. Even then it will be in person in one of these two offices which I am certain are secure. I believe you may look for a handsome bonus if you honor our confidentiality."

 

"You may be sure, sir."

 

Among our in-house attorneys are three specialists on patents. With them writing the applications, we've always gotten swift patent grants with no questions.

 

"Mike, get Richards and crew up here on the double and ask Mr. Warren if he will be good enough to advise Richards and the others as to what extent our patents have been infringed. Lawyers know diddly about technology."

 

By time for lunch, everything is running smoothly thanks to Mike's usual efficiency. I go back up to my flat and find young Kenny, still in the heavy terry-cloth robe, on the sofa sleeping, the stereo playing one of my favorite CD's of Christmas music.

 

I shake Kenny gently. "Wake up, son, and get dressed. It's time for lunch, then you and I have some shopping to do."

 

He jumps up with a look of fear that vanishes as he recognizes me. "Oh, I'm sorry."

 

"For what? I woke you and you are in a place that's strange as yet. Go wash your face and I'll bring your clothes to you. I left them on top of the drier after I folded them."

 

I decide we should lunch at a reasonably nice restaurant I occasionally frequent and choose because I'm thinking a young kid would prefer a burger which they have on the menu. True to my expectations, Kenny does order the classic burger that I know contains a thick slice of tomato, a goodly amount of lettuce, in addition to the three-quarter pound beef patty and various condiments. He smiles at me when he picks it up for the first bite. My broiled scallops are a delight as always.

 

"No dessert," I tell the waiter, and ask for the cheque.

 

Kenny looks disappointed, though how he could manage to eat anything more after polishing off the burger, fries, and side salad, I can't begin to imagine. "There's a nice ice cream shop in the mall. We'll stop there after we've gotten you some things to wear, if you want."

 

I'm rewarded with a broad smile. "Please. My dad wouldn't ever let me eat anything from the places in the mall. He said they aren't clean."

 

From the few things he's said, I am beginning to understand that Kenny has had an unhappy life, except for friend or two at the exclusive private academy he attended, even so, he was not allowed to see them outside the school. As far as fast food, I think it more likely the cantankerous old bastard did it just to disappoint Kenny. Surely he knows the health department inspects all food purveyors and eating establishments and post the grades where all can view them.

 

I'm lucky enough to see a car pulling out of a parking slot almost directly in front of the side door to the mall. I whip into it and hold a hand ready to catch Kenny if his crutches slip on the icy walkway.

 

We're hardly inside the mall when a young man near Kenny's age and dressed in a school blazer with a gold Westridge Academy emblem on the pocket yells, "Kenny," and runs up to us, hugging Kenny. "Where you been, Man? You haven't been in school for almost two weeks now."

 

Kenny returns the hug and pulls back a little. "Mr. Bradfield, this is Mike, one of my friends from school."

 

"I'm pleased to meet you, Mike." I look at Kenny. "Would you like Mike to help you pick out clothes that are 'in'?"

 

Kenny grins. "Yeah. Let's go, Mike."

 

I follow along, enjoying the happy expression on Kenny's face as Mike tells him everything that has taken place at school since Kenny was there. They turn into an above average clothiers and without hesitation head for the young men's section pausing to look at various garments.

 

"These will look great on you, Kenny," Mike says holding up a pair of woolen trousers against a beautiful blazer. I must agree. Mike apparently has an eye for color and style, and Kenny will need something dressy. Kenny finds some cords he likes while Mike selects two heavy sweaters that blend with the cords nicely.

 

A dozen or so shirts, casual and dress, loafers and a pair of dress shoes, a pair of engineer style boots for wear in the snow, only then do the boys motion to a clerk who has been watching, but not intruding. A rule of the store, I suppose. My credit card cringes a little as I hand it to the clerk, though it is actually 'pocket change' for me.

 

"Can we get some ice cream now, Mr. Bradfield?" Kenny asks.

 

"May we," I correct. "I did promise, didn't I? Will you join us, Mike? Your excellent help should be rewarded."

 

Mike's grin grows broader as we are seated and I tell them to order what they want. I need a decent cup of coffee, but the boys order jumbo banana splits. My eyes must have bulged at the sight of the mountainous creations set in front of the boys. Each certainly would be capable of amply feeding two, if not four, people.

 

I have two leisurely cups of cappuccino while the boys are shoveling in the ice cream and toppings. It comes as a surprise when both Kenny and Mike virtually lick the dishes clean.

 

We are about to leave when a smiling manager comes to our table and presents both boys a certificate for another creation for free as seldom does anyone manage to completely ingest a whole one. The boys thank him and he remarks to me, "You certainly have two ice cream lovers there."

 

"I was quite unaware of their capacity until now. You will be certain to see them again when they come to claim their reward. I must, however, compliment you on the quality of your coffee."

 

He smiles broadly. "I like good coffee so I use a much better quality than chain shops. It will be my pleasure to offer you a cup from my private stock when you bring the boys back. A Merry Christmas to you all."

 

"Okay, Kenny, time to head home. May we drop you some place, Mike?"

 

"Can Mike come with us?"

 

Iím about to agree when Mike says, "I wish I could, but I have to be a dadís office in forty-five minutes to ride home with him."

 

"Perhaps some other time, then," I tell Mike.

 

Kenny tells me that he likes Chinese, so on the way home, I stop by my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant and pick up chicken chow mein for our dinner, though Lord knows how Kenny could eat any after that mountain of ice cream.

 

I help him take the tags from his new clothing and give everything a light wash. By the time we have his things put away, he says heís ready for dinner.

 

As we are eating, I ask, "What would you like for Christmas, son?"

 

He looks at me sadly. "The one thing I want is what my daddy would never get me."

 

"And that is?"

 

"The doctor told him if he cut off the part of my leg that's useless, I could get a new leg and do all the things other guys get to do." Tears begin to trickle down his cheeks.

 

"I wish I could get that for you, son, but I have no authority to make such decisions regarding you. How old are you, Kenny?"

 

"Twelve."

 

"Ah. Then I will see what I can do. Would you be happy living here with me?"

 

He nods vigorously. "You're nice, and I got nowhere else to go."

 

When I open my arms, he hops over and into my embrace. "We have to get you ready for school on Monday. I'll take you and pick you up after school is over." I also resolve to get my attorneys on the ball and put me in a position to squeeze old Kinport.

 

"All my school books are at school. We only have three more days until Christmas vacation."

 

"Very good. You may watch TV if you wish. I am going to practice some music for Christmas Eve Mass."

 

"Can I just sit here and watch you?"

 

I shake my finger at him. "It's may I, remember? But, yes, you may if you don't interrupt my concentration. Part of the music is tricky to play."

 

"I won't. I love music."

 

He sits quietly as I practice. It may be his presence, but I find myself playing as I would for an audience. To my amazement, I render each piece with only one minor error in fingering that I correct unobtrusively.

 

When I finish and turn on the bench, he says, "That was wonderful, sir. I wish there was more."

 

"Thank you, Kenny. I expect you will be tired of hearing me by Christmas Eve."

 

"You make the music sound different from what I usually hear."

 

"Some of it is improvisations, and some is of my own devising. I like to make old music sound new in form." I slide off the organ bench and put my hand on his shoulder. "Ready for some ice cream?"

 

"Oh, yes, sir!"

 

Once we've finished our ice cream and I have the bowls in the washer, I sit on the sofa. Kenny sits close to me, then edges closer. I deduce he's starved for affection, so I put my arm around his shoulders and snuggle him. We just sit watching the flames in the fireplace, but within a short while he's fast asleep. I carry him to the guest room and undress him, sliding him under the covers. Poor kid is worn out, for he never rouses the first time. 

 

Over breakfast, I explain that I will have to go to my office and show him the stairway down to it, asking that he amuse himself until time for lunch. I find he misses his Gameboy, so I ask Mike to pick up an X-Box and several games he thinks Kenny will like.

 

Immediately after lunch, Mike enters my office and shows me the hardware and the games, Superman, Race Cars, NHL, and three or four others. "You think he'll like these?" I ask.

 

"I'm almost certain, because my little brother is begging for three of these for Christmas." He shrugs. "He may get one, but they're so damned expensive, like fifty bucks each."

 

I'm always amused when he talks 'poor' for his salary is commensurate with his position. I have learned covertly that half or more of his income goes to support his elderly parents, a move I highly approve.

 

"If you will come up with me and connect this thing so Kenny can use it, I'll make sure your brother isn't disappointed."

 

"But, sirÖ"

 

"In fact, how old is your brother?"

 

"He will be twelve in February. Why?"

 

"He and Kenny are about the same age. Why don't you have your brother come here after he gets out of school? He can play games with Kenny."

 

"Cody would like that, but I'll have to pick him up from school. He's not allowed to use public transport alone."

 

"Use my Jeep." I toss him the keys.

 

Kenny is bouncing up and down with excitement as Mike sets up the game system and shows Kenny how to turn it all on and set the channel on the large flat-screen TV for games. It's a delighted youngster we leave so involved in his game that he doesn't even notice us going down the stairway.

 

Looking at Mike's back as we go down the stairway, I wonder how I could be so lucky. If asked, Mike will tell you quickly that he's my private secretary. He is, but far more. Within a month after he took the position as my private secretary, he was discreetly advising me on business matters. Never once were his suggestions less than precisely what was needed to resolve the situation. Two months after he began work, I promoted him to Vice-CEO and have let him handle day-to-day operation of Bradfield, Inc. while I continued to oversee operations and to teach.

 

Mike's message light is flashing rapidly, indicating he has several messages waiting. He picks up the phone as I close my office door. A moment later he's opening it. "I think you'd best get the lawyers in for a meeting soonest. I'll go to pick up Cody soon as possible."

 

I nod. "The small conference room in fifteen minutes."

 

At five, I open my office door and look at Mike. "Been a great day, Mike. Let's go up and see what the boys are up to."

 

"Knowing Cody, they'll be right where we left them. I'm glad the guys from legal came through so quickly. Maybe you can avoid all that paperwork and crap social services will pile on if you try to keep Kenny."

 

I smile. "It's already in the works, that's why I wanted the guys to get right on our case against Kinport. If he's half as smart as I think he is, he'll sign most anything our guys set before him." I give Mike an evil grin. "What will hurt him most is parting with the money we'll likely get for damages as a violation of our patents. What I'm offering him is asking no punitive damages in exchange for his signing over Kenny completely to me. I hope it can be completed before Christmas, which gives us eleven days."

 

Mike shakes his head. "I didn't know courts could move so fast."

 

I smile. "Friendly judge."

 

The boys are absolutely riveted to the game they're playing. Both begin to complain loudly when Mike tells Cody they have to go. He looks at me and shakes his head.

 

"This is Friday. Let Cody stay over with Kenny, if they don't mind sleeping together. I'll see he gets fed properly."

 

"Yeah! Please, Mike," Cody says.

 

"That'll be fun," Kenny chimes in.

 

Mike looks at me. I nod. "Cody is about the same size as Kenny, so I think he can wear a pair of Kenny's PJ's."

 

Mike hugs Cody. "Behave yourself and pay attention to what Dr. Bradfield tells you, or you won't be allowed to come back."

 

"I will, I promise. Thanks, Mike."

 

I take the boys to a small restaurant I frequent and after they demolish the buffet and are finally full, we go back to the flat where they immediately pick up the game they were playing before we left. With them so fully occupied, I get in a good two hours of relaxed practice before they boys come in to watch. I finish the piece I was playing and call them into the dining area for ice cream, amazed that they can even find room for it after what they have already consumed.

 

"Okay, guys, you're old enough to get your baths. Kenny, get Cody a pair of your PJ's. I'll be in shortly to tuck you in."

 

When I hear the shower stop, I walk down to Kenny's room. The boys are putting on their pajamas. I pull back the covers and they crawl into bed. I bend and kiss each of them on the forehead. "Sleep tight."

 

The weekend flies by. Mike picks up Cody in time for school on Monday, having brought over clothing for him Saturday morning after Kenny begged me to let him stay another night. Even so, I get in more practice than I probably would have otherwise.

 

Kenny has made himself right at home, calling me Dad and begging me to let Cody stay the next weekend. He's so good all week, I'm perfectly happy to grant his wish. I'm happy Cody is his own age and a friend from school.

 

Thursday afternoon, my legal wizards meet with me and inform me that old Kinport caved without our even having been near the court. One of them hands me the paperwork transferring custody of Kenny to me, along with all the documentation, birth certificate, passport, school records, medical records, and so on.

 

I call a major orthopedic surgeon for an appointment only to find that he has previously examined the boy and that the undeveloped portion of the boy's leg could easily be removed so that he could be fitted with a modern prosthetic. I make an appointment with him for Kenny and place the appointment card I'm sent in a small Christmas card to be put in Kenny's stocking Christmas Eve.

 

Filled with a joy I've not known for a long time, I excel at the music for Christmas Midnight Mass. Kenny sits in a chair beside the console as I play, handing me music as I reach for it.

 

It is snowing lightly when we leave the church. As soon as we're home, he begs to open one present. I take down his filled stocking. After taking out a large tangerine, some Christmas candy, he pulls out a digital watch and glows with pleasure. Last is the card. He looks at it then me. "Is this to get my leg fixed?"

 

I hug him. "Yes. It can be done the just after the first of the year."

 

Kenny has tears streaming down his sweet face as he almost strangles me with his hug. "Then I can run and play like other guys. This is the best Christmas ever."

 

"I love you, Kenny. Santa must have brought you to me early so I wouldn't be alone at Christmas." 

 

Kenny is an entirely different child once he has the new leg. To walk anywhere means at a run. When I question, he grins and replies, "But Dad, it feel so good to run. I couldn't do it before. I'm rid of those darn crutches, too." I can only smile back. "I'm glad it makes you so happy, but you must be careful not to run into people or things."

 

I get a hug. "I won't. I love you, Dad."

 

I kiss his forehead. "Love you, too. Now scat, I've got work to do." It's only a few days after I had visited the academy to get the change in Kenny's records straightened out that the receptionist, unaware of the change in Kenny's status had called Kinport only to be cursed and told flatly that he didn't have a son, and to never call him again.

 

With little to occupy my time on this particular day, I drive the Jag to the academy to pick up Kenny. The bell rings and he comes out of the building in deep conversation with two of his friends. Kenny looks up as I hail him and runs over.

 

"HI, Dad, what're you doing here?"

 

"Thought you might like a ride home instead of taking the bus."

 

"Cool! Can you take Rick and Cody home, too?"

 

I grin. "I doubt that I can, but I might if asked correctly."

 

Kenny looks abashed. "I mean would you?"

 

"If you guys don't mind riding in back of the seats. This is a two-seater."

 

Their faces light up. "Yeah, man!" Cody immediately jumps in as he's ridden with us before.

 

Once Cody has Rick situated and we are underway, the conversation they were having as they came out of the building is apparently resumed. "That lunch was slops," Rick says.

 

"I don't care what the rules are, I'm going to brown-bag it staring tomorrow." Cody growls.

 

"Is it that bad, Kenny?" I ask.

 

He looks me in the eyes and nods. "The headmaster died like on last Friday night. There was an announcement today that the board was going to restructure the school and cut costs."

 

"Yeah! And the food was first," growls Cody. "I heard the new headmaster Is some retired army guy, a real hard ass."

 

"You're supposed to get a letter about all this stuff, Dad," Kenny adds.

 

"Do all the other students feel like you guys?"

 

They all nod. "Tommy tasted his lunch then threw the whole tray on the floor. The new guy suspended him for three days for that."

 

"Yeah, but nobody I saw ate anything. They all just walked out and left their trays on the tables."

 

Rick taps me on the shoulder. "It's that tan brick house just up there."

 

I pull into the drive to let him get out. Before he walks away, he looks at me. "Can't you do something, Dr. Bradfield? Kenny says you carry a lot of weight in town."

 

"I don't know, son, but if it's as bad as you guys say, I'll certainly look into it and give Kenny the results of my findings."

 

His face creases with a look of hope. "Thanks a lot, sir. Most older people think the place is paradise and won't listen if we try to tell them how bad it's gotten."

 

As I'm tucking Kenny in at bedtime, I ask," Kenny, do they still let parents visit and eat with their sons?"

 

"I guess. But I know they'll stop that, too, cause they say it costs so much to feed us."

 

"Then meet me at the front door tomorrow at noon. I will eat with you and see how bad it is."

 

He pops up in bed and hugs me. "I'm so lucky to have a dad like you." A kiss and he snuggles back under the covers.

 

The next morning, I dress to impress before spending a couple of hours in my office, then leave for the academy. I enter without seeing any adults, even the receptionist's desk is unattended. A bell rings and a moment later Kenny runs up and hugs me. "This way, Dad," he says, taking my hand.

 

Kenny pauses at the door to the dining room and speaks to the teacher standing there. "This is my father Dr. Bradfield, Mr. Marsten."

 

"How do you do, sir?" I say, extending my hand. "Kenny invited me to eat with him today."

 

"A pleasure, sir. You will understand if everything is not up to the usual standard. We are undergoing a bit of an upheaval with the unexpected death of our former headmaster and the transition to a new one."

 

"Of course."

 

Instead of Kenny picking up a tray and serving himself from the steam-table as it is apparently designed to be used, a surly cook takes the tray from the stack and slings a spoonful of mystery meat on it before passing it along to the next server. When Kenny and I are served, we find seats at a table with Rick and Cody and I look at the contents of my tray. Just the appearance is enough to make me want to gag. I gingerly taste some of the mush I suspect was once green beans, then quickly grab my cup of coffee trying to remove the taste.

 

"Dear God!" I exclaim to the delight of three boys. "Get your coats, guys, we're going to Arbys."

 

"But we aren't supposed to leave Ö" Cody starts to say.

 

"I'm an adult and a responsible parent. I'll take care of this place and if your parents give you any static, Rick, have them call me at home. Cody, you don't have to worry because your brother gave me an emergency custody statement. He won't object anyway."

 

"Can we go to Micky D's?" Kenny asks.

 

"Absolutely not! Grease and trans-fats are not what you need. Arby's beef has very little if any fat. Besides, it's quite good."

 

"I never had any."

 

"I didn't either," Rick echos.

 

"Then I hope you will enjoy."

 

Knowing young teens, I order them the big roast beef combo ; sandwich, a drink and, yes, I relent and let them have the fries. I had mentioned milk to a resounding NO. Oh, well, Kenny gets plenty at home at my insistence.

 

For some unexplainable reason, I feel I should walk the boys back into the school. We are met at the door by a tall, well-built man, standing so rigidly, he looks as if he has a broomstick up his butt. He has a most unpleasant look on his face.

 

"Just who are you and by what authority have you taken these boys off-campus?" He growls at me.

 

"I am Doctor Piers Bradfield, father of Kenny and custodian of Cody. Rick here is one of their best friends. And you are, sir?"

 

"I am Colonel Netherton, the new headmaster. I ask you once again why you saw fit to remove these students from the campus without permission?"

 

"To ensure they received something decent to eat. I'm amazed at the slop you serve in your dining hall. I sampled it and was almost ill from the taste. Did you bother to eat?"

 

"Of course. I found the food quite pleasant."

 

My eyebrows shoot up. "If you thought the students' lunch delightful, you have no sense of taste. Military mess halls serve far better food. Are you sure you ate the food served the students?"

 

"I was told so. The faculty and administration eat in a private dining room served separately. Now, I am telling you to leave and not return. Each of these young men will have a week's detention. Good day." He grabs the boys by their collars and marches them down the hall.

 

On the way back to my office my temper cools enough for me to begin a plan. The moment I'm in my office, I open the door and call Mike in. After explaining what I had done and involved Cody, he's as furious as I was.

 

"Boss, this is exactly why I gave you a custody of Cody. But it ain't fair to make those kids eat slops and refuse parents the right to take their kids out to eat or anything else a parent might want to do." Mike knows me too well. "What'cha planning?"

 

"I'm not quite certain, yet, but get me that investigator you hired to find out about Kinport."

 

Mike disappears instantly and I hear the beeps of his phone being dialed as I shut my office door.

 

Later that afternoon, to my surprise, the investigator Mike called in is not the quite ordinary looking man from last time, but a well-dressed, well-spoken, young man. On question he tells me that he has an MBA with accounting certification and specializes in investigation of businesses, finance being his specialty.

 

"Excellent. You are perfect for this assignment," I tell him, laying out the type of information I desire.

 

"I believe I shall enjoy this, sir. Thank you for your confidence in me."

 

One week to the day, Mike ushers the investigator back into my office where he presents us with a file so complete I can't imagine the academy board having one any better. He must have read my mind, for he points out in the financial report the fact that the school is virtually bankrupt despite being a day school and serving only one meal. With a tuition of five thousand per student, per semester, there is no reason for this other than some in a position to do so have been cutting themselves a healthy slice of the financial pie.

 

"You are an accountant, young man, from the analysis you must have made, could this institution be a profitable venture?" I ask.

 

"Beyond all doubt, even if tuition were lowered a bit, or funds used to establish scholarships for worthy students unable to meet the tuition."

 

I think for a minute. "You listed the members of their governing board. I know of several of them; they are retired professional men. I assume the others are still active in their respective business establishments."

 

"That's correct, sir."

 

"I wish you to continue your investigation for background reports on each of these men, paying close attention to the possibility that they might be willing to divest themselves of any connection with the academy."

 

He smiles broadly. "It will be a pleasure, sir. This is what I trained to do, not the sort of fictional gumshoe stuff that appears to be the main support of the agency I work for."

 

I make a mental note to offer him a position with Bradfield, Inc. if his individual investigations meet my wishes.

 

It takes ten days, but his reports are complete and thorough. I couldn't be more pleased. "Sit, down, Davidson, and give me a synopsis of these reports."

 

"There is quite a bit of unhappiness about the new headmaster. He was given the position over the negative votes of the other six members of the board, because he is Kinport's nephew. It appears Kinport owns more stock and therefore votes than any of the others individually. It appears the appointment was made when half the board were unavailable or didn't bother to cast their ballots. There is no quorum statement in their charter from what I have been able to ascertain, so it was legally done."

 

I can hardly believe my ears. I suddenly remember that we own a tiny company making cardboard boxes, both heavy fiberboard for shipping purposes and decorative boxes for retail stores. It pays its way, but that's about all. Mike has informed me that being unaware of the true owner, Kinport has made several overtures to the management of the box works for possible purchase. Once again, Lady Luck has provided me with what I hope will be sufficient leverage to gain Kinport's stock in the academy.

 

I look at Davidson. "I am extremely pleased with your work. Since you have expressed a desire to continue to work in the business area, I am offering you the opportunity to set up your own investigative service as a subsidiary  of Bradfield, Inc. You will work primarily for my various enterprises, however if there is nothing on at any time, you may do private investigations with the understanding that you would immediately hand over that investigation to an assistant if the need for your services by me should arise. You may hire an assistant when and if you need, but such a move should be made with permission of Mike or me. Your offices will be on the ninth floor of this building and your starting pay will be sixty thousand with possible bonuses. Interested?"

 

He stares at me with open mouth. Finally he shakes his head and says, "This is a joke, isn't it?"

 

"Certainly not! I never joke about business, nor am I easily fooled. I may hold a PhD in performance, but I also have an MBA. If you accept, I expect you to start next Monday. Will two business days be sufficient to close out your present situation?"

 

"Absolutely! Thank you, sir. Thank you."

 

"Excellent. Send in Mike on your way out." I say by way of dismissal.

 

"Boss?" Mike says from the doorway.

 

I glance at my watch Ė three o'clock. "Inform the members of the senior board that we will meet in the small board room at four."

 

My top executives have learned that a called meeting means I'm off on another what they would call madcap venture. Their faces are skeptical when I look at them. "Gentlemen, Bradfield, Inc. is about to enter the field of private education."

 

No Fourth of July has had any greater explosion! My sanity is questioned, even my ability to understand what teaching is all about. Apparently they've forgotten my Adjunct Professorship. Once the hub-bub has dwindled, I tell them what has happened at the academy.

 

"I am not willing for my son, nor is Mike willing for his little brother to be exposed to such callous disregard of the needs and well-being of their persons. No student should be so ill-treated and I intend to rectify that situation as soon as possible. Place me in a financial position to purchase controlling stock immediately, once you have determined a reasonable market price were the stock so traded. We may have to offer a premium in a few cases, but I intend to own that school. Thank you." I turn and walk out, going back to my office.

 

Davidson asks to see me the next morning. To my delight, he has taken it upon himself to approach three of the board members of the academy and reports that they have long wanted to divest themselves of the academy stock, but could find no takers. The price per share they are asking is below what I know to be fair. I ask him to contact them immediately and offer what I plan to offer the others. Within an hour I own fifteen shares of the stock. I'm chuffed, but I know old Kinport is going to be the immovable object in my scheme. He owns thirty shares, but if I get the rest, I will have seventy shares, a controlling number out of a hundred. His only recourse will be to threaten the school financially. I have to smirk, for I have greater financial resources than he.

 

Thinking of this step into the unknown, I ponder what qualifications I want in the headmaster. Not an ego driven little martinet like the present one, absolutely not! Then I happen to think of my roommate from my senior year in college. He was an education major, but with dorm space at a premium, he was assigned to room with me. We got along famously. I have to smile as I remember passing his classroom in the training school on one occasion. It looked and sounded more like a circus than a class in session. His sixth graders were standing in chairs, climbing all over him. Despite the exceptional scores his students made on end of the semester tests, he was given a grade of D by his supervising teacher for having what he considered continually disruptive classes.

 

He is exactly the type person I would want teaching Kenny. A man who understands kids and relates completely to them. His name, I remember, is Eric Nordstrom. I wonder what happened to him, as we lost touch after graduation. I pick up the phone and relay my wishes to Mike.

 

Not two hours later my phone rings. "Piers, you old bastard, whose organ are you wrecking now, or have you gone to screwing widows and orphans out of their last pennies?"

 

"Ric, great to hear from you. Still letting children run the educational program and tear up the schools?"

 

I hear a note of unhappiness creep into his voice. "Not since last September. Got fired before I got started, if you can believe that. I forgot how rigid public schools are. What can I do you for?" 

 

"Then you're not working?"

 

"Not yet, just substituting when I can get it."

 

"Excellent!"

 

 I'm interrupted. "What the hell do you mean excellent? Damn, man, I'm starving."

 

"Where are you?"

 

He mentions a small industrial city some 60 miles north of us.

 

"Then I mean I want your ass in my office tomorrow morning at the latest."

 

"You're kidding?"

 

"The hell I am! Come prepared to stay a few days. I want you to look over a school situation and discuss some things with me."

 

"Man, if you're serious, I'll be there by supper time tonight."

 

"Come to our office building and I'll alert security. He'll have a man show you where to park and send you up to my flat. I'm really looking forward to seeing you, buddy."

 

I'm elated as I hang up, for I had a crush on Ric the whole time we roomed together. I never made a move on him, for I could tell he's straight.

 

I speak to Mike as I leave the office. A shower, casual dress, and I'm ready. Within twenty minutes, the guard calls my flat and a few moments later, I hear the lift doors open. Eric still has his model's looks, but wears a look of weariness and defeat. We grab each other in a hug.

 

"Grab your bag, buddy. I'll show you to your room and you'll need to shower and dress casual, no tie but a jacket. We're going out to dinner. My associate Mike will be joining us. I'll explain then what I have in mind." I don't have to worry about Kenny, because he is spending the night with Cody watched over by Mike's housekeeper.

 

When we go down, I am, for a moment, tempted to strangle Mike. He has on a chauffeur's jacket and cap and he's holding the rear door of the small Rolls limousine for us. He knows damn well I only use it to transport those I wish to impress, but this is his way of 'jerking my chain,' as they say. I know from experience that he has proper attire tucked away.

 

After Eric and I are seated at a secluded table, Mike joins us, properly dressed of course. He was parking the Rolls, for he regards it as his 'baby' and will not let any of those kids they hire for valet parking to touch it. Ric looks surprised until I Introduce Mike as my vice-CEO and assistant and explain that the chauffeur act is a game Mike likes to play, hoping to embarrass me. Payback, as they say, is a bitch.

 

Over our after dinner coffee and a liqueur, Mike and I explain our wish for Ric to look over the academy and offer suggestions for changes he would make were he headmaster. He looks startled at first, but Mike explains that within a week at most, I am likely to own controlling interest in the school.

 

"I'm offering you the job as headmaster, if you're interested in a real challenge." I tell him.

 

"But you don't even know how I teach," he complains.

 

"I doubt you've changed much from your practice teaching days. I don't want a circus, but I want a pleasant relaxed atmosphere to foster the kids' learning processes and, more important, food that isn't pig slops."

 

"Amen!" Mike adds. "It's so bad the kids brownbag it, even though it's against the rules. If they're caught, their lunch is taken away from them and they have to go without."

 

"That will damn well change, and fast!" Ric declares.

 

Kenny and Cody take to Ric immediately, for Ric plays electronic games with them and, at the same time, finds a way to use the games to teach some social studies and bits from other subjects. If he can capture Kenny's imagination so quickly, I can see an entire student body eager to learn. Ric's main problem will be a few hide-bound teachers I plan to replace at the end of the year.

 

It is Wednesday of the next week that Ric and I, dressed appropriately, enter the main doors of the academy. It has taken some doing, but I now hold all of the academy's stock except for old Kinport's. As before, there is no receptionist, but the door to the headmaster's office is cracked. Ric and I hear, "Oh, yes, Donnie, faster, faster."

 

Ric's face blanches while mine turns fire engine red. What if a child were to come into the office for something. I storm to the door and fling it open. "Get out of here, you slut!" I scream at her, and add, "I'll give you five minutes to get presentable. You, too, Colonel. If you are one," I add scornfully. 

 

It only takes the colonel three minutes to storm out of his office and start reading me off military style. I quickly run out of patience and diplomacy. I hold out a sheet of paper. "I am now effectively the owner of this institution and I will give you one half hour to pack your personal possessions and remove yourself from these premises."

 

"You haven't the power."

 

"Care to make a wager? This is a notification from the academy's attorney of your termination as headmaster. Dr. Nordstrom is Headmaster effective as of now." Eric doesn't yet have his PhD, but it is only a matter of submitting  his dissertation and undergoing the oral defense of it. But Mike and I are the only ones who know.

 

The first thing Ric does is get on the intercom and announce a call meeting of the faculty in the small auditorium after the last bell of the school day.

 

Ric introduces himself to the faculty and me as the major stockholder. I note a 'wait and see' attitude on the part of the faculty and staff. When he mentions the food, pleasure crosses the faces of the cooks. "You mean we go back to cooking good food like before?" One asks.

 

"Absolutely. And if you have any ideas for improvement or need new equipment, let me know. I will not stand for these young people being subjected to garbage." General applause and a few cheers follow this. Apparently no one has liked the food.

 

Friday afternoon when I pick up the boys, they are grinning ear to ear and prancing as they come to the car. "It's great, Dad," Kenny cries. "Just like before, but better. I'm glad Dr. Ric is headmaster now."

 

Some six weeks after he's taken over, I find it a real joy to walk across the academy's campus and hear the happy cries of kids, both in class and at play. I knew Ric was good, but six weeks to work miracles? I applaud his success.

 

I'm thrilled when my legal team come to my office and present me with Kinport's thirty shares of stock in the academy. Obviously he didn't bother to check, for the dollar value is reasonably close to the value of the box works we offered in exchange. As of now, Bradfield, Inc. is the sole owner of Westridge Academy.

 

Ric is delighted when I tell him the news that evening. He offers several suggestions for members of the board of directors we will need. I'm delighted that Mike's name heads the list.

 

Towards the end of the semester, Ric drops by my office for a serious talk about the future of the academy. He already knows he's going to have to replace two teachers who, while adequate in performance, cannot cope with the unstructured teaching methods Ric has put in place. I tell him to begin looking for replacements immediately, especially among those just finishing college. I do set a masters degree as a minimum, though those in their last semester can be considered.

 

Ric grins and says he will be looking at several prospects recommended by an inside source he claims to have. To my dismay, the senior English teacher tenders his resignation. The report I have on the man is that he insists on teaching old-fashioned grammar and punctuation. I know well from reading, especially on some story web sites, that nearly all wannabe writers are woefully ignorant of the basics of grammar. For that reason, I have been looking forward to the day when Kenny will be in his classes.

 

I make an appointment with Mr. Harrington and arrive at his office promptly. He graciously offers me coffee and, cups in hand, we sit facing each other as I beg him to reconsider his resignation, especially as he has only four years left before being eligible for full retirement benefits.

 

The man expresses his feelings openly, which I appreciate. We talk of changes in his course requirements, such as allowing a student to write a short story instead of the traditional essay, proper letter writing style, and use of a more self-study with a tutorial teaching method instead of the lecture type approach. To my delight, he appears receptive to my suggestions and agrees to withdraw his resignation, particularly after I point out the increased benefits package that is now a part of full retirement.

 

That evening, Ric charges into my flat and hugs me. "I don't know how you did it, but Harrington is going to stay. I was really sweating, for I know he is impossible to replace."

 

"Hey, he couldn't resist the opportunity to teach our two brilliant boys."

 

Ric shakes his head. "I'm not so sure about the brilliant part, but they do pretty well. I think I would kill Cody if he used English the way I see it used this day and time."

 

"Let's grab the brats and go out for dinner."

 

Ric and I select a classy uniform for the students Ė a navy blue blazer with the school crest in gold on the breast pocket, white slacks, a white dress shirt, and blue and white patterned tie. For classroom wear every day, they may wear a blue short-sleeve shirt without a tie. Once the weather permits, they may wear white shorts and a dark blue sports shirt. We run our selection past Cody and Kenny who immediately begin to bitch. So will most of the students, especially the older ones, but most good private institutions require a uniform of some similar type.

 

Uniforms will have the advantage of making future scholarship students 'invisible' in the crowd. Ric and I have already gotten my in-house legal staff working on conditions for awarding scholarships to those unable to afford our tuition, but capable of superior academic performance. I hope to award at least four for the coming school year. 

 

Taking advantage of an unusually warm spring evening, Kenny and I are walking home from a nearby restaurant we both enjoy, when a scruffy teen leaves a dark doorway and approaches us. "Can you spare some change, mister? I'm hungry."

 

He looks it, and I'm reaching for my billfold when Kenny suddenly says, "Randy is that you?"

 

The teen looks closer at Kenny. "Kenny?"

 

Kenny hugs the boy. "I'm so glad to see you. How you doing?"

 

The teen shrugs. "Ain't nothin' changed. You must of really fell into it, kid, you look real cool."

 

Kenny grabs my arm. "This is my new dad. You wouldn't believe how cool he is, he's great to me. I got a nice home and everything.

 

"Dad, Randy gave me what help he could and kept the bigger guys from messin' with me when my old man kicked me out. Won't you help him, please?"

 

When Kenny looks at me with puppy dog eyes, something he does only when he's serious about something, I melt inside. "I think we can certainly feed him and find him something decent to wear. Join us, Randy. We are on our way home."

 

He seems reluctant at first, but with Kenny's assurance, he joins us. His eyes widen when I use my keycard to enter the building then, after greeting John, the guard on duty, when we enter the lift. The lift door opens and Kenny has to push Randy out, for he has stopped dead and is looking at everything. "Man," he finally says softly to Kenny, "you weren't shittin' me. This place is a dream."

 

"Kenny, show Randy your bath and let him wash up a bit while I fix him something to eat. Will soup and a sandwich or two be okay?"

 

"Yes, sir," he replies following Kenny down the short hall.

 

After Randy has scarfed down a bowl of chicken soup and two large chicken salad sandwiches with two glasses of milk, he pushes back from the table. "Thanks, Mister, that was the best."

 

"You are most welcome, Randy. Since Kenny didn't give you my name, it is Doctor Bradfield."

 

"You're a real doctor?"

 

"Yes, but academic, not medical. I teach at the university."

 

"Dad, can Randy stay the night?"

 

I pause, because my flat has only two furnished bedrooms. "I suppose he could sleep on the sofa, if he wishes."

 

"He can sleep with me. We slept together to stay warm when I was out there."

 

Randy shakes his head. "No way I belong in a place like this, Little Guy. I mean it was good of your dad to fix me somethin' to eat, but I need to get goin'. Besides, it ain't all that cold any more."

 

Despite his negative response, I see a longing in his eyes. "It would please Kenny and me both if you would stay at least tonight. There's a hot shower and I will put your clothes in the washer, if you like, so that you will have something clean to put on. Don't worry about sleeping in the raw, I have done for some time now."

 

"Weeel, if you're sure."

 

Kenny grabs him by the hand. "I'll get you a robe to wear 'til we go to bed."

 

I'm in the kitchen having my 'wake up' cup of coffee when Randy, wearing one of my bathrobes and barefoot, eases quietly in. "Oh, I didn't know anyone was up yet. I was gonna fix a cup of coffee."

 

"Kenny likes to sleep in, so sit down and I'll get you a cup if you wish. We'll eat when I get him out of bed in a few minutes."

 

As soon as he has a cup and is sitting opposite me, I say, "Thank you for helping Kenny when he was on the street. It was doubly hard on him after being raised with everything he could want."

 

"Yeah. He looked like a little lost kitten or somethin' when I found him. News travels fast on the street, so I knew some of the older guys were already planning to hustle his ass. Kids young as him with good looks like bring in good money." He pauses to look up at me, then take a sip of coffee. "I don't know, but there was just somethin' 'bout Kenny ... so I weren't goin' to let that happen."

 

I nod. "You're a good man, Randy. What can we do to help you in return?"

 

"I don't 'spect nothin'. You've already treated me better than I ever been treated before."

 

I make a quick decision. "Wouldn't you like to be off the streets and have a chance to make something of yourself?"

 

I see a tear start to form. "Ain't nothin' I want more. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor or somethin'. It was those nosey old broads from social service or whatever took me away from home 'cause my momma  died and my old man stayed drunk. The place they put me was so bad I was glad to get away. Since I been on the street and seen what those kids go through, I kinda thought I'd like to have some kind of job where I could help kids like Kenny. I mean really help 'em and treat 'em like people, not whores or trash like them women treated me." 

 

"You could certainly use what you have learned on the street to good advantage when helping street kids. You do know that it would take a college degree to get a job like that?"

 

He nods slowly. "Yeah. Fat chance of that ever happenin'. I ain't been to school since the tenth grade."

 

"If you had a home and the opportunity to finish school and go to college, would you work seriously at an education?"

 

He looks at me with longing. "Like how's that gonna happen?"

 

"Nothing is set in stone, Randy. Would you like to spend the weekend with Kenny and me to see how we get along? If all goes well, then there are a couple of rooms I've never furnished. One can easily be a bedroom for you with its own bath. All I ask is that you do a small chore once in a while, study hard, and be respectful, especially when I'm practicing."

 

Kenny has come in quietly and is standing behind Randy. He throws his arms around Randy's neck. "You gotta stay, Randy! It's so good here, and we can have fun."

 

Randy gently removes Kenny's arms. "I guess one weekend ain't gonna hurt nothin'."

 

"Good. We usually have pancakes on Saturday morning, if that's alright with you."

 

"Whatever."

 

After we've eaten, I hand Randy his clean, well cleaner, clothes. Some stains just didn't come out despite being sprayed with stain remover and twice through the wash cycle. Once he has dressed, we head for the mall.

 

"Okay, Kenny. You know pretty well what the older guys at your school wear away from school, so get Randy fixed up."

 

Kenny grins, grabs Randy by the hand, and pulls him toward young men's clothing. I watch and approve Kenny's choices, though Randy puts a few things aside and selects others more to his taste, I gather.

 

On to the hair stylist, then it's back home for Randy to change. I am startled at the difference, for he doesn't look like the same young man we started out with. Now, he would grace the cover of a teen magazine with ease.

 

"Wow! You look fantastic!" Kenny says when Randy comes out.

 

Randy smiles. "Feel kinda funny all duded up like this, but it's sure nice to feel clean and have something good to wear."

 

I stop at a large furniture store and have Randy pick out a bedroom suit he likes. He protests over the price, until I assure him that I needed the furniture anyway, The store promises Monday morning delivery.

 

At Kenny's urging, Randy goes to Mass with us. Since I'm playing, I place Randy on the end seat of the choir stall next to the organ console. Kenny takes his usual chair from where he can hand me music.

 

That evening we have a serious talk with Randy. It takes a lot of persuasion, but finally he agrees to live with us and try the academy. Knowing Randy will balk at entering a class of students younger than he, I convince him that Ric will place him with a tutor until he is prepared to enter regular classes. He can wear some of his new clothes on Monday. I'll call the shop that supplies that academy's uniforms and take him to pick them up on Monday after school.

 

"Damn, buddy! You trying to open a home for wayward kids!" Ric exclaims when I explain Randy's needs.

 

"Just don't want any vacancies in this school, even if the cost comes out of my own pocket." I pause reflectively. "I guess in a way I'm just paying myself since I own the place."

 

"I might have known you'd find some way to justify this." Ric laughs. "I'll call a counselor and get Randy started on placement tests. He should be done by lunch, so we can eat in the cafeteria. And I don't want any bitching about the food, either!"

 

"Then it had better be better than good!" I snap back. 

 

For the first few nights, Randy, a typical teen, moans and groans that he has been given too much homework, that it's too hard, the usual litany parents hear. I give him a bit of help by simplified explanations and he is soon zipping through it. His face carries a look of satisfaction when he finishes.

 

"I wish you was my teacher," he says. "You make it simple."

 

I have to smile. "Some of my students don't think so."

 

He only shakes his head.

 

A few nights later, I am practicing a piece that suddenly goes from loud to the softest possible sound from a string celeste. I overhead Randy saying to Kenny, "I'm gonna cut school tomorrow afternoon and see if I can hook up with any of the guys. You remember Tom and Willie? I go to thinkin' 'bout 'em last night. I wanna see 'em, see how they're doin'."

 

"Don't. You know it'll get back to dad and he'll be mad. Why don't you wait 'til we get home after school. It's closer to where we were than the school."

 

"I guess. They won't be out 'til after school's out nohow."

 

A couple of nights later over our evening meal, I ask Randy, "Did you find your friends?"

 

He look surprised, then nods. "Yeah. They're having it kinda tough. Willie don't look too good, but he said he was okay. I wish they could be as lucky as me, 'cause they're decent guys who ain't had a chance."

 

Never having thought of the matter before, now I'm curious. "How many guys are on the street, Randy?"

 

"I guess I know a dozen or more, but most of 'em is on  drugs, or pushin' 'em. Outside of Tom and Willie I wouldn't trust the rest far as I could throw 'em."

 

"Are you certain Tom and Willie aren't doing drugs?"

 

"For sure. They are both smarter than me. Tom's why I didn't get hooked. Tom's been takin' care of Willie ever since his old man threw him out."

 

"Do you think they would come here for a bath, clean clothing, some decent food, and a warm place to sleep?"

 

Randy shakes his head. "Tom's pretty careful 'bout doin' anything new. Hell, he turned down over half the tricks he could have had 'cause he didn't trust the marks' looks."

 

"But if you asked him or maybe both of you, wouldn't he trust you enough to give it a try? I promise they will be free to leave any time, just as you are."

 

"No way I'll be leavin' now!" For the first time, Randy gets up, comes over and hugs me. "You keep your word, and you've made this the home I always wished I'd had when I was growin' up."

 

I return his hug. "This is your home, Randy, as long as you want it to be."

 

Tears trickle down his cheeks. He tries to speak, but can't. I pull Kenny up and we have a group hug. "You guys are my sons, and I wouldn't trade you for anything. I just hate to think of other kids as good as you, two, out there with no protection or a chance to make something of themselves. That's why I hope you will convince Tom and Willie to come home with you at least once."

 

Unlike most, the lift doors are completely silent when they open and close. The next evening I hear laughter from den that was unused until Kenny joined my household. That is where the TV and the electronic games are located, so that they don't interfere with my practicing. The kids are unaware of my presence when I move to the kitchen and begin to heat the dinner my housekeeper prepared before she left.

 

"Wash up, boys, dinner is ready," I call.

 

"Oh, shit!" I hear a strange voice exclaim. "Your old man's gonna raise hell."

 

"Not a chance, Come on and wash up and you'll see," Randy replies.

 

When they appear, Tom and Willie are one step above rag-a-muffins. Tom has a look of defiance, while Willie tries to hide behind him.

 

"Dad, this is Tom and Willie."

 

I hold out my hand. "Welcome. I hope you are having a good time with Kenny and Randy. It's nice for them to have friends come by. Dinner is pot roast; I hope you will enjoy it. Let's have grace then eat." I say a short blessing, and through narrowed eyes, see Tom's eyes widen as Kenny, Randy, and I make the sign of the cross.

 

I'm glad I told Martha to prepare a big roast, for it, the potatoes, carrots, and gravy disappear like magic. Tom and Willie stuff themselves as if they were starved, which I suspect was a rather accurate assessment, but my two are not far behind.

 

"What's for dessert, Dad?" Kenny asks.

 

"Surely you can't want anything else after the way you have eaten?" Partially teasing.

 

His smile is bright. "I've always got room for ice cream."

 

"You and Randy clear the table and put the dishes in the dishwasher, then take out everything you want to make banana splits or whatever. Tom, you and Willie make yourselves at home and get whatever you wish."

 

Tom and Willie agree to stay only if they can sleep together. I note that Willie is seldom far from Tom, as if Tom is his protector from life. I order a king-size bed and matching furnishings for the other bedroom. It's a battle to get these two into school, but after working two days with Randy's former tutor, they are more willing.

 

I hadn't realized how much time simply having four kids around took, nothing big, just little things. I'm aware of losing out on practice time, though I am insistent on not being disturbed if I happen to be in my office, unless there is a major disaster. I might complain, but I wouldn't part with even one of the kids for anything.

 

We're walking toward the small family run restaurant when two grubby kids approach me. I sense they are about to ask for money when Willie lets out a yell and hugs the smaller of the two boys. When they release each other, both have tears trickling down their cheeks. "What you doin' out here, Billy?"

 

"Old man started beatin' up on me after you run away. I waited 'til he passed out, then I grabbed his money and run. Sammy, here, watched out fer me. We run out of money, so we been beggin' to git somethin' to eat."

 

Willie looks at me. "This here is my lil brother. I gotta take care of him, Dr. Bradfield, so you all go on." He and Tom have yet to call me Dad.

 

"You know better than that, Willie. They can come with us and wash up in the restroom, then have dinner with us."

 

"We's too dirty," Sammy says.

 

"It's a nice evening, so we'll eat outside in the courtyard. No one will notice you out there."

 

Willie has made them wash their faces and hands and comb their hair so they look reasonably presentable. Once they begin to eat, they relax a little and eat heartily. When we start our walk home, the two try to pull away. Willie tells them that if they do, he's going with them.

 

It takes a lot of argument from me and Willie, but the boys finally agree to come to my flat with us. They can spend the night on the sofa bed in the den. I know Willie wants his brother to stay, but I'm at a loss as to where I'll put them.

 

I have a hard time getting Willie to go to school, and the boys refuse to stay in my flat all day. At last they promise to come by after school is out. I go down to my office. Hopefully to get some work done.

 

Mike slams into my office as soon as I'm there. "Boss, what the hell are you going to do with six kids? You don't have room for them and it's screwing up your schedule."

 

"I know, Mike, but damn! It breaks my heart to see young kids wandering the streets at night hoping to sell their bodies for sex in order to get a little money for something to eat. Even then, it's a burger, not the good healthy food they need."

 

"I know. Look at these." Mike brings up two pictures on is monitor. They are before and after shots of Tom and Willie. They are hardly recognizable in the after shot as good food and plenty of sleep have transformed them into the way they should have always looked.

 

I shake my head. "I wish I could help more."

 

Mike hands me a cup of coffee then takes one for himself. "Sit down. I'm going to stick in my two cents worth whether you like it or not."

 

When we're settled, Mike begins, "What are you ever going to do with your folks house? I know you love the place, but it's a big expense just sitting empty."

 

"You know my flat upstairs is far more convenient for me, both for my work here and the university. Yeah, I love the place, but the memories and commute time are just too much for me."

 

"Okay, then. If you're not going to use it, why not turn it into a shelter for these kids you keep dragging home. It's only got, what is it, ten bedrooms?"

 

I mull over the idea for a few moments. "Mike, you may have a good thought there."

 

He grins. "Yeah. You'll have to find some decent house parents and hire some staff, like a cook and all. But hey, you can use another tax deduction. The guys down in legal won't have any trouble setting this up as a tax exempt operation. I'm betting Ric can find some good house parents without even putting an ad somewhere. There is one thing Ö"

 

"What?"

 

"You'll need to store the antiques and good furniture and paint the inside so it doesn't look so much like a damn Victorian mausoleum."

 

So it is that the Westridge Home is established. With Ric's help in selection, the staff is excellent - caring and loving. The house parents appear to have unlimited patience, the cooks know how to make food appealing to the boys and healthy as well. The tutors come on when the boys get home from the Academy and work with them until bedtime. For recreation, there is the swimming pool, tennis courts, a soccer court, and four gentle horses for riding. The boys each get a small allowance determined by age, which they may supplement by working at small jobs around the place, under the watchful eye of the estate manager, of course.

 

In the three years Westridge Home has been operating now, we have had to send away only one boy as incorrigible. My original four are now in college, Randy reaching for his goal in adolescent psychology and social work, Kenny working for a degree in business and spending the summers at Bradfield, Inc. working various jobs under Mike's supervision. Tom is majoring in science, and Willie is a freshman, uncertain as yet what his major will be, though Randy is pushing him to study psychology.

 

Would I do it all over again, even to giving up all but one of my organ students? In a heartbeat! I can never visit my old home without being mobbed by happy youngsters. That fills me with the inner peace and joy I've longed to find within those walls since my parents' tragic death.

 
 

Feedback always welcome:     

Posted: 12/19/08