The boy arrived three years ago in the back seat of a police car on a warm summer evening just before the sun set behind the trees. He came with a few clothes, all too small, and nothing else. We were his tenth family, and everything he owned could be scrunched inside a paper sack.
I look around his room, now piled high with toys, clothes, and books he can barely read.
I’ve come to say good night, and I find him crying again.
“Am I ever going to see my dad again?” he asks, through hiccups and deep, struggling breaths.
“Someday, maybe,” I answer.
I lie down beside him on the bed and stare up at the bottom of the top bunk.The floral print of an old mattress shows between gray metal bars, pressed and squished through from the years of children who’ve slept on that top bed.
That first day in our home, the boy was eight years old. Clear blue eyes and sandy hair. Small for his age, a bit too skinny. At bedtime, he came to me, looking up for a moment as if he had something to say, but wasn’t quite sure I was okay to say it to.
“I don’t let nobody under my covers anymore,” he finally said. Just in case I was a “nobody.”
“Well, that’s a good idea,” I told the eyes that knew too much.
“I don’t like beds.”
And so he slept in a chair. A big, round easy chair with soft cushions and a back that reclined. He slept there for three weeks. In his clothes. He wouldn’t change, wouldn’t undress, wouldn’t do anything involving bedtime.
When we finally moved him into a bedroom, we found out about the windows. He said there were things looking in. I assured him nobody could get up that high on the second floor, but reason is not a part of fear. And it was a fear.
I could see in his eyes there was no bargaining with treats, as we had to get him into the bed. And so I put a curtain over the glass. Not good enough. The edges moved in the air current and that would never do. Somebody could peek in through the gaps, he told me. So I pressed the edges of the cloth against the wall and duct-taped it closed. No more window. Problem not solved, only the symptom.
On his third day in our home, the boy said to me, “Can I live here a long time? Like three months?”
“Well, three months isn’t very long,” I said, not realizing his history.
He narrowed his brows in thought.”How ’bout till I’m thirteen?” he asked, apparently thinking he’d come up with a bargain, something we could both live with.
He had no concept of family. The term “forever” had no meaning to this boy. I made a phone call to see about his plan for permanency. There wasn’t one. “I’ll keep him,” I said. And they didn’t argue because nobody else wanted him.
Now, as I lay beside him, a cat leaps onto the bed, fat and shiny black. He’s called Fraidy. The boy named him. They came within weeks of each other, the cat and boy. The boy arrived on the porch, the cat underneath, both abandoned, wild, and afraid. The cat, frail from neglect and too young to be away from his mother, hissed and roared at us.
Much like the boy, Fraidy would come to nobody. But he came to the boy. Walked right up to him and rubbed his leg. He must have seen himself, his history, his pain. Each night at bedtime, the boy wanders the house. “Come here, Fraidy,” he says, as he searches until he finds the fat black cat. The cat comes to him like a dog does. The boy doesn’t pick him up; he doesn’t have to. Just turns and walks to his room. Fraidy follows, and together they sleep, cuddled and warm.
I pet Fraidy, but he’s not interested. He’s checking on his boy.
“Why didn’t they just do it?”
I wait, unsure of the question.
“If I ever had kids and they said stop doing drugs and I can have them back, I’d just do it.”
“You’re a stronger person,” I say, and I know it’s true. “Some people weren’t made to be parents. Some were.
You’ll be an amazing father some day ’cause you know what it’s like to be you.”
“But they just didn’t care what I was doing. They didn’t be parents.”
“Your mom and dad aren’t bad people, just weak people.” I cross my fingers behind my back. “The drugs got hold of them and wouldn’t let go.”
“I’m never going to do a drug,” he says.
“No;’ I tell him. “You’ll never do drugs. You know what it can do.” And I pray I’m not lying.
Statistically, he will. Some day, he’ll forget how he feels now. He might wash it all away with whatever he can get his hands on. I hope I’m wrong.
I took the boy to see a specialist a while back, to assess his future. It’s bleak, I was told. Drugs and alcohol affected his ability to learn, to reason, to make good decisions. There’s too much brain damage. He’ll never go to college, says the man. He’ll likely not make it through high school.
Just wait, I told the well-meaning doctor, you’ll see. The boy couldn’t read, so I taught him. He’s impulsive, so I guide him. He gets scared, so I hold him. He is not a lost cause. He is my cause.
Now I rise from the bed to leave the room and hope he falls asleep before he has a chance to think more about what made him cry in the first place. It’s that thinking time that gets to him.
As I rise, he speaks again. “How long have I been here?”
“Three years.” I pause in the doorway. “You were with us three years on August twelfth.”
“It seems like longer;’ he says.
“It does;’ I agree as I turn out his light.
“I’ll see you in the morning, Mom,” says my son from his big bed next to the open window.
“Okay,” I reply, shutting his bedroom door. “I’ll be here.”