Commoner the vagabond, p.1
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Commoner the Vagabond


  COMMONER the VAGABOND

  A Novel

  ROBIN RAY

  Commoner the Vagabond - A Novel

  Copyright © 2016 Robin Ray

  https://seattlewordsmith.wordpress.com/

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

  Thanks to Deb Carnefix for her invaluable assistance.

  This book is dedicated to peace mongers everywhere.

  Don’t give up the fight.

 

  Table of Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgements

  Other Books by Robin Ray

  Chapter 1

  ESSIE CROW rubbed the bump on her tummy. She could feel the little soldier kicking inside her, but tonight, she had bigger fish to fry. She’d wanted a lift to her dealer, but her friend, Jimmy, had taken the car down to Monterey, California earlier that week to witness the Pop Festival in person. The concerts themselves weren’t for another two months but Jimmy insisted he wanted to “prepare.” Essie suspected, but couldn’t prove, he had another lady waiting for him down there. It seemed like everybody was heading to Monterey. And why not? It was, after all, 1967 – The Summer of Love, a perfect time for the massive event. Although it was one for the ages, Essie didn’t go. Not that she disliked traveling, it’s just that her nearly nine-month-old package slowed her down and her addiction kept her grounded.

  At 5’2”, she thought she shouldn’t be walking the near-dark streets of downtown Seattle, but her gnawing addiction begged to differ. It was close to midnight on Friday March 31, the day Jimi Hendrix first lovingly burned his guitar onstage in London. Her drug lust, on fire like Jimi’s guitar, spurred her onward. Her veins, screaming for pacification, brought her all the way from Rainier Beach by foot. That was a good six-mile walk along pasty and seedy Rainier Avenue. The cool air, moistened by the breezes coming off Lake Washington, couldn’t have served her any better. Dressed in a wrinkled floral print dress and old but comfortable hemp shoes, and with her brown hair tied under a red bandana, she looked like she belonged in the crowd at Monterey.

  Arriving at the corner of 3rd & Pine, she briefly looked in the sprawling window at the Bon Marché department store to view the dresses currently on sale. Admiring the fixture on display, a swarm of ‘ifs’ flooded her mind: If only she was born rich. If only she didn’t come from a broken home. If only her boyfriends weren’t such losers. If only she stayed in school. If only she never picked up that first needle. If only she wasn’t pregnant. Sighing, she turned and continued down the block. Around the corner, she ran into Crosby. At 6’4” tall, people used to rib that he should be with the Seattle Supersonics, but years of hard drinking and drugging took its toll. Instead of fame and fortune, he was left the crumbled burned-out soul of an ex-fireman.

  “Hey, Crosby,” she began. “Nice to see you around.”

  He stepped backwards and eyed her bulging bundle. “Ooh, whee, girl!” he hollered. “You’re about ready to bust!”

  Essie reached in her pocket and brought out a ten-dollar bill. “Anybody got anything down here?” she asked.

  “Be careful, Essie,” he warned her. “Lots of cops out tonight.”

  “I need some medicine, Crosby, not a lecture from Professor Know-It-All.”

  “Okay,” he agreed reluctantly. “The only person I know is over in Belltown.”

  “That’s fine. Let’s go.”

  The two began walking northwards past the cornucopia of clothing shops and high end restaurants.

  “You ever ate in one of these places?” she asked her tall companion. “These people won’t even give me a smile, even less chance for a seat.”

  “Do I look like the kind of person who goes to these places?”

  She eyed her traveling partner briefly. Dressed in days old clothes, he smelled like he hadn’t showered in who knows how long. Even by the light of the moon, street lamps, and the nearby establishments, she could see his greasy stands of hair flowing out of his stretch cap.

  “This is some kind of life we got, ain’t it?” she asked rhetorically.

  He motioned to her abdomen.

  “What are you gonna name the little munchkin?”

  “I don’t know. Mary, Peter…don’t matter to me.”

  “Are you having a boy or a girl?”

  Essie shrugged. “Beats me.”

  “Don’t you care?”

  She stopped walking and faced him. “You plan to interrogate me all night, Crosby? My nerves are a little tingly and I don’t have the patience right now.”

  She resumed walking. Crosby kept right up beside her.

  “Just making small talk, Essie,” he reassured her. “The last time I saw you, you were half this size. Don’t mean to intrude, but you’d promised to tell me who the father was last time.”

  “Well, it seems like you’ll have to wait because I still don’t know.”

  Minutes later, they arrived at the façade of a narrow six-story building on 2nd Avenue. Surrounded by businesses, the building seemed like an unlikely place for an apartment complex. Crosby pushed one of the buttons on a faceplate. A man in his forties stuck his head out of a front facing third floor window, looked down then went back in.

  “Who’s that?” Essie asked.

  “Beerman,” Crosby answered. “He’s cool. He plays guitar.”

  “I ain’t here for no lessons.”

  Beerman came downstairs and let them in then, quickly looking up and down the block for the police, he followed them to the elevator. A few minutes later, all three were sitting in round art deco-type chairs in his living room which, in essence, was his whole apartment. The few items around – a twin bed, an acoustic guitar sitting against a wall, a small fridge and a transistor radio atop a chest of drawers, and a free-standing coat rack – took up a lot of space in the small room. The radio, tuned to a pop station, was playing softly. In the middle of the floor scattered between them were various drug paraphernalia. Crosby and Essie sat with eager eyes while Beerman rolled a joint. He stopped momentarily and turned to Essie.

  “What’s your flavor tonight?” he asked.

  “I heard they got China White around here,” she hoped.

  “Hmm. That stuff’s more powerful than a loaded gun.”

  Getting up, he walked over to the wooden bureau, opened the top drawer, and removed a plastic baggie of white powder from a buttoned-down shirt pocket.

  “This will light your fire,” he briefed her.

  “All I got is ten bucks,” she admitted.

  “That’s okay, pretty one. Any friend of Crosby is a friend of mine.” Essie motioned to the bed.

  “Mind if I use here?” she asked.

  “Go right ahead. I can always use the company.”

  He walked over to her with the baggie. She reached out to touch it but, displaying her slightly trembling hands, chose not to.

  “Can you cook it for me?” she asked. “My nerves are a little shaky tonight.” Beerman nodded. “Coming right up. Why don’t you make yourself comfortable?”

  Sitting on the bed, she tapped her thighs in nervous anticipation while he heated the concoction in a spoon. When he brought it over, she used one of Beerman’s neckties to create a tourniquet around her left forearm. Then, grabbing the needle, she inserted it in a popped-out vein, unraveled the tourniquet and reclined in the bed. A feeling like warm clouds swept through her body as the drug told hold. Instantly, she was transported to a land far away.

  Standing in a giant puff of clouds, she watched dreamy eyed as half-naked swordsmen rode past her in slow motion. Astride white horses, they were followed by footmen bearing golden shields and leather sandals. Following the party into a huge tent beset on all sides by a brocade of the finest linens available, she stepped onto a marble floor strewn with red rose petals. Court musicians strummed their lyres to the left and right of her, evoking the spirit of descendants long since gone. Children swirled around the chamber flinging their fragrant petals everywhere, their silent laughter careening off the lamp-lit walls. Maid servants, plump and standing all in a row, curtsied and eyed their handsome and available suitors across the room.

  Looking up to a dais, she saw curtains part, revealing a handsome prince sitting forlornly on a golden throne with velvet cushions. Servants to his left and right cooled him with huge feathery fans. The prince, a handsome curly haired man wearing the finest eastern silk, stretched out his hand to her. Enchanted, she ran to him and slowly collapsed on his thigh. Quietly, he rubbed her hair, caressing her face with his gentle eyes.

  Savoring his touch, she twisted lightly, a feather borne on air currents. Then, looking up, she noticed the children stopped dancing. The servants were no longer fanning the prince, the musicians ceased their strumming, and the maidservants and suitors looked as stern as midwinter frost. All eyes, she noticed, had fallen upon her.

  A maidservant walked over and poured water on her belly. Instantly, her stomach started to hurt. It was more than a casual discomfort; it was an agonizing grinding torturous type of pain. Bending over, she screamed and clutched her midriff with her eyes closed. When she opened them a few seconds later, she found herself not in some far away land but in a public bathroom, huddled on the floor, with blood on her hands. Her baby, still attached to his umbilical cord, was on the ground before her.

  She heard a scream. Weakly, she looked over to the entrance. A woman standing there, with a beach in the background, had her hand over her mouth. Essie reached an arm out to the stranger then promptly blacked out.

  Jerome Thorsen and his wife, Naomi, a married couple in their forties, stood inside the waiting room just outside the nursery at Harborview Hospital. Admiring the newborns in their cribs, they smiled happily at each one. The six infants, all less than three months old, were being cared for by a young nurse in the dimly lit nursery. All the babies were quiet except the fourth which the nurse was busy trying to pacify. A social worker, Elizabeth Hinkle, entered the viewing area carrying a clipboard loaded with forms.

  “Hello, Mr. & Mrs. Thorsen,” she greeted them.

  They all shook hands.

  “Thank you for having us, Elizabeth,” Naomi uttered, “especially on such short notice.”

  “I’m glad you two are here,” Elizabeth replied. “It’s getting so much harder to find adoptive parents these days.”

  Jerome rubbed his wife’s barren abdomen. “Believe me,” he admitted. “I’d have preferred one of those little bundles been mine.”

  “I guess it just wasn’t in the cards,” Naomi added.

  “Well,” Elizabeth continued, “as you can see, all of our babies are well cared for. Those twins on the end are the only ones spoken for.”

  “What happened to their parents?” Naomi asked.

  “You mean ‘parent’,” Elizabeth corrected her. “Very sad, these children. They all came from single mothers who were either too young or just not able to raise them alone.”

  “What about grandparents?” Jerome asked. “Surely they must have aunts and cousins who can come to their rescue.”

  “That’s just it,” Elizabeth clarified. “You’d be surprised at the amount of young girls who get pregnant and take their babies to term without anyone noticing.”

  Naomi nodded. “Seems incredible.”

  “I know,” the social worker agreed. “It’s all these “free love” and acid trip parties that are to blame. These kids just get so caught up in that.”

  Jerome pointed to the crying baby near the nurse. “What about him?”

  “Oh,” Elizabeth answered, “his mother was DOA when she got here. The baby had already been born. They found them right on Rainier Beach in the women’s room.”

  “Sad,” Naomi remarked. “Why is he crying like that?”

  “He’s a little sensitive to light,” the social worker explained, “that’s why the lights are dim.”

  Naomi shook her head. “Poor thing. It just breaks my heart.”

  “At least he’s okay,” Elizabeth emphasized. “We never knew the mother’s name so we just call him Baby James, the name of the paramedic that brought him here.”

  “Baby James,” Jerome whispered. “Nice name.”

  Little Baby James moved in and lived with the Thorsens for about six months. Staying in the refurbished bedroom in their two-bedroom house, he was given everything a child could need – boxes of toys, drawers stuffed with clothes, mobiles on the ceiling he could stare at all day – if only he would stop crying.

  In the beginning, he cried only a little. Spoonfuls of strained peas usually quieted him down. Warm milk also did the trick. Eventually, the meal’s panacea wore off. Upgrading to strained meats and other types of foods also didn’t help. As soon as he swallowed a spoonful, he’d start crying again. His pacifiers barely helped as they would all eventually end up on the floor.

  Days, weeks and months of James’s incessant crying began taking its toll on the Thorsens. Naomi, a stay at home mom, had no peace. Conversations over the phone became a chore. Friends who came to visit only stayed a short while because of the screaming. Elixirs his doctor prescribed didn’t work; it was as if they were just too weak to satisfy him.

  At work, Jerome also didn’t fare so well. Sometimes punching in late, his boss was angry but often looked the other way. When, however, other workers noticed he was sleeping at his desk or speaking rudely to customers on the phone, he was given a stern warning to shape up. On the day he was given a scolding by his boss, he went home with his intestines in knots.

  Opening the door to his house, he laid his briefcase on the center table in the living room. Naomi, dressed in a robe and slippers and looking like she’d been to war, was sitting on the couch watching TV with the volume up high. James was crying in his room just a few feet away.

  “I called the hospital today,” Jerome informed her. “I told them to either take this child back or we’re leaving him on their doorstep.”

  “That’s ridiculous, Jerome,” Naomi admonished him. “You want to go to jail for child abandonment. As strange as it seems, that’s our son in there.” Jerome rubbed his head ferociously.

  “I’m losing my mind!” he revealed. “I look at you and see you’re wasted, too!”

  Turning, he stormed into the kitchen, retrieved a beer from the refrigerator, popped it open, and drank half down in one gulp. Walking back into the living room, he sat on the couch next to his wife.

  “Naomi,” he began, “I know how much you feel about James. Problem is - I’m being split apart. I can’t get any sleep, my work is suffering, and I got a stiff warning today.”

  “So, just like that, you want to take him back?”

  “Honey, what else can I do? My hands are tied here!”

  “That’s not how people deal with their children! You can’t just run and hide like some scared chicken. He’s our son!”

  Jerome leaped to his feet. He could see he was getting nowhere with her.

  “Don’t act like you don’t feel the same way I do, Naomi. I’m tired of us fighting. We got along so well before he arrived. We were the happiest couple in the world. Do you remember those days? We went sailing, we went to the movies and the theater. Hell, we even took in a few Sonics games. Look at us now. We’re broken like some old television.”

  Naomi stood and held her husband’s hands.

  “This is just a phase he’s going through,” she advised him. “In no time, he’ll snap out of it.”

  Jerome shook his head then turned and walked towards the door.

  “Where are you going?” she asked.

  “I’m going to see my buddy Pete. I just need to relax after work today.”

  “And what do you think I was doing all day? Planting flowers? All my time is spent trying to calm that baby down!”

  “You know what?” Jerome asked as he opened the front door. “I’ve already made my decision. By the time I get back tonight, let me know what’s yours.” Naomi watched as her husband walked out the door.

  “Dammit!” she yelled then turned in the baby’s direction. “Be quiet!”

  Jerome took off from work the next day so he and his wife could meet Lucy Smalls, an adoption agency liaison, in their home. The couple, casually attired, tried their best not to show the stress they’ve been under the past couple of months. Naomi even baked a pie for the meeting. Baby James, for his part, kept quiet during the meeting as if he knew what was going on.

  After the application was filled out and pictures taken, Lucy left. The following week several adoptive parents came to their home to have a gander at the baby. At times, he’d cry incessantly, giving a hopeful couple worries. When he wasn’t crying, he’d fidget endlessly. Two weeks later, with still no adoption forthcoming, they placed him in a foster home.

  The state-sponsored facility he went to was located in South Seattle. It was a modest six-bedroom house owned by Eliot and Goldie Rosewell. A licensed foster home, they had in their charge two boys and three girls ranging in age from two to six years. By far, James was their youngest and required the most supervision.

  The Rosewells, a retired couple in their early 60’s, had their hands filled. The children were well behaved but would become restless when James started to scream. Sometimes their friends from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church came by to lend a helping hand. They took the children out on walks or entertained them in their own homes. At times, they drove the two oldest ones to and from kindergarten.

  James’s stay with the Rosewells was a trying one. Like the Thorsens, they tried every type of baby food on the shelf. They tried both warm and cold and experimented with different flavors of Enfamil, Similac, evaporated milk, Gerber’s baby food and similar generic brands. Even an old-fashioned swaying crib donated by a church member didn’t seem to quell his angst. Never in their lives have they ever seen a child so insatiable. Goldie, a part-time writer, started calling him Restless Hans, the protagonist prince from one of her fairy tales, so called because he often married the wrong maiden in his never-ending quest to find the perfect wife.

  By the time, James was a year old; he started to quiet down. Occasionally throwing tantrums, he often refused to eat or drink anything prepared for him. He was beginning to be resented by the other kids because they thought he demanded too much of the Rosewells’ time. When he wasn’t crying, he was crawling around casting the other children’s toys aside and being a general nuisance. By the time he was two, he had gotten into so many hair pulling fights and other situations with his housemates that the Rosewells thought it was time for him to go.

  They first tried to get one of their church friends to adopt him, but they too looked the other way when they saw how difficult he could be. A pediatrician suggested he be given something to calm his nerves like Thorazine or Mellaril, but because of the Rosewell’s strong religious conviction, they nixed it. It was then suggested that little Baby James be transferred out to a different foster home where the parents were amenable to such care.

  It took all of two months, but eventually, James went to live in Paul and Jenna Parson’s foster home in North Seattle. There were three other children living there, all of them with Down’s syndrome and all between three to six years old. The Rosewells had initial concerns about the adoption, but when the Parsons alleviated their fears, they agreed to it.

  Things went well at first. James, as curious as Tesla in his Colorado Springs lab, practically had the full run of the house. He was allowed to explore in almost every nook and cranny. He cried less but stayed to himself. Ignoring his housemates, he preferred sitting alone playing with his puzzle books or drawing pictures in his art books. At times, he’d simply sit in a corner rocking back and forth, consoling whatever childhood angst his little body was harboring.

  Other than his profound isolation, he gave the Parsons little to worry about. Although he was encouraged many times to join them at the dinner table, they simply fed him where he sat fearing a caterwauling outburst. It did seem odd that everyone but him would be engaged at the table in lively, or at least, pleasant chit-chat during meal times; eventually, they came to accept it for what it was - normalcy, James’s style.

  He was brought to a child psychiatrist that year who prescribed medication for anxiety and depression. As expected, he took the medications only when they were hidden in his food. His behavior did change somewhat. For one, he started eating with the others at the family table. He was still reticent about meeting people, but he was slowly opening up to his foster brothers and sisters, even going so far as to let them see what he was drawing in his books. By the time he was three, it seemed he’d come to accept he had siblings - albeit foster ones.

  Little James was a precocious child. No matter how involved he was with his toys, he’d stop and listen right away when Jenna, in one of her unusually sunny moods, would sit at the upright piano in the living room and play a few songs. Sometimes she’d sing along, sometimes not. The other kids would crowd around and jump up and down with excitement, clapping at times off the beat. James, though, always appeared intensely drawn in by the music. He’d sit patiently on the floor watching Jenna’s fingers with great intensity, studying her movements like a conservatory student.

  One day, she surprised him by allowing him to sit on the bench next to her. She took his fingers and placed them on the right notes to play whatever song was in her mind. Being a fan of Broadway shows, she played songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter and others. Typically, she played from memory, only referring to sheet music when she was stuck or forgot a particular phrase.

  It didn’t take long before Little James developed an affinity for the ivories. Although his fingers were short, he learned to move them with finesse, adapting easily to the keyboard’s stretch. Jenna not only showed him how to play each chord but also to read music. She even bought him a blank music book to practice writing out the notes. He spent day and night practicing, often to the annoyance of his foster father, Paul Parsons. The few times they tried to get him away from the instrument, he’d scream so loudly that they didn’t have a choice but to leave him where he was. By the time he was four and a half, he was already playing music by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Frederick Loewe.

  To show off his newly developing skills, Jenna took him a couple of times to her church, Woodland Park Presbyterian, to play their piano. Because his sight-reading skills were still rudimentary at best, he was relegated to playing simpler tunes. The church goers marveled at the little man at the keyboard, his legs way too short to reach the foot pedals. James, however, didn’t like attention. He rebuffed any attempts by strangers to speak to him. His parents sat red-faced when he shunned their friends. Still, it was better than hearing him crying loudly like he used to.

  James’s brothers and sisters never became jealous of the attention their little brother was getting. In fact, they were oblivious to it. Absorbed in their own little worlds, they were happy just playing with the usual toys over and over. The same, however, couldn’t be said for James. When one of his sisters shouted in jubilation over something they saw or discovered, he would grit his teeth, bang the piano, or jump off the bench and tell them to shut up. Admonished by Paul and Jenna frequently, he tried to contain his frustrations. At times, he’d slam the piano’s fallboard down with such force that he’d make his siblings cry. Indeed, his unpredictable behavior really began to give the Parsons’ much concern.

  One bright sunny afternoon, when he sat down at the newly-tuned living room piano to practice, he heard a commotion coming from the kitchen. Curious, he got up to see what was going on. His six-year-old sister, he noticed, had knocked over a jar of cookies from the counter. Now, with cookies all over the floor, she was bawling. James yelled at her and ordered her to pick them up. Jenna, taking a shower at the time, didn’t hear the ruckus. In the past, when a child misbehaved, she used to take a wooden spatula from the cutlery drawer and lightly smack the back of their hands with it. Mimicking her, James reached into the drawer and, grabbing the first utensil he found, whipped it out and smacked the back of his sister’s hand. Unfortunately, the utensil was a paring knife. The little girl screamed as blood streamed down her forearm and dripped to the floor. James tried to get her to stop crying, but she rebuffed him by covering her face with her hands, causing blood to stick to her face and hair. Jenna ran out of the shower, saw the ghastly scene, and freaked. The next day, plans were in the works to have the young pianist transferred out to another home.

  James swore that it was an accident, and although the Parsons believed him, they felt it was just too risky to manage a child with his occasional temper flare ups, especially around kids with Down’s syndrome. Next time, they feared, the accident would be worse.

  After his evaluation by the adoption agency, Little James, now five and a half years old, was placed in the home of Estelle Cumberbatch, a woman so large and intimidating that her charges barely ever raised their voices in her presence. She operated a home in Lake City, just 10 miles north of downtown Seattle. There were four other boys in her house, all between six and twelve years old, all of whom were removed from parents that were eventually incarcerated. Ms. Cumberbatch herself was a widow. Behind her back, the boys used to joke she killed off her husband. There may have been some truth to that because he died from a mysterious poisoning a few years ago, which the authorities could find no trace of in their home.

  She laid the house rules down to James when he first arrived. All chores were to be completed whether it was sweeping, mopping, washing dishes, or raking the leaves out in the front or back yard. There will be no eating or bringing food into the rooms and absolutely no yelling, screaming or fighting. All schoolwork must be completed first otherwise there will be no TV. Everyone must clean up after themselves. Profanity was strictly forbidden. This resulted in loss of dessert at mealtimes. The most important rule was that her room was off limits. If anyone was caught trying to steal the refrigerator key off her nightstand, they would be punished by forfeiting their TV privileges. Little James didn’t know what forfeiting meant, but since he was sure it wasn’t good, he’d simply comply with her rules.

  Luckily, Ms. Cumberbatch also owned a piano. Hardly ever used, it simply sat covered in a corner like a child being punished forever. When James discovered it, his new foster mother wouldn’t let him touch it at first. She wanted to gauge his behavior without it and perhaps even use her refusal of performance as criteria for punishment if necessary. She’d heard of his technical prowess, but now that he was in her care, the only rules that mattered were hers.

  Bit by bit, when she had time, she allowed James to play the piano. He was able to earn playing time by helping out with extra chores around the house. He didn’t mind taking out the garbage, but scrubbing the toilet left a lot to be desired. Still, time gained at the keyboard was like gold to a prospector or gin to a drunkard.

  Because the piano sat for a long time without being played, it was out of tune. The jubilant young man protested silently but at least he had something to play. Ms. Cumberbatch, however, couldn’t stand the discordant tones. She put up with it for a few weeks then eventually forbade anyone from playing the instrument. James started showing signs of depression after that. He would eat less and less at mealtimes. He spoke to his new brothers very little, hardly watched TV, and simply sat out alone on the porch reading the same books over and over.

  One day, when he was sitting outside creating lanes for ants in the dirt, two women from Woodland Park Presbyterian Church, Rose and Marion, paid him a visit. The ladies, both in their late 40’s, had been told his new address by Jenna Parsons and were curious to see how he was doing. At first, he didn’t recognize them and ran to the porch. When they started singing a song he knew, he smiled and waved at them. They asked him if he’d learned more show tunes but he told them he doesn’t play anymore. The ladies were beyond stunned; they were shocked. Could it be that such a talent was going to waste? He admitted his new house had a piano but he wasn’t allowed to touch it. When the ladies heard that, they immediately knocked on the front door.

  Ms. Cumberbatch strutted to the glass-inlaid portal and threw it open. Her nostrils were flared and her stance was like a defensive end in a football game.

  “What do you want?” she asked the ladies.

  “Mrs. Cumberbatch,” Rose answered, “we went to church with Little Jimmy.”

  The gigantic foster mother threw her head backwards.

  “So what? And it’s Ms. Cumberbatch.”

  “Well,” Marion stuttered, “we were wondering if he can come by this Sunday and play with our youth choir.”

  “On such short notice?”

  Rose swallowed hard. “He is a good player.”

  Ms. Cumberbatch planted her hands firmly on her waist. “He doesn’t play anymore.”

  “What do you mean he doesn’t play?” Rose asked. “A child with that talent?”

  James, standing on the porch, heard everything but dared not speak out.

  “I would appreciate if people didn’t disturb us,” Ms. Cumberbatch warned, “unless they’re from the government.”

  “This isn’t right,” Marion complained, “and you will hear from the government!” The heavyset foster mother had heard all she could take.

  “Get off my property or I’ll call the police!”

  “You’re the one who needs the police called on!” Rose retorted.

  Marion tapped her friend. “Come on, Rose. Let’s go.”

  The visitors turned to leave. Marion turned around.

  “You haven’t heard the last of us, Ms. Cumberbatch,” she swore.

  After they got into their car and drove off, James hanged his head. If there was anything he despised more than unwanted attention was having anyone make a big fuss about him. At that moment, he wished he could join the ants he was creating a path for. Ms. Cumberbatch simply told him to go inside and wash his hands.

  A week later, Ms. Cumberbatch had a visit from the state welfare agency. As expected, they interviewed the children, asking them about life with Ms. Cumberbatch. All the boys, including James, stated life was “fine” and “okay.” When asked if they would describe their foster mother as being strict or wicked they simply said no. Were they well fed? Yes. What about shoes and clothes? They were cleaned every week and as necessary. The boys, sitting solemnly in the living room, cast their eyes downward when Ms. Cumberbatch glanced at them. Fear, more than anything else, kept them paralyzed.

  The inspectors then scrutinized their living quarters, bathroom facilities and play areas. To their surprise, everything was clean and in order. When they were done, they wished the boys good luck, waving goodbye to them all as they exited. Ms. Cumberbatch then glared at the boys.

  “Don’t anybody ever go behind my back!” she warned them. “There ain’t no place for rejected boys like y’all, so they dump y’all here. Always remember that! There is a heaven, but you have to go through hell to get there, and this is it!”

  The boys were probably too young to understand what she meant, but her fiery presentation only meant one thing – they were doomed.

  Over the next few months, none of the boys dared misbehave. James was allowed piano time but because his spirit was defeated, he opted not to play. Diving into his books, he started gaining an interest in animal behavior. He did well in school and never gave his teacher any grief. At times, he helped his brothers with their homework. He was especially fond of the animal book he’d received from his teacher and spent countless hours drawing the creatures portrayed in it.

  One day after school, the boys sat in a front corridor of the facility waiting for Ms. Cumberbatch. They watched as the other kids left with their parents, siblings and guardians or boarded a bus. It wasn’t like her to pick them up late. Usually she’d be the first to arrive, her hulking frame parting the crowd of students like Moses at the Red Sea.

  After the last student left, a young teacher, Joni Streeter, approached the boys and asked them if Ms. Cumberbatch was expected to be late. They said they didn’t know. Since they weren’t sure what her phone number was, Joni decided to drive them home.

  When they got to the boys’ abode, Ms. Cumberbatch didn’t answer the door. Ringing the bell a few more times, there was still no answer. The foster mother’s car, they noticed, was sitting in the driveway. Joni and the boys, receiving no response from anyone inside the house, walked next door and asked a neighbor to call the police. Walking back to the Ms. Cumberbatch’s house, the teacher and the boys sat on the porch and waited. Fifteen minutes later, the police arrived.

  Knocking heavily on the door, the police received no response. Using a slim Jim, they unlocked the door and pushed it open carefully. Telling Joni and the boys to wait outside, the two officers entered the darkened house. Flicking on the light switch, they looked in the rooms for the matronly lady. Then, slowly opening her bedroom door, they saw her lying supine across the bed, her feet dangling to the floor. The color was gone in her face. Her eyes, both wide opened, were affixed to the ceiling. The officers walked over to her. One placed his fingers on her carotid artery then shook his head. Apparently, she had passed.

  That night, the boys were remanded to protective custody. Interestingly, and perhaps expectedly, none of them were saddened that Ms. Cumberbatch had passed. They weren’t jubilant; they simply accepted it in stride. The custody officials bought them ice cream to allay their fears. Feeling comfortable with their temporary surrounding, the boys thought they’d like to live there even though they realized that was impossible. A female custody official told them she’d love to have them at her house, but her husband, himself a teacher, was young and preferred being alone after a trying day at school. Not only that, but their one bedroom cottage was just too small for all of them. She did, however, promise she would contact the state agency to find them a home as possible. The boys lamented her decision but knew there was nothing they could do. Like stray birds riding a wave of uncertainty, all they could do was lay back and wait.

 
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