Foster Mother

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December 2016 Spirit of Giving Story Contest Entry

The Foster Mother

By Asche

Copyright 2016, 2017

Dec. 30, 2016: I made some revisions to chapters 20 and 21 and the epilog, mostly slightly expanding some details.

Jan. 14, 2017: Substantial additions to chapters 16 through epilog.

Chapter 1 -- First Meeting

When I first saw him, the child who we planned to take into our lives, he looked for all the world like a refugee from a war zone. It wasn't so much the ragged clothes with the ground-in dirt and grass stains or the rats-nest of dirty blond hair. It was the look on his face: the face of someone who is afraid to hope. He was sitting hunched over in one of those miserable plastic institutional chairs with his knees drawn up under his chin. My heart went out to him, but I was also afraid that what he needed might be more than we could give.

Mrs. Templeton over at Social Services hadn't told us all that much about him. We knew that he was eleven, that he'd grown up in what seemed to be a normal middle-class family three states away, that he'd made two suicide attempts in the past year, the second of which triggered a CPS investigation which found no abuse, and had run away a month and a half ago, to be found two weeks later near here nearly dead of pneumonia. The social services people in the two states hadn't figured out exactly what to do with him long-term, presumably since returning him to his family no longer seemed like a good idea, but the hospital didn't want him staying any longer either, hence the need for short-term fostering. Which is where we came in. Mrs. Templeton had added, "he's a really sweet kid, I promise you'll love him," I suppose to convince us he wouldn't be like the last foster kid we took in. Right now, though, he didn't look sweet so much as lost. Well, we'd see how he responded to us.

My husband and my daughter looked at me, leaving it to me to start things off. "Hello, Michael," I said, smiling as sweetly as I could. We'd been told he didn't like nicknames. "We're the Davidsons, and we'd like you to come live with us for a while." He simply peered at us over his knees, saying nothing, so I went on. "I'm Mildred Davidson, I'd be your foster mother, but you can call me mom if you like." He just kept looking at us with that scared expression.

"I'm Jerry Davidson," said my husband, "but you can call me Jerry if you don't want to call me dad. And this is our daughter Margaret, but everyone calls her Margie." She did a sort of wig-wag wave with her palm facing out and said, "Hi." Michael seemed to thaw a little looking at her and after a bit said, "I never had a big sister before."

We explained the situation at our home, that he'd have his own room but share a bathroom with Margie, that there was a rec room downstairs, that we belonged to a pool club which would open for the summer in a few weeks.

"Can you swim?" I asked. He nodded.

"Do you have a swimsuit?" Margie asked.

"No, not here." He talks, but so far only to big sister.

"What sort of clothes do you have," I asked.

The social worker answered for him. "He just has the clothes he's wearing. It's what he was wearing when they brought him in, and it looks like he wore them the whole time he was on the run, sleeping on the ground and in the mud in them. We washed them as well as we could, what you see won't wash out. When these are in the wash, he wears the hospital pyjamas."

"Mrs. Blake, can we discuss this in your office?" I said it a little sharply. I didn't think it was very kind to be talking about him in front of him as if he weren't there. As we got up, I asked Margie, "can you stay here and keep Michael company? Maybe you can see if you all have things in common."

Mrs. Blake's office wasn't in the pediatric psychiatry unit. It wasn't even on the same floor, it turned out. Jerry stayed in the unit in case he was needed, while I followed Mrs. Blake. Once in her office, we discussed the clothing issue.

"We asked his parents to send him some clothes, but they just keep saying we should send him home. They've not been very cooperative so far. They think we shouldn't indulge his 'silliness.'"

"I wouldn't call suicide attempts 'silliness.'"

"No, I wouldn't," she agreed.

I decided not to ask why they couldn't have found some donated clothes or bought him something cheap from Walmart. Instead, I asked about what clothing allowance the foster care system had and got her to agree to let me use it for Michael. It wasn't nearly enough to buy what he needed, but I saw no point in not using it.

"You should know, he's kind of a baby. He cries a lot. And he's a bed-wetter."

"Bed-wetting we've dealt with before. What kind of crying?"

"We never know what sets him off. He starts saying how bad he is and then he just starts crying like crazy until he falls asleep."

"Does he ever get violent?"

"No, never. He's usually pretty obedient. Sometimes he gets mad about something and sulks, but he doesn't act up. Oh, and one time he managed to run out of the ward. He said he thought we were going to send him home. Anyway, he ran like the dickens, but when they caught him, he just gave up, didn't struggle or fight back. Sometimes a boy will hit him or call him names, and he just walks away and cries. Never hits back. Not much of a boy, if you ask me."

When we got back to the unit, I heard crying. I went into the room where Michael was and he was curled up in a ball crying and shaking. Margie was really upset. "I was just talking to him and asking him about what he liked to do with his friends, and he said he didn't have any and then started saying he was awful and we'd never want him around once we really knew him. I tried to talk him out of it, but he just got more upset." Margie was crying by now.

"Don't worry Margie, you didn't do anything wrong," I said as I sat down next to Michael. I didn't have much idea what to do, but I know most kids like hugs and gentle touching. I reached over and stroked his back, which was all I could reach, and softly said, "it's okay, honey. It's going to be okay." He uncurled and I gently tugged him to me. I got him over onto my lap and he snuggled into me, burying his face in my shoulder. I held him and kept stroking his back and telling him, "you're a good boy" over and over again. He kept crying, but stopped shaking and the crying got less hysterical. Finally, the crying stopped and he was just snuggling until he finally fell asleep in my arms. One of the nurses came in to carry him out, but I insisted on doing it myself. We followed her to his room, and I put him into bed and tucked him in and kissed his cheek.

On the ride home, I reassured Margie that she'd done nothing wrong, that he broke up crying a lot and it probably had nothing to do with what she'd said or done. I pointed out that he'd responded to her more than anyone else and I was sure she'd make a great foster sister if he came to live with us.

"If?" said Jerry with a smile in his voice.

"What do you mean?" I asked, though I knew exactly what he meant.

"He's got you hooked, hasn't he?"

"You don't want him?"

"No, I like the idea of fostering him, too. But I think you've really fallen for him and it's going to be hell on you when they finally place him and you have to watch him leave."

What if they place him with us? The thought jumped into my mind. That's just crazy talk, I answered myself and tried to put the thought out of my mind.

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Chapter 2 -- Second Meeting

Sunday afternoon, I came by again, having arranged it with Mrs. Blake as we were leaving Saturday. I was hoping it would be easier to talk to Michael if it was just me instead of the whole family.

"Hi, Michael," I said as we sat down in the room together. I hated the room -- it was one of those sterile institutional rooms, but I'd wanted some privacy. "I wondered if we could talk about whether you might come to stay with us."

He looked at me with blank incomprehension. "But I was so bad yesterday."

"I didn't think you were bad, just scared and overwhelmed. You settled down pretty fast when I took you into my lap."

"That was you? I thought I dreamed it."

"Yes, that was me. Would you like to sit on my lap now?"

He looked afraid, spooked in fact. "If I stay with you, you'll find out how bad I am and you won't want me any more and you won't like me, but I'll have to stay with you anyway and you'll always be mad at me."

"I don't believe you're really that bad. Why don't you tell me the bad things you might do that would make us hate you?"

"Well, I've been crying a lot. I'm afraid I'll do nothing but cry, and boys aren't supposed to cry."

"People cry when they're sad, even boys. I don't think that's bad. And I was able to comfort you, which made me feel good. How about another?"

"I -- I don't always do what I'm supposed to."

"You forget?"

"Sometimes. Sometimes I just don't want to and my parents yell at me."

"Like what things?"

"Cleaning up my room. Doing my homework. Notes from school. Especially when I've been bad. Sometimes I forget to feed the dog, but I don't want to, I just forget."

"Sounds normal to me. Anything else?"

"I talk too much. I say stuff that gets me into trouble. You know, you think something and then you just say it, and everybody gets mad."

I couldn't help snickering. "You sound like a normal kid to me. Do you get into fights? Beat people up?" I already knew the answer, of course.

"I'm no good at fighting. I'm a wimp. When I'm in a fight, it's always someone else beating me up. But I get into trouble anyway." He sighed. "I'm just no good as a boy."

"I guess that means you haven't killed anyone or robbed any banks, have you?"

He looked shocked. "N-no!"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to upset you, I was just teasing. Look, we know you're not perfect, no kid is. We still would like for you to come live with us. But not if you really don't want to."

"Do I have a choice?"

"To be honest, if you don't stay with us, they'll probably send you to another family." Or an emergency shelter, but I didn't want to scare him.

"Okay. You all seem nice. I'm sorry I'm being so difficult. My Mom always says I'm too difficult."

"I don't think you're being difficult. I think you're just scared, which I understand. You don't know us. I'm hoping that you'll find out that you don't have anything to be afraid of, but it's too soon right now. I'm asking you to trust that you'll be okay. Do you think you can?"

"I guess I have to," he sighed.

"Can I hold you in my lap?" I asked. He said nothing, but walked over and climbed up and I held him. We sat like that, just being together, until the nurse came to tell us I had to leave.

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Chapter 3 -- Coming Home

Monday morning, I was back at the hospital. I found Michael and told him, "Michael, I've come to bring you home with me. Why don't you pack your things while Mrs. Blake and I get the paperwork done? Then you can say goodbye to everyone."

"Are you sure?" he said anxiously. "I know you said so yesterday, but ...."

I leaned down and hugged him. "Yes, we still want you." I hugged him a little longer, until I noticed Mrs. Blake standing there looking a little impatient. "Now, go and pack. I'll see you soon."

Mrs. Blake and I took longer than expected, it seems like they have more paperwork each time we take in a new kid. When I got out, I found Michael sitting in a plastic chair in the hall clutching a teddy bear.

"Did you pack?"

"This is all I have."

A sad little girl came up to Michael. "Will you read to me?"

"Sorry, I'm leaving. This lady--" he pointed to me "-- is taking me home. She's a foster mother."

"You can't read to me?"

"Sorry."

"Goodbye," she said with tears in her eyes. Michael gave her a long hug and looked like he might cry himself.

Another boy, maybe 14, came over and punched Michael on the shoulder. "So, they sprung you?" Michael held his shoulder like it hurt, but didn't change his expression.

"This is my new foster mother," Michael said. "I'll be staying with her. And her family."

"Is she nice?"

"I hope so."

A parade of children and nurses came by to say goodbye, each in their own way. When one young nurse came by, though, his face lit up and he started to run to her, then stopped dead and got a stern expression. "Wipe that rouge off your face!" he commanded. The two of them stood stock-still for about two seconds, then his face dissolved into a grin and they both broke into giggles. He ran to her and she lifted him up into a big hug while he wiggled all over with joy.

"Rouge?" I asked.

"Oh," the nurse said, still holding and hugging Michael. "I'm a student nurse, and when he found out, he started calling me 'Cherry Ames', from the book Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. One of the doctors in the book is always telling her to wipe the rouge off her face. The joke is that she doesn't have any, it's just how her face looks."

Michael had put his head on her shoulder. "I'll miss you," she said.

"Me, too," he said.

A tall woman in her 30's or 40's in a lab coat came out of one of the offices and walked up to me.

"Hi, I'm Elaine Conroy, Michael's psychiatrist. You must be his new foster mother. I've heard good things about you."

On hearing her voice, the nurse put Michael down and he came up to the doctor. "Goodbye, Dr. Conroy, and thanks for -- thanks."

"You're very welcome, Michael, but, you know, you will still be seeing me. You'll be coming twice a week to see me at my private office. I think you'll like it." She caressed his head and shoulders. "I know you're scared, but I promise you, it will be okay. Things will be good for you at the Davidsons. You can trust them."

"It's time to go home, honey," I told Michael. He fetched the bear and waved goodbye to the ward, then took my hand and we walked out the door and down to the car.

On the way home, I told him, "I bought some new clothes for you. Only a few days' worth, because I'd like to take you shopping so you can pick out clothes you like." He didn't say anything. "So when we get home, I'd like you to change your clothes while I make lunch. Do you like soup and grilled cheese sandwiches?"

"What kind of soup?" he asked timidly.

"Chicken noodle."

"That sounds good. The grilled cheese, too, I like grilled cheese sandwiches. Thank you." All said in a quiet, halting voice.

When we got home, he got out of the car and stared at the house. Our house is a rather normal suburban split-level house on the usual quarter-acre lot, so I wasn't sure what he found so fascinating. "Come on, sweetie," I said, but when he got to the foot of the front steps, he stopped and started shaking.

"What's the matter, honey?"

"I-I-I-I ... I'm sc- ... sc- ... scared." He had trouble getting the words out, he was so upset.

"What are you scared of?"

"I ... I ... I ... d- ... d- ... dunno. Uh- uh- uh- Everything, I guess." He started to cry. I squatted down and took him in my arms. Evidently I was going to get a lot of experience comforting him.

"I know, but it's going to be okay. You'll see." I comforted him until he stopped shaking. "Now, come along and see your new room."

I led him through the living room and up the stairs. I pointed out the bathroom and Margie's room on the way to his room. His room was on the small side, and the bed, dresser, bedside table, and chair took up most of the space. The dresser and table were white with gold trim and the bed was a canopy bed that we hadn't put the canopy back on. The curtains had a flowery countryside print and the bedspread had Disney princesses on it.

"I know the room looks like a girl's room. The last foster child kind of wrecked the old furniture, so we put Margie's old things in. We can replace the curtains and bedspread this weekend if you like."

"It's okay. I kind of like it. It's pretty."

"You're sure?" I noticed him running his hands over the bedspread.

"Yeah, I like it."

"Okay, your new clothes are in the dresser, why don't you change while I make lunch. When you're done, come down and find me in the kitchen."

I'd mostly finished making lunch when Michael came into the kitchen and sat at the kitchen table. I poured a bowl of soup for him, but instead of eating it, he just started crying again. I sat down next to him and pulled him into my lap.

"What is it, sweetie?"

He had trouble talking for crying. "I don't belong here. I'm so bad. I belong in a ditch. I wish they had left me there. I wish they'd just let me die!"

I didn't know what to say. I couldn't help thinking of the suicide attempts. And yet, the way he snuggled into me as I held him belied his words.

"You do belong here, honey, and not in any ditch. We want you here. You're not bad and you deserve to be with people who love you."

"Even though I cry all the time?" he said unbelievingly through his tears.

"Especially since you cry. We know you have a lot to cry about, and it's good that you feel safe enough to cry about it. Cry as much as you need to, and know that we'll be here for you."

I couldn't tell if he was actually taking the words in, but I went back to saying, "you belong here. We are here for you," and I think something got through, if only the tone of voice. Despite my brave words, I couldn't help wondering if he was going to do anything besides cry. It was beginning to get a little old, to say the least.

Once he had settled down, I asked him, "do you think you'd like to eat something?"

"I don't know if I can."

"Why don't you try a spoonful?" I held him in my lap with one arm and scooped up a spoonful of soup with the other. He ate one spoonful, then another and another, until he had eaten the whole bowl.

"Feel better?" I asked.

"Uh huh."

I slid him back onto his chair. "Ready for a grilled cheese sandwich? It's a bit cold."

"Then it won't burn my tongue," he answered brightly.

After we'd eaten and as he was bringing his bowl and plate to the sink, he said, "I know I'm supposed to just be grateful, but I still don't get it. I mean, how did I deserve --"

"Maybe you don't have to understand. Maybe it's like God's grace, it's something you're given whether you 'deserve' it or not." I put my arm around him. "I know it will take a while for you to trust us. But what we're giving you is what every child deserves. Now, I think you may need some down time. Do you like to read?"

He nodded.

"Downstairs in the rec room are some of Margie's old books, why don't you pick out a book or two and take them up to your room to read? Or read on the couch if you like. That's what Margie does." We went downstairs and I showed him the bookshelf in the rec room, then went to our "office." A few minutes later, he came by, two books in his hand, to tell me he was going to his room to read.

"What did you pick out?" I asked.

He showed me two Nancy Drew books. "You know about Nancy Drew? She's a girl."

"I've read some of her books. I don't think I've read these, though. They're interesting. And easy to read."

"Enjoy, then." He clumped off and I went back to looking at our finances.

An hour or so later, I went upstairs, and I heard quiet talking from Michael's room. I tiptoed up to his doorway, standing where he couldn't see me.

"Now you gotta remember, the last time Nancy was in this old staircase, there was lots of dust, but this time it's gone. What happened to it? We'll see."

I peeked around the corner. Michael was sitting on the bed holding his teddy bear with his left arm and holding the book open in his right. He was explaining the story to the bear. I couldn't help thinking of the little girl who'd asked him to read to her. As I went away, I could hear him reading: "Nancy looked carefully up and down the staircase, but didn't see anyone. But she didn't notice that ...."

Later that afternoon, I heard Margie shout, "Mom, I'm home!"

"I'm down here," I shouted back.

"Did Michael get here yet?" she asked when she saw me.

"Yes, he's in his room reading some of your old books. Why don't you look in on him and say hello?"

When I went upstairs again, I saw Margie sitting in her usual spot in the middle of the couch with her books and papers spread over the coffee table, and Michael curled up next to her with his nose in a book. When I came back by a little while later, Margie gave Michael a conspiratorial look and they both sat up and said, "Hi, Mom!" at exactly the same time and then dissolved in giggles.

I couldn't help smiling. "I'm glad you two are hitting it off so well," I said, but thought to myself, it's something that he isn't crying.

At 5:00, I asked Margie to help with dinner.

"Aw, Mom, can I skip it tonight? I have a ton of homework, I'll be working until bedtime as it is."

"Margie, dinner won't make itself."

"I'll make dinner all by myself tomorrow, okay?"

Michael piped up, "I'm not doing anything, can I help instead?"

"No," I said, "it's your first day with us, you need to relax."

"I might feel better if I thought I was doing something useful." He was actually disagreeing with me. Politely, but it was still more assertiveness than I'd expected. Michael was surprising me.

"You don't have to," said Margie. "I can do it."

"You don't want me to?" asked Michael, actually looking a little disappointed.

"I mean, it would really help me out. But Mom's right, it's your first day."

"You really want to?" I asked. I realized that he might actually feel better if he felt he were contributing to the family. He nodded.

"Okay, then. Come with me to the kitchen." He jumped up from the couch, dumping the books in the corner, and followed me. He was practically skipping. I put Margie's apron on him, adjusting the ties to fit his shorter height. The apron was pretty frilly, but that didn't seem to bother him. I set him to peeling potatoes to boil for mashed potatoes. He needed more instruction than Margie, but once he got started, he worked carefully and without complaining. I even got him to cut up some vegetables for the salad while the potatoes were boiling. He showed none of the insecurity he'd shown earlier. Maybe giving him something useful to do was all it took.

Most of the way through making dinner, Jerry came in the front door. And a half a minute later, I heard Michael and Margie say, "Hi, Daddy!" at exactly the same time, just as they'd done to me. I looked over and saw him looking around with a startled look on his face.

"Are there two Margie's now? I'm not sure the world is ready for two of them."

"No, one's just Michael. He volunteered to help with dinner so Margie could finish her homework." I could hear Michael giggling uncontrollably and saying, "I'm Margie two!"

Michael set the table (with a little instruction) and after we said grace, he sat down, still wearing the apron.

During dinner, we tried to engage Michael in conversation, but he closed up again and all we could get were one- or two-word answers. He looked more and more depressed and stopped eating.

"What is it, Michael?" I asked.

"Just me being stupid," he said, then added under his breath, "as usual." His eyes were getting damp.

"I want to know, I won't think it's stupid."

He sighed, which was half a sob. "You all are so nice and normal and I'm just this weirdo. I don't belong here. God, I sound so stupid."

"Who says you're weird?"

"I dunno, the kids at school. They pick on me and call me weirdo and queer. The grown-ups don't exactly say it, but they act like it. Like I'm some kind of weirdo queer."

"That's awful! Didn't your parents ever do anything about it?"

He stared at me like he couldn't make sense of what I had said.

"Didn't they talk to the school? Ask the adults to protect you?"

"Why would they? It was my fault for being so weird. I deserved it, I guess. For being such a wimp." He added under his breath: "can't even do a decent job of killing myself." He'd stopped crying and had that hopeless look again.

I took his hand between my two hands. "You did not deserve it. You're a very nice boy. What you did for Margie was very thoughtful. Now see if you can finish your dinner. You won't feel better for starving yourself." He reluctantly began picking at his food. I stroked his shoulder and smiled at him. It took a while, but he finished what was on his plate.

After dinner, he silently helped clear the table and rinsed the dishes while Margie loaded the dishwasher and I put the leftovers away. Margie went back to the couch while I took Michael upstairs to his room.

At first, I had planned to get him to shower and get ready for bed, but as we walked upstairs I changed my mind. When we got to his room, I sat on the chair and pulled him onto my lap. Once again, he snuggled into me.

"Why?" he asked as I held him and rocked him.

I thought for a second. "Because I thought you could use a little extra cuddling. And because I enjoy cuddling with you. I thought we needed a little time to simply enjoy being together."

"Even though I cry all the time and make more work for you?"

"Honey, comforting the people you love when they're sad and doing things for them isn't 'more work.' If you get an ice cream cone, is it 'more work' to eat it?"

The minute I said it, I wondered if I had done the right thing. I wasn't sure he was ready to hear the word 'love'. But he just giggled. "Ice cream. Oh, that's too much work!" It was nice to hear him laugh. It gave me hope.

"You know, honey, much as I love cuddling with you, you do need to get ready for bed. I was thinking, what you need to unwind from the day is a nice bubble bath. And after you've soaked the dirt and cares away, I'll come in and wash your hair for you."

"Hmm," he said. Then he stiffened. "Does that mean you'll see me --"

"Naked? Well, with all those bubbles, all I'll see is your head. I might even have to hunt for that."

"Okay," he said reluctantly and got out of my lap.

"Here's your bathrobe. I'll go run your bath while you undress and put on the bathrobe." I wasn't sure how he'd take to it, it was bright pink and very fluffy.

I ran the bath with perhaps too much bubble liquid, as the bubbles threatened to overflow onto the floor. Michael came in not so much wearing as being engulfed by the bathrobe.

"I like the bathrobe," he said.

"You know, it used to be Margie's."

He grinned. "Then I can pretend Margie is hugging me when I wear it."

"Okay, I'll leave you and you can hop in. But -- take off the bathrobe first."

"Ooh, you mean I can't wear it in the tub?" he said with some more of those delightful giggles. "You're no fun!"

I left him to his bath and went to lay out his nightclothes. I thought I'd give him some time to enjoy his bath, so I stopped off in our bedroom, where Jerry was relaxing on the bed.

"How did it go today?" he said and pulled me over next to him.

"Better than I hoped. He had a few crying fits, but I was able to cuddle him into a better mood each time. He isn't always down. He seemed to be good friends with a student nurse at the hospital, I saw them teasing and joking. He has a good relationship with Margie, too."

"I noticed."

"I've gotten him to laugh a few times this evening. He just gets so down on himself sometimes. He doesn't trust that anyone would like him for who he is. He seemed to go for the bubble bath, not what I'd have expected of an 11-year-old. In some ways he's more like a six-year-old."

I stayed a little longer. Jerry rubbed my back and shoulders and I felt a tension drain out of me that I hadn't known I'd had.

I knocked on the bathroom door and let myself in. The bubbles weren't as high, but they still covered him, all but his face. I knelt down and started working shampoo into his hair. "If you're going to have long hair, you're going to have to take care of it. You have to use shampoo, like I am now, and conditioner." When I was done, I left a large towel and a smaller one.

A few minutes later, a little boy with dripping hair, wrapped up in one towel and carrying the other over his arm like some sort of waiter at a spa, marched into the bedroom. I showed him how to use the smaller towel to dry and wrap around his hair.

"What's this?" he asked, pointing to what looked like a pair of very thick underpants with a plasticky coating, lying on the bed next to the pyjamas. His unhappy face indicated that he already had an idea.

"Honey, the hospital warned us that you had a little problem with staying dry at night. I know it's embarassing, but these will make sure that you won't wake up with wet, stinky sheets and pyjamas."

He started to cry again. Not the anguished cries of earlier in the day, but a quieter, defeated cry. I invited him up onto my lap and he crawled in and lay against me.

"I feel so stupid. I don't wet the bed when I'm at my parents. Why do I do it when I'm in the hospital? It's like I'm turning into a baby."

"Honey, don't worry. This sometimes happens when you've been in the ICU. It takes a while to get bladder control back."

"Are you sure?"

"Sweetheart, I'm a nurse. We know things like that."

"Do you work at a hospital? Is this your day off?"

"I used to work in a hospital. But now I'm a stay-at-home mom. But once nursing gets into your blood, you're a nurse forever."

Actually, I lied. It wasn't the ICU. I was pretty sure it was his unconscious saying, to anyone who would listen, that he desperately needed babying. He might have the mind of a bright sixth-grader, maybe even a seventh-grader, but the emotional needs of a pre-schooler. I couldn't help thinking, maybe we have a chance with this one. So many of the children we saw were so hurt already that they couldn't take in simple love and nurturing any more. I had the feeling that Michael was still at the stage where he couldn't help absorbing it.

I simply held him, feeling his heart beat and enjoying feeling his body against mine. Margie came by on her way to get ready for bed and I got her to bring his hairbrush to me. Together we brushed out the tangles in his fine, silky hair. I felt him falling asleep in my lap, and Margie and I got him dressed for bed without waking him up. Once he was completely asleep, we slipped him into bed and tucked him in. We each kissed his cheek and left, leaving the door partly open so we could hear if he woke up.

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Chapter 4 -- The Shoe Store

Michael was still asleep when Margie and Jerry came down for breakfast the next morning.

"Mom," said Margie as she was eating, "last night, in the middle of the night, I heard Michael crying. I went in and he didn't exactly seem awake, so I just sat down by his bed and stroked his back until he quieted down and fell back asleep. Just thought you should know."

"Thank you for telling me and thank you for comforting him. You're a good big sister, and you'll be -- no, you already are a fine young lady. I'm proud of you." It wasn't the first time I'd said something like that, but she still blushed and beamed to hear me say it.

"And I'm proud and impressed with both of you," added Jerry. "He seems so sad, though. I hope we can help him."

I hope we'll be given enough time, I thought to myself.

After Jerry had left for work and Margie for school, I went up to wake Michael up. "Time to get up, sleepyhead."

His eyes flew open. He looked frantically around and sat up in bed. Even after he saw me, it took a couple of seconds before his eyes showed recognition of who I was and where he was and he relaxed a bit.

"The vampires," he muttered.

"What about vampires?"

"Just something stupid."

"I don't think dreaming about vampires is stupid. I'd say scary. Can you tell me about it? Sometimes, if you tell a scary dream, it isn't so scary any more."

He looked off in the distance, like he was talking to himself. "I was at home -- at my parents' -- and I was being chased by vampires and couldn't get out. They were going to do something really awful -- worse than killing me. You couldn't tell who was a vampire and who was a normal person. I would run up to someone because I thought they were normal and they would turn out to be a vampire."

"Were your parents there?"

"I thought so. Except when I'd run up to who I thought were my Mom or my Dad, they'd turn out to be a vampire."

"That sounds really scary. Maybe we can do something to protect you from the vampires."

"Oh, I'm not scared now. I'm not in the vampire house now."

"Are you ready to get dressed and have breakfast?"

"Okay."

"If you got your special underpants wet, just drop them in the pail in the bathroom and I'll wash them. There are more in your bottom drawer." Before I left, though, I reached over and stroked his back and kissed his cheek. "I'm glad you're here," I whispered.

When he came down, he was quiet, but we got through breakfast without any drama, and he put his dishes in the sink without being asked, which I thanked him for.

"I thought we could go grocery shopping this morning and you could let me know if there are any special foods you like."

Grocery shopping turned out to be more fun than I had expected. Michael delighted in being given commissions to find and bring back various items. He also turned out to be a lot easier to please than I'd expected. There were very few foods that he would admit to not being willing to eat, and a few more that he said he "wasn't wild about." To my surprise, he liked almost all vegetables, and most of the foods he didn't like were junk food, anyway. Cookies and ice cream were, of course, favorites, so we picked up a pint of chocolate ice cream to demolish after lunch. We came home in very good spirits.

After lunch, we went shopping for shoes. I hadn't bought him any before he came since you really need to try them on. The shoe store had displays of girls' shoes near the entrance which seemed to distract him. I got him to sit down and try on shoes, and we ended up picking out a pair of brown leather shoes and a pair of sneakers. As I was paying for them, I saw him gravitate back to the display of girls' shoes. I joined him and watched as he looked at a pair of plastic sandals with flowers on them and a pair of black patent-leather Mary Janes. He was running his fingertips over the patent leather. He looked at some bright red ballet flats and some sandals with slight heels. "They're really pretty," he said.

"Would you like to try them on?" I asked.

He looked embarassed and didn't say anything.

In the car, I tried to make him feel better. "I didn't mean to make fun of you when you were looking at the shoes. They were pretty, and when I see pretty shoes, I want to try them on."

"It's okay," was all he said.

When we got home, he went back to reading in his room, but when Margie came back, he joined her on the couch. The next time I walked through the living room, I saw that they'd found a position where he could snuggle up next to her and she could still do her homework. I snuck out and got my camera and took a picture of them before they figured out what I was doing. I don't think Michael even knew I did it.

At 5:00, I asked Margie to help with dinner. "Mom, actually, I was planning to make dinner tonight so you wouldn't have to," she replied.

"And I'm going to help," piped up Michael.

"Well!" I said, shaking my head. "I think you just made me an offer I can't refuse!" I went on to explain what I'd bought for dinner, and the two of them went into the kitchen. I realized I didn't know what to do with myself if I wasn't in the kitchen, so I went back down to our office and tried to find something to do. I heard the occasional loud discussion and a fair amount of laughing, so I assumed things were going okay. Later, I knew Jerry had gotten home when I heard a chorus of "hi, Dad!" He came into our office still shaking his head. "It's a lot less dull with him around, I have to admit," was all he had to say.

Michael was quiet all through dinner, but didn't seem upset. And he and Margie cleaned up afterwards, leaving me with nothing to do. Afterwards, I cuddled him like I had last night, hoping that some extra cuddling would make him less likely to cry, and then got him to take another bath and get ready for bed.

I'd decided to read him a bedtime story once he was dressed for bed, but I didn't find him in his room. Instead, he was in Margie's room. She was in her nightgown and he was brushing her hair.

"I brushed his hair already, and now I'm teaching him to braid mine," she said when she saw me. Michael stopped brushing and looked nervously at me. I smiled to try to tell him it was okay, and he went back to brushing.

"I'm glad to see you're getting along so well."

"It's nice to have someone to do stuff with. It's like having a little sister." I expected Michael to be insulted, but instead he looked guilty, like he'd been caught at something.

"Well, let me know when you're done. I'd like to get Michael to bed and read him a story, if he's in the mood for one."

"Can I listen in?"

"Of course."

It was quite cozy, reading the bedtime story. I sat in a chair by Michael's bed and Margie sat cross-legged on the bed, at the foot. I read The Runaway Bunny. It's written for preschoolers, but I thought the theme of a mother wanting her child no matter what might speak to him. He seemed to enjoy it; he had a smile on his face and held my hand while I read. After I was done, I put my hand on his shoulder and waited for him to fall asleep.

When I went to bed myself, I left the bedroom door open and told myself to be prepared to hear crying in the night. It was good I did, because sometime in the night I came up out of a deep sleep to hear him crying. I crept out of bed and sat down next to his and stroked his back until he fell asleep again.

As I dragged myself back into my own bed, I thought, this could get old real fast.

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Chapter 5 -- Laundry Day

When I got Michael up the next morning, he still startled, but recovered more quickly, and when he relaxed, he gave me a sleepy smile.

"Any more bad dreams?" I asked.

"No. At least, I can't remember any."

I pulled him onto my lap and gave him a nice long cuddle. He relaxed even more and started playing with the collar on my shirt. It felt good. It almost made up for him waking me out of a sound sleep.

"Why don't you get dressed and have some breakfast," I suggested when I felt we were cuddled out. "We have a big day today. We're going to get you some more clothes."

"Can Margie come along? She always dresses so pretty, she could help me pick out some pretty -- pretty nice clothes." I had a feeling he'd been about to say 'pretty clothes,' and then corrected himself. He seemed to go for 'pretty.'

"She can't go today, she has school and then homework. Besides, how do you know she even wants to?"

"I asked her last night. She said it sounded like fun."

"The earliest she could go would be Friday after school, and you don't have enough clothes to last until then."

"I could wash some, if you show me how to use the washing machine. I could even wash other people's clothes." This was a new one on me: a kid asking to do a chore? But then I remembered how much he enjoyed helping with dinner.

"Okay, but get dressed and eat breakfast first."

I hadn't even poured the milk in his cereal when he came down the stairs in his sock feet dragging his clothes hamper. He'd evidently figured out where the laundry room was, because he kept going down the stairs to the basement, which is where the laundry room was, and then scampered back up the stairs to the kitchen. I marvelled at how fast his mood had changed. I had to remind him to chew his cereal and to sip his milk, not gulp it.

After we'd cleaned up from breakfast, I got him to bring down the other hampers and to check Margie's floor and under her bed for dropped clothes, and then showed him how to sort the laundry and the settings for each type. After we got the first load started, I decided to trust him with the rest and headed back upstairs, still shaking my head. All morning I heard him scurrying around, and later on I even saw him hanging clothes on the line in the back yard; he'd found the kitchen stool and was using it to reach the clothesline. I noticed he'd washed his special overnight underpants, but had turned them inside out to make it less obvious what they were. I came downstairs to find him in the laundry room reading another Nancy Drew book, and I made a point of giving him a long hug and telling him what a good job he was doing.

The weather was so nice I decided to have lunch on the patio. I complimented him on his resourcefulness in using the clothesline. "I like how clothes smell when they've been dried on the line," he explained.

After lunch, I brought out a frisbee and we threw it back and forth in the back yard. We both ended up running more than I expected because Michael was so -- to be blunt -- uncoordinated. He usually couldn't catch it even when I threw it right to his hand: either he'd move his hand to the wrong place or it would bounce out before he could grab it. His throws usually went wild, so I'd have to run to catch them or, more often, run to where they landed. It didn't seem to bother him, though; I guess he just assumed this is how you play.

I noticed his T-shirt was soaked with sweat, so I said, "why don't you take your shirt off?"

"I'd rather keep it on."

"But it would be so much cooler."

He gave me an embarassed look. "I don't like it when people can see my chest," he finally admitted.

We played a little longer, then came inside. I made a pitcher of lemonade while Michael changed his shirt. When he came back, he drank two tall glasses, one right after the other.

When Margie came home, she decided it was too nice to study indoors, so she set up her homework on the patio table. I lay on a lounge chair soaking up the sun. Michael pulled up a chair next to Margie's and started reading again. I'd left the frisbee on the table, so after a few minutes, she told Michael, "go out in the yard and I'll throw you the frisbee." He scampered off to the middle of the yard. She threw the frisbee so it practically hit his hand, but somehow it just bounced off and he had to run after it. He brought it back and she sent him out again a few minutes later, with the same result.

She did a little more homework and then told him, "fetch!" He replied "woof! woof!" as he ran out to not catch it again.

That evening, as he was braiding Margie's hair, I asked her if she really wanted to go clothes shopping with Michael.

"Oh, yes, it would be fun! By the time we're done, he'll be a real fashion plate. And by September, he'll be the best-dressed boy in seventh grade."

"Let's not go overboard. He doesn't have a huge clothing allowance. Oh, speaking of September, I need to arrange with the school district for tutoring. He missed something like half of sixth grade."

For bedtime, I read him and Margie Goodnight Moon. It's funny how much we enjoyed these stories, even though we were much older than the children they were written for.

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Chapter 6 -- At the Doctor's

Michael was a lot perkier than I was the next morning. He'd cried again in the middle of the night. This was not looking good. I hadn't had to get up every night since Margie was a baby. At least I wasn't having to nurse him or change him. In the morning, he had no memory of crying or waking so I couldn't guess what was causing it.

Thinking back on those days made me think: maybe if I used a baby monitor, I could sleep a little more soundly knowing I could hear him loud and clear if he cried. Maybe I could get him to come into our room when he woke and sleep with us, though I doubted Dr. Conroy would approve. Maybe I could recruit Jerry to do the nighttime wake-up duty sometimes. Michael had his appointment with Dr. Conroy today; maybe she'd have an idea.

Dr. Conroy had me come in first without Michael, so I left him in the waiting room reading a Boxcar Children book, wearing his freshly laundered clothes. The receptionist for the group was keeping an eye on him, though I doubted he would wander.

"How has it been going?" Dr. Conroy asked after I had sat down.

"Mostly okay. He cried a lot the first day, but I've been giving him lots of cuddling, even when he doesn't cry, and he's gotten a lot better. He's getting along great with Margie, they've really bonded. He likes to snuggle up to her and read when she's doing her homework. She tucks his shirt in when it comes untucked and brushes his hair at night, and he's learned to braid her hair for her. He asked her to come along when I take him clothes shopping. He's been really helpful and cooperative, helping to make dinner and wash up. He even volunteered to do the laundry yesterday.

"The only real down side is that he cries in the middle of the night and someone -- mainly me -- has to get up and comfort him. Last night I waited, hoping he'd stop by himself, but he just cried harder and harder and I couldn't sleep anyway. I was never any good at letting Margie 'cry it out,' either."

"Do you have any idea what he's crying about? Does he say anything?"

"No. At night, he's too sleepy to talk. And in the morning, he doesn't remember anything. I know he doesn't mean anything by it, but it does make me a little sour about having him, even though in every other way he's a treasure."

"I'll see if I can find something out during his session with me. But I think, hard as it is on you, you're filling some real need on his part by being there for him in the night. It sounds like you -- and Margie -- are giving him what he needs: unconditional love and reassurance."

We talked about various things for a while, and then I went out and Michael went in. I tried to read, but was too tired to concentrate, so I mostly just stared out the window. On the way home, I picked up a baby monitor.

When Margie got home, I took a nap, telling her to wake me in time to make dinner, but it was Jerry who woke me. It turned out that Margie and Michael had made dinner so I could sleep. It made me feel bad that I was so resentful.

That night, when Michael woke me up, I tried to get him to come into bed with us, but when I got him as far as our bedroom door, he hid behind me and sat down and cried and didn't calm down until we went back to his room. I ended up falling asleep on the floor by his bed.

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Chapter 7 -- Clothes Shopping

Friday morning, I decided to keep Michael busy by getting him to clean the bathrooms. Okay, I admit, there was an element of getting back at him for destroying my sleep. I expected him to balk, but aside from regular interjections of "ew!" and "yuck!" he went about the task without complaint. When he pronounced it done, they were definitely cleaner, even if there were a few spots that weren't as thoroughly cleaned as I would have done.

We made lunch together, and after lunch, I asked him to read quietly in his room while I took a nap. I thought if I could get a nap in each weekday and Jerry would handle Friday and Saturday night Michael duty, I could get through this. I didn't know why Michael needed someone to come to him every night, but if this was what he really needed, we could do it for him. For a while, anyway.

When Margie got home, the three of us set off to go clothes shopping. First, we went to a thrift store to buy him an outfit for church. I was going to look for a suit for him, but Margie convinced me that boys didn't wear suits to Sunday School any more, and we found a white dress shirt and navy dress pants without any trouble. They had black shoes and socks. I thought we were done, but Michael fell in love with a western-style shirt with flower embroidery and it even fit. But then I noticed that the buttons were on the left.

"Michael, I think that's a girl's shirt. Boys' shirts have buttons on the other side."

He looked at me blankly. "It's pretty."

"It's also a more delicate fabric than boys' shirts. You aren't worried that you'll be teased by the other boys?"

He looked sad. "I guess that means I can't have it?"

"You aren't worried about being teased?"

"They all think I'm a queer anyway."

"Do you know what 'queer' means?"

"It means, like, weird, right? They've been calling me that since first grade."

I decided not to explain. "Okay, if you want it."

We went on to a regular department store. I picked up some boy's underwear and socks, which he took no interest in. Instead, he found a rack of T-shirts in the Junior's department, which he and Margie were going through and discussing. They weren't particularly girly, other than having somewhat shorter sleeves and larger neck openings than most boys' T-shirts. They did, however, come in brighter colors. They picked out two shirts: a cotton-candy pink shirt with a tree frog printed on the front and a mint green one with three colorful birds. From another rack, they picked a sky-blue long-sleeve T-shirt with daisies embroidered on the front and back. I insisted on a few heavier T-shirts and a hoodie from the boys' department and a pair of jeans and a pair of khakis. I noticed him looking at the girls' swimsuits, but fortunately he didn't ask to try any on. They did pick out a boy's swimsuit in the loudest possible colors and he insisted on a cobalt blue swim shirt. He ended up with one pair of shorts from the boys' department, but he also got one from the girls' department because he liked the colors better.

Nothing they picked out screamed "girl" exactly, but they weren't exactly boyish either, and I could imagine people being uncertain about his sex if he wore certain ones together.

We picked out Chinese take-out on the way home; fortunately Michael wasn't at all picky about the kind of food, but when we said Chinese, he knew exactly what he wanted: sweet and sour chicken and an egg roll. Margie and he spent the ride home doing ridiculous fake Chinese accents and laughing hysterically. When we got home and set up on the dining room table, he got really subdued.

After dinner, I put him on my lap for some cuddle time. I'd rocked him for a while when I heard, "thank you for the nice clothes. But ...."

When he didn't go on, I prompted him: "but what, honey?"

"Did I pick out the wrong clothes?"

"What do you mean? You don't like them?"

"No, I love them. But -- maybe I'm not supposed to like clothes like them."

"Why not?"

"Aren't boys supposed to want boring clothes in dull colors? Rough-looking?"

"Well, what do you usually pick out?"

"I never picked out my own clothes before. My Mom used to just buy stuff and that's what I would wear."

"Nobody ever asked you what you wanted?"

"No," he said, wonderingly. "I guess I never thought it mattered what I wanted."

"Well, now's your chance to experiment." He cuddled even closer and rubbed his cheek on my chin.

That night, I heard him crying and poked Jerry with my elbow. He eventually got up and I luxuriated in being able to stay in my nice warm bed.

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Chapter 8 -- The Three Musketeers

The next morning as we were lying in bed, Jerry told me, "I had a hard time getting Michael back to sleep. I tried rubbing his back, but he just woke up and cried even more. I finally had to pull him out of bed and cuddle him on my lap and rock him to sleep. I rubbed his back and said stuff like, 'it's going to be all right' and eventually he fell asleep."

"He probably doesn't know you that well yet. Maybe you could something with him today."

So, after breakfast, Jerry got out a softball and two gloves and he and Michael went out into the back yard. Michael wasn't any better at throwing or catching softballs than he was at frisbee. Jerry had to place Michael with his back to the house so that his wild throws wouldn't break a window. Jerry tried to be upbeat and encouraging, but I could tell he was amazed at just how bad Michael was.

"How was it when you played catch with your Dad?"

Michael stopped to think. "I never played with Dad."

"How about your brothers? Do you have brothers?"

"Yeah, three of them. But we never played catch, either."

"How about your friends?" I could see Michael getting upset.

"I never had any friends." He was about to cry, even Jerry could see that.

"Hey, let's go back to tossing the ball around. How about you stand out there and I'll see if I can get it into your glove."

But all the fun had gone out of Michael. He just stood there looking dejected. Jerry went out and put his arm around him as he started to cry. To my relief, Jerry didn't say anything, simply led Michael to a chair and sat down and put him on his lap and held him.

"I can't do anything right!" he sobbed. "That's why no one wants me around. I'm just no good. I wish I were dead."

"That's not true," my husband replied. "We want you around. And you're not 'no good,' you're good for a lot. Millie's been telling me how helpful you are."

"I can't throw, I can't catch, I'm no good as a boy."

"I don't care if you can't throw or catch. I was just doing it to have something to do with you. Because I wanted to be with you." He rocked Michael and stroked his back. "We'd be really sad if you were dead. We'd really miss you. For a long time. You're very special to us." It was moments like this when I was reminded what a special man I had married.

Jerry kept holding him and rocking him until Michael's cries diminished to sniffles and finally stopped. "I think it's time for a mid-morning snack," Jerry said. "How about some crackers and cheese and lemonade?" Michael nodded and smiled and slipped off Jerry's lap.

While we were all snacking at the kitchen table, the doorbell rang. Margie went to get it, and in a minute, Becky came into the kitchen, followed by Margie.

"Hi, want some?" I asked.

"Would you believe I just had breakfast?" she laughed.

"Astrid's coming, too," said Margie.

"So all Three Musketeers will be here?" I asked.

"Yup!" said Becky.

"This is Michael, our foster child," I said, looking at him as he scrunched down in his chair, still holding a huge half-eaten cracker with cheese.

"Nice to meet you," said Becky. "Oh, I won't bite. I only bite on alternate Tuesdays when the moon is full." She plunked herself down in Margie's chair, right next to him.

"What do you like to do on sunny Saturdays?" she asked him. Either Margie had briefed them, or she'd figured out that asking about his past wasn't a good idea.

"Read," said Michael shyly, still scrunched down and still holding on to the cracker.

"Found anything interesting?"

"Nancy Drew."

"Oh, which book are you reading now?"

"The Haunted Cave."

"Oh, that's a good one. Did you get to the part where --"

"Don't spoil it for him!" interrupted Margie.

The doorbell rang again, and Astrid came in.

"Hi, Mrs. Davidson, Mr. Davidson."

"Hi, nice to meet you." Jerry just waved.

Becky interrupted. "Michael, want to hang out with us downstairs?"

Michael's face brightened and he shoved the cracker and cheese into his mouth. The four of them headed down to the 'wreck room,' the girls chattering away and Michael manfully trying to chew with his mouth stuffed with cracker and cheese.

A half hour later, I went down to the 'office' to have an excuse to peek in on the four of them. Becky was on the floor, Astrid in the overstuffed chair, Margie was on the couch, and Michael was curled up between Margie and the end of the couch pretending to read but clearly listening to what was going on.

"How is everything going down here? Are you all okay with Michael being here?"

"He's fine," said Becky. "A little quiet, though."

"Anyone's quiet compared to you," said Astrid.

"I just don't believe in awkward silences," she shot back, laughing.

"Or any other kind," said Margie, and they all laughed.

"I think Margie won that round," said Astrid when the laughing died down. I saw Michael smiling and laughing along with the girls, and I think they liked having an audience.

I'd just finished balancing the checkbook when I heard the four of them clomp up the stairs, and a little while later, I heard footsteps going back and forth upstairs. My curiosity aroused, I went upstairs. Just as I got near Michael's room, I saw Margie lead him out and into her room. He was wearing the girls' shorts from Friday's shopping and one of the girls' T-shirts and had barrettes in his hair. I heard 'ooh's and 'aah's and other comments from Margie's room, so I stuck my head in.

"We're having a fashion show," explained Margie. Michael looked nervous and guilty when he saw me, but when I just smiled and nodded, he relaxed.

I shook my head and muttered, "kids!" which brought a laugh from the girls. "Would you all like some lunch?"

"We were thinking of making sandwiches for everyone, once we finish the fashion show," said Becky.

"Sounds good to me," I said. Actually, they usually made meals when they were over. It's one of the reasons nobody minded hosting them.

Margie got Michael to show off another ensemble, then the four of them went down to the kitchen. Michael put on Margie's apron, which we'd never adjusted back for Margie anyway, and collected Jerry's and my orders. Michael fit right in, mostly by being quiet and following orders.

While we were eating, Margie announced, "we were thinking of going down to the park to hang out for a while. You know, enjoy the day --"

"-- swing on the swings --" interrupted Becky.

"-- watch the kids. And the squirrels."

"Sounds good," I said.

"Can I come?" Michael asked.

"If it's okay with Mom."

"I'm okay with it, if you all will take responsibility for looking after him. He's not 16, you know. And Michael: don't run off."

"I don't think that will be a problem," said Astrid. "He's Margie's little shadow."

"Oh Margie: is everything arranged for your date tonight?"

"Yes, Brett's parents are driving us."

"Good. We'll be home. Give us a call if anything comes up."

The four disappeared out the front door, and I went back out onto the patio.

After a while, I realized I was relaxing in a way that I hadn't all week. This was the first time since I'd picked Michael up on Monday that I'd been separated from him, unless you count his session with Dr. Conroy. Much as I loved him as if he were my own, the constant worrying about what he could or could not deal with was a strain. I was going to have to have someone else take him occasionally. That made me think about what we would do with him in the fall, assuming he was still with us. I doubted he'd survive in a regular middle school.

I actually dozed off for a while. When I woke up, I heard Jerry trimming the bushes. I went up to him and hugged him from behind. "You know, we're temporarily childless. We should take advantage of it."

"I'd love to, but the bushes won't trim themselves."

"You do know that we have a boy in the house who just loves to make himself useful. You should take advantage of it."

What we did after that is nobody's business but our own. Suffice it to say, we were lying on the bed relaxing when Margie and Michael returned home.

"Where are the others?"

"They went home," said Margie.

"How was the park?"

"Oh, the park was great. We hung out on the swings and the turntables and watched the kids playing. Michael had a little problem with some boys who came by and wanted to push him around. I yelled at them and told them to leave him alone and then the three of us convinced them to go." She got more serious. "I did mess up, though. What I actually said was 'leave my little sister alone.' I guess I've been pretending in my mind that he's my little sister and it just slipped out."

I looked at Michael who looked nervous. Not insulted like I would have expected. "Michael, did that bother you?"

He shrank together. "Yeah. I wished I could have made them go away by myself. I am such a wimp."

"Did it bother you that Margie called you her sister?"

He looked baffled. "It's because she likes me, right?"

"I do like you," said Margie.

"I'm glad. I'm glad somebody likes me. Those boys sure didn't."

"Did nobody like you back at home?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said finally. He looked like he was about to cry, so I pulled him onto the bed and held him against my breast.

"We like you," I said. "And so do Margie's friends. You're very likable."

"Yeah, but they're going to send me back to my parents' and then I'll have no one who likes me." I wished I could reassure him, but I knew he was probably right.

Margie was gone, to get ready for her date, I assumed. I held Michael for a while longer, then said, "do you want to help make dinner?"

He looked a little more cheerful as we got out of the bed and went downstairs to the kitchen. Just as I'd gotten the apron on him, the doorbell rang and Margie came flying down the stairs.

"Hi, Brett," she said to the young man who came in. Michael ran out to see who it was.

"Michael, this is my boyfriend Brett. Brett, this is Michael, our foster child." By this time, Michael had insinuated himself between Margie's arm and her side, while staring at Brett with big eyes. "Say 'Hi, Michael."

"Hi," said Michael woodenly.

"We're going out to dinner and a movie."

"Can I go with you?" said Michael in a not exactly inaudible whisper.

"I'm afraid not. But you'll have Mom and Dad all to yourself tonight. And you'll see me tomorrow morning. Maybe we could make breakfast together. How does that sound?"

I reached out my hand and Michael reluctantly left Margie and came over to me. He waved Margie a sad goodbye.

"He's pretty attached to you," said Brett.

"I think he had a pretty rough time before he came to us," said Margie. "We've been trying to be really nice to him and make him happy here."

"Maybe I could come over sometime and we could do guy stuff together."

I thought Michael looked even more wary than before. "We'd have to discuss it first. He's still having trouble adjusting. But it's a nice idea and it was thoughtful of you to suggest it."

Jerry and I socialized with them for a minute or two longer and then they left.

Dinner was a quiet affair. Halfway through, Michael slipped off his chair and came over and stood next to me. I put my arm around him.

"You know Margie will be back tonight. You'll see her soon."

"Yeah, I know. But ...."

"It feels like she's gone forever?"

"Yeah," he said with leaky eyes. I cuddled with him a little longer, then he went back to his chair and finished the food on his plate.

After dinner, I gave him a long cuddle and then a bubble bath. I washed his hair again and tried to make it a caring experience. Jerry came in when he was dressed for bed and helped brush his hair and he stayed in and listened while I read a chapter from Winnie the Pooh. Michael knew the whole book almost by heart, but if anything, he enjoyed it even more for that.

Jerry and I got ready for bed and waited up for Margie. When she got home, she went in and gave Michael a kiss before going to bed.

And, yes, Michael woke us up crying. Jerry took care of it. I just smirked and snuggled even deeper into the covers.

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Chapter 9 -- Church

I woke on Sunday to the smell of bacon and pancakes. It smelled like Margie had made good on her threat to make breakfast. Michael seemed happy again. I noticed Margie putting her arm around him whenever they weren't doing anything and toussling his hair when they rushed back and forth, and every time, I saw him look at her and smile.

On the ride to church, Michael and Margie were in the back chattering to each other. Michael was talking more than I'd heard him talk all week, but I couldn't hear much. When I asked Margie about it after we got to church, she said, "he was telling me how he survived when he was running away. It's no wonder he got pneumonia, sleeping in ditches and behind dumpsters in the rain. And he still didn't want to go home."

We offered Michael the opportunity to go to Sunday school, but it didn't surprise me that he wanted to stay with us. He sat beween Margie and me and sang happily along with the hymns and followed along with the prayers in the prayer book. During the readings and the sermon, he would lean against me or Margie. I had the feeling he got more of a sense of God and Jesus from leaning up against us than from all the readings and lessons and sermons.

After the service, Margie was socializing with some of the teens and went off with them for the afternoon. I ran into my friend Cheryl, who had a son Michael's age and we decided to make a play date of it. Jerry dropped us off at her house, promising to pick us up when we were done.

Cheryl and I sat in her kitchen talking while Michael went off with Will to his room. Maybe fifteen minutes later, Michael came quietly into the kitchen and stood next to me. I put my arm around him.

"Not having fun?" I asked. He just shrugged.

"You all should be playing outside, anyway," sad Cheryl. "Will!" she shouted. A few minutes later, Will and Michael went into the back yard, Michael a little reluctantly, I thought. Will didn't seem too thrilled, either.

They lasted about ten minutes, during which there was a certain amount of shouting. It did not sound like it was going well, so it didn't surprise me when Michael crept into the kitchen and sat down on the floor at my feet, leaning against my legs. A few minutes later, Will stormed in.

"What is it, honey?" asked Cheryl.

"Michael is such a wuss. I tried to do fun stuff, but he doesn't join in, just sits there and won't say anything. I even threw a ball around, but he can't catch and he can't throw. He's no fun at all!"

Michael didn't say anything, just pushed himself even farther between my legs. Will stormed off to his room.

"I'm sorry it isn't working out between them," said Cheryl.

"I'm sorry, I probably shouldn't have suggested it. Michael is still rather fragile and wasn't all that enthusiastic in the first place."

I was going to call Jerry, but Cheryl's husband offered to run us home.

"I guess I ruined your visit," said Michael when we got home. "I'm just no good." He started to cry like he had the first few days. "No wonder no one likes me."

"It's not your fault," I told him as I pulled him onto my lap. "I should have made sure the two of you got along first."

Once I calmed him down, Jerry said the yard needed to be checked for sticks and rocks and such so he could mow. "I'll give you a bowl of ice cream for each wagon load you pick up."

"How about you? How will you get your ice cream?"

"Oh, I'll be picking up stuff, too." He showed Michael a child's wagon. "This is yours." He pointed to the garden cart. "That's mine."

"That's not fair. Your cart is bigger. It's more work to fill yours."

"I'm bigger and can pick up more sticks at a time. That evens it out."

Michael seemed to accept the explanation and ran out into the yard, pulling the wagon and examining the ground. Jerry ended up collecting the larger branches while Michael found hordes of twigs, rocks, small toys, and a dismayingly large number of soda cans and broken bottles. He kept going even when Jerry was ready to quit and filled two wagon loads. Jerry finally had to tell him to stop, saying that the ice cream was getting tired of waiting.

When Jerry put a bowl of ice cream in front of Michael, he came out with "ice cream! That's too much work!" and dissolved in laughter. Jerry was, as you might expect, utterly confused, and since Michael was unable to speak for laughter, I had to explain.

Once Michael managed to stop laughing, they dug into the ice cream, but Michael was satisfied with one bowl, as was Jerry. Jerry tried to interest Michael in throwing a ball back and forth, but though he participated, his heart wasn't in it.

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Chapter 10 -- Meeting Lisa

The next week went fairly smoothly. I took him to Dr. Conroy on Monday. The tutor came Tuesday morning and gave him some tests and a little homework which he did in an hour. Wednesday he did laundry again, this time also doing the sheets and towels. From the amount of overnight underwear in the wash, I culd see that he hadn't been able to stay dry a single night. It wasn't a problem as far as I was concerned, but I knew it was demoralizing for him. On Thursday, he went to Dr. Conroy and on Friday the tutor came again. He said Michael was a quick learner, but had some holes in his education and left some workbooks for him to do. I got a nap each day, which mostly made up for getting waked up every night.

Some days Margie stayed late at school; on those days Michael moped around until she came home.

On Saturday, Margie said she was going over to Becky's. She also wanted to take Michael, since Becky had a nine-year-old sister Lisa who she was sure Michael would get along with 'like a house afire.' Given how the previous play date went, I decided I'd better come along. Besides, I liked Becky's mom Sue Price and I hadn't seen her in a while.

Lisa turned out to be kind of a hurricane in braids. As soon as we arrived, she started talking a mile a minute, saying how glad she was to have Michael come over and he just had to see her climbing tree and -- well, I couldn't keep track any more. She kind of grabbed Michael and dragged him outside. As I sat with Sue in the kitchen, I could see her coaxing Michael up into a huge maple tree. Every now and then, I'd see Lisa waving through the leaves and a half a minute later, Michael attempting to wave while holding on to the tree with both hands. The next time I looked, I couldn't see them, but I noticed some bushes in the row at the back of the yard being jostled. They seemed okay, so I tried not to worry.

"I'm glad Michael was willing to play with her. She doesn't have a lot of friends. She's too bossy and too tomboyish for most of the girls, but she's isn't into being rough enough for the boys. You know how boys are."

"I know. I took Michael over to visit a boy last Sunday, and they were just not on the same wavelength at all. It doesn't help that Michael is still pretty fragile. I don't like to second-guess my foster children's parents, but I get the feeling he was emotionally abused. He has very little self-esteem."

As I was talking, I saw Michael walking up along a board propped up at one end by a log, with his hands behind him and Lisa poking him with a thin stick. He walked blindly off the end and fell into a heap. Lisa waved the stick around in the air, then looked over at Michael, who jumped up and started brushing the dirt off of himself. They then ran over to the swings.

"I think she's playing pirate," Sue said.

I'd stopped paying attention to their shenanigans when suddenly the two of them burst into the kitchen.

"Mom we're thirsty is there any lemonade or water and can we have some cookies too we're hungry." Lisa didn't wait for an answer but opened the refrigerator before she'd finished talking. Michael was covered in dust and wood chips but had a goofy smile on his face. I took Michael out to the porch to knock off the worst of the debris and take off and shake out his shoes.

"Hey, we were going to play in my room now."

"Then it's a good thing his Mom is cleaning him up a bit," said Sue. "I want you to take your shoes off -- on the porch -- and wash your hands and face. Then -- maybe -- you'll have earned a few cookies." Lisa sighed and did as directed and once both were halfway clean, Sue gave each of them a few chocolate chip cookies. Lisa stuffed them all in her mouth while Michael started eating them one by one. Lisa headed for the stairs, then turned around and extended her hand to Michael, who ran to catch up to her, and they stomped up the stairs hand in hand.

A while later, Becky went upstairs. When she came down, she spoke quietly to us. "You have to go look. They're so cute. Lisa is nursing one of her baby dolls and Michael is changing the other one's diaper. You'd think they were mommy and daddy."

"That's Lisa's view of parenthood," said Sue with a laugh. "Mommies are responsible for the one end and daddies for the other."

We tiptoed up the stairs and peeked in. Michael was rocking and quietly singing to his baby doll and Lisa was still nursing hers. They were so engrossed they didn't notice us looking in. We snuck back downstairs.

Sue and I made lunch for the whole crowd: split pea soup with chunks of ham, grilled cheese sandwiches, and carrots and celery. There were enough of us -- three adults (Sue's husband Tom made an appearance), the Three musketeers, Lisa and Michael -- that we used the dining room table. Michael insisted on sitting between Margie and Lisa.

"Lisa, I see you have a new friend," said Tom.

"Yeah, can we play together tomorrow?" she asked.

"We'll have to see," said Sue.

After lunch, Lisa and Michael ran back upstairs, but only after we got them to clear their places. Margie and her friends cleaned up, then said they were going to the school to watch the boys play pick-up basketball.

An hour later, I thought about going home and peeked into Lisa's room. I fetched Sue. "They're really cute now," I told her.

Lisa and Michael were fast asleep on her bed. Michael had his head against Lisa's chest and Lisa had her arm over him. Even though Michael was taller, the way he was curled up made him look shorter. Sue went out and brought back a camera and took a few pictures. "They're so adorable," she whispered. She slunk into the room and got a few more pictures from a different angle.

I decided to let them sleep and called Jerry to let him know we'd be a little longer than planned. Sue and I went out and lay on lounge chairs in the back yard in the sun and simply enjoyed not having to do anything. Bikinis would have been even nicer, but that would have required getting up and going to the trouble of finding some and changing. I think we dozed for a while.

We woke when the sun went below the neighbors' trees. Michael and Lisa had changed positions so his back was to her, but they were still pressed up against one another. I woke Michael, which woke Lisa. They were still a little sleepy when I got Michael ready to go, but Lisa insisted on giving him a big hug and a kiss on both cheeks. He didn't kiss her back, but he looked very happy and said he couldn't remember when he'd had so much fun.

On the way home, Michael got really quiet. I tried to get him to talk about the visit, but just got one-word answers. When we got home, he looked really down, so I sat him down on the couch.

"What's eating you, sweetie?"

"I just know I'm going to do something stupid and she'll find out how awful I am and she'll hate me. I almost wish I hadn't -- it's just going to be worse. I thought I had a friend, but I just know..." He broke down completely, crying and sobbing, and curled up into a ball on the couch. I pulled him over to me, so that even though he was curled up, his body was touching mine and I could stroke his back and head and sort of hug him and let him know I was there. Maybe he had to just cry it out, but I hoped knowing I was there for him might make him feel less lonely in his misery.

By the time he'd cried himself out, Jerry had started dinner and let us know that Margie had called to say that she and Astrid were going to hang out at the pizza place with Brett and another boy who wasn't Astrid's boyfriend, just a guy she liked to hang out with. Or so she said. So it was another Saturday night with just the three of us.

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Chapter 11 -- The Little Red Hen

On Sunday, Margie and Michael made breakfast again, and he again stayed with us during the service. Afterwards, I tried to get Michael to play with the other boys, but he showed no interest. He did stand around near a group of girls, but they rather pointedly ignored him. He spent the rest of the time clinging to me.

Margie had once again gone off with her friends, so it was just the three of us on the ride home. Michael was silent during the ride and went to his room as soon as we arrived. While I was making lunch, Sue Price called.

"Hi, Millie. It was really nice to see you yesterday."

"I really enjoyed talking to you. It was a wonderful visit."

"Lisa was in seventh heaven about having Michael there."

"I could tell! I think Michael loved it, too."

"She's been asking when he can come over again. You know how she can be. So I agreed to ask. I don't know how things are with you all, though."

"I think it was good for Michael. But I think it was a bit much for him, too. He had kind of an emotional meltdown afterwards. He hasn't had many friends in his life and he's not used to it yet. So I think we need to go slow. But I think this coming weekend might work. Will you all be at the pool opening this Saturday?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world! So maybe Lisa and Michael can get together then? Some of the other girls Lisa gets along with will probably be there, though."

"And if the weather doesn't cooperate, we can make other plans for them to get together."

Michael came down for lunch, but didn't say much, and went right back to his room afterwards. I decided I needed to check in with him, so after I washed up, I knocked on his open door.

"Mind if I come in?"

"Sure." He was lying on the bed reading. I came in and sat on the end of the bed.

"Did you enjoy your visit with Lisa yesterday?"

"Yeah, it was a lot of fun."

"You'd like to go back?"

"Yeah! Can I go tomorrow?"

"Lisa has school tomorrow. You might see her on Saturday, at the pool."

"Cool!"

"Listen," I said cautiously. "I couldn't help noticing, after we got back, you got really upset."

"That was just me being stupid."

I tried to come up with something that would make him feel more okay. "You know, Lisa's mom called today. She says Lisa really enjoyed having you over. I think she wants to be your friend."

He was still staring at his book, but I could see tears in his eyes. "I don't know how to be a friend."

"It's not as hard as you think. Just be yourself."

"But nobody likes me being myself."

"Lisa did. Margie and her friends do."

"Nobody at home. Not even my parents." He was really crying now, and I got him onto my lap.

"I don't want to say anything bad about your parents, but I think they didn't know to appreciate you. And maybe the kids you met didn't either. Like Will. But there are people who do. Like Lisa."

"But boys aren't supposed to play with girls."

"Why not."

"I dunno. I guess boys aren't supposed to like girl stuff."

"Like chocolate chip cookies? Or ice cream?" I managed to get a chuckle out of him, but he went back to being sad.

"Lisa got me doing girl stuff." He looked guilty, like the guilty look when he was in the 'fashion show.' "She got me to play with her baby dolls." He got really quiet. "I changed a diaper and rocked one of the dolls to sleep."

"Sounds like what Jerry used to do when Margie was a baby. I'd say you're getting good practice in being a daddy. You know, Jerry sometimes rocks you to sleep, too." I started rocking him, which made him nestle deeper into my chest and arms. "You know, I think you're a very likeable kid. And I think if you look, you'll find lots of people who will love you just the way you are."

As I rocked him, I started humming the song. Actually, only the last line, since I couldn't remember anything beyond the "I love you just the way you are" part. It didn't matter. I felt such pleasure holding his body next to mine and cuddling and comforting him. I think it made him feel good, too.

At some point, my back started complaining, so I said, "would you like to help me make chocolate chip cookies?"

"Yeah!" Then he thought for a moment. "Does that mean I'd get to eat some of them?"

"Sure. But -- not too many!"

"Aw!" But he bounced out of my lap anyway and headed for the kitchen.

We'd just finished cleaning up from the cookie making and were still boxing up the cooled cookies when Margie came home. "Do I get some, too?" she asked.

"Remember the Little Red Hen?" I teased.

"I would have helped if I'd been home," she protested as she grabbed one of the ones still cooling on the brown paper. She agreed 'in penance' to make dinner, which amounted to reheating the week's leftovers. Michael helped, of course.

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Chapter 12 -- Memorial Day Weekend

Saturday morning dawned sunny and warm with the promise of becoming hot. I packed a cooler with healthy food and drinks and collected the usual towels, beach blankets hats, etc. Michael was up early and had breakfast in his swim suit. When we got to the pool, Sue and Tom had already staked out a picnic table for us to share near a grassy area. I was pretty sure Michael would need a nap.

Michael immediately shucked his sandals and headed for the steps at the shallow end. By the time I got there, he was already on the first underwater step, protesting, "it's cold!"

"They just filled it this week, of course it's cold. Plus the rain."

He didn't seem to be listening. He took another step in and shouted, "ooh, it's cold!" For all his complaints, he was soon in all the way and promptly dove forward. His strokes were ungainly and followed no particular style, but they seemed to move him along. He soon reached the rope at the five foot mark, where he found Lisa and her friend Fiona Malloy. When I saw him swim down straight to the bottom and come out on the other side of the girls and say "boo!", I realized that he was completely at home in the water and I needn't worry about him.

Back at the picnic table, Sue and I watched the three of them play in the water. Lisa was the obvious leader, and Michael and Fiona looked happy to go along with whatever she came up with. Since they seemed okay, Sue and I went in ourselves and swam back and forth for a while, then found some empty lounge chairs and enjoyed the sun.

Around noon, Lisa and Michael found us. Lisa asked for money to eat at the snack bar. Michael just looked nervous. "Well, go on, ask for it," prompted Lisa.

"Uh, can I have ...?" He looked guilty.

"Money for lunch at the snack bar?" He nodded. "Yes, you may." Fiona showed up as I was fishing money out of my wallet. The three of them scampered off to the snack bar, money in hand.

The "Three Musketeers" showed up as we were making sandwiches.

"No snack bar for you all?"

"We don't want to get fat," explained Becky. They settled down on the beach blanket to eat their sandwiches and chat, while we adults sat at the picnic table.

Around mid-afternoon, Michael came up to us. "I'm tired," he said.

"Go use the toilet, then you can lie down on the blanket. I'll watch out for you."

When he got back, he climbed into my lap and I rocked him and hummed to him and he promptly fell asleep. Jerry helped me lay him on the blanket. Lisa and Fiona came over a little while later and lay down on the blanket and chatted, which meant mostly Lisa talking, but after a while they got quiet and dozed. I covered the three of them with a large towel. Sue went off to let Fiona's parents know where she was while I dragged two lounge chairs over where I could keep an eye on the children. It warmed my mother's heart to have three cute sleepy children under my wing.

I read for a while, then just lay there, enjoying the breeze and the sunlight that filtered through the trees. When I looked at the children again, I saw that they were still asleep, but Michael was now snuggled up next to Lisa. They looked like three kittens sleeping together.

Later, Lisa woke up, which woke up Fiona, and the two of them cadged crackers and cheese and celery from our cooler. In the process, Michael woke up. Lisa and Fiona ran off to play somewhere, but Michael just sat on the blanket with his arms around his knees, staring off into space.

"Do you want to swim some more?" I asked. He just shrugged. I sat down next to him and put my arm around him.

"How are you feeling?" I asked after a while.

"I dunno," he said in a dull voice.

"I'd like to know, if you can tell me," I said quietly.

He looked at me, examining me closely. He looked puzzled and about to cry. "Why?" he asked, almost under his breath.

Now it was my turn to be puzzled. "Well," I said helplessly, "I guess -- if you're happy, it makes me happy, and if you're sad, it makes me sad. And I want to figure out how to make you happy." I sounded like an idiot.

"Why w--" He cut himself off. He looked forward again. "I just feel funny," he finally said.

Michael was quiet all through dinner. By the time we got home, he just looked tired and fell asleep in the bath. Jerry and I had to dress him for bed.

Sunday was quiet. Michael happily participated in the church service, but hung back from the other children after the service. When we got home, he just wanted to read by himself and went to bed right after dinner.

Memorial Day was a busy day. I took Michael and Lisa to watch the parade, while Jerry, Tom, and Sue set things up in the barbecue area we'd reserved in the park. When the kids and I got to the park, we could see that a lot of other people had had the same idea -- every barbecue area was occupied, and the playground was full of children. Fiona was there with her friend Emily, who fortunately seemed to get along well with Lisa and Michael. I noticed that they stuck together, perhaps because there were some rather rough boys who might have been tempted to push one or two smaller children around, but were reluctant to challenge a gang of four children led by two feisty girls. They ranged all over the park, sometimes disappearing in the wooded parts of the park, sometimes popping up to demand sandwiches or money for ice cream from the ice cream truck.

Fiona's and Emily's families had set up shop two grills down from us, so when dinnertime rolled around, the girls tried out the food from both groups. Sue had evidently had experience with this and had already confirmed that it was okay with them. Fiona and Emily's group was making Polish sausage and grilled chicken, while we were serving hamburgers and hot dogs and grilled corn. The three girls happily ate food from both family groups, but Michael didn't feel comfortable with it and restricted himself to hot dogs.

"I thought you liked chicken. And you could try a bit of the sausage."

"I dunno. They might get mad at me."

"But they said it was okay."

"I dunno. I guess I'm just stupid." He put his elbows on the table and held his face with his hands. He turned a little to watch the fire. I stroked his back, but he didn't react. When it came time to pack up, he helped carry stuff, but didn't say much. We got home after dark, and he just wanted to go to bed. I kissed him good-night and he smiled at me.

I woke up in the middle of the night again, I think because he wasn't crying. It was a little after three a.m. I used the toilet, then looked in on Michael. I couldn't see him, so I turned on the hall light. The bedclothes were thrown back and the bed was empty. I checked the hall toilet -- no Michael. I turned on the overhead light in his room. I saw that his pyjamas and overnight underwear were on the bed and one of the drawers in his bureau was half open, but there was no sign of Michael. The window was open as was the screen. Oh, my God! I thought: Michael is gone!

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Chapter 13 -- The Search

I woke up Jerry. "Michael's not in his bed and I can't find him." He got up and the two of us searched the house. Our stumbling around woke Margie, who joined us. We checked all the rooms, under beds, behind chairs and couches, the back of closets. Margie looked in all the crawl spaces. We looked all around the front and back yard, under bushes, and even under the back porch. Michael was nowhere to be found.

We finally called the police. Someone came by and took our statements, looked all over the house and yard, and took a photo we had of him. I also got him to agree to notify the State Police, pointing out that he'd gone pretty far the last time he ran away.

Jerry had to work, so he went back to bed. Margie and I drove around the neighborhood with a flashlight looking for him.

By morning, we realized we weren't going to find him this way. I left a message with Dr. Conroy and Margie and I worked on putting together a notice we could copy and post up all over the place. Dr. Conroy called back a little before nine. I told her everything I could remember about what he did and how he was from Friday on.

"I'm worried that he's going to run another few hundred miles away and this time he actually will die of pneumonia."

"I don't think either is likely. It's good you asked to have the State Police notified, but I suspect he's within a few miles of home."

"Why?"

"He's very attached to you all. Especially you."

"Me? I know he's close to Margie, but ...."

"In our sessions, he talks a lot about you. It's obvious to me. He's afraid to get attached to anyone and won't admit it, though."

"Do you think he'll come home on his own?"

"He might. His pride might prevent him, though. He'd see coming home on his own as failure."

Margie and I got the poster copied and went all over the place posting them. Margie scouted out back yards while I drove around asking gas station attendants if they'd seen him, since they're outside a lot. Margie thought he'd probably hide, so I looked behind shopping malls and under bridges. We'd look for an hour or so; then, when we'd gotten discouraged, we'd go home and eat and rest and check with the police. Then we'd go out again.

When Jerry came home, we made a quick dinner and went out together. Margie remembered that he'd mentioned that one good place to hide was behind gas stations which had a dumpster next to the building, so he'd be sheltered by the dumpster and the wall. So we went to practically every gas station and convenience store and fast-food place, looking at their dumpsters. Most had dumpsters behind fences or out in the open somewhere. By now, it was getting dark, so when we found a suitable one, we'd shine a flashlight under it. At the fourth one, behind a gas station, we saw cardboard under the dumpster and between the dumpster and the building. Margie slithered behind the dumpster, up to the cardboard. We soon heard her talking in a coaxing voice, like you'd use to calm an animal. Jerry and I stationed ourselves around the dumpster in case he tried to run. Margie kept talking and finally she backed out, followed by Michael. Margie held his hand and helped him to his feet.

He had a dazed and frightened look. He smelled of pee. Even in the dim light it was obvious that he was incredibly filthy. I hated to think where he'd been. As soon as he saw me, he started babbling, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," over and over. I opened my arms and said, "it's okay, honey, don't worry. We're just happy we found you." He approached me hesitantly, still saying "I'm sorry." I picked him up and held him and said, "thank God you're okay." I kept saying, "it's okay, don't worry, it's going to be okay" until he settled down. I got into the car, still holding him, and the four of us drove slowly home.

When we got home, we gave him something to eat and drink and then put him in a bath to soak the filth away. He was pretty out of it by then. As I was sitting with him in the bathroom, he asked sleepily, "are you mad at me, Mommy?" It was the first time he'd called me Mommy; in fact, the first time he'd used any name at all for me.

"No, honey, I'm not mad. I was really scared, though. I was afraid we'd lost you forever."

"I was really scared, too."

"I'm sure you were. I'm glad we have you back and can keep you safe." I washed his hair and Jerry and I got him dressed for bed. I decided to bring him into bed with us, putting him between Jerry and me. "I won't be able to sleep if I don't know where he is," I explained.

In the middle of the night I heard him whimper. I put my arm around him. He snuggled up to me and quieted down.

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Chapter 14 -- Tears and Fears

The next morning, Jerry and Margie let Michael and me sleep in. Around eight, I decided we'd better get up. Michael was still snuggled up against me. I said, "time to get up, sleepyhead," and gently shook him. He opened his eyes and, after a second or so, he stiffened and his eyes grew wide with fear. I stroked him and gently said, "it's okay, Michael. Everything's okay." For a moment or so, I was afraid he'd bolt, but he slowly relaxed, but only a little.

"Why--?" he croaked.

"Why are you in our bed? I ... I felt safer having you here, where I could touch you and know you were still here. I got so scared when you -- disappeared."

He started to cry again. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

"Hush, it's okay, you're back and you're safe. That's what's important. Now do you want to get dressed and eat breakfast, or do you want to cuddle first?" He still looked scared, too scared to make a decision, so I sat up and pulled him into my lap. I rocked him until he relaxed. I sent him to get dressed while I showered and dressed for the day.

Dr. Conroy's office called while we were eating breakfast to tell us she could see us at 10:30.

"I thought I see her tomorrow?" Michael asked when I told him, as we were sitting on the couch.

"She wants to talk to you about yesterday. We want to understand why you ran away."

He looked at me anxiously. I put my arm around him. "You're not in trouble. We just need to understand."

He leaned against me. After a while he spoke. "I don't know. I just got really scared. Everything was so scary. Everybody was so scary. I just wanted to hide where no one could find me. So I'd be safe."

I couldn't resist asking, "and did you feel safe?"

"No," he said, half sobbing. "I tried all over, but there weren't any places where no one could find me. And they were all wet and smelly and dirty. That dumpster, you know, that place where you found me, was the best, but it still wasn't any good. And I felt really awful. 'Cause I knew I'd blown it. I knew you wouldn't want me any more, 'cause I'd been so bad. I wished I were dead. Well, not really but sort of."

"Oh, honey, we did want you. I noticed you were gone in the middle of the night and we spent all night and all next day looking for you until we found you."

"You did?? I thought you'd figure I'd just come back when I got hungry. That's what my parents said when my brother ran away. And when he did come home, I think they kind of laughed at him for being so stupid. They told it like a funny story."

"Laughed at him? That's so horrible. We hoped you'd come home, but we were afraid you wouldn't. Or couldn't."

"By the way," I continued, "did you manage to get anything to eat or drink while you were gone?"

"No, I was too busy hiding."

"You could have raided the kitchen and taken something with you.

A long silence ensued while he played with his shirt tail. "I never thought of that."

"Well, if you run away again -- I hope you never do, if you're ever scared, please come to talk to me, or Margie, or somebody -- but if you do ... please take some food and water with you. When you were brought to the hospital, they said you were malnourished and dehydrated, and that was worse than the pneumonia. I don't want you to leave, but if you do, I don't want you to starve. I want you to be okay, wherever you are."

He still looked forlorne, so I cuddled him on the couch until it was time to go.

"Do you think Dr. Conroy will be mad at me, Mommy?" he asked plaintively on the way to her office. Once again, he'd called me Mommy, I noticed.

"I don't think so. I think she just wants to understand why you got so scared."

We got there a little early, so I read him The Runaway Bunny. "See, you ran away, but we looked until we found you, just like the bunny's mommy."

When we finished, I noticed Dr. Conroy standing there, smiling at us. "Come, my runaway bunny, it's time for your session."

Once they were in her office, I heaved a sigh and started reading the book again. I thought about how he'd called me 'Mommy' twice now, and I had to admit, it really made me feel good. I wondered, not for the first time, if I was making a mistake by caring so much. It always hurt so much when they left, and I could count the scars on my heart. And I had fallen for Michael more than for any of the others, so it hurt even worse when he left. But -- this is how I am. This is who I am. And if I didn't give my heart so freely, I'd feel only half alive.

"Mrs. Davidson?" the receptionist called. "Dr. Conroy would like it if you came into her office."

Michael was sitting on the couch. Dr. Conroy was in an armchair facing the couch. I sat down next to Michael and tried to put my arm around him, but he pulled away. I let him be.

"Michael is worried that you're angry with him," began Dr. Conroy.

"I've told him several times that I'm not," I protested.

"I'm afraid people have not always been honest with him in the past." I could guess which 'people' she meant. "I'm asking you to be completely honest, even if it seems -- unkind."

"Well ... I was pretty upset. I mean I was afraid of what might happen to him. I was worried about his state of mind."

Dr. Conroy looked thoughtful. "How did you feel when he pulled away from you just now?"

"I don't know. Maybe a little hurt." She just looked at me. "Okay, maybe more than a little." I didn't want to look at Michael. Dr. Conroy kept looking at me, waiting. "You think -- when Michael -- I was scared, but also hurt and angry, too?"

"It's not what I think that matters."

"I guess I felt ...." I felt boxed in. I didn't really want to think about this stuff. I sighed. "I felt I'd taken him in, put all the love I have into him, tried to make him feel wanted, and he just --" I felt tears come to my eyes. "-- threw it away. Didn't we matter? Didn't he care? I'm sorry, Michael, I know it's not fair, you've had such a hard time and I'm just thinking about myself ...."

I couldn't say any more. I was looking at Dr. Conroy, afraid to see Michael's face; I was sure I'd destroyed whatever connection we'd developed in the past two weeks. I felt a hand on my shoulder and then felt Michael snuggling up to me. "Don't cry, Mommy." I finally turned to face him. I saw tears in his eyes, too. He reached around to hug me and I hugged him back. "I'm sorry I made you sad. I want to make you feel better."

"It makes me feel better when you hug me," I said.

"I don't know why I ran away. I just got so scared! I didn't want to hurt you."

"I know you didn't, honey. Maybe Dr. Conroy can help you figure out why you were so scared. I'm just glad to have you back."

"You see," said Dr. Conroy. "People can be upset with one another and hurt one another and still love one another and get over it. I'm speaking to both of you, by the way."

I couldn't help laughing through my tears. "So I'm a bit of a runaway bunny, too?" She just smiled.

"I'd like to talk with Michael a little more, one on one."

"Okay, Michael," I said as I gave him one last hug. "I'll be waiting for you."

"Me, too, Mommy. Bye."

After his session, we came home, had lunch, and then I cuddled him for a while on the couch. "I'm going to need a lot of cuddling from you to make up for your running away," I told him.

"Oh, that's too much work!" he giggled.

After a while, he asked. "Mommy? Is it okay if I call you Mommy?"

"Of course, sweetie."

"I mean, I have a real Mom, and Dad, too, and I feel like I'm not supposed to call anyone else Mom or Dad. It's just -- you're sort of being a mommy to me now."

"You know, when I got married, I called my husband's parents 'Mom' and 'Dad.' Even before. I guess because they really welcomed me into their family. When we got together for the wedding, I had to call them 'Mom Davidson' and 'Dad Davidson' so people wouldn't get confused as to who I was talking about."

He lay against me, playing with the buttons on my blouse. "Mommy, since it's Wednesday, should I do the laundry?"

"Only if you want to."

"It's like I want to earn my keep. You've done so much for me."

"Honey, you don't need to do anything. You're earning your keep just being you."

"Is it okay if I do it anyway?"

While Michael was running around doing the laundry with his usual overkill, Dr. Conroy called. I filled her in with all that had happened since we'd talked Tuesday morning.

"I think it meant a lot to him that you all went to such trouble to find him," she said. "I think, even thought it was scary for all of us, it's also been kind of a turning point for him. He's a little more open in the session. I think your admitting you were hurt and crying touched him as well."

"You know, he's been calling me 'Mommy' sometimes."

"I noticed."

"I hope he isn't feeling he's being disloyal to his real mother."

"Honestly, I don't know. He won't talk about his mother at all. I can get him to say a little bit about other people in his family, but if I had only what he says in session to go by, I'd wonder if he had a mother."

"Have you talked to her? I'm amazed she hasn't come by to see him."

"Yes, that is odd. I've spoken to her a few times on the phone, and she's pleasant and charming, but it somehow hasn't ever worked out for her to visit. I'm reluctant to talk to her about what Michael has said to you or in our sessions without having more of a feel for her, but she hasn't asked, either."

"I'm afraid they're going to show up one day and take him away. Selfish, I know."

"I don't think it's selfish. You care about him like a mother."

That night, Michael wanted to sleep in his own bed, and I reluctantly agreed. I read him and Margie -- and Jerry -- The Runaway Bunny again and kissed him good night. I prepared myself to get waked up again.

But instead, in the middle of the night, I heard him say "Mommy?" I woke to find him standing next to the bed. I nudged Jerry to move over and slid over myself and he got in next to me. I put my arm over him and he snuggled up to me. We slept well.

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Chapter 15 -- An Unexpected Turn

The next few weeks went smoothly. His weekdays were spent in therapy sessions, tutoring and homework, a few chores, visits to the pool, and hanging out with Margie. He loved being with her and doing things with her, it didn't matter what. They got to doing each others' hair and talking about some of the subjects Margie was taking in school which Michael found fascinating. If Margie had a chore, he usually found a way to help so that it went faster, or at least seemed to.

Saturdays, he usually spent getting worn out by Lisa and whichever of her friends she had over. When she wasn't free, he'd hang out with the Three Musketeers. Sundays he went to the church service, but still didn't socialize with the other children, and in the afternoon he'd relax or go to a movie with Jerry and me.

He still had bouts of feeling like he was no good or like he didn't belong, which Margie or I could always cuddle away. He called me 'Mommy' regularly and even called Jerry 'Daddy.' Margie was 'Sis,' and she would sometimes call him 'Sis,' too, which always made him laugh.

He still woke up in the middle of the night a few times a week, but now he'd just crawl into bed with us, which I didn't mind. Jerry took it in good humor, for which I was grateful.

It was on a rainy Saturday afternoon a few weeks after he'd run away, just as school was ending for the summer, that things took an -- unexpected turn.

The previous day, Lisa and her friends had had no school, but Sue had to work, so I took Lisa and Michael over to Fiona's house. They'd done their usual running around and then (after lunch) repaired to Fiona's room. When I peeked in a little later, Lisa and Fiona had changed out of their shorts and T-shirts into dresses, but Michael was still in his orange girl shorts and mint green tee. They were playing some kind of adventure where Fiona's Barbie and Michael's teddy bear were rescuing Fiona's baby doll from her stuffed whale, which they were pretending was a giant shark that could fly. Fiona's mother Claire explained the clothing change that the girls like to play dress up with Fiona's clothes and changing after playing outside was a regular thing. Later, when they were all three asleep in Fiona's bed, I saw that the girls had changed yet again.

The next day, the Three Musketeers were over at our house and agreed to watch Michael in the afternoon so that Jerry and I could go out as just a couple. We had a nice lunch, walked in the rain, and necked in the car like lust-crazed teenagers. We got home in time to make dinner. I went down to the 'wreck room' to say hi to Michael and the girls. I saw the three girls, plus a young girl I didn't recognize in a pretty blue dress, white tights, Mary Janes, and a hairband. I was about to ask, 'who is she?' when she turned around and, as soon as she saw me, freaked out and started babbling, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." It was then that I realized that it was Michael.

I immediately tried to calm him down. "It's okay, honey, you're not in trouble, nothing's wrong." I opened my arms and he fearfully approached me. I gave him a big hug and picked him up, saying, "it's okay," but he was still hysterical. Jerry showed up to find out what the fuss was about and I handed Michael to him.

"Can you take him to his room and calm him down?" I asked.

"Do you want me to get him changed?"

"I'd rather he stay dressed so I can talk to him about it, if you can manage it without him changing. I need to talk to the girls, first, though. Michael, sweetheart: Daddy's going to take care of you. You're not in trouble, you just need a chance to calm down a bit, and I need to talk to the girls. Just go with him, and I'll be up in a little while."

Jerry took him upstairs, saying things to him like, "don't worry, nobody's mad, you're not in trouble." He sometimes really amazes me, the way he just steps up when we need him.

As soon as Jerry and Michael had left, I turned to the girls.

"We're really sorry, Mrs. Davidson," Becky started in. "We didn't mean to --"

I cut her off. "You've done nothing wrong and you've nothing to be sorry for. I'm not upset at seeing Michael like this, just surprised. What I'd like is for you all to tell me what happened, so I know how to handle him; I doubt I'll be able to get a coherent account out of him."

They looked at each other. Becky started. "Well, we were talking about shopping. You know, just looking at stuff you know you'll never by, trying stuff on. And we were talking about how we'd seen some really pretty stuff, you know, the kind you'd love to have even though you don't have any place to wear it. And Michael said he wished he could have gone with us."

"You know how he is about pretty," Margie put in.

"We weren't sure at first that he wasn't just messing with us," Becky continued. "But then he talked about how yesterday Lisa and Fiona were trying on some of Fiona's things, and how pretty they looked. I had a feeling he might have been jealous."

"Oh, we could tell," said Astrid. "It was pretty obvious. He just didn't want to admit it."

"So when he finally did admit it, I said, why don't you try something on yourself? I wasn't really serious, I was just sort of teasing. He said no, but you could tell he liked the idea."

"So Becky and then Margie started saying how cute he'd look," said Astrid. Margie looked very guilty at this. "And eventually he said he'd try it as long as we promised to make sure nobody would find out."

"He must really trust you," I said.

"We also promised not to tease him," added Margie.

"So Margie got some of her outgrown things from the attic and she and Becky got him dressed up."

"He really did look cute," said Margie.

"Like a real girl," said Becky. "He really got into it. He was looking at himself, feeling the dress. He wanted to see himself in a full-length mirror. Then you came home. Look, we're really sorry. If we'd known he'd get this upset--"

"Don't be sorry," I interrupted. "He gets upset easily. You say he seemed to be enjoying it?"

"Oh, yeah," said Astrid. Becky and Margie nodded agreement.

"I'm glad. Now I need to go up and talk to Michael. Can you all stick around for a while? I'd like to bring him back down, but I have to talk to him first. If you want, you could stay for dinner."

I could see that they were still uncomfortable. "Please understand, I am not in any way upset with you. I'm glad Michael has such caring friends in his life. I don't see this as bad; actually this explains some things about him. Now, I need to go up and see to Michael. It may take a while."

"Should we make dinner?" asked Margie.

"Dinner? Oh, God, yes! I would be most grateful if you would take care of that for me. It would be a load off my mind."

Michael was sitting in Jerry's lap. He wasn't crying any more, but he wasn't happy, either. As soon as he saw me, he started say, "I'm sorry" over and over again.

I squatted down next to him. "Michael, it's okay. You've done nothing wrong. You've nothing to be sorry for." I kept saying this until he quieted down again.

"The girls told me you looked pretty in that dress. Could you stand up and let me see how pretty?" I had to remind him that he wasn't doing anything wrong before he would consent to slide off Jerry's lap and take a few steps.

"The girls were right, you do look pretty. Can you twirl? Dresses always look better when you twirl." Obediently, he twirled. "Do you want to look at yourself in the mirror?" I walked him over to the full-length mirror on the closet door. He stared in wonder at his image.

"I look like a girl," he said finally. He looked anxiously at me over his shoulder. "But I'm a boy. Boys aren't supposed to look like girls, are they?"

"At your age, boys and girls don't look very different."

That was the wrong thing to say. He started crying. "I'm not supposed to want to look like a girl. I'm supposed to hate it. What's wrong with me? Why am I always wrong? Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!" I had taken him into my arms by then, but he thrashed around and started hitting his head with his fists. "I hate myself! I wish I were dead!" I held him tighter. He hit himself a few more times, not very effectively, while shouting "Dead! Dead! Dead!", then slumped against me. "Why am I like this? Why do I have to be me?" I held him and rocked him as he cried. "I wish I could just go to sleep and never wake up." I couldn't help crying myself, to see him in so much pain.

I just held him for the longest time, sitting on his bed. Eventually he ran out of tears, as one always does. I felt his body pressed against my breast, his head on my shoulder. Sometimes that's all you can do for someone, just be with them in their pain.

"I don't think there's anything wrong about you. I don't think there's anything wrong with you, or any boy, wanting to wear a dress or wanting to look like a girl. I know Jerry doesn't, and Margie doesn't, nor do her friends. I think you're just right, just the way you are." He didn't say anything, nor did I expect him to. Michael understood the language of hugs and caresses, of physical contact, better than words, anyway.

Jerry knocked on the open door. "Dinner is ready."

"We'll be down in a moment. Can you find Michael's apron? We don't want to get food on his nice dress." I slid him off my lap and we walked down to the dining room, hand in hand.

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Chapter 16 -- One of the Girls

For the next few days, Michael went back to his usual routine and acted as if the 'dress episode,' as we called it, had never happened. The only difference was that sometimes he would wake up crying again and either he would come into our bed or I would go and bring him, and he would cry himself to sleep nestled up against me.

I'd left a message for Dr. Conroy, explaining the situation, and on Monday afternoon she called me.

"I'm not sure what to do," I said. "On the one hand, he seemed to like dressing like a girl, at least until he saw me. On the other hand, he got all upset because he felt like he was doing something wrong. I've been mostly trying to help him feel like he didn't do anything wrong, he spends too much time as it is thinking he's all wrong. We put the dress in his closet, in the back, to communicate that we don't think there's anything wrong with it. But I don't know what's best for him. So many people wouldn't understand and maybe it's better to nip it in the bud. And I'm only the foster mother, someday they'll place him and ...." I couldn't go on. The idea of him someday leaving us was something somehow too painful to think about.

"I'd not push him either way. Right now, he needs unconditional acceptance more than anything. Once he's in better shape, he'll be better able to deal with the demands of society."

"I was thinking of giving him more of Margie's old clothes. What do you think?"

"That sounds okay. Don't make a big deal out of it. Just put them in his room, but out of the way, and don't say anything about it. If he doesn't want them, he can assume you're just storing them there. If he asks -- take it from there."

"Has he talked to you about any of this?"

"I mentioned it, but he didn't seem to want to talk." She sighed. "He's that way about a lot of things."

Over the next few days we put some of Margie's outgrown clothes in his room. But he ignored them; if anything, he avoided even the clothes he had picked out himself, choosing instead to mostly wear the drab boy clothes I had picked out.

All that changed on Friday. Sue had to work again, so I had Lisa, and I was going to take Michael, Lisa, Fiona, and Emily to the Children's Theater production of The Thief of Baghdad. Michael had tutoring in the morning, so Lisa got to explore his room. She must have found Margie's clothes, because as soon as he got out of tutoring, she dragged Michael into his room and when they emerged an hour later, he was wearing his pink cap-sleeve tee with a brown knee-length skirt, white knee socks, and pink sneakers, and his hair was braided in two pigtails like Lisa's (only shorter) secured at the ends with pink barrettes. Lisa announced that 'they' had decided that he was now 'Amanda', but we should call him -- or rather her -- 'Mandy.'

I asked Michael if he was okay with it, and he replied "yes" in a small voice with a goofy smile. I shook my head. She was already a force of nature now, I wondered what she'd be like in ten years or so.

Fiona and Emily were dropped off, fortunately only a half-hour later. Fortunately, because Lisa had been leading 'Mandy' in a thorough search of the house and I'm not sure what state it would have been in if they'd gone on much longer. I fed them cheese sandwiches, except for Emily, who preferred ham. Fiona and Emily agreed that, though they liked Michael, Mandy was even better, because they could do more girl things with her.

When they piled into the car, they looked like any four elementary school girls. Mandy fit right in, though Mandy was clearly the shy one. During the show, Mandy shouted out warnings just like the rest when it looked like the thief was about to be caught by the sultan's guards. And during the intermission, when the girls went to the ladies' room, Mandy was dragged along with them. I didn't hear any screams, at least not more than usual, so I assume all went well. After the show, I took them out for ice cream, and you couldn't tell that Mandy hadn't been a girl all her life. (She did keep saying "eating ice cream is too much work" and then laughing hysterically, so I had to explain.) I dropped Fiona and Emily off at their homes and took Lisa and Mandy to the park, where they swung on the swings and talked.

As I watched Michael looking so alive and free, I felt happy, too. I had to admit, I liked him better as Mandy. I wasn't sure if that was because he was happier and more open as a girl, or because I wished I had a little girl in my life again, now that Margie was practically gone and didn't need me. Oh, well, I said to myself. They'll place him someday and it won't matter which. But then I felt my heart drop through the floor. I imagined him in a family that would force him to be a boy all the time, maybe even a boy like Will, and it felt like seeing someone killing puppies.

That night, after Michael's bath, I cuddled him. He was still wrapped in a towel and I found myself imagining him as an infant. What was he like, back before whatever it was that made him hurt and despair so much? What would it have been like to cuddle him and feel his warm, small body against mine back then?

"You had quite an exciting day today, honey. How are you feeling now?" He didn't say anything for a while.

"I guess I liked it. I liked being part of the gang. Like I was just one of the girls. But -- I'm not supposed to like it." He started to cry. "I'm supposed to hate it. Why am I like this? I can't do any of the boy stuff right. I'm a wuss. I'm a stupid sissy. I even still wet the bed. Why do I have to be me? I'm just no good." He sounded so lost.

"I think you're very good. And so do a lot of people. Margie and her friends, Lisa and her friends. You're only not good at being what some other people say you're supposed to be. You're like the ugly duckling. Everyone called him ugly because he wasn't good at being a duck, but he was really a swan and was good at being a swan. I think you're good at being you. And I think you'll be even better if you just try to be you and don't worry so much about what other people think you're supposed to be."

He just lay against me and sighed. "Yeah, but it's like the only thing I'm good at is being a girl."

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Chapter 17 -- Such a Nice Name

Saturday morning, Michael just wanted to sit in his room and read. He didn't even want to hang out with Margie and her friends. When she asked if he were mad at her, he said, "no, I'm just peopled out." He did give her a hug before going back to reading.

Sue called around mid-morning. "Lisa wants to know if Michael can come over and play. Only she says his name is Mandy now."

"I can check with Michael, but I think he just wants to be alone today. I think yesterday's excitement was a little much for him."

"What's with the Mandy thing, and him dressing in girls' clothes? I mean, I have nothing against it, he can dress however he wants, but I'd just like to know where it's going. Like, what should I call him?"

"I don't know. I don't think he knows. He's always liked 'pretty' things, I think that's the attraction. And he gets along well with girls and not with boys. He really feels mixed up about it."

"Well, Lisa would like to see him, whatever he's called. Is he going up to the pool?"

"Maybe in the afternoon. It's supposed to be really hot today. Jerry wants to do some yard work, but I think I'm going to tell him that in my professional opinion it's too hot and being in the pool is a lot healthier."

For lunch, we just had cold sandwiches. It was already pretty hot, so about a half-hour later, I easily convinced Jerry to go. I told Michael, "we're all going to the pool. It's too good a day to spend it all indoors."

He put on his trunks and swim shirt. I asked, "hot as it is, do you really need a shirt."

"I don't like it when people can see ...." Something I'd expect a girl to worry about, I thought, not a boy.

At the pool, I found Sue's encampment and dragged over the last free lounge chair, while Jerry went to talk with some friends of his. Michael set up on the blanket to read. When adult swim came, I asked Michael to watch our stuff while Sue and I swam. We came back to find Michael in tears and Lisa and Fiona chanting "come on, Mandy" in a sing-song voice. Sue led Lisa and Fiona off while I tried to calm Michael down.

"They came over and asked me to play, only they called me Mandy. I asked them to stop calling me Mandy, but they wouldn't, they just kept on calling me Mandy in a real loud voice so the other kids would hear and make fun of me. I kept asking them to stop but they wouldn't stop! They wouldn't stop!"

I held him and comforted him and told him Sue and I would make sure they stopped. Once he was mostly calm, I told him I was going to go over and talk to Sue.

Sue was already giving them a talking-to. I told them what Michael had said.

"Didn't you hear him asking you to stop?" asked Sue.

"But Mandy is such a nice name," said Lisa. "I don't get why he doesn't like it."

"It doesn't matter why. He asked you to stop, so you should have stopped. Couldn't you see how upset he was getting?"

"But it's silly to get upset by something like that."

"It may seem silly to you, but it wasn't to him."

"He didn't mind yesterday."

"Maybe he felt differently yesterday. Today he asked you to stop. You should have respected that. Do you want him to keep being your friend?"

"Yeah?" she said in a puzzled voice.

"Then you have to respect his feelings, even if you don't understand them."

I went back to reassure Michael, and about ten minutes later, Sue, Lisa, and Fiona came over. Lisa was holding her hands in front of her and looking at the ground as she spoke.

"Michael, we're sorry we called you Mandy when you asked us to stop. We know it wasn't a nice thing to do. Can we still be friends? We promise we won't call you Mandy unless you say it's okay."

"Me, too," said Fiona in a sad voice.

"You're still my friends," he answered with tears in his eyes.

"You want to play?" asked Lisa.

"I'm not in a playing mood today. I'm not mad, I just want to be alone." He noticed me. "Except for Mommy. I just want to be quiet with her."

Lisa looked like she was about to say something, but Sue rather dramatically cleared her throat. Lisa said to Fiona, "let's go play and leave him alone. Like he asked."

Lisa and Fiona went off and Michael went back to reading. I sat down next to him and put my arm around his shoulder. He leaned against me. When he finished the page he was reading, he asked, "why am I so messed up? They were just trying to be friendly, why did I get so upset? I'm supposed to -- I don't know what I'm supposed to, I just know I'm not doin' it. I'm a lousy friend. I'm no good for anybody or anything."

"No, you're a good friend. All yesterday you went along with what they wanted and you didn't reject them when they were mean to you today. Honey, these things happen, but if you're good friends, you work things out and stay friends."

"But I don't want to play with them today."

"That's okay. Sometimes even the best friends need time to themselves. Jerry and I are good friends, but we'd go crazy if we didn't have our own time."

Michael went back to reading, but kept leaning against me.

"Do you want to go in swimming with me?" I asked after a few pages.

"But it's not adult swim."

"Silly, adults can swim any time, not just during adult swim. Let's swim back and forth across the pool."

We got in just beyond the rope and I started swimming on my back. Michael kept up easily, but I could see it took a lot of effort.

"Why don't you try swimming on your back?"

He tried it, but he had trouble staying on top of the water. He was pretty thin, so he didn't have as much fat to help him float. I put one arm under his back and swam with the other arm and my feet. After a while, he stopped swimming and let me tow him along. It was very relaxing, if a bit slow. Of course, we weren't in a hurry to get anywhere.

Michael had to get out when it was adult swim. As he was sitting on the apron watching me swim, I saw Lisa and Fiona come up to him. Lisa in particular looked very contrite.

"Michael, want to play on the playground with us?"

He brightened up and nodded, and the three of them scampered off to the wooded area where the playground was.

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Chapter 18 -- Knight in Shining Armor

That evening, Michael was very clingy. He insisted on helping me make dinner, even though there wasn't much to do. Whenever I was in one place, he would come up and lean against me, and I would automatically put my arm around him. I made a point of coming over and rubbing his back when I could, and whenever I did, he would turn and smile at me with tears in his eyes.

Margie came home shortly before dinner, and Michael demanded a hug, but she was not her usual bubbly self. She wasn't very hungry during dinner, and she finally confessed that Brett had broken up with her that afternoon.

After we cleaned up from dinner, she went down to the rec room to watch TV. Michael followed her and sat next to her, leaning against her and rubbing her back. He must have learned it from me, since it was what I always did for him when he was upset, or as close as he could manage. Sometimes she'd start crying, and he'd put his arm around her and say things like, "I know it hurts, but it's gonna be okay." One time when I heard him say it, I looked at him and put my finger to my lips, and when he stopped, I gave him a thumbs up. He finally fell asleep snuggled up next to her, and we put him to bed without a bath.

That night, I woke up in the middle of the night to use the toilet, and I peeked in on Michael. He wasn't in the bed, which got me worried. I looked in on Margie, and saw that he was in her bed with her, and they were both asleep. I decided to leave well enough alone and went back to bed.

The next morning, I asked Michael about it.

"Oh, yeah. I heard her crying in the middle of the night, so I went in to try and make her feel better. I thought maybe she'd feel better if she knew someone who cared was with her. Like you used to do for me. I think it worked, because she stopped crying and went to sleep. I stayed because I figured she might wake up and cry again."

That day, he was still clingy, but was happy enough while we were all together during the church service. When Margie went off with her friends after the service, as usual, Michael wanted to be as close as possible to Jerry and me all afternoon. I had to go off in the middle of the afternoon, and when I came back, Jerry told me Michael was extra clingy.

"He wanted to hold me or be on my lap the whole time you were gone. He also asked if it was okay that he missed you and Margie, but not his Mom or Dad."

"And what did you say?"

"What could I say? I told him, how he feels is how he feels, there's no right or wrong. He's okay whatever he feels." I made a point of leaving a message for Dr. Conroy about it.

Michael got a little less clingy as the week went on. Margie was still sad, and Michael spent a lot of time hugging and trying to comfort her.

On Wednesday, it rained. Sue had to work again, so I watched Lisa, who watched Michael do the laundry. She tried to help, but they ended up arguing a lot because Michael had definite ideas of the Right Way To Wash Clothes. They also ended up playing some weird offshoot of hide-and-seek in the dirty clothes. Becky and Margie got back from summer school at lunch time, and we all went over to Becky's house after lunch. Lisa asked Michael if they could have some 'Mandy time,' so Michael packed up some of his 'Mandy clothes' to bring over. Becky dug out some of her outgrown clothes that were still a bit big for Lisa for Michael to try on, and Lisa and Michael played dress-up, while Becky and Margie offered fashion advice. Michael barely listened. You could see how entranced he was as he looked at himself in the mirror or looked down at his skirt as he swished it and twirled.

Fiona and Claire came by in mid-afternoon and Fiona joined in. Somewhat to my surprise, Michael showed no discomfort at being called Mandy and dressing as a girl all afternoon. When we came home, he went back to wanting to be called Michael, but he was happily still wearing the last dress he'd tried on, and when he wasn't doing anything else, he was looking at and playing with the skirt; he seemed to be marvelling at how it seemed to have a will of its own.

That evening, after his bath, during what I'd started to think of as our 'cuddle time,' I asked him how he felt about the day.

"It was okay." He was focused on playing with the frayed end of the towel.

"Did you like being Mandy?"

"It was okay." A little more fiddling with the end of the towel. "I guess it was kind of fun. Some of the stuff was pretty. I like looking pretty."

"Is it better than being Michael?"

"I dunno." He stopped playing with the towel and turned to face my body more and put his hand on my shoulder. He nuzzled my neck. "I guess I really wish I could just be me."

"And what would it be like to be you?"

"I dunno.... It's like I've been somebody else for so long I forgot how to be me." I could feel his tears on my neck and chest. I just stroked his back and head while he cried his silent tears, and prayed that he'd have a chance to remember -- or relearn -- to be himself. If he stayed with us, I would do my best to help him. He cried for a long time, and when he stopped, I realized it was because he'd fallen asleep.

Michael continued to try to cheer Margie up, even though I had the impression she was managing pretty well on her own by then. I'm not sure his attempts were all that helpful, but she seemed to appreciate the thought, anyway.

Friday night, after dinner, we all four went down to the ice cream shop. A crowd of teenagers came in as we were eating our ice cream, among them Brett, who came over to say hi.

"Hi, Brett," said Margie, making a noble but unsuccessful effort to smile.

"Hope everything's going okay," said Brett.

"It's okay."

Michael stood up and looked Brett right in the face. He had to tip his head back a ways to see him. "I hate you!" he yelled. "You hurt my sister and made her cry for days!"

Jerry and I were saying, "Michael!" in a vain attempt to calm him down. Margie covered her face in embarrassment. Brett just stared, nonplussed. The other teens stopped talking and looked over at us; some were giggling. Michael just stood there, looking defiant.

"Wha-a-at?" Brett said.

"You were mean to her! You shouldn't have been mean to my sister!"

Jerry and I finally got Michael's attention. "Michael," I said, "you don't have to defend your sister. She can take care of herself."

Margie finally got over her embarrassment long enough to speak. "Michael, it's okay. It's what happens between boys and girls. They like each other a lot and want to be together, and later they don't feel that way. I wouldn't want Brett to stay my boyfriend if he didn't really want to be. He's still a good guy even if he breaks up with me. You don't have to get mad at him for me. Sometimes things happen that make you sad and it's nobody's fault."

Brett joined in. "Hey, I think it's cool that Margie has a little brother who's so loyal to her that he gets upset for her sake when she's sad. I wish my little brother had my back the way you have Margie's. All he wants to do is annoy me. And, yeah, I broke up with her, but I still think she's a cool girl. You've got a great big sister and she has a great little brother."

"Yeah," said one of the other girls, "you better treat Margie right, or you'll have Michael to answer to." Some of the teenagers laughed, but they also said things like, "hey, Michael is the greatest."

Michael seemed oblivious to the conversation swirling around him. He looked embarrassed and finally said, "I'm sorry, Brett. I guess I shouldn't have hated you. I didn't really hate you, I was just mad because Margie was so sad."

"That's okay. People get upset and say things they don't mean. But it was great that you said you were sorry. I'd hate to think you'd hate me for the rest of my life."

Brett sat with us for a little while while we finished our ice cream, then got up and returned a few minutes later with a chocolate cone for Michael and a vanilla one for for Margie. That got a smile out of Michael, though I wasn't sure which cone made him smile more.

Margie decided to hang out with her friends, while Jerry, Michael, and I went home. By the time we got home, Michael was in tears again.

"I was so stupid, stupid, stupid! I do everything wrong! Now Margie is going to hate me!"

"No, she's not." I had him on my lap again, as usual. "She was a little embarrassed when it happened, but she'll be over it by the time she gets home. Most of her friends have little brothers or sisters who've embarrassed them. Besides, you really have been a very good little brother, she knows that and I think her friends do, too. Everything's going to be okay, you'll see. Take your bath, get ready for bed, and I'll read to you, okay?"

I had to say 'everything's going to be okay' quite a few times more before he finally went to bed and fell asleep.

When Margie came in, I asked her how it went after we left.

"Oh, it went okay. Everybody told their favorite 'annoying little brother' and 'embarrassing little sister' story. I think they thought Michael was cute, playing the knight in shining armor. And, yeah, it kind of announced to everyone that Brett had broken up with me, but I think everybody knew already, anyway."

"Could you talk to Michael in the morning? He's convinced you hate him now."

"Oh, jeez! It wasn't such a big deal. My friends embarrass me all the time, and we laugh and forget about it." Brave front, I thought. I knew it was often a bigger deal than she admitted. She'd cried on my shoulder often enough.

"I tried to tell him you'd be okay about it, but he didn't really believe me."

Next morning, I heard Margie go into Michael's room. I didn't hear what they said, but after a while, I heard them laughing and joking as they went down to fix breakfast. I love my kids ....

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Chapter 19 -- The Visit

The next few weeks went smoothly, for which I was grateful. Quiet times may make for boring reading, but they are a relief for me, and I think they gave Michael a chance to heal a little. He seemed to be getting more secure with us and freer to be himself, even if he didn't believe he knew how. He was beginning to trust us and to trust that Lisa and her friends accepted him. He was mostly pretty comfortable being Mandy with them, even if he was more often Michael. He'd had a few spats with Margie and learned that you can get mad at people you love and still be close to them. He still cried a lot and still had bouts of feeling worthless, but he was getting quicker to trust my love for him and my insistence that he was, indeed, worth something.

So it was on a pleasant, sunny Wednesday morning that the call came that I had been dreading. Michael was doing laundry and I was vacuuming and picking up the common areas of the house when Mrs. Templeton called.

"How are things going?" she asked.

"Things are going very well. Michael seems to be getting happier and more secure. This morning, we're doing some cleaning, then we'll head over to the pool."

"That's good to hear. Dr. Conroy says he's doing better with his depression, too. I'm just calling because Michael's mother, Elizabeth Simmons, is going to be here next week, and she would like to take Michael out for the afternoon on Tuesday, maybe to a museum or a concert."

"I'm glad she's taking an interest in him," I said with an attempt at sounding sincere. "But it's a long way to come for only an afternoon."

"Well, she's really here so we can work out a final placement for Michael."

"Can I be involved? By now, I think I know him pretty well."

"What? No, it wouldn't be appropriate. If you have anything to contribute, you can give it to me or Dr. Conroy and we'll pass it on."

I really didn't know what to say to that. As we finished up the conversation, I was imagining some social worker coming one day to take Michael from us and us never seeing him again. We finished up the chores and headed over to the pool. On the way there, I told him about his mother coming to see him.

"What's she going to do?" he asked.

"She wants to take you to a museum or a concert or something."

"Will she bring me back?"

"To our house? I assume so."

"That's good. There are some books I haven't finished reading."

At the pool, he wanted to stay with me most of the time. Lisa and Fiona were disappointed, and he had to explain that he wasn't mad, he just was 'feeling insecure.' I couldn't blame him, I was feeling pretty insecure, too. We swam together and then sat next to each other on the blanket, not saying anything. Sue got me to go in swimming with her during adult swim while Michael watched from the apron. Lisa came by with Fiona and prevailed upon him to join them on the playground. After adult swim, I went back to where our stuff was to sun myself on the lounge chair, and soon after, Michael came over looking miserable, followed by Lisa and Fiona. You could tell he'd cried a little.

"We were on the playground," said Lisa, "and he got really sad and wouldn't play and cried and some boys called him crybaby and he left and I yelled at them."

I held him and stroked his back until he settled down a little, then asked, "what's the matter, honey?"

"I was thinking how nice it is here with you and Lisa and Margie and all and I kinda want to stay here forever but I'm supposed to want to be with my Mom and Dad and when I see Mom she'll know, she always does, and she'll be so disappointed with me because I'm such a bad kid." He started crying again.

"She was so disappointed in me last time, after I tried to kill myself, the second time. I gave the police a phoney name so they didn't find me for over a day, and she was so disappointed because I lied and I guess because I caused so much trouble and I was so ungrateful and all."

Lisa looked really upset when she heard him say 'kill myself.' I looked at Sue and she nodded, which I hoped meant she'd talk to Lisa about it. Fortunately, I'd warned her about his history, but I was surprised he would talk about it in front of everyone.

Michael started sobbing while he talked. "She was disappointed for, like, forever and I kept screwing up and making her more disappointed and that's why I ran away. I was bad to run away and now I'm going to see her and I'm so bad and don't want to be with them and that's even worse."

I held him while he cried. I couldn't think of anything to say to make him feel better. Sue took Lisa and Fiona away, hopefully to explain things to them. After a while, he stopped crying and just lay against me. Lisa and Fiona came over a little later.

"We're sorry you feel so bad," said Lisa and gave him a hug. "Can you come and play with us when you feel better?" Fiona gave him a hug, too. Michael gave them a weak smile and said "thanks."

We went home early. Michael still didn't want to be separated from me. When I worked in our office, he lay on the floor and read. He stayed in the kitchen when I worked on dinner and he helped where he could. He was very quiet at dinner, where I told Jerry and Margie about the situation. He clung to Margie after dinner until it was time for his bath.

After the bath, during our cuddle time, he got upset. "I'm so bad. And now Lisa and Fiona and them know. I told them I'd tried to kill myself and they won't want to be with me, either. I wish I were dead."

"No they won't. Lisa's mom explained things to them. They don't hate you, they feel sorry for you. They said so, remember?"

He clung to me and cried as I rocked him and told him he was a good boy until he fell asleep in my arms.

In the middle of the night, he started screaming. I went in and he was wide awake and obviously terrified.

"Vampires!" he said when he saw me. I put him on my lap and asked him what he'd dreamed. He was clinging to me in terror and crying.

"I was in bed and vampires started getting into my room. They were squeezing under the door and through where the window is open. And they were going to make me a vampire, too. It was awful! The only way to keep them from turning me into a vampire was to kill myself."

I held him and told him, "don't worry, honey, we'll protect you from the vampires." Once he settled down, I brought him into our bed. He woke me up once more, but he didn't scream, he just clutched me so tight it hurt and whimpered for a while.

The next morning, when we went to his appointment with Dr. Conroy, he wouldn't let go of me. I had trouble getting him to stay in the session without me. Fortunately, I'd already left a message with her about how it was going with him. All day, all he wanted to do was read and be as close to me as possible, except for the times when he wanted to be close to Margie.

That evening, after his bath, Margie got Michael to come into her room for a while to do things with each other's hair, which gave me a break. I lay on the bed while Jerry cuddled me. It had been a while since I'd had the leisure to do that.

"I think I'm almost as upset about Michael's mother visiting as he is," I said. "I'm afraid she'll take him away, or maybe it's that she'll undo everything we've done for him, so he'll be like when we first saw him."

"You've really fallen for him," he said. "Just like I saw that first day." I said nothing. He stroked and caressed me. "Youve been really wanting another child of your own. Ever since we found out we couldn't have any more. The fostering didn't fill that hole, did it?" I felt tears dripping off my nose and cheeks as he gently rocked me.

"Am I so selfish?" I asked. "Am I only thinking of my own needs to believe we'd be a better family for him than his birth family?"

I turned and looked at him with my tear-streaked face and held his arms. "Jerry -- I don't know what I'll do if they take him away from us. I'm hating his mother already. I'm hoping they'll declare her an unfit mother. I'm thinking crazy thoughts. I'm afraid I'll never get over it. I want to say I wish we'd never seen him, but I can't make myself wish that." I let go and flopped against him, the way Michael so often flopped against me.

"Honey, we don't know what will happen. Try not to get yourself worked up over disasters that haven't happened and may well never happen. Michael needs you to keep yourself together so he can feel safe. If he sees you falling apart, it will only make it harder for him. Remember how you managed in the pediatric oncology unit?"

"Yeah, I remember I finally quit because I couldn't take it. Five years of watching children die."

"They didn't all die."

"Too many did, though." I sighed. "I guess I'm just jealous. She's got so many, she can't even be bothered to see him when he's half-dead in the hospital, and I was barely able to have one. It feels so unfair."

"So many?"

"Well, he told us he has brothers. Can't she spare one?"

He continued to hold me. It felt good to feel his strong arms around me, it made me feel safe, even as I was also still so upset.

"You know," he said, "I'll be pretty sad if they take him away, too. I don't get to cuddle him or do things with him as often as you -- I'm actually kind of jealous -- but he's very special to me, too. He's just so much ... I don't know, so Michael. I can't help but love him. It's like our home is so much homier since he's been here. It'll feel empty if he has to leave."

We cuddled a while longer in silence, just enjoying the comfort of one another's presence, until it seemed time to get Michael into bed. That night, though, he woke us up screaming because he'd had the vampire nightmare again.

Friday and Saturday were much the same. He did get his tutoring done and the homework from tutoring. Lisa came over Friday afternoon and tried to get him interested in playing, but he mostly just wanted to be hugged. He had no interest in being Mandy, mumbling that he didn't want to 'disappoint' his Mom, so Lisa went home early. Margie snuggled with him on the couch until it was time to make dinner, reading to him sometimes and sometimes just telling him what a cool kid he was.

Saturday night, he had a different nightmare.

"There was this man, all dark, like he was made out of shadows. He snuck out of the shadows and put a rope around my neck and choked me. I thought I was gonna die, but he stopped and said, 'this is so you'll know what it's like when I come back to kill you for real.'"

After that, he started being afraid of shadows.

By Monday, he was a worse emotional wreck than when we first saw him. He was having stomach pains and diarrhea. Monday dinner, he didn't want to eat, and right after dinner, he threw up. He felt hot and had trouble drinking the pedialyte I gave him. He threw up several times during the night. Another day of this and I'd need to take him to the ER.

When his mother called in the morning, I had to tell her he was too sick to go anywhere, let alone go out with her. She sounded a little skeptical, so I got Michael on the phone with her, and he did sound sick. He only managed a sentence or two before he had to run to the bathroom again.

"I'm only in town for a few days. Since I can't go out with Michael, do you suppose we could get together for coffee or something this afternoon? I'd like to hear how Michael has been doing."

We worked out a time and place. Fortunately, Margie would be home from summer school by lunch time and could take care of Michael in the afternoon.

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Chapter 20 -- A Good Mother

We'd agreed to meet at the Café au Lait, a coffee shop with outside seating in what passes for the artistic part of town. There are trees and small shops, and the coffee shop offers a selection of teas as well as coffee. Since I'm a tea drinker, this was a requirement.

I'd talked to Jerry on the phone, and he'd advised me to be as sympathetic to her as I could. "She'll be more cooperative if you can get her to see you as a friend and not an enemy. Assume she wants the best for Michael, too. You don't know what it's like for her, maybe you wouldn't be able to do any better if you were in her shoes." I'd been saying she's a good mother, she wants the best for him to myself the whole way over. By the time I got there, I was almost even convinced.

Elizabeth Simmons wasn't what I'd expected. I'm not sure what I'd expected except that I'd assumed I would see what there was about her that would explain Michael's utter lack of self-esteem. Instead, she turned out to be a pleasant, even charming, and unassuming woman, about fourty. I felt comfortable with her right away. She turned out to also be a tea drinker, so we made small talk about her trip and about the things to see in our town until our teas arrived.

It looked like she wasn't going to ask about Michael on her own, so I brought it up.

"Did you want to hear how Michael is doing?"

"Oh, yes, I'd love to. Are things going well? I know taking in foster children can be stressful."

"Oh, he's been a joy. He's really bonded with Margie, our teen-age daughter. He's helpful around the house, he's even taken on doing the laundry, and he and Margie sometimes cook dinner for us. There's this idea that children hate chores, but he's not like that."

"I'm glad. You know, children can sometimes be difficult, especially boys. I have four of them, counting Michael."

"Oh? What are they like?"

"Well, there's Collin, he's in high school. He's on the football team. He's having a little trouble with the academics, but he's trying. Our second is Andrew, he's not into sports, but he's bright; we think he'll be an engineer like his father. Doesn't have a lot of friends, though. Michael's our third. He used to be my cuddly one. He plays piano and sings, he's really talented. And he's bright. But I'm sure you know all that by now."

No, I didn't. I don't say it though, I just smile.

"And Peyton, he's the baby of the family. He's always sunny and never any trouble, which is a relief. But he doesn't get much of a chance to say anything, what with all those older brothers. Sometimes he'll try to say something, and by the time we get everyone to shut up, he's forgotten what he wanted to say." She said the last with a laugh.

"Sounds like you have your hands full, with four sons. Margie kept me busy all by herself. It's a little better now that she can get herself around."

Her face began to show more signs of strain. "Oh, you're right, four children is a lot. And you know boys. The older two fight like cats and dogs. Andrew's always deviling Collin until he explodes. And what with Michael always forgetting things -- I'm sure you've noticed how forgetful he is -- and school requirements, there's never a dull moment."

I weighed my words carefully. "Is it any easier with Michael not at home?" I didn't want to seem eager to take him off her hands, even if I was. Think of how she feels, I told myself.

She looked out at the trees and the boutique across the street. "Honestly?..." Her smile slumped. "Honestly, yes. It's not that Michael caused any serious trouble. But there was always something. Missing the bus, homework not done, losing things, not giving us notes from school or losing them. And endless detentions for little things, like talking back or out of turn, or reading in class or not having assignments. I'm able to focus on the older two now." I wondered about Peyton.

"That sounds like a lot to handle. Especially with the older two."

"Oh, goodness gracious, yes. Collin is having a lot of trouble with his schoolwork, we've tried everything. And Andy is always in trouble at school. Fights, really nasty fights, refusing to do things. He terrorizes the younger ones. You know, they're both seeing psychologists. I keep wondering: what did we do wrong? When we decided to have children, I thought we'd be so happy, we'd love them and they would love us, and they'd do Boy Scouts and school and sports and do well -- they're all bright, we're told. Nobody told us about colic, or babies that never were happy and didn't grow the way the books said. Or how tired you get. It seems like they're all trying to prove what a bad mother I am." She was crying by now. I was amazed -- I hadn't thought I'd sounded that sympathetic. "And Michael -- Michael was my good baby, didn't cry much, loved to cuddle. Then Peyton came, and by the time I had time for Michael, he didn't want me any more. Sometimes I could get him to talk about ideas, I love it when we can discuss ideas, but then suddenly he won't want anything to do with me. And he's always having problems that require my attention.

"And lately he lies! The second time he tried to kill himself, some college boys stopped him and took him to the police, and he lied! He gave them a false name and address, and it took a day to find him after we noticed he was gone and called the police. And the police wanted to know why he was trying to kill himself. I felt like such a bad mother. And then the social workers! They poked into everything, like we were terrible people. Why would he do that to me?"

"That sounds overwhelming," I said.

"He even lied in the hospital here. He gave them a false name again and it took them two weeks to figure out who he really was. He made us look like monsters! I felt so ashamed!"

"That must have felt awful."

She looked at me helplessly. I put my hand on her shoulder and she turned to me, tears in her eyes. I slid my chair closer to her and she leaned forward. I took her in my arms and let her cry on my shoulder.

When she stopped crying, I ordered a second round of tea to give her time to compose herself.

"I must sound like a horrible mother," she said.

"No, you sound like someone who is trying her best but has more than even her best can cope with."

"It feels awful to say it, but having Michael out of the house has really helped things. I love him, he was one of my favorite children, but ...."

"I can see why you love him. You've raised a lovely child."

"But I can't handle him. Not on top of everything else."

"Is there anyone you know who can help relieve you of some of the burden? Perhaps take one or two of the children sometimes?"

She looked at me thoughtfully. "You know, my sister once took in one of her classmate's daughters when they were having a rough time with each other. She lived with my sister for several years, and it worked out well for everyone."

"You think that would be a good solution here?"

"Can you be honest? Do you think Michael is doing well living with you?"

A bizarre question -- I'd already said he was just a few minutes ago. "Yes. I think he'd say so, too, and so would Dr. Conroy."

She slowly picked her words. "Maybe ... a good mother ... would want her child ... to be in a situation that was ... good for him ... even if she had to ... sacrifice being with him. What do you think?"

Was this a trick question? "Yes I think so. Wouldn't she be putting her child's needs above her own?"

"I know this is a lot to ask, but how would you feel about Michael staying with you longer term? At least until things settle down at home?"

"I don't see a problem with that. We're enjoying having him with us now. I'd have to discuss it with my husband and I imagine we'd have to run it by Social Services. But since it's what we're doing now, I can't imagine they would object."

"I would be so grateful. I would be relieved to know he is in good hands."

"Why don't you discuss it with Dr. Conroy and I'll run it past my husband?"

"I think that sounds wonderful."

Promising to keep in touch, we embraced and went our separate ways.

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Chapter 21 -- God Be With You, Mom

I decided to tell Michael that his mother was okay with the idea of him staying with us, but I couldn't promise anything yet. He stopped throwing up and started to relax. I wouldn't let him do the laundry on Wednesday, since he'd been so sick. He spent the next few days in his room or on the sofa reading, but he was a lot cheerier and laughed and joked with Margie when she was around.

I left the negotiations to Jerry, and by the time Elizabeth was ready to leave, there was a rough agreement in place, involving guardianship, some financial support from Michael's parents, and putting Michael on our health insurance.

We invited Elizabeth over for dinner the night before she was to return home. Michael was nervous about seeing his mother again, but we tried to reassure him and we at least partly succeeded. When she came in, he went up to her and hugged her with tears in his eyes, and even said, "hi, Mom." During dinner, we told her which parts of dinner Michael had helped with, and each time she smiled at him and said she was proud of him, and he anxiously smiled back.

When it was time for her to go, she hugged him again.

"Now be good, Michael, and don't give the Davidsons any trouble. I do love you, and I'll miss you." Then, barely controlling her tears, she added. "I hope you'll be happy here. Happier than you were ... with us," and quickly went out to her car. Michael cried as she left. When she drove off, he stood on the front porch and waved until she was gone.

That night, during our cuddle time, Michael was again upset. "I'm so bad."

"Why?"

"I've been not liking her, but she was so nice and she just wants the best for me. I should want to go home and be with her, and I don't. What kind of kid doesn't want to be with their mom and dad? What kind of awful kid?"

"You are not a bad kid. You were right not to want to be at home with them. Things aren't good there, and it's better for everyone if you're here and not there. Even she believes that. But you know, it's okay to miss her, too. And to love her and still know you're better off not with her.

"And maybe she can come to visit sometimes. Would you like that? Maybe if you see her when she's here and not at home, you'll get along better."

"You know," he said. "I kinda don't want to see her and kinda do. I kinda want to be at home and kinda don't. I'm all mixed up."

"That's okay. You're a kid, and being a kid means being mixed up about a lot of things. You can talk about them with me or with Dr. Conroy. And we'll be here to protect you no matter what."

He lay against me without saying anything for a while. Then he said, "I feel like I shouldn't have said goodbye. Doesn't that mean you won't see somebody any more? Like when someone is dying and you say goodbye to them?"

"No, it doesn't. It means 'God be with you.'"

"So I was saying, 'God be with Mom'?"

"Yes, you were. And that's a good wish. Your Mom has a lot of hard things to deal with at home. She needs all the help she can get. We're helping her by taking you in. Maybe that's a good way to think of it: by being here and being the kid you were meant to be, you're helping your Mom."

He started to giggle. "So by taking a bath, and playing with Lisa, and brushing Margie's hair, and reading Nancy Drew books, I'm helping Mom? Ooh, I never knew helping Mom could be so much fun!"

"You sure have enough fun when you and Margie make dinner, and you're helping me. But when you're doing these things, and learning to be happy -- that's what Moms want for their kids. Now how about getting dressed for bed?"

Once he was dressed, he crawled back into my lap and I rocked him to sleep. I rocked him long after, enjoying the closeness while he was still young enough to hold like this. And when I tucked his sleeping body into his bed, I placed his teddy bear where he could see Michael and told him, "keep a good watch over him." But in the middle of the night, he crawled into bed with us and clung to me until morning.

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Epilog

The fosterage issues were, indeed, worked out, so we were Michael's legal guardians and could make decisions for him without clearing them with his parents. Michael has slowly -- very slowly -- gained confidence and is beginning to come out of his shell.

We found a small school that was known for being accepting and nurturing for him for the fall. They even accept him sometimes coming as Amanda. One time he brought Margie in for show and tell and they wore matching dresses. He's in seventh grade now, and doing very well, socially, psychologically, and academically. He has a few more friends, and we're all helping him learn how to deal with friends. He has a lot of catching up to do.

We bought a small piano and he's taking lessons again and slowly becoming comfortable playing when we're around. He sings in school and is now in the children's choir at church.

His mother visited at the end of August for a day and at our suggestion took him to the zoo and then to the city park to feed the ducks. He was clingy and cried frequently for a few days after that. She came again for a weekend in October and brought Peyton. The Three Musketeers were over and we all went to the park. Jerry played with Michael and Peyton while Michael's mother talked with the girls. She seemed to really enjoy socializing with the girls and Michael was less upset after the visit. She hasn't discussed another visit.

We don't know what the future will bring, not that anyone does, really. We are simply enjoying having him around. I never thought I'd have another young child, and he brings a lot of joy. He is so spontaneous and delights in everything, and it's making us see that our own lives are full of surprising wonders. Christmas is coming and he is happily playing along with the Santa myth, if only for the presents. I think he is beginning to remember -- or is it learn? -- to simply be himself. And what greater gift can one give than that?



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