John Howard spotted the boy as soon as he and Emma came out of the movie theater. The child was wearing a filthy, ragged tee shirt that was several sizes too big, khaki shorts with enough holes for John to glimpse the boy's underwear, and tennis shoes. He was slightly built and appeared to be covered in several layers of grime.
"Do you know that boy, sweetie?" John Howard asked his five-year-old daughter.
Emma stopped and looked up at her father. She had been singing one of the songs from the animated feature she and her father had just seen. Emma followed her father's gaze across the parking lot and gasped as she saw a small boy crawl into a garbage dumpster.
"What's he doing, daddy?" Emma asked in a scared voice.
"I don't know, sweetie," John answered, reaching for his daughter's hand. "Let's find out."
The dumpsters and recycling bins were located in the far corner of the shopping center parking lot. John and Emma watched as the boy emerged from the dumpster clutching a rancid slice of pizza.
"What were you doing in that dumpster, son?" John asked quietly.
"Nothing," the child said in a small voice. "I found the pizza. It's mine."
"Where do you live, son?" John asked. "I'll take you home."
"I used to live with my mama behind the ice cream store until she told me I had to leave," the boy answered. "She said there was only room for one."
John drove to the Dairy Delight, circling the building and then cruising the length of the alley that provided access to vendors delivering their shipments. Nothing. He parked and entered the store. John spoke to the owner, who was unaware that anyone had been living in the alley behind his store.
"That's crazy," the man said. "It's February. If anyone was living back there they've probably frozen to death by now."
John returned to his truck and tried to decide what to do next. He turned to the boy who was sitting in the back seat.
"Are you hungry?" John asked.
The boy nodded.
John took out his phone and hit a button.
"Sarah Jane, Emma and I are bringing a guest home for supper," he said.
The child's name was James and the story that slowly emerged painted a nightmarish picture of human depravity, neglect, and indifference. The boy had never known his father. That fine individual had taken off as soon as he learned his girlfriend was pregnant. The thought of being a responsible husband, father, and man had apparently never crossed his mind.
James' mother was sixteen years old when she gave birth. She promptly dropped out of school and moved in with her parents. That arrangement ended when James' grandparents caught their daughter stealing money from their savings jar. After six months of tending baby James while his mother partied all night, stole money for drugs, and refused to either continue her education or get a job, the grandparents had had enough.
They bought their daughter a one way bus ticket to Atlanta, drove her to the bus station, and watched as she and her infant son disappeared from their lives.
The girl was now twenty-one. She and James had spent the past five years drifting from place to place, always managing to stay one step ahead of the law and social services. The girl had picked up a third hand car somewhere along the way. She and her son had been living in the car behind the Dairy Delight for the past month.
John glanced in the rear view mirror. They were almost home.
"When did your mother tell you to leave, James?" John asked.
"Yesterday," the child replied in a defeated voice. "She said I was old enough to look after myself."
Rage coursed through John's body at the thought of such a wanton act.
"Did she say why she needed more room?" John asked, struggling to keep his voice even.
"For her medicine," James replied.
"Medicine?" John asked.
James shrugged. "My mama has lots of pills and powder. Needles, too. They keep her from getting sick."
John took a deep breath and slowed to make the turn into Wild Pony Ranch.
"James, do you know how your mother gets money to pay for food and her medicine?" John asked.
There was no reply.
John took another peek in the rear view mirror. James was looking down at his lap, trying not to cry.
The front porch light was on and Sarah Jane was waiting.
John parked the truck and turned around in his seat. He wondered if the sad and frightened little boy sitting next to his daughter would ever be able to overcome the horrific start to his life. He was afraid the child was damaged beyond repair.
"We're home," he said softly.
"He's starving," Sarah Jane whispered as she and John stacked supper plates in the dishwasher. James had just consumed a huge supper and was finishing a second slice of pecan pie.
"Your elbows are on the table," Emma observed.
James looked up from his pie and then down at his elbows, as if seeing them for the first time.
"Emma, can you help me in the kitchen?" Sarah Jane called.
"Emma, I know James had his elbows on the table but it's rude for you to tell him. He's a guest. Besides, I'm sure his mama never taught him table manners."
John had called the sheriff as soon as he got home. Sheriff Moore was prepared to come out to the ranch immediately.
"What will happen to him, David?" John had asked.
"It's the weekend, John," the sheriff had replied. There's a Child Protective Services worker on call, but the agency is closed until Monday, excuse me, Tuesday. I forgot about President's Day. I can bring him into protective custody right now, but he'll have to stay at the jail until Tuesday. Social Services will probably place him in one of their group homes until they can find a foster family willing to take him. The best case scenario would be for a responsible relative to take the child, but that doesn't sound likely in this case."
"Jesus, David, I don't want James to spend any time at the jail. That would scare him to death. How about if he spends the weekend here at the ranch? Social Services can come out on Tuesday. In the meantime, we'll get him some decent clothes."
"Fine by me," Sheriff Moore replied. "Keep receipts for anything you spend on the boy. I'll reimburse you. In the meantime, I'll visit the Dairy Delight and talk to the owner. Somebody's lying, and I don't think it's James."
The remainder of the weekend passed quickly. Sarah Jane took James shopping the following morning and returned laden with packages from several department stores.
Sheriff Moore called on Monday to say he had spoken to the owner of the Dairy Delight. The man had finally admitted that he had allowed James and his mother to live in their car behind his business in exchange for certain favors.
"Let me guess," John said grimly.
"Yeah," Moore replied. "Anyway, I got the woman's name, description, and the make of the car. No luck on the license plate. I've put the information out on the wire. I ran her name through several databases but didn't get any hits. Oh, Janet Myers from Social Services is coming out to see you tomorrow morning around nine."
"Thanks, David," John replied. "What are the chances of catching the mother?"
"Slim," the sheriff replied. "She pretty much lives off the grid, so we can't track her through credit cards, bank accounts, tax returns, anything like that. Our best chance is if she gets arrested."
"That's about what I thought," John replied.
"I'm talking to the county attorney to see if he's willing to pursue a case against the Dairy Delight owner," the sheriff continued. "He certainly contributed to the endangerment of that boy."
John spent the rest of the day working on ranch business while Sarah Jane and Emma showed James around and introduced him to some of the ranch hands.
They had a quiet family supper. John explained to James that a lady from social services was coming in the morning to talk with them. The child nodded. He seemed resigned to whatever was coming next.
Sarah Jane woke early the following morning to fix a big breakfast, check on James, and get Emma ready for school.
The doorbell rang just as John was fixing himself a second cup of coffee to take back to his office. A stern looking woman stood on the front porch.
"Mr. Howard?" she asked.
"I'm Janet Myers from Shenandoah County Social Services. May I speak to James?"
The child spent the next fifteen minutes providing one word answers to the social worker's questions. His face was empty, drained of any expression or animation, the face of a boy who no longer expected anything from life. Ms. Myers explained that there were no foster parents currently available. James would be placed in a group home with approximately twenty other children, most of whom were teens and adolescents.
"Sounds horrible," John said.
"It's not as bad as it sounds," the social worker replied, "but it's certainly not ideal. I wish there was another choice."
John stared at the social worker. The national rodeo circuit resumed in April. John was one of the top riders on the circuit and earned a substantial amount of prize money at the events. Unfortunately, it kept him away from his family for an extended period.
John took a deep breath.
"We'll be happy to keep James for the time being," he said.
"Mr. Harold!" James hollered as he burst through the door to the barn.
Harold Foster looked up from the horse stall he was cleaning and smiled.
"How was school, James?" Harold asked.
"Fine," the boy replied. "We played kickball at recess."
John and Sarah Jane had enrolled James in Emma's kindergarten class and he seemed to be doing as well as could be expected. He was quiet and respectful in class but still withdrawn around his classmates, with the exception of Emma. James was a diligent student but was behind the rest of the class. Sarah Jane was working closely with the child in an effort to help him catch up and be ready for first grade in the fall.
James loved the barn and quickly attached himself to Harold. This took Harold completely by surprise. He was, after all, a quiet man in his late fifties who spent his days mucking out stalls, cleaning equipment, and feeding and watering the horses. He was the sort of man who should have been invisible to a five-year-old boy.
Perhaps, Harold thought, James sensed in him a kindred spirit. He had lived through his own nightmare, was still living through it, for that matter. His wife of thirty five years, now ex-wife, was serving a life sentence in a state mental institution following conviction for a series of atrocities committed during a psychotic spree. Harold had found evidence of the crimes, confronted his wife, and been rewarded with a bullet in his side which put him in the hospital for two weeks.
The trial and verdict had been swift and sure but Harold's daughters had refused to accept the fact that their mother was a psychotic felon who had tried to kill their father. Harold became the bad guy, the one who had pushed and provoked their mother to the point of insanity.
Harold continued to send letters and e-mails and gifts for birthdays and Christmas. He received nothing in return. He dreaded Christmas and his birthday, but Father's Day was the worst. He had always tried to be a good parent. Harold was grateful for the job at Wild Pony Ranch. He didn't need the money -- he had retired with a generous pension after thirty five years at the paper mill -- but it occupied his days, leaving only the nights and weekends to wrestle with his pain.
Harold handed James the feed bucket and watched as the child filled the trough in each stall. He had become close to James over the past month and looked forward to the boy's afternoon visits. It helped fill some of the emptiness created by the estrangement from his daughters and grandchildren.
James finished feeding the horses and returned the bucket to Harold.
"See you tomorrow, Mr. Harold," James said. "I have to go now. Miss Sarah Jane is helping me with my letters."
"James, do you like spending time with me?" Harold asked.
"I sure do, Mr. Harold," James answered eagerly. "We have fun, don't we?"
Harold smiled. "Yes, we do, James."
Harold finished his afternoon's work and closed the barn door. He started for his car and then stopped. His mind swirled as he gazed at the house. He had been thinking about this for the last week. A moment later he found himself knocking on the front door.
"Harold," John said as he answered the door. "Come in. Can I get you anything?"
"No thanks, John," Harold replied. "Can I talk to you for a minute out here on the porch?"
John stepped outside and listened for the next several minutes without interruption. When Harold was finished John smiled and clapped his employee on the shoulder.
"I'm behind you all the way, Harold," John said. "You're a good man. I'll set it up."
Janet Myers greeted them and led the way to a small conference room where two other people were waiting. Ms. Myers introduced the Director of Shenandoah County Social Services and the Supervisor of Adoptions. Harold was dressed in his best suit and felt like a schoolboy sitting in the principal's office. He was glad John and Sarah Jane had volunteered to come with him.
Harold had been prepared for an interrogation but the meeting was more like a conversation that was focused on what James needed in his life. Harold began to relax and respond freely to the questions that were asked.
As the meeting was winding down Ms. Myers raised a final issue.
"It's been nice to meet you, Mr. Foster," the social worker said. "You clearly have a close relationship with James and the financial resources to provide for him. My only concern is your age and the fact that you are single. Ideally, we would place our children into two parent households. I'm sure you understand."
Harold drew a deep breath and decided to take a chance.
"I'm not sure I do, Ms. Myers. We both know that couples now are marrying and having children later in life. It's not that unusual to see parents in their forties and fifties with young children. I would also remind you that I am an experienced parent who has raised two wonderful daughters. I know what I did right and I know what I did wrong as a young and inexperienced father. I would also point out that James has a close extended family with the Howards. John and Sarah Jane have generously agreed to serve as guardians for James in the event something happens to me."
"Well ..." Janet Myers began.
"One final point, Ms. Myers," Harold interrupted. "I don't believe the ideal family actually exists. No family is perfect. I think it is particularly ridiculous for you to raise that point when your agency is forced to place some children into foster homes where the parents are welfare recipients and are providing foster care for the primary purpose of receiving a stipend and misusing the child's clothing allowance."
The room was quieter than a church sanctuary on a Tuesday.
"We'll be in touch," Janet Myers said stiffly.
The letter was in his mailbox when he got home from work two weeks later. Harold took the letter inside and set it on the kitchen table while he fixed his supper. He ate quickly, staring at the unopened envelope in front of him. When he was finished, Harold cleaned his dishes and returned to the table with a bottle of water. His hands trembled slightly as he opened the letter and read. He put the letter down, picked it back up, and read it again.
His chest spasmed as tears dripped from his eyes. Harold put the letter back in the envelope, turned out the lights, and went to bed.
Harold looked up as the barn door slowly swung open.
"Hi, James," Harold said. "Want to help me brush Jubal?"
"I can't, Mr. Harold," the boy said, fighting back tears. "I have to get ready to leave. They've found a family for me."
Harold remained silent.
"I might not see you again," James continued. "Thank you for being my friend."
Harold's chest and throat were clogged with emotion. He watched the boy leave the barn. "Goodbye, James," he finally managed.
Five o'clock came and Harold headed up the hill to the ranch house. John answered the door and invited him inside. James was sitting in the living room, waiting for his family, with a small suitcase by his side. Harold thought it was the most heartbreaking sight he had ever seen.
Harold took a seat beside the child, unable to find words to express what he was feeling.
"I might have to leave soon, Mr. Harold," the boy said. "Miss Sarah Jane said my family is on the way."
Harold turned to look at the child. "I'm your family, James," he said in a breaking voice. "I'm the one that's adopting you."
James stared at him in shock.
"Is that all right?" Harold asked.
"Do you have room for two?" James asked in a small voice.
"I'll always have room for two, James," Harold replied.
James hugged him and it was all Harold could do to keep from falling apart. It had been so long since anyone had expressed any love or affection for him.
James pulled away and looked up at him. "Does this mean I can call you Dad?" he asked.
Dad. Harold hadn't heard that word in a long time. It was a word that filled him with overwhelming feelings that only another father would understand.
"That's exactly what it means," Harold said to his son. "That's exactly what it means."