Deet moaned and pulled his pillow over his head the next morning, determined to ignore the noisy cell phone on the nearby table. He managed to open one eye and glance at the alarm clock. It was only six in the morning. He didnt want to answer the phone because he knew he wanted to kill whoever had the bright idea of calling at this hour on a Sunday morning.
He was almost successful until the noise disturbed another member of his household and a double handful of bubbly puppy bounded into his room, skidding slightly on the hardwood floor, and barked.
Deet gave in and answered the phone, if only to keep Puppy from waking up the boys. Yeah! he growled.
Did one of us wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? Manuels voice cheerfully questioned.
Your wife is going to be a rich widow before noon, Deet hissed.
No problemo, amigo, Manuel said. Ive already told her that youll be the death of me one day. We agreed that instead of having you prosecuted shes going to give you all the kids. Thats a worse sentence than lethal injection. He gave an evil chuckle.
Repressed queen. We can keep this up all day but I want you to put on a pot of coffee and wake the boys. Ill be there in half an hour to pick you up. Poor Erics going to meet the Fuentes women sooner than he thought. Consuelas treating your son to one of her fabulous breakfasts while you and I, compadre, join Herbert Milhauser at University Hospital for a visit with that little girl. Herbert insists, and Ive just got this tiny law firm and cant fight the power of Freeman, Freeman, and Birch.
Youre enjoying this too much, you sadistic perv, Deet said as he threw the covers back and eased his feet to the floor. He was about to slide his feet into his slippers when one of them disappeared, absconded by a puppy whose life span, in Deets opinion, was limited. Thats not funny, you little shit! he yelled, forgetting that he was still on his cell.
Its not funny at all, Manuel replied. Herbert wont even consider a petition for adoption until he sees how his client reacts to you.
I wasnt talking to you, Deet said, I was talking to the damn dog that just ran off with one of my slippers.
See you in thirty, Manuel laughed and ended the conversation.
Deet padded into the kitchen, sans slippers, and started a pot of coffee; made a fast beeline to the bathroom to take care of business; and set out to wake Eric and Jorge.
They werent in the room theyd slept in the night Eric had his nightmare so Deet checked out the rest of the rooms on the second floor. He couldnt locate the boys and felt a moment of panic until he remembered Erics fascination with his room on the third floor. Sure enough, he found them asleep in his old bed, back to back. Wolfgang thumped his tail on the floor when Deet entered the room and Deet squatted down to pet his old friend.
Did you sleep here all night? he asked as he scratched Wolfs ears. Sorrowful brown eyes gazed back at him and he muttered, Eric cant sleep up here. You just cant make it up two flights of stairs, old boy. Ill explain things to him and I think hell understand.
He watched Eric and Jorge for a few minute while they slept. Both were handsome young kids with their whole lives ahead of them. Eric had the right to be as innocent as Jorge, but he wasnt. Hed lost one mother to death, another to alcohol and drugs, and his body had been abused. Hed been uprooted and plunged into a new town with a father hed never known.
Deet wiped the tears from his eyes and smacked both boys on the butt. Time to get up! he shouted. Rise and shine. The best breakfast in the world awaits!
It took a few minutes for the teenagers to work their way back to total awareness. They yawned, stretched, scrunched their eyes, and tried to ignore the command to wake. Deet watched and knew his only recourse was a devilish plan. He went in search of the puppy. Said miscreant was found, soggy and completely demolished slipper between front paws, and Deet scooped him up depositing him in the middle of the bed on the third floor.
Even a teenage boy cannot avoid the insistent demand of a bouncing pup alternating between barks and total face washings. The boys were completely awake and giggling as puppys tongue found its way into their ears and hair. Tiny paws danced across their faces and Jorge finally gave up when he tried to yawn and found a foot in his mouth.
Why so early, Uncle Deet? Jorge asked.
Because your dad called, Deet replied. Your moms making breakfast. She probably expects you to attend Mass this morning. The only time she ever missed Mass was when she was in the hospital having babies.
Do I hafta go to church? Eric asked.
I dont think it would hurt if you went, Deet answered, but I wont insist on it. Manuel and I will busy, though, so you might consider going today. Jorge and his oldest sister, Concepcion, always attend Christmas midnight services with me at the Lutheran church I attend.
Are you going to church today? Eric asked.
Not today, son, Deet replied. I have some very important business to take care of, something involving another child who was hurt and needs help.
Erics eyes became wide and had a haunted look. Was she chained, too? he whispered as the painful memory swept over him.
Deet sat down and looked Eric in the eyes. We dont know yet, he acknowledged and wished he could take his child into a comforting embrace but the look in Erics eyes dissuaded him. We only know that she was hurt and shes in the hospital. Manuel and I are trying to keep her out of foster care. Mr. Milhauser is now her attorney, just like hes yours. Hes going to take care of her interests and he doesnt want her in foster care either.
How come Dads not their lawyer? Jorge asked as he sat down next to Deet.
Because hes mine, Deet answered honestly. He cant represent them because it would be a conflict of interest and no judge would allow it. And your dads too conscientious to do anything wrong, even if it would benefit someone else. He trusts Mr. Milhauser and I think Eric does, dont you? he asked.
I guess so, Eric replied.
Then you two get dressed. Its a little cool this morning so wear something warm. Im going to see if I can find a pair of slippers and get a cup of coffee or three before Manuel gets here.
Daddy? Eric asked before Deet could leave, could that little girl stay here? This is a big house and then Id have a sister.
Well see, son, Deet answered, well see. He wiped unshed tears from his eyes as he headed for his bedroom.
.. . .
A nerve-wracking, disconnected knock at the front door announced Manuels arrival. How many cups of coffee have you had? he asked Deet when he saw that his friends face looked tired.
Three, Deet answered.
Then have another, Manuel replied. Go. Sit. Ill take care of it. I can use some myself. He poured two cups of coffee, added a little sugar and cream to each, and turned off the coffee pot.
Did the boys keep you up last night? he asked as he handed Deet a cup and took a seat on an overstuffed chair.
No, Deet answered. We got back later than I expected. John invited us to go riding after the auction. I havent been on a horse in months so my ass is sore and my thighs hurt. Those two, he said indicating the teenagers who were sipping hot cocoa in front of the television, dont seem any the worse for wear. God, I must be getting old. Then John and Danielle insisted we stay for supper. The boys went to bed right after we got back and I had the privilege of taking the new puppy outside to do his business. I couldnt get to sleep thinking about our court visit Monday, and then some damn fool woke me up at six this morning. My favorite old ratty slippers are now a chew toy. Wolf thought it was his Constitutional duty to drag himself up to the third floor and sleep near the boys. I need to convince Eric to pick a bedroom on the second floor, and he wants a sister. My cousin Gretchen called about five minutes ago and wants to set me up on a blind date with some guy she met at work. And youre too damn cheerful for this early in the morning.
Manuel laughed. Ah, the tribulations of parenthood, he said. Welcome to my world and wait until Eric is in school and youre expected to attend every school function and sports event. Youll be driving him to piano lessons or Scouts, tennis or karate lessons. Youll bite your nails to the nub if he wants to try out for football and suggest he consider golf instead because its safer and then curse yourself when he gets bopped on the head with a golf ball. Youll live in fear of the day he discovers girls, or boys, and lay awake at night listening for the tell-tale sign of him sneaking out of the house to meet his amour of the moment. Youll lecture him on safe sex and buy him condoms. Youll consider putting bars on the doors and windows and hiring security guards to make sure he doesnt succeed in sneaking out until hes thirty-five years old. Youll
Manuel, Deet quietly said, I wasnt thinking about any of those things, and neither of the boys are old enough yet for part of that scenario.
They will be, Manuel replied, and I worry about my kids all the time.
Ill trade you the new puppy for Jorge, Deet offered with a smile.
Ill take you up on that offer when he turns sixteen, Manuel said then rose and clapped his hands together one time. Time to go, boys, he said. Food is waiting for us.
.. . .
Eric pushed himself back from the table. Thank you, Maam, he told Consuela, it was the best breakfast Ive ever had.
Consuela Martinez Fuentes was one of those Mexican-American mothers who rose before dawn each day to make her own flour tortillas. She taught high school Physics at an inner-city school and cared for her students almost as much as her own children. She knew most of her students came from broken homes and were struggling to stay away from gangs and drugs. Children, all children, were the most important thing in her world and she spent a great deal of her time working with the underprivileged. Her husband never figured out how she managed to counsel pregnant teenagers, mentor students with special abilities, work with the city conservation society, and still find the time to take their daughters to dance and music lessons, monitor homework, tend to scraped knees, and greet him with love when he returned home.
Please dont call me Maam, she told Eric. It makes me feel like a grandmother. My children call your father uncle so why dont you just call me Tia Consuela. It means auntie. And my husband is Tio Manuel, uncle.
Eric flashed a smile at the warmth in her voice and tried the names. Tia and Tio. I like it, he said.
Muchas gracias, Consuela replied and shooed the men away from the table. Go with your padre and tio, mijo. The girls will clear the table.
As overwhelming as Consuela was, Eric had no idea what to think of the Fuentes girls. Concepcion, known as Connie, and Esperanza, called Hope, were the oldest of the girls. Maria and Rosa followed a year apart. Eric had never seen girls like them before, with their black hair, brown eyes, and Mediterranian complexions. Granted, hed never seen a boy who looked like Jorge either, and he looked like his sisters except that his hair didnt hang to his waist. Eric and Deet looked like two sore thumbs with their blonde hair and blue eyes. Eric had a couple of African-American friends at his school in Indiana so he knew that not everyone was white, but he never imagined the variety of people in the world. And he didnt care at all right now because Jorge was the link that helped him make it through each night and Consuelas obvious love not to mention the finest flour tortillas and huevos rancheros in the entire world made him feel like he really could make it in this new town. He knew he loved his father but they hadnt established a real closeness yet. He had a new puppy, a bicycle, his own computer with lots of neat games, more clothes than he would ever wear, lived in a beautiful house, and had his very own lawyer. He knew his dad was worried about him and that one day he would tell his dad everything that had happened to him.
Mijo, Consuela said when the dishes had been washed and put away, your padre and tio have something they need to do. You can come to Mass with the rest of us if you want to. But you dont have to and Mrs. Flores next door said you can stay with her. Shes too old to go to Mass now and the priest visits her instead. She doesnt speak English but she makes wonderful cookies.
If its alright with you, I think Id like to go to Mass, Eric said. My suits out in the car.
Deet left his son in Consuelas care. He knew that Jorge would guide the boy through the maze of sisters and stop Concepcion from her obvious desire to sneak a kiss.
So, did you buy a horse? Manuel asked as he maneuvered his car toward the University Hospital location downtown.
No, Deet said. I didnt see any I liked. Most of them were quarter horses or Arabians. They were beautiful but too high spirited. Im looking for more of a riding horse, maybe a Morgan.
Talk to Carlos, Manuel said. One of his clients is a guy from New York who raises Morgans. He just relocated to a ranch outside Fredericksburg. I dont know his name but he might have what youre looking for.
Thanks, Ill call Carlos and ask him to put me in touch.
The rest of the drive was quiet as the two men considered their meeting with Herbert Milhauser and the little girl lying in a hospital bed.
Manuel parked his car, easily done on a Sunday when University Hospital was quiet in the morning, before the emergency room was inundated. Manuel showed his card to the bored volunteer at the reception desk and was informed that Herbert Milhauser was waiting for them in the cafeteria.
I have to lay a few ground rules, Milhauser told Deet and Manuel. Because shes a minor, neither of you can talk to her unless Im present. Her name is still confidential so you can only call her Jane Doe, which is not her real name. If she begins to panic at any time during this visit, you must both leave immediately. Mr. Graschel, I understand your concern for her and the reason youre seeking custody. The fact that you requested I represent her goes a long way with me, added to the fact that youve been extremely cooperative where your son is concerned. But you have to realize that since she is now my client, my primary concern is for her health and wellbeing. Is this acceptable?
Completely, Deet said before Manuel had a chance to open his mouth.
Mr. Graschel, Milhauser said, I suggest that you allow your attorney to speak for you both with myself and the judge until this possible petition is resolved.
Its a legal thing, Manuel said.
Deet nodded his head in acknowledgment.
Now that we have that settled, are you ready to meet Jane? Milhauser asked. I spoke with her earlier and explained your visit. Shes very old for a child and wise beyond her years. Shes lost her entire childhood. She has no reason to trust men, and less reason to trust women. She understands that Im her attorney because shes familiar with Judging Amy from television. Shes also extremely vulnerable right now. One wrong word or gesture and Ill inform Judge Solari that I wont be presenting a petition for custody and potential adoption. Are there any questions?
None, Manuel said.
Good, Milhauser replied, because, off the record, I think the best place in the world for this child is in that charming old house.
Moments later the three men entered a third floor ward of University
Hospital and Dieter found himself looking at a pathetically thin little
girl. She sat in the bed, leaning back against her pillow, her black
hair neatly braided by one of the nurses. Her knees were pulled up
against her chest and she was clenching the sheet tightly. Brown eyes
so dark they were nearly black glanced at him and quickly shifted
down. His heart broke and he realized that he would allow the two
attorneys to move heaven and earth, in whatever legal manner they
desired, to give him this child.