Walking Into Clouds

by Rick Beck

Chapter 24


There was no sound of a gavel signaling the end of the hearing but the Honorable John Henry Robinson got up to disappear through a door behind the dais. Mrs. Marcum stood and collected the papers in front of her. Morgan Grant closed his briefcase and he stood, coming over to my father.

I stood looking at Cody's back as he continued to sit as the courtroom emptied. Cody finally glanced at me and he looked away. He stood resolute before turning toward me. It hardly looked like the Cody I'd dropped off at Floyd's last Friday evening.

I swallowed hard. I became as unsure of myself as I'd ever been. I told Cody that I'd protect him. I hadn't done it. I wasn't able to do it. I couldn't protect him from what life had in store for him.

Could I be swept up into an impersonal unfeeling justice system?

Walking toward me, Cody looked at his feet.

"I'm so ashamed I got your family involved in this. I'm sorry, Clete."

"You have nothing to be ashamed of or sorry for. You didn't do anything wrong, Cody. These people should be ashamed. These people were wrong to hurt you and to allow you to be hurt," I said.

He closed the distance between us, walking into my open arms. It didn't matter there was a three foot divider between us. His body collided with mine. He was immediately shaking and sobbing with his face against my chest. I began to cry too. I held on for dear life.

My Cody had been battered by life yet again.

"They hurt me, Clete," he said, and my tears ran down my cheeks as I tried to hold him gently. I only wanted to comfort him.

"I love you," I said. "I've got you now. You're safe, Cody. You're safe now."

"I don't know what we're going to tell your mother about this," dad said, as he observed Cody and me in full embrace.

"I think mom knows, dad," I said, remembering the raised eyebrow the morning I told mom that Cody was staying in my room.

"Would that be a blessing," dad said. "You know your mother."

I laughed. Dad had just realized that I was in love with Cody and his only worry was mom's reaction. They hadn't even talked about it. I was sure they both knew about Cody and me.

"Morgan and I are going to get the car. Meet us out front in fifteen minutes. Don't worry about the time. If you aren't there I'll drive around the block."

As Cody cried and I tried to stop crying, Luther came into the front row. He more backed in. He kept the rest of the courtroom in front of him.

"I got your back, little man. We'll protect you," Luther said, and he stood fast to let us have whatever time we needed.

We were under Luther Small's protection. The courtroom was empty now, but Luther was on the job.

"Thank you, Luther," Cody said, turning his face toward Luther's back. "I'm scared. I've never been this scared, Clete. I thought I was going to make it and now I know they can come for me any time they want and there's nothing I can do, because they don't listen. They took Vanilla. How will I ever face her. She's locked up because of me."

"You're going to be OK," I said. "Vanilla knows the truth. She knows about being locked up for no reason but because she is who she is."

"I be making sure Vanilla gets home safe, once we finish here," Luther said. "It'll be a few hours before her feet hit the street. Paperwork is a bitch, but by the afternoon she'll be freed."

"Thank you, Luther," I said. "You're a good man to know."

"I just be doing my job. Mr. Bing told me to see to it that Cody was safe and until he's in the car heading out of this joint, I'll be with him. Then I can tell Bing he's back where he belongs."

"You ready to rejoin the free world, little man? Let me give you a hand," Luther said.

"Yes, I am," Cody said. "I've been ready."

Luther put his hands on Cody's waist, lifting him up and over the barrier effortlessly. He put Cody down close enough for me to get my arms back around him. We hugged in silence. I'd hold him as long as it took and Luther went back to having his back to us as he looked out over the courtroom.

"Follow me and we'll be getting out of here. I don't mind telling you, courtrooms are among my least favorite places," Luther said.

Cody didn't let go of me but we followed Luther as he took us to the front of the courthouse where my father was waiting. Luther opened the door for us and he held it until we were inside.

Luther leaned in before shutting the door.

"I'll be calling Bing right away. He'll probably need to see Cody to reassure himself, but I'll tells him he's in good hands."

Luther stood at the curb as we drove away.

Luther Small was a good man to know.

We were together again but the fear of losing Cody shook my world. Even with him holding onto me I wasn't sure how long it would be before something else separated us. The thought took its toll and it was never far away now. Cody and I both needed to be close. I felt the same fear he felt. There were no longer any certainties when it came to being in love, except while we held tightly to each other.

Beginning that morning, when dad told me Cody would be in court today, I didn't believe it could end with Cody being in my arms. I was grateful that it did. There were things in life I had no idea about and I'd gotten an education over the past few days.

We'd been in love and we'd been together and then we were separated. I'd never felt worse than when I didn't know where Cody was or why he failed to meet me at the time we agreed on. He'd never missed meeting me before.

Then came the time when I didn't know if I'd see him again. Being with Cody, I never thought that there was a downside to love. I became very aware that there was one and I wouldn't soon forget it.

Cody didn't let go of me on the ride home.

We first dropped Morgan Grant at his house and dad said that he'd see him at work. When we pulled into the driveway at home, I felt relieved to have Cody back where he belonged.

Mom was waiting at the door. There was no doubt that Cody was going to get hugged, like it or not.

"Oh, baby, what did they do to you? You go up and get a hot bath and I'll find something for that eye and those bruises. You're a mess. Who did this to him?" Mom asked.

"Not something we've felt like talking about. We'll hear the story when Cody's ready to tell us," dad said.

"Where were they holding this child?" Mom wanted to know.

"They kept moving me. I'm not sure where I've been," Cody said.

"He was caged up with animals," I said.

"I still have a desire to sue those S.O.B.s. There was no reason for them to have this boy locked up in the first place. He was trying to help someone and he ended up being arrested. I've never felt that the law was selectively enforced until now. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with it. That cop has a history with that bar and with Cody."

"You boys go upstairs. Clete, draw a hot bath for him. If he soaks for a while, he'll feel better. Then he'll want to sleep," mom predicted. "You're save here, Cody. They'll need to go over me to get to you."

Cody moved like he wasn't sure of what he was doing. I sat on the toilet lid and held his hand as he soaked. After he finished, I helped him to dry off and I put him in a pair of my pajamas by rolling up the legs and the sleeves so they didn't hang off of him.

He looked marooned in them.

Once I put Cody in bed, he wanted to be held, and I held him. He cried for a long time. Mom came in and said she wanted to look at his eye. She brought some ice packs and she put an ointment on the side of his face.

If it hurt Cody didn't let on. He lay still as I stood behind my mother and watched her work. I remembered coming in from soccer and lacrosse games and getting the same treatment when I was hurt.

"Get some sleep, Cody. It's nice having you home. We were all sick about what happened to you. You're home now. You're safe."

I sat down beside the bed once mom left. Cody held my hand.

Mom brought up some sandwiches a little while later.

"I know you both like my egg salad and I made tuna salad too. See if he won't eat something when he wakes up. The milk is cold but if he doesn't drink it in an hour or so, bring it down so I can put it in the fridge," mom said.

Cody didn't wake up and I was starving. I'd hardly eaten since Monday and now I was suddenly ravenous. Maybe it was the smell of tuna and egg salad. I started in on my sandwiches and by the time I stopped, I'd eaten all four. If Cody woke up and wanted something to eat, I'd go to the kitchen and get more sandwiches.

Cody didn't wake up. He slept soundly and hardly moved. By the time the sun began to set, I was concerned that he might not sleep tonight if he didn't wake up, but I decided he wouldn't be sleeping if he didn't need sleep.

Once the sun got on the western side of the house, my room became progressively darker as the day wore on. Without a light burning it stayed fairly dark. With Cody sleeping I left the lights off.

Cody was home but he wasn't home in the way I envisioned it. He was here, holding my hand as he slept, but he wasn't all here. I didn't know if Cody could be anywhere completely. Maybe once he got enough rest and what happened to him was put further behind him, he might finish coming home. There was no need to rush him.

I wanted him to wake up and be the independent strong willed boy who left the house a week before. To see his loss of self confidence and the fear in his face didn't set well with me. One day he'd tell me what happened to him, but it was way too soon for that.

He needed to be home, be safe, and get back into a routine that suited him. He needed to heal and I needed to wait for him to heal.

I could wait. I wasn't going anywhere, but I wondered what else might have been beaten out of Cody.

Could he once again be the boy he was before last Friday? Would he be able to put his fear behind him?

Cody had been trapped with a father who tormented him. I was careful not to ask him about his mother. It was when he realized he wouldn't survive to grow up that being homeless became the only other option.

Somehow Cody made his way here from where ever his father lived. He'd met good people and he was smart enough to stay out of serious trouble for nearly four years. He was succeeding.

By doing things that seemed normal to him, things that had been safe things to do, he walked into a cop with a grudge. He was locked up with bigger boys. Boys who battered him, because wasn't able to fight them off. For four years Cody had managed to stay safe. Once the law got hold of him, all bets were off.

An illusion of safety can be gone in an instant. By having friends who helped keep him safe, he was safe. Once removed from the reach of friends and lovers, Cody was on his own. It was up to him to survive or perish.

What kind of place treats people this way? It was the twenty-first century, not the dark ages.

I wasn't sure that I would have come away whole if I was the one who had been locked up. Thinking you are safe, going about your business, only to find yourself in the hands of people who could care less about you, isn't how I thought life worked, but I had my parents to keep me safe and to make sure I wasn't abused or wrongly accused. It's how it had always been for me.

I would stay beside Cody and hold his hand. I'd hardly slept in the last five days but I wasn't sleepy. I had been too scared to sleep. I wouldn't risk closing my eyes and risking my brain might play tricks on me. I feared that if I slept I could wake up to find out that what I accepted as facts about what happened to Cody were only dreams.

If I didn't close my eyes, Cody couldn't disappear.

That was my biggest fear of all.

In spite of my determination, I fell asleep in the chair beside Cody. We were still holding hands when a noise entered my dreams.

"Clete, dinner is ready. Your mom made beef stew. She thought Cody might like that," dad said.

"Cody, dinner is ready. Do you want to go eat?" I asked.

"No, let me sleep. I'm so tired," Cody said.

"He probably hasn't slept since he was locked up," dad said.

"Tell mom to keep a heat under the stew. We might eat later," I said.

"Son, it isn't going to do any good for you to get sick. You've got to eat. Cody's home now. He's safe here," dad said.

"I ate the four sandwiches from lunch. I'm not really hungry. Maybe we'll be down later."

The door closed and I put my hand on Cody's shoulder. He hugged my hand with both of his and he went back to sleep.

An hour later my father came back.

"Clete, Mr. Bing is downstairs. He wants to be sure Cody is OK."

"I'll get him up, dad. Tell Mr. Bing we'll be down in a few minutes. Take him into the music room and play an album he's on. He'll appreciate that. He talks about being a session man all the time."

Cody didn't argue. I put an old belt around the waistline of the pajamas and with the arms and legs rolled up, he didn't look too bad. When we went to the door of the music room, Mr. Bing was sitting in one of the easy chairs with a bowl of beef stew.

"Mr. C," Mr. Bing said. "I wanted to see if you were OK. Luther told me about the hearing. I don't mind telling you, either you've shrunk or those pajamas are growing."

Mr. Bing stood up. Cody smiled and he went over to Mr. Bing and wrapped his arms around him. Mr. Bing wasn't prepared for a hug, but he adapted quickly, letting his big arms envelop Cody.

Cody backed up a step before saying, "Thanks for sending Luther to help me. He did me a lot of good. I didn't know if I'd see you again."

"You don't need to worry about that, Mr. C, you're my piano man. We make music together. Where ever you go, I'll find you," Mr. Bing said.

Mother came in and made us sit down on the couch. She brought both of us a bowl of beef stew. Cody ate some right away. He looked a little better but he didn't look good.

"There," mom said. "Everyone has stew. If anyone wants a refill, just say the word. I made a pot full."

"It's very good," Mr. Bing said. "I haven't eaten since breakfast and this hits the spot."

Mom took his empty bowl and brought back a refill.

A jazz album played softly in the background. Mr. Bing looked at the album covers on the wall and he noticed his signature on the banjo. He didn't need to ask where it came from. He knew he'd signed it for me and now it was at the center of a display dedicated to music.

"You look like hell," Mr. Bing said. "Do you feel OK?"

"I'm so tired. I've never been this tired. I'm all right, I guess. I know I'm safe but I keep having nightmares. Boys are beating me. I was trapped. There was nowhere for me to go. I've never been trapped before. Maybe in my house when I was real young, but never in a place where there was no escape. I've never been in a place like that before."

"You're safe here," Mr. Bing said. "I want to see you on Tuesday if you're up to it. We'll take it easy and not get too wild Tuesday."

When Cody went back up stairs, I told him I'd be right up, once i got more stew. He went to bed before I left the bedroom.

I heard dad and Mr. Bing arguing on my way to the kitchen. I stopped at the music room to see what happened.

"I don't want to take your money. I'll pay his attorney, Mr. Bing. The judge made me responsible for Cody," dad said, as if that was an argument that might work.

"Yes, but you're taking care of Cody. Let me pay the attorney. I'd feel a lot better if I could do that. Cody's like one of my own. He's a good boy and I'm glad he's found good people," Mr. Bing said. "It's the one thing he needed and I couldn't provide, a family of his own."

"I asked Mr. Grant to do the job and I should pay him," dad said.

"Well, Luther will be waiting for me. I told him I'd be out in an hour and it's been two. He's not unaccustomed to my inability to be on time. Mr. Thomas, we'll split the cost of the lawyer and call it even," Mr. Bing said. "It would be wrong to let you pay the entire bill."

"I can live with that," dad said. "You don't know what a pleasure it's been to meet Jerome Bing," dad said, as the two men shook hands before Mr. Bing headed for the front door.

I looked forward to Tuesday's with Mr. Bing and Cody. Time was suspended, I was energized, and the music flowed like I'd never heard it flow before. It exhilarated me.

As private as I suspected Mr. Bing was, he needed to see Cody with his own eyes to verify he was safe. The only way to do it was to make a visit to the Thomas' house.

I had no reason to suspect he'd be back the next day, but mom saw to it that he would be. Mr. Bing ran with her idea. I was left in the dark. They didn't trust me to keep the surprise a surprise.

Thursday had been a long long day. At the beginning I didn't dare think that Cody would be home by day's end. With the mood at my house running at low ebb all week, it ended on a high note.

I hadn't thought about what might take place tomorrow.

I wasn't sure which tomorrow tomorrow was as it turned out.

Thursday night was the beginning of Cody's comeback. When we went back upstairs, after I had a couple of bowls of stew, Cody needed to be held and I was the man for the job. As I held him, he began to talk.

"I forgot how lucky I am," Cody said. "Mr. Bing has never crowded me, but he's always been there for me, since the night he met me in the alley beside Topsy's. I only hope Vanilla isn't too mad at me. She wouldn't be in the mess she's in if it hadn't been for me."

"It wasn't because of you, Cody. It was because of that cop. Anyone with half a brain would have recognized you were nowhere near the alcohol. The cop was there to get you and he got Vanilla along with you. He probably thought he had a good day," I said. "Friends don't simply walk away. Vanilla isn't mad at you and she knows that being Trans means shabby treatment from a lot of folks."

"She's always so nice. I can't imagine what she's been through. There are too many hateful people in the world. Maybe if people didn't spend so much time trying to catch someone doing something wrong, the jails wouldn't be so full. Maybe if they weren't so sure certain people needed to be arrested, this might be a nicer place to live," Cody said.

"How do you come up with the stuff you do?" I asked. "I'm still working on what to have for breakfast and you're trying to find ways to make the world a better place for everyone. Your philosophy of being nicer so everyone is nicer should occur to more people."

"Nicer is nice," Cody said, pulling my arms tighter around him as he yawned and relaxed.

If everyone had someone like Cody to hold, they'd have a lot less time to get into mischief. I would have given more thought to Cody's words his first night home but I fell asleep.

The healing had begun and love was the best medicine.

I should have known that something was up when mom brought breakfast up to us. She encouraged us to rest. It had been a long tough week for all of us, but she wanted us to rest.

I ate the oatmeal, eggs, bacon, and English muffins. It was a nice way to start the day.

Mom took time to get Cody's clothes out of the dresser. She'd washed and put them all away while Cody was gone. I wondered if she thought we were going somewhere. She'd put out Cody's nicest things.

Not taking the hint, I got out the jeans that I wore to Topsy's on Tuesday's. They were about as dressy as I got. I found a nice tee-shirt to finish the look. I was ready to rock and roll.

I looked at myself in the mirror to see if I had gained any weight since I stopped playing sports regularly. I was thinner than I'd been in a while. I weighed 163. I hadn't been below 165 since leaving school.

Cody came to help me look in the mirror. He hugged me before stepping on the scale. He weighed 116. He'd lost weight too. I couldn't imagine what the last week had been like for him. He still managed to smile and a little bit of the sparkle was back in his eyes.

I heard noise downstairs but it was Saturday and dad was in and out. Neither mom nor dad came back to the bedroom and Cody and I lounged and talked after we got dressed.

I halfway expected mom to bring lunch by one in the afternoon, but she didn't. That meant taking Cody downstairs for lunch. It was time for us to get out of the bedroom anyway. Maybe we'd take a drive after lunch.

It was dad who came to the door.

"Your mom has lunch ready. You boys come on," he said.

"Who is coming and going?" I asked.

"Oh, I had some business to do at work and Morgan came by to see how Cody was," he said. "Don't lollygag. Food's on the table."

Dad was nonchalant, as usual. We suspected nothing more than lunch and maybe a drive afterward.

Cody went through the door into the kitchen first. He came up short and I ran into him.

"Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear, Cody. Happy birthday to you."

I stood in the doorway with my hands on Cody's shoulders. I forgot it was his birthday. It wasn't Saturday. It was Friday. Thursday had gone on for so long, I was sure it was Saturday when I heard dad downstairs in the morning.

I felt like a dummy.

"Happy birthday, Cody," I whispered in his ear.

I was more surprised than Cody was but I thought what a great idea a birthday party was.

"I've never had a birthday party," Cody said. "Vanilla! Floyd! I've been so worried about you. Mr. Bing and Luther, you certainly have better things to be doing," Cody said, going straight to Vanilla.

They shared a hug and Floyd was in a wheelchair but he looked better than he had in some time. Cody kissed Floyd on the cheek.

"I asked Mr. Bing to come by when he was here last night and since Luther drives him, I wanted him to come too. Mr. Bing said that he'd get Luther to stop for Vanilla and Floyd. That meant a nice gathering," mom said. "And when Morgan came by, he wanted to stay for your surprise party. You didn't suspect even a little? Surely you did, Clete. People coming and going on a Friday?"

"Yesterday was so chaotic, I forgot Friday was Cody's birthday," I said. "No, I had no idea. I thought it was Saturday once I heard dad downstairs."

"No, I was happy to be out of that place where they had me. Everything seemed like a party after that."

"You didn't fare as well as I did, honey. I worried about you. There was another trans lady with me and no one wanted to mess with us. We were the toughest girls there," Vanilla said. "Old Lil canned my ass. Pardon me," Vanilla said, holding her white gloved had to her mouth. "I'm used to working in a bar. I bet you can tell."

"Your just fine, Vanilla. If that's the worse word uttered in this house, I might be surprised, but it isn't," mom said.

Cody sat at the end of the table with Vanilla on one side and Floyd on the other. Mom went to the counter and lit the candles on the chocolate layer cake and she brought it back to the table.

We sang Happy Birthday again. Cody was mesmerized by the burning candles. He blew them out in one try. Then he ate a big piece of cake and a bowl of ice cream. It's the kind of lunch you dream about as a child. I think for a few minutes Cody was a child again. His eyes were wide and his smile warmed the room. I'm sure mom knew what a hit the party was with Cody.

"I want to thank you for saving my life, Cody. I want to make sure you know I'm grateful. When it became time to go, I realized I wasn't done yet. I'm glad you let them keep me alive. I feel pretty good. Being home always feels good," Floyd said.

The cake was moved back to the counter and the dishes were cleared. The presents were put on the table. Cody's eyes opened wide again. He wasn't expecting gifts and neither was I.

"I've been working on that forever," Vanilla said. "I have so many gowns to do, well, I finished it last week but I didn't get a chance to give it to you. I didn't know when your birthday was, but it'll be a nice present. Sort of like I remembered it was for your birthday, sweetheart."

The shirt was an elegant blue with ruffled sleeves and ruffles down the front to cover the buttons. When I looked into Cody's eyes, I realized the shirt was the same color as Cody's eyes. How remarkable. A handmade shirt that matched his eyes.

Mr. Bing gave Cody a Yamaha keyboard. It was beautiful.

"I've never given you anything, Cody. This is a serious keyboard for a serious musician. You'll be able to play anywhere you go now."

"You've given me more than anyone, Mr. Bing," Cody said. "I'd never have imagined what I could do if you hadn't showed me. You opened a door I didn't know existed. I'll make good use of this."

"Consider me thinking that keyboard is about all anyone needs to have a professional career," Luther said. "I ain't no good at buying someone a present."

"Luther, you're my guardian angel. It's the best gift of all. You don't know how good I felt hearing you when you entered the courtroom yesterday," Cody said. "Thank you. Thank you all."

"That do be quite a gift," Luther said. "You know I always have your back."

"I do," Cody said.

"I'm no good at gift buying either. My wife does that for me," Morgan said. "I wouldn't be here, except I wanted to be sure my client was OK. There's still the subject of how he was injured while in the hands of CPS, but that's for another day and this is a party."

"I'll be fine now," Cody said, recovering a little of his poise. "Being out of there is the present that means the most. I've never been that scared before and no one cared enough to check to see if someone was getting the shit kicked out of them, but I'm free and with the people I love and that makes being seventeen even better. Thanks all of you."

"The journal and pens are for you to write your story, Cody," Floyd said. "You are an extraordinary young man. You've helped keep me alive, while you've been growing up. It's difficult for me to see you as a child, because you're so thoughtful and always looking to help me. You're a good friend, a good cook, a musician, and you have a good heart. Thank you for sharing it with me."

We couldn't have a party without music. At first it was jazz in the background, but dad had speakers throughout the downstairs so the music could be heard no matter where you were in the house by flipping a switch.

By the time Mr. Bing brought out his trumpet, we were rocking and rolling. Morgan and Luther danced with mom and dad danced with Vanilla. Floyd tapped his toe but he stayed in his chair.

Cody went to school on his new keyboard and he was able to make whatever song he played recognizable. He sang a couple of songs and then he asked Vanilla to sing.

She sang, Unforgettable, and it was. She said it was Nat King Cole's version, but she wouldn't try to imitate his voice.

"That wouldn't be lady like," she said, but it was awesome.

I noticed Mr. Bing putting down his horn to listen to Vanilla once she sang the songs that were part of her performance at the Review..

First she sang two upbeat Aretha Franklin songs. Then she sang Billie Holiday. The room grew quiet as she sang.

I'd heard Vanilla sing and she had a lovely voice, but this was more like a performance and she raised the bar above the things I'd heard her sing in her apartment. Her voice was remarkably pure. It was obvious why she'd added Billie Holiday. It gave me even more respect for a woman who had come so far from her roots.

Dad's music system took over with easy listening jazz, after Vanilla sat down.

My father took a long look at Jerome Bing. I couldn't imagine how dad felt about having a man he'd admired for years in his home. Mr. Bing was his usual humble self. He did what he did and he did it as well as he could. It was what it was and nothing to get too excited about.

As we drank coffee and let the party wind down, Morgan was the first one to leave. He told Cody that they'd be in court for his emancipation hearing on Wednesday. He assured Cody that it was a technicality that Judge Robinson promised would end in Cody's favor.

He would get to speak as well as anyone else who had something to say. Mr. Pelham was not expected to be in court or to contest the action in any way. The hearing wouldn't last an hour and Cody would leave the courtroom with his fate in his own hands at last.

"What's the story with this Lil?" Mr. Bing asked. "Is she going to relent, realizing she is cutting off her nose to spite her face, or is she just ornery enough to stick to firing you?"

Vanilla smoothed her dress with her white gloved hand.

"Big Lil isn't given to admitting a mistake," Vanilla said. "She reminds me how lucky I am to have somewhere to perform. I think, she thinks, she's doing me a favor. Really, I guess she is. I wouldn't be singing anywhere if I wasn't singing at the Review."

"Big Lil has made a big mistake," Mr. Bing said, holding an unlit Marlboro in his lips.

He hadn't smoked a single Marlboro all afternoon. I was amazed.

"I don't undercut anyone's play, Ms. Vanilla, but you are a woman with talent. Your Billie Holiday is bone chillingly accurate. Don't get me wrong, I love Aretha and you do a good impression of her style, but I have something in mind if you want me to go on."

"Go ahead," Vanilla said.

"I have a band. I heard about them long before I went to investigate them. They're young. They're still learning. They'll be playing at Topsy's three days a week for the next month. If you agree to come and sing with this group, I'll approach them with a deal to bankroll a tour with you as the singer for the group," Mr. Bing said. "They don't currently have a singer. They didn't know they needed a singer. After hearing you sing, I think you are exactly what they need. I want you to tour with us. I'll pay you whatever Big Lil is paying you for the time being, and then you'll get part of everything the band earns. No guarantees, Ms. Vanilla, but I don't think you have anything to lose. Give it some thought and we'll stay in touch. I'll have you over to hear the Top Tones play," Mr. Bing said.

There in dad's music room an agreement was reached. Mr. Bing was going to tour with the Top Tones, giving his name to their performances, and Vanilla would be the Top Tone's lead singer.

"It will be the Top Tones with Jerome Bing on trumpet and vocals by Ms. Vanilla."

How cool was that?

We went upstairs early. We were both worn out.

"Happy birthday," I said. "It was a wonderful day. I'll buy you a present later."

Cody rolled in my arms, until his lips were on mine, only lightly, because of the pain from his fat lip.

"Don't you dare buy me anything. You are the best present I've ever had, Clete, and I love you."

"I love you too," I said.

We fell asleep in each other's arm.

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