When Shadows Pass

by Sean English

Chapter 25

Learning Has Many Sources (Part II)

Across the Atlantic, a meeting was about to take place at the same time that Elliot and Jason were arriving home from school. Simon Flavell sat in the office of the Assistant Director, Greg Coomer, a top-league official in charge of various social service programs for children, within the State of Tennessee. Although it was mid-morning, Simon kept a close eye on the time, looking at his watch with concern. He had been waiting a half-hour already, and he had only a half-hour remaining before he would need to leave. Torrential rains and other foul weather had slowed his arrival coming into Nashville earlier, and he had almost decided he might have to reschedule. But a call into Mr. Coomer's secretary had convinced him there would be ample time for at least a short meeting. Upon his arrival, he was greeted warmly by the man, but just as they sat down to chat, a rather urgent phone call caused him to step out of the office.

Simon fiddled absently with his phone, attempting to see if there were any available updates on his flight status. There were no public-based wireless connections however, and his data reception within the building was less than stellar. He had just put the device away when Mr. Coomer appeared again, closing the door behind him. "Simon, right? I must apologize profusely about that! It has been a rather hectic morning here, even for this early hour. As a rule, I don't even schedule to see anyone on days like this, but I knew your availability was limited. To be honest, I thought we should find a few minutes to at least get together, especially after our conversation on the phone the other day." The man shook his head and heaved a big sigh. "It has just been chaotic today, more so than usual, I'm afraid"

"I can appreciate that, sir. I have rather busy periods myself from time to time. I was hoping we could at least touch base," Simon replied.

Mr. Coomer sat down. "Now, if you will, briefly help me once again with the basics. With several things going on right now, I certainly do not want to mix up your details with other things going on. What I recall, is that you have a young man living with you, in England, who supposedly originated from here, in Tennessee, all while under our care. Is that right?"

"Yes, pretty much. His father, who was my brother, passed away in the Spring of last year. My brother left home when I was young, having a dispute of sorts with our father, and was never really heard from again afterwards."

"That's right, I do recall you telling me that before. And the boy's name was - hold a second, I have it here... Yes, a 'Jason D. Mathews' - right?"

"That's correct, Jason Dewayne Mathews. When my brother passed away, Jason was orphaned from that point on, with no living relatives remaining here in the States. My wife and I assumed he was placed into your foster care. I mean, we've corresponded a few times with someone, who we were led to believe was his case-worker. She certainly identified herself as working for the State of Tennessee, somewhere in the social services department. I think we assumed it was in some branch of the foster care system."

Mr. Coomer removed his glasses before sitting back in his chair. "I see. So, there seems to be a two-part mystery here. As we told you on the phone, Jason does not seem to be listed in any of our systems, so that is puzzling. I checked with several of our agencies and subgroups, including our foster management division, child protective services, social welfare monitoring, and more. None of them seem to have a match for him anywhere. So, that's mystery number one. By the way, I did take the liberty of having his passport information that you gave me, run through the federal records division. That turned out a little more fruitful, but albeit strange."

"How so?" Simon asked.

"Well, the social security number listed is associated with a Miss Amanda Davis, I think. She was a female who lived in Knoxville and would be just shy of 93 years of age today, if she were still living." Mr. Coomer smiled grimly and leaned forward again. "If memory serves, she passed away some 14 years ago. So that doesn't help as much as we'd like. Also, I don't know if you noticed it or not, but the originating address on his passport is not the same as you gave me. In fact, it belongs to a demolished house, on county property. From what I gather, no one has lived on the property at that address in close to 30 years."

Simon's grew concerned. "Really? No, we hadn't thought about that. I believe we gave you the address he recalled, however."

"Yes, and we had that checked out as well. It does exist, and it appears to be a house situated on roughly an acre of land. The timing is not too bad, as it sold a little less than a year ago according to county records. We're still gathering more details for that one, but it seems to fit the timeline for this narrative much better. We'll just have to wait and see." Mr. Coomer paused. "Another interesting point, is that we did find that a young man matching Jason's name and description, did indeed board a flight here in Nashville, connecting in Atlanta before transferring to England. It was dated late-August of last year, on a pre-purchased ticket. I make that statement because, since we didn't purchase it on any of our accounts, there are no records that exist beyond that."

Simon nodded. "Probably that would be because we purchased it." Seeing the look of surprise that met him, he continued. "One of the agreements made in all of the various arrangements, was that we had to purchase his ticket, one-way, with special escort. So, I did just that."

"That is very interesting, because normally the State is liable for those types of arrangements," Mr. Coomer mused. Shaking his head, he glanced back down at his paperwork. "Moreover, we also found an entry for a miscellaneous expenditure, corresponding to the time of that flight, equal to the amount of your receipt you showed to me. It was a rather large amount, with no recording for cause or receipt. Unfortunately, the approval signature is too degraded or poorly inscribed to gather anything further." The man looked up. "You say you paid for the flight, too? That points to possible internal fraud then, which makes this incident even more interesting." Hesitating, Mr. Coomer sat back before continuing. "I did make a call to White County, and the local services office there in Sparta. Naturally, they also claimed to have no records of Jason ever being in their care. There is, however, a log entry at the Sherriff's department, that shows two deputies did transport a young man, meeting Jason's general description, to Nashville. The time and details match those for this flight."

"Well, that's something then," Simon mused thoughtfully.

Mr. Coomer agreed. "So, we know, or at least I'm convinced, he isn't a ghost by any means. You can imagine, however, it caused me to become rather suspicious. I then called down to speak with the deputies, and for some odd reason, they were not available. In fact, it was discovered they were no longer employed there, which seemed ever more mysterious. I am awaiting a return call from the sheriff himself, to see if anything in those details was amiss."

"I agree, that does seem odd," Simon mused, thinking hard.

Mr. Coomer studied his guest closely. "Mr. Flavell, may I ask you something? Why are you just now bringing this to the attention of my office? I do not mean that to sound harshly, sir, not by any means. It just seems odd, if you'll forgive the expression. The timing is rather late in the game, isn't it?"

Simon cleared his throat and smiled. "I believe sir, it was all a bit of confusion on our end. You see, I assumed certain documents were either being handled here in the States, or perhaps through our school system. In the UK, the school districts have a bit more latitude in managing certain types of affairs overall. After Jason's arrival, I did sign a few documents that allowed him to be released to us, but I believe they were more for security purposes than anything else. But, you see, even though I expected more details and items to follow, that was the sum of it. Initially, my wife and I didn't think a lot of it. This is a first-time experience for us all in these matters, so we just trusted the governments and agencies were falling behind."

"I can see and understand that, and you're correct – we can get behind at times," Mr. Coomer conceded.

"I did try to correspond, almost from the beginning, with our contact over here," Simon continued. "I say I tried, however, only for the fact she never responded. We've heard nothing, from anyone, to any of our calls or requests, going on 5 months or more." Simon paused to reflect. "In addition, I'm afraid there are certain other aspects that have only recently come to light. Things that Jason has volunteered that, I assure you, have made us question all of this again. My wife and I felt and decided it was high time we started researching more aggressively."

Mr. Coomer nodded. "Again, I would perceive that favorably. What sort of questions, though, if I may ask?"

"Well, for one, we are seemingly Jason's only living relatives. That is how it came about for him to join us. We do not question this, nor are we worried about it in the slightest. There have been plenty of facts ascertained, both in the beginning and since, that solidify who he was and is. What I mean to say, sir, is that there is no doubt he is my brother's son, and he is welcomed by all of us in our home, with open arms. You see, as I've said before, I lost my brother when I was very young, at a time he left home and was never to be heard from again. Yet, it appears, he had found his way to the States, married, and had a decent life here."

"I understand, go on," Mr. Coomer replied, encouragingly.

"Well, when Jason arrived with us, however," Simon continued, "the boy had no possessions. I don't exaggerate that statement, sir. All he carried was nothing more than a backpack, and inside were a few underclothes and perhaps a change of street clothes. Please don't misunderstand me, it's not that we were looking or expecting anything of value, per se. Children orphaned simply by a disaster, or house fire, or even other uncommon means, can leave them with little to no possessions of any kind. We understand that, completely. But in Jason's case, he seemed to have been given nothing. No goods have ever found their way across the Atlantic, or any notice of their being put in storage or more. No matter how many inquiries I've made regarding this, they've all been ignored. Insofar as his status, he lost a parent – but he did not lose everything else in a catastrophe. He should have had something preserved, in the least. Pictures, toys, clothes – something that would still belong to him. Instead, sir, he had nothing. I even went so far as to contact the airline, but British Airways has no record of anything being sent over, either."

Simon sat up. "I guess what troubles me most, is that he has no history. In a sense, it's like it has been stolen, or robbed from him. With no contact again, since the day he arrived, it creates an uneasy feeling, one of peculiarity, to say the least. My wife and I at first thought perhaps my brother may have lived poorly here. Jason has told us things, however, even from his own point of view, that are a stark contrast of that opinion. In fact, details suggest my brother did reasonably well for himself. Forgive me, sir, but it's because of those 'clues', for lack of a better term, that just makes this all seem fishy, if you catch my drift."

"I see," Mr., Coomer replied, thoughtful.

"Perhaps we are just over-expecting things, and if so, I understand and apologize profusely, up front. As I stated, this is all rather quite new for us, as you can imagine. And I'll say it again, we're not looking at value or anything here-"

"But you want to preserve any 'history' he might still have, or possessions which are rightfully his," Mr. Coomer interjected. "Believe me, Mr. Flavell, I do understand this, and I find nothing wrong with that position at all. If I were in your shoes, I'd like to believe I would do the same."

Simon sighed in relief. "Thank you, sir, I really appreciate that." He then produced a printout from his folder and displayed it on the man's desk. "Here is something that may help, or not, depending. As I stated, my wife and I were led to believe, from early on, that we were dealing with someone in one of your agencies. This is a copy of one of the latter correspondences I attempted. You can see the date as being early December of last year. There was a total of 9, maybe 10 attempts made to reach this woman-"

"Geraldine Rose? I've personally not heard of her," Mr. Coomer remarked as he looked over the document.

"Neither has anyone else." Simon watched the surprise surface.

"What do you mean, no one else?" Mr. Coomer asked.

"Well, when I finally decided it was time act with a little more, ah, vigor, I began ringing the department there in White County. However, when I telephoned, no one there had heard of her, either." Simon paused, before continuing. "This was the individual whom we were in contact with initially. It was she who informed us all about young Jason, and his plight." Simon placed another, multi-page, document in front of the man. "You can see the correspondence we held with her, and the following exchanges. These are printed from my computer at the office where I'm employed, and can be authenticated there, if you need. It includes a full transcript of a rather lengthy chat I had with her, through that computer one evening. There is also a log where I spoke with her over the phone, but I'm afraid I did not record any of those conversations. That is highlighted from my mobile records, as shown here." Simon sat back. "For every intent and purpose, on our end at least, she seemed to be on the up-and-up, insofar as we could tell." Simon reached out again and flipped the printouts over to the back. "There, near the bottom, lists her credentials as they were presented to us."

Mr. Coomer replaced his glasses and turned to his computer. "Let's see here," he mused as he typed a few lines of entry into the system. Only seconds later, a prompt returned, causing him to furrow his brow. "We don't have any woman working for us, even remotely close by that name. At least, not working within any of our services divisions using this basic search." He shook his head. "As you stated, this mystery runs even deeper than we thought." He glanced at his wristwatch and then sighed. "You're running out of time, I know, and I think it's obvious this is going to take a while. Would you mind, perhaps, if we exchange direct emails and phone numbers? I apologize to you again, profusely. It is my fault our time is cut so short right now. I'll also be honest: I, personally, cannot jump on this until probably early next week. But what I can and I do is get one of my associates involved right away. We all need a few answers, it seems. Who is this Ms. Rose? How did young Jason get into the system with her in the first place? What happened after his father, your brother, passed away? Where is the boy's mother in all of this?" The man looked up. "I can also tell you, regarding his effects. State law here normally puts those items in trust, and holds them until our youth come of age, which is generally around 18 years old."

Simon sat up straighter. "Really? That is of some comfort to know, then. As to his mother, I believe I can answer that last one for you. Jason told us she died when he was younger, perhaps from an illness of some sort. From what we've gathered, he and his father were living alone for the past 8 to 9 years."

Mr. Coomer pondered that for a moment. "Okay, that answers a small piece of this puzzle." He looked up from his desk. "Is there anything else you can tell me, right now, that you feel might be of help? Otherwise, we'll wait and do some corresponding over the next week or so."

"Just one thing comes to mind that I believe might be of some significance," Simon replied. "When Jason came to us, he was, ah, very emotionally withdrawn. Not just from entering a new world, I believe, but from something more. It was our discovery after the fact, unfortunately, that he was recovering from a very drastic ordeal of sorts. You see, there were medical reports that made their way over, through the school system, that were shared with us. The reports showed he had been in a hospital here for some length of time. Unfortunately, he was treated for having been harshly molested."

"Now, that IS very interesting. Do you, by chance, know which hospital?" Mr. Coomer asked.

"No sir, we don't. My wife is working to get a pertinent copy of those records, however, and once received we'll pass them on to you, if you desire," Simon offered.

Mr. Coomer studied the ceiling for a moment. "Yes, very much so, thank you. Someone would have had to pay for those services and treatment, so there should be a record somewhere we might correlate. Or, if not, the hospital information, or a Doctor's name – something might give us a clue."

Simon nodded, and then stood. "I'm sorry, Mr. Coomer, but I really do have to be going. I want to sincerely thank you for seeing me, especially on such short notice. Could I, perhaps, have your business card, or something with your contact information?" he asked, handing over his own. "On the front is both my office phone and personal mobile, as well as my email address. I would welcome any conversation, day or night, at any hour necessary. Plus, I'll try to see if I can gather more details by the time we speak again."

"You're very welcome," Mr. Coomer smiled, supplying his own card to the man. "May I ask for clarity on one last item? You said you learned of his treatment from other, more outside sources. Has the boy not spoken of this?"

Simon shook his head. "He has not, I'm afraid. At least, not to myself or my wife. I suspect he may have confided some details in one, if not both, of our sons – but I am uncertain in that regard right now. We have been giving him some space for a while, as he seems to be a well-matured individual for his age. We have all thought, perhaps, he was on a road of dealing with it all the same, and to be frank, I feared that pushing too hard, too soon, might be detrimental. I believe he was, and still is, in a stage of healing. I also believe he is learning whom he can trust again. That, sir, is a rather lengthy story, and not one I can convey in the time we have here now. Suffice it to say, however, we're working with him slowly, but we've been making a fair amount of progress, too."

"I understand. I don't mean to sound insensitive, but it may be necessary for you to extract more details. I'll leave that for you, however, to contend with for the time being." Mr. Coomer extended his hand. "In the meantime, I'll see what we can do on this end. We should get back with you by mid-week next at the latest."

"That would be splendid! Thank you, sir!" Simon acknowledged, shaking the hand firmly.

"I also want to thank you for coming in," Mr. Coomer added. "From what I understood, you flew down here last night from, Wisconsin, I think?" When Simon nodded, he added, "It is always a greater pleasure to deal with these things in person, and in your case, all the better. I appreciate the effort, wholeheartedly, especially getting through this weather and all we're having. Do you have a rental car, or how are you getting back to the airport?"

Simon shook his head. "I was just planning to get a cab, if I could."

Mr. Coomer shook his head. "You could, but I have a better idea. If you will go downstairs to the front desk and give them your name, they'll watch out for you. I'll have a car there within 10 to 12 minutes, to get you on your way."

Simon smiled in surprise. "Really? I don't want to trouble you-"

"It is no trouble, sir, and it is the least I can do under these circumstances. Thank you, again, for coming in. We'll speak again soon," the man finished.

Simon smiled back as he collected his coat. "And to you, thank you for everything else. Good day to you!"

Friday morning arrived, not unlike most other mornings of that week. It did, however, have one exception to note. When the boys were gathered in first period, waiting for class to start, things were not quite the same. Ron, Elliot and Jason were chatting over things in general, but Scott had hung back in an unusually quiet manner. It wasn't long before Jason noticed. "Hey? What's up man? Is something wrong?" he whispered to the teen.

Instead of replying however, Scott sort of shrugged just as their teacher entered the room. The reaction left Jason feeling confused, but unable to pursue the matter further. Throughout the whole period, Jason watched Scott closely, who was only half-heartedly paying attention. An eerie feeling settled upon him, and a profound sense that things were not right remained at the forefront of his thoughts. Jason's intuition was confirmed when, near the end of class, Scott carefully slipped a piece of paper to him. Using the utmost care to open it indiscreetly, Jason read its contents.

[ I'm sorry Jason, I should not have done that. I just learned before school this morning that we are moving again. 2 weeks. ]

Jason looked up in total surprise and met Scott's gaze. He immediately sympathized with the teenager, but Jason didn't know what he could say or do. He inconspicuously forwarded the note to Elliot, who read it and noticeably groaned. Their teacher might have called him out just then, if it were not for the ringing of the class bell. "Two weeks? Isn't that, like, quick?" Elliot hissed across the space toward their friend, as he packed his book and supplies together.

Scott nodded glumly. "Yeah. Turns out Mum and Dad have known about it for a while, though. They just decided I didn't fucking need to know about it until this morning." His tone was measured and level, but there was an element of raw emotion that betrayed both anger and annoyance. "I mean, just when I start to make some good friends, and get settled in here, you know? Then we have to fucking go and pack up, and then move and all!"

Ron overheard the last remarks as he made his way toward the door. Stopping, he expressed curiosity about what was going on. Elliot quietly showed him the note, which the boy read quickly and then looked up with a sadness in his eyes. "I feel for you, Scott. That's a bum rap, for sure." He moved over to stand beside the youth. "Don't know what to say, though."

Jason agreed. "Yeah Scott, I don't know what to say either."

The wheelchair-bound teen just smiled wistfully. "Sorry guys, I know it's a downer. Piss and pee and all that. I shouldn't have let it get to you or me. Besides," he added, looking straight at Ron. "It's your birthday, right?"

"Well, technically it's tomorrow, but yeah, close enough," Ron replied.

Scott raised a fist to bump with him. "Well, technically or not, happy birthday man, from me! Here, I have a little something for you, too." Ron started to object, but Scott was quick to shove a small, odd-sized cardboard envelope into his hand. "This isn't much, trust me, but I know how much you like gaming, right? Well, I went out on the internet last weekend and found all these eBook files on Warhammer and stuff, and then just started downloading them altogether. Some are pretty elaborate looking, although I admit I don't know a lot about it. Too many charts and maps and all that stuff. Anyway, there is probably around a 100 or so on there, maybe more."

Ron was so surprised, he stopped in his tracks, staring incredulously. "Seriously?" He stared at the makeshift envelope for a few seconds and then placed the disc inside his pack. "Wow, thanks man! Really, thanks!" Although the teen grinned sheepishly, the gratitude was genuine.

"You're welcome. See you later, okay?" Scott replied. Ron nodded, and then the group parted as they entered the hall.

"You guys go on in, okay? I think I'm going to go to the loo," Scott spoke up as they entered another hallway. Elliot and Jason both glanced down and acknowledged him, and then entered their next classroom. Moments later, the bell rang and class began as usual.

After a brief period, Scott had yet to join them, and as the minutes dragged on Jason was beginning to feel odd again. Looking at Elliot, his cousin must have been thinking something similar, so as Jason saw him nod slightly, he took the initiative. Getting up, he approached their teacher, who stopped to watch him. Whispering quietly into her ear, she nodded and walked over to her desk. Procuring a hall pass for him, she motioned toward the door before returning to the board and continuing with the rest of the class. Leaving the room, Jason made his way to the nearest bathroom, but found no one inside. Growing concerned, he started looking about. By mere chance, he noticed the exit doors leading outside of the school were ajar. Approaching them, Jason was relieved when he saw Scott sitting alone outside on the landing. The youth was staring off into seeming nothingness.

Jason walked out and stood by his friend. "Sheesh, Scott, what are you doing out here in the cold for? It's freezing!"

Scott looked up and just shrugged. "No reason, really," he replied after a moment. "Sorry, I just didn't feel like doing class right now, that's all."

Jason stood there watching him, but very quickly began to shiver in the early morning wind. He leaned in closer. "Come on, Scott, you can't stay out here. Let's go back in and, well, we can talk some. Okay?" When he saw the teen sigh deeply and nod in agreement, Jason grasped the wheelchair from behind and worked on getting them both back inside. Once they were sheltered inside the main entrance, Jason looked about. They did not have to go far when, off to the left, he saw an empty classroom. Steering his friend inside, he closed the door and looked about. Observing a short bench nearby, he grabbed it and pulled it up close to the wheelchair, before plopping down.

Scott said nothing for the first couple of minutes. Jason waited patiently, however, watching his friend closely. It was obvious there was something stirring within Scott, and it was no stretch of the imagination to guess what it was about. Jason felt sad, knowing the news must have hit their friend hard. Unsure of what to say or do, he decided to just wait in the silence. In the interim, however, he moved his legs to rub against that of his friend. He wasn't sure if Scott would feel the contact directly, but he hoped it could be felt on the inside, and that his friend would know that Jason cared. Scott looked down and, surprisingly shifted so he could press back. That was when Jason was finally rewarded by hearing his friend sigh.

When Scott spoke, his voice was wistful and soft. So soft, in fact, that Jason had to strain to order to hear the teen. "I'm okay, I promise. It's just, like I said before, the shock of it all. It serves me right, I guess. I mean, I've been through this before enough as it is, so I should know better, right? I just... It's one of the reasons I never let people get very close to me, you know?"

Jason nodded, whispering back. "Yeah, I understand. Me and Elliot, we kind of messed that up, I guess."

"No – you didn't. Never think that, Jason." Scott paused briefly before going on. "I think it hurts more this time though, because... Because I've just found you two, and I was really beginning to feel like maybe, I had a place in this thing after all. This thing without being some crip in somebody's party. You and Elliot, you did more for me that weekend than you'll ever know. You guys gave me something awesome - you gave me fun and everything, all while letting me just be me." He gazed onward at his friend, his eyes watering up. "That meant something to me, Jason. It just hurts, you know? It just fucking hurts, like hell."

Jason only sat for a few seconds, before sliding forward and, carefully, pulling the youth up in his chair so he could embrace him. Once close, Scott's façade disappeared as he buried his face into Jason's shoulder. Quietly, the teen started crying uncontrollably, and Jason held him as gently as he could, rubbing his back. For some, it might have been an uncomfortable situation; not for Jason, however. This was someone in pain, and who was dealing with a lot of things all at once – no different from times Jason had already faced. It wasn't a hard stretch for him to realize that Scott needed to let it out, so he held his friend close. The room was quiet, silent with only the occasional sobs that filled the air. Rubbing his back, Jason listened to the sadness that reflected yet another side of his friend, one that had only been hinted at rarely before. Jason was glad he went looking for, and found, him. He could at least be there for the moment, so that Scott didn't have to be alone. There were neither words of comfort, nor words of encouragement that came to him. So, in its place, Jason just tried to comfort the teen in the only way he knew how.

A few moments passed before Scott's anguish subsided, but when it did, the teen pulled back and sat up, blushing and clearly embarrassed. "Sorry man. Piss and vinegar, I guess. I shouldn't have done that. I shouldn't have lost control."

"Why? Because we're boys?" Jason admonished him. "Scott, listen. I've seen and played with your monster dick, and even gave you a blow job to go with it, too. Are you really going to sit there and tell me, now, that you don't trust me?"

Scott scoffed, blushing even further. "It's not that, Jason," he whispered. "It's not the trust, not that at all."

"Then what?" When his friend didn't reply, Jason tried another route. "You think it's not okay to cry or something? Because your Dad tells you that shit? Man, you should have seen me when I first arrived. Elliot had to really be patient with me for a while, until I got a hold of myself anyway." He straightened up so he could look at Scott fully. "I'll tell you a secret, Scott. Sorry to break the news, man, but you're just as human as I am."

That made Scott giggle. It was a thankful sign, too, because Jason saw the youth was beginning to feel better. Scott looked at the floor for another moment before looking up and speaking again. "We're going back to the States this time, you know. Somewhere in Oklahoma, I think."

"What? That's fantastic! But, uh, you better buy some long underwear somewhere along the way. It gets cold there in the winter!" Jason grinned at him, trying to be more cheerful than he felt. "Bad joke, I know. But hey, look on the bright side. At least you won't be cramped up out there. You'll have a lot more room to do wheelies, and get into races or other stuff! Oh, and get some decent American food, too! Not that the food here is bad, but just wait till you see the difference, like with steaks and stuff!"

Scott snorted. "Yeah, I guess." He looked up into Jason's eyes. "But you know something? I'd trade it all, all of it, for just a few more months with you guys. You, Elliot, even Ron. He seems pretty cool."

Jason smiled at him. "He is, and yeah, I know. It sounds cool, but-"

"No buts, I... never mind, I just, I'll be okay," Scott concluded. "Like I said, I needed a little bit of time to just reset I guess."

Jason looked thoughtful for a moment. "Look, it's pretty crappy and all, but if its life, there is not much you can do about those things, right? I learned that lesson the hard way, but yeah, I know how you feel. Sometimes you just go and make the best of it. You'll find new friends, and who knows, you'll probably end up forgetting all about us." Jason smiled, another attempt at light humor surfacing.

Scott, however, didn't buy into that one. "No way, Jason. Never," he replied softly. "You guys have no idea what you've done for me."

"Maybe not, but I think I do, Scott," Jason replied. "You and me, we're not that different, you know." He hesitated, before adding. "You know, in a way, I envy you. I mean, I know it will all be new to you again and everything, but America is different. Once you adjust, you'll see it's not really all that bad. I know, because I came from there, remember?"

Scott thought about that, then looked at Jason earnestly. "I wish we could take you back with us, you know? We could take you back to your home."

Jason was moved by that sentiment, realizing his friend was serious. "T-thanks, but… my home is here, now, with Elliot and Derek, and my aunt and uncle. As much as I might get homesick sometimes, my life is different now. I know, I might get to go back some day, either to visit or to live there again. Right now, though? Honest?" He shook his head.

Scott nodded. "Yeah, I understand, Jason." Once again, the teen hesitated before looking up. "Promise me something, though? Please?"

"If I can, sure," Jason asked.

"Promise me if you ever do come over, you'll at least try to find me? Or call me, or something?" Scott whispered. "Elliot, too, if he comes over?"

Jason grinned. "You know I will. I'll even give you a pinky promise!" Holding his hand out, Scott looked at him strangely.

"A w-what?"

Jason laughed, then grasped his friend's hand and arranged it so that their last fingers clasped in a hook. "It's probably just an American thing, but … it's a kind of symbol, promising something we won't forget. Scott, we're not going to forget you, I swear. I'm going to get an email account before long, and so will Elliot, and when you do, too, we'll stay in touch for a long, long time. Besides," Jason smirked. "I want to hear all about your first time, with that fat rod of yours."

Scott blushed. "Seriously?" He looked up, his expression clouded in doubt. "Uh, what if it isn't, like, with a girl?"

Jason shrugged. "I don't care, I swear."

Scott grinned before leaning forward, closer to his friend. "You know, I'll tell you. Honest. I'd tell you guys anything you want to know."

Jason leaned in and met him, their foreheads touching briefly. "I know you would, Scott." He giggled before pulling back. "Listen, you know we all like you, right? That hasn't changed. You're still here, and we're still here. Let's make the best of it we can." He paused, thinking. "The next few days, you won't go into it alone. I promise."

It was a full minute before Scott finally smiled and offered the proverbial fist, which Jason gladly bumped, watching his friend finally relax. "You promised, though, right? You'll stay in touch with me?"

Jason grinned at him. "Just keep our mobile numbers and send us a text when you have an email account, okay? You give me the chance, I'll write you some of the longest emails you've ever seen, about all us guys here, if you want me to."

"That would be so awesome, Jason," the boy whispered back. "Thanks!"

Looking about nonchalantly, Jason ventured. "Do you want to go back to class, or would you rather do something else?" Sniffing, he added, "I don't care to play hooky, if that's what you want to do."

"Play hooky? Does that mean, like, skip?" Seeing Jason nod, Scott considered it, but then shook his head. "There's a test next week, right? I guess we better go back. If I'm leaving, I probably should try to get the best scores I can, while I'm here, before everything changes."

Jason smiled and watched as his friend then turned and wheeled himself back out into the hallway. As they approached the classroom, he stopped and looked up. "Thanks man, I owe you one. I really, fucking owe you - big time. Thanks for coming and checking on me. That is something I won't forget, I swear it."

"Nah, you don't owe me anything Scott," Jason replied. Quickly glancing about, he reached one arm around his friend's shoulders and squeezed him. "Remember? We've got each other's back – always."

Scott smiled, grasping the arm and squeezing it himself before letting go.

That evening, Elliot and Jason arrived at the address Ron had given them that morning. Elliot rang the doorbell while Jason looked around. It was not unlike the street where he now lived, the buildings still looking narrow and compressed against one another. This flat, however, seemed as if it was more recently constructed and modernized, at least from the outside. It, and the ones nearby, didn't show the weathered age that other buildings in the street displayed. Glancing back, he saw Natalie still stopped on the street, waiting until she was sure the boys were at the right place before driving off. There was a car coming up behind her in the narrow lane, and Jason knew from experience it would be difficult to pass as it was.

Just then, the door opened, and Ron stood in the entrance with a wide grin on his face. "Hey, sup guys? Come on in!" He waved at Mrs. Flavell, who waved back. Reassured, she moved on as the boys entered the flat.

Once inside, Ron closed the door and acquired their coats, laying them across a nearby chair. Jason could not help but quickly look about and observe their surroundings, before Ron led them across the room and into a long hallway. The layout, although similar, was inverted compared to the Flavell homestead, with the hallway stretching down the left side of the abode. The front room was a spacious and inviting family room, equipped with sofas and easy chairs, as well as a nicely arranged entertainment center. The room was brightly painted - a contrast Jason noted immediately in contrast to the Flavells more darker hues and tones. Jason also noted a large number of pictures hanging on the walls, comprised mostly of Ron and his family. As the three continued into and down the hallway toward the back, Jason also noted that there were no ceiling lights anywhere. Instead, the rooms and passageway were lit using a variety of tabletop or wall-mounted lamps. That was interesting, Jason thought, but he decidedly liked the effect it gave throughout the residence.

Ron was still limping, though not as profoundly as the day before. He led them through to the rear of the flat, where it opened into a large room that combined both the kitchen and dining area as one. Both Elliot and Jason's eyes widened, however, as they observed a large table-top, containing a stainless-steel griddle inset, that was set against the far corner of the room. Seats were arranged all around the front, accommodating several places comfortably. Mr. Fulcrum, wearing a white apron and already standing behind the grill, grinned widely as the trio entered.

"Ah, finally! Our remaining guests have arrived! Come in, come in! So, now I can get started!" the man ventured, indicating open seats for the two new arrivals. They sat as instructed, joining Ron and pulling their plates and utensils up closer. Elliot and Jason glanced around, and were introduced to Ron's mother, his sister and her boyfriend, and an aunt with her 8-year-old daughter. There were also two older boys in attendance - teens who, surprisingly, appeared to be twins. They surmised these were Ron's cousins, as he had previously mentioned.

Jason leaned over and whispered quietly into Ron's ear. "Um, are we the only ones here from, like, the school, or the game shop?"

Ron nodded and grinned. "Yep, you're it! Everyone else here is my family. Well, besides my sister's toy-boy." He leaned in closer to whisper. " I had no say in the matter, but oh well..."

Elliot and Jason exchanged glances and grinned at each other. They heard the annoyance in Ron's voice, but they let the matter drop. The boys turned their attention back to Mr. Fulcrum, he cleared his throat before speaking aloud.

"Now, boys, we are doing something a little different tonight. We just installed and set up this griddle in here, and believe me, it has been a long time in coming!"

"Yeah, over a year!" interjected Ron's sister in an annoying tone, but Mr. Fulcrum waved the interruption off.

"Still, are any of you familiar with what is called Hibachi-style cooking? No? Well, I was fortunate enough to go to Japan a few years ago on a business trip, and there I was introduced to something that, even to this day, I still find amazing!" Mr. Fulcrum beamed proudly. "So, for Ron's birthday tonight, I am going to try and replicate a Hibachi-styled meal, as close as I can, for each of you! It is not the same as what the Japanese do, but then again, I am no sushi maker, or expert at culinary arts. I think this, however, is a good compromise. Anna and I have already been practicing, you see? We've been getting all the ingredients together for this special occasion tonight, too! With Ron's blessing, of course! I mean, it is his birthday, right?" The man beamed proudly as he spoke, and it was refreshing, Jason thought, to see him in such good spirits.

"So, you're going to ... cook? In front of us and everything?" asked one of the twins. The older man grinned his acknowledgement.

"Yes, we are each going to sample some chicken, some beef and some shrimp, along with some special fried rice and grilled vegetables. And all of it is going to be cooked right in front of you, before your very eyes!" He glanced quickly at the look of doubt that crossed the teen's face. "And no, I will not poison anyone! Come on, Jeffery, even if I burn the flat down, we will have fun, yes!" The assembled group laughed aloud.

At first it sounded strange, but the idea intrigued the boys. Before long, both Elliot and Jason were watching the man with great interest. Mr. Fulcrum began by setting a large quantity of white rice onto the grill, before adding butter, eggs and scallions, as well as a variety of sauces into the mix. It was a formidable concoction, but as each ingredient was added, the aroma that drifted toward them would change slightly. Before long, it began filling the room, and everyone's appetite began to get the better of them. "Ah, you see?" the man noticed, grinning widely. "The rice will be ready in mere moments! It smells good, yes?"

"Where did you learn to do all of this, Mr. Fulcrum?" Elliot asked, leaning forward again with keen interest.

"Mostly the internet," Ron replied for his father, to which the older man nodded.

"Ron is partially correct. We also did have guest here, ah, some weeks before Halloween last year. He was authentic Hibachi chef at one time in life. Mama and I have talked extensively, long before, about remodeling the kitchen and such, but he interested me in the idea I could put one of these in, too. He gave us much advice, you see, and told us we could do a variety of things with it. So, I still corresponded with him on occasion, and he helped us find this grill at a, how you say, reasonable price. Then, also Ron and I were in London, early in December I think, and we visited a Hibachi grill there. Questions, I always ask questions, but - they answer happily for me, I think. So, it's not easy to learn, because it takes some practice. But it's also not that difficult, either." The man grinned, but shrugged. "I do my best not to overcook your food, but if I do, then we fix more!"

Everyone around the grill laughed with him again, and then light conversation broke out amongst the group. In the meantime, Mr. Fulcrum finished cooking the rice, and began passing it out onto the plates around the table. Following Ron's cue, the rest of the guests picked up their forks and began sampling the steaming hot dish.

"Oh, wow!" Jason exclaimed. One of the twins agreed. "This is quite... GOOD!"

Mr. Fulcrum beamed. "You've not seen anything yet, though! Here come the vegetables, and the meats! We cannot have a dinner without the meats!" With that, the man wiped down the griddle and then placed several chicken breasts, shrimp, and cuts of steak onto the grill. He added butter and squeezed lemons across all, before adding seasoning. While constantly flipping the filets, he also prepped the vegetables until they were tender and steamed, before serving them to his guests. The meats were cooking quickly, so the man reduced the heat.

The rest of the dinner was a treat, almost magical in comparison to the usual, everyday fare. Never had Jason or Elliot been exposed to this type of meal, and they each found it fascinating to watch. For everyone present, it was a special event all to itself, having their food prepared before them, and then served hot from the griddle. Ron was even allowed to join his father behind the grill, and together they prepared the combination of fresh mushrooms, zucchini and other vegetables. The birthday teen seemed more alive than either Elliot or Jason had ever seen yet, and it was obvious he was having an immense amount of fun. He joked with his father and his guests, chopped onions and playfully left the cut broccoli with his father. "Me and broccoli do NOT get along," he opined, which made the rest of the group laugh. "It's true," his mother stated, rolling her eyes. When the teen returned to his seat, he purposefully bumped shoulders with Jason, pushing him into Elliot. They all three giggled, then dug into the food as it was delivered hot and fresh.

When all was done, they each overly felt stuffed. The dinner was not quite finished yet, however. Mrs. Fulcrum, who had quietly stepped away at some point unbeknownst to the group, suddenly appeared. In her hands she carried a radiantly decorated cake, bearing 15 brightly burning candles. At her appearance, the crowd suddenly broke out and began singing Happy Birthday, not once, but twice! Ron blushed deeply, but nodded and thanked everyone, accepting everything good-naturedly.

When they had finished their meal, Ron stood and dragged the other four boys, and his little cousin, back through the flat. Arriving again in the front room, they found a Nintendo Wii already hooked up and playing on the TV, ready for action. For the next hour or more, the boys and the young girl played, taking turns with bowling and tennis, working both individually and in teams. The adults finally joined them, with Mrs. Fulcrum carrying disposable plates, containing additional food left over from the feasts. At that point, all game play halted as she passed them around. Finally, Mr. Fulcrum stood in the center of the room to address his guests.

"Ronald's mother and I first want to thank all of you for coming here, tonight. As you already know, it is a rare treat for me to enjoy an evening at home, but I so welcomed the opportunity. I am quite proud we were able to spend it with you. Although he is not here, I also want to thank the twins' father, for he came down with them to watch the shop for us. As you might imagine, it is not easy in our little world to have many family functions such as this, but when we can, it is my wife and I who are eternally grateful." He turned pleasantly to Ron. "Now, tomorrow, you turn 15. I must admit, however, it seems only yesterday you were bouncing on our knees, no? We hope... No, we pray, dear son, that not only tomorrow, but the whole upcoming year, turns out to be something very special for you. Even more special than any year you have yet lived. Always remember, however, these are your prime years to enjoy just being a boy, so we both bid you to enjoy being a teenager. Just-" The man lowered his voice in a conspiratorial tone. "We have one small favor to ask, please. Try not to give Mama, and me, any more of the grey hair than you have to, hmm?"

The entire room filled with laughter, before Ron walked over to both of his parents and hugged then dearly. Then surprisingly, he went around the room and repeated the gesture for each of his guests, including his sister's boyfriend. It was clear the older boy was unaccustomed to such displays of affection, and Ron didn't necessarily go out of his way to linger with either him or his sister for that matter. In fact, Ron's sister found it amusing, standing with her hand on her hip, cocked to one side, as she watched him.

The smirking expression on Ron's face, however, betrayed to Elliot and Jason that he had performed the act purposefully. Regardless, however, he included everyone in the brief display of appreciation, and the sincerity of the act did not go unnoticed. It might have been Jason's imagination, but it seemed when the youth arrived at where Elliot stood, the two embraced a little longer than the others had. It became even more apparent, however, when it was Jason's turn. Jason returned the embrace warmly, enjoying the feel of the other youth in that brief encounter. Enough so that he felt slightly disappointed when they finally separated.

Once the teen had finished the rounds, the twins walked over and presented Ron with an envelope. "What's this?" Ron asked, to which they only smiled in silence. Opening the fold, he found money inside. "Sheesh guys, I asked for no presents!" he whined, but then smiled and thanked them each again, giving them a proverbial fist to bump. Then, he discovered his aunt had also given him a birthday card, which he opened and found a gift card inside. Shaking his head, he hugged her a second time, giving her a kiss on the cheek as well.

Jason decidedly coughed then, getting the attention of their friend. Walking over, he addressed him directly. "Now, before you start saying anything," Jason started, his voice normal and even as it carried throughout the room. "This isn't much, and you may not even like it, okay? Elliot and I thought about it though, and this, well… Even though you said not to bring anything, we wanted you to have something."

Ron's eyebrows rose in curiosity. He opened the offered envelop, and inside he found two fresh, American $2 bills. "Wow!" the boy spoke softly, before looking up to his Dad, who walked over to inspect the prize closer.

"I believe, yes, these are somewhat rare? American money?"

Jason first shrugged, but then nodded. "I don't know about being rare, sir. I do know they were not, like, commonly used like the rest of our money was, though."

"Aye," the older man acknowledged, smiling down at his son. "They may say two-dollars, but I believe they are worth more than that as collector's items," the man intoned. He looked up and stuck out his hand to shake with both teens' in return. "At least, if not now, they will be in years down the road. They are truly special, I believe," he added warmly before returning to stand with his wife. Ron only stood in silence, unable to speak just then. He did, however, give them both a warm smile.

As the others prepared to depart, Ron sat down on the sofa, where Elliot and Jason joined him. "Guys, I wish... I mean, thanks. Honest, thanks," he finally voiced.

Elliot grinned. "It's all we could think of that could be a gift, without it being a gift. You know?"

"He means, a gift that isn't expensive, or like a real big birthday gift thing. We thought maybe that's what you were trying to avoid," Jason added.

Ron nodded. "It was." He looked up. "Where did you get them, though?"

"Uncle Simon brought back 6 of them when he went to the States on a trip, just before Christmas," Jason answered. "Not sure how he found them, though."

Elliot spoke up again. "Just so you know, Jason is the one who actually thought of it." He yelped, however, as his cousin smacked his shoulder.

"You weren't supposed to tell that!" Jason chided him.

"Okay, okay!" Elliot grinned, then leaned back into his while Ron looked on in amusement. "We just decided, well, we still have one, and we wanted you to have one, too. From each of us."

"It doesn't matter. I still really appreciate this. Pops and I have some American money down at the game shop. We keep it for sentimental reasons, mostly. You know, collectors' items. But we don't have anything like these." Just then, his aunt and the twins were getting ready to leave, so Ron rose to bid them farewell. Jason noted that, as he watched the group, Ron's sister and her boyfriend were nowhere to be found now. Somehow, they had sneaked away.

After the others departed, the three were all that remained with Ron's parents. Mr. Fulcrum observed them. "Mama and I are going up the stairs now. You boys play as you like, you will not bother us or be bothered, I think. Do give your parents our deepest appreciation for letting you come, and for being here tonight. I know Ronald..." He paused, beaming at his son. "I know Ron really wanted you here, and we wanted to make the evening special for everyone. I am happy it turned out as well as it did."

"It was great, Mr. Fulcrum. It really was special, trust us," Jason offered, and Elliot nodded profusely beside him. Both adults bid them good night and then and disappeared.

The three boys returned to the sofa and sat silently, watching the TV screen. At that moment, it was playing demo runs of Mario Kart, the kind shown in stores designed to entice people to take notice, while having no one around to play. Ron sat between Elliot and Jason at first, and for a while he was quiet, obviously lost in thought. The other two teens sat back looking onward, wondering what was going to happen next.

When their friend did speak, it was so unexpectedly that it startled them both. "Did you two know I'm adopted?"

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