Wayne has Friday off because there’s a teachers meeting at Edison High.
He hears a tentative knock at the front door
and thinks it’s either United Parcel Service or the mailman.
It isn’t either of those.
It was winter, mid-January, and very cold outside. There were periods of rain and even some hail — which was exciting because that didn’t happen in Lakewood very often. It was a Friday and I was at home alone.
There was knock on the front door. It was almost tentative; I wouldn’t have heard it if I hadn’t been walking into the living room. I opened the door expecting to see a package left by United Parcel Service or the mailman. Instead there was a kid with a mop of disheveled blond hair standing there. He looked maybe 11 or 12 years old, and he looked down as I said “Hi.” I was expecting an answer, but he continued looking down and said nothing, and I wondered what was going on.
“Hi! Did you want something?” That was pretty lame, but I’d never had anyone knock on our door and then not talk to me.
I decided to stand there and wait for the kid to answer me. I didn’t have anything better to do at the moment anyway. Like I said, it was cold out, in the low 30’s, which for Southern California is like below zero somewhere else. The kid was dressed more for summer: shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers with no socks — that was it. His hands were pushed into the pockets of his shorts, and his arms were pulled tight against his sides. He looked cold, real cold. Finally, he looked up.
“Please, could I come in for a minute? Just to get warm?” He looked like he was going to cry.
“Sure. Come on in.” I stepped back and pulled the door all the way open. He stepped inside, and I closed the door.
“You look cold.” Jeez, that was lame, too. It was obvious he was cold. But I didn’t know what else to say.
The kid looked at me. “Uh-huh.”
“Well, you want some hot chocolate or something? I can make it for you. That’ll warm you up.”
He looked at me and smiled, just a little smile, but a smile nonetheless. “Sure! Uh, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Not at all.”
He stood there holding his arms crossed close to his chest. I realized that he must be half frozen. Maybe he’d been outside for a long time.
“You’re not wearing much for this kinda weather. I’ve got a sweater you can put on. It’s gonna be too big for you, but it’s heavy, and it’ll warm you. And I have some socks you can put on, too.”
“Thanks. I’m freezing.” As if to prove it, he suddenly shivered violently for just a moment.
“I’m Wayne Anderson. What’s your name?”
“Matt Bradbury.” Then he shivered again and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Okay, Matt, come with me. I’ll get you that sweater.” I led him to my room and opened the closet. I still had my old letterman’s sweater from Bancroft Middle School, and I pulled it out of its hanging bag. It was made of heavy blue knit fabric with red piping around the waistband, sleeves, and collar. It was way too small for me now, but I’d kept it because it had the first sports letter I’d ever received, a red ‘B’ outlined in white for Bancroft sewn on the left side pocket down near the waistband. Images of a football and a tennis racket were in the vertical bar of the B and my name ‘Wayne’ was sewn in white script above the pocket. I thought it still looked very cool.
“Okay, let’s see if this’ll fit you.”
Matt’s eyes got huge as he looked at the sweater, then he looked at me.
“You sure you want me to wear this? It’s too nice.”
“I’m sure. It’s the only thing I have that’ll be close enough to your size. It’s from when I was at Bancroft Middle School.” I held it with the inside facing him. “Come on, turn around and let’s put it on.”
Matt seemed a little reluctant, but he turned and held his arms back. I slipped the sweater on him. It was too big, his hands were hidden inside the sleeves, and the bottom band of the sweater was down to his knees. But it fit him better than any of my current clothes. I’m six-three and wear extra-large-long size clothes. I’m not fat; it’s mostly muscle. I’m on the varsity football team and wrestle in the heavyweight class for Edison High School.
Matt turned around and pulled the sweater around him, then pulled the collar up to cover his neck. His hands were inside the sleeves, but he still tucked them under his armpits. He looked at me, grinning. “It’s perfect. It’s really warm. Thanks. This helps a lot.”
“Here, I can roll up the sleeves for you.”
“Uh, I kinda like it with the sleeves covering my hands. It’s helping them get warm.”
“That makes sense. Let me find some socks you can put on. They’ll be a little big, but at least they’ll keep your feet warm.”
He put on a pair of my gym socks and I could tell from his expression that they were warming his feet. He slipped his feet into his sneakers.
“These are great. Thanks!”
“Okay. Now let’s get you that hot chocolate.”
I led him to the kitchen. “Have a seat. Are you hungry?”
“A little, I guess. I haven’t have any breakfast.”
From his expression I could tell he was more than just a little hungry. “How about some scrambled eggs and some toast?”
His eyes lit up, and he bit his bottom lip. “That sounds good. Are you sure it’s not too much trouble?”
“Nah. I cook for myself all the time. And I haven’t had breakfast yet. I make great scrambled eggs. I put some chopped up ham in them, and we have salsa you can put on top.”
“Yeah, you know, the kind they serve in a Mexican restaurant, not the hot liquid stuff, but the chunky, spicy kind.”
“I’ve never had that. I’ve never been to a restaurant.”
I couldn’t believe that. “You’ve never eaten in a restaurant before?”
“Have you ever had Mexican food?”
“Only the burritos they have in the cafeteria at school.”
“Well, I’ll put the jar of salsa on the table and you can try a little bit of it to see if you like it. I think it’s totally killer on eggs. You do like ham, right?”
He nodded. “Uh-huh.”
After making him a big mug of hot chocolate I got out the ingredients and started preparing the scrambled eggs. While I was cutting up the ham, I decided to ask him some questions. Kinda like the third-degree in cop shows on TV. But casual enough, I hoped, so I wouldn’t scare him.
“How come you were outside in the cold this morning, Matt?”
He didn’t answer me, so I turned and looked at him. He looked really stared, and I was waiting for him to answer. When he finally answered, his voice was very soft.
“My dad made me get out of the house.”
That shocked me, and I blurted, “What? Why would he do that?”
“I dropped a carton of orange juice, and it busted open. He got mad at me, and said I was stupid and pathetic and he didn’t want me in his way and to get the fuck out.” Matt started to cry, and turned away to hide his face from me. I walked around the table to where he was sitting, squatted down, and pulled him around so we were facing each other.
“Sorry for the swear word, but that’s what he said,” he mumbled between sobs.
“Making you get out of your house sucks, Matt.” I grabbed a paper napkin from the holder and wiped the tears from his cheeks. “Let’s eat and we’ll talk about this after, okay?”
“Okay. Can I ask you a question?”
“Uh, where’s your mom and dad?”
“My dad’s at work, and my mom’s in San Diego visiting my aunt.”
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“Nope. Just me and my folks.”
“Why aren’t you in school today? Was it because it’s so cold?”
“There’s a teachers’ conference today so we got the day off.”
“What grade are you in?”
“Eleventh grade, I’m a junior. I go to Edison High. What grade are you in, Matt?”
“You go to Bancroft?”
“No. I go to Saint Cyprian’s.”
“Ah. So you’re Catholic, too.”
“Yeah. Uh… what do you mean, too? Are you Catholic?”
“I went to Catholic school when we lived in L.A., Saint Ignatius. When we moved here the summer between fifth and sixth grades I decided I’d rather go to Bancroft.” I didn’t say anything about how we didn’t go to church except at Christmas, and doing that was mostly because we loved to listen to the Christmas music.
I set the table, set out the butter and salsa, and put two slices of bread in the toaster. I gave the eggs a final stir, dished them up, and took the plates to the table. The toast popped up, and I put in two more slices.
“Try a little of this salsa on the corner of your eggs to see if you like it. It’s a little spicy, but it’s not too hot.” I pushed the jar of salsa to him. He took a little tast on the end of a t-spoon.
“Mmm. This is good!” Matt looked at me. “I’ve never tasted anything like this.” I could see he was swirling it around in his mouth. “Wow. This sure isn’t anything like the burritos they have at school. They’re pathetic.” He grinned, and put four big spoonfuls of salsa on his eggs. Then he looked down at his plate and started digging in.
I’d scrambled six eggs, and Matt ate at least four of them with three slices of toast. When he finished he patted his stomach.
“That’s the best breakfast I’ve ever eaten. Ever. You’re a great cook. Better than me or my dad.”
“Your mom doesn’t cook?”
“My mom died two years ago.”
“Oh, man, that’s awful. You must miss her a lot.” As soon as I said it, I realized that was a stupid and insensitive thing to say. But Matt seemed to be okay with it.
“Yeah. I wish she was still here. She loved me.”
I thought about what Matt had just said and the way he said it. Oh, my God, maybe that means he thinks that his dad didn’t love him. But then, maybe he didn’t; that would explain why that man threw him out of the house when it was so cold outside. Just for dropping a carton of orange juice, even if it did break open. What kind of a father would do that? It really pissed me off.
“Is this the first time your dad told you to leave the house like he did today?”
“No. I guess I do stupid things a lot.”
“Wow. How often does that happen, that he makes you leave the house?”
“I guess… maybe once a week. Twice, sometimes.”
“Where do you go when you’re told to leave?”
“Usually to school. Or I’ll walk to the mall if it’s in on the weekend. Yesterday they told us school was going to be closed today because of the cold. The furnace in our building stopped working.”
“Do you live near here?”
“Uh-huh. On Whitewood, the other side of Del Amo.”
“How did you decide on my house?”
“I was going to go to Clark Field and see if the gym was open so I could get out of the cold, but the gates were locked and your street was the next one. I stopped at a couple houses but no one answered the door until I got to your house.”
“It’s a good thing I was in the living room. Your knocking was real soft and I wouldn’t have heard it if I’d been in my room.”
Matt looked at me. “I’m glad you heard me. I’m glad I met you. You’ve been real nice to me.” He started to cry. This time he didn’t try to hide it. He looked at me and his expression was so sad it almost made me cry. I got up and got a couple more napkins and handed them to him.
“These aren’t as soft as tissues, but you can wipe your eyes with them.”
His crying subsided, and he looked embarrassed. “Thanks,” he said, very softly.
“No problem, Matt. Crying can be a good relief when you have problems.
“Would you like some more hot chocolate?”
He tried to smile and his eyes sort of sparkled. Maybe it was the tears. “Yes, please. And thank you for breakfast, too.” His voice was soft and shaky from crying.
“You’re welcome.” I started making two cups of hot chocolate, one for each of us. “Do you like school?” I asked.
“Uh-huh, I do. My favorite subjects are math and science. I’d like to be a scientist. Do you like school? What classes do you like?”
“Yes, I like school, too. The classes I like are… well, I like all of my classes. The ones that are my favorites this year are Algebra 2 and Trigonometry, Physics, and Advanced Computer Programming.”
“Wow! I love computers. I wish we had one at home I could use.”
“You don’t have a computer at home?”
“Yes, but it’s my dad’s and he takes it to work with him. I can’t use it. Most of my friends have their own computer, though.”
“Do you have a computer room at school where you can use a computer?”
“Uh-huh! I help reset the computers every morning before school for Mrs. Livingston, she’s my math and computer teacher. That way they’re ready each day and there’s nothing left over from the day before. She lets me do my homework on one of the computers after school, too. You know, reports for English and things like that. Do you have a computer at home you can use?”
“Yes, I have a laptop.”
He looked at me for a couple seconds. “Your own laptop?”
“Uh-huh. Sometimes I take it to school with me to do assignments in class, but I mostly use it at home for doing my homework. Of course, I also use it to play games and use Google and search the internet and get on Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp.”
“We can’t go on the internet or use Google. I guess they don’t want us to go to websites that aren’t appropriate. That’s what they tell us. I’ve heard of Facebook. What are those other programs?”
“Instagram is a site where you can post pictures. I use my cellphone to take pictures at school, especially during wrestling, and post them on Instagram. As long as I’m not in a match myself, of course. WhatsApp is for sending text messages and it’s easy to include pictures if you want. Do you have a cellphone?”
“No. My dad says there’s no reason for me to have one because they have payphones for us at school. He says I’m too young to take care of something like that.”
“You use your home phone to get in touch with your friends?”
“Uh-huh. Until my dad gets home, and on the weekend. Otherwise I can’t use the phone.”
Matt’s dad was sounding more and more like a total jerk.
“You ever play video games with your friends?”
“Yeah, at their houses. I can’t have friends come to my house.”
I decided not to ask him about that. I didn’t want to embarrass him any more than he probably was already.
I checked the time. “When will you need to go home? Your dad’s probably wondering where you are. Shouldn’t he be leaving for work about now?”
“He’s probably gone to work by now. I didn’t have a chance to get my key so I can’t get into the house until he gets home from work.”
I realized that when he’d been thrown out by his father that he didn’t have anything with him, including his house key. I was really getting pissed. This was sounding more like child abuse, and that was something I wanted to talk to my dad about.
“What time will he get home?”
“About six-thirty. Uh… you’re probably going to be busy, so I can find somewhere else to go. Some of my friends should be home today.”
“You don’t have a cellphone, so do you have a list of their phone numbers with you?”
“No. I guess I should always keep my house key and my wallet with me when I’m….” He took a deep breath and let it out, and didn’t complete the sentence. But it was very clear what he’d been about to tell me.
“Without a list of their phone numbers, how can you call your friends to find out if they’re home?”
“I’ve memorized the phone numbers of a few of my friends. If it would be okay to use your phone, I could call them and see if they’re home.”
“It’s still very cold outside, and you’re not dressed for walking around outside in this weather. If you don’t have anything else to do, how about sticking around here with me today and we can play some video games. Do you have a video game system?”
“No. My dad says they’re too expensive and I’d probably drop it and break it. I wouldn’t, though. I’m always careful with my things.”
More negatives about Matt’s father. What a douchebag.
“I have an Xbox One with four controllers and a bunch of games,” I said. “If you’d like, we could play some games.”
“Wow! I don’t know anyone with an Xbox One. That’s very cool. Most of my friends have PlayStation. A couple have a Wii. What’s your favorite game?”
“I like sports games. I have Madden Football and NBA Basketball. I also have Forza Motorsport 6, Grand Theft Auto, and Star Wars Battlefront. Do any of those sound interesting?”
“Uh-huh! They all sound interesting. I’ve played Grand Theft Auto, but none of those others.”
“Do you like football?”
“Then let’s play Madden Football.”
After clearing the breakfast dishes and putting them in the dishwasher, we went to my room and I set up my Xbox and connected it to my TV. We began playing Madden Pro Football. I explained the game play and gave Matt some hints. He got into it right away, and we were having a lot of fun. I picked the 49ers and Matt picked the Eagles. When we tired of it, I introduced him to Forza Motorsport. That was also a lot of fun. Then we switched to Grand Theft Auto, which he knew how to play. And he was good, as good as I was — and maybe even a little better.
After a couple hours I figured we’d both had about enough. I needed to talk to Matt about later today. I stood up and stretched, and so did Matt — the same way as I’d stretched. That made me chuckle.
“So, you said your dad gets home from work at six-thirty?” I asked.
“Uh-huh.” He clasped his hands together at the back of his neck and yawned.
“My dad gets home at around five-thirty,” I said. “You’ll get to meet him.”
What I said about my dad made Matt start shivering and he looked scared. “I should probably go so I’m not here when he gets home.”
“Matt, my dad is the nicest, kindest guy you could ever meet. He’s a lot like me, except not as tall.” I grinned. “You’ll like him a lot, and he’ll like you.” I almost added ‘And he’s nothing like your dad,’ but I didn’t. Turns out I didn’t have to.
“He doesn’t sound like my dad,” Matt said. Then I saw the tears coming, so I put my arms out and he grabbed me in a hug. We held that for several seconds, and then I let him go.
“I agree, he isn’t anything like your dad. Why does your dad treat you that way, throwing you out of the house and not letting you use a computer?”
“I don’t know. He keeps telling me that I’m useless and dumb. I’m not useless and I’m smart! He says he’s tired of me and the next time he has to punish me he’s going to send me to CPS and I’ll be sent to a foster facility. He says then I’ll wish I hadn’t been such a useless idiot. That scares me!”
I blurted something I probably shouldn’t have. “No father should treat his son that way!”
“He’s not my real father. He’s my stepfather. He makes me call him ‘dad’ and I guess he is, legally. At least, that’s what he always tells me. Mom married him after my real father was killed in a traffic accident. Then my mom got sick and died. So I’m stuck with him.” Matt spat out that last sentence.
“Matt, I want you to meet my dad. He works for CPS. He’ll want to hear your story.”
The mention of CPS — Child Protective Services — made him look very worried. “Uh… I really think I’d better go. I don’t want to be sent to a foster facility. I’ve heard bad things about them.”
“My dad won’t send you to a foster facility,” I said. “I guarantee it.”
He looked at me like he thought I was lying. “How?”
“How what?” I asked.
“How can you guarantee that your dad won’t send me to a foster facility?”
“Just trust me, okay? I know my dad. Now I have a question for you. Will you be okay if my dad sends you back to your stepfather?”
Matt’s eyes got big, like what I said was the most frightening thing he’d ever heard. “It’d probably be… well… be bad.”
“Does he abuse you? Hit you?”
“No. But he’d probably make me sleep in the garage on the cement floor for a week. He did that once.” Even though Matt wasn’t a bit cold any longer, he shuddered again. “It’s not heated, and he didn’t even let me have a blanket.”
“You need to talk to my dad as soon as he gets home. He’ll work out something for you so you’ll be taken care of. And not at a foster facility.”
“Okay. I’ll trust you. You’re nice,” he said.
“It’s almost one o’clock. How about we have some lunch? I’ll make grilled cheese sandwiches and heat up some soup. How’s that sound?”
Matt smiled. “That sounds fantastic!”
After lunch I phoned my dad. I didn’t want to get into a half-hour phone conversation about Matt, so I asked if he could come home early today and talk to a friend who was having problems with his family. He said he could, and would be home around three-thirty.
When my dad got home I introduced them to each other.
“Dad, this is Matt Bradbury, a new friend. Matt, this is my dad, John Anderson.”
Matt shook hands with my dad. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Anderson,” he said.
Dad smiled and said, “Nice to meet you, Matt.” He turned and gave me a quizzical look, the kind that I knew meant he wanted to know why I’d brought a twelve-year-old kid into our house and said he was my friend.
“Matt, how about you watch some TV and I’ll tell my dad why you’re here. Okay?”
“Okay.” I was glad to see that Matt didn’t seem spooked the way he’d looked earlier when I first mentioned that my dad was with CPS.
I followed Dad into his office and closed the door.
“I guess I’d better explain why Matt is here.” And I did. The more I told him about Matt’s situation the more incensed he became. He really hates it when kids are being mistreated. Being a CPS manager he’s also focused on kids in the foster care system and tries to make sure they are placed in good foster homes.
“That’s about it,” I said when I had run out of things to say. I closed by telling Dad that he should ask Matt to tell him what had happened to him this morning — and at other times, too.
Dad looked at me and nodded. “I’m going to call the office and we’re going to find out what’s going on. I don’t want to return Matt to his stepfather until we’ve determined that the home situation is safe. Right now I need to make a few phone calls, then I want to spend time alone with Matt. When I talk to him I’m going to tell him what I’m going to ask about and that I’m going to record our conversation. Okay?”
“Okay. I think it’s a good idea if I stay here while you get him and bring him to your office, then I’ll leave. I think he’ll be more comfortable doing it that way.”
“I don’t want to talk to him in my office. It’s too formal. I think he’ll be more comfortable if we do it in the living room. That means you need to stay out of the living room. Okay?”
“Okay. But I think I should go into the living room with you and sort of hand him off to you. Again, I think he’ll be more comfortable if we do it that way.”
“Okay, I agree with you, Wayne. Let’s get started so I can finish interviewing him by dinner.”
“Will Mom be back tonight?”
“No, she’ll return on Sunday. Your aunt Vera still isn’t very mobile after breaking her ankle, and she needs someone to help around her house.”
We walked into the living room. Matt looked up and used the remote to turn off the TV.
“Matt, I need to do some homework that I have to turn in on Monday. My dad wants to sit down and talk to you about what happened to you today. Is that alright?”
“Yes.” He stood up.
“You can sit where you were on the couch,” Dad said. “This is going to be casual. If it’s okay with you, I’m going to record our conversation so I don’t have to sit here taking notes.”
“It’s okay with me if you record what we talk about,” Matt said.
“I’m going to head to my room and start on my homework. Do either of you want some water or a Coke?”
“No, thanks. I’m okay,” Matt said. My dad just shook his head as a no.
“Matt, if you need anything, just ask my dad and he’ll get it for you.”
On my way to my room I heard Dad ask Matt if he could tell him in his own words what happened this morning. I noticed that Matt wasn’t a bit stand-offish as he talked. My dad can be very supportive and caring when talking to kids. Most of them take to him right away. Matt started telling dad what he’d told me this morning. He seemed relaxed.
I went to my room and checked to see if any of my teachers had assigned homework that I didn’t already know about. There wasn’t anything new, so I got to work on the AP U.S. History project that I was working on with Tom Bourne, my partner on the project. It wasn’t due until the end of April, but Tom and I liked to finish things early. He lived a block from my house; we were good friends.
Every once in a while I’d go to the kitchen to get something to drink and to sort of eavesdrop on the conversation my dad and Matt were having in the living room. What little I overheard was Matt telling him a lot about his life with his stepfather. It wasn’t good. What I heard made me both sad and angry.
When my dad finished talking with Matt he came to my room and knocked on the open bedroom door. I looked up and he nodded and winked, so I knew he’d come up with something to help Matt. Then he went to his office and I heard him close the door. I guessed that he was on the phone arranging for someone who could foster Matt. About fifteen minutes later he came back to my room and he was smiling.
“Dad, I promised Matt he wouldn’t be sent to a foster facility. Did I lie to him?”
“No, even though that was a risky thing to promise since you didn’t — and don’t — have any control over what happens to him.”
“I know, but he was so sad and so afraid you’d send him to a foster facility or back to his stepfather I felt I had to say something.”
“Next time, call me and ask. Though, I certainly hope there won’t be another situation like this in the future.”
“So, where’s Matt going to go?” I asked.
“Uh… what’s that mean? You’re not sending him back to his stepfather, are you?”
“I didn’t say that.” Dad grinned and raised his left eyebrow.
I caught on. “We’re going to foster Matt and he’ll live here?”
“Is Mom okay with doing that?”
I smiled. It was a really big smile. “Thanks for doing this, Dad. Does Matt know yet?”
“No. Let’s tell him together.”
“What about his stepfather?”
“One of our CPS case workers and a Lakewood police officer will call on Mr. David Skevington when he gets home tonight and have an in-depth discussion with him about his relationship with Matt’s mother and with Matt.”
“Skevington? But I thought Matt’s last name is Bradbury.”
“Yes, Matt’s last name is Bradbury. He gave me the names of three of his neighbors and I contacted all three. I learned things that we’ll discussed with Mr. Skevington.
“Something my staff discovered is that apparently David Skevington — Matt’s so-called stepfather — and Barbara Bradbury — Matt’s mother — were never married. There is no marriage recorded on file. So Matt’s stepfather isn’t his stepfather. There’s also the question of property ownership. The police will be checking into that. It may be that the so-called stepfather has no right to be living in the home that apparently Matt owns now.
“Also, Mr. Skevington has been abusing Matt, not physically but mentally and forcing him into situations that are unhealthy, like being banished to the garage, or being thrown out of the house without letting him dress for the cold weather or having a key to the front door.
“Anyway, I’ve activated our emergency fostering license and Matt will, at least temporarily and maybe longer, stay with us. I think it’s time to let him know. Do you think he will be pleased?”
“I think he’ll be ecstatic. Joyful, even.”
“You know that ecstatic means joyful, don’t you?”
I laughed, but rose to the challenge. “There’s a subtle difference. Ecstatic is a feeling and is more internalized. Joyful is expressing your happiness in a more external manner.”
“Okay, enough of the English lesson, Wayne. Let’s go tell Matt what we’re planning to do and make sure he’s in agreement with it.”
Matt was in agreement. Total, absolute agreement with happy tears and hugs for both me and my dad. He could see that now he’d be able to live without child abuse. And would never have to sleep on a cold cement floor ever again.
Matt was finally the joyful twelve-year-old boy, the way he always would be from now on.
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