It was mid-afternoon and Graham was lying on the sofa with Cindy sitting on the floor next to him. Graham was caressing her head gently as she laid it on Graham's chest. The stereo was playing one of Graham's favourite discs and he closed his eyes while listening to the music. It was an old disc but Graham was getting older now too. He still found the music profound however even if had not been current for a number of decades. As he listened the melody burst forth out of deep slow guitar chords and interleaving drumbeats and the music filled Graham's mind. He turned his head and looked out the window at the cold winter wind blowing the barren tree branches to and fro. When Graham went out for walks now he felt the cold wind more than he used to. That was the way of things however, time passing and never stopping, always moving forward, and never standing still. Where did all the time go? It seemed like only yesterday that his second life had begun when a light had come along and had shown Graham the way and in doing so changed everything for him ... but that was eight years in the past now.
Graham and Cindy looked up as Jamie came into the room. He was carrying a tray with cookies on it.
"I've invited Jason and a few others to come over for tea," said Jamie as he placed the tray on the coffee table.
Graham was about to respond but Jamie was already walking out of the living room. It had been the same every day for the last couple of weeks. Graham could sense that something big was brewing inside Jamie but he did not know what it was exactly. Jamie had grown and come out of his shell enormously during the years since he had first come to live with Graham permanently as his son. There had been the terrible trauma at the beginning when everything had almost ended before it had even begun. Then later there was the adoption and the two of them slowly getting used to each other and both learning how to be a father and son and then becoming a family. There were the trials as they both worked to exorcize the demons that had been planted deep into Jamie's psyche by his parents, working to reduce the nightmares, and to lay to rest Jamie's terrors at night. All of these steps had been hard, sometimes exceedingly so, but through them all, they had always stood by each other. Each time difficulties had come up Jamie worked and overcame them, making yet another positive step in his journey towards adulthood.
Suddenly however that gradual but always positive trend had seemed to reverse itself in the last several weeks. Jamie had become much quieter, keeping to himself a lot more, talking less, going for long walks by himself, and also withdrawing from Jason. Even Cindy had noticed, no longer being allowed to go along when Jamie would go out and hike sometimes for the entire day alone. Cindy was getting older now too, but she had helped just as much as Graham while Jamie was growing, maturing, and learning to move past what had happened to him. Jamie had been somewhat hesitant with Cindy's boundless enthusiasm at first but once they got to know each other, they had become inseparable friends soon afterwards.
Graham was worried for Jamie but at the same time he had seen these reflective periods before. They were the norm at the beginning and then gradually less so over the following years. Now the moodiness seemed to be coming back again and stronger than it had ever been previously. Graham sensed a turning point was arriving and for the first time in a long while he felt scared. Not for Jamie this time however but for himself.
Jamie was not a boy anymore. Indeed, Graham had realized from early on that Jamie had never truly been able to be a boy - that part of his life had been irretrievably stolen from him. Graham noticed quickly that Jamie seldom laughed and played with the same carefree abandon that the other youngsters who lived on the island did. Once he started going to school with them, even while enjoying being with them, he was always much more reserved in his demeanour and watchful of his surroundings and people that might only be casually walking by. Jamie had always shown a maturity far in advance of his years from the first day that Graham had met him and Graham knew that this was the result of Jamie having had to fend for himself from a very early age. Graham now suspected that the time was fast approaching when Jamie would complete the final and much more difficult transformation into manhood. Much as he wanted that success for Jamie, Graham knew that when it happened he would hurt inside. The scared, hurt, young boy that he had met, helped, and then taken care of since that time would be gone forever when that day arrived.
Despite the difficulty however, there was nothing that could be done. Only Jamie would know when the time had arrived for his transformation. The day could not be hurried and it could not be delayed - nor should it be. Graham knew that the most important job for him at this point was to do nothing. Nothing - the hardest thing of all to do when someone you cared about was troubled. Graham knew however that all things came in their time. It was a lesson that he had learnt while living with Jamie. A knock on the front door stirred Graham out of his contemplation and he got up to open it.
"Frank, Kathy, Jason," said Graham seeing the Tomlinson's standing just outside. "Please come in."
"Do you know what's going on?" asked Jason in a concerned tone. "There was a note from Jamie under our door when we woke up inviting us to come over for tea this afternoon."
"No, Jamie won't talk about whatever it is," replied Graham. "He's in one of his quiet phases so I've been trying to give him time to work through whatever it is."
"He won't talk to me about it either," continued Jason. "He's got me worried. Whenever I try to ask what's going on, he refuses to talk about it."
"He's not usually like this," said Kathy. "Jamie's had good times and bad ones too but he's usually so positive and happy."
"He'll let us know when he's ready to," cautioned Frank. "We just need to give him space and let him know we care."
"I'll go up and let him know we're here," offered Jason as he went upstairs to Jamie's room and knocked on the closed door.
"Please come in and sit down," said Graham. "Jamie's put out some things and I'll go and see about making tea for everyone."
Graham went into the kitchen and busied himself with making the tea. He filled a kettle with fresh water and put it on to boil. Then he filled a large brown earthenware teapot with hot water from the tap to warm it up. Graham finally opened a cupboard and took out a tin of Earl Grey.
Jason came down from Jamie's room and walked into the kitchen where Graham was pouring the warm water out of the now heated teapot and spooning in some of the Earl Grey tea. Jason wordlessly picked up the cups and saucers that Graham had laid out and took them into the living room. Just then there was another knock at the front door and in the living room Frank got up off the sofa to open it.
"Dave, Pony, how are you doing?" said Frank letting them into the house. "What brings you over to this side of the island today?"
"Jamie left a message on my phone machine saying that I should come," said Dave.
"There was a note under my door this morning when I got up," said Pony.
"Do you know what this is about?" asked Dave. "We were talking with each other as we walked over from the village and neither of us knows what's going on."
"Right now you know as much as we do," said Frank. "Whatever it is though I think we're going to find out shortly."
Jason went back out into the kitchen, collected two more settings for tea, and brought them into the living room. Hearing the kettle whistling Graham took it off the stove and poured the hot water into the teapot over the tea leaves. Graham then set out the cream, sugar, and some teaspoons that Jason then carried into the living room. Graham finally came out carrying the teapot and put it down onto the coffee table.
Graham and Jason sat down heavily after the tea was laid out. Silence hung heavy over the room and everyone looked at each other but no one spoke.
"Shall I be Mother?" said Frank finally as he reached for the teapot and began to fill the cups and hand them out. The plate of cookies was passed and all that could be heard was the ticking of the clock on the wall as everyone sat quietly and drank their tea.
"Pop?" said Jamie.
Graham turned along with everyone else and looked towards Jamie who was standing at the foot of the stairs at the back of the living room.
Pop. Graham loved when Jamie called him that. He thought that name to be the highest honour that he had ever had bestowed upon him. At the same time, however, Jamie never used it unless something very big was on his mind. Then Graham noticed that Jamie was holding something in his right hand - the backpack. The same backpack that Jamie had had with him when Graham first met him, the same backpack that Jamie had kept with him through all the years that he had lived with Graham, the same backpack that had been clutched tight in his hand on that terrible day eight years ago when Graham had found him collapsed outside his door almost dead. A cold chill ran down Graham's back. The time had arrived.
"Yes, Jamie?" replied Graham sitting up in the armchair. "We're all here."
Jamie came fully into the room with the tattered backpack clutched tightly in his hand. Cindy sensed the tense mood in the room and moved close to Graham and began to whine. Graham placed his hand gently on her head to comfort the big white dog. Jamie placed the backpack on the floor between himself and his adopted family and looked down at it.
All through the years that Jamie had been with Graham, he had always kept his old backpack. It had been Jamie's safety net whenever he had needed to run in the bad old days. It had saved him several times in those days when things had become unbearable and he had had to flee. When that happened Jamie would grab his backpack and run. Run as far and as fast as he could. No matter how safe he might have felt for a period of time somewhere, Jamie had always ended up having to run and then his backpack and its contents had taken care of him. Whenever people or events had turned on Jamie his wits and his backpack had saved him. After he had come to live with Graham he still kept it and it laid underneath his bed, ready and waiting in case it was needed. It had been a long time now without any need for Jamie to worry or run but he had still kept it. Now it was sitting on the floor of the living room and everyone was looking at it.
"Thank you all for coming," began Jamie. "Eight years ago the world totally changed for me. I was lucky enough to get a second chance at life. I gained a new family - a real family - something I'd never had before. Since then all of you, each in different ways, have become that new family for me. It hasn't always been easy for me and each of you have helped me through a lot of difficult times and there is no way I can ever say everything I want to for what you've done."
"When I initially came here, I thought at first that I would be free from the past. But the chains they used were still inside my head holding me down. Over the years you have all helped me to gradually break the links in those chains one by one. Sometimes without meaning to I lashed out in anger while you were helping me to do it and I'm sorry about that but through everything, you all stood by me and never left. I never knew anyone before that didn't leave when things got difficult."
"This house has been my home since I arrived here. I never had what you would call a real home before. I never had a place where I felt safe and wanted, a place where I didn't have to sleep with one eye open, or a place where I could actually relax and not have to watch my back constantly. This has been a place where I wasn't afraid for my life if I broke a plate or forgot to take my shoes off and got dirt on the kitchen floor. It's been a place where I learnt that a man could be a friend and a father, not an enemy to be feared. Instead of those things it's been a place of healing and caring. It's been a place where a very special man gave me something that I had never experienced before - understanding and kindness."
"Each of you has given me something that has meant more than anything else to me, your time and your love. Being paid attention to before only meant one thing and so it was always my hope to be invisible and forgotten. I was never invisible for very long but it was what I longed for, to be forgotten so I wouldn't get hurt anymore. That all changed though when I came here. You've all helped me and there was never a bill waiting to be paid at the end of the road. That was the hardest thing of all for me to learn, that there wasn't a bill waiting for me. There always had been before, absolutely nothing came for free. It took me a long time to learn that you weren't quietly tallying up the price and eventually going to want to be paid back. You gave your time and your love without thinking or counting and that was something that was so different for me."
"And of course on top of all those things that have been so precious to me I found something that I never dreamed I would in my entire life. I found love and someone special. I found someone that doesn't care about my past, what I had to do, or what was done to me. Someone that never takes, never demands, is always patient, and makes me complete."
As he spoke Jamie stood in the centre of the room and in turn looked upon each of the people that had become part of his new family. Graham who had first taken him in and then later given him a home, the Tomlinson's who had shown him by example what being a family really meant, Frank who had given Jamie his first real job which allowed Jamie to learn self-confidence as well as a trade, Pony who had given him new roots to call his own in place of those that he had lost, Dave who had listened endlessly when Jamie needed to talk as well as given him adventure by teaching him how to fly a plane, and of course Jason who had taught Jamie that love meant accepting a person as they are regardless of their past or their problems. Kathy and Graham wiped at their eyes openly while Frank and Jason swallowed hard and breathed heavily. Only Pony remained an oasis of calm. He smiled back at Jamie while watching the amazing growth in spirit, that was happening to the former youngster that he had first met at one of the Tomlinson's Christmas Barbecue's years before and then once again a few days later in the forest when Jamie had hurt his ankle while running away from his fears.
"The time has come to take one more step," said Jamie as he knelt down and unzipped the top of the backpack. "This backpack was my old life. It held everything that I had in the world. I always kept it close to me just in case I had to run again. For a long time, even here, I didn't let it get out of my sight."
Everyone sat frozen in place and could hardly breathe. Cindy was motionless, alertly watching Jamie's every move, her muscles tensed, and her ears up.
Jamie reached into the backpack and pulled out a small old pair of blue jeans. Tattered and shabby, torn in spots and dirty, they had a distinct odour about them that instantly took Graham's mind back in time, back to a walkway leading to a subway station. Looking at the jeans distantly for a moment Jamie wordlessly set them down onto the floor.
Reaching again into the backpack Jamie removed an old jean jacket that he then placed on top of the blue jeans on the floor. A couple of pairs of underwear emerged and joined the small pile. Then an old T-shirt came out of the backpack with dried bloodstains covering one side of it. Jamie looked at it for a long time, his eyes staring right through the stained shirt and into the past.
Putting his hand into the backpack again Jamie brought out a couple of instant photographs of a young boy. Graham caught a glimpse of one of them and the boy looked like Jamie when Graham had first met him. Kathy noticed the same face on another of the pictures. The boy in the pictures was naked, and the face was not smiling. Jamie dropped the pictures on top of the pile of clothing.
Silence hung heavy in the air as Jamie got to his feet and then bent down to pick up the collection of items up off the floor. He carried them over to the far side of the living room next to the woodstove and put them down again. Jamie opened the glass door on the front of the woodstove's firebox and took the pictures from the top of the pile and looked at them one more time. After a long and silent minute, Jamie dropped them into the woodstove. The images on the pictures faced outwards as they landed in the smouldering embers of an earlier fire. For a fraction of a second Frank saw the pained face of a hurt boy in one of them before they shrivelled up and then burst into flame.
One by one Jamie slowly dropped into the fire the old clothes that he had taken out of the backpack. Clothes from when he had been that hurt young boy in the pictures. First, the old jeans went in, then the jacket, and finally the underwear. When only the T-shirt remained Kathy broke the silence when Jamie started to move his hand to add it to the flames.
"Please Jamie, could I have that?" asked Kathy. "I'd like to keep it so I will never forget what it means if a child is hurt."
Jamie looked back towards Kathy and saw tears rolling down her face. He smiled at Kathy and then walked over towards her and placed the shirt in her hands.
Turning back towards the now empty backpack that was sitting on the floor Jamie walked over to it and picked it up. Jamie walked slowly back over to the woodstove and hesitated for a moment and then pushed it too into the flames and closed the glass door on the front of the woodstove. He stared into the fire as the flames licked over the surface of the backpack and then engulfed it in a bright burst of light.
Jamie stood in front of the woodstove a long time looking into the fire, watching the flames erase the final traces of the life he had been forced into leading long ago. The flames were taking with them the final traces of the demons that had haunted him for so long and now Jamie was consigning them to the past for good. Jamie knew now finally and completely in his heart that he no longer needed to be ready to run, that finally, he was safe at last.
Jamie walked back towards the armchair that Graham was sitting in and then sat down very carefully on Graham's lap. Jamie was no longer the short thin, undernourished boy that he had been when Graham had first met him. He was six feet tall now and a strong muscular young man. Graham barely came up to Jamie's shoulders when standing next to him and with advancing age was depending more and more upon Jamie even as Jamie became increasingly self-sufficient.
Graham could not recall Jamie ever having sat on his lap before, even when he was much younger. For this one moment, however, despite their size and weight difference, Jamie felt as light as a feather to Graham.
Cindy pushed her muzzle against Jamie's leg and looked up at him with her deep brown eyes. Jamie reached down and petted her affectionately on the head. Then Jamie put his arms around Graham and said, "It's good to be home, Pop."