Major John Smith signed the papers with his precise, accurate signature.
He was a father now.
A young fourteen year old Templeton Peck grinned widely at him, blue eyes sparkling with a joy such that John had never seen on anyone’s face before.
There lay months between this moment and the first time the major had seen the kid.
Hurt, bruised, dirty, unconscious.
A gang of older boys had just proved their own strength to each other, picking on the much smaller kid, smashing his head to the street before leaving, laughing and joking. Hannibal was too late to catch any of them when he jumped out of his car, seeing the kid lying on the sidewalk, not moving.
He’d called an ambulance and gave him first aid as best as he could. Templeton was still breathing but bleeding very badly from the head wound. Even though the soldier didn’t know the boy, he felt the need to sit with him in the ambulance on the drive to the hospital since they couldn’t find any personal documents with the teenager.
What was a kid his age doing on the streets at that hour anyway?
As Hannibal had a few days leave after his last successful mission, he’d decided to stay with the kid in the hospital, feeling strangely alone at home.
“Who are you?” That had been Templeton’s very first question when he came to the next day and saw Hannibal sitting at his bed side.
“That’s the man who saved your life,” had been the answer from the doctor who was with them at that moment.
Templeton’s eyes grew wide in shock and a very low, “What happened?” was next.
“I’m not really sure, but I found you lying on the sidewalk, a gang just leaving. I had to decide to either go after them or look after you, and since you lay unconscious on the ground…”
“Without Major Smith you would be dead, young man.”
“Major?” Templeton tried to sit up a little more straight in his bed but winced and sank back into the pillows.
“Major John Smith, Airborn Ranger. Nice to meet you, Mr...?” Hannibal extended his hand to the boy, smiling genuinely.
Templeton tried to grin, which wasn’t easy with a black eye and a swollen lip, but he took the proffered hand with his left, since his right arm was apparently broken and encased in plaster, and replied, “Templeton Peck.”
“Now young man, as you are finally awake,” the doctor interrupted their playful introduction, “Will you please tell us how we can contact your parents?”
“You can’t,” Templeton murmured under his breath.
“Come again?” The doctor inquired, trying to hide his growing impatience, and looking at his schedule.
“You... can... not,” Templeton repeated somewhat louder, stubbornly enunciating each word.
“Please, I don’t have the time to play games with you.”
“You can’t because I am an orphan,” Templeton said angrily, looking away, closing his eyes firmly.
“Oh,” the doctor said a little shocked, and Hannibal felt his heart go out to the poor kid at the same time. So that was the reason why he had been on the streets that late.
“Are you… Have you…?”
“No, I haven’t. I live on the street,” Templeton said with a firm, determined expression.
“But you must…”
“No I must not. I ran away.”
“How old are you? Thirteen?” The doctor was getting really agitated and impatient now.
“I dunno. Maybe.”
Hannibal cringed at the conversation. Despite his injuries Templeton was a very stubborn kid. And he didn’t show it at all if he was in pain.
“Okay young man. I’ll leave you for the moment. The nurse will be back in an hour to look after you. Mr. Smith, can I have a word please?”
Hannibal was confused himself and nodded absent minded, joining the doctor outside the room.
“Please, Mr. Smith, be honest with me. You really don’t know this boy?”
“No. I saw him for the first time lying there in the street. I know nothing about him, just that he was badly injured and helpless.” Hannibal combed his hand nervously through his hair, “He did tell us his name, though.”
“I’m not sure if it was his real name. He doesn’t sound very honest to me.”
“Well, just look him up. And if you are worried about the costs, I’ll pay for the moment.”
The doctor’s expression clearly lit up with relief when he mentioned the money issue, and Hannibal was suddenly tired of it all. He wanted to go home. He definitely needed sleep himself.
“Thank you, and I’ll see what I can find out,” the doctor nodded, and then suddenly excused himself and hurried away when his name was called over the speakers.
Hannibal opened the door of the patient’s room again, trying to make no sound in case the boy was sleeping. Templeton’s head was turned away from the door.
“Why did you come back?” a half unfriendly, half surprised, barely audible voice asked from the bed. He still refused to look at Hannibal.
“I wanted to tell you good night and that I’ll be back tomorrow,” Hannibal said somewhat awkwardly. He didn’t actually know why he wanted that. He was probably still shocked by the violence he’d seen inflicted on the boy at the hands of those youths, and felt the desperate urge to help.
“Why?” The boy’s head very slowly turned towards Hannibal.
“To make sure you’re okay?” Hannibal tried to smile. “Plus I am bored at home. You may be bored here. So I thought we could be bored together,” he winked. The boy had to laugh at that but it clearly hurt.
“You don…You don’t have a kid at home?”
“No,” Hannibal said, shaking his head, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “No wife, no kids. Bored.”
“Well,” Templeton considered the possibility. That guy actually seemed to be fun, so he answered, “no siblings, no parents. Bored.” He tried to grin again. “Can you bring cards or a chess game, Major?”
Hannibal looked surprised at the latter but nodded.
“I did not lie to the doctor about my name, and yes I do play chess,” the kid said somewhat proudly, which made Hannibal laugh.
“How did you know he thought you were lying?” Hannibal asked curiously.
“His face. He frowned. His eyes. He just didn’t believe me, but you did,” Templeton said thoughtfully but then held his head with both hands.
Hannibal was stunned at how good the kid was able to read people already at his young age. But he needed rest. They could talk more tomorrow. “I think you need some sleep, young man. And I do too. Good night.” He grabbed the door handle, paused and turned, “Oh, and to you it’s John, not ‘major’, okay?”
“Okay, Ma…John,” Templeton corrected himself, “Good night and…thank you.”
“You are welcome.”