A Punsylvania Christmas Gift

A Punsylvania Christmas Gift

by Jennifer Sue

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< div align="center">December 2017 Christmas Dreams Story Contest Entry

It was normal for the seventh grade boy to be stoically quiet as he did his best to be invisible. While his grades were above average, mostly ‘A’s with a few ‘B’s, he held back to avoid angering the school’s alphas. Unless you were athletically gifted, anyone from the trailer park was considered the lowest of the low, redneck trailer trash. The school jocks as well as the swaggering junior rednecks living in Peckerwood Estates Mobile Home Park took delight in bullying the quiet lad. Rue Fuhl followed the school’s guidelines that all instances of bullying were to be reported to the Vice Principal. Reuben followed the guidelines keeping a log in his homework notebook of each complaint. As far as he could tell his complaints to Vice Principal Hugh Jass, the one in charge of school discipline, were ignored.

S. Newt Fuhl, his functional alcoholic dad, worked five and a half days a week. While not drinking on the job, the Wite Lite Ning Keg Haus was the bar next door to his employer was the first stop on the way home for at least two beers. On rough days it was more like five or six beers. On bad days it could go as high as a dozen beers. In addition his mother, Cyn Fuhl, worked seven days a week so he felt committed to helping around their home as much as possible. As the oldest of three he felt obligated to look out for his younger siblings, Will Fuhl and Faith Fuhl. All this left him little time to himself. He actually liked being busy since it didn’t allow much time to feel sorry for himself.

Neither parent finished high school, both dropped out during their freshman year when fourteen year old Cynthia became pregnant. Their’s had been a true shotgun wedding... fifteen year old Silas Newton Fuhl, who hated his name and pompously demanded to be called S. Newt, had a choice of ‘doing the right thing’ by marrying her or go to jail for statutory rape. Their families jointly bought a then fifteen year old mobile home already set up in a trailer park as a wedding gift. Both sets of grandparents had since died, only one of natural causes.

Monday through Friday Cyn worked as a waitress at the near by Hammond Egs’ Pancake House from 6:00am until 11:00am. Then came a second job, an 11:30am to 4:00pm counter shift at Frank Furter’s Burger Shack. Saturdays and Sundays she waitressed 8:00am till 2:00pm at Frank N. Bean’s Family Restaurant. Working seven days a week left her little time or energy for anything else. S. Newt worked at the Kar Crash Kastle, the local auto salvage yard, 8:00am until 5:00pm Mondays through Friday and 8:00am until 1:00 on Saturdays. He ran a forklift and stripped parts from wrecks.

The bus ride to and from Jenny Talia Middle School took nearly an hour, an hour of being teased and hassled, plus it meant he arrived home after his younger siblings. It only took half an hour to walk home so unless the weather was absolutely terrible, Rue Fuhl walked home so he’d be there when Will and Faith, his ten and eight year old siblings arrived home on their bus. Each day he trudged to and home from school. The thirteen year old wished something would change to make his harsh life better. The forlorn boy knew he was one of the few students who preferred school to home. Still he had no choice.

Usually he arrived at their weather beaten twenty eight year old seventy two feet long by fourteen feet wide home in the run down mobile home park just a few minutes before the bus dropped his siblings off from Rita Booke Elementary School. His twenty seven year old mom would be home by 4:30 to start making supper. Supper had to be ready at 6:00 or his twenty eight year old dad would be more miserable than normal all night. No matter what time he came home supper had better be hot or there would be hell to pay. If they were lucky his dad would be so drunk when he got home he’d simply pass out in the driveway. How he managed to drive his Harley when so inebriated mystified Rue. His mother claimed the wind on his face while driving kept him conscious. When he arrived home and set the kick stand, the lack of wind allowed the alcohol to slam his brain rendering the drunken man unable to walk the twenty feet into the house. Rue would then have to help his mother carry him inside.

Rue Fuhl made sure his siblings did their homework while he did his and other than giving her a hug kept them from bothering their mother. They knew to make themselves scarce when their dad came home. On the good nights they ate in silence then rushed to their bedrooms. On bad nights they ate nervously never knowing what might set their dad off so they ate quickly and quietly. Most times Cyn was the object of the abuse. If he lashed out at the kids, Rue inserted himself between their irate dad and Will and Faith. Most times the younger siblings escaped physically unscathed as Rue endured the beatings in their place. At least once a week he distracted his dad from excessively beating his mom, receiving the blows in her place.

With their mom working seven days a week, Rue took it upon himself to clean the house and maintain the yard area, both of which he began doing at age six. In his time off work S. Newt drank and watched ESPN on the big screen TV in the master bedroom. Fortunately, the master bedroom and bath was at one end of the home, a mudroom/laundry with back door was next, then the kitchen, living room with front door, a small bedroom, a shared bath, and last a larger bedroom. Faith had the smaller bedroom to herself while Will and Rue shared the rear bedroom.

The residents of Peckerwood Estates Mobile Home Park had a not undeserved reputation as white trash. The lots for single wide trailers in the trailer park were forty feet wide and ninety feet deep off the in park roads. The Fuhl home was on the fourth lot in from Peter Getzoff Road on the west end of the trailer park. The property next door was the remnants of the Russell Leeves Orchard from which the trailer park had been carved. It consisted of a pre-Civil War era stone house, stone barn and several smaller outbuildings surrounded by an orchard. The house sat one hundred thirty feet from Peter Getzoff Road with the barn behind it. The buildings were three hundred feet from the trailer park. A well maintained triple strand barbed wire fence separated the remnants of the Russell Leeves Orchard and the trailer park.

Phil Graves had inherited what was left of Russell Leeves Orchard. He was the eighth generation of the family that developed the Orchard back in 1843. He’d grown up there as a kid. His mom had shamed her parents by getting pregnant by a marine home on leave before heading off to Korea back in 1951. He returned in a body bag. Growing up, his strict abusive grandparents let him know he was a bastard at every opportunity. In the spring of 1968 at seventeen he dropped out of school to join the Marines like his dad, never returning to the scene of life long abuse while his grandparents lived. In two tours of duty in Vietnam he was wounded once earning numerous commendations including the Bronze and Silver Stars for his fearless actions when under fire. Staying in the Corps he became a tough as nails Master Gunnery Sergeant seeing combat for a third time in Operation Desert Storm. He had not returned to Russell Leeves Orchard when first his grandfather and then his grandmother had died. After serving thirty years in the Corps, he retired. Upon finally returning to the orchard he discovered most of it had been sold off and his mother had terminal cancer. Upon her death, the rundown remnants of the orchard became his. With his military pension, savings and investments he was able to live in modest comfort as he modernized and repaired the buildings. He refurbished the large vegetable garden as well as the orchard. The kids from the trailer park quickly learned just how fiercely the Gunny and his savage guard dogs defended his land. Virtually no one called him Phil or Mr. Graves. Everyone knew him as Gunny, and that he was a hard ass oft grumpy stoic loner.

On a Monday afternoon in mid November as Rue trudged home from Jenny Talia Middle School he noted Gunny had not placed any garbage out for the weekly pickup, something he’d never known to happen. Once home he ushered his siblings inside setting them to their homework as he did his own. The lack of garbage at the driveway of the Russell Leeves Orchard niggled at his mind. When Cyn arrived home the kids hugged her then left her alone to prepare supper.

After fifteen minutes Rue approached her. “Mom, I’d like to go outside for a bit. I’ll be back in time for supper.”

Cyn looked closely at her son. Normally he had to be ordered to spend time outside. “Okay.” While she wanted to ask him why he wanted to go out she knew she could trust him.

Rue slipped out the door jogging down the lane to the road. Looking at Gunny’s driveway there was still no garbage. To Rue’s knowledge, Gunny never spoke to anyone other than to yell at them to get off his property. Still, he was a vet and deserved respect. Rue warily jogged down the road then turned down the driveway. His nerves were on edge, fearing Gunny would give him a royal chewing out. As he neared the house one of Gunny’s dogs began aggressively barking. These were the savage guard dogs Gunny sicced on anyone who trespassed into his orchard. Rue slowed to a walk just before a German Shepard came running around the side of the house. The barking dog stopped three feet in front of him and growled. Terrified, Rue froze.

The dog snarled and lunged. Rue flinched stepping backward preparing to tear out of there but tripped ending up on his butt. The snarling saliva dripping dog got right in his face as he wet himself fearing he was about to be ripped to shreds. Instead of attacking the dog sat back on his haunches, then cocked his head to one side to look at the growing wet spot on the spackled concrete walkway.

Needless to say Rue was relieved to not be bleeding. His heart was beating hard and rapidly as he looked into the dog’s eyes. Surprisingly the dog whined, bit the sleeve of his shirt and tugged. Slowly his fear subsided as he realized the dog wanted him to follow. With that came the realization that something had to have happened to Gunny! Ignoring his soggy pants Rue climbed to his feet and followed the eager dog around the building.

Rue gasped as he reached the rear of the house and saw the barn. The dog ran through the open doors of the barn around the rear of an immaculate 1969 Mach I 428 Super Cobra Jet. Once out of sight the dog began barking.

“Damn it, Fubar, shut the fuck up!” A hoarse gruff voice scolded from beneath the muscle car. “Why the hell can’t you be quiet like Snafu and let me die in fucking peace!”

A second dog began barking and scampered to the back of the car. Rue once more froze in fear.

“God damn it Snafu! Not you too! Shut the fuck up!” The gruff voice called out.

“He... hello...,” Rue tenuously called out.

“What...,” the voice asked incredulously. “Is somebody there?”

“Y... yes sir,” Rue nervously replied.

“Well just don’t stand there, kid,” the voice grumped. “Get your ass up here so I can see you!”

Still wary of the dogs Rue nervously walked around the car. As he did so he saw a pair of legs sticking out from beneath the car. The front wheels had been up on a set of steel ramps. It was plain to see they had collapsed trapping the man beneath. Once at the front Rue knelt down to timidly peer at the man. “Are you hurt bad?”

“I don’t think so,” Gunny growled. “I’ve been stuck under here two days and I’m still kicking. There’s a floor jack over to the right. Roll it over here. I’ll locate it then you jack it up.”

Rue headed to the right. “Is it this wheeled blue thing with a handle?”

“Damn kid,” Gunny snapped. “Hasn’t your daddy taught you anything?”

“The only thing he’s taught me is to never drink,” Rue replied with obvious shame.

“I need to have a LONG talk with your old man,” Gunny growled. “Yeah, that blue thing is the jack. Use the handle to guide that round part on top of the end opposite the handle to me.”

It took a few tries until Rue mastered maneuvering the jack but soon had it where Gunny wanted.

“Now twist the handle clockwise until it stops,” Gunny explained. “Good, now pump the handle up and down.”

Rue trembled as the ‘round part’ touched the lower ‘A’ frame. Nervously he watched as that side of the car raised about a quart inch with each pump.

“Ahhhhh,“ Gunny sighed with relief as the pressure on his chest eased.

“Am I hurting you?” Rue fearfully asked as he stopped pumping.

“No, kid, just keep pumping,” Gunny answered. “You’ve just relieved the pressure.”

After a few more pumps Gunny was able to slither out. “Thanks, son,” the gruff old man nodded his appreciation as he held out his hand.

Rue meekly put his hand in Gunny’s grip. Sizing up the kid the man didn’t use his normal grip.

As Gunny pushed himself off the floor his head began to spin. Rue instinctively reached out to stabilize him.

“Guess I was lying down too long,” Gunny grunted. “Can you hand me that bottle of water on the tool bench?”

Rue gave him the bottle and watched as Gunny took a deep swallow. Then leaning on Rue, Gunny made it to his feet. It was at that point Gunny smelled the urine. Looking down he noted the kid’s wet pants. Rue blushed and shamefully lowered his eyes.

“I take it Fubar scared you,” Gunny asked as he periodically took sips of water. “Nothing to be ashamed of. The crazy mutt sometimes scares the hell out of me. I’m curious, how did you come to find me?”

“When I came home from school I noticed your garbage wasn’t out,” Rue said. “I live in the trailer park next door, the fourth one in next to your orchard. I’ve never seen you miss a garbage pick-up.”

“Yeah, I know which one you live in,” Gunny nodded. “I like the way you keep the yard trimmed and clean. Your yard is the best one adjoining my property.”

Just then the rumbling sound of his dad’s Harley was heard.

“Oh crap,” Rue gasped. “I’m in deep doodoo now!”

Gunny grunted. “That you old man?”

“Yeah, he demands supper right when he gets home so if I’m not there...” the fear on Rue’s face spoke volumes.

“What’s his name?” Gunny demanded.

S. Newt... S. Newt Fuhl,” Rue answered.

“Help me to the ATV,” Gunny ordered. Once seated he looked at Rue. “Wait a minute, take the hose and rinse your crotch and legs. You’ll still be wet but it’ll get rid of the piss smell.”

Rue grabbed the hose and proceeded to rinse himself.

“Get in,” Gunny ordered as the engine roared to life. As soon as Rue was seated Gunny pulled out of the barn to rip through the orchard to the back of the trailer just as the snarling Harley shut down. The German Shepards galloped behind.

“Fuhl,” Gunny shouted. “S. Newt Fuhl!”

S. Newt was surprised to hear the gruff voice calling him from Russell Leeves Orchard. Slowly he headed to the back of the trailer. “What the hell has the brat done,” S. Newt snarled when he saw his son with Gunny. “Boy, you’re in a heap of shit!”

The dogs charged the barbed wire fence but did not cross. They didn’t like the mean man yelling at their master and his new friend so they ferociously snarled and barked.

S. Newt fearfully took a step back from the threatening canines.

Gunny called out, “Fubar, Snafu, down!” The furry duo immediately did so but maintained a hungry glare at S. Newt.

“As for you, asshole. shut the hell up,” Gunny roared. “I’ve heard a hell of a lot of noise coming from your place and I have a feeling this kid and your wife have taken a lot of beatings, undeserved beatings! Now you just stand there until we get over there. You and me are gonna have words!” With that Gunny revved the engine and tore off for the road. Several times he chugged water as he drove to rehydrate. A few minutes later he pulled up into the parking area of the trailer.

S. Newt stood unsure of what was going on but angry because obviously Rue had done something to piss off the old man. He kept a wary eye on the dogs.

Cyn, Will and Faith had been anxious because Rue hadn’t returned home by six, they grew afraid when they heard the Harley pull under the carport/porch. When they heard Gunny shouting they stepped out on the porch. Most of the immediate neighbors had come out to see what was going on. Gunny had a well deserved rep for being the toughest, nastiest and orneriest man in Kenyadiggett County, Punsylvania.

“Kid, get up there with your momma,” Gunny ordered as he approached S. Newt looking him up and down with his piercing steely gaze. “I don’t like getting involved in other’s affairs but at the same time I don’t miss much! I did two tours in ‘Nam and kicked Iraqi ass in Desert Storm. Thirty years as a Marine with the last eight years as a Master gunnery Sergeant teaches a man to be aware of everything going on around him and has made me a damn good judge of men. You, Fuhl, are a worthless piece of shit! You drink too much. During the last six years I haven’t seen you do a lick of work around here. The kid’s being doing all the yard work for those six years, I bet he helps out with the housework too. I know he looks out for his brother and sister. I’ve seen the kid and your wife carry your sorry drunken ass inside when you came home too damn inebriated to walk into your home! Does beating up on your wife and kids make you feel like a real man? A real man does not beat his family! Doing so makes you an absolute total asshole! Now I’m going to give you a chance to change. If I even THINK you’re beating on your family I’ll come over here and break you in half! I ain’t saying you can’t discipline the kid, that’s a father’s responsibility, but any discipline will be appropriate for the misdeed. Of course I don’t think this kid is a discipline problem.”

Gunny looked at the crowd of people that had gathered. “This kid is under my protection! If I see any of you smart assed punks hassling him I will whip your sorry asses! Do I make myself clear?”

The older proto redneck teens who took perverse delight in hassling Rue shrank back.

“This kid saved my life tonight,” Gunny declared as his steely gaze swept over everyone. “I did something stupid two days ago. I was changing the oil in my car. I had the front wheels up on an old set of steel ramps. The damn ramps collapsed trapping me under the engine. It restricted my breathing. I lay there for two days. This kid is aware... he noticed I hadn’t put out my garbage. So he worked up the nerve to come check on me. Fubar, (the dog barked in response) scared the piss out of him but he didn’t run. Fubar led him to the barn where he jacked up the car to get me out. I OWE him and I repay my debts.”

Needless to say everyone understood Gunny’s feelings. Many onlookers held their phones videoing the confrontation.

“Fuhl, you are failing your kid,” Gunny snarled as he turned back to him. “You’re failing your family! You’re failing yourself! Just because you had to drop out of school because you couldn’t keep your pecker in your pants you’ve given up. I dropped out of school too, but I did something with my life! I joined the Marine Corps. I earned my GED. I earned a BS and MS in Agri Business Management. I retired as a Master Gunnery Sergeant after serving this country for thirty years. Yet all you do is get drunk every damn night. You are not even the damn breadwinner in your family, you drink away your pay! You should be ashamed your wife has to work seven days a week to keep your family housed and fed. Damn it man, I had to explain to the kid what the hell a floor jack was and how to use it! It’s time you got your shit together. If not, get the hell out!”

Gunny turned to Cyn. “Ma’am, you have one hell of a kid there! You’re raising him right. If this so called man EVER lays a hand on you or the kids, I’ll kick his damn ass! You don’t have to be afraid of him anymore. I’ve got your six!”

“Do you understand what I’m telling you, slimeball,” Gunny roared as he got into S. Newt’s face.

Stupidly, S. Newt chose that moment to get booze brave. “FUCK YOU!” he screamed as he delivered a haymaker to Gunny. The sound of the punch clearly echoed between the trailers.

Gunny barely moved as the punch impacted his jaw. Everyone gasped. Snarling, Fubar and Snafu leapt over the barbed wire fence to rush to their master’s aid. Apparently messages had been sent because more residents of the trailer park arrived and more phones were pulled out.

“Boy, that was just plain stupid,” Gunny growled as he punched S. Newt in the gut lifting him right off the ground. He collapsed on the ground so winded he couldn’t even gasp for breath. “Fubar, Snafu, piss!”

The growling dogs obediently stood on either side of the downed man, raised a leg, and proceeded to piss on him.

Everyone did their best to stifle their laughter. That scene would soon become a popular youtube video.

“Ma’am,” Gunny respectfully asked. “May I ask if your name is on the title to your home and car?”

Cyn was caught off guard, then realized what he was getting at. Her face flushed with self recrimination. “No sir. He’s the man so everything is in his name.”

Gunny shook his head then glared down at S. Newt who was trying to get to his feet. “Boy, you are one sorry dumb ass. Unless you want Fubar and Snafu to rip you apart, you just lay back down.”

The crowd of onlookers had grown even larger and dozens of cell phones were out.

Gunny stood at attention and saluted Cyn. “Ma’am, since the stupid arrogant bastard you had the misfortune to marry is currently indisposed and unable to do anything to stop you, I’ll take advantage of the situation to offer you a job as my housekeeper, starting immediately. The job includes room and board for you and your children. If you’re interested, I suggest you immediately gather your things and place them in the back of my ATV. Then we’ll head back to my orchard to get your family resettled. Included in the offer is the unlimited use of a car.”

“Mom, you better take the job,” Rue urged. “You know what dad will do to us if you don’t.”

Cyn was torn, she had long ago lost her love for her abusive husband. She’d often dreamt of leaving but knew she could never afford a place to live and feed her children. Now here was a way out. “It’ll take a few minutes to pack.”

“I’ll just sit here and wait, ma’am,” Gunny said as he sat on the front of the ATV. “Fubar and Snafu will keep the ass wipe occupied.”

Cyn and the kids headed inside. Garbage bags were dispensed, their clothing and their few toys were stuffed inside. Rue oversaw his siblings while Cyn took care of her things and their few family momentos.

S. Newt was grumbling but stayed down.

“BOY, cause you sure as hell ain’t no man, let me give you a bit of advice,” Gunny glared at him as he pulled a Colt M1911 .45 automatic from a holster beside the seat. “I’ve got about a dozen of these and one is always near by. I’ve maintained a Corps rating of Expert on these babies. If you even think of coming on my property, I’ll consider it a threat and react accordingly, up to and including using deadly force. Do you understand me, BOY?”

“Go to hell,” S. Newt snapped.

“Fubar, Snafu, sit,” Gunny ordered with the dogs immediately obeying. “BOY, you are one dumb motherfucker! Let’s see just how stupid you are! If you want to fight me, stand up! I’ll let you have the first swing.”

At some level S. Newt realized he’d bitten off too much but the alcohol, hurt pride and anger had taken control. He awkwardly struggled to his feet. Like the cocky ill-educated redneck he was, he puffed himself up as he squared off against gunny.

Gunny laughed in his face as he put his hands behind his back. “Boy, you have just got to be the stupidest motherfucker in Punsylvania. I’ll kick your ass with my hands behind my back. If you got the balls, dickwad, take your free swing.”

S. Newt saw the neighbors watching. His beer infused anger took control as he launched a wild haymaker. Gunny kept his hands clasped behind his back and simply leaned out of the way. The momentum of his swing threw S. Newt off balance causing him to stumble forward. Gunny kicked out solidly connecting with the fumbling man’s ass. The impact lifted him off the ground and flung S. Newt into his Harley which toppled over with a loud crash.

“Damn boy, I even warned you I was gonna kick your ass,” Gunny chuckled as the onlookers laughed.

S. Newt climbed to his feet looking at his pride and joy, the very symbol of his redneck manhood, lying prone on the stone driveway. Furious he charged Gunny attempting to tackle him with a wrestling like spear. Gunny simply leaned forward allowing himself to be grappled taking a step back to absorb the impact. With S. Newt’s shoulder striking Gunny’s rock like abs and his arms wrapped around the Marine’s waist, Gunny simply thrust a knee into the stunned rednecks gut lifting his feet off the ground. By the third knee slamming, the gasping S. Newt simply collapsed, moaning pitifully as he curled into the fetal position.

“Boy you did good,” Gunny declared. “You just proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that you are an A number one dumbass motherfucker!”

Since Rue had less than anyone else to pack he began carrying bags out to the ATV. He reached the porch in time to see his dad attack Gunny. He was in even greater awe of the older man and even more disgusted with his father.

As the family loaded their things onto the ATV, Cyn looked down at her husband still curled upon the ground. She felt nothing but contempt for the boy she once stupidly loved. She had matured while he was still a functionally illiterate redneck hick. “I’ll see you in divorce court,” she declared in a harsh clearly disgusted tone.

“Rue, lead your family around to the back door of my place,” Gunny ordered. “I’ll be there before you get there but I’ve got to finish here first.”

“Yes sir, Gunny,” Rue smiled as he took the hands of his siblings and lead them and his mother out toward the road.

Cyn, proud of her oldest, smiled and followed, hoping she was finally doing the right thing. Although she was anxious about the future, in her heart she felt good. For the first time she’d stood up to S. Newt. Truth be told it was the first time she’d stood up to anyone.

S. Newt slowly recovered, pushing himself to a sitting position only to see the backs of his family as they walked away. Fury and rage filled him.

“Fuhl, I’ll give you some free advice,” Gunny declared in the solid authoritative voice of a Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant. “Grow the fuck up! Take responsibility for your life. Learn to be a man! I’d tell you to join the Marines but you’re already past maximum sign up age. You could join the army. Even they’d be able to help you grow up.”

“Go to hell,” S. Newt raged as he stood with his fists clenched facing Gunny.

“Damn, boy, you have got to be the stupidest bastard I’ve ever met,” Gunny snarled. “I’ve been to hell and back again. I’ve slogged through jungles, rice paddies, swamps and deserts while better men than you tried to kill me. Well, I’m still here and they’re not! This is my last warning. If you try to mess with me or those under my protection I WILL fuck you up!”

Gunny sat back into his ATV, started the engine, and backed out of the driveway. Before he drove away he spoke again as he looked at the gathered onlookers. “The show’s over, go home.” Then he looked at the dogs. “Fubar, Snafu, Home!” With that he drove away with the dogs trotting behind him.

As the crowed dispersed, S. Newt stood there in helpless rage. He’d been totally humiliated! His family left him. It was all Rue’s fault! He vowed the kid would pay! So would that damn Marine! And those fucking dogs! It took several minutes until he was able to get the Harley back on it’s wheels. As soon as it was upright, he hopped onto the seat and tore out of the trailer park heading for the bar.

Gunny looked back as he saw the cycle roar towards town. So did Cyn and the kids

Gunny waved as he slowed down to pass the Fuhls just as they reached his driveway. “Fubar, Snafu, escort,” he ordered the fearsome dogs trotting behind his ATV.

The dogs immediately split, one on either side of the Fuhls as they turned into Gunny’s driveway. By the time they reached the back of the house Gunny was just reaching the back door after parking the ATV in the barn and shutting the barn doors. The bags with their belongings had already been unloaded to the back porch.

“Let your things here and come inside,” Gunny said leading them inside through the twenty inch thick stone walls. “The entire place is old but solid. This is the kitchen.”

The large room took up half the first floor. The many counter tops as well as center island were made of thick oak planks. The area beneath the counters were open oak plank shelves. While there were no cabinets above the counters, there were abundant oak plank shelves. There was a large heavy oak plank dining table. Everything was well over a hundred years old, the oiled wood was worn smooth from use. The range was a huge 19th Century cast iron monster that used wood or coal as the heat source. The sink was an deep soapstone double sink. A standard electric range as well as a refrigerator, the only modern amenities, were also in place.

“This room is always warm,” Gunny explained. “That old wood cook stove heats the entire house in the winter and drives out the dampness during the summer. My family has kept the fire inside burning for at least sixty six years. My mother and grandmother did most of the cooking and baking on that antique. It burns wood or coal. It’s so efficient it’s only necessary to stoke the fire once a day.”

“The front of the house was divided into two equal rooms,” Gunny said as he led showed the rest of the first floor. “One is a sitting room and what had been a formal parlor. We never used it so I converted to a bathroom, laundry room and a small bedroom which is where I sleep. The laundry was out on the back porch which I always hated. When my mother graduated, I remodeled.”

They were all puzzled but Rue spoke up, “Graduated?”

“She was a devout Christian,” Gunny chuckled. “Since Jesus died to save us, she believed true believers never died. She said this life was a test of our faith. When the body dies, the spirit, the true person, takes their FINAL exam. When they pass they graduate to heaven. If they fail they go to hell.”

“That makes sense,” Cyn agreed.

“It does,” Gunny sighed. “It takes some of the sting out of losing a loved one or friend.”

Then he led them upstairs where their was a large master bedroom, three smaller bedrooms, and a full bathroom. “The air may be a bit stale and the rooms dusty,” Gunny explained. “I only come up here once every three months to flush the toilet and run water to fill the traps on the drains. This is where you’ll live. Pick your own rooms, use whatever you find. There is nothing up here that’s of importance to me. I assume you’ll need to strip the beds and wash the sheets before you sleep. Now, because of my stupidity I haven’t eaten in two days and from what Rue said none of you have eaten. Do you like pizza?”

“Yeah,” Will and Faith exclaimed.

“Then I’ll call in an order,” Gunny smiled. “Two large, extra cheese and pepperoni okay?”

“You don’t have...” Cyn began.

“Yes, I do have to order,” Gunny declared in a voice that booked no argument. “I broke up your supper. I invited you here. I hired you as my housekeeper. I’ve always respected those who work under me. I have no intention not to respect you nor do I expect you to do the impossible. I figure it’ll take several days for all of us to adapt to our new circumstances so we’ll start out easy.”

Gunny noticed the apprehensive looks on their faces. “Let me apologize. I’m not accustomed to being nice to people. I’ve spent too long alone and too much time ordering jarheads around. I’m not a bully but I am gruff. I need to adapt to being civil and polite. If I scare you or upset you, please tell.”

“We all have to adapt,” Cyn sighed. “We’re used to S. Newt snapping at us and beating us. It’s natural for us to flinch when someone sounds demanding.”

“Understood,” Gunny nodded. “I’ll call for the pizza.”

The beds were stripped and sheets gathered. The washing machine was soon running. The first load was in the dryer and the second load washing when the Pizza arrived.

As they were eating they heard the rumbling sound of the Harley echoing through the orchard from their former home. Cyn, Rue, Will and Faith froze. The Harley’s engine was gunned several times and the sound of a slurred voice could be heard cursing wildly.

Gunny sighed and looked at the frightened family. “That stupid son of a bitch just won’t learn, will he?”

There was no need to reply. The cursing and gunning engine continued. Gunny walked over to his phone and dialed 911.

“My name is Phil Graves. I live at 2918 Peter Getzoff Road. This afternoon I had a confrontation with a neighbor, S. Newt Fuhl.” ......... “Okay, I’m glad you’re aware of his issues. I hired his wife to be my housekeeper and moved her and the kids into my place. Needless to say he’s not happy. He’s currently at his trailer, which faces my place, gunning the engine on his Harley and cursing up a storm. I’m pretty sure he’s got himself a snoot full and am concerned he might try something really stupid leaving me no choice but to kill him in self defense. I’ve filled more than enough graves while in the Corps and have no desire to fill more so I’d appreciate it if you could send someone out since he’s disturbing the peace.” .......... “Yes, I’ll press charges.” ........... “Thank you, ma’am.”

Gunny returned to his seat and began eating. After a moment’s hesitation the Fuhls resumed eating doing their best to ignore the noise coming from their former home. The cursing and roaring engine continued.

It was just as they were finishing they saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser on the other side of the orchard. Led buy Gunny, they stepped onto the rear porch to watch. They could see the policeman exit his vehicle. The motorcycle went silent. The lights went on inside the trailer, moments later a gunshot rang out. The officer ran behind his cruiser and returned fire. Sporadic shots continued for fifteen minutes until more police arrived. Shouts for S. Newt to come out were answered with gunfire. The police surrounded the trailer and more shots were exchanged. Then they spotted flames which quickly spread as the police pulled back but kept the place covered. By the time the fire trucks arrived the entire trailer was engulfed by roaring flames. S. Newt had not exited.

On his porch Gunny shook his head. “What a waste.” Then he looked at the devastated family. “It’s over now. He’s dead and can’t hurt you. Do you want to go over?”

“I don’t,” Rue declared. “But I gotta make sure. After all these years of hell, I gotta make sure it’s over.”

“We all need the closure,” Cyn whispered as she hugged the wide eyed Will and Faith.

As the firefighters doused the flames Gunny lead the Fuhls to the fence. A policeman came over to urge them away.

“I’m Phil Graves, but everyone calls me Gunny. I’m the one who called in the complaint. This is his family and until this afternoon that was their home. Was anyone other than the perp injured?”

“No one was injured” The officer answered then looked at Cyn. “Mrs. Fuhl?”

“Yes,” she answered in a dead voice never taking her eyes away from the smoldering ruins of what had been her home for the past thirteen plus years.

“Do you have a place to stay?”

“She’s my housekeeper now,” Gunny answered. “She and the kids have their own bedrooms.”

“Okay, I’ll put it in my report,” the officer nodded. “We’ll have someone stop by tomorrow to get more details. Children’s Services will most likely stop by too. I recommend everyone stay home tomorrow.”

“We will stay on Russell Leeves Orchard,” Gunny assured the officer. “We may not be in the house but we’ll be on property. Let whoever is coming out know I’ve got a pair of military spec guard dogs. When they get to the house, have them stay in the vehicles and blow the horn. We’ll come get them.”

“Will do, Gunny,” the officer nodded.

“We’d like to stay until they find the body,” Gunny added. “They need closure.”

The officer nodded then headed over to the coroner and the fire chief to tell them.

The fire was quickly extinguished. The trailer was reduced to ruble atop the charred floor mounted on the twin steel beam frame. The coroner and fire fighters quickly found the charred body. As the body was secured the coroner approached.

“We found him,” the weary man declared. “It’ll be a few days while we do an autopsy. Let my office know who you want to handle the body.”

“Cremate him and flush the ashes down the toilet,” Rue declared in a low, tight voice. “That’s better than he deserves.”

When no one objected the coroner understood the man had to have been a brutal bastard. “I can’t do that, son. But once you have the ashes, you can do with them as you want.”

“Well Rue, at least the bullying is over,” Cyn tried to reassure her oldest.

“Here, but not at school,” Rue resignedly sighed.

“How bad does it get?” Gunny asked.

“Between the jocks and the rednecks I get hassled every day,” Rue replied. “If I’m lucky it’s only verbal. I get tripped in the halls and cafeteria and shoulder checked into the lockers nearly every day.”

“Why haven’t you told me?” Cyn asked. “I’ll go to the school and talk to them.”

“It won’t do any good,” Rue sighed. “I’ve been reporting the worst incidents to Vice Principal Hugh Jass at least once a week since I started middle school. He just says he’ll look into it but nothing ever happens.”

“Looks like you and me are going to do a bit of self defense training,” Gunny declared. “Do you have any proof you made those complaints?”

“Yeah,” Rue replied. “I’ve kept a log in the back of my homework notebook.”

Gunny lead the quiet family back to his place. Cyn and the kids silently pulled the dried sheets from the dryer then added the last load. Two beds were made. Cyn and Faith slept in one while Rue and Will slept in the other.

In the morning Cyn was not surprised that Gunny was just coming in the back door with the dogs. It was clear they’d just returned from a run.

“I’m particular about my coffee,” Gunny smiled. “I’d best show you how I like it.”

“Please do,” Cyn smiled sadly. “I know from waitressing a lot of vets prefer a strong blend.”

“That I do,” Gunny nodded. “Don’t forget to call off work and call the schools for the kids. I strongly suggest you call everyone off for the rest of the week.”

“I can’t afford to miss that much work,” Cyn sighed.

“You can now,” Gunny said. “Look, ma’am. I’ve got no family. I doubt that except for the kids the same is true for you. I own this place free and clear and have a very nice nest egg that will go to waste unless I have someone to pass it on to. I owe my life to Rue. That makes him family. That makes YOU family. With your permission, I intend to call my lawyer and have him apply to adopt you as my daughter. That’ll make the kids my grandchildren.”

“But you hardly know us,” Cyn protested.

“That’s where you’re wrong, ma’am,” Gunny explained. “I’ve watched you since you moved in next door. You have no idea how often I wanted to go over and kick your old man’s ass! Rue is a caring person so despite S. Newt you’ve done a hell of job raising your kids. I’d be honored to have you be my family.”

Cyn’s eyes filled with tears. “Are you sure?”

“Ma’am, I’m as sure of adopting you as I was about joining the Marines,” Gunny declared.

Cyn threw her arms about Gunny’s neck crying.

Rue entered the kitchen with his arms resting on the shoulders of his siblings. They stopped as they looked at their mother crying and hugging a stoic Gunny. “Is everything okay,” Rue asked softly.

“I just asked your mother’s permission to adopt her,” Gunny answered. “That will make you three my grandchildren.”

The three kids just looked at Gunny and their mom in open mouthed surprise.

“I’m being selfish,” Gunny said. “I don’t have any family and you guys need a positive grandfather figure. I think adopting your mom will solve both issues.”

“Mom, are you going to do it?” Rue asked hoping she would.

Cyn pulled away from Gunny wiping her eyes while trying to stifle her sobs.

“She’ll only agree if you three agree to be my grandchildren,” Gunny answered for her.

Rue reacted quickly as he pushed his siblings toward the gruff man while saying, “Let’s give gramps a hug.”

Soon there was a five way hug.

“A few rules,” Gunny said as he kept his arms around his new family. “First, I want you all to call me Gunny. Gramps makes me feel old.”

“Sure thing, Gunny,” Rue promptly replied as his siblings nodded.

“The second rule is no one gets a free ride,” Gunny smiled. “You’ll all have age appropriate chores and all school assignments will be done. If your chores are done and your schoolwork is good, you’ll receive a weekly allowance. That goes for you too Cyn. Keep one of your day jobs, quit the other and your weekend job after giving them proper notice. My daughter is NOT a dropout. We’ll discuss further education once you complete your GED.”

Cyn bit her lip as she fought back tears. Up to now it had been an unachievable dream to earn her GED. Now, thanks to Gunny, she could do it... and more! She lost the effort to hold back the tears of joy.

The kids realized they were tears of joy.

“The third rule is to be honest,” Gunny continued once the tears ended. “I hate lies and liars. If you can’t speak the truth, say nothing.”

“The fourth and last rule is mainly for you kids,” Gunny finished after seeing they’d all nodded. “Never be afraid to come to me with a problem. If you’re being bullied, verbally or physically, I want to know. The only way you ever be happy in your life is to be true to yourself. So if one of you boys want to take ballet lessons, say so. Faith, if you want to play football, say so. I don’t care if you’re straight or gay or whatever. I want you to feel free to tell us so we can support you.”

Rue was stunned. “You’d accept us being gay?”

“Damn right,” Gunny firmly declared. “I’m not saying I’d agree with whatever you tell us, but we will respect your choices. I had Marines serving under me who were gay. They were good men who I trusted with my life and the lives of the rest of my men. I hope your mother agrees.”

“Yes I do, Gunny,” Cyn agreed. “Wholeheartedly!”

“One other thing,” Gunny said. “If I even get a hint that you’re smoking cigarettes or pot, or taking any kind of illegal drugs, Ill kick your asses! The same goes for underage drinking. Once you’re of age, drinking is okay if done so moderately. I occasionally enjoy a beer or a good glass of wine with a meal. But never drink to excess. Cyn, you’re an adult, so moderate drinking is okay. If you ever get drunk, I’ll kick your ass.”

“Did you ever get drunk or smoke pot and stuff?” Will asked.

“I want you to be honest. So will I,” Gunny declared. “I was seventeen when I joined the Marines. After basic I was sent to ‘Nam. I smoked tobacco, got drunk, and smoked pot because everyone every one on my squad did. We all got plastered and high the night before my eighteenth birthday because we were going out on a patrol the next day. I spent my eighteenth birthday slogging through rice paddies. My squad and I were hung over real bad. When it was our turn we were put on point. When the VC machine guns opened up on us we were too slow. I took a bullet through my helmet, I have a scar where it tore through my scalp. The impact stunned me and knocked me down. I watched the rest of my buddies get cut down. Half of them were killed outright, two others died of their wounds, the last two survived but were crippled. I was the only one able to walk out. I became a demon after that. I made the VC pay for what they did. But I also took responsibility for my part in the mess. After that I never smoked tobacco or pot, never touched any drugs. Until I left the corp twenty nine years later, I didn’t touch alcohol. That day taught me a hard lesson, one I never forgot nor ever will. I don’t want you to learn any similar hard lessons.”

Phone calls were made reporting Cyn and the kids off for the week as well as to Gunny’s lawyer who agreed to drive out to begin the paperwork on the adoption as well as to assist Cyn with legal issues involving her late husband.

Pat Downe was the first to arrive. The Sheriff of the rural Kenyadiggett County, Punsylvania only had eight deputies, but had served under Gunny during Desert Storm and had tremendous respect for the man. When he learned Gunny was involved in the previous night’s shoot out, he knew he had to do the interview. He also knew Gunny was a straight shooter who would speak the truth without embellishments. He chuckled as the barking guard dogs circled his cruiser.

“Fubar, Snafu, down,” Gunny called out as he approached.

Pat exited the car laughing. “Fubar and Snafu, huh. Appropriate names considering your past. How are you doing Gunny.” The sheriff held out his hand.

“Pretty good, actually,” Gunny replied as the men exchanged firm respectful handshakes. “While I hate what happened I’m glad it went down with only one dying and I’m glad I didn’t have to put him down like the rabid beast he was.”

“I can imagine, Gunny,” Pat agreed. “You were never afraid to kill but you never liked doing it. I understand the family is staying with you?”

“Yes,” Gunny answered as he led the sheriff inside. “Pat, I’ll let you know up front I intend to adopt Cyn Fuhl as my daughter.”

“It’s about time you get a family,” Pat smiled.

The next hour was spent with Pat questioning Gunny and the Fuhls about S. Newt. What he learned made him upset the man had gotten away with his abuse. It was also clear to all that Gunny had paid close attention to the family

Just as the sheriff was leaving another vehicle pulled up to the house. Gunny noted the car needed new shocks on the drivers side as it was hanging a good three inches lower than the right side. The dogs were sitting patiently watching the car, waiting to be told what to do. The car door opened and a woman exited, literally dragging herself out. As she did so the suspension leveled the car. Gunny put on his poker face. The woman appeared to be about five feet five and had to weigh at least three hundred fifty pounds. The dogs cocked their heads to one side in confusion.

“Ma’am, I’m Gunny Graves.”

“I’m Ella Fant from the Kenyadiggett County Child Protective Services, Mr Graves,” The smiling woman replied as she waddled towards him extending a hand.

“Ma’am,” Gunny smiled warmly as he shook her hand. “The Fuhls are inside.”

A few moments later they were all seated around the heavy table in the kitchen. Ella was upset no one had reported the abuse. Rue explained what he had to endure to save his siblings and mom. Cyn said she put up with it to save the kids. Fortunately both had been effective targets so Will and Faith had mostly avoided physical abuse. Ella admitted that unfortunately theirs was not an unusual story for the area. She was also relieved that Gunny was adopting them as his family which relieved the beleaguered Kenyadiggett County of looking after another shattered family. She left satisfied the situation had been positively resolved asking only that she receive a copy of the adoption papers for the family’s files.

A bit after she left a third vehicle pulled up. The dogs dutifully barked and assumed position. Gunny once more headed out to greet his visitor. After calling off the dogs he greeted Lee Galade, his lawyer. Lee was also an ex-jarhead who had served under Gunny in Desert Storm greatly respecting his idol. He used his Veteran’s benefits to get his law degree. Once inside he was delighted to meet Gunny’s pending family. When he learned about how S. Newt had treated them he was furious. The fact everything had been in his name was a relief since that meant Cyn was not responsible for any of the costs in the clean-up. The fire had also destroyed both the beat up car Cyn had used as well as the Harley.

After lunch Gunny took his new family on a tour of Russell Leeves Orchard. The boundaries of the thirty acre Russell Leeves Orchard were Peckerwood Estates Mobile Home Park on the east, Peter Getzoff Road on the north, the Connectdadots River was the south boundary and a fast moving fifteen feet wide stream named Donny Brook on the west. The Connectdadots River cut it’s path between a high hill on the south side and a fairly level plateau on the north. Russell Leeves Orchard was situated on the plateau. There was an impassable bramble strewn steep twenty feet high rocky bluff dropping into the river bed. The area where the Donny Brook flowed into the Connectdadaots River was a gentler incline that was easily traversed. While old, the buildings were in top shape. There were four free range hens and a rooster in the coup. The dogs made sure there was no need for a protective fence. Gunny said they’d have to increase the flock to a dozen hens. In the bottom of the barn was a pen that he said could hold a cow for fresh milk. They were amazed as he told them what he had grown in the now winterized fallow garden.

As the family settled in they made a list of things they needed and, at Gunny’s insistence, things they wanted. Wednesday afternoon Gunny drove them to WalMart. Leading them into the electronics department he set them up on a family plan with five cell phones. The only one who had a cell phone was Cyn and her’s was a cheap pay as you go phone. Next he bought each of them laptops. He already had a top of the line system and internet hookup. Then they hit the groceries to fill a more kid friendly pantry.

Each morning Gunny ran laps around his property. Now he insisted Rue accompany him. When they were done Gunny spent nearly an hour in the barn teaching Rue how to defend himself.

As the week went on the owner of Peckerwood Estates Mobile Home Park went after Cyn to pay for the cleanup of the trailer and vehicles. However, their efforts were quickly squelched by Lee Galade when he pointed out the titles of all three were solely in S. Newt’s name, that there had been no insurance on his possessions or life, and that he had no bank accounts, legally his was an insolvent estate. As his wife Cyn decided to hold no funeral and once the autopsy was completed on Thursday and the remains were cremated that afternoon.

“Despite being a stupid bastard he was your spouse and father,” Gunny declared. “His remains are yours to dispose. Throwing them in the garbage might be satisfying but it’s not right and in a couple of years it’ll eat at you. Rue, do you trust me?”

“Yes sir,” Rue prompt replied with the others nodding agreement.

Friday afternoon Gunny drove the family to pick up the ashes. No words were said. After a long drive they pulled off the road into the Dwayne Dwopp Nature Preserve. Since it was drizzling Gunny pulled out a seven feet by ten feet tarp. Gunny took the front and lead with Cyn holding up the middle with Rue holding the rear. Will followed Gunny carrying the ashes with Faith behind Cyn. They followed a grassy path through the swampy bottom land to dump the ashes into the myriad of intertwined streams and waterways, never to be seen again while at the same time letting the cleansing wetlands do what they did best.

As they drove home, the heavy oppressive cloud that had been over the family lifted.

“Gunny, that was the perfect solution,” Cyn sighed after they’d traveled a few miles.

“I’m not proud to say that I’m personally responsible for the deaths of dozens, possible hundreds of people,” Gunny softly said. “That they occurred while completing assigned military missions does not lessen the guilt I feel for taking life. In fact the guilt is what helps me deal with taking their lives. Feeling guilty tells me I’m still maintaining my humanity. If I ever lose the guilt, I’ll lose a big part of my humanity. There are times the guilt grows overpowering. When it does I head out to the Dwayne Dwopp Swamp. It’s a lot like the swamps I encountered in ‘Nam. They’re both beautiful. Over there it was also deadly. Here the peace washes away the tension and anxiety. I’m able to reconnect with nature, with life. I’m able to recenter myself. That’s what I hoped you’d feel while we freed S. Newt’s remains. His ashes can reintegrate with the peace and beauty of nature.”

The family smiled sadly hoping that S. Newt’s soul might finally find peace.

After a few miles Rue asked a question that had been niggling his mind. “Gunny, that Mach I, it looks almost new. Did you restore it?”

“No, I bought it new when I returned from my first tour in ‘Nam,” Gunny answered. “I was upset with what I’d seen, what I’d done, how many I killed, and how many of my buddies came home dead or terribly wounded. It cost $3560.00 right off the showroom floor. When I was stationed stateside it was with me. When I went out of country, I stored it in a garage. It was and still is my baby. When I bought it, I was afraid to make any close friends. It hurt to much to lose them. I took care of the men I commanded but avoided getting too close. I was like the wise big brother who kept them out of trouble, in later years I was like their dad. After I retired I came home, my mom graduated that same year. I’ve been alone on the orchard for twenty years. Not getting close to people had become my way of life. That is until you came along, Rue. I knew the first time I saw you that you were something special. Even without meeting I felt our spirits were connected. You have no idea how often I struggled not to go over to your trailer and knock some sense into your dad. Then you saved my life. We were destined to be together. I think the collapse of the ramps, getting trapped under my baby, was God’s way of kicking me in the ass to finally get me to stop being so alone and help you. So, now we’re family. Again, thank you.”

“Can we have a REAL Thanksgiving this year?” Faith asked softly.

“Thanksgiving... yeah... the last family Thanksgiving dinner I had was 1967,” Gunny said. “That sounds like a real good idea. Cyn, can you do it or should we just make reservations?”

“If everyone pitches in we can do it right at home,” Cyn agreed with a huge smile.

They stopped at a grocery chain to get what they needed plus other goodies,

The kids returned to school on Monday and Cyn returned to work. None of her employers were happy with her demand to have Thanksgiving off. When she told them she’d been working every holiday for the last ten years they backed down. The owner of Frank Furter’s Burger Shack wasn’t happy to be losing a dependable employee but couldn’t fault her for having plans to improve herself. The same held true for her weekend job at Frank N. Bean’s Family Restaurant.

Cyn signed up to earn her GED at Jack Soffalot Community College. They had her take placement tests to see what she needed since it had been twelve years since she dropped out of ninth grade. Fortunately they were willing to give her credit for life experiences, thus the placement tests.

While no one hassled Will and Faith at Rita Booke Elementary School, several kids from Peckerwood Estates as well as a few arrogant self entitled bigots did hassle Rue at Jenny Talia Middle School. The trailer park kids hadn’t liked the warning Gunny had given them and felt confident the old man couldn’t do anything to them. Even though Rue said nothing, it was clearly evident to Gunny and Cyn he’d been hassled. Accustomed to being abused, Rue merely lowered his head and endured.

By the time school let out on Wednesday, Rue was clearly depressed. Despite the late fall chill, once his chores and homework were completed and supper served and cleaned up, he slipped on a coat and walked the property. Cyn told Gunny she’d never seen Rue so depressed. Gunny slipped outside and utilizing his military training to move silently followed the forlorn boy as he moped about. After two hours Rue returned to the house with Gunny quietly slipping inside. Both Gunny and Cyn tried to get him to open up but neither was successful.

Thanksgiving dawned overcast. Will and Faith watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade on TV while Rue assisted Cyn preparing the main meal. Much to the consternation of Gunny and Cyn the lad was unusually quiet. No amount of coaxing could draw him out. The rest of the long holiday weekend was more of the same. Like many schools in areas where there was a strong hunting culture, the Monday after Thanksgiving was the start of deer season and the students had the day off.

Tuesday morning the kids headed off to school. It was clear that Rue really didn’t want to go, something that was quite unusual. Cyn headed off to her waitress job at Hammond Egs Pancake House while Gunny set about his daily chores. A bit after noon his cell phone rang. It was Cyn who told him Rue had been in a fight at school. She was on her way there and asked if Gunny could meet her there. Jumping in his Mach I Super Cobra Jet he tore down the road arriving at the same time as Cyn. Together they headed to the school office. After identifying themselves they were sent to the office of Vice Principal, Hugh Jass. After exchanging handshakes they all took seats.

“During lunch after getting his food Reuben tripped and fell,” Mr. Jass explained. “His meal scattered across the floor. When he stood up he had his empty tray in his hands and used it like an ax to attack a boy. The boy’s breathing was severely impacted since his larynx was partially crushed. Reuben is automatically suspended for a week. The police might file charges against him in which case he’ll be permanently suspended.”

“I can’t believe Rue would do something like that,” Cyn said. “He’s never been violent.”

“The lunch Procter witnessed the attack so there is no doubt Reuben hit the boy,” Hugh affirmed Rue’s guilt.”

Cyn was clearly upset and disappointed but Gunny spoke up. “Did the Procter see Rue trip?”

“No, the noise of the breaking plates drew the Procter’s attention,” Mr. Jass answered.

“I’m willing to bet the boy that Rue struck tripped him,” Gunny replied.

“Why would he do that?” Mr. Jass asked. “The boy he hurt, Dick Beeter, was taken to the hospital. His father is Peter Beeter. I can almost guarantee he’ll be pressing for Reuben’s arrest.”

‘Oh God,” Cyn sniffled. “Peter Beeter! He’s the richest man in Kenyadiggett County!”

“I assume you have surveillance cameras in the public areas of the school,” Gunny calmly declared.

“Yes, we do,” Hugh Jass hesitantly admitted.

Gunny nodded then asked, “How long do you keep the recordings?”

“One month,” Hugh Jass replied.

“I’d like to view all of them,” Gunny stated cooly.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Hugh declared.

“Just as you’ve blown off all the complaints of being bullied Rue made,” Gunny growled. “For your sake you’d better have records of his at least weekly complains and your investigations.”

Hugh Jass was sweating as Gunny pulled out his cell phone and dialed. “Lee, are you available to immediately come down to Jenny Talia Middle School? My grandson has been bullied for a long time and the school has done nothing to stop it. Today he was tripped as he came off the food line. It pushed him over the edge so he retaliated by using the edge of the tray to chop the bully in the throat. The bully is in emergency at the hospital getting checked out. The school is suspending Rue for a week with hopes of expulsion. They have video from the halls and cafeteria for the last month and are refusing to let me see them. They are also refusing to let me see the files about his at least weekly complaints about the bullying and the resolution of the investigations. I’ll wager the complaints were never recorded or investigated.” .......... “Yes, I’ll stay here in the office until you arrive with the court order. Could you also ask Ella Fant from Kenyadiggitt CPS to meet us here since she is Rue’s caseworker.” .......... “I’ll let the Vice Principal know. Thank you, Lee, see you soon.”

Hugh Jass had grown nervous as the phone conversation progressed. “Mr. Graves, there’s no need to involve a lawyer...”

“Like hell,” Gunny snarled. “I politely asked to view the tapes. You refused. Now I’ll wait here to make sure you don’t tamper with any of the recordings until my attorney Lee Galade arrives with the court order.”

Gunny’s hard steely glare made Hugh Jass realize he was in deep shit and that Gunny was not about to back down.

“Mr. Jass, please write a note releasing Rue to Cyn. Cyn, collect Rue and bring him into the office,” Gunny ordered. “I want to make sure no one attempts to intimidate him.”

After Cyn headed off to retrieve Rue, Gunny glared at Hugh Jass. “This shit is going to end today,” Gunny declared in his tough as nails Master Gunnery Sergeant voice that would accept nothing but crushing enemies. “I will not stop until every staff member and executive of the I. P. Daly School District who has allowed bullying to flourish has been fired, with their professional credentials revoked and are serving time in jail. You’ve FUCKED your last helpless kid. Now it’s MY turn to fuck over each and every one of you. NO ONE MESSES WITH MY GRANDSON AND GETS AWAY WITH IT! Now you better notify your superiors the shit is about to hit the fan!” Gunny headed out to the office reception area where he joined Cyn and a very upset Rue.

Lee Galade wasted no time. He headed for the courthouse to file a hastily made law suit alleging systematic abuse by the I. P. Daly School District. He managed to get an immediate preliminary meeting with Judge Lauren Norder. She knew the taciturn Gunny as a conscientious man who stood by anyone who was in need. She issued restraining orders against the I. P. Daly School District to prevent them from destroying or altering records. She also ordered they turn over copies of all surveillance tapes for the last month as well as copies of all abuse complaints Reuben had made.

It was 1:30pm when Lee Galade arrived at Jenny Talia Middle School, meeting up with Ella Fant at the entrance to the school’s office. Together they headed to the office. Gunny was seated in the reception area of the office with Cyn and a very subdued Rue. They warmly greeted each other.

At 1:45pm Hugh Jass invited them into the conference room. Mr. Jass first introduced Dick Cox, Esquire, a senior partner in the law firm of Dixon, Cox and Peters, the I. P. Daly School District’s solicitor. Next was Dr. Bea Hardigan, the Superintendent of Schools. Lastly was Jack Hass, Principal of the middle school.

“Let’s start with today’s incident,” Lee Galade began. “Reuben admits to striking Dick Beeter in the throat with the edge of a tray. What I want to know is if you questioned Reuben about the incident or did you simply suspend him?”

“The cafeteria proctor saw it happen and he readily confessed so there was no reason for further question,” Hugh Jass replied.

Lee looked at Rue. “Rueban, why did you strike the boy?”

“He tripped me as I walked by his table,” Rue explained. “I took a nose dive to the floor with everything on the tray flying all over the place. I just lost it and swung the tray at him. I didn’t mean to hit him in the throat.”

Lee nodded then turned to the Vice Principal. “Mr. Jass, do you have the surveillance tape of the incident?”

“That is privileged information that the school will not release,” Dick Cox declared.

“Here is a court order signed this afternoon by Judge Lauren Norder demanding copies of all surveillance tapes for the last month,” Lee said as he slipped a copy of two court orders to Dick Cox. “The second court order demands copies of all complaints of bullying Reuben has presented to the Vice Principal with the outcome of the investigations done on each. Just to let you know, Reuben has documented each occurrence since he started middle school. By the I. P. Daly School District’s policies on bullying, every complaint by a student is to be logged, investigated and a summary of findings attached.”

“This is the notebook my grandson has been keeping,” Gunny growled. “He made thirty six formal complaints to Mr. Jass last year and twelve so far this year. The court order requires you to give us copies. You did follow district protocol concerning bullying, didn’t you Mr. Jass?”

Mr. Hugh Jass was sweating and fidgeting in his seat. The Principal, Mr. Jack Hass, and Superintendent, Dr. Bea Hardigan, looked equally uncomfortable.

Seeing their reactions, Dick Cox spoke up. “The I. P. Daly School District will supply copies of all Reuben’s complaints and copies of the surveillance tapes as you’ve requested. It should take us a week to get them together.”

“Mr. Cox, I have the distinct feeling you do not have records on the complaints Reuben made,” Ms Ella Fant stated. “Since we’re here now, I insist you show us the originals. We will not take them, but there is no reason we can’t examine them. In fact, if the complaints about bullying were properly handled, we won’t need copies.”

The Superintendent, Principal, and Vice Principal were still silently squirming. Dick Cox glared at them as he realized they were hiding something. “Dr. Hardigan, is there a problem with the complaints?”

Dr. Hardigan sighed. “Perhaps we should step outside for a brief discussion before we continue.”

“Something smells rotten,” Gunny snarled as his laser-like gaze swept across the educators. “I think you should have your discussion in here while we step outside. Mr. Cox, I think you’re an honest man and don’t want to sully the reputation of your firm. By that I mean none of you will make any calls to try to fake complaint logs. Let’s give these Education Professionals fifteen minutes to discuss the implications of not being able to provide the complaint forms.”

It was 2:00pm when Gunny walked to the door, opening it to allow everyone on Reuben’s side to exit. His hard as nails glare swept over the three professionals. “You have fifteen minutes,” he added before exiting.

“I hate to think they might have not followed their own procedures,” Lee Galade sighed.

“Lee, if they did nothing about the bullying complaints Rue made, which I strongly suspect, I want the immediate suspension of Vice Principal Hugh Jass, Principal Jack Haas and Superintendent Bea Hardigan,” Gunny coldly stated. “I want to sue the I. P. Daly School District for at least a million dollars after your fees. One quarter of that for each of the kids and the other for Cyn. Cyn, I think you should head over to Rita Booke Elementary to pick up Will and Faith. Ms Fant, I think you should contact the DA’s office to have the entire I. P. Daly School District investigated for systematic child abuse.”

“I’ll be back as soon as I pick up Will and Faith,” Cyn said.

“If they don’t have the complaints I’ll call the DA for arrest warrants for the three and search warrants for the district,” Ella Fant assured them. “There will be no question that they allowed bullying to occur.”

At 2:15pm the end of the fifteen minute time limit Gunny had set he knocked on the door of the conference room. By 4:00 the police and Kenyadiggett DA Grant Jurie arrived with search warrants for all buildings and arrest warrants for the three administrators.

Over the next few days the investigation was quite thorough. There were no bullying complaints recorded in any of the schools in the district. The surveillance videos revealed rampant bullying in the middle and high school. Rue had not been the only one bullied but it was clear he had been a favored target, especially by Dick Beeter. There were more than three dozen kids who were identified as multiple victims in the one month of surveillance tapes they had. There was no way of knowing how many others had been victimized before that time. Hugh Jass, Jack Haas, and Bea Hardigan as well as the Vice Principal and Principal of the Marcus Abcent High School were arrested and bailed themselves out. The I. P. Daly School Board then suspended and eventually fired.

The day after the search warrants were issued, Lee Galade had a chance to talk to Judge Lauren Norder about Gunny’s application to adopt Cyn Fuhl. Cyn and Gunny were summoned to the judge’s chambers that afternoon and the adoption approved.

The video of the incident that started everything revealed Rue had indeed been intentionally tripped by Dick Beeter. Other’s showed him harassing Rue at every opportunity. Incidents of bullying occurred every day, sometimes more than once. With the hierarchy of the district in shambles, Rue’s suspension fell to the wayside and no further action on the matter was taken by the school district.

Peter Beeter, Dick’s father, wanted Rue arrested for attacking his son with the tray. That was until Sheriff Pat Downe showed the outraged man the video of Dick intentionally tripping Rue and laughing until the tray hit him. After watching the other twenty three videoed incidents of Dick Beeter tripping or body checking Rue over the previous month, none of which Rue retaliated, was enough to give Peter second thoughts, especially when he found out Gunny was Rue’s grandfather. The matter was quietly dropped.

The Punsylvania State Department of Education quickly arranged interim Superintendent, Principals, and Vice Principals while launching a forensic investigation of the entire I. P. Daly School District. The interim administrators stomped on the school’s student and faculty bullies. Nearly ten percent of the teachers were caught up in the scandal and resigned. The evidence of gross negligence on the part of the school district was overwhelming. The school’s liability insurer decided to quietly pay the million dollars to Rue and family to avoid court. The money was placed into trusts. Many trials were still to be held for the educator abusers. The state maintained a tight rein on the I. P. Daly School District as they began to set right the wholesale abuse.

The rest of the week was crazy as news of the abuse fiasco spread through the school like wildfire. Investigators and police were visibly present in every school. The video identified victims of bullying were questioned. They pointed to others who had been victimized. The bullies were pulled in and intensely questioned. The students and teachers felt the pressure. But most importantly, bullying stopped.

For the first time in his life, Rue could go to school without fear. That coupled with the loving home with his grandfather, mother and siblings as well as the death of his abusive dad created it’s own issues. Rue was able to emerge from his life long protective shell. Rue now had the ability to be his own person. However that led to an identity crisis.

Just who was Reuben Fuhl? Rue simply did not fit in with the other guys at school and he never had. The few casual friends he had managed to make over the years were all girls. With the pressure to always watch his back gone and the comfort of a safe loving home he realized he simply didn’t fit in. With the freedom to examine and think about his life he felt awkward, something just wasn’t right.

Will and Faith blossomed like spring flowers. Cyn and Gunny had expected Rue to also perk up and finally find joy in his life. However, it quickly became evident the boy had no idea what to do. Before his life had been protecting his siblings and picking up the housework to help his overstretched mother as well as offering his body as a punching bag by his dad. Now he had no purpose. By the week before Christmas Rue was a morose shadow of himself slowly sinking further into the mire of self depreciation and loathing.

Nothing Cyn or Gunny did seemed to help. Gunny felt something niggling at the back of his mind that simply wouldn’t come into the light. He knew it was important but the more he tried to force it out the more elusive it became.

After supper on Sunday December 24, Rue hugged his siblings, mother and Gunny before heading out to tend to the chickens. Gunny sat nursing his after meal coffee. Rue was constantly on his mind. There was something about the way Rue was behaving that brought the niggle at the back of his mind forward. Gunny became lost in his musing as he drew the elusive thought forth. His thoughts moved to recalling his past. Like Rue, Phil never fit in with his classmates

With a sigh he finished his musing and coffee. Then the niggle sprang forth in technicolor. Rue was acting suicidal! Much as he had before joining the Marines! Grabbing his coat, flashlight, and cell phone he dashed out the back door with Snafu and Fubar in frantic search of Rue. This time of the year night had fallen. There was no sign of him at the chicken coop although the full feed trough was clear evidence he had been there. Gunny remembered where he’d gone when he needed to think. Not wanting to startle Rue he kept the flashlight off. With the dogs by his side he made his way down the trail leading to the meeting point of the Donny Brook with the Connectdadots River.

There were a lot of rocks and boulders build up on the upstream side of the confluence forming a mini peninsula. The moonlight reflecting off the river silhouetted the very forlorn Rue sitting on the largest rock. Gunny breathed a sigh of relief. Slowly and creating just enough noise to let the boy he was approaching without startling him, Gunny made his way to the rock.

“I spent many hours sitting on this rock forty nine years ago,” Gunny said in a soft voice as he sat beside Rue. “Watching the water is hypnotizing and relaxing, it’s a good way to meditate, especially at night. Rue, I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone. It’s been my lifelong secret. Do you think you can handle my confession?”

Rue had been expecting to be chewed out. With disbelief he looked at Gunny who sat gazing into the moonlight reflective rippling water. He could feel Gunny was reaching deep inside to pull his secret forth. “I promise not to tell anyone.”

“Good, I wouldn’t like my secret to get out. I’m too old and too messed up mentally to do anything about it,” Gunny confessed. “Back in 1968 it was here that I decided to join the Marines. Back then I had a lot of issues. I was never comfortable in my body. In school I had no friends. To make up for my social ineptitude I embraced my birthday, April 1, as an excuse for being weird. That year Gore Vidol wrote a quite controversial book that came out in February called Myra Breckinridge. It explored how gender-roles and sexual-orientation were social constructs established by social mores. Conservatives panned it as pornography and perversion in the wild late sixties. The controversy it created brought it to my curious attention and I managed to buy a copy. It certainly wasn’t the greatest book but I found I couldn’t put it down, finishing it on the eve of my seventeenth birthday. My world crashed on that spring day of my junior year. That book changed my world. I finally understood why I didn’t fit in. The reason I never fit in with the guys, why I always felt off... well although I definitely had a male body I was not a boy and had never been a boy, I was transsexual!”

Rue’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. “Y... you felt like you were a girl trapped in a boy’s body?”

“Yes I did and I still do,” Gunny sighed. “Back then it was nearly impossible to do anything but hide it. With that knowledge my world turned upside down and inside out. My first impulse was to kill myself. But I lacked the will to do so. I also knew the impact of my suicide would crush my family. Besides, I was too much of a coward to actually do the deed. That didn’t change the fact I wanted to die. Then inspiration hit! My father had brrn a Marine. I never met him because he came home from the Korean War in a body bag. Back in 1968 the Vietnam War was raging, the savagery of the TET offensive was still fresh in everyone’s mind. I decided to drop out of school and join the Marines with the intention of going to ‘Nam and be killed. I’d die a hero!”

Rue shivered. “If you had been killed....”

“But I wasn’t,” Gunny smiled as he glanced at Rue. “No matter how much my mother and grandparents begged I would not be dissuaded. Reluctantly they agreed to let me join. For a farm boy the grueling training of boot camp was not unduly difficult. I put everything I had into the training and excelled in all activities. I went to ‘Nam, saw my friends killed and maimed, and became a fearless killing machine. I was always found in the thick of fire fights. By the end of my first tour I was a Corporal. I survived, bought the Mach I, kept training and volunteered for a second tour. By the end of my second tour I was a Sergeant. The welcome embrace of death evaded my battlefield heroics. By the end of my second tour I realized the discipline of the Corps held my transsexualism at bay. By the same token being transsexual kept me away from seeking any companionship, male or female. Simply seeing a well dressed woman brought up pangs of desire to emulate them but I used the obstacle course to crush those desires. No matter the duty assignment, I seldom went off base during my free time in order to avoid the temptation. The positive of that was that I saved 75% of my pay and took every course the USMC offered to broaden my skills. By the time I reached thirty years in the Corps, I was a tough as nails USMC Master Gunnery Sergeant. I returned home to nurse my mother through her last illness then put myself into the rebuilding of what remained of Russell Leeves Orchard.”

“The desire to explore my feminine side never evaporated,” Gunny explained as he stared at the rippling water. “But the idea of doing anything about it after my USMC experiences seemed ludicrous. My tough guy persona had become so much a part of me it was impossible to let it go. Besides, I knew I’d never make a passable female. I’d be butt ugly. My innate drive to be the best in all I did would leave me too aggravated and frustrated if I wasn’t passable. I made peace with my situation a long time ago and live with it. Over the years I often wondered why I survived the combat. The first time I saw you I was drawn to you but I could never figure out why. I told you and your mom I’d been watching you for years. Today I finally figured out what has drawn me to you.”

After a few moment’s of silence Rue softly and hesitantly asked, “Wh... what did you figure out?”

“I figured out you are just like me,” Gunny said as he reached out with both hands to grasp Rue’s hands. “You’re a girl trapped in a boy’s body.”

Rue stiffened and would have bolted if Gunny hadn’t been holding his hands. Fears of being beaten into oblivion nearly overwhelmed him.

“Rue, I’m your grandfather,” Gunny reassured him as he pulled the shaking youth into a gentle loving embrace. “I’m going to everything I can to make your need to be a girl come true! I couldn’t do it for myself, but my struggle has set me up to help YOU become the girl you are! I love you and will never beat you. Your mother loves you and she won’t beat you. Together, we will get through this. The whole business with the I. P. Daly School District was to stamp out the bullying so you can transition in safety. I promise to be at your side through ever step of your transformation. You, my lovely granddaughter, will have me right by your side every step of the way. Anyone trying to mess with you will have to go through me first!”

Rue broke down sobbing as he realized his grandfather was on his side.

By the time they returned to the house Cyn was worried as were Will and Faith. She hugged Rue then scolded him and Gunny for being out so late.

“You know Rue has been super depressed,” Gunny said as he kept an arm about his grandchild. “Well, Rue died tonight.”

Cyn and Faith gasped. Will asked the question. “Did you try to kill yourself?

“I was thinking about it,” Rue confessed.

“Not too seriously but like I said, Rue is dead, Gunny replied. “I’d like to introduce my granddaughter, Joy. As in Joy to the World this Christmas Eve.”

Will whined, “You mean I got another sister?”

“Yes,” Gunny smiled. “Which leaves YOU as my only grandson. You and I will have to stick together now.”

“You’re Joy now,” Faith said uncertainly. “That means you’re my big sister now?”

“Yes,” Joy replied with a smile as Faith threw herself into Joy’s welcome embrace.

“I don’t understand,” Cyn looked to Gunny.

“Think about how Rue behaved,” Gunny said. “Didn’t he mother Will and Faith? Didn’t he clean the house and do the laundry to help you? Did he ever play with the other kids in the trailer park? Rue was never a boy. While SHE has a boy’s body, she has a girl’s soul and mind. In your heart you know he’s always been girly.”

Cyn thought back and realized Gunny was right. Rue had never been a real boy! “So, Joy, you’re my daughter now?”

“Yes mommy,” Joy smiled crying tears of happiness as she brought her mother into a three way hug with Faith.

‘Girls,” Will snorted.

“Son, one day not to far in the future you’ll appreciate girls,” Gunny smiled as he slipped an arm over the boy’s shoulder.

“If you say so, Gunny,” Will replied.

On that wonderful Christmas Eve, Rue Fuhl was forever replaced by Joy Fuhl.



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