Latimer watched Rocco with one eye and paid attention to his eldest son with the other. He wasn’t impressed with Rocco’s treatment so far.
Miss Phu was a nice lady and she kept a clean, well run orphanage with healthy children, but he wasn’t going to buy the excuse that Rocco had ‘slipped through the cracks’. No-one knew how to talk to the boy because no-one had tried hard enough. That was clear from the way Dominic looked at him.
“I’m not sure if he’s actually mute. I think he’s just traumatised. Either he can’t remember how to speak or he never knew.” He explained his theory.
Latimer listened uncritically; he trusted his son to notice the signs of trauma. He had worked with abused and neglected children at the community centre for two years now, some of them deaf.
What worried him was how Rocco would deal with change. It could do one of two things; bring him to life or send him crawling further down into his shell of solitude.
“Hmm. Well, we could certainly help him with that, if he wanted to learn. But he communicates with more than nods and gestures?” He asked, just to make sure he knew what he was dealing with.
“Sure, he was signing to me just a little while ago. And, dad…” Dominic leaned in closer. “He’s reading ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t see him picking up taste like that here.” He hinted quietly. “Either one of the kids brought it in from the outside or someone gave it to him. All the books on these shelves are school books or kid friendly novels. I’ve not seen one Classic in this place.” He explained.
Latimer had to nod his agreement; he’d given the library shelves a quick perusal on the way past as well. With everything organised alphabetically and in hardback, which he guessed was to limit damage to the books, it was clear that classical literature wasn’t top priority. There were a lot of pre-teen books and then those above that age group were along the lines of Skulduggery Point and teen romance. There wasn’t a Jane Austen, Edgar Allen Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle among them.
“And considering how pale he is, I don’t think he’s ever been outside for more than a few minutes.” Chandler chimed in, with yet another worrying thought.
He would have to get the boy checked by a doctor for immune and vitamin deficiencies. He must be sorely lacking in Vitamin D at the very least.
Latimer turned and spotted Miss Phu hovering in the games room. It seemed she was waiting on him to break the news to Rocco that he had been officially adopted. Well, he was in no rush. He wanted some answers before he left that house.
“Miss Phu, you said Rocco had been taken by families who wished to adopt him. How many exactly?” He wondered, curious if any of them had given him the book.
She walked over, tapping the long nail of her finger against her lower lip. “Around seven, I believe. Never stayed any longer than a week or two.” She told him.
Latimer turned to Chandler, who was better at maths than he was. He could see his brain churning over, calculating the odds, checking the statistics and coming up short.
“Ask him, Dom.” He said, bypassing the middle man.
Latimer didn’t even care. All he cared about right now was Rocco and his well-being. He watched Dominic nervously as he hunched down beside Rocco and tapped his leg to get his attention.
The boy’s eyes fled straight to his before being dragged off to look at Dominic. He held out his hand and he handed the tablet back. Dominic handed it to Chandler, probably to remove the temptation of a distraction. He quietly applied a bookmark and switched off the device, tucking it into Dominic’s bag on the floor.
“Rocco, can you tell me who gave you this book?” Dominic asked in sign language. He gestured to the paperback copy of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’.
Rocco looked at it and shook his head.
“You can’t tell me or you won’t?” He asked, voicing his question as well as signing it.
The boy signed something back and Dominic translated for them.
“Won’t.” He answered his own question with a sigh and a nod.
Latimer could tell that the boy wasn’t afraid to tell them who gave him the book, but why and in what manner. He just hoped that Dominic could convince him to talk, because if not then he would have to involve a therapist and he wasn’t sure that would help Rocco.
“Did they hurt you?” Dominic asked in voice and sign.
Rocco looked away, but his son wasn’t an easy push over. He cupped his chin in one hand, gently making sure he couldn’t look away.
“Tell me the truth. Who gave you this book and why? What did they do to you?” He signed one handed so that he didn’t have to let go.
Latimer offered a supportive smile to Rocco as he looked at him, his eyes nervous and resigned. He could tell he wasn’t sure how they were going to react to whatever he said, but he couldn’t promise anything except that they would never blame him. He wanted to tell him that, but he didn’t know sign language.
Dominic moved his head to block Rocco’s view, slipping his hand from cupping his chin to his cheek so that he knew he wasn’t in trouble.
“It’s only me.” He promised in voice and sign. “No-one else understands sign language.” He told him softly.
Rocco swallowed and wet his lips, meeting Dominic’s eyes. And then, just when Latimer thought he would refuse, he began signing with one hand, so fast that he wasn’t entirely sure Dominic could keep up. He knew sign language well, but he wasn’t as fluent as Rocco was and he certainly wasn’t as fast.
Latimer smiled when Chandler held his hand. He was a grown boy, eighteen already, but there was always that trace of vulnerability in both his children. He held his hand tight and waited patiently for Rocco to explain whatever he was signing to Dominic.
When he felt his youngest son leaning in to rest his shoulder against his, he kept a firm grip on his hand and lifted his arm over his head and around his body.
Chandler sank into him like a little boy seeking comfort, his free arm coming round to hug his waist.
All his boys were so sweet and innocent. He wondered if it was just because he loved them so much, that they had grown into fine young men who had a close bond with him. Was it the years of neglect they had all suffered, that made them seek out his love and comfort as often as they could, just to reassure themselves that he was still there? Was it the loss of Beau, so suddenly, with only an hour to say goodbye that did it?
An hour wasn’t long enough to thank such a wonderful man for all the years they’d had together. It wasn’t long enough to say all the things he had left unsaid over the last twenty years. No amount of time was ever long enough for goodbye.
Finally, snapping him out of his thoughts, Dominic hugged Rocco tight and was hugged in return. He handed the young boy the paperback book with a smile and got to his feet.
“He’s fine.” He reassured them both.
Chandler let out a sigh of relief and hugged him tighter as they waited to hear what had happened to the boy.
“A policeman visited him when he was eight. He told him that he’d been the one to rescue him from the car crash that took his parents and he’d been checking up on him since he was a baby.” Dominic sighed and raked his hand through his short hair.
Latimer guessed that he was keeping his back to Rocco so that there would be no risk of him reading their lips, if he could.
“He gave him the book as a birthday present because it was his late wife’s favourite.” He explained, in disapproval. “He told Rocco that whenever she was scared or sad she would read it and it would take her away to another world where she didn’t have to be scared or sad any more.” He said, quietly. “He’s carried it everywhere with him ever since. He’s probably read it a million times.”
“What’s important is that he reads it when he’s lonely or scared. Lonely seems to translate into all the time, but when he’s scared it’s more serious.” He confessed. “There are two events he told me about. The first was when he was taken in by a family when he was fourteen. It was for two weeks.” He went on, in anger.
“The family had a son of their own, around twelve. The boy had a crush on Rocco and tried to kiss him. He doesn’t understand what happened after that, but the dad got angry, blamed it on Rocco and dragged him to the woman next door who could sign.” Dominic shook his head and looked down at the floor. “She told him the dad was angry that he’d turned his son gay. Rocco told her that yes, he was gay, but he didn’t even like the son and wanted nothing to do with him. He just wanted to come back here.” He explained.
“The dad was insulted and beat him up. Then, the next day, he dragged him into the basement and left him there with nothing to eat or drink. He used the book as a way to escape until he was sent back here six days later.” He admitted the truth, sounding as unhappy as Latimer felt. He wanted to find that father and pummel some sense into him. Which was an odd feeling since he wasn’t a violent man. “He was really worried we wouldn’t want him, knowing he’s gay. I told him that we don’t care if he’s gay or straight or bi. We just want to give him a home and make him happy.” He said.
Latimer looked past Dominic to Rocco, who was staring at them, holding his paperback book to his chest. He gestured for Dominic to move aside and gently pulled back from Chandler. He moved away without complaint, letting him kneel down on the floor in front of the boy.
Rocco bit his lip and seemed to hesitate for a moment before reaching his hand out. Latimer sat still, letting him make the first move. Gentle fingertips brushed his right cheek and moved up to the wrinkles at the side of his right eye. The fingers traced the lines there, as a curious gaze pinned him down.
“What was the other event?” He asked Dominic, suddenly remembering that fact.
“Another family that took him in tried to force him to talk. He didn’t understand what they were doing, but they tried to teach him to sign and write.” He continued, answering dutifully, but with a clear anger in his eyes. “After the first disaster he’d learned not to communicate with anyone, even people using sign language. He didn’t want to get hurt again. He said he can read, write and sign as well as I can, but he can’t speak.”
“Every time he didn’t answer them the mother would slap him. She only did it when they were alone, not when the dad was there. He seemed to like the dad well enough.” His voice was quiet but troubled and he knew that he was trying to figure out how so many people could mistreat such a gentle boy.
“A couple of days later she sprayed him with pepper-spray. She held him down so that he couldn’t wash it away.” Dominic shook his head and sighed. “She signed to him that she was going to make him blind so that he would have no choice but to talk or be trapped in a world of dark silence his entire life.” He relayed the story to them.
Latimer couldn’t imagine the fear Rocco had felt that day. He was already locked in silence, but to be plunged into darkness as well must have been terrifying. He reached his hand up and held Rocco’s hand to his cheek, letting him feel the warmth of his skin, that contrasted so starkly to the boy’s cool hand.
“The dad came home from work early. He dragged the mom away and put Rocco in the shower to clear his eyes.” Dominic explained the situation. “When he had them thoroughly cleaned he got Rocco to change out of his wet clothes and took him to the hospital. The next day he was brought back here for his own safety.”
Rocco’s eyes seemed to soften with shame, as if he knew that he had told them and now thought he wouldn’t want him.
“Both of you sit down for a minute. And translate for me, Dominic.” Latimer asked.
The boys flanked him, both on their knees, both staring at Rocco while Dominic talked and signed. “I’m going to translate what they’re saying for you, okay?” He told him.
Rocco nodded his agreement.
“Go ahead dad.”
“Rocco, I’m also gay. I was in a very loving relationship with a man for twenty years.” Latimer explained, while Dominic signed for him. “But he was born with a sick heart. He died five years ago. We have a lot of money and we made a promise to each other, when we got married, that we would use it wisely.” He explained, calmly and patiently. He wanted to give Dominic time to sign everything he said, and give Rocco a chance to understand why he was saying it.
“We saved and invested and then I inherited a vast estate from my favourite uncle when he died.” He continued. “We had more money than we knew what to do with. So we decided that we would adopt children and care for them as long as we could afford to.” He turned and put his hand on Dominic’s shoulder, with a fond smile. “Dominic was our first. We adopted him when he was five years old and he’s been my son ever since.” He promised.
Dominic smiled as he signed the words. Rocco’s eyes focused solely on Dominic’s hands, but the corner of his mouth tugged into a faint smile.
“We adopted Chandler a year later. My husband, Beau, was his father for seven years and Dominic was lucky enough to have eight years with him.” Latimer continued talking, not sure what else to say than to assure Rocco that he was more than ready to love him as his son. “I’m sorry you will never know the love of my husband. I’m sorry that you must settle for one father when you could have had two. But I promise you that I will love you enough for both of us.” He swore, trying to fight down the emotion that threatened his voice.
“Dominic and Chandler are young men, soon to go off to college and I’m afraid I don’t want to be alone.” Latimer confessed, since he wanted Rocco to understand how seriously he was taking this decision. “I came here today to adopt a young child. Someone I could have perhaps as much as ten years with, before they had to leave me.” He explained. “But once we saw you we were all agreed. You need us, Rocco, as much as we need you. We want to make you happy, if we can.” He promised, holding onto his hand.
Rocco looked at Dominic, who continued to sign some more. He didn’t have a clue what he was saying, but Rocco responded to it.
Dominic laughed, signed something and then turned to look at them. “He asked if he could bring his book with him.” He chuckled to himself, shaking his head. “I told him he could bring anything he wanted.” Dominic explained.
Chandler laughed and opened up Dominic’s bag while holding his hand out to Rocco. He handed the paperback over with an uncertain look and smiled as he watched it being slipped into the bag.
Latimer held his hand out to Rocco and waited patiently for him to reach out to take it. He did so tentatively, glancing between all three of them as he helped him to his feet. Rocco was taller than any of them expected, nearly six-foot-tall already. He could be a strapping lad if he was just taken care of properly.
“Why don’t you go with Dominic to pack your things and then we’ll go home?” He asked, letting Dominic translate his spoken words into sign language.
Once Dominic stopped signing, he was surprised to find Rocco smiling at him and then rushing into his arms. He practically threw himself at his chest, arms wrapping around him. All Latimer could do was hug him back, holding him close and giving him a moment to realise that he finally had a family who would never give up on him. He wouldn’t be sent back to the orphanage, he would have people to talk to, and he would have freedom and love.
Rocco’s hands grasped the back of his suit jacket, bunching the fabric in his hands as he held on.
He gave his shoulder a light rub and gestured to Dominic, who was offering his hand. The sooner he packed the sooner he could see his new home and then he could hug him all he wanted to.
Rocco took Dominic’s hand and led him out of the room, without question.