Jacob got to his feet and tousled Daniel's hair. "I'll go get that shirt for you."
He fetched one of his son's T-shirts and helped the boy put it on. They then hung Daniel's shirt in front of the fireplace so that it would dry quickly.
Jacob's mood had been sobered a bit by the knowledge of how very close they'd all come to losing Daniel. Laura noticed the change in his demeanor and asked him about it when they had a moment of privacy.
"I'll tell you tonight, after the kids are in bed," he said.
The remainder of his day with the Carters was very enjoyable for Daniel, among the best he'd had since the death of his parents. He didn't want it to end, but, at last, the time came for him to be taken back home – no matter how much Sam objected.
At the Underwoods, Diane took Jacob out to the garage so that he could put the bicycle there. She'd already known about the bike, Laura having called her before purchasing it to make sure it was okay to get Daniel one.
"Thank you for getting that for him," Laura said. "I wish we could have gotten him one, but we just didn't have the money."
"Well, we got it at a pretty good price, although the look on Daniel's face when he saw it would have made any price we paid worthwhile."
Jacob studied the woman. For a brief moment, he was tempted to reveal that he knew about what happened, but he'd told Daniel that Diane would never know that the boy had to break his promise to her.
"Well, I need to get back," he said instead. "I'm sure that either Laura or I will be coming to get Daniel for visits several more times before Christmas vacation ends. Sam is now impatient for the weather to get better so that Daniel can learn how to ride his bike and come over to our place whenever he feels like it."
Laura smiled. "It's good that the base isn't too terribly far from here. Thank you again, Captain Carter."
Paul's parents had left for home while Daniel was visiting the Carters, so that evening was free of tension. Diane's mother left on a plane the next morning, and everyone went to the airport to see her off, except for Paul, who was at work.
Daniel knew that Quentin and Kathleen would be returning that afternoon and couldn't wait for them to arrive. He was dying of curiosity about the gifts they'd gotten him and had been tempted more than once not to wait for their return to open the presents.
At last, the doorbell rang, and Daniel ran to answer it, certain that it was them.
"Hey there!" Quentin greeted with a big smile. He and his wife stepped into the house. "So, did you have a good Christmas?"
Daniel nodded his head. "The Carters got me a bicycle!"
"They did? Wow, that's some present. I bet you can't wait to ride it."
"Yeah, but I don't know how to ride, so I need to learn."
"Ah, well, that's not hard at all. You'll be pedaling with the best of them in no time."
"Did you have fun with your family in New York?" the boy asked.
"Yes, we did," Kathleen replied. "It was a full house." She smiled. "Quentin told everyone all about you."
"I sure did," the teacher responded, "and they were all very impressed." Seeing the look of embarrassment on the boy's face, he smiled. "Come on. Let's go to your bedroom and see about opening those presents."
Daniel wanted Quentin and Kathleen to open their gifts first, so they did so. Kathleen's present made her laugh with delight. It was a cat.
"I didn't know what the cat you had looked like, so I just went by a picture in the encyclopedia," Daniel explained.
"I love it, Daniel. It's perfect. Thank you." The woman gave him a hug.
When Quentin opened his present and saw what it was, he felt his throat tighten. It was a gold-painted plaque with columns that looked Roman or Greek on either side, vines painted on them. Carved in the plaque in Daniel's childish yet precise lettering were the words, "The best teacher in the whole world."
"Daniel," Quentin said, his voice catching. He looked at the boy. "Thank you so much. This is beautiful. It is one of the best gifts I've ever gotten. Ever." He pulled the boy into a long, tight hug. He was blinking back tears by the time he released Daniel.
Quentin smiled. "Your turn now. Open the lightweight box first."
Daniel did so and found an issue of an archeology magazine.
"That's just the first one, Daniel," Kathleen told him. "We bought you a one-year subscription. Once a month for the next year, a new edition will come right to your door. Next year, one of your gifts will be that we renew the subscription, if you'd like us to."
Daniel gazed at the magazine with bright eyes. "Wow. Thank you, Mister and Mrs. Greer. This is really great. I'll get to read all about new discoveries right after they happen." He picked up his second present.
"That one was a little harder to get," Quentin told him, almost holding his breath.
Daniel unwrapped the gift. Inside, he found a book entitled, "Beneath the Sands of Egypt: An Archeological Treasure Trove". And then he saw the names of the authors, and his whole body went still.
"M-my mom and dad wrote this?" he whispered.
"Yes," Quentin replied softly, "a few years ago, when you were around two years old. Take a look at the page with the dedication, at the front."
Daniel opened the book and found the dedication.
"To our beloved son, Daniel, who is the real treasure in our lives."
All at once, Daniel began to cry. Quentin and Kathleen wrapped their arms around him and held him close. It was quite a while before the tears stopped falling.
Daniel sniffled, wiping his face. "I never knew Mom and Dad wrote a book."
"I didn't either," Quentin said, "but I figured that there was a chance they did, so I tracked down some acquaintances of your parents in the archeological community. They told me about the book, and, when I said that I wanted it as a gift for you, they promised to find a copy. The book arrived in the mail just a few days ago. We were getting worried that it wouldn't arrive in time for Christmas."
Daniel caressed the cover of the book with loving, reverent fingers, his gaze going often to the place at the bottom, where his parents' names were written in gold letters. Then his eyes lifted to the two adults.
"Thank you," he said softly, the two words so heartfelt and full of emotion that they made the couple give him another hug.
Quentin ruffled his hair gently. "You are very welcome, Daniel."
The remainder of the holiday vacation passed quickly, Daniel spending a great deal of time with both the Carters and the Greers. He got to spend another day in his teacher's private library, and Kathleen let him help her bake an angel food cake, showing him how to separate the egg whites from the yokes. She even let him try to do one, though he failed to keep the yoke from breaking.
Daniel was allowed to stay up past midnight on New Year's Eve so that he could ring in the new year with the Underwoods. After the countdown had concluded, and everyone's shouted "Happy New Year" had faded, Daniel glanced over at his foster father. Ever since the incident in the stream, Paul Underwood had clearly been making an effort to be a little more involved in the lives of the children who lived in his house. He was still far from being an attentive parent, but at least he talked to the kids sometimes and occasionally showed interest in what one of them was doing. He even glanced through the book Daniel's parents had written, telling the boy that it was pretty cool that his mom and dad actually wrote a book.
Diane was delighted with the change in her husband and fervently hoped that it was just the beginning. That joy, however, could not dim the sorrow in her heart for what would soon be happening.
It was on the day before the end of the holiday vacation, when Paul wasn't home and the younger kids were taking their naps, that Daniel heard a sound coming from the master bedroom. He drew closer to the closed door and realized that what he heard was crying.
"Mrs. Underwood, are you okay?" Daniel asked, worried that she might be hurt.
There were some other sounds, then the woman replied in a falsely cheerful voice, "Yes. Yes, I'm fine, Daniel. I'll be out in a minute."
Daniel went back to the living room and sat on the couch. It was a good minute before Diane came out. She headed straight to the kitchen and began wiping the counters even though they were already clean.
Daniel walked up to her. "I heard you crying."
Diane's movements halted. She let out a soft sigh, then turned to him. "I suppose that you were going to have to be told soon anyway."
Daniel started to get worried. "Told what?"
His foster mother sat down with him at the dining table.
"Caleb . . . Caleb isn't going to be living with us anymore," the woman said with a slight tremor in her voice.
"Because Social Services wants him to go to a new family."
Daniel began getting upset. "Did they find out about what happened?"
"No, Daniel. This has nothing to do with that. I've known for three weeks that they were going to be taking him after the holidays."
"But I don't understand why he has to go to a new foster family. Why can't he stay here till he's grown up?"
"Oh, Daniel. It's complicated and something I can't explain to you. I don't agree with it either, but it's not up to me to decide. I have no say in it."
"But that's not right. You should get to keep Caleb if you want to. Adam is going to be really lonely. He and Caleb play with each other all the time."
Diane sighed again. "I know. It's almost going to be like losing a brother for him."
Seeing tears return to her eyes, Daniel immediately got off his chair and wrapped his arms around her. He wished that he could tell Social Services how mean they were for taking kids away from foster families that loved them.
Diane gave Daniel a watery smile and wiped her face.
"How about if we make some fudge brownies?" she suggested. "I feel like I need lots of chocolate to help cheer me up."
"Chocolate cheers people up?"
They made two pans of brownies, consuming two squares apiece while they were still warm and gooey.
A while later, Daniel watched Caleb and Adam play, blissfully unaware that they wound soon be parted forever. Diane was watching as well, her heart aching. Her gaze focused on Caleb as she thought about the reason why he was being taken from her. A year ago, the boy had been with another foster family. For nearly twelve months, things had gone quite well. Then, one day, without warning, Caleb suddenly turned violent. Less than six years old, he'd struck out at both inanimate objects and his foster parents. At the time, no one understood why.
It wasn't until several days after the boy was removed from the home that the truth was revealed. Caleb had been taken away from his birth mother because she was a drug user and had ended up in prison for a minor crime. She spent only three month in jail, but was told that she would not be allowed to have her son back until she could kick her drug habit, get a steady job, and prove that she could be a fit mother. On the day that Caleb had been taken from her, she promised that, in just one year, she'd come to get him, had even given the boy a specific date. Every time she was allowed to visit him during that year, she made the promise that they'd be a family again on that day. Throughout that whole year, Caleb had been secretly marking a calendar, waiting for the special day to arrive. When that day came and went with no sign of his mother coming to get him, the boy reacted in violence.
For some reason, putting Caleb in a new foster family calmed him down, and he settled into the Underwood household just fine. A month later, Caleb received a phone call from his mother. She apologized for not being able to come get him and told him that he needed to give her another year. Just one more year, she'd said, and they'd be together again.
That second date was now just a few days away, and Social Services knew that, again, Caleb's mother – who was still struggling with her addiction – wouldn't be coming to get him. The boy's caseworker feared that, once that date was reached, he would again react with violence. The decision to move him was an effort at prevention. He wouldn't be put in a new foster home until after the anniversary had passed.
Diane didn't agree with the caseworker's viewpoint. She thought that just because Caleb had reacted like that once didn't mean that it would happen again and that, being forewarned this time, they could surely do something to keep it from happening. But she understood why the decision had been made. First of all, the welfare of the other children in Diane's care had to be considered. There was no telling if the boy would strike out at them, too. Secondly, if it did happen again, Caleb would be extremely hard to place from then on. Not many foster families would be willing to take a child with a tendency toward sudden violence, and the older he got, the more damage he could do.
All Diane could do now was hope that Caleb would be all right, that, someday, his mother would straighten out her life and give the boy the stable home he deserved. And if that could never happen, then Diane hoped that he'd find a permanent home with a family who loved him.
Because he was would be starting in a new class, Diane took Daniel to school the next day. The boy was terribly nervous, worried that he wouldn't like Mrs. Mason and that the other kids in the class would be mean.
Diane took him all the way to the classroom. Standing at the blackboard was a woman with long blonde hair. She turned upon their entrance and smiled, her grey-green eyes lighting up.
"You must be Daniel," she said warmly. "I feel like I already know you. Mister Greer thinks very highly of you. He says that you're the smartest child he's ever had in his class."
Daniel looked away shyly.
"I hope that you'll enjoy being in my class, Daniel. Shall we go find you a desk?"
Mrs. Mason placed Daniel at a desk in the front row, which he wasn't very happy about, that is until she told him that Sam would be at the one next to his.
"Now, I'm going to be trusting the two of you to behave and not talk to each other during class," she said. "If it looks like there's going to be a problem, I'll have to separate you."
"We won't talk, Mrs. Mason," Daniel assured her. "I promise."
At that moment, Sam and Laura came in. Sam called Daniel's name in delight and ran up to hug him.
"Our first day together in the same class!" she said excitedly, bouncing up and down and taking him along for the ride. "This is going to be so neat!"
"We get to sit together," Daniel told her.
"We do? Wow, that's great."
Laura interrupted. "Sam, don't you think you should come say hello to your new teacher?"
Embarrassed, Sam apologized and greeted Mrs. Mason.
"Something tells me that you two are going to keep me hopping," the teacher said with a smile. "I also understand that you're going to be studying together so that you can each help the other in your weakest subjects."
Sam nodded. "I'm going to help Daniel with math and science, and he's going to help me with history and maybe English."
"Well, that sounds like a great plan, so how about if we make it official?"
"Official?" Daniel asked in puzzlement.
"Yes. You'll be study partners, and when we're doing science experiments, you'll also be lab partners, in a way, although we don't actually go to a lab. The experiments are all done here in the classroom. Oh, and, by the way, the science fair is coming up in March, and fourth graders are allowed to enter."
Sam's eye became nearly incandescent. "Science fair?! Oh, wow!"
Mrs. Mason nodded, smiling at the girl's enthusiasm. "I know that you're not going to have as much time to do your project as the rest of the class since they've been working on theirs for a couple of months now, but I'm sure you'll do well."
Daniel didn't look very thrilled. "Does everyone have to enter?"
"No, it's completely voluntary."
"Can me and Daniel do something together?" Sam asked.
"Hmm. I'll have to check on the rules, but, yes, I think that's allowed just as long as you don't combine two projects together."
A few more kids came into the classroom, ending the conversation. Laura and Diane said goodbye and left.
The kids who'd just come in kept staring at Daniel and Sam, occasionally whispering things to each other. The best friends tried to ignore it as they put their things away in their desks.
Soon, the classroom began filling up, every child that came in staring at the two younger kids. Daniel, who'd had to deal with the same thing when he transferred to Mister Greer's class, kept his head down most of the time. Sam, on the other hand, stared defiantly right back at every kid.
It was a relief to both eight-year-olds when the bell rang and class began. The relief for Daniel was short-lived, however, when Mrs. Mason introduced him and Sam to the class. Fortunately, she didn't make them say anything.
The morning went well. It was quite a different experience for Daniel, who'd gotten used to the rest of the class being given different work than him. Now, he was doing the same work as everyone else, including the English problems and the things they studied in the history book. Didn't Mister Greer say that he was supposed to get more advanced work in those subjects? He already knew all this stuff.
At lunchtime, Daniel and Sam went looking for Kenny and Nathan in the cafeteria and found them standing in line. After they'd all gotten their lunches, they sat down together at a table.
"What's it like being in fourth grade?" Kenny asked.
"Okay," Sam replied.
"All the other kids stared at us," Daniel said.
"Oh, hey. Thanks for the present, Daniel," Nathan said with a grin. "I really liked it."
"I really liked mine, too," said Kenny. "You got all the colors almost perfect."
"Colors on what?" Sam asked curiously.
"He made a Painted Bunting for me. That's a kind of bird with lots of different colors."
"There was a great drawing of one in the encyclopedia," Daniel explained. "I wasn't sure I got all the colors right, though."
"No, it was great," Kenny insisted.
By the end of the school day, Daniel was not the only one who was a little puzzled. Sam, too, had been expecting to get some more advanced work to do, that being what she'd been told would happen.
As the rest of the kids left the room, Mrs. Mason called the two eight-year-olds to her desk.
"In case you've been wondering, I chose not to begin giving you advanced schoolwork in class immediately. It's probably going to take you a bit of time to fit in with the rest of your classmates, and I thought that if they saw me giving you special work, it would make things harder for you. So, is it going to be okay with you two if we wait a week or so before starting in on advanced class work?"
Sam nodded. "Sure, Mrs. Mason. That's okay."
The teacher smiled. "Good." She handed folders to each of them. "That is some fifth grade level work for you to do at home. It's not due until the end of the week. Be sure to get your regular homework done first, though."
The two kids said goodbye and headed off to their lockers.
"We should talk about what we're going to do for our science project," Sam said as they walked. "We don't have a lot of time to make something really good."
"You should just do it yourself," Daniel told her. "I wouldn't be very much help."
"But I want to do it with you. It'll be so much more fun. And I bet you'll be lots of help."
Daniel chose not to argue with her even though he was certain she was wrong.
The next morning, as they waited at their desks for the bell to ring, Sam babbled away to Daniel about her different ideas on what they could do for the science fair, the boy insisting that the decision on what they did should be completely hers. He was in mid-sentence when the sight of a particular person coming into the room made his voice dry up, eyes widening in horror. Seeing his reaction, Sam turned to look.
"Oh, no!" she groaned. "I didn't know that he'd be in our class."
The eyes of Bud Whitman came to rest on the two children, his face darkening with anger. Ever since the confrontation at the lockers, Bud had been leaving Daniel and Sam alone. Both kids had a bad feeling that was now going to end.
They were right. As they left the classroom for lunch that day, Bud fell in behind them and began taunting them, especially Daniel, whom he still insisted on calling a retard. Finally, Sam had had enough and whirled around to face him.
"If he's such a retard, then how come he's now in the same class as you, and you're three years older?!" she yelled.
There was a little snort of laughter off to the right, and Sam turned fiery eyes upon a boy with light brown hair and blue eyes. She recognized him as one of the kids in their class.
"She's got you there, Bud," the boy said in amusement. "Why do you keep calling him a retard when he's obviously smarter than you? If he's a retard, wouldn't that make you like a moron or something?"
Bud flushed darkly. "I ought to smash your face in, Kingston."
The other boy's expression hardened. "I'd like to see you try."
Seeing that, yet again, an audience had formed, Bud stormed away.
"Thanks," Sam said, smiling at the handsome boy.
"Sure. Bud thinks he's the toughest kid in school, but he pees his pants whenever someone his size stands up to him." The boy smiled again. "I'm Randy."
"I'm Sam, and this is Daniel."
"How old are you guys?"
"Eight," both kids answered at the same time.
Randy grinned. "What are you? Twins or something?"
"No. We're not even related," Sam replied. "We're just friends."
"So, how come you were both put in the fourth grade together?"
As they continued to the cafeteria, Sam explained everything.
"So, you guys are both some kind of geniuses," Randy said, getting in line with them. "That's cool."
Sam felt herself blush, though she didn't understand why. Her dad had called her a genius lots of times, yet it didn't make her feel all fluttery inside like this when he said it or when he smiled at her.
After getting his food, Randy said goodbye with a smile, telling them that he'd see them around. He then went to join some friends at another table. Sam was disappointed that he wasn't going to sit with her and Daniel.
"He's really nice," she said to Daniel.
The boy nodded. "I'm glad that he made Bud go away." He frowned. "I wish I'd known that Bud was in our class."
"Yeah. He's going to be a real jerk. If he gets too mean, maybe Mrs. Mason will do something about it. Didn't Mister Parker say that he'd expel Bud if he picked a fight with any other kids?"
Kenny came over and joined them. As they all ate, Daniel noticed Sam's gaze going often to Randy. She was acting kind of funny, a little like that one girl in second grade had acted around him. He never did figure out why the girl had acted that way, and, now, Sam was doing the same thing, except that it appeared to be because of Randy. Maybe it was just some weird thing that all girls did sometimes.
When they returned to class, the first thing Sam did was look for Randy. He was sitting halfway back, toward the middle of the room. He noticed her gaze and waved. She waved back.
Daniel noticed the exchange, but didn't have time to think about it, for, at that moment, Bud came in, and the way he looked at Daniel made him more than a little nervous.
As he left school that afternoon, Daniel found himself glancing over his shoulder often, fearful that he'd see Bud there. He didn't relax until he was safely on the bus.
That evening, Sam told her parents all about Randy's "rescue", about how nice he seemed to be, that he was really cute, and that he thought it was really cool that she and Daniel were so smart. Jacob and Laura exchanged a glance, hiding smiles.
"So, it sounds like our daughter has her first crush," an amused Jacob said to his wife in their bedroom that night. "I'll have to keep an eye on this Randy character, him being an older man and all."
Laura chuckled. "She's starting earlier than I did. I didn't get my first crush until I was ten." She smiled. "Bobby Harrisburg. I swore I was going to marry him when I grew up."
Jacob took her into his arms. "Oh, you did, did you? Well, his loss is my gain." He smiled at her meaningfully. "And, on that same theme, how about a little hanky panky, Mrs. Carter?"
"Hmm. Well, you're no Bobby Harrisburg, but I suppose you'll have to do."
If Sam and Mark hadn't been asleep, they'd have wondered what the heck was going on in their parents' bedroom to make their mother laugh so much.