“OK - we made it!” The nurse exclaimed as she shifted her wait and lowered me to the floor. My feet made contact with the worn green commercial carpet floor of the airport, and though it dwarfed me much like the exit from the military plane, the combination of moving people and light, both of which even more unaware of myself than those in the hangar, were more intimidating. Again, much like I had followed the nurse previously with one hand outstretched and falling just a step behind, I took cover allowed her to guide me through the small patches of travelers. Though I’m sure it wasn’t crowded, my perception proved otherwise.
A few minutes later we zagged through terminals until we found our way to the lounge, a medium sized room with rows of peach colored vinyl seats. The nurse kept pulling me through and we found a door on the far wall, opening it to reveal a smaller room with only a few chairs. Occupying tow of them near the corner sat the pair that I remembered from the photo. Karen, in her cardigan sweater button only on top, looked as though she had just posed for a suburban housewife magazine. She wore little makeup but was authentically beautiful, and each ear was decorated with a small but robust pearl earring that danced behind the thick wisps of her dark hair. Pete held her hand compassionately and seemed to tap his foot in anticipation. As they directed their focus towards the sound of the door they fixed their eyes on me, Pete tightening his lips happily and stoically and Karen cocking her head slightly as she smiled widely. The pair stood and met us as we slowed our walk into the room.
“And you must be Todd!” Karen exclaimed as she squatted, her soft voice contrasting with her large hips as her khaki pants tightened almost dangerously with the shift in her weight.
“Hello nurse, good to see you again.” Pete said from above as he extended a hand for a cordial greeting to my nurse and chaperone. Karen put her hand on my shoulder and gave a small but concerned squeeze and she rose, looking over me and as well to the nurse, offering your own pleasantries. The nurse responded by motioning to a table that sat along the opposite wall.
The three of them pulled out a chair from under the table as I stood a few paces back, waiting to see which of them would be reserved for me. The nurse took her position and Pete followed, and momentarily after I was startled to feel two hands reach under my unsuspecting arms, and with a playful grunt, yank me off the ground, a moment later placing me on what turned out to be the large lap of Karen, and she kept her arms wrapped around me and leaned into the discussion that had just begun at the table.
“Where’s Dr. Brooks?” Pete asked.
“He’s still debriefing the board of directors, I don’t know if he’ll make it today.”
“That’s fine, just as long as Todd’s in one piece?”
“Of course!” the nurse chuckled, “yes everything went wonderfully. The process took him back to around thirty-two months, give or take, at least, that’s what we guessed according to the baseline height and weight measurements. Here’s the necessary medical information,” she said as she exchanged a manila folder with Pete, “and here’s a card with your care stipend attached to it. It’s been certified by the directors, but I assume you’ll find it more than modest.”
“Great. Is there anything else we need to know? Did the media get wind of any of this?”
“No, everything went perfectly. And, if anyone asks, I’m sure they’ll understand how hard it was to lose your brother and sister-in-law, hence why you’ve taken in your nephew.”
The nurse and Pete exchanged nods and polite smiles, and as quickly as we entered the nurse had left, leaving my head spinning at the speed that everything had taken place at. As the door shut the two turned their heads to me, smiling, and held their looks slightly lower at me.
“Karen - look at him.” Pete said with a soft voice. “Todd, welcome to our family. It’s great to meet you. Are you feeling OK?”
“Yes, fank you. I’m stiwl twying to get used to everyfing. It’s a lot different, as you could imagine.”
“Yeah, I bet! Well, just try to relax. Karen and I have raised two kids already that are both healthy, so I think you’ll be in pretty good hands. We’re big supporters of the university, too. I was just finishing up my undergrad when you were a freshman there. Man, you had the whole school following everything you did. It was awesome to watch. Unfortunately, they’ve lost a lot of donations and money over the past few years, but hopefully this experiment and your eventual return to stardom will put it back as the powerhouse it was.” Pete said confidently as we walked through the two main automatic doors and into the large, airport parking lot.
“Pete and I are just thrilled that we were chosen to have you stay with us through this whole thing, and I promise that we’ll make it as happy and carefree for you as possible!”
The two continued to ramble about whatever popped into their mind and I eventually lost the will to stay attentive. A few minutes later we arrived at their large maroon SUV, complete with the magnetic soccer ball stuck to the tailgate. Karen went to the passenger side and stopped just shy of the rear door, opening it with the free hand that wasn’t carrying me. She swung it open and moved closer to the cabin, and before she twisted me around I caught a glimpse of a large child safety seat buckled firmly into the rear bench seats.
“You know, Kawen, I wearwy appreciate what yourw doing, but do you wearwy fink it’s necessary to go frough all of dis? I mean, don’t get me wong, I’m all for twying to bwend in, but I stiwll want to be tweated like a gwon-up, you know?”
“Todd, believe me I understand, but we’re under strict orders. This can’t get out to anyone or the whole program is at risk of getting sanctioned by the FDA. So, until you get to either five feet tall or one-hundred-twenty pounds, we’re not taking any chances.”
There was a firmness in Karen’s voice that dissuaded me from pushing forward. And in all honesty, sitting in the back really wasn’t as humiliating as I was making it out to be. I was just trying to establish a balance for everything. Karen situated me in the seat and brought the safety straps over and around me, buckling them in the middle, and I sat stiffly but comfortably in the plush seat.
“Trust me, everything will work out just fine.” Karen said as she smiled and tousled a bit of my hair. She stepped back and shut the door just as Pete was sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Comfortable back there, kiddo?” He asked.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Good, well we live about two hours north of here so we’ve got a little drive ahead of us.” He continued as Karen sat in the passenger seat next to him. “We’re going to stop when we get to the Mall a few minutes from our house and get you a few things, but that won’t be for a while. Feel free to relax and enjoy the drive or get some shut-eye.”
“Fanks, but I don’t weawry feewl dat tired.”
Pete started the engine and found his way to the parking lot exit. A few minutes later we were cruising on the highway and darkened rays of sun came warmly through the tinted glass. I rested the side of my head on the large bolsters of the seat and let my ear press against it, intensifying the hum of the SUV’s engine as it kept a constant speed. Each blink began to take just a bit longer than the previous, and in a few moments I didn’t try to open them, falling asleep shortly thereafter.