Chapter 8: A Neighbor in Need

Bjorn spread his schoolbooks on the table, as Dylan finished putting the few dishes in the dishwasher. As usual, they handily devoured all of the Chinese food, including all the vegetables. Bjorn opened one of his books and slapped his hand on the table.

“Ms. Arthur is the worst teacher of all time!” Bjorn announced as he set his jaw and stared directly at his brother.

“That’s a bit harsh, and frankly just not true,” replied Dylan.

“Seriously, Dylan, you have no idea.”

Dylan, trying not to let his brother get to him, patiently explained, “I had Ms. Arthur before she moved to your school, and she was just fine.”

“Well, something happened. She must have changed. I think she hates me,” responded the younger brother angrily.

Dylan breathed in deeply, knowing that this argument was going nowhere in a hurry when the doorbell chimed. “Stay put, I’ll let him in,” ordered Dylan, as he headed towards the front door.

Dylan, opening the door, struggled to contain his smile. Standing on the porch was an impeccably dressed, slightly older, middle-aged African-American gentleman. As always, he wore slacks, a dress shirt, a tweed jacket, and a fedora. In one hand was on a wooden cane, with a carved brass knob, but he wasn’t relying on it for any support. He tipped the hat with his other hand, and in a very formal tone announced, “Atticus Freeman, at your service.”

Dylan’s smile widened, and he swept one arm towards the living room, inviting the gentleman into their home. “As always, my good sir, you are welcome here.”

Atticus walked in, removed his hat and jacket, and hung them on the coat tree in the entryway. He leaned his cane against the wall and turned to Dylan. “How was your day, Dylan?”

“Not too bad. Nothing all that interesting. Just another day at school,” Dylan answered.

“And I assume by the scent in the air that you had Chinese food for dinner this evening?” asked Mr. Freeman.

“The Wonderful Dragon,” replied the teenager with a smile.

“Best sesame chicken this side of Shanghai,” stated Mr. Freeman, with an almost unquestionable air of authority.

“Yes, sir, it is,” agreed Dylan, “and we also had happy family. You know, for the vegetables.”

“Mr. Freeman!” piped in Bjorn from the kitchen, “How would you know it’s the best sesame chicken this side of Shanghai?”

Atticus looked at Dylan and smiled. He knew Bjorn was probably feeling a little combative, which meant he had struggled with something at school. More likely than not, it was math, but that was exactly why Atticus was there.

“In Shanghai, hidden in an alley that you should never walk down alone,” began Mr. Freeman, nodding to Dylan and heading into the kitchen, “is a restaurant called ‘The Lonely Goose.’ But I’m not here to discuss my travels with you. We can do that another time.”

When Dylan returned to the kitchen, after finishing some homework of his own, Bjorn’s mood was decidedly improved. Atticus was explaining the steps in cross-multiplication with great patience, and Bjorn was grasping the concepts. The back door opened, and Joanna Cairbre, the boys’ mother, walked into the kitchen.

“Hello, Mr. Freeman, I’m so glad to see you,” she remarked with a smile.

“Ms. Cairbre, welcome home,” replied Atticus.

“How is Bjorn doing?” she inquired.

“I think we may have had a little challenge with the lesson at school today, but with a little focus, he’s completely grasped the concepts,” answered Atticus, as Bjorn broke into a wide grin.

“You are a saint, Mr. Freeman. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“You would do quite well. I’m just glad I can help.”

The Cairbre family really liked their neighbor, Mr. Freeman. He had moved into a home across the street, just a few houses down, only a week after Dylan, Bjorn, and their mom had moved into their home in Denver. Dylan had been returning home on his bike after exploring his new neighborhood when he saw Atticus, carrying a large box from his car to his front door. Dylan had quickly ridden up the sidewalk to offer Mr. Freeman a hand.

Atticus was very appreciative, especially as Dylan happily helped him unload a few more boxes from his car. When Atticus attempted to give Dylan a $20 bill, Dylan refused. He was just happy to talk to someone other than his brother, especially when he saw the laptop, iPad, and boxes with logos from Dell, HP, and Apple stacked in the living room. School would start in a few weeks, but he hadn’t made any friends yet. When they’d left Tennessee, the circumstances were a bit uncomfortable, and Dylan had lost contact with all of his friends. The teen wasn’t sure what it was, but he felt safe around Mr. Freeman. He was like a grandfather that the boys never had, and from the look of things, he was a bit geeky too!

That first evening after their meeting, Atticus brought a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies over to their house. Joanna answered the door and invited him inside. By the time Dylan came out of his room, it was evident that Atticus had explained how kind Dylan had been in helping him unload his car earlier in the day. Dylan blushed as Joanna praised her son for his kindness and good heart.

Shortly after Dylan helped Atticus move the boxes into his house, Dylan and his mom were working in the yard, when Atticus passed by while out on a walk. School had only been in session a couple of weeks. They all began chatting about the beautiful end-of-summer weather when Bjorn’s voice broke the pleasant conversation.

“That doesn’t make sense!” shouted the frustrated boy. “It simply does not work that way!”

“I got it, Mom,” Dylan declared, as he headed into the house. Bjorn was likely having trouble with some homework again, and Dylan would test his own patience again, attempting to help his frustrated little brother. Dylan headed inside, hoping this round would be a good one. It wasn’t that Bjorn wasn’t smart. He was, but he just wasn’t very patient with himself.

After about twenty minutes, Dylan walked out and plopped on the bench on the front porch. His mom looked at him sympathetically. She could help her younger son with homework, but she hadn’t done much math in many years. On top of that, the way that math was currently being taught was utterly foreign to her. Dylan was closer to the subject and usually did a great job with his brother. Dylan cracked up and smiled.

“So …” his mom asked, drawing the “oh” sound out.

“He’s not getting it. It’s not that hard, but he’s got it in his mind that he can’t understand,” explained Dylan.

“Thanks for trying.” His mom let out a long sigh and turned to Atticus to wish him a good day, to head in to help her son with his homework.

“Ma’am, if I may. I spent a little time tutoring in my day. Perhaps a different voice would help?” suggested Atticus.

She began to tell him that he was amazingly kind, but before she could explain how she simply couldn’t ask someone else to deal with the stubborn child, Dylan interjected, “Mom, it’s a great idea!”

Mr. Freeman, beaming at Dylan, turned to see Joanna’s response. She was happy to be home from work a bit earlier than usual, and she was enjoying the chance to do some yard work with Dylan’s help. She wanted to help Bjorn with his homework, but she knew that it might be a bit of an uphill battle since Dylan had already thrown in the towel.

“Mr. Freeman, you’re very kind for offering,” she began, knowing that it was probably a good idea. “Perhaps, someone else’s approach may be a good alternative.”

“It’s always hard to say,” Mr. Freeman replied sympathetically, “but often a few words from a different perspective is all it takes. I’ll see what I can do.”

Ten minutes later, Bjorn and Mr. Freeman came out the front door. Bjorn was beaming, obviously happy. Dylan and his mom looked at each other and then at Mr. Freeman, both revealing a bit of surprise on their faces. The young boy pumped his fist in the air, as if he had achieved some great goal, and announced, “Mom, I finished my homework. Can I please play some video games?”

“Sure, if your homework is done, you can,” replied Johanna, somewhat astonished at Bjorn’s positive attitude.

She turned to Mr. Freeman, wanting to ask how on Earth he had both managed to help Bjorn with his homework and improve his mood. More often than not, Bjorn was cranky when he did his homework, and when he was frustrated, it was always worse.

“A smart young man you have there, Mrs. Cairbre. But I tell you, some of the methods they use nowadays to teach simply don’t register as well with some kids,” stated the older gentleman.

“Thank you, um, Mr. Freeman.” Johanna stumbled trying to be grateful, but also wanting to know what had transpired in the kitchen. “What did you … how …  I mean, thank you for helping him, but what –”

“It’s my pleasure,” interjected Mr. Freeman, saving Johanna from tripping over her own tongue.

Dylan headed into the house to play some video games with his brother while Atticus and Joanna remained outside, chatting on the porch for some time. When she came inside, she seemed quite at ease and sat down on the plush chair in the living room, next to the sofa where the boys were intently killing aliens on the screen.

When the boys hit a good stopping point, they paused the game, knowing their mom had something she wanted to talk about. Being a single mom was not always easy, and her job required more hours at times than she wished. Mr. Freeman had offered to stop by occasionally in the evenings to check on the boys and to help with homework if they needed it. Bjorn immediately expressed his approval of the idea, especially considering how quickly Mr. Freeman had just helped him finish his homework that day. Dylan was also appreciative, especially if it could reduce his occasional frustration from dealing with his stubborn little brother.

Over the school year, Mr. Freeman became a huge help to the boys, and Bjorn even asked if Mr. Freeman could get Ms. Arthur fired and take over her job. There were occasional times where Mr. Freeman would not stop by, as he loved to travel. When he would return, he would tell the boys about some of the sites he had seen and foods he had tried. Despite her best efforts, Mr. Freeman diligently and politely refused any type of payment for helping the boys with homework or checking on them, other than joining them for an occasional meal.

Throughout the summer, Johanna was relieved to have a trusted neighbor close by in case the boys needed anything. She felt a sense of relief when he hired the boys to mow his lawn while he was on a trip. They agreed but refused payment. After that trip, the boys continued to mow Mr. Freeman’s lawn. For the Cairbre family, life seemed to be about as good as it could get. The boys were doing well in school. The family’s friendship with Mr. Freeman was a real blessing. He helped the boys with schoolwork. They were able to help him around his house. It was as if his kind manner and patience had rubbed off on the boys, especially Bjorn. Joanna had even started dating again. The troubles and stresses that they had experienced in Tennessee seemed to be fading into the past.

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