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When Tim Tremlett was 8 years old, he learned that most children aren't locked in boxes.

There was no way he could know. For years, his step-grandmother kept him in a padlocked, windowless plywood box, which court records describe as 6 feet long, 3 feet wide, 2 feet high.An anonymous call led to his freedom. His captor, Retha Skyles, was sentenced to 30 days in jail for unlawful imprisonment in 1988.

Tremlett and his sister, Donna, were placed in foster care.

And life went on.

Until last week, Tim, now 17, kept his nightmare years to himself.

"I always figured if I told people, they'd start feeling sorry for me. . . . I just wanted to be a normal kid," he said.

But he did tell a few friends and last week, at their suggestion, he contacted columnist C.R. Roberts of The News Tribune of Tacoma.

"I want to find my mom," he told Roberts.

"I want to ask her questions. Other people told me she didn't care about me. I want to know if that's really true, and I want me and my mom to start over.

"If I find her, I'd feel whole. Right now, I feel empty."

Last weekend, with Roberts' help, Tim visited his mother, Debra Taylor of Eureka, Calif. Taylor was waiting and ran to hug her son as he stepped off the bus Saturday.

"I love you so much," she said, crying. "You're too skinny. Mama's going to fatten you up. I'm shaking, I'm so excited."

Tim laughed like any mortified teenager, Roberts reported in the News Tribune.

At her house, Taylor showed Tim his baby pictures.

"You were such a good boy," she said.

When Tim was an infant and his sister, Donna, a toddler, Taylor left them with her stepmother in Tacoma while she moved to California.

She planned to leave the children only a few weeks, but when she returned, Skyles and the children were gone. She searched, but found no trace of them.

At their reunion, Taylor told her son she never gave up hope she would find them, but was overwhelmed by the legal system and didn't know where to find help.

"I've been waiting for this for so long," she said. "All I ever wanted was to find my kids."

Court records say Tim was perhaps 6 when he was placed in the box. He says the nightmare began much earlier.

"I keep dreaming about when I was younger, when I was in there," he said. "I'll wake up scared, sweating. It happens at least four times a week."

A prosecutor's affidavit said Skyles told police she kept Tim in the box because he was prone to tantrums and she believed he had been brain damaged by his mother's drug use. She said she didn't want to send him to school because she didn't want anyone to know where he was.

Tim said he was cleaned only occasionally, with a washcloth. He was rarely allowed to wear clothes. He was given a jar for his bodily wastes. When given food, he saved half.

There were no blankets or pillow. He slept curled tightly in a ball.

"I just laid in there and thought about stuff," Tim told Roberts. "I thought about what it would be like to go outside."

He was afraid of Skyles, who called him "the devil's child." Tim and his sister say he was paddled regularly with a wooden cutting board.

Tim thought Skyles was his mother.

He thought all little boys lived in boxes, but that probably "some moms were a little more lenient and let them do a little more than I did."

Neither he nor his sister attended school. Donna, who was kept isolated in the house, was allowed no contact with her brother. Both were too frightened to consider trying to escape.

Once, Tim remembers, Donna gave him a chocolate-chip cookie.

"It was the first one I ever had. I was almost 7. I broke it into quarters and saved the rest for later. It took me a couple of days to eat."

Once he was given a stuffed toy dog by Skyles' son - the first soft thing he remembers.

"I used to talk to it. I dreamed that it would come to life and break the lock. I thought maybe it would help me."

Skyles eventually shredded the toy with a knife, Tim told Roberts.

"A lot of times I wanted to crawl away and die," he said. "Most of the time I felt really scared and confused. I didn't know what to think.

"Every day was the same thing. My day kept repeating itself. After a while, I just gave up.

"Toward the end, I started to know what was happening just wasn't right."

A social worker described seeing Tim walking crablike, unable to stand upright, when he first stepped outside.

When he was given a plate of food at the foster home, "I ate and ate and ate," he told Roberts. He ate with his hands, not knowing what silverware was for. He ate macaroni and cheese and thought the day must be a holiday.

He had never seen a dog, didn't know what books were, how a faucet worked or how to play.

The family adopted Tim and Donna in 1991. Life was hard for Tim. He used drugs, dropped out of school and ran away.

But he eventually realized what had happened to him was not his fault.

And he found he wanted to take responsibility for his life, find a job, finish school - and find his mother.