The next few weeks were complicated. I drove Isaac to and from school, insisted on bringing him to the movies and picking him up when he went with friends. He started to get annoyed with me, but I could live with it as long as he was safe. Hal and I spent each evening together with the kids, forming our own little family. Joyce had restraining orders on both Sondra and Mosher, but I had little faith in things like that. Joyce understood, but also had some advice.
"Brandon, you have to remember one thing – and trust me, this was made clear to both of them. If something were to happen to you or Isaac, the first place they're going to look is at the two of them. They were sly, yes. They used some crappy tricks to do what they did to you, and others as I'm slowly finding out. But they are on trial, now. I'd lay odds that if they do anything illegal, it will be to go on the run," Joyce said to me during a prolonged conversation. "Live, Brandon. Let Isaac be a boy, going out with friends. Just make him check in, make sure you keep communication open with him."
It was the right advice, even if I didn't like it much. I loosed the apron strings on Isaac and he grumbled about it being about time, but there was less friction between us. I helped my parents shop for a home in the area. They were thinking of downsizing into a condo so they could shed all the maintenance things that went along with a home.
I started looking at nicer apartment complexes with Hal, thinking Isaac would enjoy having a place with a pool and other amenities. Come to think of it, I used to enjoy swimming myself. As the search progressed, Hal and I began to consider apartments we could share. Before long that gave way to looking at a home together, and instead of just considering Isaac or myself, I started thinking about Hal and I. Isaac would leave in a few years at best, and my life would go on with this beautiful, dynamic man.
"I'm not sure about paying for it," Hal said over dinner one night. "Kari and Isaac like their school, and it's a really good district. I wouldn't mind lower taxes on property, but the loan for a house is pretty huge."
"Well," I said. "After Ray and Amber passed, I sold our house and moved in here. I hadn't meant for it to be permanent, I just couldn't live in that house anymore."
"Yeah, I can understand that. My house is filled with good memories, but it feels sad without my parents there," Hal replied.
"My point is, I kind of folded in on myself. I've worked and that paid my bills easily, but I still have the money from the house in the bank. If you wanted to move, you could sell your old home, and...we could go in on a new home. Together."
He smiled widely. "Don't ask me to marry you," he said and laughed at my hurt expression.
"I guess I won't after that, but why?" I asked.
"Because I already bought the ring to ask you, that's why," he said. "I like to go first, in case you haven't picked up on that. But I don't have the ring with me, so the question will have to wait."
I shook my head and smiled at him.
"I know. I'm an asshole," he said and grinned widely again before laughing. I joined him, and then we got serious about finding a house.
A week later, more trouble descended. The trial was still some time away, but it seemed like the prosecutor was aiming at a plea bargain and getting these two off the county payroll sooner rather than later. Mona, as it happened, wasn't able to offer any real information for a deal and she was going to prison. She didn't even ask about her kids, to my knowledge. My parents found a condo and had a series of yard sales and donation sprees to get rid of things they'd no longer need. My town wasn't enormous so they weren't worried about where in town they'd end up, everything was ten minutes away.
I had barely made it to work on time, as per usual, when Travis started to talk about darts that night. "I'm telling you, it's a golden opportunity for us to bring the league some really good will. I bet the league is bigger next year, we'll have new people to play with, and it's for a good cause."
"No," I said. "I'm not dressing in drag."
"It's for charity!" he exclaimed. "Come on, Bran! You can sing 'It's Raining Men'!"
"I can't sing," I said sarcastically. "I can just see you in a dress, hat, handbag – with your goatee. Very cosmopolitan."
"I'll be cool. I think that's what they call non-conforming these days," he said with a grin.
"You've always been non-conforming," I said with a snort.
"You guys find a house yet?"
"I think we did," I said, turning from my work. "We're pretty happy with it. It's 'I' shaped with four bedrooms, two at each end of the house and a shared bathroom between each pair of bedrooms. We're thinking kids on one end, us on the other...no more jokes about the headboard from the rugrats...." I laughed and Travis joined me.
"Reminds me of when Simon was a little one. I wanted some alone time with Dawn, so I put one of my thirty-pound kettle bells in front of the bedroom door, right?" he said, snickering. "So we're on the bed, I'm working the situation and we hear this grunting from the other side of the door, right?" I started to chuckle at his expression and obvious delight with the story. "So we look over and the door is opening a little at a time. Every time the door moves, we hear this grunt. Next thing you know, there's little Simon squeezing into the room. He stops, looks at us, looks at the door and says, 'Hey Dad? Did you know you have a weight behind the door?'"
We both burst out laughing.
"Well, I think I can avoid that, anyway," I said, still chuckling. "The kids are very into not seeing us being intimate, and I'm just as into them not seeing us!" I said with a laugh. "The house is great, though. It has an in-ground pool, a hot tub and a nice deck we can use for cookouts and stuff."
"Sweet! No more standing out on your one-and-a-half-man balcony to grill."
"Yep. Plenty of room for Simon to flirt with Kari," I said, chuckling.
"Yeah, well, Pete may be making googly eyes at the same time. Just at Isaac."
I raised an eyebrow. "Pete's interested in guys?"
"Seems so," he said. "I don't know if it's actual attraction or just a little hero worship. They got on so well at the lake, remember?"
"Yeah, that's true. They were cute together," I said. I opened my mouth, but was cut off by gruff yelling as our floor was filled with shouting people with windbreakers on.
"FBI! Everyone stop what you're doing! Put that down!"
Travis and I looked at each other and then back to the government agents. "Stand from your desks, do not touch anything, and step into the hallway between desks. Do it now!"
"What the hell," I muttered and stood, joining Travis is the space between our desks. Travis had his coffee cup in hand and was looking around in curiosity. I grabbed my coffee cup as well, and got yelled at by some asshole.
"My kid made it," I snapped back. It was true. It was the lumpiest cup anyone had ever seen – it looked positively covered in tumors. The colors didn't help, but it was a gift, damn it.
We got herded to the break room while people filed by taking out computers and files. "What do you figure? Taxes?" Travis asked.
I sighed. "No idea. You'd think they'd seize accounting first, though."
"Maybe. They're government, so that might occur to them before they leave," Travis said with a snicker.
The agents interrogated all of us, which took an exceptionally long time. They didn't give us any idea what was going on, filled out notebooks worth of notes, but they finally let us go around four o'clock. I met up with Hal outside.
"So, nice to see they didn't haul you away," I said with a little smile.
"I'm not usually the one of us with legal trouble," he said, sliding an arm around me. He sighed as he leaned against me and I put an arm around him. "Looks like it's time to look for a new job."
"Yeah." I paused. "No. Why don't you finish school?"
He looked up at me. "Raising my sister? Ring a bell?"
"Yeah, but I'll be there to help, now. You can transfer your credits locally, finish up and get a better job."
He sighed. "We can't get married, then."
I chuckled. "Why not?"
"I can't carry my weight if I'm in school. This needs to be an equal deal, Bran."
"Okay. How about if we just agree we're going to get married at a future date, after you graduate?"
He smiled and leaned into me. "I told you, I get to ask."
"But you're slow," I whined.
He shifted in front of me and put his arms behind my neck. "You have to wait until I have the ring with me."
I pulled him close by the waist. "Done waiting. I want this, now," I said and kissed him lightly.
"You don't seem to be worried about being without a job," he said, changing the subject.
"I have a feeling another company will swoop in. Nab up valuable pieces. Besides, I've been thinking about a change. Something where I can work from home. Our home."
"I'm not sure all of this financial stuff is the right time," he said, sounding a little worried.
I nodded. "Let's sit down tonight or tomorrow when the kids are at school, and see where we are. Okay?"
He raised his chin and gave me a considering look. "Not going to just insist, huh?"
I leaned forward and put my forehead against his. "Not if we're equal. I mean, there will be times where I'll be insistent, but this isn't one of those."
"What's an example of a time you'd be insistent?"
"When it's time to get your clothes off," I said promptly.
He let out a little laugh.
"Like tomorrow. When the kids are at school. I'm going to be very insistent."
He threw back his head and laughed. Around us people had finally stopped with the useless questions, asking one another what happened, if they knew someone who knew what happened, or throwing out theories and trying to figure it out. The more shell shocked people had left already.
"How will Travis come through this?" he asked. I turned my focus back to him.
"His wife makes the money," I said. "Besides, Trav is more interested in having time off than what he's going to do with it. He's probably thrilled."
Later that night the local news ran footage of the raid on our office. It turns out the IRS was involved and it did have something to do with taxes, but I wasn't really listening. I probably should have, but honestly it was sort of a relief. I knew we were financially okay for a while, and I was honestly happy to have the time off. My parents were more concerned about it than I was, and my mother said we could send Isaac to them for a while.
"Uh-uh," I told her. "I'm wise to you. You just want Isaac to yourself."
"We don't see him enough!" she argued back, not bothering to dispute me. I told her maybe we'd try to set a grandma day aside.
"Besides. His friends have been talking to him about doing the school play, so maybe that'll be a nice thing for you to come see him."
After going through all the potential ways we could manage doing what we wanted, it was as I'd thought. We could do it with minimal worries. The plan was to sell his house and combine the money from that with what I had in savings for a down payment on a new house. Kari seemed ambivalent about the idea, but we figured that was probably just teenage negativity and were pretty sure she’d come around. The apartment would be our fallback if something went unexpectedly. We cleaned up Hal's old family home, getting it ready for hopefully a quick sale.
"Hey," I said, taking a seat on the arm of the couch. "How you doing?" There was now a For Sale sign up in front of Hal's house, and Kari was still moping. I decided to try to bring her around.
She glanced at me and shrugged. "I don't think I know."
"Anything you want to talk about?"
"I don't think so." She paused. "Did you ever move as a kid?"
"Yeah, once. It was exciting, but later sad because I had to get used to new spaces. I thought you liked the new house we were looking at?"
"I do," she said a little listlessly. She glanced around. "I thought it would bother me more to be leaving here. All the memories. After...after my parents died, things were strange. I'd see their stuff left out like, you know, they could come back at any moment."
I nodded in sympathy. "I felt the same way after my husband and daughter died. I tripped over one of her shoes when I went to her room, and I sat down on the floor and cried. Isn't that silly? I was crying over a shoe."
"I totally get that. My mom had this scarf, this really fine silk one? You could see through it it was so airy. Two days after I stumbled over it, and it was like this burst of hope in me. I felt like I might see her come home, for a split second. Stupid, huh?"
"I don't think so," I said gently. "It's hard to lose people. We get used to them, love them and don't always realize what they mean to us until we don't have them anymore."
She slowly lifted her gaze. "Did your family...did they know you loved them?"
Ah, the core of it. "I'm sure they did. Love is a strange thing, you know. We express it in so many ways. Sometimes adults show it by taking care of people – making meals, making a home. Kids provide it a number of ways. One of the biggest is when they trust the people that love them. You can't really trust someone, not like you do a parent, without loving them." I sighed. "Parents have to set boundaries, provide consequences and teach you about the world. That's not an easy, and sometimes a no-fun thankless job. But every time a kid tries to get it, even if they don't succeed, they are letting their parents know they are trying out of love."
We didn't say anything else. After the silence dragged out for a few minutes I got up and let her have her space.
Hal and Kari's place sold quickly, more so than we had expected. It forced our hand a little, but having received our asking price from that house, and combining that money with mine, it was easy to get a loan and close on our home – one that we'd found in the same general area of my apartment. Several kids turned out to help with the move, and it was sort of cool to see all Kari and Isaac's friends. Or some of them, I guess. Isaac pulled me aside early on.
"Okay, so the kid with the really blond, like white-blond hair? That's Tim. He's nervous because he's gay, you're gay and it weirds him out."
I raised an eyebrow. "He's going to struggle in the boyfriend department if other gay guys make him feel strange," I said.
"It's more you. Like...old gay guy."
I frowned. Capital F, frowned.
"I know. I know!" he said, holding up his hands. "I know more about this than he does. I just thought you should know in case he acts foolish."
I rolled my eyes and sighed.
The move was probably the hardest one of my life. My apartment wasn't as bad, but with Hal's stuff in storage as well...it was exhausting. Then I had to clean the old apartment and you'd be shocked. I mean, I thought I kept a reasonably clean place, but you move a few things and discover fossilized crackers that aren't even manufactured anymore.
We probably ended up with a few of our things dinged that might not have happened with adult movers, but the kids could be compensated with pizza and soda, saving us a four figure bill, so I guess it worked out. Isaac's stint with drama turned out to be as part of the set design team; my parents proclaimed the sets to be masterpieces. Liz and Tim became fixtures around the house, and eventually I had a sit down with Isaac.
"So listen, bud," I said. "I feel like I should give you the safe sex talk, but I'm not sure which one."
"Oh, God! Please don't!" he said, then paused. "Wait, what do mean 'which one'?"
"Well, I thought you might date Liz, then I thought you might date Tim. Truthfully, I don't know if you're dating them both...."
He tilted his head. "Really? They're my friends. How about you focus a little more on bagging Hal instead of on my love life?"
"Uh!" I grunted at him. "I think I have Hal pretty well in hand, thank you."
"I don't see a ring," he said, vastly amused with himself. He still squealed like a piglet when I tickled him, the little shit.
With my parents moving into their condo in October, we ended up hosting Thanksgiving. Before that, of course, was Halloween and it was kind of an experience. Isaac and Kari dressed up with their friends and went to a dance at the school. We did the parent thing and took pictures before they left. I thought we'd just hang out, but our new neighborhood seemed to be a kid neighborhood, and the doorbell got quite a workout and by association, we did, too.
One result of the dance was Kari getting a boyfriend. I guess he was nice enough, for a hormonal kid who I had to watch like a hawk. Hal had to pull me aside once and let me know that Kari was very aware she didn't want to be in a family way. Apparently she told Hal she'd like it if I'd dial back the idea that her boyfriend was a single hormone aimed at her crotch like an impregnating missile.
"She didn't say that!" I told him.
"Well, I might have embellished," he said deviously. "I'm sure she feels good that you have her back, though."
We saw plenty of Allen, Kari's boyfriend. Kari also seemed to go through a maturity spike, taking care of some tasks without being asked. Isaac remained unimpressed, but didn't like the extra nagging it brought him to do some of the same. It wasn't so much that Isaac didn't do a chore, it was that he half-assed it to the point I had to get him to do it again. I couldn't figure out the thinking behind it, but it was frustrating as hell. I've been since told it's just a teenage thing.
We were in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner when my mother's phone rang. You could pick hers out of the crowd – it was a chorus of barking dogs tuned to some song or other. She answered and I went still when she spoke again.
"Maureen? What are you – well we moved!"
Hal looked at me with a question on his face. "My sister," I said. His eyes went a little wider and he nodded. I'd told him enough about my siblings for there to be nothing more to say about it.
"Well, I didn't know you decided to come for the holiday," my mother said. "It would have been nice if you'd called to say so. Did you expect me to squirt Thanksgiving dinner out of my ass just because you showed up unannounced?"
I covered my mouth and Isaac brayed.
"That's Isaac, Brandon's son." A pause. "Yes, you've missed out on a lot. Your choice." Another pause. "Well, it's not my home, but I'd imagine if you can be civil, he'd be fine with it. Do you have your kids?" Pause. "Oh, for Christ's Sake! Maureen! Let me give you the address. I swear!"
My mother got up and left the table. Once she was out of earshot Hal asked what the deal was with my sister.
"She got infected with Jesus," my father said wryly. "The sort that passes judgment while accusing everyone else of judging them. I have no idea if her husband is a believer, but they broke up a few months ago. We haven't laid eyes on her in over a year." He sighed. "I love my daughter, but not her choices. She hasn't got the good sense to come in out of the rain."
I sighed, but held my tongue. My father didn't share this affliction.
"That husband of hers? Useless as tits on a bull. He could never hold a job. Always insisted his employers were Godless cretins, stealing from honest people. I don't even think his church kept him on, whatever he did or likely didn't do for them. Waste."
"You didn't tell your kids you'd moved?" Kari asked.
My father looked at her and smiled. "Sweetheart, as you get older you realize you don't owe people things. You don't hang on to people who are toxic. You try to help your kids, you try to do the right thing. But at a certain point we all have to stand up on our own." He sighed and said, "It's one thing if you need a little help sometimes, but it's something else to expect others to simply make your life what you think it should be."
Kari looked dubiously at Hal, and then away. "Was she always...like this?"
"No," I said, relieving my father of speaking ill of his children. "When we were kids she was sweet as sunshine. When I came out in my middle teens, she would playfully compete over guys with me."
"How do you do that?" she asked, jerking her head back and frowning.
"Well, most guys will be fairly straight – or restrained enough by societal convention to not experiment with their sexuality. So we'd talk about hot guys at a school and sometimes she'd date one of them," I told her.
"Doesn't seem very playful," she said.
"Probably depends how you do it," Isaac piped up. "Liz and Tim are a little like that."
"Over you?" Kari asked, teasing.
He looked at her for a beat. "Mebbe," he said, over emphasizing the 'meh' sound again. He smiled widely. "Nah, not really. I'm just messing with you."
"I'm so glad I'm not a teen anymore," Hal said and took a sip of his wine.
"Amen," my dad said. "Acne. Hormones. Sexual complexities and uncertainties? Who needs it?"
"How do you make a hormone?" Isaac jumped in.
"Isaac," I said in a warning tone.
Hal put a hand over mine. "This is funny. Travis taught him"
"In that case, hell no," I muttered.
"Don't pay her," Isaac said triumphantly, ignoring me. My dad laughed because of course he did. Isaac smiled, pleased with himself.
"Can you believe her?" my mother asked as she returned to the table. "She's on the way. Brandon, honey, I apologize for telling her she could come without asking first. I'll be fine if I have to drag her ungrateful butt over to my house."
"It's okay, Mom. We'll see how it goes."
"I just don't understand her," my mother said, looking at my father. "We haven't hosted Thanksgiving in years. It can't be about the food, and that's what worries me."
My father looked up at me. "You'll recall I mentioned she hadn't asked for money. This is no good. No good at all."
I asked Hal if he wanted a refill on his wine and he smiled widely, handing me his glass and nodding exaggeratedly. I chuckled and headed to the kitchen, but was pleasantly surprised that he followed me.
"This is like one of those terrible holiday movies where all these things go wrong. The problem is, those movies suck." He sidled next to me as I poured his drink. "How bad do you think this could be?"
I sighed and poured a glass for myself. Swirling the red liquid I said, "My Dad probably has the right idea. Something catastrophic in Maureen's life, so I think she'll behave here. She wouldn't make the long drive just to ask for money."
We were into dessert by the time my sister showed up, and she had her three little ones in tow. Maureen had never been a slender girl, and she'd continued to put on weight. I'm sure having three kids didn't help that. Her hair was long and curly, but lank and oily. She had bags under her eyes and looked tired.
My parents greeted her warmly, and I said hello, not expecting much from her.
"Thank you so much, Brandon," she said and gave me a quick hug. "It's been a complete nightmare today. I'm so relieved to make it here in one piece!"
"Who are these smiling faces?" I asked, looking down on three kids who weren't smiling. "Are you guys hungry for some Thanksgiving dinner?"
They looked at each other, excitement obvious.
"Come on. Let's get plates made for you guys," Hal said, smiling welcomingly.
Kari and Isaac leapt into action, steering the younger kids to the bathroom to wash up while talking to them about the food they could have for dinner. I turned to Maureen.
"They look half-starved. You look exhausted. What's going on?"
She let out a fake laugh. "I look exhausted because I am! I have three kids, that's enough to tire anyone out!"
"Maureen," my mother said, stepping in front of her. "You're here for help. It's obvious. Will you please stop with the bullshit and tell us what the story is?"
"Jeez! Thanks, Ma! I just wanted-"
"Maureen," my father said in a tired voice. "Just stop. Tell us what circle of hell you stepped into, and we'll see what can be done. But for Christ's sake, don't act like we don't already know." He turned from her and resumed his seat at the table. Maureen looked from one face to the next and finally let out a sigh which appeared to deflate her.
"After dinner," I said, hearing the kids coming back to the table. "Let's get everyone fed."
We dished up plates and Maureen tried to insist the kids say grace. I stopped them.
"Kids, repeat after me. What happens at Uncle Brandon's, stays at Uncle Brandon's. No grace at Uncle Brandon's."
The kids looked wide-eyed at their mother who glared at me.
"My house," I said.
"Try that," my mother said to the oldest. "That's special turkey. Taste it, tell Grandma what you think." Shortly the kids were eating heartily, and even Maureen had the good sense to shut up as she was being fed from my table.
"Shall I brew tea for you?" Hal asked under his breath.
"I may need a scotch with my dad," I replied. He chuckled and headed to the kitchen and I heard him loading the dishwasher. I caught Isaac's attention and he came over to my side. "Would you do me a huge favor and bring the little ones to the living room and get them into a movie or playing some games?"
He looked at them a little forlornly. "They're so little. What do you do with them?"
"Just keep them busy for a bit. We'll bring them back for dessert, but I need to have a talk with their mother – adult chat, you know?"
"Yeah. Okay, I got it," he said. He went to Kari and filled her in, and ten minutes later they had the younger kids in the living room and had a board game out.
"So!" Maureen said brightly. "Wow! Nice house!"
"We're very pleased with it," I said. "Thank you. I'd like you to meet Hal, my fiancee."
"I haven't given him the ring yet, but he's not really a standing-on-tradition kind of guy," Hal said.
"Well, it's really not tradition, right? Two men?" Maureen said, wrinkling her nose and smiling all at once.
"Maureen," I said. "You're in my home, eating at my table. You're my sister and I love you, but I won't be insulted in my own home."
"Of course," she said, and muttered under her breath. She looked back up at me and then to our parents. "Well, how did this all happen?"
"Well, we fell in love after we met at work," Hal said, taking her question in a completely different direction. "Kari is my sister, I am raising her since our parents passed away suddenly. Isaac belongs to Brandon, and he's a great kid – except for his chores. He needs someone to be firm with him about his chores," he said, looking at me from the side of his eye and pointing to me.
"I tell him!" I protest.
"Let's him get away with murder, more like," Hal said and turned his smile toward me.
"Uh. Wow! Okay, well, it seems like things are going good, right?" Maureen said. She seemed a bit nervous as she tried to force herself to be civil. "Um, so Rodney and I are getting divorced. It's tough because divorce is expensive – and even more if you can't afford to divorce, right? A few thousand to one person might be nothing, to another it may as well be a million, right?"
"Is Rodney fighting you?" I asked.
"No. We haven't even gotten lawyers. We just live apart and I get just as much money for the kids as I did when I lived with him," she said with a tired expression. "Just living on the edge, is what I'm doing."
I leaned forward and rested my forearms on the table. "The kids seem...underweight?"
She ran a hand along the back of her neck. "We get by. We don't eat our favorites, but God will provide, right?"
"No," my father said. "God expects you to use the brains he gave you. He didn't provide a husband, you just picked that loser. Rodney never straightened up, and neither did you. Those kids are suffering, now. Maureen, it's time you gave up this Jesus obsession and came back to your family."
Maureen picked up her napkin and began tearing tiny bits off it, sniffling. "It seemed to be a good thing. Believing. It felt good to know someone was watching over me, protecting me." She paused and looked down. "The kids and I...we're living in the van. I don't know where Rodney is, but they repossessed the trailer. The shelter only lets you stay thirty days, and I couldn't get a job." She looked up quickly. "I tried! So many places want you to email everything, but I don't have a phone, no internet – I'm in a tough spot. I wouldn't have come except...this is punishing my kids."
"Okay," I said. "Get the laundry from the car, let's get it started. We'll get them showered and into pajamas. I think we have extra toothbrushes. You can use the couch and the kids can have the spare bedroom. We'll figure this out."
She pursed her lips. "What about my beliefs?"
I looked at her coldly. "They stop at my front door. If you decide to be disrespectful, I'll kick you out on your ass, and call social services myself."
Her eyes went wide and she blinked. She looked at Mom, who shook her head. "Dad and my condo only has the one bedroom. It's here or you climb those kids back in that van – and then I'll call social services on you before you get away from the curb. Religion that gets in the way of a proper life for your kids is a luxury you can't afford. Decide, Maureen – Jesus or your kids? Who is really important?"
Maureen seemed to deflate even further. She looked down at her wreck of a napkin and nodded. "Okay. Thank you. I'm...grateful."
"Bran?" my father asked looking at me with his eyebrows in the air. "Got that scotch?"
Later that night, I curled around Hal's body. "I'm sorry, babe."
"For what?" he asked softly.
"My sister. Not discussing where they would stay with you first."
He sighed. "There weren't very many choices. I don't want this to be forever, though."
"I don't either. I just couldn't punish those kids."
"She's their mom either way. Did you see little Esther? Her hair pulled into a braid makes her face look beautiful." Hal ran his fingers through my hair. "I think the kids need some stability. I just hope Maureen can pull her head from her ass."
Three days later, Maureen stole money from me. We had an unholy fight where she made wild declarations about how I had so much and it wasn't fair, so on and so forth. Things escalated to the point that she claimed she was going to commit suicide and locked herself in a bathroom. We called an ambulance and she was taken to a psychiatric center for evaluation.
Everyone was shaken up, and I'm sure her kids were confused and scared. I called my parents for help and they divided their time between stabilizing our home and checking into my sister and her status.
Isaac looked bummed out and I flopped on his bed beside him, making him fly up in the air a few inches.
"Punk," he said with a little smile.
"There's that smile. Just wanted to make sure it was still there," I told him. "Listen, I know this is rough. You're doing a phenomenal job at school, and at home. I'd like to reward you. Is there something you'd really like to do?"
"Kind of lame, but...can we have a hang out night? Like go for pizza or something, just us?"
"Of course we can," I told him, feeling swept up in warm emotions.
Esther, Thomas and Eydie, my nieces and nephew, seemed restless after all the confusion and yelling with their mom, but by the next day they seemed quite recovered. Over the next few days it became clear that Maureen wouldn't be home immediately and we had to step up preparations for Christmas. I made it a point to spend one evening a week with Isaac, giving him attention that was devoted to him. He was a great kid, and I wanted to keep him that way. Besides, I think I got as much out of time alone with him as he did. Hal started doing the same thing with Kari, and then we swapped so we could each spend some good one-on-one time with the two oldest who were being so helpful with this bad situation.
Bless my parents, they were over most days, helping with the little ones. Once school let out for the winter break, I took the kids to the local rec center almost daily so they could swim, exercise and generally get out of the house for a few hours. Kari and Isaac began having some friends over to the house, and that just became the new normal.
Esther approached Hal and I one night; she was so adorable with her serious expression on such a young face. "I'm nine," she said. "Thomas is seven. He has a thing. I think Eydie and I should have our own room and Thomas can sleep outside."
"Outside?" I asked. "He might freeze, Esther. What do we do about that?"
"He farts in his sleep," she said, frowning and I had to bite my lip so I didn't laugh. "Uncle Brandon, girls and boys shouldn't have the same bedroom."
"Did you have to share a room before when you lived with your dad?" Hal asked.
"Yeah," she said despondently. "But we were younger then, and we had no choice. There was only the one room to sleep in. This house is a lot bigger."
"We'll see what we can do," I told her.
Once she'd left Hal sighed. "How am I supposed to go back to school with all this going on? We need jobs."
"I'll start looking in January," I said. "We're okay. You'll get fantastic grades and a much better job."
"I wish I had your confidence," he said and gave me a weak smile. "What are we going to do with all these kids? Seriously?"
"I don't have an easy answer for that. Add a room on? I can't throw them in the street, but be honest, you love Esther."
"It's just...hard," he said and rolled toward me on the couch, where I snuggled him. "I never wanted all this responsibility. Not this soon. I should be finishing college next semester. I should be thinking about getting an apartment, a nice one, one with a view from the money I'd get at my new job. I should be getting ready to date and go to clubs and...and...."
"And this isn't what you signed up for," I said softly.
He sighed. "I'm just whining."
"It's still a valid point. You can't just dismiss your feelings. Given that...have you changed your mind about us? Because this is what us looks like right now."
He pulled his head away from me quickly. "No! Shut up!"
Relief flashed through me. "Honey, I understand if-"
"Shut. Up. I'm letting off some steam, not trying to walk away. I'm stressed out, I'm confused and just...feeling a little sorry for myself. It happens. Two kids were fine, but suddenly it's five and our house was plenty big enough and now it's not and...."
I looked at him as his words tapered off. I saw he was tired as well as frustrated. "I know something that might help. How about if I take you to bed and try to work some of that stress off?" I said, wriggling my eyebrows and earning a smile from him.
"What about you?"
"I'm getting to take you to bed. I think I'm covered," I said with a chuckle.
Christmas came and went. Isaac wasn't the only child spoiled, though he was awed with his presents. He was awed enough to cry. My parents gift to us was to pay for an additional room to be added to the house. Thomas had moved into Isaac's room temporarily, and while Thomas was thrilled, Isaac wasn't. We had ups and downs every day. In January Hal started classes, and I started a job search. Two weeks into January, Maureen was released. My parents took her to their place to help get her on her feet. Within the month she had a job and a subsidized apartment, and our house emptied out to the point it seemed peaceful, even with our two teens!
Maureen thanked Hal and I for taking her children and caring for them. "I was so depressed I didn't realize that I was depressed," she said sadly. "I'm sorry for the things I said and did. I'm working on me, but...I hope we can be in each other's lives. My kids need family, and I do, too."
Cautiously I agreed.
As expected, though it took longer than anyone predicted, Mosher and Du Morne entered into a plea deal. Mosher's union had fought viciously for him, but I don't think it was due to Mosher specifically, but more that they defend cops like that whether the cop was in the right or not. Mosher's career in law enforcement was over, and he would do some time that would be determined at a sentencing hearing. Du Morne didn't have the same representation, and she ended up worse off. Like her nephew her career was over, but without the union fighting for her she was sentenced earlier and went away for five years.
Around about April Isaac asked me what had become of his mother. I told him the last I'd heard was that she would go to prison, but I could find out more. I reached out to Joyce and she got back to me in a week or so. I told Isaac that his mother had gone to prison out of state. I was prepared to comfort him, but I was completely caught off guard for the conversation that came next.
"Hey. Um. How would you, you know, feel about me talking to my mother?" he asked.
I put my hands in my pockets. "Well, I wouldn't try to stop you."
"Yeah, okay, but how would you feel?"
I pulled my bottom lip into my mouth, sucking on it for a second. "Well, I'm not sure. I'd be concerned about how that would affect you. We've never really talked about how you feel about how she lived her life. Or your sister, for that matter. I'd imagine that brings up some complicated feelings about being able to depend on people and trust them. I have no idea how your mom interacted with you, or what she might say now – or what you'd want to say to her."
He opened his eyes and very slowly said, "But how would you feel?"
I frowned lightly. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean, outside of what I've just said, Isaac."
He held his arms out to his sides. "All you've talked about is how this would make me feel! Do you care if I talk to her? You're kind of doing the whole dad thing without getting the title and stuff."
I paused. "Do you mean would I feel jealous or bad about you talking to her?" I asked slowly, thinking it over as I said it.
"Sort of, yeah."
I let out a slow breath. "I honestly think that she's your mom and you have a right to converse with her, no matter what my feelings are."
"And that's great, thanks, but I knew that," Isaac said in a bored tone. "But?"
I lifted my gaze to his. "I think I'd feel a little jealous if your father suddenly appeared. I might worry a little if your mother doesn't like who's caring for you. But there are a lot of things in life I don't like, and I'll deal with this. You do the things you need to, kiddo."
He raised an eyebrow at me. "A little jealous if my father showed up? A little? Really?"
I smiled. "Okay, try this: I'll kidnap you and we'll move to Canada. Get new identities."
"That's better," he said with a trace of smugness. I gave him a nougie for his smugness, but he was right. A few weeks later the county worker met with him and they had a video call with his mother. I asked how he felt afterward, but he was non-committal, as only a teenager can be.
Isaac's new class had been a huge benefit to him from the start, and by the time school was getting ready to let out for the summer, he'd been on the honor roll for three straight quarters. We'd had our struggles – Isaac wasn't afraid to show me his brat side anymore. He slacked on chores, would lie on the couch and ask me to go make him food after just eating dinner, and leave his room an unholy mess. Still, I wouldn't trade him for anything.
With school winding down, we took Isaac and Kari away camping for a three day weekend, as it had been Isaac's birthday request. We cooked outside, swam in the lake and took hikes. Isaac looked more confident and less the kid Mona had abandoned so many months ago. His chest and arms had filled out a bit, and his shoulders were widening, hinting at the man he'd become. At night we played board games in the cabin; it had no electricity, so we played by the light of a kerosene lamp. The second day we had everyone up for Isaac's birthday. Travis and Dawn came up with Simon and Pete. Maureen came up with her kids and they got a chance to hang out and go swimming with their cousins. Kari and Isaac were really good with the little ones, and Simon proved to be as well – though he'd had some practice, having Pete.
My parents showed up, of course, and my mother made a fuss over Isaac while my father brought up gifts from the car. Kari's birthday wasn't until August, but my mother was already talking to her about a shopping expedition. I was thinking she'd rent out elephants and guides to tackle mall after mall. We gathered for cake and presents, and it was kind of barely controlled chaos. Or maybe the control was only in my imagination.
"Everyone! Everyone! Can I have your attention?" Hal was standing on top of a picnic table with his hands in the air, turning to see the assembled guests. Once he was sure he had their attention he put his hands down and smiled winningly.
"I'd just like to give a little credit where it's due," he said to the crowd. "You can't succeed without a strong foundation. I know my parents gave that to my sister and myself, and it helped to make us the people we are today. Brandon has also done this for both Isaac and myself. For those of you that don't know, Isaac will have spent the entire school year on the honor roll!"
There was applause and Isaac smiled, blushing a bit. My mother cheered embarrassingly loud, but that's my mother for you.
"As a special reward for his academic success," he said, looking at Isaac, "he gets a later bedtime and this present right here," he said as my father placed two packages on the table. Isaac was smiling and blushing mightily as he opened them, revealing a small TV and game system which he was told he could have in his room. That was one happy kid, and he gave hugs and thanks to the adults who'd rewarded his efforts.
"And of course," Hal said loudly, drawing attention back to him. "Brandon has supported my efforts to finish my education, which will be done by this summer. In between doing all that, he's managed to find a job that keeps him where he wants to be – at home, with his family."
There was a smattering of applause again and he hopped down from the table, and I caught him.
"I thought we were only embarrassing the kid today?" I teased as he laughed at me.
"You deserve some credit," he told me.
"Okay, so, it's my birthday," Isaac said loudly, having taken Hal's place on the tabletop. "My birthday, so I get to kind of go overboard, right?"
"That's right!" my mother hollered. She needed a hobby.
"Thank you," he said to her with a grin. Turning to face me he said, "I know the trip was supposed to be my big gift, but I have another pretty big thing to ask," he said.
"Uh oh," I said, looking around at the assembled group. Breaking out in laughter I asked, "What else could you possibly want?"
"That's sort of the problem, because I think you should know already. I had a conversation with my mother a few months ago. Then I called Joyce," he said. I frowned, wondering where he was headed, and my heart felt a bit tighter as possibilities flooded my head. "So I asked my mom a few things. What she was thinking. Why she did what she did. None of it really mattered, because I didn't care. I asked her to do something for me, and she agreed."
I looked at Hal, who shrugged at me. We looked back at Isaac, who had everyone's attention.
"I asked her to surrender her parental rights. So, look, I need two things from this birthday, okay? Hal, will you please quit screwing around and ask him to marry you?"
Hal chuckled. "I wanted to wait until I graduate," he said.
Isaac put his hands on his hips. "Yeah, I know. That's nice and all, but it's not like you're getting married today. But I need you to get that part over with. We all know you guys are made for each other – it's kind of disgusting, if you ask me."
"We didn't," I said dryly.
"But look," he said without stopping. "Time to shit or get off the pot." He looked at my father. "Did I get that right?"
My father gave him a thumbs up. "That's right!" my mother chimed in.
Turning back to us he said, "I need you guys to get this marriage thing done."
We looked at each other and chuckled. "Why's that?" I asked him.
"Because, for my birthday, I want you to adopt me and I need to know if I'm going to be Issac Maddox or Isaac Fremont." He stepped down onto the seat of the picnic table as my jaw unhinged. "Why else get my mother to give up her rights and get a lawyer involved? So will you guys just please get married so I can tell people I live with my dads and sister instead of this guy, his boyfriend and his sister? It just sounds weird!"
I walked over to Isaac and plucked him off the step, holding him and twirling him around before letting him dangle, swinging side to side.
"Of course I'll adopt you, Isaac. I'll always be here for you." I set him down and he beamed up at me, then looked behind me.
"One down. Come on, Hal. Family time."
Hal's cheeks turned pink, but just the tips as seemed to be his way. He smiled his megawatt smile and reached into his sister's hand, removing a small box and thanking her.
"I was going to wait until tomorrow, so I didn't steal any thunder from your birthday, Isaac." Hal took a step toward me and opened the box. "Brandon, shall we give the kid what he wants?"
"Say yes! Say yes!" Isaac urged me.
I answered by kissing the man I was going to marry.