The following morning had me on the phone with Prescott Digital. For some reason the sticks were corrupted and then I had to wait for the tech to get to a place he could get a solid connection and link into the shared drive to download the bins manually; and that took up most of my morning. Once he was on site I walked him through the install process as it differed from the way the sticks that had been mailed had been set up. As we did that, I typed the instructions and emailed them for his next few stops.
I had work to do, but I no longer had the urge to do it. I felt slightly guilty but had a feeling I'd get over it. My phone rang and as I reached for it, Travis rolled across the divide on his chair and scribbled on my calendar as I answered the phone.
'Pickle.' I rolled my eyes and looked at him as he grinned. Sometimes we'd play a game where one of us supplied a word and the other had to work it into the conversation with the caller we currently had.
“Bran,” Harvey said though the earpiece. “Can you arrange some kind of monitoring on the South Carolina thing? I know the techs are installing stuff and you had a snag with that, but do we have a way to make sure we're on top of this if anything else goes wrong?”
“Well, that's a pickle, Harvey,” I replied and Travis chuckled across the way. “I can see that the units the tech has visited have the correct bins so they should work correctly, but I don't have any further diagnostics from my end. Prescott is usually pretty reliable, but I could call the individual sites to check in over the next day or so.”
“That's a good thought. I'll have Hal do it, though, since it's his account. They should see him supporting them instead of you doing it, since you won't be dealing with them face-to-face as it were.”
“Sure thing,” I told Harvey and we hung up.
“Pickle? That was random,” I said as I leaned back in my chair and considered if I wanted another cup of coffee.
“I was hoping it was Hal. Seems like you guys should talk pickle at some point,” he replied with a snicker.
“Jesus,” I said with a laugh. “You think about him more than I do!”
The next several days were filled with other such minor emergencies. There were a few projects in the works for a couple of different upgraded systems we had in the pipeline, and I had people from India checking in with updates that were in progress. Who would have thought registers could be such a pain in the butt? When one thinks about checking out at a gas station, movie theater or a grocery store, that person thinks nothing of the point of sale, or POS. They just get their change and go or swipe their card and go.
The weekend finally arrived and I was looking forward to sleeping in and doing as I pleased. That was sort of a joke, of course. The apartment needed vacuuming, I had to do some grocery shopping and I'd have to call my mom on Sunday morning. That still beat being at the office, that much I can tell you that much. I picked up my mail from the box just inside the building door and headed up the two flights to my floor. When Ray had been alive we'd had a house, but I couldn't bear to stay in it after...afterward.
“She's not here!” snapped a young, male voice.
I looked up and saw a man in the hallway wearing a bland brown uniform. He was standing in the doorway of Mona's apartment with his hands on his hips.
“I don't care if she's here or not. When you don't pay your rent we don't wait for you to be home; we just kick you out,” the guy said.
“Dude, you can't just toss me out!” As I drew closer I saw Mona's teenage son standing in the doorway in black shorts and a matching tee, thin legs ending in no-show white socks.
“What's the noise?” I asked.
The uniformed guy glanced at me. “Rental business, sir. I'll get the peace and quiet back in just a few minutes.”
“By throwing a kid out on the street with no notice?” I asked. “You can't do that, legally.”
The kid looked at me with guarded curiosity.
“Sir, this really isn't your concern,” the fellow said.
“If you're breaking the law, it is. For all I know you'll be coming to my door next, trying to throw me out with no notice on a Friday night.” I looked at the kid. “By law he has to serve you with a three day written notice. If you fail to vacate, they can sue to evict. Where's your mom?”
The kid looked at the uniform mistrustfully. I looked at the uniform. “Do you have a written three day notice?”
He raised his chin. “In my office.”
“Okay, well, you run along then,” I told him.
“You're making a mistake,” he said with a shake of his head.
“I'll decide that,” I told him. He walked down the hallway and a moment later the outside door banged shut. I was watching the kid's face until we both heard that door close, just to be sure the guy wasn't close enough to hear. “So where's your mom, kid?”
“She went to the store,” he said.
I thought for a moment. The last time I'd seen Mona had been at the beginning of the week. Monday, I thought. The daughter had been hollering that they needed butter or something. I focused on the kid, who was thin, but not unnaturally so, with dark blond hair and eyebrows a bit darker. The hair looked a little oily, perhaps due to lack of washing – the sort of thing that happened with unsupervised boys his age.
“I'm Brandon,” I said, putting my hand out. He took my hand easily enough, and his hand felt soft and brittle in my paw.
“Isaac,” he replied.
I let his hand go and said, “Okay, Isaac, this seems like a weird situation, so I'm just going to leave you to think about a couple of things. The last time I saw Mona was Monday night and she was headed to the store. Your sister was yelling that you needed butter or some such. Then I saw your sister head out with a couple of bags the other day, and I haven't seen her since. What that makes me suspect is you've been on your own for a few days, and now I hear that Mona hasn't been paying rent.”
He stared at me, not confirming anything, but making no effort to deny it either. He was actually kind of stoic about it. I had been hoping against hope that the depravity of humanity wasn't actually being displayed in the form of an abandoned teenager – though I've heard there are legitimate reasons for abandoning a teen. I set that aside and focused on the short term issue.
“That fellow that works for the complex will probably be back, and he'll pin that three day notice to your door if you don't answer. He probably suspects you're alone in there, so he won't mind breaking the rules and just going in with a few movers and emptying the place out.” I looked at him for a minute before continuing, not really thinking so much as speaking and being surprised at what came out of my mouth.
“Do you have food? Clean clothes? Soap or shampoo?”
He raised his chin. “I'm all right.”
I figured he was bullshitting me, but I hadn't expected any less. Kids do that even with people they know, much less a total stranger. “Okay. I'm across the hall if you need something.” I turned from him and entered my own apartment. Closing the door I glanced over at Ray and Amber, smiling back at me. “Well, that was an interesting way to end the week. He's more obvious a liar than you were, Amber. Remember when you said you had no idea what that smell in your room was and it took Dad and I and entire day to root out the Easter eggs you'd hidden away? You sounded so truthful!”
I chuckled to myself and kicked my shoes off on the mat by the door. I could almost hear Ray asking what I was going to do next.
“I think I'm going to have dinner. I hope I'm out of leftovers, and then I'll pour a nice glass of wine to go with it,” I said aloud. I knew the Ray who lived in my head meant what was I going to do about my neighbor down the hall, but the truth was I didn't know there was anything for me to do. I'd staved off the shady rental guy, who looked more like a janitor than a rental agent, come to think of it. If the kid was on his own, he was either going to stretch the situation as long as he could or try to run. My money was on his running; it seemed to – ahem – run in the family. What was I to do about that?
“Not much,” I said as I opened my fridge to double check that the leftovers had been vanquished. Opening the freezer I said – quite accustomed to these one-sided conversations – “He's not mine, I have no legal authority, and we have no reason to trust each other. The little I saw of him makes me think he's got kind of a streetwise attitude, and why would I need that in my life?”
Rooting around in the freezer I found the steak I wanted, but grumbled under my breath when I realized the seal had broken and the meat was freezer burnt.
I let out a sigh. “I guess I'll have to put off that wine while I run to the store. This week was kind of nuts, and I have my heart set on steak tonight.”
What should have been a simple trip to the store ended up taking a few hours as I ended up rationalizing going out for a steak rather than bringing it home to cook. After all, it needed a marinade and that would only take up more time – and I was hungry, damn it! I deserved the occasional meal out. So I detoured right out of the parking lot of the grocery store and headed over to a decent steak house. I was a little irritated at the looks I got while eating alone. There was a guy in a wheelchair out with, I presume, his girlfriend, and he was looking at me as if I were pitiable.
After dinner I took a walk around the lake in the downtown park before heading back home some three-ish hours after I'd left. As I entered the hallway to my apartment I was disturbed to see another man in front of Mona's apartment, though this one didn't even vaguely resemble a member of the property management company.
“Come on!” he said loudly, although pitching his tone as if he was trying not to be heard.
“Not again,” I muttered to myself. Raising my voice I asked, “Can I help you?”
The fellow turned and went a shade whiter in the face. “Uh. My kid. Um, supposed to be my weekend.”
I felt a flash of relief that the problem may have been solved, but there was also a thread of suspicion and a certainty that sprang up suddenly that reminded me things rarely go this neatly.
“Oh!” I said and smiled widely. “You're Bobby's dad?”
He smiled widely, looking relieved. “Yeah, that's me.”
I dropped my smile. “There is no Bobby. I'm calling the police.”
His eyes went wide, he spluttered for a hot-minute and then took off for the front door. I waited for the telltale sound of the outer door banging shut before I tapped on Mona's door. “Isaac? It's Brandon. He's gone.”
I waited a minute and then the chain inside the door slid off its rail and he opened the door. He glanced at me and then looked up and down the hall.
“Who was that guy?” I asked.
“Nobody important,” he said, pulling back into his doorway.
I pursed my lips and headed toward my door, but stopped in the middle of the hall to turn and face him. His expression was of mild curiosity. I had thought to tell him I wasn't going to keep things like this up and if he was in trouble he'd be better off to come clean. I realized, however, that would be a wasted effort and I simply nodded and went home.
I didn't see Isaac over the weekend, nor see any weird men hanging out in front of his door. I thought about the situation, though. It seemed like odd things were going on. Mona was gone as far as I could tell, and the sister may have run off with someone else. If Mona had been paying rent, the kid may have some time, but that was unlikely. I can't say my heart went out to him since he wasn't exactly a warm kid, but I certainly felt some empathy for a crap situation. When I left on Monday morning the three day notice was tacked to the door.
I like to cook a few things in bulk so I don't have to cook each night. I'm not anyone's idea of a chef, but I won't die, either. I'd been very good the last few days since I'd gone out for steak, and made up for it by cooking skinless chicken with brown rice and broccoli, had salads and eaten other things besides red meat. I'd even gone for extended walks just because. Come Tuesday, though, I wanted tacos so I stopped at the store for some fixings. Tacos are one of those dinners I'll eat through the whole evening, so it's wise for me not to make them often. I'll sit down and eat, then twenty minutes later I'll come back for one or two more and repeat that until they are all gone. Later I'll pick at whatever didn't make it into a taco – I'd toss some leftover meat, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese into a bowl and have at it.
I got busy in my kitchen browning the meat, slicing up tomatoes and such when someone knocked on my door. That was downright odd. I wiped my hands and opened the door revealing Isaac. Well, he'd changed clothes at least. Joggers and a tee shirt, both of which let you know he was still in that boy stage where his limbs were like a sapling: thin and flexible.
“Isaac. Everything okay?”
“Uh, yeah. I just wondered if, you know, you had a minute.”
“Sure. I'm cooking though, so why don't you come in?” I turned from him and let him decide whether he'd follow. I turned the ground beef over and added my taco seasoning packet – low sodium. Ray always said using a spice pack like that was cheating, but I thought it was sheer brilliance. I want to eat, not balance out ground up bits of dried plant!
I turned back to start cutting the lettuce and jumped, spotting Isaac. I'd actually forgotten he was here, for a moment.
“Ha! Got wrapped up in what I was doing. So what's up?”
“What are you making?” he asked, glancing at the bowls of chopped and shredded items on my counter.
“Endless taco Tuesday,” I said with a flourish. “Shredded lettuce, tomato, onion, green pepper, black olive, sour cream, shredded cheese – and ground beef in the frying pan.” I widened my eyes at him and smiled. “I call it endless because I keep coming back and stuffing my face with just one more.”
He snorted a little, a smile playing about his lips. “Do you live alone?”
I hesitated, some of my good cheer draining. After five years you'd think I could answer that one with ease. “I do,” I said, recovering.
He pointed to the picture of Ray and Amber. “Who are they?”
“You're asking a lot of questions for someone who asked for a minute,” I said, trying to keep my tone light. “My life story will take more than a minute, unremarkable as it is.”
He shifted on his feet, and I realized he hadn't bothered to put shoes on to cross the hall. He still wore white socks, but some that were a bit dingy. A lot dingy.
“Um, you seemed to know something about how evicting someone works,” he said.
“I do,” I confirmed as I turned on the hot water, then lifted the ground beef off the stove and began draining the grease down the drain. “In my younger days I worked as a rental agent in a complex much like this one. There will always be those who don't pay their rent or cause damage – that sort of thing. So you have to learn how the process works to remove someone from a complex.”
“Isn't that kind of mean? Kicking people out?”
I titled my head side to side. “Yes and no. It's no fun, much like firing someone. But you go into business to make money or you don't have a business. In my mind the next most important thing is taking care of the people that work in the company, but modern economics seems to think the shareholder gets everything which makes working even harder than it should be.” I paused and glanced at him apologetically. “Sorry, not really what you were asking.”
“It's cool,” he replied. “That guy came back and put the notice on my door.”
I nodded as I poured the meat into a bowl and then set things up on the counter like an assembly line. “And you're wondering what your options are?”
“Um, yeah,” he said.
“Have you had dinner?”
He looked side to side as if that would let him dodge the question, but then shook his head. “No. Not yet.”
“Okay, tacos first, eviction talk after,” I said. I pulled down a plate for each of us, placed two taco shells on his plate and two for me. I started filling the shells, and moments later he copied me. In mere moments my mouth was flooded with the divine flavors that make up a taco, and the air was filled with the crunch of taco shells. Isaac demolished his tacos, and I gestured at him to go get more. I couldn't exactly say he should get more since I had my mouth full, but he got the message. There was some serious taco eating for a bit there.
I leaned back in my seat as I chewed my most recent taco into submission. Isaac belched, murmured 'excuse me', and demolished another taco and a half. Amber had been a messy, picky eater. Vegetables had been the bane of her epicurean existence, but she could fuss about any other food at a moment's notice. I got up and grabbed a couple cans of soda from the fridge and set one down before Isaac before retaking my seat. I took a swig and let out a satisfied breath before turning my attention to Isaac.
“Okay. Isaac, for however long we have this little relationship of ours, there is one thing I absolutely require. You must be honest. I can understand if you choose to say something is personal or you don't want to talk about it right now, and we'll try to work around that. But in order to give you the best advice or work through whatever this problem is, I have to know the actual score because my advice to you is based on what you say. Ever hear the phrase crap in, crap out?”
His brows drew together and he shook his head.
“It means the quality of what you get is equal to the quality you put into something. Take...well, take a car for instance. If you use junk parts, you get a junk car. If you use good parts....”
“You get a good car. I got it,” he said and took a drink.
“Okay. So having said that, I'm guessing you're wondering about your options with this whole eviction thing?”
He nodded. “That guy put the note on my door like you said; I didn't answer when he came back. I read it, though. I think it said what you said it would – that I have three days to get out.”
“Yes. If you were an adult, the renter of the apartment, then you might hold out and go to court if they sue to evict you. Usually if someone does that they feel they have a legitimate case – no heat in the apartment or disrepair of some kind that you've complained about, but hasn't been fixed. The trouble is that you're not an adult and you are not the renter of the apartment, so you don't have a legal standing.”
He slumped. “So I'm screwed.”
I leaned forward and wrapped my hands around my can. “Isaac...where is your mother?”
He pursed his lips and sat back in his chair a little more forcefully than strictly necessary. “She takes off, sometimes. Disappears for a few weeks or months, then she shows up again and everything goes back to normal.”
“Wow. I...can't imagine doing that.” I shook myself. “Where do you live – or how – while she's gone?”
“Depends,” he said with a shrug. “Lots of times we got booted into the system. Depends how long she's gone, how long landlords wait before they start getting salty. My sister usually handled that crap.”
“Speaking of your sister?”
He shrugged then said, “She was hanging out with that guy who works nights at the convenience store over on Congress street. I forget his name. She went to hang at his house for a few days, but I haven't heard from her.”
I nodded. “Has she done this before?”
“My sister? No. Usually she's around when my mom bails. We'd try to avoid the system for a while because you get put with some strange people, sometimes. Now it looks like she's taking after our mother,” he said sourly.
I nodded. “What about that guy who was at your door the other day?”
His body language changed to something skittish. “I, uh, don't want to talk about that right now.”
“Okay,” I said agreeably. “I won't ask about that in particular. Can you tell me, though, if he might come back or if other men might show up?”
He shrugged and seemed to fold in on himself. “I'm not sure,” he said in a small voice.
“Would these...men want to hurt you in some way?”
He looked up at me. “I really don't know. I didn't think so, but that guy...that was creepy-weird.”
“Yeah. Good way to put it,” I said. “Do you have any aunts or uncles? Cousins?”
He shook his head. “None I've ever met. I think the social service people would have found them if we had any. Right?”
I nodded. “Probably. So what are you going to do?”
He looked around and his gaze drifted back to Ray and Amber's photo. “Who are they?”
I glanced at the photo as if I had to see who he was talking about. “That was my husband and my daughter. They died.”
“Oh,” he said, sounding uncertain. “I'm sorry.”
I turned to look at him. “Thank you. I miss them.” I cleared my throat. “So, back to you. Do you have a plan?”
He sat quietly for a minute, then asked if he could use my bathroom. While he was gone I picked some of the fixings and pushed them onto my plate like a taco salad without the shell. As I did my mind churned from one thing to the next. He had no family. He'd go into the system, which might be the best thing. What if I get attached and his mother comes back? How awful for him if she doesn't come back? I couldn't just allow him to run away without trying to help, could I? I turned with my plate and the picture I talked to so often seemed to be looking at me expectantly. It was odd, but there you have it.
Isaac came back and stood in the kitchen doorway. “Your house is pretty clean. I mean, compared to mine.”
“Do you clean your house?” I asked.
“Well, no,” he admitted.
I sighed and directed him to a chair. He ambled over and sat.
“What did you think of the tacos?”
He smiled. “Never ending is a good thing.”
“Indeed,” I said. “Okay, look, I'm going to throw a few things against the wall; let's see what sticks. What's the longest your mom has ever been gone?”
He looked to one side as he thought. Bringing his gaze back to me he said, “Two months, I think.”
“And she's been gone for about a week so far?”
“Yeah, about that.” He cleared his throat. “Looks like you have a lot of room, here.”
Subtle, kid. Such a ninja. “Okay, look,” I said with a sigh. “For better or worse, I'm a rules guy. If you follow the rules, you can stay with me until your mom shows up.”
He shifted in his chair. “What sort of rules?”
I narrowed my eyes. “School. What grade are you in?”
“Eighth,” he replied.
“How old are you?”
“Have you gone to school since your mom left?”
“Honesty, Isaac,” I reminded him.
He frowned. “No.”
“Do you have any clean clothes?”
“Um, not really.”
“Okay,” I said. “I'll give you the basics, but we'll add or change things as needed. Understand?”
“You'll keep your room picked up. You will go to school everyday for every class. At night we will go over your homework. You and I will be a team here, so you'll help me keep things neat. If you get something out, you put it away. There will be no one in my home without me being here except you,” I said and leaned forward. “Isaac, I don't know you, but I'm trying to do the right thing. If you bring a girlfriend, boyfriend or a friend-friend here after school without my permission or my being here, I'll call social services. I don't want to so I'm being upfront. Can you live with these rules?”
He swallowed and licked his lips. “Yeah. I can.”
I nodded and let out a breath. “In the morning I'll go to the school with you. We can tell them I'm your uncle Brandon. You need all the work you've missed this week. I'm sure there is some app that will let me know if you skip school, but I'd rather not get it. We need to trust each other a little, okay?”
He frowned a bit, but nodded.
“What's with the frown?”
He shrugged and then said, “I haven't done anything. I don't get why there's so many threats.”
I clasped my hands together. “They aren't threats, Isaac. They are the rules and the consequences of breaking them. I'm doing this because you need a hand, and I'm just soft in the head enough to try and be there for you. This is my home, and I'm offering to share it with you. I don't think telling you how that works is a bad thing. The way I see it, if you know the rules then you know how to avoid us clashing.”
His face relaxed a bit and he nodded.
“Go get your stuff and I'll get some change for the laundry so you can have clean clothes for the morning.” I paused. “I need to find my spare key for you, as well. Where did I put that?”