Schools have become like small prisons. Bulletproof glass booths for people to sit in, doors that lock like sally-ports to contain people – it's very sad what's become the standard state of public schools. I was there longer than I wanted to be, but the school seemed eager to have an adult they could speak to about Isaac and potentially get results. I filled out some forms and asked if someone would help Isaac get the work he had missed so we could work on making it up. They positively hummed with excitement at the prospect. Weirdos.
As a result of all this I was late to work. I called HR from home and took some flex-time I was owed, yet I still rushed trying not to be overly late. I'd barely gotten my coffee when Hal walked up to my desk with a big smile. “Bran, I owe you a drink!”
Travis shot me a little side eye and I ignored him. Focusing on my diminutive co-worker, I smiled and asked, “How's that, Hal?”
Hal leaned against my desk and pulled his suit coat aside, something between pale green and gray, and placed his hands in his pockets. “That account in South Carolina? They just ramped up the test to another twenty units and gave me a timetable to roll out to the other fifty-eight stores they own in Georgia and North Carolina. My first big sale!”
He held up his hand and I high-fived him. “Congratulations, Hal!”
“Hey,” he said as he stood. “It never would have happened if you hadn't been backing me up. Being able to get through that bump gave me a real shot at this sale. Let me buy you a drink or take you to lunch.”
“Oh, lunch? Doesn't that sound nice, Bran?” Travis asked innocently.
“Uh.” I cleared my throat. “That's okay, Hal. I was just doing my job, and I'm glad it helped you.”
“No, come on!” Hal exclaimed and clapped my shoulder. “At least let me buy you a drink.”
“Hey, Hal, can you play darts?” Travis interjected.
Hal turned to look at Travis. “Um, pointy end goes in the board?”
“You're hired!” Travis said with a laugh. Peering around me he said, “Simon gave his cold to Dawn. I'm sure not staying home to catch it.”
Hal looked at me and I shook my head. “What he really means is his wife, Dawn, told him to go have fun. Travis never gets sick. He could live in a communicable disease ward and never be affected.”
“It's true,” Travis confirmed. “But honestly we can't afford to have us both off from work. Dawn is hoping Pete will catch it too, just to get it over with so she's going to curl up on the couch with the boys and watch movies. Which means,” he said as he smiled at Hal, “that we need someone to take her place on the darts team. Hello teammate!”
“Oh, uh, what time?” Hal asked. He was flashing a nervous smile, though I wasn't sure why.
“Hal, don't feel compelled. It's just a casual dart league. It's really more about beer, wings and a night out,” I told him.
“You take that back!” Travis growled and lifted a fist at me. “I have a wife and two kids! It's essential I get out of the house and be a man once in a while!”
I looked at Hal. “He can be a man anytime he likes. His wife told him he could.” I burst out laughing and Hal joined me.
“I'd argue, but it's true,” Travis said and chuckled.
“This is where all the fun is!” Lacy said as she came around the corner with her too-white teeth. “What did I miss?”
“Just teasing Travis about being married,” I said with a chuckle.
“So how 'bout it, Hal? Help us out?” Travis asked.
“Depends on the time. I...have an appointment from about five-thirty until six-thirty,” he said, once more seeming to be a bit nervous.
“Perfect, we don't start till seven. Sometimes later,” Travis grinned.
“Start what?” Lacy asked, leaning against Travis's desk.
“Dart league,” I said to her and turned back to my screen. “Hal, when are these new machines supposed to ship?”
“Oh!” he said and straightened up. “They are supposed to go in waves. Let me grab the details from my desk. Excuse me, Lacy,” he said and slipped past her.
“You play darts, Lace?” Travis asked as he leaned back in his chair.
“Only if I get, like, really drunk,” she said with a laugh. “I dated this guy who played all the time. I could never beat him!”
“That is so weird! Bran can't beat me, either. Even tells people he's dating me,” Travis snickered.
Without looking from my screen I replied, “I tell them you're my work husband. Big difference.”
Travis leaned forward in his chair. “He'd date me, Lace. He just doesn't want me to pick you over him. No self confidence, you know?”
I glanced at them. “A straight man and a beautiful girl? Sure, I have a chance. I'll go home and cry about losing you, Travis. No, wait,” I said and smiled. “You're married! With kids!”
Lacy burst out in giggles. “I want kids one day. I better get back to my desk,” she said and gave a little wave goodbye as she left our space.
“You always got to bring up the kids, man?” Travis whined.
“You have to be a responsible adult, Trav,” I told him.
“You shut your mouth when you're talking to me,” he said firmly and we both laughed.
Hal returned with his potential roll out plan and I reviewed the requirements from my end for support. It all looked kind of standard until I reached the 'Online Requirements' section. We had a new feature that was coming online where we could provide cloud services – essentially backing up a retailer's daily data on our servers. The neat part was that a portal was built in that allowed tailored access for different needs. For instance, store managers had certain information available to them while corporate accounting would have everything. Independent auditors could run queries and the home office could generate automatic reporting.
The problem is, it wasn't live, yet. They were still debating the name, though last I'd heard it'd be called Cirrus, riffing on the cloud theme. The cloud, for crying out loud. It just means it's someone else's server.
“Uh, Hal, did you sell them in on these features?” I asked.
“I spoke about several of them in a presentation via teleconference. Why? Did I screw something up?” he asked with concern on his face.
“Well, maybe. Where did this spec sheet come from?” I asked, waving the papers in my hand as if he didn't know what I meant.
“Harvey. He said it was our latest offering and he gave me a pricing sheet, though I didn't break it all down for the customer, yet. This was meant to be a high level document and I'd get their bean-counters the more granular breakdown of costs for services. I also have a second document to break down the install process and when features go live. Why do you ask?”
I leaned back in my chair and noted Travis looking at me in curiosity. “Well,” I said while running a hand through my hair, “Cirrus isn't live, yet. It's still in testing and I'm a little confused as to why Harvey gave this to you.”
Travis let out a low groan and Hal looked at me as if he'd just been given notice of a terminal disease. “Are you serious, Bran? That was the lynch-pin of the purchase.”
“I am. I'm sorry,” I told him. “Why don't we check in with Harvey?”
We both headed back to Harvey's office and he waved us in while he finished up a phone call.
“What's the good word, gents?” he asked, hanging the phone up.
“Harvey, I was wondering firstly where this information on Cirrus came from?” I asked, handing him the sell sheet. He slipped on a pair of reading glasses and peered at the document.
“How did you get this?” he asked me. “This form isn't official, yet.”
“Um, I got it and used it for the South Carolina account we had the download problem with?” Hal said, sounding unsure of himself.
Harvey's mouth dropped open. “You shouldn't have had it! Where did you get it from?”
“The shared drive,” Hal said. “I was looking for a sell sheet and you told me you put all of them on the shared drive. I went into the sales folder and found it there.”
“I must have put it in the wrong spot. My bad. No harm done, I guess.” He paused. “What does this have to do with Cirrus? Oh. Oh, no. They wanted Cirrus?”
“Major selling point,” Hal confirmed woefully.
Harvey let out a deep breath. “Okay. Well, first thing is reach out to Mark Jansen in Seattle and get a status on the project. Second is we get a timeline for Cirrus, and let's work a backup plan. Bran, do you think you can reach out to Mark? See if maybe we can pilot this program to these guys, maybe cut them a price break if we need to?”
Hal looked at me hopefully and my irritation for the situation evaporated. “Yeah, I'll see what Mark has to say.”
The rest of my day was spent sending emails back and forth with Mark Jansen, who was at once excited his project was generating interest and irritated that someone had sold it in before it was ready. He said he thought it was a month or so away from pilot, so I told Harvey and Hal that the program may be ready more or less in time, and they should negotiate with that in mind. Of course, I didn't get much of my own work done, but what can you do?
“So,” Travis said, dragging the word out. “First date tonight, eh?”
I rolled my eyes. “I have homework first.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Come again?”
I explained about Isaac and the odd situation I'd gotten involved in.
“Ah. He's in the terrible teens.”
“I thought that was terrible twos?”
“Happens again later. I know girls get a bad rap for being on their period, but they're no match for a hormonally imbalanced, dramatic teenage boy.” He paused. “I actually called my mom up to apologize after Simon hit fourteen.”
I laughed and he grinned. “Well, you definitely have the edge on kid knowledge. I just...I probably shouldn't have done this.”
“I know. Your TV and game system is probably gone by now. Of course, you suck at games so it isn't that big a loss,” he said with a grin.
“Please. Your kids beat you, teabag you and swear.”
“I just remind them I screw their mom. It's kind of a trump card.”
“Jesus,” I said and laughed. What else can you do? Agreeing to see each other later, I finally got out of the office. When I got home I found Isaac in the living room watching TV.
“What is that?” I asked, looking at the bizarre cartoon.
“I don't know, I was just zoning,” he said, flipping the TV off.
“Did you get all the back work you needed?”
“Yeah,” he said morosely. “I worked on some of it already.”
“Okay. Let me get changed and I'll meet you at the table to get organized,” I told him. I changed from my work clothes into comfortable jeans and a polo covered by a light sweatshirt. Sometimes the temperature dropped later and while the pub could get warm, they sometimes opened the door and your tits would stand up like brass tacks. I headed into the kitchen and started pulling out the stuff to make grilled cheese and tomato soup for an easy dinner.
Isaac brought his stuff to the kitchen table and it was an unholy, disorganized mess. I started directing him to separate things by classes, then I asked where his class folders were and he looked at me blankly. I told him where to find some manila folders in the small alcove where I had a desk and other office supplies. He labeled and sorted the work and I made our dinner.
I had him set aside the work while we had dinner.
“Could get it done faster if I worked through dinner,” he said uncertainly.
I smiled at him. “Isaac, there will be times when you have to do that. Whenever possible you have to break from work or play or whatever and relax, eat your meals in peace before you go back to whatever is demanding your attention. Work is good, but don't forget to live.”
“I didn't say I wanted to work through dinner. I was just trying to, you know, show incentive,” he said, the corner of his mouth pulling into a sarcastic smile.
“Uh huh,” I replied. “How was your first day back?”
He shrugged. “Okay. A few people asked where I'd been. A few teachers kind of groaned when they gave me the back work.”
“Why do you suppose that is?” I asked.
“Probably...because I don't do a lot of my work, so they figured I was wasting their time,” he admitted.
“Hm. You know what I love to do?”
“Prove people wrong.”
He raised his eyebrows and smiled, then looked at the pile of work and sighed.
After we ate we spent about thirty minutes getting him organized. “Okay, so work tonight on what's due tomorrow. I have plans for a few hours tonight, but I'll check your work when I get home. Tomorrow we'll break these things down into manageable bites so we can get them turned in.”
“If you say so,” he said with a sigh. I picked up everything he wasn't supposed to do that night and placed it in his bag.
“See? It doesn't seem quite so bad, does it?”
“Think he'll show?” Travis asked me as he poured beer from a pitcher.
I shrugged. “If anyone needed cheering up, it's him. Harvey felt awful but...something bothers me about that whole mess,” I said and took a pull from my glass.
“Disappointing Hal?” he asked.
I tightened my lips into a straight line. “I hate to see someone lose a sale like that. He's on commission.”
Travis chuckled and took a drink before reaching for a wing. “Would it kill you to say you think he's cute?”
“To what end?” I asked as I bit into a wing myself. Beer and comfort food, just what I needed.
Kim put the bones from her wing in the basket and tilted her head at me. “It's been, what? Four years?”
I chewed, swallowed and pointed at Kim with my wing. “I've gone on dates. This is different. For one, he's a co-worker. Office romances aren't very smart. Second, guys like him aren't gay.”
“And if they are they go for guys like themselves, yeah, yeah,” Travis said and looked down his nose at me. “Haven't you ever heard that opposites attract? Why are you so eager to write this guy off? He seems nice.”
I shook my head and resumed eating my wings.
“Hey, guys. Sorry I'm late, traffic kind of held things up,” Hal said as he joined us at the table.
“Yes! Now we're ready to do manly battle!” Travis announced and then amended, “Well, we will be once you have a beer and some wings. Barkeep!” He headed back to the bar with the empty pitcher.
“Uh, oh, well...” Hal tried to speak but Travis was on a mission.
“Got your appointment taken care of?” I asked after introducing Kim to Hal.
“My...oh, right. Yes, all good,” he said with a nod and a quick smile.
Odd response, I thought. Well, probably because we were in a social setting, now. At work we had that structure of knowing what each other's status was and so forth. This was uncertain. I was glad Hal didn't know that I harbored any interest in him – guys his age were usually pretty clear what they thought about men older than they were even looking in their direction. Kind of disgusting in a way.
“Okay!” Travis said, returning with the full pitcher and filling a glass which he pushed toward Hal. “You know what we need? We need a toast specifically for darts.”
I took a small plate and tossed a few wings on it before sliding them over to Hal. “A toast? Do other sports have a specific toast?”
“No. But they should,” Travis said and pointed at me while holding his beer in the same hand. “And that's the point. Don't sass me, now!”
“Well, we should have a beer to think on it. As one does,” Kim said.
“As one does,” Trav agreed.
“Are we talking, like, poetry here?” Hal unwisely jumped in.
“Don't judge me. You don't know my life,” Kim said dourly and then burst out laughing.
We were assigned our opponent and we all took turns trying to improve Hal's shot. He laughed with us as it quickly became apparent he wasn't a regular player, but he'd played enough that beginner's luck wasn't a factor either. He insisted on buying me a beer as a thank you, and came over with a bottle that was a bit nicer than the stuff we ordered by the pitcher.
All in all it was a nice evening. Travis was the first to head off, and Kim wasn't far behind.
“You need a lift?” I asked Hal.
“Eh, the bus will be by shortly,” he replied.
I frowned. “Are you trying to say that public transport is better company?”
He raised an eyebrow at me and copied Kim by saying, “Don't judge me. You don't know my life.”
I burst out laughing. “Come on, I'll drop you off.”
He hesitated a moment and then nodded. “Okay, thanks.” We kept the chatter light in the car, a little background on each of us being exchanged – he was originally from the area while I had moved here from about an hour away. He had a sister while I had one sibling of each, though I didn't mention I was estranged from them due to the religious fervor they both claimed to possess. Frankly I didn't think they were the ones in possession, more like the other way around. Everything was quite normal until I pulled up in front of his place. He lived in a nice single story ranch home in an older neighborhood.
He cleared his throat. “Thank you for the lift,” he said quietly, his voice changing pitch dramatically from his conversational tone to something somewhat shy.
“You're welcome,” I replied, pretending not to notice.
“Ah. Would you like to, maybe, go to dinner some night?”
I paused as my heart-rate bumped up a few beats per minute. “I told you you don't owe me anything, Hal. It's just my job.”
He sighed and his tongue darted out to wet his lips. He turned slightly, his eyes not quite looking at me. “Lacy asked me out on Monday.”
I sighed. “You'll have to forgive her. She goes from one boyfriend to another. She'll leave you be, shortly. Just as soon as the shine wears off.”
He squirmed and then sat up a bit straighter and turned to face me. “I told her I was flattered, but gay. She kind of said you were, too. I was, um, pleased to hear that. So when I say dinner....”
I raised an eyebrow. “Are you asking me out on a date?”
He smiled. “As one does,” he said.
I chuckled. “As one does. Uh, well, yes, that sounds lovely.”
He smiled widely and seemed to relax a little. “Okay. How about Friday?”
“Friday,” I said in agreement. He grinned and climbed from the car. I watched him until he closed his front door, delighted that he looked back at me and smiled beforehand. Well, I thought, isn't that a shock?
When I got home Isaac had the TV on, but looked like he was very tired.
“How far did you get?” I asked.
“I got most of it,” he said, wandering over to the table. I pulled my sweatshirt off and tossed it over the back of my chair, and then shut the TV off. I sat at the table as he stood, clearly sick of looking at his homework.
I started to look over his work and immediately became concerned with his answers. “Isaac, this question here – What was the effect of the cotton gin to the rural south? You wrote that it made voting easier for black people.”
I looked at him with concern. “Isaac, kiddo, your answer has nothing to do with the question.”
He pulled at one of his earlobes, but remained silent.
“Isaac, do you attend school regularly? I mean do you miss a lot?”
He shrugged with one shoulder. “We move around a lot. I'm not stupid,” he said defensively.
“I don't think that you are,” I said reassuringly. “But I do think you're struggling to understand what's being asked of you.”
He bobbed his head slightly and accompanied that with a full blown shrug. I let out a small sigh.
“Have you showered?”
He shook his head.
“Well, why don't you shower and get ready for bed, eh? This can wait another day.”
In the morning I sent another email saying I was taking a half-day HR to take a half day, and I drove Isaac to school. I sent him on to class, but I kept the folder with the work he'd done the night before. I had to fill out a form and place a sticker on my chest announcing I was a visitor, and made my way to the guidance office. A plump woman asked if she could help me and I told her I hoped she could. Once she identified Isaac's counselor, I was able to get in to see her – a thin, stork-like woman with a wide smile named Mrs. Okoye.
“So, you're Isaac's uncle?” she asked as we sat together at a round work table.
“Yes,” I said as confidently as I could. “I haven't been involved much in his life, but his mother has taken off and I've stepped in.”
She smiled. “He's such a sweet kid. He suffers quite a bit from his absence rate.”
“Yes, he seemed to intimate that he had a spotty record. Can you give me some idea what I'm dealing with in that regard?”
“Certainly,” she said and stepped over to her desk. In a moment she said, “So far this quarter he's missed ten days. He's only two days away from the mandatory percentage that requires us to report him for a P.I.N.S. petition through family court.”
“What is P.I.N.S.?”
“Person in need of supervision. The assumption is the parent cannot manage the child enough to get them into school,” she said. She printed a document and brought it over to the table, sliding it in front of me. “His grades are quite modest, though teachers like him. His most common comment is a pleasure to have in class, despite his poor academic performance.”
“About that,” I said, pulling out the page he and I had spoken of the night before. I explained to her that I thought he was bright, but behind the eight ball with respect to understanding the material. She agreed and after batting ideas back and forth for about thirty minutes I could see she'd come to a decision because she tapped her lower lip with her finger and smiled at me.
“You know, Isaac has never been what anyone would term a problem kid. He doesn't act out in school, get in fights – nothing like that. We have a program for kids who are falling behind, but who aren't 'troublemakers',” she said, framing her words with air quotes. “It's a small sized classroom and the teachers come to the students. We have two aides in the room to help keep them organized and answer questions. Instead of a study hall they get team time which allows them to get help immediately to get their homework done and help them actually understand what they're doing.”
“That sounds very interesting, and I can see some benefits he might get from such a program.”
She nodded and smiled widely. “Most kids in the class become honor roll students, and we work to get everything that is school related done at school so they don't get overwhelmed with schoolwork after hours.”
I frowned lightly. “I think I know the answer, but may I ask why he isn't in the classroom already? He sounds an ideal fit.”
She tilted her head to one side. “Honestly? It's not the easiest class to get into. We try to help the kids that we can and sometimes it's a parent pushing for something better for their child that makes it happen. It just happens to be that we have an opening. I can take Isaac's case to the head of the department and see about switching him.”
I leaned forward. “Not to put to fine a point on it, but he needs this desperately. When Mona ran off, he stayed home. He's got a mountain of work to do.”
She nodded encouragingly. “I think he's got a strong case, especially with parental – well, adult – support at home. Let me try to nail my boss down today and I'll call you as soon as I hear. All right?”
I left feeling a little better but knowing Isaac and I would be working together on the work he needed to complete while we were at home tonight.