I sent HR an email taking another of my paid time off days, and sent the school a similar email. Isaac and I slept in and had a lazy breakfast. I showered and Isaac went afterward. I took my time getting dressed, lacking any need or motivation to hurry. I headed to the kitchen and Hal called.
"Did you get some rest?" Hal asked.
"Oh, yeah," I said, stretching. "I'm still tired. I'm not used to stressful all-nighters."
"So what happened?"
So I explained about the guy who'd come to Issac's door, and the eventual explanation I'd gotten. I explained how the guy had tried to kidnap him, how we'd called the police and why. Then was all about the things the police had put us through, the hostage-like situation they'd held us in. I told him how they'd blackmailed me into not taking action against them, for now.
"I hope Zac know's how lucky he is," Hal said appreciatively.
"Yeah?" Isaac asked from the living room.
"Yeah, short for Isaac," Hal said.
I looked at Isaac, who had a curious look on his face. "Hal just called you Zac, I was asking what he meant. I figured you were diminutive enough not to need to shorten your name," I teased.
"Is that an old man joke? It sounded like an old man joke," Isaac said with a grin and flopped down on the couch.
"What's wrong with diminutive?" Hal asked in my ear, and I shifted my focus back to him.
"I find it adorable," I told him truthfully.
"Good answer. So I was thinking fried chicken tonight. I can stop and bring a bucket over?"
"Oh, no," I said, glancing at Isaac obviously. "I think Isaac hates fried chicken."
"What? I do not!" he said, climbing over the back of the couch and getting closer. "Hal! I love fried chicken!"
"You're breaking up," I said to Hal, cracking up as Isaac practically climbed on me, trying to get closer to the phone.
"See you about six-thirty," Hal said with a chuckle as Isaac hollered out his love for fried chicken.
"I hung up!" I told him with a laugh.
"What about the chicken?" he howled and we wrestled for a few minutes, even though he was outmatched just because I was heavier. I tossed him on he couch, where he landed with a bounce and something flopped off the couch and to the floor.
"What's that?" I asked.
"My phone," he said, retrieving it. "I was just looking at it while you were telling Hal about last night," he said. He glanced at me. "Are you going to tell everyone how dumb I was to send that guy underwear?"
"It was relevant, and he's an adult," I said gently. "It wasn't said with the intent to shame you."
He shrugged and turned the phone to face me. "Can you believe this picture started this phone mess for me? For us?"
I took the phone from him, noting the screen cracks. I touched the screen to brighten the image, but it didn't get much better. The picture was of Isaac, of course. He was sitting, one leg bent with his knee vertical, the other leg lying parallel to the ground. He was wearing a black Adidas tee shirt and matching shorts with the three white lines signifying the Adidas trademark. He had on white, low cut socks – which is his preferred sock. His phone blocked part of his face, but he'd clearly combed his hair and was in front of a closet door or something, presumably in his room.
Better than I could before, I picked out his dark blond hair and pleasing squared jaw, partly obscured by the phone, that was in such contrast to his legs that were so like a sapling; thin and in need of seasoning that life would bring. I looked up at him.
"Weird, huh?" he asked.
I shrugged. "You're a good looking kid. That isn't special; there are a lot of good looking kids in the world. Some of them do modeling or acting, trying to trade on those looks. Am I surprised a pedophile was interested in a good looking boy? Can't say I am. I'm disgusted, but not surprised."
He nodded slowly, perhaps in thought.
"I came home early yesterday because I wanted to celebrate," I said.
"Celebrate what?" he asked.
"Mrs. Okoye called to say your grades would get you on the honor roll, if you keep progressing the way you are now. I wanted to reward you."
"Oh." He paused and then grinned. "I guess you're going to tell me doing my homework saved my life? Grades are their own reward, now?"
I smiled, then started to chuckle. "That's not a bad idea. But I'm more concerned that you have a way to get in touch with me or someone else for help, should the need arise. This phone looks kind of beat so...how about we go get a better one?"
"A new phone?" he asked, sitting up excitedly.
"Yes, but!" I said, holding a finger up. "You have to maintain your grades to keep it."
"I can do that!" he said excitedly, standing up and showing how excited he was.
"I don't know. Maybe I should wait until -"
"No, no! Come on! I can do it!" he said, practically tackling me again, which was easy to do with me seated. I laughed out loud while he begged.
"Okay, go get ready to go out, then," I told him and he made more excited sounds as he dashed from the room. I was glad to see him excited, but feeling better myself about having a way to get in touch with him and find him, if I needed to. I looked over at Amber and felt a pang of regret that I'd never spoiled her like I was doing with Isaac, but then she'd died so young maybe I would have. I hoped so.
We went out and picked up some drinks for dinner that night, then stopped at the store where I had a phone plan already. I let Isaac go wander to look as I explained to the salesman that I wanted phones that could be traced in case of loss, and I wanted a good case to protect it from a gangly teen. Of course he told me the best deal was one that had two 'free' phones, a plan that made calls and texts between the two phones free – but I'd still have to pay off my old phone.
"Is this what I'm getting?" Isaac asked, looking between me and the phone the salesman had in his hand. Maybe it was the recent stress. Maybe it was the slithering worry in the black recesses of my mind that wondered about what had almost became of Isaac. Maybe I loved him and wanted to spoil him a tiny bit. Maybe I wanted some kind of electronic tendril in his life to make as sure as I could to keep an eye on him – to keep him safe. Maybe it was all that and his excitement, but it was expensive, whatever the motivation was.
"These cases and screen protectors better be laced with platinum, for the cost," I muttered as the salesman rang everything up. Isaac ported all my things to my new phone and he set his up. He was quite the whiz with that stuff, I admit.
Hal and Kari arrived later that night with fried chicken and a bunch of sides. I was grateful to see him, and to not have to cook tonight. I was still not one-hundred percent after the stress of the night before. He'd no sooner set down the bags of food than I encircled him in my arms and kissed him deeply.
"Ugh. Gross!" Kari said snidely. He stiffened in my arms, but I held him tighter and moved my head to his shoulder so I could hold him cheek to cheek. I closed my eyes and drew comfort from him in a way I hadn't needed in years, and in a way that hadn't been open to me in far too long. When we broke the embrace I looked in his eyes and stroked the side of his cheek with my thumb.
"Kari," I said softly as I drank in Hal's features.
She snorted, but that was all in terms of a reply.
"If you can't be a human being, go sit in your car." I turned my gaze toward her. "Bigots aren't allowed in my house."
"Bigot? Screw you!" she snarled. "I just don't see why he's going after some old dude! That's nasty!"
Hal turned and said firmly, "Because he's beautiful as he is, and I'm falling in love with him. That's the only thing you need to know. We don't need to live up to your standards. If you want to keep being a ferocious bitch, go sit in the damn car."
Her eyes were wide in shock. I don't think Hal usually spoke to her this way. Her eyes filled with tears and she tore out the front door.
"Damn it," Hal muttered.
I patted his shoulder. "Go see to her."
"Thanks. Sorry," he said as he went out to tend to his sister.
"I don't see the big deal," Isaac said. "You're both adults."
"Kind of the point, buddy," I said to him.
"Why is it bothering her so much?"
I shook my head. "Hard to say."
Isaac looked at the bags. "Do you think it's okay if I eat?"
"Go ahead. I'm going to wait for Hal."
Isaac sighed and went to sit on the couch instead. Such a good kid. Eventually Hal returned with Kari. She looked a little worse for wear, but she was blessedly quiet. I suggested the kids could watch TV and eat in the living room, which was usually a no-no, but I thought it served dual purposes. Kari probably needed some space, and I didn't really want to sit with her. Besides, sitting alone with Hal was something I would enjoy while they watched a show.
Hal and I sat beside each other, eating and talking quietly. "How was work?" I asked.
"Pretty good," he said with a bob of his head. "Was on the phone with another client who is interested in the Cirrus setup. After a few tweaks, looks like South Carolina is happy and ready to move forward."
"Sounds good," I said with a smile.
"Yeah. Missed someone at work, though," he said, giving me a little smile. "I'm spoiled. Too used to lunches with you."
It felt undeniably good that he felt that way. "As long as no one tries to kidnap Isaac again, I should be at work per normal on Monday. Oh, except that woman from the county is supposed to come by Monday at some point to do paperwork, and there will be a court date to make Isaac official here."
"Temperature is supposed to drop next week," Hal said. "It's funny, in a way. My dad always used to bark about keeping the thermostat down. Now it'll be my job."
I nodded in sympathy. "I admire you for doing the right thing by your sister," I told him.
He glanced toward the living room. "She's been through a lot. We talked outside. I don't think you're the problem, per se. It's more that you remind her a little of our dad."
I raised an eyebrow. "I do? I'm not really into the whole 'Daddy' thing."
Hal covered his mouth with the side of his hand, practically choking as he held his laugh in. He waved, his hand closed around the handle of his fork, as he turned red in the face. At last he swallowed and then laughed. "It's more your steadiness and attitude, not an age thing." He paused and grinned at me, showing those white teeth off. "For the record, I'm attracted to those qualities in men, but I first recognized them in high school when men would be responsible, expect certain levels of respect and had the ability to inspire people."
I raised an eyebrow and waited.
"I don't know how old you are, but I know you possess those qualities. I love that you waited for me to make a move on you, rather than assuming I'd want to be dominated in some way, or the son to your daddy. I'm not into that relationship, either." He paused and lowered his voice and reaching across to lay his free hand over mine. "I like men. You're a beautiful man. Someone I can respect and love." He looked down as he withdrew his hand, and under his breath teasingly said, "I just hope you're good in bed."
I narrowed my eyes. "How do we get rid of the kids for a night?"
He chuckled, looked at me and bared his teeth in a wide grin. "We may have to rent a hotel room."
Later we moved out to the living room. Isaac let Kari have the chair while he stretched out on the floor with a pillow as we put on a movie. Both kids were texting while watching, but it wasn't distracting since they had the sound off. I had Hal tucked in close, enjoying the heat of him pressed to me and his scent filling me with thoughts that had little to do with most of the movie.
When the movie ended we stretched and reluctantly parted for the evening. I looked at Kari and told her she may want to wait in the car, but she just blushed and looked away. I kissed Hal, who wasn't exactly just standing around. It was longer than a goodnight kiss needed to be, but I needed it to be as long as it was.
"No, Mom, it all worked out," I said to her. "If there's any trouble, I'll call for that number." Sunday calls to my mother were half memory lane and half interrogation. I should have known better than to call her a day early, it just threw her all out of whack. She was up in arms and wanting to sue the police, and I had to keep my desire to do so in check since I had Isaac to consider.
"Well, I don't know. The whole thing seems shady," she said. "You only have their word that Isaac will stay with you if you co-operate, and they haven't been the kind of people whose word you can trust. You should have a lawyer in your pocket, ready to go in case there are any more problems." She paused. "I'd like to sue them just for pulling that crap!"
"Well, you have a point or two," I said. "The more you say it, the more I feel like you're right. I have to be ready for them to not play fair."
"They have cameras in those police rooms, you know. They may even have the deal on audio. You'll need someone who can handle family law, too. Now, when are you going to bring Isaac to me for some spoiling?"
I glanced at Isaac, busy tapping away on his phone. "I think Isaac is spoiled enough, Mom," I said a little louder than I had been speaking. Isaac looked up.
"What? I am not. Where's the spoiling?" he asked, curiosity higher than normal. "Are we going out?"
"He sounds adorable," my mother said in my ear. "Why don't you drive up for dinner? I'll put the pot roast in soon."
"Well. I have to take him to get a birthday present for a girlfriend."
"Oh!" my mother said, as I hoped she would. "I insist you bring him. You have no idea what sort of present a woman wants."
"Well, hard to argue that," I said with a snicker.
"And when will you bring your man to see me? I need these things, Brandon. I'm old. You don't want to disappoint me, do you?" she asked, teasing. I rolled my eyes.
"I think Hal needs a little more notice, and his sister needs a whole lot more adjusting to the idea of her brother and I dating."
"She should mind her own business," she sniffed. "Send me a picture of him, will you? I'm sure he's handsome since you've picked him, but I'm curious."
"We haven't taken any pictures together, Mom," I said.
"Hmph. Well, hurry over so I can take Isaac shopping."
"Brandon Gregory Maddox," she said, half-warning, half-teasing. "I need a grandchild."
"Okay," I said, laughing in surrender. "We'll see you in an hour or so."
I glanced over at Isaac after hanging up. "Well, kiddo, you're in trouble now."
He screwed up his facial expression. "How? What did I do?"
"Go put on your nice gray jeans and that black long-sleeved tee shirt," I said to him as I headed for my bedroom.
"Ookay, but why?" he asked as he got off the couch.
I glanced at him and smiled. "My mother wants to meet you."
He stopped dead. "Your mother's still alive?"
I turned. He smirked. I tickled him till he claimed he was going to puke. "Now go get dressed," I said, breathing hard. Ten minutes later we swung through the drive-through of a local coffee chain and headed north to my parent's house.
"Seriously, why am I meeting your mom?"
I looked at him from the side of my eye. "She wants grand kids."
"Uh. Wait, what?"
I glanced at him and smiled. "What don't you understand?"
"It's not understanding...just, well, it sounds kind of permanent. Isn't it?"
I sighed. "Isaac. If your mother gets you back, I and my family will still be here for you. Always."
We rode in silence for a few minutes. I didn't look at him. The desire to fit in is universal, but I'd always thought kids would want to fit in with the adults more than adults would want the child to fit in with them. Amber hadn't lived long enough for me to see this, but I'd always heard that teens found their peers far more important than they did their adults. Isaac was different. He seemed to be aware of the things on offer with me – stability, family, love. It wasn't all spoiling. We did homework together, we had survived the kidnapping attempt together. We had a bond, and I wanted him to value and believe in that bond. To have faith in it in a way he possibly never had believed in a bond before.
"So. Um, what do I do?"
I glanced at him and he seemed tense. "What do you mean?"
"I mean...I don't know her. What are the rules or whatever?"
I smiled and glanced at him. "Just be you, kiddo. That's always enough."
He was silent for a second before bursting forth. "This is weird. I have no idea who my father was. My mother just leaves, and I thought that was normal. Now you make me go to school, make me get good grades, make me wear decent clothes, make me shower, brush twice a day and force me to wear deodorant. Why are you trying so hard to be my dad?"
I was a little stunned. I glanced at him and he was looking at me with open curiosity, and perhaps some anxiety. The corner of his mouth twitched as if it wanted to pull up, but thought better of it. My answer was stillborn on my lips. 'I don't know' was neither truthful nor even close to appropriate. What, exactly, drove me to end up caring for this kid? Why was I changing everything in my life to keep him in it?
"I was only kidding. Didn't mean to leave you speechless," he said and added a nervous chuckle.
"I used to be a dad," I said to him. "I was the rules guy. Chores. Schoolwork – pre-school stuff, actually. The ABCs, basic printing and numbers to give her a leg up. Brushing teeth. Ray, he was the fun dad. The ice cream dad. The time in the park dad." I paused and wet my lips. "I used to come home and talk to their picture. Tell them about my day. Wish I had been a better parent."
"But...you were doing things parents do. I mean, I've seen them on TV shows and movies. You can't be all fun."
I sighed. "Yeah. I think that...it bothered me that I didn't let her have more fun. I should have done things differently." I fell silent and glanced at him, looking into his dark eyes before moving my gaze back to the road. "I never expected to do that again. I had no intention when you were having trouble. That didn't change when you began trusting me. I didn't plan to...care for you as much as I do. So, really, I'm just doing the best I can to take care of you while I have you."
"You mean until my mom comes back," he said leadenly.
I let out a slow breath. "If Sondra can be believed, the county and the police might oppose Mona getting you back this time."
"So, what, you mean I'd stay with you?"
I nodded and looked at him, wondering how that made him feel. "If it's what you want, too. You'd have a lot of say in the matter."
He studied my face, and I turned back to the road again. "You said 'too'. Does that mean you want me to stay?"
The sound of the tires on the road seemed to fill the car. Seconds ticked by, and I swelled with anxiety. Fear. Love. Compassion. Understanding. "Yes, Isaac. I want you to stay with me."
"Huh," he said and squirmed on his seat. "I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say anything. You just keep that in your back pocket and think about it when you can."
He grunted, but I couldn't look at him. Maybe I was wrong and he felt this was a short term meal ticket that had been especially good for him. I'm sure not all the foster homes he'd been in were bad – he'd never indicated any abuse or anything. Still, he seemed reluctant. Maybe because he didn't feel as I did. Maybe out of loyalty to Mona. Still, it was there for him to pick up if he wanted, and I'd leave it out there forever for him.