My parents lived in a nice old Tudor style home. It was a bit bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside. I'd always though it sort of whimsical in appearance. As we walked up the drive my mother opened the door and practically cha-cha'd down the brick path from her front door.
"Brandon! So good to see you!" she said and I smiled, hugging her. She placed a kiss on my cheek and beamed at me before turning all that on Isaac. "You didn't say he was so handsome!" my mother said, glancing at me and then back to Isaac, who was blushing. "Oh! Come here, handsome," she said, holding her arms out to him and letting him come to her. I was glad she hadn't grabbed him, since he didn't know her, though I'm not sure if he'd have backed off and said no if he weren't comfortable. He was nervous, I think.
"I hear you need to get a birthday gift for a young lady?" my mother asked him. "My! Strong!" she said, leaning back and smiling at him. She put an arm around his thin shoulders and started walking toward the house. "Have you thought about what sort of gift she might like?"
I closed the door behind us and my mother already had Isaac in the living room where my dad had muted a basketball game.
"Arthur, meet Isaac Shelters."
"Hello there!" my father said in a booming voice as he gained his feet. He held a hand out and Isaac dutifully shook it. "Fine looking young man, you are," my dad said to him.
"Hi, Dad," I said as I entered the room.
"Brandon! Come here, give your old man a hug," he said. After we embraced my mother grabbed her purse from the hall closet and slipped on a light coat.
"Now, Isaac, we need to get a few ground rules out of the way," she said to him. He glanced at me and back to her. "First, what happens with Grandma, stays with Grandma. Second, any foods you aren't supposed to eat are allowed when you're with Grandma. Third – hell. Screw rules, right? Are you ready to go shopping?"
Isaac looked at me with his eyes wide.
"She'd probably do a better job than I would about a gift, but I can go if you'd like."
"Nonsense!" my mother said, turning toward me. "He's mine to spoil for now. I traded you a pot roast!" she teased.
"You traded me for a pot roast?" Isaac asked, trying to keep up.
"Hey," I said with a shrug. "It's good pot roast."
He playacted a worried face, and then headed toward the door with my mother. She was asking about the girl whom the gift was for, and Isaac was struggling to answer. Poor kid. He'll be all sugared up and probably have new stuff by the time she got done with him.
"Game's on," my dad said, retaking his seat and unmuting the sound. I took the chair beside him and we got into commentary on the game until it ended. "So, your mother says you have a new fellow in your life?"
"I do," I said, pleased. "His name is Hal Fremont, he works at my company and things are going pretty well."
"When do we get to meet him?"
"Uh, I don't know," I said truthfully. "His parents died and he's caring for a younger sister, so it's a little complicated."
"Nonsense. They both come, no problem," he said. "I look forward to it." he paused and then eyed me. "Brandon. Does he make you happy?"
I smiled gently. "Yeah, Dad. He does."
He nodded sagely. "Good. You deserve it. Your mother was telling me what you told her about Isaac. He's a good lad, yeah?"
"Surprisingly, yes," I said with a laugh. "He didn't grow up in a good environment, so I'm not sure what made him as stable as he is."
"Probably can sense good people. Just like dogs."
I raised an eyebrow. "Did you just compare my kid to a dog?"
"Sure. Kids. Dogs. Practically the same thing," my dad said, grinning at me. We laughed at the comment, and then he got serious. "Your mother told me about that police thing. You can't afford to let them hold all the cards, son. Please speak to a lawyer before one of those bastards takes Isaac from you."
I swallowed hard. "I will. Mom convinced me."
"Good. Tell me about this boy," he said. And for the next twenty minutes, I did just that.
My father laughed. "It's the little things that drive you nuts. The things you say a hundred times and they never seem to get. Rinse your plate. Pick up your clothes. Don't put empty containers back in the fridge. Does he do any of that?"
I chuckled. "He doesn't like the bathroom fan, so for one he sits in his own stink and for two, the bathroom stays too moist and I'm trying to keep it from developing mold."
"Kids," he said and chuckled. "Speaking of, I heard from your brother and sister."
"Oh?" I asked, neutrally.
"Your brother sent us some kind of note to let us know which court-ordered rehab he's in."
"Jesus," I said, putting my fingers over my lips. "He just can't shake it, can he?"
My father shook his head slowly. "It's got deep hooks into him. He still says Jesus is going to save him. It's always that way with him."
I didn't reply.
"Then your sister called," he said, setting my brother aside.
"Did she need money?"
"She didn't ask directly," he said, looking at me from the corner of his eye. "I guess she and asshole are divorcing."
"Oh?" I asked, surprised.
"Don't get too hopeful," he said, putting a hand up. "She doesn't understand why God hasn't changed him, she's sure she's done it all the right way. I swear, religion is just a way for these two to avoid any responsibility. Makes me need a scotch. Why did you never fall for this tent-revival crap like they did?"
"They were too close to Aunt Fran. She took them to all those snake-oil people," I replied, though he was well aware.
He sighed and shook his head. "You love all your children. I have no idea why they have so many problems while you're doing so well. If it weren't for you, I'd have figured we screwed them up, somehow."
"Still a possibility," I said with a chuckle.
"Ah, fuck you," he said and laughed. He fell silent and shifted in his chair. "Your mom and I, we worried about you, after Ray and Amber. All I could think was time, if anything."
I nodded slowly. "Time was becoming a problem, I think. Too much of it to myself. I was talking to pictures and not living in the real world, anymore. Hal and Isaac are pulling me out of that."
"How're Travis and Dawn?"
"Crazier than shithouse rats," I said with a laugh. "I swear, who'd have thought he'd be such a good dad? Or that Dawn hasn't killed him in his sleep yet?"
We enjoyed a good laugh, and then talk turned to lighter subjects. Dad was lining up a handyman to take care of a few items around the house that 'he could do, but fuck it'. My dad had never been the handiest guy, but he'd tried hard. I had a feeling my mom 'suggested' he hire someone. We talked about the weather, sports and he circled back around to Isaac. They really were starved for the whole 'grandparent' thing.
He started to chuckle and I asked him why. "Your mother. After she got off the phone with you she said, 'Shit! I'll be right back. I have to go pick up a pot roast!'," he said and laughed harder. My mouth dropped open in shock and I laughed with him.
"Well, don't get too attached. God only knows if Mona will turn up, or when. I don't know if Isaac would rather go back to the familiar, or keep what he's got with me."
My father scrunched his chin up. "He's got manners. Smart. You're doing well with him."
"Isaac had manners before. He's...got a conscience, I think. Some kids with a lack of supervision don't develop empathy and things like that, but he's actually a really good kid." I paused. "He just needed someone to support him, is all. Give a shit about him as a person. He's eating that up, right now."
"In that case, your mother will have him wrapped around her finger," he said with a grin.
"In case you hadn't noticed, I think it's the other way around!"
Mom brought Isaac back from shopping and showed me the nice off-the-shoulder sweater they'd picked out for Liz. Isaac told me Liz liked peachy colors, and my mother had taken that to heart. Isaac was also sporting a nice new coat and beanie. Less than I'd feared. I got the table set and we had dinner soon after. Isaac scored all sorts of points with his comments about my mother's pot roast. My father soon started quizzing him on the things that he'd be interested in sharing with Isaac.
"I like sports," Isaac said. "I'm not great at any of them, but I like them."
"You have to be special to make a living playing them, so having fun is the way to go," my dad replied. "You'll have to let us know if he gets onto any school teams!"
"You'll have a cheering section," I told Isaac.
"Kari plays volleyball," Isaac said, deflecting the attention.
"Who is Kari?" my mother asked.
"Hal's younger sister," I supplied and turned to Isaac. "I didn't know that. She's on the school team?"
"Yeah. She has practice in the evenings, sometimes, so that's why it takes longer for them to come over. She has to be picked up and get a shower."
"Hal doesn't like driving," I told my parents.
"Isaac, is Hal nice?" my mother asked.
"Mom," I said in a tone of warning. "Do not pump my kid for details on my relationship."
"He's nice," Isaac said, ignoring me. "He can be kind of funny, and he has some good ideas for stuff to do." Isaac looked at me. "He said Travis asked him if we could all go to the lake next Saturday before it gets too cold. Can we?"
"Travis is making plans with Hal?" I asked, my jaw dropping.
"Oh, please," my dad said. "I'm only surprised he hadn't been making plans before."
Eventually it was time to head back home. I'd enjoyed the visit, and my parents were really happy to meet Isaac and have us to themselves for a few hours. We headed home and Isaac let out a small burp.
"'Scuse me," he said. "Your mom can really cook."
"Yeah. I never went hungry," I said with a smile. "They seemed to like you pretty well."
I glanced at Isaac and he was looking out the window. "Did you ever not like your parents? Like, ever get jealous of someone else's parents or something?"
I frowned in thought. "Not that I can think of. I'm sure there were times I was angry at them, or wished we were doing something another family was going to do – hitting a beach, amusement park or something. There were three of us kids, so we had competing interests." I paused. "Sometimes I wished I were an only child, just because those kids didn't have the competition I had at home. Why do you ask?"
"I...I feel weird." He paused and wet his lips. "I've hung out with some other kids, and they always had more than I did. Phones, clothes, tablets – whatever. I like stuff as much as anyone, I guess. I kind of liked what I had. I'm not explaining this right."
"Take your time, organize your thoughts."
"That's the thing. It's more like...feelings, all trying to push through a small space." He sounded frustrated. "When I was old enough to understand, I'd get upset when my mother would disappear. I got angry, later, when she'd flake when she was supposed to do something for me – permission slips, birthdays, whatever. Still, she's my mom, you know?"
"Sure," I replied.
He fidgeted. "I got jealous of other kids. Their dads signed them up for baseball, and then some of them actually coached. My mom didn't even come to school concerts – which, you know, I kind of get. Kids' concerts kind of blow. I didn't even want to be there." He sighed. "When you asked if I wanted to stay with you...I do. I really do. But she's my mom."
I nodded, seeing the problem. "My brother has a problem," I said softly. "When he was in his late teens he made some new friends at college. Pretty soon his grades started to drop, and he stopped going to class. One day he just left school – we didn't find out right away."
"Well," I said thickly, "he'd been partying with people and he ended up getting hooked. Drugs." I coughed. "He's in rehab, again. This will the...fifth time?"
"That sucks," Isaac said quietly.
I nodded. "It does. My point is, he's my brother. He'll always be my brother. But...he's bad for me. He judges me for who I love. He hides behind other stuff to lie to himself about his condition." I hesitated, glancing to see his face, rapt with attention. Facing the windshield I said, "You can still love someone while taking care of yourself. I know you might think this is just me trying to convince you to stay with me. I, I love you, and that won't change. But your mom is an adult. When she leaves, she's making a choice to do that."
"She says it's because we stress her out too much," he said quietly. That was kind of a revelation.
"My parents had three kids. My sister was worse than any other three kids I've ever seen. My parents stayed. They tried their best. They didn't leave when it was rough."
He was quiet for a minute, perhaps thinking. "Why does it feel like I'm being disloyal to her to want to stay with you?"
I sighed. "Might be the wrong question, Isaac. If you give someone your loyalty, you should expect it back. What are you getting for your loyalty?"
Sunday I dropped Isaac off at a roller skating rink for the birthday party. He looked adorable, so Liz better look out or she'd be falling for my kid. I had a few hours to kill, so I called Hal.
"Hey," he said cheerfully. "Guess what?"
"What?" I asked, my lips curling.
"Kari went shopping with her friend and her friend's mother. She won't be back until after dinner."
I paused. "You're home alone?"
"Yeah. Can you leave Isaac alone for a bit?"
"He's at a birthday party," I said, my mouth going dry.
"I'm getting in the shower," he said playfully and hung up.
He answered the door in his underwear. A tee shirt and shorts were in a discarded heap near the door. I glanced at him in question.
"It was just in case it wasn't you at the door," he said with a grin, the tips of his cheeks going pink. "I saw you so, off came the clothes."
I practically carried him to his room, all the while kissing and feeling each other while he tried to work me out of my clothes. It had been so long since I'd been intimate I was afraid I'd forgotten, but the steps came back to me as we thrashed together on the bed. At first it was nothing but sexy. The lack of clothes, the sparkle in his eye, the pure feeling of his touch and of mine. The first time ended, and seamlessly flowed into the second act which was more relaxed, more loving and more sensual than the raw action and emotion we'd engaged in initially.
He'd laid out condoms and lube, and we took advantage of them. Afterward I lay on my back, breathing hard and thoroughly, deliciously spent. Hal curled in beside me, resting his head on the pillow beside me and rubbing his hand over my chest. I caught his hand and brought his fingers to my lips, kissing them softly.
"That was perfect," he said with a groan and rolled over to kiss me. I leaned into him, turning and running the top of my foot against his leg. We lay quietly, looking at each other as our heads rested on pillows, but our fingers moved with restless energy. I reached out and pulled him closer, and we wound our legs together and kissed softly.
"You're perfect," I told him.
"I'm glad someone thinks so," he said with a chuckle that reverberated through my chest, pressed against his as it was. "Kari is a handful, I didn't exactly study to be in outside sales - and do you know how bad property taxes are? I'm so relieved my parents thought ahead with insurance, or I'd be fucked."
I growled low and bit lightly on his lower lip. He chuckled at me. "I can't believe I showered. You made a mess out of me," he teased.
I nuzzled his neck. "You felt so good. I haven't felt like this in a long, long time."
He covered my mouth with a kiss, then placed his fingers over my lips as he leaned back an inch or two. "I get to say it first," he said, smiling slyly. He leaned closer, touching the tips of our noses together. "I love you."
I pulled him tight, breathing his scent in. "I love you," I said quietly, but clearly.
"What time do you have to pick up Isaac?"
I glanced at the clock. "Shit. Ten minutes."
Clean up was hasty, goodbye kisses were had and it was a hell of a way to end my week.
The next two weeks were the calm before the storm. Hal's sales work was picking up, the Cirrus service looked like it was going to be a success for us, and both my home life and love life were hitting a crescendo. I'd done a few things I hadn't enjoyed – like speaking with a lawyer, and retaining them just in case. The paperwork for Isaac to live with me was a real chore, and for a hot minute I thought the judge was going to rule against me in court. As that happened, I fell harder for Hal, cherished Isaac and love being returned to me.
We did make it out to the lake as a group with Travis and Dawn. They enjoyed teasing me by telling Hal how I'd said he wouldn't be gay, and if he were how he'd like guys his age. Hal was pleased to know I'd been interested in him so early, and he delighted in telling them he'd also been attracted immediately, but decided he had to go for it when Lacy told him I was gay. Isaac and Simon became close, though Simon spent more time looking at Kari than anything else. Pete was quiet, but I noticed him spending some time with Isaac while Simon was trying to work his charm on Kari. I think Simon needed to work on that.
My parents made the trip down to visit one Sunday and we ordered dinner in. My mother spent time baking cookies with Isaac, and I think he was eating up the maternal vibe from her. Hal happened to stop by, as in Isaac texted and asked him to come over for cookies. I think my mother put him up to it. My parents approved, and I think they even won Kari over pretty fast. That was interesting, since she was still stand-offish with me.
Of course, it couldn't last. Nothing, good or bad, goes on forever. It helps to remember that to keep you on an even keel.
On a Tuesday morning it was noted Mr. Zales wasn't in. He usually didn't miss a day, but Lacy said she'd gotten him on his cell and he'd claimed a sudden holiday. No one really understood that. Later the same day, I got a call from Sondra Du Morne.
"Hello, Mr. Maddox. It's Sondra Du Morne over at the Department for Children and Family Services," she said. I could tell from her tone that something was wrong, so I cut past the frills.
"Two things. You may recall Isaac asked after his sister when we did the paperwork?"
"You found her?"
"In a manner of speaking. She left the state with a man. It's kind of a mess because they are claiming to be married, though she can't legally be married without parental consent due to her age. It's sort of a mess and I'm not sure how that will play out, but for the short term – she's okay, and I think Isaac would like to know that."
"Yeah, I'm sure he will. Thank you. What's the other thing?" I asked, dreading her next statement.
"Mona has surfaced," she said and sighed. "She's been arrested on a drug charge, but the rumor I'm hearing is that she may roll over on someone a little higher up in the food chain. If that happens, I have a feeling she will try to use Isaac to show she has roots – that she has a reason to return here."
"Son of a bitch!" I snarled. "You're going to fight it?"
"I'm not sure there is much I can do," she said. "Deals that happen at that level are above me. I know how you feel about Isaac, and it breaks my heart. It does."
I balled my fist. "Fuck your heart. I'm calling my lawyer. Don't think I forgot about our deal, lady. I knew you'd go back on it. I'll add you to the lawsuit with that crooked detective of yours. No one is taking my kid," I snarled and slammed the phone down. I pulled out my cell and flipped through my contacts until I found the lawyer.
"What's up?" Travis asked.
"Listen in," I said as I picked up the phone and called the lawyer. It took a minute to get her on the phone, but I laid out what had just been said to me.
"Okay, slow down, slow down," Joyce Whitaker, my lawyer, said. "I'm making some notes here to get me started. So she's trying to say that Mona is making a deal and that Mona would use Isaac as part of her deal?" She snorted.
"Yeah, that's what she said," I told her, feeling a bit uncertain. "Why?"
"Mona sounds like she's in a tight spot, and I can definitely see the prosecutor making a deal with her to land someone more important. It's how they roll up these drug organizations. But if you think about that for a second, Mona has no leverage other than her testimony. That will take time, and it may not be good testimony. I'll aim to get her police record, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say she's not anyone's star witness," she said dryly.
"Oh, yeah. That makes sense."
"If you add that all up, her making Isaac part of her demands doesn't make any sense, unless the prosecutors office thinks that she'd stick around and be anchored by Isaac – which history says she wouldn't."
"I...hadn't thought of any of that," I admitted.
"Mr. Maddox, this is why legal advice is a good thing. I'm an objective voice outside of the emotions and turmoil you've been thrown into. It's hard to think clearly when someone threatens you in such a personal way."
"Yes, I can see that now," I replied, growing impatient and so a bit testy. "So what do we do now?"
"Firstly I'm putting together a defense for keeping Isaac in your custody, and secondly I'm putting together an offense to go after these bastards that are threatening you and your family."
I smiled ferally. "Okay, thank you." My hands were shaking as I put the phone back down in the cradle.
"Son of a bitch," Travis said under his breath. "I can't believe this. How can a parent just walk away and leave their kid, then just waltz in and pick them up later like nothing happened? What sort of a judge does that?"
"I don't know," I managed to say, though it was more of a gasp. I got up and crossed the building to find Hal. I needed him right then. I needed a steadying influence or I was going to go to the school, take Isaac and run for the border.
Hal was just standing at his desk as I arrived and I grabbed him in a desperate embrace.
"Bran? What's wrong?" he asked returning my embrace.
"Isaac. They may try to take him from me," I said, gasping. I explained what had been said, and how afraid I was.
"Go get him. Even if you're just at home, you'll be more calm if you can see him," he said. I nodded, the idea taking hold in me. I kissed him and then turned on my heel to collect my things and leave at a breakneck pace. I raced to the school, intent on seeing my kid and hugging him until I felt like no one could come between us.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Maddox. Isaac was picked up by his social worker about ten minutes ago," the secretary said. My eyes bulged.
"Did she say if he was coming back?"
"I'm sorry, she didn't."
I was turning to leave when a voice stopped me. "Mr. Maddox?"
I turned to see Mrs. Okoye. "Yes?" I asked irritably. I was already reaching for my phone to call the lawyer.
"Why don't you come into the conference room for a moment," she suggested, holding a hand out to me as if to guide me like one of the kids.
"I have a lawyer to call and a lawsuit to file," I said as I headed for the door.
"Mr. Maddox, just for a moment, if you would," she said, taking a half-step toward me. I pulled back, a snarl on my lips. "Please." she said.
I held my phone in my hand and stepped into the room. A large, long table dominated the center of the room, running at least ten feet and lined with chairs.
"I don't have time to screw around. What do you want?" I snapped.
"Take a deep breath," she said and sat calmly in a chair. "Sondra called and asked for Isaac to be ready for her to pick up. She also wanted his transcript ready. What is going on?"
"Some pervert tried to kidnap him a few months ago – when she called you to find out who I was." She nodded in recognition and I continued, "Isaac and I ended up in the police station well into the wee hours. They refused me access to legal advice, implied I was using Isaac for some sick purpose, refused me medical attention, detained me with no charges – and Sondra negotiated that if I didn't sue, because she and the police needed each other, she'd see Isaac stayed with me, and if Mona surfaced that the county and the police would back me keeping custody." I looked at her and was sure she could see the extent of my frustration. "If I didn’t go along with here deal, she said she'd see Isaac removed from me immediately."
Mrs. Okoye pursed her lips. "That snake! Was the Detective Mosher?"
My eyes went wide. "Yes. Why?"
She snorted with disbelief. "He's her nephew. Her brother used to beat the tar out of the boy, and Sondra defended him. Now she's protecting Mosher. Damn it!" she said, gaining her feet. "I have to grab Isaac's files and hold them." She turned and glared at me. "She's always convinced me with this greater good speech, but Isaac finally, finally has what he needs. Go! I'll hold the paperwork up."
I had the phone to my ear and got my lawyer back on the line. I raced to my car as I relayed events to my lawyer. I was thankful that she took decisive action and told me to get to my home, to call my parents and give her some time. I got behind the wheel of my car and paused, realizing I was going home with nothing to do. The small cracks that had been formed in my shell when Sondra called suddenly widened and I felt broken. Tears spilled from me in a torrent, blinding me and I placed my forehead on the steering wheel, unable to stop the tears. I wiped my eyes and called my parents house. After several minutes I got the story out and they said they were on their way. I felt hopeless, powerless. With another wipe of my eyes I started the car and drove slowly home, scanning the streets with the fervent desire to see Isaac walking, free and unharmed.
Once home I splashed my face with water and put on a pot for tea. Coffee is my wake up, standard drink. Tea is for emergencies and illness. This was a four alarm emergency like I hadn't seen since....since Ray and Amber. Since the day I got the call while I was in Chicago training on a software package. My husband and little girl were dead. I felt the cracks in me widening and threatening to break me entirely.
Desperate, I called Hal.