Ken let out a small sigh as he hung up the phone; the call had not been completely unexpected. Dr. Conrad Cooper, Wes’s father, had called to ask if he and his wife, Liz, could come over later in the week to talk with them. Ken had a fairly good idea of what the discussion would be about. Both of Wes’s parents had developed a budding friendship with Kevin, the abused young teen that Ken and Jess mentored, at a barbecue several weeks earlier. Ken suspected that they were going to talk about fostering Kevin.
Waiting several days with this discussion hanging over their heads would have been stressful for Ken, let alone what it would do to his volatile Jess. Ken had instead asked if they could come over that day. The Coopers were agreeable, and promised to leave right away.
Looking out the window, Ken took a fortifying breath. Jess had just taken the lawn mower out of the workshop. The plan for the day had been to work on the yard, but that had changed and he needed to inform Jess.
Less than an hour later, the four adults sat at the kitchen table and discussed the future of a lost boy. Conrad and Liz had explained that they’d filled out forms to be foster parents shortly after Wes had graduated high school. Although they were approved, they’d not taken the step to take in a child. But that Saturday barbecue at Wes and Link’s, they’d felt a tentative bond begin with Kevin.
They had put in a call to the state foster program and had been directed to Kevin’s case worker, Ms. Carol Lindy. Ms. Lindy had assured them that Kevin was available for fostering and she was delighted that they were interested in him. The case worker had moved mountains to get the necessary home visits and paperwork filed so that Kevin could be placed with the Coopers soon.
Ken watched the play of emotions run across Jess’s face. When Liz reached over and placed her hand on top of Jess’s tightly fisted one, he knew that Liz understood what Jess was feeling.
“We want you and Ken to continue to be mentors,” Liz said firmly. “We just feel that Kevin’s best chance for a future is in a loving home, not a group house full of boys.”
“We haven’t talked to Kevin about this yet. We wanted you two to understand that we aren’t trying to nudge you out.” Conrad looked Ken in the eye. Ken knew that Conrad and Liz really weren’t trying to push Jess and him out. “We’ve talked to his case manager, Mrs. Lindy. And we’ve finished all the paperwork. We’ve had one home visit and will have one more but we’ve been assured that we will be approved.”
Ken nodded at Conrad. “I’m sure you will. After the barbecue, I wondered if you weren’t already on the foster list. I saw how you got along with Kevin. I’m sure after the initial shock, Kevin will be happy with you both.”
Ken was grateful when Conrad and Liz said their goodbyes shortly after. Jess’s silence was deafening, and although they didn’t seem intimidated by it, they were astute enough to understand that their announcement needed time to sink in.
After walking the Coopers out to their car, Ken found Jess still seated at the table. “You know this is best for Kevin, don’t you?” he asked the statue that Jess had become. That statue suddenly came to life, pushing his chair back and standing quickly.
“I’m going to mow the yard,” Jess said ignoring Ken’s question.
“Jess. We need to talk about this. Show a united front for Kevin’s sake.” Ken kept his voice quiet but firm.
The tone had Jess pausing for a moment. “We don’t need to talk about anything. Kevin will go live with the Coopers. The perfect family. I’ve got a yard to mow.”
As if he couldn’t stand the compassion in Ken’s voice, Jess stomped toward the door. “The yard looks like shit; I’m going to mow it.”
“Fine, we’ll talk about it later,” Ken assured Jess. “Kevin deserves to have this chance and we have to show we approve or he’ll fight it.”
“Fine. Now back the fuck off, Ken,” Jess snarled. “You’re my partner, my sometimes dom, my occasional confessor, but right now I need you to. Back. The. Fuck. Off!”
Ken took a deep breath as Jess slammed out the door. He knew he had to cool down, his own emotions a bit out of control with all that had happened that morning, and Jess telling him to back the fuck off had his own anger boiling over. If he went after Jess this angry, he could, would, hurt Jess. Reaching over to gather the coffee cups on the table, Ken slammed his hand down. Jess did not get to tell him to fuck off.
Ken set off walking purposefully toward the shop where Jess was crouched by the lawn mower. Pulling him up by the arm, Ken quickly had Jess pressed up against the shed. He used his large body to pin Jess to the metal siding, not giving him an inch to move.
Keeping his voice low, trying to mask the anger he felt, Ken growled, “You don’t get to tell me to fuck off. You don’t tell even your sometimes dom to fuck off!”
Ken glowered into Jess’s eyes. Damn the man, Ken thought as Jess glared right back at him. He’s pushing me hard! With sudden understanding, Ken’s anger melted away. Just as softly, but much more gently, Ken said, “And you don’t manipulate me.”
Leaning closer, Ken kissed Jess hard, savagely, bruising both their lips. Stepping back as he broke the kiss, Ken looked into Jess’s eyes again. “Mow the lawn, figure out how you feel, and come inside. I’ll give you what you need, when you ask for it.”
Ken puttered around the house, trying to give Jess the time and space he needed to come to terms with his emotions. He tightened loose cabinets, looked out the kitchen window to check on Jess. Fixed the leak in the bathroom sink, glanced out the small bathroom window, saw Jess pulling out the weed-eater. Threw a load of laundry in the washing machine. Noticed Jess was putting away the weed-eater, gathered up the tools scattered around the house and took them to his workshop in back of the house.
They met in the middle of the workshop. Ken stood still as Jess looked him in the eye and walked toward him with his shoulders straight. That’s my man, thought Ken. Jess wouldn’t come to him with his head bowed. No, he’d face his demons with his head held high.
Jess stopped a little more than three feet from him and said, “I was a shit. Sorry.”
Not invading Jess’s personal space, Ken agreed, “Yeah, you were. But that was a hell of a shock, huh?”
“Yeah,” Jess said. Ken walked out and watched as Jess shut the door. They walked toward the house together. “I need a beer. It’s damn hot out here.”
Looking at the tracks the sweat had made through the dirt and grime on Jess’s face, Ken agreed a cold one was needed. Going straight to the refrigerator, Jess grabbed a couple of beers. Ken caught the can that Jess had tossed him, and went into the living room, giving Jess the chance to follow or not.
Ken gave a silent internal cheer when Jess did follow, slouching onto the couch as Ken sat across the room on the recliner.
“It was a shock,” Jess agreed again. “But it is the right thing for Kevin. And Liz said we could still see him, and do shit with him.”
“Yeah. I really do think they’re the best shot Kevin has,” Ken said. He knew Jess would come to terms with the new arrangement, but he couldn’t help but be proud at how quickly Jess had accepted it. For all his bluster, the anger he’d kept inside had been slowly dying out.
“You gonna beat my ass for talking such shit to you?” Jess asked him.
“You need me to?” Ken watched as Jess mulled that over. Ken felt that Jess had handled this situation surprisingly well despite his initial blow up. He’d apparently worked things out in his mind, while he’d worked on the yard. His Jess was a physical man, which was partly why discipline worked for him. Ken didn’t feel the need to use corporal punishment for this, but if Jess wanted it, he’d not deny him.
Finally Jess spoke, “No, I don’t need it. I do need a shower; I stink.”
When Jess went to shower, Ken took the empty beer cans to the recycling bin in the kitchen. Opening up the refrigerator, he was deciding what to do about dinner, when his phone rang. Dinner was soon forgotten as he heard the worry underlining Ms. Lindy’s calm voice.
“Mr. O’Dell, I’m calling to see if you’ve seen Kevin today?” she asked.
“No, he’s supposed to be at the home. What happened?” Ken knew something had to have happened for the case worker to be calling him.
“We’ve received a formal request from a potential foster family for Kevin, and it looks to be a good match,” Ms. Lindy started to explain.
“Ms. Lindy, cut the bullshit and tell me what’s going on.” Ken wanted her to get to the point.
He heard her sigh and then say, “Kevin’s run away. He seemed like he’d accepted that he had a placement pretty well. I hadn’t told him who it was, he just said, that’s good, and went to his room. An issue came up with another boy, and by the time I got to Kevin’s room, he was gone.”
Shit, Ken thought. Kevin had more than an hour to hightail it out of there. He could be on his way to San Francisco by now. “Have you called the police?”
He heard another sigh on the other end of the phone. “No, I was hoping he’d come back on his own. He didn’t leave a note, but his clothes are gone. I’d really hoped he’d run to you, but when I hadn’t heard anything from you, I started to worry. I need to report this.”
He could tell by the sound of her voice that she didn’t really want to call the cops. “Ok, look. Hold off calling the police for just a few hours. Let me go look for him. I know him, where he hangs out, who his friends are. Let me bring him home.” Ken wanted to plead with the social worker, but kept his voice firm and authoritative. In reality, Ken knew that Kevin didn’t hang out with his previous friends. The common link between them had been their disastrous home lives, and Kevin had been happy hanging out with Ken and Jess.
“Ok. I can give you a couple of hours, but no more than that,” Ms. Lindy agreed.
“I won’t need more than that,” he promised, hoping that was the truth. “I’ll be in touch.”
Disconnecting the phone, Ken walked into the bathroom. Jess was stepping out of the shower as Ken walked in.
“Kevin’s run off. I’m going to look for him,” Ken didn’t waste words, just stated the bare facts.
“Let me throw some clothes on. I’m coming with you.”
Ken didn’t want to fight about this. “I need you here in case he comes over. He doesn’t really have anywhere else to go.”
Ken knew Jess wanted to argue but common sense prevailed. “Ok. But let me know where you are and what’s going on.”
After giving him a fierce kiss, Ken left Jess still wet from his shower and went searching for their lost boy.
Jess walked naked into the bedroom and picked up his phone. Pressing the second contact on his list, he chanted to himself, come on, Kev, pick up; pick up the damn phone. He resisted the urge to throw the phone when it promptly went to voice mail, settling instead on dropping it to the bed. Either Kevin had turned his phone off or it’d run out of battery.
Jess didn’t bother to dress as he went into the kitchen to get a drink. The beer had refreshed him, but he needed water to hydrate him. Taking a glass out of the cabinet, and filling it with water straight from the kitchen sink, Jess gazed out the kitchen window.
Where the hell could that boy be, he thought to himself. Noticing the shop door open, Jess went back in the bedroom and pulled on a pair of cut offs. Just as he was slipping on his shoes, he remembered he’d closed the door behind him. A sense of déjà vu came over him.
This time instead of rushing in full of anger, Jess walked in and breathed a sigh of relief. There in a corner almost hidden by the work bench was their missing boy. Huddled up with his arms resting on his knees, the boy looked miserable.
“Hey, Kev. Whatcha doing?” Jess asked awkwardly. Hell, I don’t know what to say to the kid, he thought.
When Kevin didn’t answer, Jess walked over and crouched in front of him. Smelling the sweet scent of pot, he asked, “You been smoking? That ain’t cool, ya know.”
Jess flinched when Kevin looked him in the eye. The look of total despair and hopelessness on Kevin’s face tore a hole through Jess’s new found heart. That hole became a cavern when Kevin asked in a quiet, emotionless voice, “What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t anyone want me?”
Shit, Jess thought. Where’s Ken? He’s the one who should be dealing with this. Thinking of his cell phone lying on the bed where he’d dropped it, Jess said, “Come on. Let’s go in the house where it’s cooler. It’s hot as hell out here.”
“I thought you guys were different. I mean you never promised me shit, but I thought you’d at least let me hang around,” Kevin said as if he hadn’t heard Jess.
“Hey, Kev, you can always hang here,” Jess said as he sat on the concrete floor. If the discussion was going to take place here, he might as well be as comfortable as he could get. “No, we never promised you anything. But Kev, I’m promising you something right now. Look at me,” Jess said, when Kevin dropped his eyes. When the kid brought his eyes back up, Jess could see the blown pupils from too much pot and wondered if Kevin would even understand what he was saying. Jess decided he had to say it. “I promise you, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be right here for you. Whether it’s helping out with your homework, or kicking your ass for smoking dope, I’m going to be here.”
Jess knew that despite being high, Kevin did understand what he was saying when Kevin dropped his head onto arms and started to shake. Jess felt completely at a loss. He couldn’t handle his own emotions, how the hell was he going to handle a crying 15 year old.
Awkwardly scooting around and putting his arm over Kevin’s shoulder, Jess pulled the boy to him. Damn, that made it worse. Where the fuck is Ken, he thought as Kevin sobbed into his chest.
Trying to pat him in a comforting rhythm like he’d seen mothers do with their babies in grocery store lines, Jess thumped his hand on Kevin’s back. Clearing his throat, he tried for a soothing voice, “Hey, its ok. Come on. Don’t cry.”
When it seemed that Kevin wasn’t listening, Jess gave up, let his head fall back against the wall and just held the teen. He closed his eyes, and wished he could close his ears as he heard the harsh sobbing of a kid whose world had collapsed around him.
Continuing to hold him, even after the sobs had stopped, Jess wished again for Ken to get home. He had no idea of how much time had passed all he knew was his ass was sore from the hard concrete floor.
“Come on, Kev. Let’s go inside.”
Jess heaved himself up off the floor when he felt Kevin move away. Offering a hand down to the teen, he helped him up. Jess felt like a prison guard as he took hold of Kevin’s arm, but he was damned if he’d let the kid get away from him.
Going into the house, he pulled Kevin with him into the bedroom to get his phone. Using only one hand to text while the other was still holding Kevin, Jess texted Ken a simple, he’s here. Once he was finished, he asked, “Can I trust you in the bathroom alone? I don’t really want to go in with you, but I will if I have to.”
Kevin shook his head and said in a voice hoarse from his earlier crying jag, “No. I’m not gonna run.”
“Ok. Go wash your face. You wanna shower? You got clothes?” Jess hadn’t seen any, but he hadn’t looked for them either. Kevin could have stashed them in the shop.
“No. I did have some but they’re at Austin’s house. I was going to crash there, but his dad got drunk and started raising hell. I got outta there fast,” Kevin explained.
“That where you smoked the dope?”
“Yeah,” Kevin admitted.
“Do it again, and I’ll bust your ass,” Jess said and looked steadily into Kevin’s eyes. When the kid dropped his first, Jess continued a little more kindly, “Go shower, and meet me back in the living room.”
Jess rummaged through his dresser and found some old sweats and a tee shirt. It’d be hot, but it’d cover the kid’s ass, Jess thought. Opening the bathroom door just enough to reach his arm in, Jess said, “Here’s some clothes. Put them on when you get out of the shower. No shorts, sorry, you’ll have to go commando.”
Closing the door once Kevin took the clothes, Jess ran his hands through his hair. God, he needed a beer. Glancing at the bathroom door, he wondered if he should have one with the kid in the house. Hell, he thought. He’s seen us drink beer, I’m over 21 and it’s legal.
Heading to the kitchen, Jess almost ran into Ken.
“Where is he?”
“Thank God, you’re home!”
They both talked at once. Jess looked at Ken, seeing the stress and worry in his normally calm man, Jess reassured him. “Kevin’s ok. He’s in the shower.”
Jess placed his hand on Ken’s arm as Ken started toward the teen. “Ken. He’s ok. Let him shower, and get his shit together. I found him higher than a kite in the workshop, and he broke down completely. Let him calm down so we can talk to him.”
Ken looked torn between wanting to make sure Kevin was alright, and wanting to get information out of Jess. Jess decided for him. “Come on. You look like you could use a beer, and God knows I need one.”
Jess quickly told Ken what had happened in the workshop as they sat at the table drinking their beers. “He really didn’t say much. Just wanted to know why no one wanted him. And then he cried. When he was done, I brought him inside and told him to shower.”
“I’ve called Ms. Lindy, and we’re going to keep him the night,” Ken said. Jess nodded, Kevin had spent a number of nights with them. “I’m going to call the Coopers and have them come over. We need to have everyone here.”
Jess wasn’t sure that was a good idea, but he kept his mouth shut. Ken had mentored other teens, and Jess was relieved to let Ken handle things. Just as Ken was hanging up the phone, Jess heard Kevin come out of the bathroom.
“Kev, we’re in the kitchen,” he yelled out to the boy.
Jess felt his heart tug when Kevin came in clutching at the impossibly large sweat pants and wearing a look of hopelessness on his face. He also saw how Kevin’s fingers gripped Ken’s shirt when Ken grabbed him in a fierce hug.
“Damn it, boy,” Ken said gruffly as he hugged the boy. “You scared 20 years off my life.”
Jess grabbed a soda out of the refrigerator when Ken directed them into the living room. Jess let out a silent sigh of relief when Ken sat down next to Kevin on the couch. Jess handed Kevin the soda and then sat down on the recliner closest to the front door.
“Why’d you run?” Ken asked Kevin.
“I don’t know,” the boy mumbled.
Just as Jess opened his mouth to talk to them, someone knocked on the door. Jess jumped up to answer it, as Ken slung his arm around Kevin. Jess heard Ken murmur, “You’re ok. You’re staying here tonight. Don’t worry.”
Opening the door, Jess let the Coopers in. Jess was relieved when neither of them rushed toward Kevin. Their concern obvious but under control.
“Hi, guys,” Liz said, as she walked in. Jess stood back as Liz and Conrad greeted Kevin and Ken.
Kevin looking confused said, “Hi Dr. Cooper. Mrs. Cooper. What are you doing here?”
Conrad Cooper sat down next to Kevin. “Well son, Ken called us and told us you had run away.”
“I told you before I’m not your son. I’m nobody’s son,” Kevin spat out. He turned toward Ken and asked, “Why’d you call them?”
Jess heard the embarrassment in Kevin’s voice. Kevin had gotten along well with both Conrad and Liz at the barbeque; he obviously didn’t want them to see him this way.
“Kevin, you ran away before Ms. Lindy could finish telling you what’s happening,” Ken said.
“Yeah,” Kevin snapped. “Because I’m fucking tired of everyone telling me what’s going to happen in my life! I’m sick of it! I’ll decide for myself from here on in.”
Jess understood Kevin’s frustration. At 15 years old, on the verge of adulthood, but not quite there yet, Kevin felt as though he had no control over his own life. And he had it worse than most kids, as the adults in his life were mainly tired, overworked social workers. Well, Jess wanted to give the kid a choice over something.
“Kevin, the reason why the Coopers are here, is because they are the family that wants to foster you,” Jess said bluntly. Kevin needed to be told what was going on and to have the decision of whether he wanted to go with them or not.
“What?” Kevin asked stunned.
“Jess…“ Ken started.
“No, let me finish. Kevin has the right to know,” Jess interrupted Ken. Turning back to Kevin, Jess continued, “They came over earlier and told Ken and me. They also said we could still hang together, you know, be your mentors, or whatever.”
“Kevin, this is your choice,” Liz said. “I just hope you’ll give it a chance before you make a final decision.”
Stunned Kevin said, “You guys want me? To live with you?”
Conrad laid his hand on the teen’s shoulder, “Yes, we want you to live with us, finish high school, maybe even go to college. Ken tells me you’re pretty good in literature class.”
Jess saw the relief start to ebb into Kevin’s face as Conrad, Liz and Ken talked to the boy, not at him. They were giving him the facts, and letting him make the decision.
“I’ll still get to come over here right?” Kevin asked looking at Jess.
Jess had to wonder when Kevin started looking to him for answers. But he had to admit, it felt good to see that trust in Kevin’s eyes directed at him.
“Yeah, you’ll still come over,” Jess said.
The two couples and the teen continued to talk well into the night, ordering pizza for dinner. The Coopers left with a promise to come over the next day so that they could all go to the group home together.
Ken sent the exhausted teen to bed as Jess picked up the paper plates and napkins. Checking to make sure all the doors were locked, Jess went into the bedroom. Flopping down on the bed, he felt totally drained.
“Scoot over,” he heard Ken say.
“I can’t,” Jess half teased. “I’m too exhausted.”
“Hey, I declined to beat your ass earlier today. I could change my mind,” Ken said in a mockingly stern voice.
“You don’t have any more energy than I do,” Jess said, but rolled over giving Ken room to get in the bed. Jess shifted around and got comfortable on Ken’s hard chest when Ken wrapped his arms around him.
“I can always find the energy for your ass,” Ken told Jess sleepily.
As they drifted off to sleep, Jess mumbled, “In the morning.”