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Return of the Prodigal Son

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Wind howled outside the firm stone walls of the farmhouse, driving a sheet of rain to splatter against the windows. The sound alone brought Tom’s stomach to churn with worry, and he cast another glance toward the carriage clock resting on the fireplace mantle. The time was now eight-fifteen; a full two minutes had passed since he last checked.

Kevin had said he would be home by seven o’clock, seven-thirty at the latest. Tom had called him once at eight to leave a voicemail, but the call wasn’t returned.

Drumming his fingers on the armrest of the leather couch, Tom tried to convince himself he was fretting over nothing—after all, Kevin was less than an hour late. While he often thought Kevin was very mature for a sixteen-year-old (sometimes, Tom worried, too mature), he also knew what it was like to be young. Kids could be irresponsible. They lost track of time. They forgot to call their parents to let them know where they were (or simply didn’t want to). As town sheriff, Tom had been summoned countless times to retrieve a “missing” teenager who had simply snuck out at night to hang around the 7/11 parking lot with their friends.

On any other night, he would have arrived home from the sheriff’s station a little after seven, where Kevin would be waiting with dinner prepared, ready to hand Tom a cold beer to enjoy. They would eat together and talk about the day’s events, and then Tom would take care of the cleanup. On a miserable night like this one, Kevin would light a fire in the fireplace so the flames were burning brightly by the time Tom entered the room. Then they would each concentrate on their own tasks, Tom on case files and Kevin on homework, while enjoying the fire’s warmth and each other’s company.

Not tonight, though. Unable to eat due to concern for his son, their dinner sat warming in the stove as Tom alternated between wearing a groove in the floorboards with his pacing and unsuccessfully attempting to review his nightly reports. Every time he tried to sit down and concentrate, his eyes inevitably strayed to the clock, and he was filled with the impulse to act, even though potential action to resolve the current situations was limited.

Retrieving his police radio from the coffee table before him (just in case anyone signalled him), Tom rose and strode to the kitchen to fix a cup of coffee, desperate for something—anything—to do. He had already asked his on-duty deputies to keep a lookout for Kevin’s Silverado, and to tell him to call home immediately if they spotted him. He knew such a request probably cemented him as an overprotective parent, and he didn’t mean to be, but years on the force had taught him that a little bit of caution had never hurt anyone.

Mechanically setting the Technivorm Moccamaster drip (a hideously expensive gift of gratitude from one of beneficiaries of Kevin’s endless community service projects) to brew, Tom reached into the cupboard to withdraw a mug. But with his mind preoccupied with worry for his son, the smooth ceramic slipped from his grasp, shattering on the white pine hardwood floor.

“Goddamn!” Tom shouted in frustration. His voice, much louder than he had intended, echoed throughout the empty house.

With a sigh, he knelt down and heedlessly gathered the jagged pieces of the mug into his palm, noting with dismay that the cup had belonged to Kevin, won in a 3k race back in junior high. The realization filled Tom with dread, and as he tossed the fragments into the trash, he could only hope the mishap wasn’t an omen of Kevin’s fate.

Snatching up another mug, Tom tried to think positive. With the various clubs and committees Kevin was involved with, it was very possible a meeting had run overtime, or the members had realized a project needed to be completed immediately. Kevin could very easily be safe at a friend’s house.

But if that was true, why wasn’t he answering his phone? Shaking his head, Tom reached back to rub his neck. Every muscle in his body was taut.

Once the coffee was ready, Tom returned to the family room, where he again tried and failed to attend to his reports, too preoccupied with thoughts of his son.

He had never truly considered what he would do if he lost Kevin, not really. He had always pushed the idea of his mind, intent on not borrowing trouble.

Being the town sheriff often required he push fatherhood to the backburner to prioritize the safety of his citizens. Kevin had never complained about this arrangement, even though Tom needed him to think of their family before anything else.

But the idea of not being a father anymore was inconceivable to Tom. After a late night of at the police station, there was nothing he looked forward to more than coming to their house, seeing warm yellow light spilling out of the windows like an oasis of illumination. Kevin was always waiting, ready to tell Tom all about his day—his assignments in class, his sports practice, his latest undertaking for whatever club. It was those moments that Tom loved, when, even when surrounded by reminders of their unusual family setup, he had the chance to hear Kevin talk about school and his friends like any other kid.

The idea of Kevin being normal, being the typical American teen, was reassuring Tom, no matter how temporary and unreliable such a comfort was. For a brief time, he wasn’t left feeling that he had failed Kevin as a parent.

As Tom glanced at the clock once more, his stomach twisting, he desperately hoped he hadn’t failed Kevin as a parent this time.

The clatter of the front door bursting open sent Tom rocketing out of his seat and into the front entryway. There he found Kevin, his clothing sodden with rain, forcing the door back into place against a strong gust of wind, gripping a gallon of milk in one of his hands.

“For Christ’s sake!” Tom bellowed, charging forward to take Kevin by the shoulders and inspecting him, checking for any sign of injuries. “All this time, you were at the grocery store?!” Once he was certain Kevin was all right, he took the gallon from his grasp and pulled him in the direction of the fireplace, shaking his head in exasperation all the while.

“Not exactly,” Kevin said breathlessly, pushing a damp lock of hair out of his eyes. Unlike his father’s linebacker build, Kevin’s form was lean and lithely muscled, a runner’s physique that he put to good use in track and cross country. “I had to drive out to Greendale to pick up the T-shirt order for archery club. I stopped to buy some milk on the way—I noticed we were out this morning. After leaving the store, the rain was so bad I had to pull off to the side of the road to try to wait it out, but when I tried to start my truck again, I couldn’t get the engine to turn over. So I got stuck walking home.”

“And your phone?” Tom demanded as he wrapped Kevin in a heavy blanket and seated him directly in front of the fire, pulling him into a bone-crushing hug.

“Dead,” Kevin replied sheepishly. “I was just about to plug it into my car charger when the car didn’t start.”

Tom groaned, still not letting go of Kevin. “I’ve told you time and time again to make sure you keep that thing charged, Kevin. You always forget to plug in your phone, and I’ve always said it would get you stuck in a situation like this!”

“I didn’t get stuck!” Kevin protested. “Well, I did, but I got out of it okay. Things could have gone much worse, like if—”

“Oh, Kevin, don’t. I’ve already been working myself into a frenzy worrying about you,” Tom scolded as he grabbed his cup of coffee and pushed it into Kevin’s hands.

“What blend?” Kevin asked, peering at the mug’s contents.

“Some kind of decaf. Just drink it,” Tom said firmly. “You need to get warm.”

“Huh. Well, thanks.” Kevin obediently began to drink.

“I’ll put a CB radio in your truck once we get it back,” Tom decided, as Kevin sipped his coffee. “I know it wasn’t entirely your fault, but I don’t want this type of thing to ever happen again.”

“A CB radio?” Kevin quirked an eyebrow, smiling. “Why not just paint my truck bright orange and call it the General Lee?”

“Oh, be quiet and drink your coffee,” Tom told him, but the fondness in his voice belied any irritability of his words.

Watching his son back safely in their home, Tom heaved a long sigh of relief, the tension gradually uncoiling from his shoulders.

He wasn’t a perfect father. Kevin wasn’t a perfect son. But they got by all right, and for now, that was enough.