“Give it back! ”
“No, Dad said it’s my turn to pick the movie!”
“You always pick the same one! I’m tired of Winnie the Pooh !”
“But I like it!”
“Can we at least watch the Tigger one?”
“No! Pooh Bear!”
Young voices whined back and forth in an argument that had been held at least once a week for the last three months in the Sanders household. Six-year-old Patton was climbing on top of the couch cushions, brandishing the remote as eight-year-old Roman tried to reclaim it. Their younger brother, four-year-old Logan, watched from the corner in silence.
Their dad entered the room and, with practiced ease, plucked Patton from his teetering perch on the couch.
“Hey, hey, buddy, careful, okay? You might fall from up there!”
“Daaddd, Ro is trying to take my night again!”
The single father balanced his middle son on his hip as he looked sternly down his eldest.
“Roman, what have we talked about with movie nights?”
The second-grader sighed heavily, crossing his arms. “He gets to pick whatever movie he wants,” he recited, blowing strawberry blonde hair out of his eyes. “Even if it’s boring.”
“Pooh Bear isn’t boring!” Patton objected loudly, making his father wince from the volume.
“Boys. We will skip movie night entirely if you can’t behave,” Dad warned. Both children immediately went silent, but stuck tongues out at each other when they thought Dad couldn’t see.
“I’m going on an adventure, so that at least not all of today is boring,” Roman announced, running to the toy box for his tiny foam sword. “Where’s my noble steed?”
“I wanna come!” Patton cried, wriggling out of his father’s hold. Taking the remote back, Dad let him go as a small smile crept up at the corners of his mouth. How quickly they went from feuding to playing.
“Let’s go slay a dragon!” Roman cried, stabbing the air.
“What if we fight a witch?” said Patton with huge eyes, grabbing his matching foam shield.
“A dragon-witch!” Roman announced happily. “Lolo, wanna come?”
The youngest looked at the floor through glasses he already needed. “...don’ wanna”
“Aw, Lolo, you sure?”
“...scary,” the toddler said.
“We’ll protect you,” Patton said, crouching to look in his brother’s eyes. “Roro is the best knight ever! And I have a shield!”
Logan shook his head. Patton sighed and carefully patted his hand. “Next time? But only if you wanna, okay?”
Satisfied at the small nod, Patton trotted upstairs. Roman cast around before crouching behind the couch. “Ah! My steed!” he said happily. He stood with a cat in his arms. The tom bore being carried with long-suffering patience, held around the middle by small arms that could only just make it all the way around.
“Ro, be careful with Thomas, okay?” Dad warned. “Pat’s taken his medicine, but don’t let him bury his face in fur again.”
“Yes, I’ll be careful,” Roman said with all the indignation a eight-year-old could muster. He jauntily strode up the stairs after his brother, arms full of cat and sword.
His father watched him go as he settled on the couch. Logan crawled up into his lap and settled there, sitting up straight but balanced on his dad’s knee.
“Hey there, L. No adventure today?”
Logan shook his head.
“Just don’t want to, or something wrong?”
The little boy was silent.
“How is touching today? Thumbs up?” his dad asked, hand creating the gesture he referred to. His son responded in kind. Moving slowly, Dad pulled Logan into his chest, resting a hand lightly in the boy’s dark brown hair.
“Do you have the words for the something wrong, or is it just bad?” he asked softly.
“...miss Papa,” Logan replied, turning his head fully into Dad’s chest.
His father kissed the top of his head and held him close. He knew of his son’s tears from the dampness on his shirt rather than any sounds or shaking. When he could finally speak evenly, he replied, “I miss him too, Lolo.”
“When does he come back?”
“I wish I knew, kiddo. I’m sorry I can’t give you a good reason.”
Logan clutched at the fabric of Dad’s shirt, still not looking up.
His father kissed his head again and leaned back against the couch, looking up at the ceiling as he blinked away tears. He was so tired of crying, so tired of knowing neither he nor his sons might ever understand why their other father had left. But it had been months without any communication, since they came home from the park to an empty house and a missing suitcase.
Three young boys, one beloved cat, one father who'd just lost the love of his life and his partner parent all at once. That was the Sanders household now. A night of childish yells and tears from the boys and their father alike: this was an ordinary night.
So how was Dad doing? He was a nervous wreck, of course. If he’d been a bit on edge before, it was nothing compared to the absolute personification of anxiety Virgil had become now.
As he breathed deeply to calm himself, Virgil ran a hand lightly through Logan’s soft, wavy hair. “What do you say to some Magic School Bus before dinner, Lo? Would that be good?”
“Mmhmm,” the toddler said with a nod, sliding off his dad’s lap.
As Virgil stood, Logan reached for his hand and pulled him towards the stairs. Virgil let himself be led to the smallest bedroom, where Logan immediately went to his small but growing book collection. He pulled out a CD that Virgil then placed in the small speakers he’d bought, back when he and his ex had adopted Roman. The “Baby Boombox,” Ethan had called it, as he filled Ro’s room with all his favorite Broadway soundtracks and Disney ballads. Then had come Patton, with Raffi songs and lullabies because they were the only things that would send him to sleep smiling when Roman was still active during naptime. And now there was Logan, who was soothed by the smooth strains of classical musicals and who listened with rapt attention (if not complete understanding) to audiobooks of all kinds. Virgil popped in Logan’s choice, “Lost in Space” and set it to play. Logan scooted his tiny plush chair as close as he could to the speaker and sat, staring up in wonder as his favorite narrator read about Ms. Frizzle’s class and whirling planets. Without interrupting, Virgil slipped out of his youngest son’s room and made his way to the kitchen to start dinner.
The pasta was cooking and the sauce bubbling on the stove when Virgil’s phone buzzed against the counter. He glanced at the screen and smiled.
If the past year had taught him anything, it was just how important family could be. He and his brother use to have a rather rocky relationship, never spending much time together. Unfortunately, Ethan had been part of the reason for the rift - Remy had never liked his brother-in-law and was never any good at hiding it. Normally when he was proven right about anything, Remy held it over his younger brother’s head for the rest of their lives. But not this time. Not when they’d sparked into full-on screaming matches over the years as Virgil asserted that Remy was wrong about Ethan. He was a good partner and an amazing father. He’d even said it, hadn’t he? His biggest ambition in life was to be a good papa.
Guess that had been a lie, too.
But no amount of friction and distance could have kept Remy away the night Virgil had called in tears. “Nuncle” Remy had been a near-constant fixture in the Sanders house ever since, particularly in those first couple of months. It had been Remy who’d suggested Virgil get the boys to therapists early, right after the split. It had been Remy’s husband Emile who’d found them matches among his colleagues, ones who made the boys feel safe and heard. It had been those therapists who discovered the reason behind Roman’s mood swings, identifying his bipolar personality disorder early and helping Virgil to get him the appropriate treatment. It had been Emile who’d cautiously suggested he get Logan fully evaluated for autism, and found him compassionate parenting resources to help relate and communicate with Lo better. Virgil would be a wreck without his brother and brother-in-law -- or, rather, he’d be more of a wreck.
Which is why, when Logan went missing, Remy was the instinctual first call.
He’d heard Roman and Patton bounce down the stairs into the den, making dramatic sound effects as they fought their dragon-witch. He hadn’t heard the door open, or the soft steps of Logan following his brothers downstairs. He hadn’t seen Thomathy the tomcat be loosed into the yard as Roman cried, “Ride into the sunset, noble steed!” He hadn’t seen Logan stand on his tiptoes to re-open the door and follow the cat outdoors.
He’d just called for the older two boys and gone upstairs to get Logan when he’d found the CD player off and the chair empty. And that’s when the panic had kicked in.
“Lolo?” he called upstairs.
“Buddy?” he asked the den.
“Logan?!” he almost screeched into the basement.
Roman and Patton were obediently sitting at the kitchen table, fidgeting, when Virgil re-entered, eyes ablaze. “Where’s your brother? Was he playing with you?”
“No, he was too scared,” Roman scoffed.
Patton, on the other hand, looked concerned. “I think maybe he followed us? He was trying to pet Tommy.”
“Where is Thomas?” their father asked, the edge in his voice rising. “You were playing with him, where did he go?”
Roman shrank in his seat as he realized this was more than just make-believe. “He… I wanted him to be free?” He pointed to the back door with a shaky hand.
Virgil stared at his eldest son, biting back harsh words of frustration. He was eight, he didn’t know better yet. But the panic was rising, thrumming through his veins and disrupting his ability to think straight.
He grabbed his phone and hit the speed dial to Remy.
“Rem? I need you here,” he said the minute his brother picked up. “Logan got out of the house chasing the cat.”
“Shit, okay, I’ll be there in 5,” Remy said, already hanging up before Virgil could point out that he lived a ten-minute drive away. He arrived in three. Normally his brother's driving habits pissed Virgil the hell off, but at that moment, it was all he could do to not cry in relief as he grabbed a flashlight and his extensive first aid kit from under the sink and ran out the back door.
Remy was soon placing himself bodily in front of the door to prevent either older brother from charging after.
“I’m a bad prince, I’m the villain,” Roman choked out through his tears. “It’s all my fault.”
“I gotta keep him safe!” Patton said. He tried and failed to climb onto the counter, but grabbed what ‘supplies’ he could reach into his school bag, a collection of juiceboxes and goldfish and band-aids.
“Hey, hey, little dudes, c’mon,” Remy said, trying to sound as soothing as possible. “C’mere.”
They were just small enough and he was just big enough to gather them both into his arms at once, even as they wriggled and tried to escape.
“Dad’s gonna get Lo back, okay? They’ll both be back soon,” he said, carrying the boys to the couch. “And Tomma-llama-ding-dong too.” He placed them both on the couch. They were both red-eyed and drippy-nosed, but no longer trying to make a break for it. He grabbed tissues and wiped their faces and noses, moving gently. He watched Roman particularly hard. He’d been present for downward spirals before, when the mania and hyperactivity fell, gradually or suddenly, into dark days where the boy could barely get out of bed. Remy ran soft fingers through Roman’s light hair. The worst depressive episode had lasted a full week and a half, and Virgil had been despondent. It was right after that bastard had walked out on them, and of course Virgil had blamed himself, telling Remy that Ro’s depression was all his fault for not being a good enough father. He’d wanted to curl about around his boy and beg him to be okay, if Remy hadn’t sat on his chest reminded him that he had two other sons that needed him. Childish? Yes, quite literally, sitting on him was Remy’s favorite way of picking on his little brother when they had been children themselves. But it had worked, and Roman was getting treatment now, both medications and therapy, and both his uncles and his dad had learned strategies to help keep him from getting trapped in his up- and down-swings.
Now, Patton imitated Remy, patting a slightly-stick hand on Roman’s shoulder in a sweet attempt at grounding techniques. More than any of the boys, Patton took after Virgil, always trying to keep his brothers safe. He was fierce in his defense of them towards others, but gentle and soft when he saw them sad. Remy ruffled Patton’s honey-gold curls with his free hand and stood. He had Roman and Patton Sanders in his care, and they were sad and worried. It was time for some Disney movies.
The sun was falling below the horizon as Logan followed the family cat into the woods behind their house. He trotted as fast as his still-chubby toddler legs could carry him, following the brown-and-black striped tail of the big tabby. Galloping paws quickly carried the pet out of sight, but Logan kept plodding along in the same vague direction. Scarcely noticing the growing dark, he clutched his worn, stuffed octopus tightly in one hand as he walked further and further into the forest. When Papa had asked when he wanted to name it, he’d looked up and said “Octopus.” His tone had been one of “Well, duh ,” and his voice had been so deadpan for a three-year-old that Virgil had fallen into intermittent fits of giggles for hours after. But he’d carried it continuously ever since, particularly as he listened to his books on the deep sea. He clutched it tight as he finally caught up to Thomas. The tabby had found a mossy patch under a tree, caught in the last patch of sunlight, and curled up contently. Logan sat next to him and patted his head, content that he’d finally done what he set out to do. But looking up, the toddler realized he could no longer see the edge of the forest and wasn’t sure which direction he’d come from. He was in the middle of the forest, alone, with no notion of how to get home. Logan didn’t cry, or yell, or flail. He just froze, everything locking down in the face of a situation he didn’t understand and couldn’t solve. He might have stood like that for minutes or hours, but Thomcat chose that moment to stand with a stretch and wind his way around his smallest family member, purring as he rubbed up against Logan’s short legs. The warmth drew him out of his paralysis, and he sat heavily on the mossy stump. The cat leapt into his lap, covering most of his tiny torso in warm fur as the beloved pet continued to purr. Clutching tufts of Thomas’ fur in one hand and Octopus in the other, Logan’s emotions thawed and he started to sniffle, then cry aloud. His hiccups and sobs reverberated off the unfamiliar trees that surrounded him.
Virgil crashed through the trees, flashlight and first aid kit in hand, trying his best to keep a level head. Logan was missing. His little boy, the tiniest, quietest member of their family, was alone, somewhere
probably dying in the forest definitely kidnapped by child stealers lost in the unfriendly woods. He’d made that promise, over and over again through the long adoption process: he would keep his sons safe. He would protect them. He wouldn’t let anything dangerous happen to them. Ethan may not have meant it, but Virgil had, with every fiber of his being. He would keep his family safe, every single member.
He trusted Remy to be a good caretaker to Pat and Ro right now, but he worried for his eldest. He just dashed into ideas and plans without thinking, so much more than either of his brothers. And of course, Virgil knew why. A memory sprang to life like a film reel in his head without his bidding.
“Papa, look at me! I’m gonna be just like Peter Pan! I can fly!”
“Of course you can, Roro! If you wish hard enough!”
A summer day, lazy and bathed in golden light. It had been magical in a way - no wonder Roman had believed in super abilities. But that moment, Virgil had finally seen what was happening as he rounded the corner, an infant Logan strapped to his chest and Patton holding his hand.
“Fly? Roro! Kiddo, please get down from the roof!”
Ethan had just chuckled. “Shhh, V, he’ll probably be fine. He’s gotta learn somehow, right?”
Patton, all of three years old and still lisping, had shook a finger at his older brother. “Wowo, get down fwom thewe!”
“You can’t stop me, ‘m a PRINCE!” the five-year-old had yelled back, approaching the edge of the shed's roof.
Virgil had dropped Pat’s hand to run, shrieking more than speaking as he yelled, “Roman Sanders, do not jump off that roof! You’re going to get down safely!”
Ethan had barely budged, too busy laughing his ass off. It had ended up being Virgil alone who helped Roman get down, letting him be Dad the Downer while Papa stayed ‘the fun one’ in Roman’s eyes. Was it any wonder he’d blamed himself for Ro’s bipolar swings?
But he’d learned better since then. Being a ‘fun’ dad didn’t matter at all if he couldn’t keep them safe, first and foremost. He would find his little boy, and their cat, and he would bring them home. He checked his first aid kit as he walked and sighed with relief. He’d remembered to re-stock it recently. In addition to the bandages and ice packs and ointments and band-aids in everyone’s favorite characters, he’d packed everyone’s favorite treats. He had cat treats for Thomas, which he immediately took out and started wafting, and he had tiny containers of Crofter’s jelly, Logan’s only favorite food that he always wanted to eat, no matter his mood. Virgil listened to the forest hard for any noise besides the rustling wind. He had his flashlight turned on even before the sun fully set, to make sure Logan would see him coming. His heart still raced, frantically pointing out every passing second and minute that his son remained missing. Every moment he was out here was another moment he could be tripping over roots or eating poisonous berries or getting a rash or being abducted or hitting his head or…
Deep breaths, Virge, he reminded himself. In for four. Hold for seven. Out for eight. The calming reminders in his head spoke with Emile’s voice, gentle and soothing. He could only do his job as Dad if he kept his head and stayed alert. He listened hard again, noting small animals, leaves falling, choked sobs, branches cracking, distant cars, and -
Sobs! Where were they coming from?
He picked up his pace, needing to double back a couple times before he was heading in the direction of the noise. He swept his flashlight in front of him with one hand and shook the cat treats with the other as he called out.
“Logan? Is that you? Logan? Thomas?”
The sobs stopped abruptly, and the flashlight beam illuminated a tiny form unraveling itself from a fluffy one almost the same size. “Dada?”
Virgil sprinted the last few yards. He worried for a moment that Logan might need to avoid touch right now, but that fear was dispelled with the toddler threw himself into his father’s arms.
“Lolo, are you alright? I was so worried, kiddo! Did you hurt yourself? Were you scared? I’m here, I’ll get you home, okay?”
“Dada, ‘m sorry.”
“Why sorry, Loberry?”
“I was bad, an’ I got lost,” Logan said, gripping Virgil’s jacket and Octopus with equal tightness.
“Oh, my little Lo, no, you weren’t bad. We should have been with you, I should have been watching. I’m so sorry, honeybear. But you’re safe now, okay? We’re gonna go home.”
Virgil knelt, picking up Logan and balancing him on one hip, then picked up a long-suffering Thomas and draped the cat over his other shoulder. He was a bit encumbered by his first aid kit, but nothing could bother him now that his little boy was safely in his arms.
Searching for Logan had felt like an eternity, but had been less than 20 minutes. When father and son and cat entered the back door, the Disney movie (Sleeping Beauty, Remy’s choice) hadn’t yet finished. The door closing woke up Roman and Patton from where they had dozed off, and they were immediately up and hugging Virgil’s legs.
Their father ruffled their heads as he gently set Logan down to stand on his own, then pulled all three of his boys into a group hug.
“We’re gonna talk tomorrow, okay, kiddos? About Thomas safety and Lolo safety. But tonight we’ll just relax together, now that we’re all home. I love you all so much.”
“I love you, Dad!”
“Love you too!”
“Me too, Dada.”
By the end of the night and the second movie (Atlantis, Logan’s request, and Patton had conceded that he didn’t want any movies with woods), the Sanders house had quieted. Virgil could feel his heartbeat return to normal for the first time in hours as he gazed fondly at his sons. All three had fallen asleep, sprawled across the couch and Virgil’s lap. Remy had helped them change before heading home with a last firm hug and reassurance that, “You done good, bro.” Logan’s head rested on Virgil’s thigh, the horn of his unicorn onesie flopping over as he slept. Patton was snuggled up as close as Logan had allowed, cat ears from his onesie slightly crushed by the cushions he leaned into. And Roman had pulled a pillow on the ground so that he could be next to all of them, a tiny lion defending his pride in the onesie that he was “too old for,” but that he’d still wear when Pat asked him to. Thomas the tomcat, exhausted by his forest adventure, was curled into a ball in a laundry basket.
So how was Dad doing?
He’d never be completely at ease, not with so much depending on him, not with so many obstacles to overcome. But for tonight, Virgil was content.