Gaunt might have been the best description for one Keith Kogane, Rosalina thought as she studied him from the doorway. He was sitting at Laura’s desk, a ratty black backpack clutched tight to his chest, face set in a natural scowl as dark hair, obviously greasy and unwashed, tumbled around his head, looking like he hadn’t brushed or cut it in years. Resting Bitch Face, Veronica had explained to her a few years ago.
... Could boys have Resting Bitch Face?
Skittish was another apt description. His eyes studied her as his shoulders curled, hugging the bag even closer.
“They found him in the desert,” Laura had explained yesterday. “Inspectors were looking at the property and called the police. His last fosters claimed he ran away, but...”
Rosalina hadn’t needed Laura to finish that sentence.
“He’s been out there at least a year, as far as we know.”
It was quite possible he hadn’t had a haircut or brushed his hair in a long time.
He nodded, not quite making eye contact with her, but at least looking in her direction.
His file claimed he was Korean-American, his mother had disappeared when he was young, and his dad had died on the job as a firefighter when he was seven. He had no relatives that they could find. He was bounced from home to home due to “anger management issues” that other foster parents hadn’t been willing to try to manage. He had a list of transgressions and altercations so long that she was a little worried, but—
She had become a foster parent because she loved children—loved to love, loved to spread love, or however her husband made fun of her for it. He had teased her about having Empty Nest Syndrome, even though Lance was still about a year and a half from graduating high school. The point was, she knew how many children needed homes, needed a bit of extra care and love, stability, something. She could help. She wanted to help. She hadn’t ever adopted any of them—most of the time she was just fostering until the state could find a child’s relatives or she was an emergency foster until they figured something out. Keith... It had to have been quite a situation if they were placing him with her.
Rosalina didn’t feel up to cooking dinner, so she stopped to grab some pizza on the way home.
“We do have one child still at home,” she rambled to him after placing the pizza in the back seat. Keith still had his backpack clutched to his chest. “His name is Lance—he’s a year younger than you. And then it’s just me and my husband. I work from home and he owns a mechanic shop. Lance is fairly high energy, just to warn you.”
She caught him looking at her from the corner of her eye.
“Okay.” It was the first thing he had said in her presence. His voice was low, gravely, dry from disuse. The poor dear...
But he was quiet, seemed fairly sweet. At least, in Rosalina’s opinion. Sure, his scowl looked pretty murderous, but—
Keith was just a boy. Seventeen, lost, hungry, tired. His posture was defensive, sure, but—
It had been a long time since he’d had a home, probably.
Marcus wasn’t home yet. He would be soon—it was nearing six-thirty. Lance was probably home. Or, at least, he was when she had left to go pick up Keith.
Rosalina pulled into the garage, then shut off the car and closed the garage door. It hummed and creaked as it slid back down. Her headlights stayed on for a few moments, then shut off when she took the key out of the ignition. The keys on the ring clanked and jingled together, tapping against the crown charm Lance had gotten for her as a joke gift for her birthday. Keith kept his gaze out the front windshield, arms wrapped protectively around the backpack.
“There’s no need to be nervous,” Rosalina started.
“I’m not nervous,” Keith grumbled.
“Lance is kind of like an overeager puppy whose limbs grew too quickly and the rest of him is waiting to grow into them.”
Keith’s eyebrows and lips twitched in amusement, but he didn’t comment otherwise.
“Let’s go eat and then see what we can do for that tangle you call hair.” Rosalina shoved open her door, waiting for Keith to get out the passenger side before she closed her door. The pizzas were still warm, the cardboard underneath almost burning her hand as she balanced them in her left to open the door to the house.
“Lance!” Rosalina called as they stepped through the door. “Come here, please!”
Keith stood next to her, hand clasped tight to the strap of his ratty backpack that hung over his shoulder. He shuffled behind her, letting the door swing shut with a soft sound. From somewhere deep in the house, Lance emerged with as much sound as he could, stomping and clamoring down the hallway. Maybe she should have described him as an overeager puppy in a giraffe body. Sweet Mother Mary, had he grown another inch just while she had been out?
“Oh, hi!” Lance grinned his brightest and most charming greeting. “You must be Keith!”
Keith stayed silent, eyes cutting to Rosalina to see how he should react. Rosalina kept silent as well—he needed to learn to stand up to Lance’s energy if he was going to stick around. “Uh. Yeah...” His voice still sounded rough, but Rosalina suspected there weren’t very many things or people to talk to in the middle of the desert.
“I’m Lance!” Lance thrusted his hand in Keith’s space.
“Careful, Lance,” Rosalina warned, brushing past to go set the pizza on the counter. “He bites.”
“Pfft. So did Leo.” A low sound came from behind her. “Did you just growl at me?”
Rosalina left them at it, pulling out plates and cups as Lance tried to goad Keith into speaking. He responded only in monosyllables, which was better than what Rosalina had been able to get, anyway. She interrupted them to lead Keith to his new room—Luis’ old room—right next to hers. He stood there, taking it in with a critical eye. The room wasn’t anything fancy—just neutral greys and blues and brown furniture. It was clean, at least, since the last kid to sleep there was a boy named Shep who had eventually gone to live with relatives two states over.
Keith’s backpack slid from his shoulder and landed with a soft thump next to the door. He looked... sad, almost, if Rosalina could read his expression correctly. Not quite as angry as he was before, anyway.
“Are you hungry, Keith?”
He took a moment to breathe, drawing in a deep breath and tilting his chin up. “Yeah, I guess,” he replied in his creaky voice.
They dug into the pizza. Marcus came in while she was on her second slice—Lance was already finishing his third, guzzling chocolate milk between slices, and Keith was just finishing his first, warily watching them as he sat hunched in his chair next to Lance. Rosalina lifted her head for a kiss, and Marcus playfully nipped her as he walked past to wash his hands.
“Keith, right?” Of course Marcus knew who the new kid was—he had had to listen to her rant about the poor boy all last night. He wiped his hands on the towel, sending her a playful smirk as he took extra care to drape it evenly over the oven handle. Rosalina rolled her eyes. “Nice to meet ya.”
“Likewise, Mr. McClain.”
“Nonsense.” Marcus kissed her again as he sat beside her and pulled some meatlovers onto his plate. He took a giant bite and gave Keith a cheeky grin. While chewing, he somehow managed to say, “Call me Marcus.”
“No wonder our children are animals,” she huffed, trying to hide a smile behind her pizza. She nodded pointedly at Lance.
He was trying to prove to Keith that he could stick an entire slice of pepperoni into his mouth, trying to goad a skeptical Keith into doing the same.
Rosalina wouldn’t have it any other way.
After she sent Lance to clean up (“I spent all afternoon slaving over this dinner, Lance! You can rinse the dishes and put them in the dishwasher.” “Uh huh, sure, mom. Not like it took you five minutes to order it or anything.” “Hush, you.” Cue laughter.) she sent Keith to take a shower. He’d feel better, more relaxed, surely.
“You don’t have to try to comb it, but do try to use conditioner.”
He scowled at that, but stalked off to his room to grab the bag. He brought the whole thing into the bathroom with him.
Rosalina frowned at that, but decided it wasn’t important at the moment as she brought a chair into her bathroom and got out her supplies. Having seven people in the family meant she got fairly good at cutting all sorts of hair. Forking out a few hundred dollars a month just to trim some hair didn’t appeal to her, so she had learned how to do it herself. It was a good way to bond with each child individually, anyway, without all the others trying to get in the way. She wasn’t quite sure what Keith would want for his haircut, but she was at least going to trim the ends and make it look a little healthier. While she set it all up, Marcus took a quick shower to wash off all the grime and grease from the shop, kissing her softly as she handed him his pajamas after he had dried off. Steam coated the mirrors, making the room feel thick and warm and cozy.
She ambushed Keith after he brought his bag back to his room. He sat in the chair without fuss, though looked bewildered at the setup. The steam had left by then, but it was still rather warm.
“I’m going to trim your hair,” she explained, picking up her scissors and snapping them twice in quick succession. “You can’t get out of that. I’m going to guess that you haven’t had a proper haircut in a very long time.” He shook his head. “Alright. So I’m going to help you brush it out and trim it, unless you want something different?”
Keith hesitated, catching her eyes in the mirror. He held her gaze, firm, frowning slightly. “I... like it long,” he admitted after nearly a minute of silence.
“I can do that.”
She started with brushing his hair. It was still mostly tangled, but at least felt clean as she held the strands firmly in hand to keep from tugging too much on his scalp. His eyebrow rose when she pulled the kid’s detangler closer and spritzed his hair liberally. Whatever. It had worked the best for her, so she only shrugged and continued with brushing his hair.
“We can talk about whatever,” she said as she worked the brush. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Just brushing out all the tangles was going to take a while. She’d take a smaller comb later to make sure it was smooth before she started cutting it. When he didn’t respond, she added slowly. “Or we can sit in silence.”
Silence it was, then.
She wasn’t even half-way done brushing Keith’s hair when she could hear Lance stomping towards her room well before he entered. She opened the door before he could startle them.
Rosalina rose an eyebrow at him, crossing her arms, unamused. “I’ll pay attention to you when I’m done cutting Keith’s hair.”
“Is it a life or death emergency?”
“You’ll survive. You know the rules. Go sit with your dad.”
Lance huffed, crossing his arms as well and looking away. He looked like he was right on the brink of a meltdown. At sixteen, he definitely should have been over that, but he had always been a theatrical child, demanding attention. It was as if he believed he would wither away into nothing if she didn’t pay constant attention to him.
“Go, hijo. You know the rules. Your father is out there.”
Lance stomped away, throwing her bedroom door closed with a slam. It did not escape her attention that Keith flinched.
“He’s not really mad,” she said, returning to him to brush his hair. “He believes I need to pay attention to him at all times. He’s the baby, you see. Quite the mama’s boy.”
Keith’s lips quirked up at the corners. “I can tell.”
“And don’t be afraid to be sassy,” Rosalina said offhandedly, eyeing him for his reaction. “We like to tease each other a lot. And if someone goes too far with it, let them know.”
He seemed to mull over her words, eyes lowered, fists clenched in his lap. Finally, he said, “Okay,” and left it at that.
When she was done, he quietly thanked her, pulled off the towel around his neck, and excused himself to bed. Rosalina wished him goodnight and cleaned up her bathroom, going ahead and putting on her pajamas and cleaning off her makeup before venturing out to the living room.
Her two remaining boys were watching reruns of America’s Next Top Model. They were making their own critiques as they shoved popcorn into their mouths.
Rosalina couldn’t help smiling. But then she entered the room, muscling her way in between the two. Marcus shifted so his arm was around her and moved the popcorn into her lap. Lance took his chance to cuddle up to her other side, shoving more popcorn into his face as if he hadn’t been interrupted at all.