Andrew walked right past the fresh homemade chocolate cookies, not even detouring into the kitchen to grab a handful. He dropped his backpack on the floor by the door and went straight up the stairs to his room. Bee popped her head out of the kitchen in time to see him disappearing into his bedroom.
She turned her head to look questioningly at her other two sons. Aaron looked absolutely disgusted and Nicky was all heart-eyes.
“Anything you boys want to tell me?” she asked mildly, walking back into the kitchen to pour a couple glasses of milk.
Aaron followed her in and sat at the table silently, waiting as she set down his glass of milk and two cookies on a plate in front of him.
Nicky was a few minutes later, putting his stuff away in his bedroom and changing into his comfy sweats before coming down for his after school snack.
“Andrew has a boyfriend,” Nicky announced once he had sat down, practically vibrating.
“He does not!” Aaron argued, not meeting their eyes as he picked all the chocolate chips out of the cookies and set them in a straight line at the edge of his plate. “He has a friend.”
“A friend who gave him his brownie at lunch and walked him to class after and is always looking at Andrew like he’s the best thing that ever happened to him,” Nicky sighed. “It’s so goddamn cute, Bee; you have no idea.”
Aaron finished with the chocolate chips and took small, careful bites from the remaining cookie. He shrugged. “I do stuff like that for Katelyn all the time and she’s not my girlfriend.”
“She’s not?” Nicky asked.
“No,” Aaron scowled. “She’s my friend and she’s a girl. But I don’t want to kiss her.”
Nicky rolled his eyes. “Sure, whatever.”
“Who is this boy? Have you talked to him?” Bee asked Nicky.
“No, not yet. He walked Andrew to the pickup area but disappeared before I could talk to him. He’s new though, just transferred here. I think he’s Wymack’s new foster kid,” Nicky said. “He’s a little cutie too. Red hair. Blue eyes. Andrew has taste!”
“Gross,” Aaron said, his mouth full of chocolate chips.
Bee looked at him, one eyebrow raised until he swallowed his mouthful and washed it down with some milk.
“Sorry,” Aaron muttered, shoving his plate into the middle of the table. “His name is Neil. He’s only thirteen but he’s a freshman anyway because he’s so good at math and stuff.”
Bee hummed in interest but didn’t ask any more questions since Andrew had yet to join them. “You two should get to your homework,” she reminded gently as she got up from the table.
Nicky complained, but Aaron put his plate in the dishwasher and disappeared up the stairs without a word.
Bee sighed and prepared another plate with cookies and a glass of milk for Andrew. She knocked gently on the door.
“Go away,” Andrew said.
“I have cookies,” Bee replied.
She heard the creaking of bed springs and slow, careful steps across the room before she heard the lock turn. She waited a few more moments for Andrew to open the door but he didn’t. She heard his footsteps crossing the room again.
She rolled her eyes while opening the door herself and walking into the room. Andrew was lying face down on the bed; he hadn’t even removed his boots. She crossed to his desk and sat down in his chair, putting the plate and glass on the very corner of the desk where Andrew could reach them.
“Something happen today that I should know about?” she asked calmly.
Andrew shrugged. Honestly, it felt like progress. If he really didn’t want to talk to her, he would have said so. She felt comfortable pushing a little more.
“I heard you made a friend,” Bee said.
Andrew groaned like his very soul was suffering. “What did Nicky tell you?”
“I’d rather hear it from your perspective,” Bee said. “I know Nicky sometimes jumps to conclusions.”
Andrew sighed heavily and pushed himself up. He glared at her, grabbed one of the cookies off the plate and shoved the whole thing into his mouth. “He’s just a friend,” he said, spraying crumbs all over his bedspread.
“Tell me about him,” she prodded gently.
Andrew shrugged. “His name is Neil. He doesn’t like brownies and he’s obsessed with math.” He was obviously trying to sound nonchalant, but Bee could see the tips of his ears turning red as he spoke.
Bee nodded, pulling a napkin out of her pocket. Andrew looked at it like it had personally offended him and shoved the second cookie in his mouth.
Bee set the napkin on the desk and nudged the milk glass toward Andrew. Andrew drained it and handed it back to her before flopping down face first again.
Bee sighed. Things with Andrew had always been two steps forward, one step back. Six months ago when she had first taken him in, this conversation would have been impossible. He had been so angry and closed off. Rescuing Aaron from his abusive mother and Nicky from his homophobic parents, four and two months ago respectively, had been a challenge but it had been a huge relief when Andrew had started to thaw. Until this point, he had kept himself isolated at school, unwilling or unable to reach out to his peers.
“Stop it,” Andrew said. “I can feel you trying to mother me.”
“Then I’m succeeding,” Bee teased him. “But I’ll go. Unless you have something else you want to tell me about Neil.”
Andrew propped himself up on his side and looked at her in consideration. He stared at her in silence for so long that Bee was about to get up and leave without an answer.
“He doesn’t mind that I have boundaries,” Andrew said.
Bee waited for him to elaborate but it soon became clear he was done talking. “Supper will be in an hour,” she said, picking up his dishes and taking them downstairs with her. She might need to meet this Neil.
The first step was simple. Nicky’s best friend and lab partner was Neil’s older adopted brother, Kevin. Bee knew for a fact they had a big biology project due next week and they usually hung out at Kevin’s to study.
Two evenings after learning about Neil, she knocked on Nicky’s door.
“Hey Bee.” Nicky looked up with a smile. He shoved his laptop away and stretched his arms out over his head.
Bee winced when she heard his spine pop. “Almost finished?”
Nicky yawned. “Conclusion and bibliography. I cannot believe the amount of history homework Rhemann assigns on a daily basis. I swear he’s forgotten we take other classes.”
Bee hummed sympathetically. “How’s your biology assignment coming?”
“Don’t even remind me,” Nicky groaned dramatically. “Kevin has been so busy with college applications that we’ve hardly gotten started. He’s been practicing Exy every spare moment too. There are probably gonna be scouts at his next game and he’s hoping for a full ride. I’m probably going to be at his place all day tomorrow at this rate.”
“Why don’t you invite him over here?” Bee asked casually.
“I don’t think he’d go for it. Neil doesn’t seem too keen on letting him out of his sight. I don’t really know the whole story but I think he had a pretty shitty home life. Kevin figured it out while he was working with that volunteer program for inner city kids and told Wymack. Neil’s stuck really close to Kevin since then,” Nicky said.
“Not a problem,” Bee grinned. “Neil is welcome too. They can stay for dinner.”
Nicky looked at her shrewdly and cocked one eyebrow.
“Are you playing matchmaker?” Nicky asked her.
Bee felt her cheeks burn. “No...but…”
“You are!” Nicky crowed. “Perfect! I’m in.”
Bee sighed. “Be careful. If Andrew figures it out—”
“What do you take me for?” Nicky scoffed. “An amateur?”
Bee rolled her eyes. “Don’t stay up too much longer,” she said.
“Yes, mom,” Nicky said, mostly joking but with a wistful sadness in his eyes.
Bee stepped into the room and ruffled Nicky’s hair, leaning down to plant a soft kiss on his forehead. Nicky sighed happily and leaned into her touch. He may have been the most recent one to enter her home but he was still the only one who felt comfortable receiving anything resembling physical affection from her.
“Twenty more minutes and I should be good,” Nicky promised.
Bee nodded and squeezed his shoulder lightly before going to say goodnight to her other two boys.
Andrew was vibrating as he speedwalked through the door. He didn’t look Bee in the eye or say anything to her, although this time he did detour into the kitchen to grab a plate of cookies.
Nicky and Kevin came in next, laughing about something and shoving each other as they raced to the kitchen for cookies. Aaron came in next, scowling about something and following him was another boy who must be Neil.
Neil looked around nervously and stopped short when he saw her. He was tiny, only a little taller than the twins and painfully skinny. His hair was a vibrant red and his eyes were ice blue. It was a striking combination, especially on someone who clearly looked like they were five seconds from running away to hide.
“You must be Neil,” Bee said warmly, doing her best to project calm and safety. “I’m Betsy Dobson but you can call me Bee.”
Neil nodded but he did not relax.
“Neil!” Andrew shouted from upstairs. “Come up.”
Neil hunched his shoulders and sprinted up the stairs, flinching as he passed Bee.
“Do you have enough cookies for Neil too?” Bee called up after them.
“Yes!” Andrew yelled back before slamming his door.
Bee shook her head fondly before joining the other boys in the kitchen.
Neil was quiet at supper too, resisting all Bee’s attempts to pull him into conversation. It didn’t help that Nicky basically never stopped talking. And when Nicky wasn’t talking, Kevin was lecturing all of them on something relating to either Exy or history. Aaron interjected occasionally if he thought the other two were saying something really dumb, but Andrew and Neil just sat silently, chairs about six inches closer together than Bee usually kept them, and ate.
Neil practically inhaled his dinner and, as opposed to Aaron who had clearly defined white spaces on his plate to keep his food from touching, he just kind of mixed it all together, spaghetti, garlic bread chunks, and caesar salad, and shoveled it into his mouth indiscriminate of competing textures or flavours.
By the time the meal was over, she had little more idea about who Neil was than when she started.
“Well, shall we have dessert now or do you want it as a homework break later?” Bee asked as all of them except Aaron had cleaned their plates.
“Now,” Andrew said, only a smidge away from interrupting her.
“What do you say?” Bee asked automatically.
Andrew glared at her, waiting for her to realize her mistake. Neil scooted his chair a little closer in solidarity.
“Complete sentences, Andrew,” Bee said softly. “You don’t have to use any word that bothers you but I prefer respectful requests to demands.”
Andrew sighed noisily. “May we have dessert now?” he mumbled.
“Of course, Andrew. Anyone else?” she asked.
Nicky looked regretfully over at the counter but got to his feet. “I think we’ll save it for later. We’re in it for the long haul tonight.”
“Thank you for the meal,” Kevin said before following Nicky out of the room.
Bee smiled and got up to serve dessert for everyone else. To her surprise, Andrew helped her.
She had made strawberry shortcake and she cut generous slices for all of them. She served Aaron’s first, putting his cake, strawberries, and cream in three separate bowls. Andrew took the knife from her when she was done and sliced a thin sliver of cake, nearly see-through, and piled it high with strawberries and cream.
“Turning over a new leaf?” she teased gently. “I think that’s about one tenth the normal size.”
Andrew looked at her as if she’d grown another head. “It’s not for me; it’s for Neil. He doesn’t like sweets.” He then took the largest slice of cake, picked out the smallest slice of strawberry to place on top, and covered it liberally in cream. “This one is mine.”
Bee rolled her eyes. “Of course it is.”
She didn’t try to push them into conversation while they ate and they were soon finished.
“Do you…” Aaron started hesitantly, looking at Neil. “Do you want to try my new videogame?”
Andrew scoffed. “Neil’s my friend.”
Bee was about to intervene but Neil beat her to it.
“I can have more than one friend, dumbass.”
It was the most words she’d heard from him all night.
Andrew looked as if he wanted to argue, but he didn’t.
When she looked in on them later, all three of them were completely engrossed in some sort of racing game, all shoved shoulder to shoulder on the couch.
The next day when the boys all came home from school, Andrew didn’t disappear. He walked into the kitchen, pulled out his favourite saucepot, milk, and the special occasion hot chocolate mix.
Bee did her part and sat down in her office with a book, waiting for him to come to her.
About fifteen minutes later, Andrew carefully navigated his way around the door, two brimming mugs of hot cocoa in his hands. He’d used the leftover cream from the previous night’s dessert and had added a liberal sprinkle of cinnamon and chocolate shavings on top.
“Thank you, Andrew,” Bee smiled warmly, relieving Andrew of one of the mugs. She kept her attention focussed on her book as Andrew set down his own mug, closed the door to the office, and made himself comfortable in his favourite armchair. She didn’t look up until Andrew cleared his throat, signalling he was ready to talk.
Bee marked her place in the book and picked up her mug instead, taking a sip of delicious chocolate and waiting for Andrew to make the first move.
“I think…” Andrew paused, taking a big gulp of his hot chocolate. “Would it really be okay if I liked boys?”
Bee smiled. She had been expecting this conversation for a while now. “Of course. Your cousin Nicky is gay and I love him exactly the same as you and Aaron. Do you just like boys or do you like girls too?”
“Just boys,” Andrew said, collapsing a little in relief. “Well, one boy.”
“Neil?” Bee guessed.
Andrew glared at her in surprise but his face softened and he nodded. “Is it really okay?”
“Andrew, I haven’t been your mother for very long, but you are my son and I love everything about you,” Bee said. She didn’t look away, hoping he could see the truth in her eyes.
Andrew sat back and took another gulp of his hot chocolate. He looked down at his mug, holding it so he had something to do with his hands. He took a deep breath. “I want to ask Neil on a date.”
“I think that sounds like a lovely idea,” Bee said.
Two nights later, Bee sat in the car as a nervous and jittery Andrew walked up to the Wymacks’ door. He had spent hours getting ready, picking out the perfect outfit and getting his hair to lay flat. He had asked Bee to stop by the florist on the way there and spent some of his allowance on a little bouquet of daisies.
Neil opened the door before Andrew could knock. Bee could see his besotted smile all the way from the car. Neil climbed into the back seat on the passenger side and Andrew slid into the middle to press their shoulders together. Bee waited until they put their seatbelts on before driving them the ten minutes to the movie theatre. They didn’t speak the entire trip.
“I’ll be back at ten,” Bee called as they climbed out of the car. “Have fun, you two!”
Andrew nodded, an almost smile on his face, and he carefully reached for Neil’s hand to lead him into the movie theatre.
Bee watched them go in before she pulled away from the curb. It had been a long and difficult six months, and she knew that raising three teenage boys who had experienced so much trauma was not about to get any easier, but she could see the healing process had started. She was so proud of her boy.