No one has ever accused me of being the brightest bulb, but after acquiring a sore knee, an aching shoulder and another ache where I'd rather not mention, I came to the definite conclusion that my charge for the next few days hated my guts.
I honestly couldn't remember the last time I'd so badly misjudged anyone of any age.
I'd expected reluctance. I'd expected resistance. After all, he was probably crushed that his father had cancelled their holiday plans, which made sense. I could sympathize with that, but perhaps for different reasons. Yet who in their right mind would willingly choose to spend the holiday by himself? Thus my plan to take the decision out of his hands figuring that once he'd gotten over his snit, he'd be grateful he was home. It had made sense at the time.
When I'd woken up this morning, checked out of the motel and set forward on the last leg of my trip to retrieve Natalie, my girlfriend's oddly named kid from his school with the intention of bringing him home to spend Thanksgiving break with his mom, I'd been optimistic, my usual state of mind. Even tried to put myself in his place, even though I'd never experienced my parents divorcing or a privileged upbringing or boarding school, although a few minutes on arrival assured me the kid hadn't exactly been shipped to Siberia.
Her advice came back to me now as I shifted in the dark of our motel room and tried to find a comfortable position to fall asleep.
"Don't expect him to warm up to you right away. He hates surprises. And he was really counting on his father coming through this time."
Okay, I got that. Or thought I did. But whatever I had been expecting, it was not a cross between Damien and the Karate Kid.
Natalie had, however, been on the money when she'd told me that her son was precocious. True he was undoubtedly a smart kid, though so far, his primary talent appeared to be inflicting as much pain as possible when he didn't get his way.
Oh yes, and who could forget this gem?
"Underneath all that, he's really a sweet kid." Pregnant pause. "When he wants to be, I mean."
Apparently, that hadn't been one of those days. Though I have to admit it would be amusing if it were all happening to someone else. Well, maybe someday, I'd look back on this experience and be able to laugh.
I supposed there was always tomorrow. After all, we still had a few days to go.
Miracles could happen.
The first time I went over to Natalie's to pick her up for a date, I arrived early and wound up sitting in the living room while she primps upstairs. I examined the photos on the mantle, lingering on one of a boy standing on a bright green lawn staring off into the distance, clearly ignoring whoever was behind the camera.
Then she entered and walked over to the mantle where I was standing near the photo.
"That's my son, Doyle."
Doyle? What kind of name is that, I thought, as I nodded, intrigued by this news. She didn't look old enough to have a kid that old, but then I wasn't good with ages. Kids' ages, that is.
But she continued.
"He's twelve." A sigh. "Going on forty-five."
I did the math in my head, then try to look like I hadn't. This threw me, as I'd seen no signs - no bikes parked on the lawn, no sneakers or jackets draped over the couch, no sports or electronic gadgets in the living room - that would reveal the presence of a preteen boy.
"Does he live with his father then?" I ask, even though the thought of Natalie choosing not to fight for custody makes no sense either.
"No, he's at school. That's where the photo was taken."
It takes me a moment to realize she means boarding school. Another reminder of the distance between us. "Aren't there decent schools he could go to around here?" But I know there's more to it than that. Maybe it's a status thing.
"His father went around the same age. It's a tradition in Reed's family." I must have been looking mystified or maybe disapproving, for she adds, "It's not as heartless as it sounds. He chose to go. It was probably the best thing, for him to get away from our problems."
I didn't want to pry into that right now. "So how's he been doing."
But that was another blunder.
"No idea really. He doesn't write or call much, even though I told him he could collect anytime."
All I could say lamely was, "I'm sure he's just busy."
She looked away, then back at me. "Am I boring you with all this?"
"No, of course not." I looked directly at her. "I like kids. I'd like to have my own someday. And I hope that one day, if he's visiting, I'll have a chance to meet him."
And I meant it at the time. I hadn't said that, nor claimed to her later that I liked kids to score points with her. But now, in the span of less than a day, I was not only regretting it deeply, but I was beginning to question the wisdom of my decision to one day have children with the right woman, as well.
Maybe her kid was just the exception to the rule. Many of my friends, who did not have the obscene wealth of my girlfriend's ex, but who were certainly comfortable enough to give their families most advantages, did not have kids like this. I'd spent time with them, and none regarded me as if I were something they couldn't wait to scrape of the bottom of their shoes. The second-to-last time I'd seen that look, in fact, was on Reed Standish's face. What was that saying about the apple not falling far from the tree?
Still, any aches and pains I'd sustained were beginning to fade, along with my annoyance with my companion. I could lie here in the dark and blame him all I wanted, but the truth was that Natalie had warned me, and I hadn't listened even though I'd nodded along. Or rather I'd listened, but I hadn't actually heard. And as the kid himself had pointed out, I was supposed to be the adult in this relationship. I wasn't supposed to be his shrink or his real father, who he obviously had up on a pedestal. Maybe I never would find out what was bugging him (maybe he didn't know either), much less become his friend, but maybe if I stopped obsessing about it, it would happen naturally.
Maybe one day, we'd all look back at today and have a laugh, but that didn't matter right now. Right now, my job was to look out for him and get him home safely in one piece.
Not to mention myself.