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Healing Rules

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_x_ _x_ _x_ July 29 _x_ _x_ _x_

George left not long after Jack’s anxiety attack started. Eventually Jack stopped shaking, and let Bitty hold him. Suzanne handed the baby to Coach, who stretched out on the couch with the baby on his chest and promptly fell into a light doze, one hand protectively over the baby’s back.

She slipped into Theo’s bedroom, where Alicia sat, reading on her phone, while Theo lay, eyes closed, on the bed.

But not asleep, there was too much tension in his shoulders for that, his brow furrowed.

“Alicia?” Suzanne said quietly.

Alicia slipped her slim reading glasses off and put them in a case attached to her phone.

Suzanne said, “Jack… he… you should go. I’ll sit with Theo.”

Alicia’s eyes widened, and then she sighed. “I was wondering when that would happen.” She left quickly.

Theo opened his eyes, and asked, “What?”

Suzanne sat down in the chair that Alicia had vacated. “It’s not your problem, sweetheart. Everyone’s just tired.”

“I feel like I slept all day,” Theo said.

“That’s probably because you did, but you needed it,” Suzanne said.

“Is Jack okay?” Theo asked.

“He’s just worried about you, hon.”

“I’m fine,” Theo said automatically. “I survived.”

He sat up and then winced. “How long is my butt going to hurt?”

“Days, probably,” Suzanne said. “Not too long.”

“Am I a bad person for not wanting to see the baby?” Theo asked, his voice curiously flat.

“Oh, no, honey. I think everyone understands why that would be hard.”

“But it would be easier if I could,” Theo said.

“We’re looking for ways you won’t have to,” Suzanne said.

Theo rolled onto his back. “I feel like as long as he has a say in what happens with the child, it hasn’t stopped.”

“Now that the baby is here,” Suzanne said, “we can finally start the process to sever that man’s connection for good. It’s just going to take a little time.”

Theo closed his eyes. “I’m just so tired.”

“Sleep, sweetheart.”

“Will you stay?” Theo asked.

“Gladly,” Suzanne said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Once the rush of the massive physical shock that was the first part of his anxiety attack passed, Jack was left with a free-floating sense of unease, but he’d lived with that for long enough that it responded to his internal self-talk and he was able to shove it aside. It sat in the corner of his mind and body, a slight tension across his chest, an ache at the back of his throat, that had been gone for so long he thought he’d forgotten what it was like. But it sat there, familiar and annoying, and it took an act of will and his mother to finally break him loose.

“Have you slept?” Alicia asked him, when she came out of the bedroom.

He shook his head.

“You should sleep. I’ll keep the monitor,” Alicia said.

“You’re assuming that anyone’s going to put the baby down,” Jack said.

Alicia peered over the back of the couch, where the baby still slept on Coach’s chest. “Can’t leave them there, it’s not safe,” she said. “I’ll get him ready for bed and put him up in the nursery. You should get Eric to go to bed, too.”

Jack looked over at the kitchen, where Bitty sat, perched on the edge of a kitchen stool, staring into space. “He looks like he’s going to fall asleep sitting up,” Jack said, his voice coming out louder than he’d planned.

“I can hear you,” Bitty said.

Jack stood up. “C’mon. Maman has the baby. Time to sleep.”

Bitty stood up and walked over to Alicia, who was carefully taking the baby off of Coach’s chest. He held out his arms, and she hesitated, then handed the baby to him. “Just to say goodnight. You’ve been up for way too long.”

He snuggled the baby close, and dropped a kiss on the baby’s cheek. “G’nite, sugar.”

Jack reached out and stroked the baby’s head. “Merci, Maman.”

“Shoo,” Alicia said.

“I want to say goodnight to Theo,” Bitty said.

Jack nodded.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty texted his mother from outside Theo’s bedroom door, and a moment later, it opened.

Jack knelt by the head of the bed. Theo opened his eyes, and Jack gave him a small, sad smile, and held out a hand. Theo unfolded his hand from under his cheek, and took it.

“We haven’t forgotten about you, kiddo,” Jack said. “You were amazing this morning.”

“I couldn’t have done that without you guys,” Theo said. “I’m sorry I’m…”

Bitty sat down on the foot of the bed, and said, “Darling, you have absolutely nothing to apologize for.”

“No baby with you?” Theo asked, looking over.

“Maman is sending us to bed,” Jack said. “She’s got him.”

Theo closed his eyes. “You should go, then.”

Jack squeezed his hand. “We’re still here for you. Sleep well.”

Theo hesitated, and then squeezed back.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Jack fell asleep almost immediately. Bitty drifted, not quite asleep, not quite awake, for a while, and then his whole body gave an involuntary jerk and he sat up, abruptly alert. He slipped out of bed, put Jack’s bathrobe on, and a moment later was in the nursery next door. The baby was in the crib, eyes open, and he smiled down. “There you are, Baby Boo.”

He put a hand down. The baby was swaddled, but his cheeks were cool. “You need someone to warm you up,” he whispered. He picked the baby up, unwrapping him enough to get him skin to skin, then tied the bathrobe around the both of them. He sat down in the rocking glider and pulled the ottoman over. He leaned back, put his feet up, and rocked gently, humming “Summertime” under his breath.

A few minutes later, Alicia slipped into the room. “You should sleep,” she said.

“Apparently my body doesn’t think so,” Bitty said. “’Sides, he was cold. He’s supposed to get skin-to-skin time to keep his temperature up. He’s too small to put down.”

“I’m worried you’re going to fall asleep like that,” Alicia said. “He could slip down.”

“Alicia Zimmermann, bless your heart, I have never once dropped a baby.”

“I’m fairly certain that all your baby experience has involved sleeping occasionally,” she said. “You’re no good to anyone if you don’t.”

“I’ll take him back to bed with me,” Bitty said.

“Jack sleeps too soundly,” Alicia said.

“I think we’ll manage,” Bitty said. “I’m a light sleeper anyway.”

She started to open her mouth, and he raised his eyebrows, and she sighed. “Let me know if you need anything.”

“If you can bring a bottle up when he’s due for his next feeding?” he asked.

She nodded.

He carried the baby back to the bedroom, and turned on the little light on his side of the bed. He stared at the pile of pillows, then tossed all but one onto the window seat, one-handed, one at a time. He pushed the comforter over to Jack’s side and pulled a lighter cotton blanket over his side of the bed.

He sat carefully on the edge of the bed, holding the baby, and lay down, still in Jack’s bathrobe, pulling the blanket and sheet up to his hips, the baby tucked carefully against his upper chest, still skin to skin.

He woke up later to the sound of Alicia trying not to laugh and failing. A small head was bobbing wetly around his neck. The bedside lamp cast a soft pool of light, and the baby had scooted upwards, and appeared to be trying to latch onto his chin.

“I brought you a bottle,” Alicia said, giggling in spite of herself. “Looks like he needs it. I can give it to him, if you like?”

Bitty shifted the baby down a little, and then yelped and put a hand over his chest. Alicia snorted, and he said, “Um, yes, ma’am. But give him back when you’re done?”

There was an awkward shuffle as he worked the baby free of the bathrobe, then the small weight was gone, and he sat up blearily. “What time is it?”

“Midnight,” she said.

He closed his eyes, still sitting up.

“Really, Eric. Please, try to sleep. Every bit counts, even the ten-minute and twenty-minute stretches.”

“He’s just so small,” Bitty said, sleepily rearranging the bathrobe and curling up on his side. Forty minutes, six burps, and a diaper change later, Alicia put a hand on Bitty’s shoulder, and he roused just enough to tuck the baby in the crook of his arm.

She stood there for a few minutes, bemused, studying the layout of the room, then dimmed the light to almost off and left.

_x_ _x_ _x_

The rest of the night followed a similar pattern. The baby wasn’t particularly fussy, but he’d start bobbing his head and a few minutes later, Bob or Alicia would appear with a bottle.

It was Bob’s turn, at 4:30 in the morning, when Bitty said drowsily, as he handed the baby over, “You’re spoiling us. I’m going to have to figure this out sooner or later.”

“You can’t have slept much last night,” Bob said. “The next few days are going to be rough. Less rough if you let us help. Besides, this is the easy part, he hasn’t yet decided that life is misery.”

“Oh, I’ll let you. I’m happy to let you,” Bitty said. He lay back down, his eyes already closed. “Yessiree Bob, go right ahead.”

“We’re going to get you a—what did they call it? Side-car?—tomorrow,” Bob said. “You might not use it, but Alicia will fret less about the baby being in bed with you.”

“Mm,” Bitty said, helpfully.

“Also a bottle warmer,” Bob said.

“Bobble warmer,” Bitty echoed.

“And…” Bob stopped. Bitty was already out. “…and I’ll tell you in the morning.”

_x_ _x_ _x_ July 30 _x_ _x_ _x_

Saturday morning, Jack woke feeling more rested than he’d felt in months, but as soon as he was awake, the conundrums came crashing back down and it took an enormous act of will to keep breathing until it passed enough for him to actually find the oomph to open his eyes. He rolled onto his back and looked over to find Bitty curled up away from him. He blinked, and then realized he hadn’t heard the baby in the night. He sat up, put his feet on the ground, and looked back at Bitty. Now he could see where a tiny, fuzzy little blond head was tucked against Bitty’s shoulder. Bitty was sound asleep, his lips just brushing against the baby’s hair.

Jack reached for the camera on the nightstand, and started taking pictures, when the baby’s eyes opened and looked right at him. He got one more picture of the baby with his eyes open, and set the camera down.

“Alright, mon ’tit potimarron, let’s get you up,” Jack said, and walked around the bed to ease the baby out of Bitty’s arms.

“...time is it?” mumbled Bitty.

“Seven,” Jack said.

Bitty patted around his shoulder, and his eyes flew open. “Oh, you have him,” he said.

“Sleep, Bits,” Jack said. “I’ll go get him a bottle.”

“No, ’m up,” Bitty said, his eyes closing. “I can cook.”

There was a little knock on the door, which opened to reveal Suzanne, bearing a tray with two heaped plates, coffees, and a warm bottle. Jack took the bottle and said, “You’re a lifesaver.”

“Y’all were the ones with the infant all night,” Suzanne said.

“I didn’t wake up at all,” Jack said.

“Barely,” Bitty said, sitting up. “Alicia and Bob did most of the feeds.”

“Your daddy is heading back to Georgia tomorrow morning,” Suzanne said. “I’m going Tuesday.”

“Don’t you have prep Monday?” Bitty asked.

“I’ll get it done Wednesday,” Suzanne said. “Amy Lynn is going to set my room up for me, in exchange for a peek at the baby pictures. I have things I need to do here Monday.”

“August first,” Jack muttered absently, as he sat down to feed the baby.

Bitty’s eyes went wide. “I’m supposed to be at the rink all week for the intensive. I completely forgot. They practically arranged it for me.”

“Bits, we’ll manage,” Jack said. “Do the intensive. I’m sure between Maman and Papa and me we can handle this.”

Bitty pushed his hand roughly through his hair. “I don’t even think I’ve looked at my summer calendar in a week, everything’s been on the due date calendar.”

“Bitty, darling, eat something,” Suzanne said, offering him a plate.

He stared at the plate. “I was going to make breakfast.”

“Sweetheart, the only way this can possibly work is if you let us help you and let some things go. The baby—who you desperately need to name because I cannot just keep calling him ‘the baby’—is going to be fine. You can let us feed you and help with the baby while we’re here. I already ate—there’s no reason for you to be dropping hash on his head.”

Bitty broke the egg into the hash on his plate, and took a bite. “Oh god.”

“See?” she said. “Better already.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

It took them until nearly 8:30 in the morning to get out of the bedroom, simply because every time they started to think about going, they’d get distracted by the baby. A diaper, a change of clothes, a burp, another change of clothes.

Bitty fretted about Jack’s schedule being thrown off, Saturdays were workout days, but Jack laughed. “I can work out later.”

Bitty stared at him. “Who are you, and what have you done with my Jack?”

“It’s the off-season,” Jack said.

When they got downstairs, Bob was doing dishes with Coach, while Alicia and Suzanne were making a list of boutiques.

“Has anyone checked on Theo?” Jack asked.

“Mary is in there with him,” Suzanne said. “She called me this morning and I thought earlier was better, since he’s so down.”

Jack nodded, frowning. “Thank you.” He unlocked his phone, and pulled up a text message from George.

GM: Erin said yes.

His breath caught, and he closed his eyes. Bitty, who was wearing the baby on his chest, caught the sound and was at his side. Jack held out the phone.

“Yes? Oh…” Bitty sat down heavily on one of the dining room chairs.

Suzanne narrowed her eyes. “What?”

“George wants to have Theo come stay with her and her wife,” Jack said.

“It feels like giving up on him,” Bitty said. “It feels like failing.”

“Nonsense,” Alicia said. “This isn’t about you or your success. It’s not about what you need. It’s about what you can give and what Theo needs and what the baby needs. The only easy place for the baby to be right now that will not leave him vulnerable to Theo’s mother or rapist or their families interfering is with you, because of the guardianship. Any other option will involve DCYF and multiple state agencies. One of the things Theo wants is for the baby to be safe and cared for until he has the authority to make a decision about the baby’s final home. Leaving the baby with you, there’s some simple paperwork and no immediate judicial oversight. Any other choice is going to be hard on Theo, too. And it’s Theo’s choice. You’re not going to kick him out, you’re simply offering an option that might let him heal without having his wounds reopened continuously. Make it his choice. You can make it clear that the door here is open, and that you aren’t giving up.”

“I thought we would probably end up adopting Theo,” Jack said. “I… don’t know how to unfeel that.”

“You don’t know how things are going to be in a month, or a year,” Suzanne said. “And he’s going to go off to college in a couple years, anyway. This was never going to be forever.”

“You haven’t stopped caring or helping just because we’re adults,” Jack said. “I was—I am prepared to keep helping him for a long time.”

“Jack,” Alicia said, “this is about what Theo needs right now. And what he needs right now, to be honest, is a quiet place to heal, where he’s not being faced with what hurt him every moment. You can certainly help him with money. You can be a friend to him and an emotional support. But you probably can’t be his dad, because you can’t both meet his needs and provide him with a safe space. He needs you to take care of that child. Someday he’s going to look back on this and he’s going to know that he did his best by this little boy, and he’s going to have no regrets and no guilt about not being able to parent him himself. And that’s a gift that is well within your capacity to give. But you can’t do that and meet his very real need right now to not see the baby. If there was any justice in this, he could have given the baby away at birth and walked away. Or had an abortion months ago. But the timing of the situation is a perfect storm, and so we have to find the path that is least damaging. Maybe it won’t look like what you expected, but you know that George cares about him. Deeply, from what I saw last night.”

“They’ve been spending whole days together,” Jack said. “I don’t think I realized how close they’d gotten.”

“So let’s give Theo a choice,” Suzanne said. “And please make it clear to him that your only concern is that he be where he needs to be to heal, whether that’s here or there.”

Mary came out a few minutes later, and Jack asked, “Theoretically, if he were to want to stay somewhere else, how soon would it be safe for him to move?”

Mary looked sad, and said, “I’d rather it be after Monday, honestly, but women go home from the hospital hours after births sometimes. It’s really easy to overdo, though, and the longer you can wait, the less chance he’ll end up bleeding too much.”

“How is he doing, physically?” Suzanne asked.

“He’s healing well. The birth was uncomplicated, there wasn’t a lot of damage done. He can start getting up today for short periods.”

“Is he awake?” Jack asked.

“He is. He could probably do with more to drink, and a change of sheets.”

“The sweats?” Alicia asked.

“He’s dumping all the fluid from the end of pregnancy,” Mary said. “It gets messy.”

“I can take care of the sheets and a drink,” Bitty said. “Mama?”

She took the baby from him, and he shrugged his way out of the carrier.

“I’ll come with,” Jack said.

“I’m going to examine the baby, if you don’t mind,” Mary said. “I need to do a heel prick for the newborn screening.”

“Will it hurt him?” Bitty asked.

“I’ll heat up his heel, and he can suck on a finger while it happens,” Mary said. “Most babies aren’t bothered much if we’re careful about prep.”

Bitty looked worried.

“It’ll be fine,” Suzanne said. “You didn’t even cry for yours.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bitty knocked on the bedroom door a few minutes later, a tray balanced on one hand. Jack stood behind him with a stack of fresh linens.

“Come in,” they heard faintly, muffled by the door.

Bitty pushed the handle down and opened the door. “Iced peppermint tea with honey,” he said. “And clean sheets.”

Theo reached a hand out and made a grabby motion. Bitty handed the tea over and Jack stacked the bedding on one of the side tables, and then sat on the far side of the bed while Bitty took the chair.

“Uh oh,” Theo said.

“Not exactly,” Jack said. “I heard from George this morning.”

Theo frowned, “About?”

“She talked to her wife, and they are offering for you to come stay with them,” Jack said.

Bitty immediately jumped in. “We aren’t saying you have to go.”

Theo blinked.

“Honestly,” Jack said, “It would be completely up to you. I will support you regardless, no matter where you live.”

“We want you to be where you need to be,” Bitty said. “You know, to heal.”

“This is your home,” Jack said. “You could stay there for a few weeks or a few months, and still come back here if you feel ready.”

“She lives down the street from my new school,” Theo said.

“You could stay there during the week and be here weekends if you wanted,” Bitty said. “This is about what is best for you, not about us.”

“What do you want?” Theo asked.

Jack looked down. “I’ll miss you if you go,” he said. “But it’s clear that the current situation is hurting you, and it’s more important to me that you not be hurt more than it is for me to keep you here.”

“Bitty?” Theo asked.

“Darling boy, this cannot be about anything but what is best for you.”

“What would be best for me,” Theo said, “would be not having been raped, and not having a baby, and not having to share.”

“Would you rather let DCYF take him?” Jack asked.

Bitty turned away.

“I can’t ask that,” Theo said.

“You could,” Jack said.

“If I asked you to chose between me and that baby,” Theo asked, “do you really think Bitty could let him go?”

“Is that what you want?” Jack asked.

Theo sighed and looked down. “No. I… if he went into the system, the asshole’s family would be all over it. And they’re racists and they raised him to be a rapist and if all I can do for this baby is give him better than I had, maybe that’s enough. It would piss that man off so much to know his son was being raised by you guys.”

“You count, too,” Jack said.

“Yeah, but I think I’d like living with George. I mean, the food won’t be as good, and the bedroom…” Theo looked around. “God, I feel bad that Lardo put in so much work here.”

“It’s still your room,” Bitty said.

“I love it, actually,” Jack said. “I like to color sometimes, when I’m stressed.”

“Feel free,” Theo said. “George is cool, though. And Erin is super sweet. When would I go?”

“That’s up to you,” Bitty said. “The midwife said that waiting a few days would probably make it easier on your body, but I know you’ve been struggling…”

“I don’t… I still get dizzy when I stand up,” Theo said. “Your moms have been helping me to the bathroom. Suzanne is really strong.”

“She’s had to help me or my daddy often enough,” Bitty said.

“Maybe when I’m not dizzy anymore?” Theo said.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Bob and Alicia went out later that morning to shop, and returned with a van-load of stuff.

“You needed a second car seat,” Alicia said. “You have two cars.”

Jack and Bitty stood in the doorway, staring at the pile of boxes Bob was pulling out of the back of the van.

“You put down both rows of seats?” Bitty asked, glancing down at the baby tied to his chest.

“And you said the house was too big,” Jack muttered.

“One car seat does not involve that many boxes,” Bitty said.

“Oh, that one’s the stroller,” Alicia said. “I tried to talk him out of it, but…”

Bob grinned and pointed to the side of the box.

Jack covered his face with one hand and shook his head.

Bob Sport Utility Stroller was printed all over the box.

“It’s even in Falconer blue!” Bob said gleefully. “Sport Utility. How could I not?”

“We have a stroller,” Bitty said. “A Bugaboo. George brought it over.”

“This is a jogging stroller,” Bob said. “And it’s a Bob.”

“That’s two boxes, what’s the third?” Bitty asked.

Alicia smiled. “Co-sleeper, mounts next to your bed.”

“Useful,” Bitty said. “And the rest?”

“A couple more of those baby carriers you like,” Alicia said. “Plus a couple of others the saleslady recommended.”

Bitty looked at Jack. “There’s no point in arguing with them about this, is there?”

Jack snorted. “You can try. But make popcorn first. I want to watch.”

“And the bags?” Bitty asked, looking back at the piles continuing to accumulate.

“Stimulating mobiles,” Alicia said, pointing at one bag. “Clothes,” pointing at another. “Useful gadgets,” she said, pointing at a third.

“Seriously, I do think we have enough stuff,” Bitty said to Jack. “How much can one baby possibly need?”

Then Bob pulled a giant contraption out of the back of the van. It looked like a cross between a bouncy castle and a flying saucer, only baby-sized.

Then a stack of colorful plastic pieces. “That’s it,” Bob said.

“What is that one?” Jack asked.

“Play yard.”

“It’s going to be a while before this one is down on the ground that much,” Bitty said.

“Eh, it looked like a good idea,” Bob said with a shrug. Alicia wore a look of long-standing bemused tolerance.

_x_ _x_ _x_

The rest of the day was spent assembling baby things and taking turns with endless rounds of diaper changes and feeds. The baby seemed mostly interested in sleeping, barely interested in eating, and rather alarmed at what his body was doing in the middle.

“Do all babies need this much burping?” Jack asked, the third time the baby spilled curdled formula onto his shoulder.

“That’s why you use the cloth,” Bitty said, tossing what looked like a smooth hand towel in Jack’s direction. “Put it down first, save your clothes.”

Theo slept most of the day, too, but towards evening made his way out to the kitchen for a few minutes. Suzanne was there, working on dinner, and smiled to see him up.

“No baby?” Theo asked, looking around.

“They went for a walk,” Suzanne said. “How does it feel being out of your room?”

“I feel like I ran a marathon,” Theo said, sitting down at the island.

“Pregnancy is longer than any marathon,” Suzanne said. “You’re not just recovering from the birth. Hungry?”

“Ravenous,” Theo said.

“Lasagna?” Suzanne asked, opening the fridge.

“That would be great,” Theo said. “Do you think I should go to George’s?”

“What do you want to do?” Suzanne asked, making a plate.

“I want… I want to belong somewhere,” Theo said. “I don’t want to feel like a burden. Or an inconvenience. And I know they don’t think of me that way, but this whole thing…”

“It’s awkward,” Suzanne said.

“And even if they don’t think of me that way, I still feel that way,” Theo said. “I mean, god, they’re taking care of my kid when I can’t even look at him.”

“I don’t think they see that as a burden,” Suzanne said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen my son happier than when he’s holding that child.” She put the plate down in front of the hungry teenager.

“And how could I ask them to give that up?” Theo asked around a bite of noodles. He swallowed. “With as busy as they’re going to be, how can I ask them to keep him? To put up with me? I mean, even my own mom couldn’t be bothered to do that.”

“Oh, sweetie,” Suzanne said. “They’ll figure it out. And you’re not a burden, neither of you are. You’re complicated, you’re not easy, but I think anyone with eyes could see that you are worth everything we do and more. You deserve so much better than the hand you were given. Your mother was so wrong.”

“She blamed me for ruining her life,” Theo said. “I mean, I was the reason she didn’t talk to her own father for so long. I don’t blame her, though, he was an ass.”

“She said that she hid you from your own father because she was afraid her father would kill him.”

“She told me he left her,” Theo said, looking at Suzanne curiously and taking a bite.

“She told me your father never even knew she was pregnant,” Suzanne said.

Theo dropped his fork. “Wait, he never even knew about me? I thought he left because she was pregnant.”

“I think Jack has all the stuff she gave me,” Suzanne said. “I asked her to give me his name. When they get back, do you want to take a look?”

“Do you think…” Theo stopped.

“I have no idea,” Suzanne said. “No idea at all what he’ll think of all of this, or of you, but I do know that your mother cared enough about him to try to protect him from her racist family. But we know she doesn’t always make the best choices.”

“God, how would I even introduce myself to him?” Theo asked. “Hi, I know I have giant boobs, but I’m your son. Please ignore the wreck my life is.”

“You don’t have to be the one to make the introduction,” Suzanne said. “That even assumes we can find him, or that he’s still alive, or that he’s willing to see you. But we can talk to him first, explain who you are and what the situation is, and get a feel for whether he’d be a safe person for you to talk to. And the boobs will subside soon enough after your milk dries up.”

“I think—” Theo stopped for a moment. “I think that I would like to find him. I mean, he deserves to know I exist? And I guess Jack is willing to support me, so it’s not like I need money from him.”

“If he thought it was the best thing for you,” Suzanne said, “I think Jack would adopt you in a heartbeat. Both the boys adore you.”

“It would all be easier if they didn’t, wouldn’t it?” Theo said. “I mean, if I didn’t feel like this was supposed to be my home, too, it wouldn’t feel so weird to want so desperately to leave it.”

“That might change over time. Things are raw right now,” Suzanne said. “Literally, actually raw, and it’s going to take some time for you to process everything. There’s no harm in doing that somewhere else.”

“Have they named the baby yet?” Theo asked.

Suzanne laughed. “Not even close. Bob keeps making ridiculous suggestions, and Bitty keeps wrapping his arms around the baby and saying, ‘That’s a terrible thing to do to an innocent little child.’”

“He’s a lucky kid,” Theo said.

“They’ll come up with something,” Suzanne said.

“If they could take him, do you think they’d want to?” Theo asked.

“I think Bitty is trying very hard not to think about the fact that the plan was to have the baby be adopted somewhere else eventually,” Suzanne said. “Every time anyone brings up anything remotely close, he starts baking.”

“I think the baby would be very lucky to have them, if they wanted to adopt him,” Theo said.

“Would that make things harder for you?” Suzanne asked.

Theo stared at his plate for a minute, not eating. “I think it’s already been harder than that. I think it would be harder wondering if the kid’s adoptive parents would accept him for who he is. And I know that whoever that child turns out to be, if he’s with them, he’ll be loved and not…”

Suzanne wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “You are loved, child. You don’t know how close I am to asking my husband to find work up here so I can be closer.”

“You’d do that?” Theo asked around a bite of food.

“It would be an enormous shift for us,” Suzanne said. “We’re not like Jack, money-wise, and it would involve selling our house and getting teaching certificates for this state, and finding a coaching job for him… but it is getting harder every day to be in Georgia when so much of what matters to us is so far away. We’d planned on staying in Georgia another fourteen years, but I could see, if things were still up in the air at the end of the coming school year, us working at getting up to this part of the world for the next one.”

“Why fourteen?” Theo asked.

“That’s when both of us will have been in our current jobs twenty years,” Suzanne said. “It would be easier to quasi-retire at that point. But we’ve never let that stop us from moving if that was what was needed to take care of our family.”

“But I’m not…”

Suzanne just gave him a look, and then got up and continued with dinner prep, saying, “Don’t be ridiculous. However this pans out, you’re family, and that’s all there is to it.”

Theo fled back to his room a few minutes later when the front door opened.

_x_ _x_ _x_ July 31 _x_ _x_ _x_

Sunday morning, Coach reluctantly got on a plane back to Georgia. “You really should have me there when you talk to Jones,” he said to Suzanne, as she dropped him off at Logan.

“If all else fails, we’ll come back up for Labor Day weekend,” Suzanne said, waiting until he set his bag on the curb and then wrapping her arms around his middle.

“I could leave after the game on the second,” Coach agreed. “Take two personal days.”

“You can’t stay now, you have to be at practice tomorrow,” Suzanne said into his chest.

“You gonna be okay?” he asked, pulling his shoulders back a little to look down at her.

She dashed her hand across her cheek. “I will be absolutely fine. You best get going.”

“They’ll figure it out,” Coach said. “We did, and they certainly have more resources.”

“I just wish we could take Theo back with us,” Suzanne said.

“It wouldn’t be impossible,” Coach said. “I mean, Jody’s gone off to school, but we’ve actually had families moving into town because of the Safe Zone program. If he wanted to come, we surely have room.”

“Maybe George will work out okay for him,” Suzanne said. “I don’t know. We’re going to be looking into seeing if we can find his father. It just tears me up that he feels like there’s nowhere and no one that’s his.”

“You think the father will accept him?” Coach asked.

“It’s not fair to not even ask,” Suzanne said. “He’s never had a chance to fail.”

_x_ _x_ _x_

That evening, Alicia and Bob took the baby for a walk, or rather, Alicia put the baby in the baby carrier and Bob pushed the stroller named after him, because, “They might need it.”

While they were gone, Theo came out to sit with Jack and Bitty and Suzanne and a box of papers from Ashley Burton.

Ashley had scrawled Theo’s father’s name on a Post-it note which was stuck to a copy of Theo’s birth certificate. She was the only one listed on that document.

Other things in the box included a stack of report cards, Theo’s yearbooks, and an album of baby pictures that covered about two years.

“She got a digital camera as a gift when I was three,” Theo said, when Suzanne wondered where the childhood photos were. “They’re on her Facebook. If she still has me friended. I don’t use it.”

“I’d love to see those,” Suzanne said.

“They’re all fluffy pigtails and pink dresses,” Theo said, flipping to the back of the album and pointing at his two-year-old self, wispy hair in a halo around his head and two sad little puffs on top that were barely visible in the rest of the baby hairs.

Bitty took the album and started flipping through. In the middle of the album, a couple photos were out of place, and Bitty went to straighten them. “There’s something behind this,” he said, laying the album flat on the table and carefully working the photos out of their sleeves.

Behind one of the newborn photos was a Polaroid of a painfully young Ashley with a radiant smile, the arm of a grinning Black boy thrown over her shoulder. They were both wearing camp shirts with the word “Counselor” in block letters across the chest. Bitty stared at it for a moment, and handed it to Theo.

Theo put a hand over his mouth when he saw it. “I went to that camp until I was twelve,” he said. “I had a scholarship. I didn’t… I know him.”

“You’ve met him?” Jack asked.

“He was in charge of my group every year from the time I was six until I left,” Theo said. “He never said anything or treated me different from the other kids. He was like, lead counselor, I think. I talked to him a lot.”

“Was he nice?” Suzanne asked.

“He was so kind,” Theo said. “Mom was struggling and working hard. Pastor was always the one who dropped me off. They’re the ones we lived with when I was tiny. Mom always said she couldn’t get time off work to take me, so he would. But Simon was nice to everyone. He was easy to talk to. I told him I didn’t feel like I fit in, and he just said, ‘Be yourself, Ro. God made you just like you are. There’s no shame in that. If God wanted us all to be the same, we wouldn’t all look so different.’”

“Sounds like a good man,” Suzanne said. “Not the kind to abandon a child.”

“He probably didn’t know,” Bitty said. “If your mother never… maybe that’s why she didn’t take you.”

“I just… I wouldn’t begin to know how to find him from that,” Theo said. “I only knew him as Simon, all the other counselors had camp names, he just said that his worked so well for games that he was keeping it. So whenever he told us to do something, we wouldn’t do it unless he said ‘Simon says.’ You don’t forget a name like that.”

Jack snorted. “I like him already.”

“Simon Talfor,” Suzanne read off the Post-it.

“Let me see,” Bitty said, and typed the name into Jack’s laptop. He frowned. “Yeah, no, that’s not him.” He switched to image search. “This guy must be even more of a Luddite than Jack.”

“Hey,” Jack said. “Call the camp.”

“He won’t be there,” Theo said. “They’re all done at the end of July.”

“Summer camps always have some staff around in the off-season,” Suzanne said. “Maybe not this weekend, but I’ll take down the camp information and see what I can dig up back home through the church.”

Theo handed her the Polaroid, and she took a snapshot of it with her phone.

_x_ _x_ _x_

Alicia was making a bottle in the kitchen in when Theo walked out of his bedroom in the middle of the night.

“Couldn’t sleep?” she asked him.

“Boobs hurt,” he said, grimacing.

“What did the midwife say about that?” Alicia asked.

“Cabbage. And a bra.” Theo said. “I hate bras.”

“Necessary evil to hold the cabbage in place.” Alicia said.

“The one you picked up doesn’t fit me,” Theo said. “It did yesterday, but it doesn’t right now. Breasts are terrible.”

“They’ll go down pretty quickly,” Alicia said, setting the bottle on the counter and opening the fridge. She pulled out a cabbage, and pulled off two large, cupped leaves. “Here,” she offered. “These should feel pretty good.”

Theo tucked them inside his tank top and then sighed. Alicia opened the cupboard and pulled down a bottle of caplets. “Here. Aleve. It should help.”

“Everyone says it gets better,” Theo said.

“It does. This, right here, today, should be the hardest point, and it should get better from here,” Alicia said. “I was a mess when my milk came in. Oh, sleep on a towel. You’re going to leak.”

“Ugh,” Theo said. “Does this ever stop being gross?”

“You should stop leaking in a couple days,” Alicia said. “It would be longer if you nursed. The bleeding will be a couple weeks. Then no more, right?”

“Do you think they’ll let me go on hormones?” Theo asked.

“I think that as soon as Mary clears you, Jack’s planning on getting you in with the endocrinologist,” Alicia said.

“Would George?” Theo asked.

“George would be having Jack stay your permanent guardian, but would have a temporary custody arrangement, I think,” Alicia said.

They heard a distant wail, and Alicia said, “I’ve got to get this upstairs.”

Theo nodded. “I’m going back to bed.”