_x_ _x_ _x_ August 31 (still) _x_ _x_ _x_
Jack pulled away and turned Bitty so that they were face to face. “Are you saying you wish you had a concussion?”
Bitty frowned. “Of course not. I’m just saying that right now hockey feels like a chore, all of my classes are completely irrelevant to anything I’m likely to end up doing, and the team doesn’t even need me. But Felix does. I’m not like you, Jack. Hockey isn’t everything to me. It was a means to an end, and I don’t even know if I care about the end anymore. I can’t just quit the team and keep going to Samwell, it’s too expensive.”
“Bits, you’re tired. Let’s go home, you can get some sleep, and things will look more manageable when you get up. Lardo’s going to help…”
“I can’t believe you’d ask her without asking me first,” Bitty said, too fast, regretting the words as they came out of his mouth.
Jack’s voice was filled with disbelief as he started to say, “You need help, she volunteered, I was just…”
“Excuse me,” Lardo said behind them. “If you two are going to fight, could you hand me the baby and I’ll take him out front?”
Bitty handed Felix to her, his whole body feeling vaguely numb, and walked down the steps into the backyard. Jack followed, a few steps back, as Bitty folded his arms and looked up at the clear blue sky.
“I don’t want to fight with you,” Bitty whispered as tears started to slip down his cheeks.
Jack enfolded him in a hug. “We’re not fighting,” he said. “We’re figuring it out.”
Bitty sobbed on his shoulder, arms sliding around Jack’s middle. “I didn’t think it was all going to be this hard.”
“Are you regretting…” Jack started, hesitantly.
“Felix is the last thing I regret right now,” Bitty said. “It just feels like something is going to have to give, and I don’t want it to be him.”
“Whatever you want, Bits. Just tell me what you need.”
Bitty pulled out of Jack’s arms, and said, “I don’t know what I need. Maybe you’re right. Lord knows I’d love to spend some more time with Lardo.”
“We don’t have to decide now. I’ll drive you home. Lardo will bring your car home. You and Ellie can catch up on your sleep and we’ll do strategy over dinner,” Jack said. “And I’m cooking.”
“Let me guess,” Bitty said, dryly. “Chicken breast.”
Jack laughed and elbowed him as they went back inside.
The afternoon was lazy and drowsy and Bitty was still exhausted when Jack handed him a plate on the couch and took the baby.
A few minutes later, Jack sat down and said, “Look, I think you just need some sleep. Making huge decisions when you’re tired is almost always a mistake, and I’ve never seen you this tired before.”
“I’ll try,” Bitty said. “We’ll see how tomorrow goes. If I sleep well tonight.”
Lardo sat down on the other side of Bitty with her own plate and said, “I’ll take him. You’ll sleep okay if you know someone’s holding him.”
Bitty nodded halfheartedly. “It’s a lot, I mean, how late are you thinking?”
“If I need to go to sleep, I’ll bring him back. Otherwise I’ll just wear him for a while while I work,” Lardo answered.
_x_ _x_ _x_September 1 _x_ _x_ _x_
Bitty slept uninterrupted from 9 pm until 6 the next morning, and woke up a new man to find Jack puttering around the room with a baby on one arm.
“Tell me Lardo didn’t stay up all night,” Bitty said.
“She came in around 4 and gave him to me,” Jack said.
“Gimme,” Bitty said. “I missed him. I mean, I slept incredibly well, but I want him back now.”
“You’re a really good parent, Bits,” Jack said, handing over the cloth first, and then the baby.
“Hush, you,” Bitty said. “When was he last…”
“Fed, four thirty. Changed fifteen minutes ago when we got back from our run. Which he slept through.”
“Thank god he can sleep through almost anything,” Bitty said.
“Maman said the worst mistake she ever made with me was shutting herself in for every nap, but I think she did it mostly because I woke up really easily and wouldn’t go back to sleep.”
“Well, he’s been everywhere since he was days old, I think he sleeps in self-defense,” Bitty said. “But I’ll take it.”
“We had a good little chat at the 4:30 feed,” Jack said. “He kept cooing at me, so I cooed back. It was like a regular conversation. Only with fewer words and lower social expectations.”
“You’re a good dad, too, you know,” Bitty said.
“I feel so guilty about how you’ve just let me go on with my life. I maybe lose half an hour of sleep per night.”
“Your job…” Bitty started.
“Hasn’t even begun yet,” Jack said.
“You’re leaving for most of the month of September,” Bitty said. “I saw the schedule. I have to be able to do this without you.”
“I could bow out of the World Cup,” Jack said. “Your health, your school—it’s important.”
“Jack, do not be ridiculous. You are at the most critical point of your career. You’re building a reputation that is going to last you a decade or longer, and that reputation needs to be that you’re there for the game. We took this on in part because I adore babies and because I wanted to help. I’m utterly over the moon for this child, and I’m genuinely okay with you focusing on your extremely lucrative job that you love like breathing.”
“You missed a day of school and practice because I didn’t help you enough,” Jack said.
“I missed a day of school and practice because I was tired because somehow my life is being engaged to an incredibly hot, rich, kindhearted man who made it possible for me to help two kids out of a rough situation. Because somehow I’m in this amazing relationship and we have this amazing baby and the house of my dreams and I love it so much here with you and with him that I’m seriously considering walking away from both school and practice.”
“Bitty, I don’t know if I can forgive myself if you sacrifice your schooling for this.”
“What sacrifice, Jack? I’ve sat in on what, five classes? And not one of them is where my heart is. I want to learn more about cooking, and baking, and nutrition, and especially sports nutrition. I want to be an expert on those things and teach people how to make better food. I don’t regret a single moment of the last three years, but I don’t know what the heck I’m even doing at Samwell right now. I learned more that was interesting to me in ten hours during the intensive than I did in most of the previous three years of classes. If you’d been drafted when Kent was drafted, you wouldn’t even have a college degree, and I don’t think you’d miss it.”
The look on Jack’s face sent Bitty scrambling. “You know what I mean. I know you value your degree, and Lord knows the chances of us being together without it would be slim to none. But it’s not the only option. Maybe I’ll get my degree in a year or two. Maybe I’ll go to Brown or Providence, or even a state school. Maybe I’ll wait until Felix is in school and do a culinary arts program. I don’t know!”
“Giving up Samwell means giving up hockey, most likely,” Jack said.
“I’m not sure that’s a bad thing,” Bitty said. “I could coach, and still be involved. You know I’d be good at it. But you know and I know that it’s dangerous, and honestly I’m not sure both of us should be in hockey anyway, not when this little guy is so young. They pay you well enough to be worth the risk. But I’m never getting paid to play, and I don’t want to be. The frogs are amazing and the team will be fine without me. If I get hurt making stupid mistakes, Felix won’t be fine without me.”
“Do you have to decide now?” Jack asked. “Can we at least see if having Lardo here is enough?”
“How did that even happen?” Bitty asked. “I mean, I can’t picture you calling her up and asking her to come.”
“I didn’t. I was talking to Shitty on Skype and she was there and next thing I knew she was offering.”
Felix shoved a fist in his mouth and started sucking on it, and Jack handed Bitty a bottle. “There you go,” Bitty said as he replaced the fist with a nipple. He looked up at Jack. “I can try. I feel so much more awake today.”
“So it should be easier to do class,” Jack said.
“Maybe,” Bitty said. “We’ll see.”
_x_ _x_ _x_
Physically, the day was easier. “I don’t think I realized how much being tired could hurt,” Bitty said to Ellie at lunch. They sat at a picnic table near the Pond, which she’d staked out mid-morning during classes.
“Did you like your classes this morning?” she asked, handing him a sandwich from the small cooler they’d brought.
“The problem is that now that I’m not exhausted, I’m having a hard time sitting still for them,” Bitty said. “It’s not what I want to be doing right now. And I don’t think it’s going to help me later. Even bone-tired exhausted, I was fascinated with the nutritionists this summer.”
“Having a degree is useful,” she said around a potato chip. “I don’t need it to take care of babies, but it sure does get me a better-paying set of employers.” She grinned at him.
“You earn every penny,” Bitty said. “And there are few things I could possibly do in this world—and none of them involve a college degree—that would land me in a better financial spot than marrying an NHL player, not that that’s why I’m doing it.”
“You two are so ridiculously in love that it actually hurts to look at you when you’re together,” Ellie said. “I’d say you’re the Platonic Ideal of a romantic relationship, except there’s no way with that ass that there’s anything platonic about it.”
“Lesbian, hm?” Bitty asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m gay, not dead,” she quipped back. “Your man has a VERY NICE rear that I have no interest in for anything more than occasionally being impressed by it from a distance. But true love aside, some of the relationships I thought were the strongest I’d ever seen ended up failing down the road. You really should get a degree.”
“Do I have to do it this year?” Bitty asked. “I mean the baby’s going to be sleeping through the night someday. He’s going to school someday. He’s five weeks old tomorrow. How long is it this exhausting? Months? If I went someplace else, took classes I liked better… didn’t play hockey…”
“You’ve made up your mind,” she said.
Before he could answer, his phone buzzed and Jack’s face appeared on the screen. He propped the bottle with his chin and thumbed to the message, and nearly dropped the phone on Felix.
“What?” Ellie said, alert.
“Peter Jones just signed the termination of parental rights,” Bitty said. “I’ve got to call Jack.”
But the phone was already ringing. “Does George know yet?” Bitty asked without even greeting Jack.
“She was the one who told me,” Jack said.
“Does Theo know?” Bitty asked.
“Not yet. George wanted to give me the option…”
“We should go together. I’m free,” Bitty said.
“Don’t you have class this afternoon?” Jack asked.
“No, I don’t. We’ll talk about it later. I can meet you in about an hour, I need to talk to the coaches,” Bitty gave Ellie a pointed look, and she nodded and started packing.
“Bits…” Jack said.
“Not now, sweetheart. I know you have opinions, and trust me, I understand. But we’ve got more important things to deal with, and I want to be there with you when you tell Theo that he’s free.”
_x_ _x_ _x_
Ending his time at Samwell took far less time than seemed possible. They swung by the business office and picked up some paperwork, which he filled out while waiting for Coach Murray to meet him at Faber.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Murray said. “We’ll miss you, and the team will be less without you on it, but you’ve helped bring in such strong recruits that I think we’ll be okay. Any chance you’d be willing to help us with incoming high school students in the future?”
“I don’t plan on being a stranger,” Bitty said. “I love this team, and I love this school, I just…”
“It’s a lot on your plate right now,” Murray said. “Take care of the important things. Take care of them.”
“I plan on it,” Bitty said.
_x_ _x_ _x_
Ellie was waiting in the van outside Faber, Felix already strapped snugly in his carseat. “Ready?” she asked.
Bitty took a last look at the building, and the campus, and nodded. “I’ll need to come back and get a few things,” he said, loading the contents of his locker into the back of the van. He smiled at the baby and his voice shifted up an octave. “Yes, I will!”
He climbed into the passenger seat a moment later, and said, “Thank god you’re driving, I’m going to be on the phone forever.”
She pulled out carefully, and worked her way through campus to the main street out of town as he sent a half dozen text messages to the the team. As they got on the highway, he checked the time, and then called his mother and put her on speaker phone because of the road noise.
“Mama? Did I get the time right, are you on prep?” Bitty asked.
Suzanne said, “What’s wrong, baby?”
“It’s not an emergency, but I thought I ought to let you know that I decided to take a leave of absence from school.”
Ellie shot him a look and he waved her off.
There was a long silence from the other end of the call. Finally, Suzanne said, “Has it been that hard?”
“I have so much help, Mama, but everyone is bending over backwards to help me do things that my heart just isn’t in anymore. I’m making dangerous mistakes on the ice. I’m not getting anything out of my classes when I’m tired. And when I stopped being tired, it became absolutely obvious that nothing I was studying was anything I needed for the things that I really want to do.”
“So when you say, ‘leave of absence,’” Suzanne said, “You mean, ‘dropping out.’”
“Taking a semester off while I apply to other schools with more relevant programs,” Bitty said. “Focusing on my family while they need me the most. Not derailing my friend’s art career to come let me sleep. Making sure we nail the home study. Getting married, maybe. Adopting a little boy who is now available for adoption because that… person finally signed the paper he should have signed a month ago.”
There was a squeal on the other end of the line. “He signed? You can adopt?”
“We’re going to talk to Theo now,” Bitty said.
“I wish I could be there. You know, we have tickets for Saturday to come up there. We thought we might need to go pay Jones a visit. But I’d much rather spend that time with you, with Theo, and with that darling grandbaby.”
“I’d be thrilled to have you. Jack is leaving Sunday for the World Cup.” He hesitated, and then his next words came out in a rush. “I know you’re disappointed in me.”
His mother’s laugh rang in a tinny bark through the phone speaker. “Of all the nonsense that has ever come from those lips of yours, Dicky, that is the silliest. You love Samwell. You love hockey. But you love that baby and Jack more, and Samwell was never the best academic fit for you, it was just where you needed to be at the time. Half of everyone switches schools at one point or another. I know you’ll get your degree when you find the right program, and even if you don’t, I don’t worry for a moment that you won’t find something useful to do with yourself. Clearly, you already have, or you wouldn’t be making the choices you’re making. But talk to George. I’m pretty sure she has plans for you, and if you’re not worried about NCAA eligibility…”
“Any more word on Simon Talfor?” Bitty asked.
“The camp went out of business,” Suzanne said. “The private investigator is trying to track someone down from it. There are no Simon Talfors anywhere near there, so he might have moved, or she might have spelled it wrong.”
“Talfor?” Ellie said. “Are you sure it isn’t Toliver?”
“It could be,” Suzanne said.
“Look for T-a-g-l-i-a-f-e-r-r-o and T-a-l-i-a-f-e-r-r-o,” Ellie said.
“Isn’t Taliaferro your last name?” Bitty asked, pronouncing it “Toliver.”
“Half the family pronounces it that way,” Ellie says. “The other half have their heads up their asses and pronounce it phonetically.”
“I’m sure there are plenty of good people who use the phonetic pronunciation,” Suzanne said. “None of them live in Georgia, though.”
“My cousins are not among them. The good people, that is,” Ellie said. “Several of them disowned me when I came out. I disowned them right back. But if you’re looking for a guy named ‘Talfor’ I’d be looking for a Toliver for sure.”
When they hung up a few minutes later, Ellie asked, “So if you’re going to be at home, does that mean I should be looking for other work?”
“Lord, no,” Bitty said. “I’ll have other irons in the fire soon enough, this just means that we might only actually need 40 hours of your time in a week, instead of 168. I’ve been assured by the wives that having a nanny is essential to sanity during the season. We can either stay home during the Cup and see him twice in September, or we can fly with him. There is literally no way we can keep Felix a secret if we don’t have someone to help keep him away from the press. I need you, it’s just going to be a different kind of busy. Tell me you have a passport.”
“I have a passport,” Ellie said.
“Good, because you’ll need it.”
_x_ _x_ _x_
Jack was waiting at the front door of the rink, bouncing on the balls of his feet when they pulled up. When he saw the van, he froze, waiting for them to stop, and then jogged to Bitty’s side of the car. Bitty was already putting the window down.
“I can ride with you,” Jack said. “George left half an hour ago, and is going to meet us there. Media left a couple hours ago. They wanted a pre-Cup interview.”
“Of course they did, darling. You want the front seat?”
“Nope, I want to see Felix.”
“I think he’s asleep,” Bitty said. “He conked out when he heard Mama’s voice.”
Bitty reached up and touched the side door control, and it slid open. Jack bounced into the car, hitting the button to close the door and reaching back for the seat belt.
“Yeah, he’s out cold,” Jack said, glancing into the carseat. “Now, talk to me about school.”
“The more awake I am, the less it makes sense. I’m going to take a term off and apply as a transfer to another program part-time. I think we can afford for me to take a couple years to finish my degree if it actually puts me in classes that are relevant to what I want to do. That way, I can come to some of your September games, get enough sleep, and start working with George. The only reason she hasn’t already hired me was NCAA eligibility, and if I’m not playing hockey, that’s moot.”
“Promise me you’ll get your bachelor’s,” Jack said.
“I promise that I will keep taking classes until I know what I need to know to do the things that are important to me. If that gets me a degree, I’ll get a degree. You, of all people, should know these things aren’t always linear. Stop kicking yourself. My college education isn’t actually about you, Mister Graduated-at-24.”
Bitty entered the address into the onboard GPS, and Ellie followed the directions to George’s house.
“I assume you want me to hang out with Felix down here?” Ellie said as she let the car parallel park itself in front of George’s building.
“Please,” Jack said.
_x_ _x_ _x_
Bitty’s first thought when Theo opened the door was that he looked different. It wasn’t the binder, or the lack of pregnant belly, or even a new close-cropped fade with a short, natural flat top instead of the twists he’d had most of the summer. He carried himself differently. There was a confidence that had been missing. Bitty smiled and said, “Sweetie, you look fantastic,” as he gave Theo a hug.
“I feel so much better,” Theo said. “Mary says I’m cleared for normal activity. I’m thinking about learning to skate. And I’m starting hormone blockers next week.”
Jack gave him a sturdy one-armed hug as they came in.
“Are you ready for school?” Jack asked as they sat down in the little sitting area by the bay window.
“Totally set,” Theo said. “All registered, clothes bought, new shoes, school supplies, the works.”
“So we got some news today,” Bitty said.
Theo’s face shifted, and he looked warily expectant.
“Jones signed the TPR,” Jack said. “He now has no say, no rights, nothing, when it comes to Felix.”
Theo’s eyes widened and he sucked in a breath, then let it out in a long sigh.
“It’s over? He’s out of my life?”
Bitty nodded. “You don’t have to worry about him ever again.”
Theo blinked and looked away, a hand coming up to his mouth. Tears sprang to his eyes, and he let out a funny half-laugh. “Holy fuck, it’s over?”
“I mean, when we finalize the adoption it will be over for real, but yeah,” Jack said.
“And the adoption has nothing to do with that man, now,” Bitty said. “Ashley doesn’t get a say, either. You’re the one in control.”
Theo blinked, dazed, and looked over at George. “Did you know?”
“I found out this morning. Jack and Bitty wanted to be here to tell you themselves.”
“Mama’s coming up on Saturday,” Bitty said. “Want to come over and celebrate with us? Lardo might be there, too.”
“If you’re okay being around Felix,” Jack added. “We can have his nanny keep him upstairs if you’re not, though.”
“Actually,” Theo said, with a small, bemused frown. “Could I… I think I want to see him.” He looked at Bitty and said, “He’s yours and I love it here, but… now that he’s not tied to that man, I think I’d like to look at him, if you don’t mind? Sometimes it seems so unreal.”
“He’s actually down with Ellie in the car,” Bitty said. “We could have her bring him up?”
Theo hesitated, then nodded. “I’d like that.”
Bitty sent a quick text to Ellie, and George buzzed her up a minute later.
Bitty took Felix from Ellie at the door, and carried him back over to the sitting area. At almost five weeks, his newborn squint had worn off completely, and his hair stood out from his head in a fluffy blond halo of curls. His skin was light, but time in the sun was already starting to darken it a little.
“Hey, Felix, this is Theo,” Bitty said.
Felix bobbled a little and stared at Theo, who stared back for a long moment and then held out his hands. “Can I?”
Bitty handed Felix over, and Theo took him, a little awkwardly, and sat the baby on his lap, resting against one arm. “Hi, little dude,” Theo said, studying him. “Mom said I had dark blue eyes like that until I was three. The hair is wild, though.”
“Your mom is blonde?” Jack asked.
“I mean, she bleaches it now, but her hair was completely white when she was a toddler, Pastor said. But she had very straight hair. So does— The curl is all me. He kind of looks like my baby pictures, only washed out.”
“How is it, holding him?” Jack asked.
“Kind of like holding any other kid?” Theo said. “He doesn’t feel like mine, but I think that’s a good thing. Like if I babysat him, I’d definitely be babysitting, you know? I know he’s safe with you guys, and loved, and that he’s not really my problem anymore? So it’s okay.”
“I’m glad,” Bitty said softly.
“How’s your school going?” Theo asked.
“Um, I decided to take a break this semester,” Bitty said. “It is amazing how clear one’s priorities get with a baby in the house.”
“Wait… But hockey…” Theo said, frowning.
“It’s okay,” Jack said. “Bits just decided to take some time to reassess. Hockey was more a means to an end for him, it’s not his career.”
“After this summer, it became really clear to me where my interests lie,” Bitty said. “And it’s not in trying to twist an American Studies major into a sports nutrition program. I’ll go back to school, and probably soon, but this frees me up for some other options, not just Felix.”
“You’re not worrying about NCAA eligibility anymore?” George asked, only her long experience with the media keeping her tone merely politely curious. Her expression, on the other hand, belied a certain eagerness.
Bitty grinned. “Got anything for me?”
George folded her arms across her chest. “You’ll finish your degree somewhere else?”
“Tell me what you want me to learn and I’ll learn it,” Bitty said.
“Yeah, I might have something. Gotta talk to the GM, but they’ve been whining about Jack’s rabbit’s foot all summer anyway. I don’t think it will be a hard sell.”
Bitty’s eyes sparkled. “So we can do some of those video spots?”
“As soon as you want to,” George said.
“See?” Bitty said to Theo. “This could be better, right?”
After they were done at George’s, Jack insisted on stopping at the Attleboro post office, where they went through a lengthy process of applying for a passport for the baby. Bitty stared as Jack produced document after required document, including a copy of the court order terminating Jones’ parental rights that had to have come from George, and a notarized permission from Theo, plus the temporary custody agreement and Jack’s own proof of US citizenship.
“How long have you been getting ready for this? And when do you think we’re taking him out of the country?” Bitty asked. It occurred to him only then that he had no legal bond to Felix, yet, and he fought down the twinge that accompanied that thought.
“I have no idea, but I’m going to be country hopping for most of the month, and it would be awfully nice if you had the option of coming. You know, if things get tight.”
“Oh man,” Bitty laughed. “You think I can be a rabbit’s foot for you even this tired?”
“I’d like the option,” Jack said, and paid an exorbitant fee to get the passport turned around quickly.
_x_ _x_ _x_ September 2 _x_ _x_ _x_
Lardo decided to stay through the weekend to work on a project in Providence anyway, but Bitty shook his head when she offered to take the baby Thursday night. “I like having him with me at night, and I don’t mind waking up with him if I can get a few extra hours in the morning and don’t have to spend nine hours thinking afterward.”
Without the relentless drumbeat of practice and school, and a baby who that very night decided that it was okay to sleep from 11 pm to 4 am (at which point Jack took him,) Friday felt positively lazy.
“I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have to be somewhere or mind anything but myself and my kitchen,” Bitty said.
“You are literally carrying that baby around with you while you cook enough food to feed an army,” Ellie said from the long counter. She had on a pair of slim, oval, wire-framed glasses while she sketched in a ring-bound notebook. “Let me know if you need anything, by the way.”
“Yes, but I’m carrying him because I want to and because I enjoy it, not because I have to. I’ll totally let you deal with the diaper he’s going to have soon.”
The kitchen was filling with pies, bread, cookies. Lardo came down just after noon, lured by the smells. “Stress baking, Bits?” she asked, taking a slice of warm bread from him and smearing it with butter.
“More like relief baking. Do you know how many things I didn’t cook this summer?”
“Oh my god, you kept track every time anyone ordered food, didn’t you?” Ellie said, laughing.
“He does,” Lardo said. “It’s like a personal affront.”
“I like pizza,” Bitty said.
“You like making pizza from scratch. And the tomato sauce. And the fucking mozzarella. I think the only thing keeping you from making your own damn pepperoni is that you don’t have the right kind of storage to make dry sausage,” Lardo said. “You see delivery pizza as some sort of failure, as much as you try to hide it.”
“My pizza is better,” Bitty said. Then he looked thoughtful. “Hey, there’s space in the second garage for a smoker…”
“Which Jack will buy if anyone so much as whispers to him that you want it,” Lardo said.
“I can buy it,” Bitty said. “I don’t have to ask.”
Lardo raised an eyebrow. “You have a credit card?”
“I have a credit card,” Ellie said. “If you stayed long, you’d have one, too. I use mine for gas and snacks when we’re out. I’ll use it for diapers and such on the road.”
“Is he always this much of an idiot about money?” Lardo asked Bitty.
“He doesn’t hand them out to anyone he doesn’t trust completely,” Bitty said. “My parents have one for plane tickets. They argued about it until they saw the news about the size of his contract and haven’t said a word since. And they only use it when they come up here. It’s pretty obvious when someone uses it, and no one’s abused the privilege. He literally only gives them to people who have to spend money in ways that reduce his hassles. And we all know he goes over it at the end of the month. I’m surprised he didn’t give you one for art supplies for the painting.”
Lardo snorted. “No, he wrote me a ridiculous check. When I argued with him, he just looked at me until I gave up. It was seriously the most bizarre price negotiation I’ve ever had.”
“How much?” Ellie asked. “I’m nosy, you can ignore me if you want.”
Lardo grinned at her. “Why would I want to do that? He wrote me a check for forty grand up front. There was a bonus on completion.”
“What does that work out to per square foot?” Ellie asked.
“I never bothered counting it. It’s Jack.” Lardo said.
Ellie opened a slim laptop and typed for a moment, then turned the screen around. “Bet he did.”
Lardo looked. “Sonofabitch.” There was a price sheet for mural painting. “Message me that link?”
Ellie grinned. “I would if I had your number.” She pushed her sketchbook over, and handed Lardo her thinline brush pen.
Bitty stared at them, tipped his head to one side, and then frowned as Lardo smiled back at Ellie and wrote her contact information quickly and neatly on the offered page. She stared at it for a moment, and then at Ellie, and, pulling a .5 mechanical pencil from the pocket of her overalls, said, “Do you mind if I…”
“Show me what you’ve got,” Ellie said.
Bitty opened his mouth, shut it, and then went to the fridge, pressed a glass to the ice dispenser, then poured himself a tall glass of sweet tea. He pulled a lemon wedge out of the fridge, squeezed it, and stuck a straw in it.
Ellie glanced over and then said to Lardo, “Is there some reason my boss is sipping tea like it’s enough whisky to drown his sorrows?”
Lardo sighed. “Bits…”
“I’m not asking,” he said.
“You’re not asking really, really loudly.”
“It’s none of my business. But Shitty’s my friend…”
“It isn’t,” Lardo said without looking up from her sketch. “And he is. And he’s my friend, too. And that’s between us, okay? You trust me, trust that I’m not that kind of asshole. I’ve never been less than honest with Shitty.”
“I’m not asking,” Bitty said. “I trust you.”
Lardo glanced at Ellie, who was watching them with guarded amusement, and said, “Just to get it out of the way, I’m poly, bi-leaning-lesbian, and my main dude is so fanatically careful about respecting my boundaries and self-determination that he’s literally never actually asked me out on a date—in spite of the fact that we live together—for fear of seeming ‘coercive and heteronormative.’ And I think you’re really interesting, and I’d like to get to know you better.”
Ellie laughed. “Well, I’m definitely lesbian, but not really interested in the two-cats-and-a-U-Haul thing—for obvious reasons—so I tend to keep things casual and usually out of my boss’s kitchen. But then again, I usually don’t have one of my boss’s best friends hitting on me.” The last was pitched so that it carried easily to where Bitty had started kneading another dough with a little more vigor than was strictly necessary.
“It’s not my business,” Bitty called from the other side of the kitchen. “As long as you’re not doing inappropriate things in front of Felix, I really don’t care.”
“He mostly cares because Shitty is one of his best friends, and he’s worried that I’m breaking his heart,” Lardo said.
“Are you?” Ellie asked.
“He’s… my person. That’s not changing any time soon,” Lardo said. “But it’s easier to stay with him if I don’t let myself wrap myself up in him a hundred percent when he’s a hundred and fifty percent absorbed in law school. It works better if we let each other do our thing, so I don’t worry about him crawling into hockey players’ beds naked for cuddles, and he doesn’t worry about me disappearing for a few weeks and coming back very relaxed.”
Ellie laughed, and plucked the brush pen off the counter, looked at Lardo, and lightly brushed her cell phone number onto Lardo’s forearm. “I have tomorrow off,” Ellie said. “How about you hit on me when I’m not technically on the clock.”
“Bits has had that baby for the last hour,” Lardo said.
“Yeah, but he’s about to hand him over to me, so technically, still on duty. And healthy relationship and tea aside, I do think this may be freaking him out a little.”
“A bit,” Lardo said with a wink.
“I heard that,” Bitty said, pulling a jug of milk out of the fridge and pouring the entire thing into a pan.
“Oh my god, Bits, are you seriously making cheese right now?” Lardo asked.
“It sounded good,” Bitty said. “I want pizza. We’re having company tomorrow.”
“Have you seen him cooking like this before?” Lardo asked.
“Not quite like this,” Ellie said. “It’s something.”
_x_ _x_ _x_
Bitty’s phone vibrated itself off the counter and into the open dishwasher in the middle of the afternoon.
Bitty ignored it. Ellie had taken Felix up for a nap upstairs, and he was using the greater range of motion to work on several doughs at once.
“Bits, you’re going to have to talk to them sometime,” Lardo said, recognizing the quiet chirp of incoming group chat’s ring tone.
“What am I going to say?” Bitty asked, punching a bowl of dough down violently. “I quit. Sorry to let you down, guys.”
Lardo opened the group chat on her phone. “They’re worried about you. Wondered if something happened to Felix, or Jack. It’s not fair to leave them hanging.”
“Tell them I’m up to my arms in pizza crusts and brioche, and that I love them and that I’m sorry, but I’m more hindrance than help right now,” Bitty said.
Lardo’s thumbs flew as she read in her best announcer’s voice, “Bittle explained, in a rare fit of cowardice, that despite literally everyone understanding how overwhelmed he’s been, he could not give them the benefit of the doubt and an explanation so they wouldn’t worry.”
Bitty was wiping his hands on his apron and lunging toward her phone. She spun away from him and said, “Furthermore, he’s baking a worrisome number of pizza crusts, so there’s a good chance that hockey players wanting to see their bro anyway might want to come visit on Sunday.”
“You did not!” Bitty said, lunging around to try to reach the phone. She ducked under his arms and around the island.
“All rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated, unless you’re referring to his death this morning by cute when a certain small human burped and farted at the same time, literally scaring the shit out of himself and cementing his place forever in the Bro-hood.”
Bitty grabbed his own phone off the dishwasher door, dried it off on the towel tucked into his pocket, and thumbed open the group chat.
“Sorry, guys, Bitty’s been really tired and he’ll get back to you as soon as he’s up to it. Not sick, not dead, come visit Sunday,” Bitty read. He looked at Lardo and said through a sullen glower, “Fine.”
Bitty: Sorry, guys, things just got to be too much. I can explain more on Sunday. I’m so sorry to let you down, I really wanted to be there with you this year when Samwell wins the championship.
Chat blew up.
“See, was that so hard?” Lardo asked.
_x_ _x_ _x_
Greetings, I’m looking for a Simon T, not sure of the spelling of the last name, who worked at the Faith Pines Baptist summer camp in 2000?
Yes, I worked there until they closed. Can I help you?
Suzanne blinked at the Facebook message in front of her for a long time before she realized that her hands were trembling.
Do you remember Ashley Burton? She was a counselor there, when you were.
We didn’t always know other counselor’s full names. But I remember an Ashley. She went by Cinders. I never knew her last name. Pretty blonde girl, we were campers together, then counselors. But she left, and I couldn’t get anyone to give me her contact information. Is she okay?
Is this you and her together?
She uploaded the picture of Simon “Talfor” and Ashley, and waited. There was a long pause.
That’s Cinders and me. I always called her Princess. How is she?
She took a deep breath, put her cursor in the reply box, and started typing. After a moment, she copied the whole thing out to Word, and continued typing there.
She reread her response five times before pasting it back, and then read it again for good measure before sending it.
I am told that something happened between you. And that you probably aren’t aware that she got pregnant. This is not a request for child support, but the situation is complex, and some things have happened that you have a right to know about.
She had the baby in 2001, but refused to tell anyone who the father was because she wanted to protect you from her family’s frankly racist and potentially violent response. She says she didn’t tell you because she knew you would want to be involved, and she feared for your safety.
That child is now 15 years old. And has had a rough time of it. Ashley parented for fifteen years, but I think she was scarred by what happened to her.
The situation is very sensitive. I need to know how comfortable you are with gay and transgender people before I tell you any more about your child, because he has been badly hurt this past year, and my family has been working very hard on helping to heal some of that hurt.
There was an even longer lapse before the response came, though the bouncing ellipsis sat there for a very long time.
I have a son? That’s amazing. Can I meet him? Is he okay? I don’t know very many gay or transgender people, but I’ve had people judging me all my life and I try very hard not to judge. We’re all people, right?
You’ve actually already met him, but he is trans. When you met him he was going by another name and had no idea you were related. He’s in a safe, supportive place now, but this year has been very, very bad for him. If you are able to accept him for who he is without trying to change him, I think it could be very healing for him to meet you. But in order to make the introduction, I need to know absolutely that you will not hurt him further by treating him as anything other than a boy, a son. He’s already been damaged by people who reacted badly to him, and I won’t have him wounded again that way.
It sounds like he has a staunch advocate at his side. What happened to him? Who is he? You said I met him? I honestly did not expect I would ever have children, to know that I have a fifteen-year-old son is a gift I could not question. I don’t know much about the whole transgender thing, but I’m willing to learn. I don’t have a lot in the way of money, but I really adore kids.
When he came out to one of his youth group pastors, he was raped, to “fix” him. Which not only broke his spirit for a long time, but he ended up pregnant, and didn’t figure out that he was pregnant until it was too late to do anything but carry to term. The man who raped him is now in jail. The baby is being raised by my son, whose fiancé is your son’s legal guardian. Your son is currently living with a friend of theirs, and will be starting school at a private prep school on Tuesday. Both your son and the baby are being well cared for. Theo wants my son to adopt the baby, and they’re making plans to do so.
I have a grandchild?
I had essentially the same reaction the first time I saw them together. They weren’t planning on adopting, but my son and his fiancé fell in love with the baby boy, and given some other legal complexities, by the time things were sorted out, that, as they say, was that.
Please tell me you have pictures. Would I be able to see the baby? My son?
Do you remember a camper named Ro? He goes by Theo, now.
God in heaven. Yes, I remember Ro. And Theo is my father’s name. Theodore. She, or should I say he? I thought of her as she at the time, asked me what my favorite name was, and I said, “My father was named Theodore, and it means gift from God, and all of us are God’s gift. He was dubbed Theo before the ink on his feet dried, and was known as Theo until the day he died. He was the best man I ever knew.”
Always, always use he. He was a boy even when everyone thought he was a girl.
He named himself after my father?
I’m certain the first time he spoke that name aloud as his own was to my son on the day my son brought him home and coaxed his story out of him. But he’s always been Theo to our family, and it suits him. He’s a gift. He’s so bright, and despite everything, I think he’s going to do well. But there’s a loneliness since his mother… Well, I’ll let him tell you that story, if he chooses. We’ll just say she didn’t handle it well, finding out about the baby, and that’s how we got involved. When we got his birth certificate and what his mother thought your name was, that picture was with it, and he recognized you. He spoke highly of you.
The Ro I knew said, “I don’t understand what they want me to be.”
I just said, “Be yourself.”
Where are you located now? Your profile says Springfield, which isn’t very specific.
When I was working for the church that ran the camp, I lived in Springfield, Mass. I’m in Boston now, with family. The church was my life for a long time, but there was a scandal, and people got ugly, and a lot of us didn’t get paid for the last month’s work. It made the papers, and that hasn’t helped me much the past couple months.
I’m actually flying into Boston tomorrow to go visit my son and our mutual grandchild. I’m absolutely certain you’d be welcome, if you’re willing. If I know him, there’ll be quite a spread. Oh, I do have one more request.
I’d love to see the baby. And, anything. Well, almost anything.
We really need you to avoid talking about this to anyone until all the legal cases are finalized. I know that’s hard to do, but there’s a lot going on, and it would be easier to explain it to you in person.
That wasn’t a lot? Now I’m worried.
Your son managed to acquire a very wealthy benefactor. And famous. And if the media gets hold of any of this, it will be an absolute zoo. It could jeopardize the adoption, which, since Theo adamantly wants the adoption to go forward, could really hurt Theo. If the whole story gets out, it could be very damaging indeed, because of how awful people can be about anyone different.
I can see that. I can keep my mouth shut. My family here, they don’t need to know anything for now. My brother couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it. I wouldn’t be staying here, but at the moment, I really don’t have anywhere else to go.
The bouncing ellipses stayed, and Suzanne waited.
I just Googled you, I hope you don’t mind. I think I understand your hesitation. And I’d love to come with you tomorrow to see the baby. And Theo, if that’s possible.
I figured you might. I’ll send you some links this evening, some things to read and watch before you meet Theo. There’s a learning curve here, and the sooner you understand the issues well, the better it will be for your son. And you should know… He is loved. His needs are being met. But in part because of his mother, and in part because he’s been a fish out of water his whole life, I think there’s a wound that you might be the only person who stands a chance of really healing.
Cinders, Ashley… she was the sweetest person when I knew her. It’s hard to imagine her hurting someone that badly, but then again, I already feel a deep pain myself at the idea that she couldn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth. Then, I could have helped. I could have tried. I think part of me always hoped she’d come back.
I think she was a scared kid, and I’m not sure she ever figured out how to stop being a scared kid. But she’s not my concern in this. I think the world of Theo, and I cannot and will not have him hurt again.
No, you’re right, of course you are. Theo has to be the priority. I’ll do whatever I can. Should I meet you at the airport?
If you have a phone that will get Facebook there, I can message you when we land. We’ll be renting a car.
I’ll be the dazed-looking Black man holding a sign that says, “Hope.” Because this feels like a new direction. Do you think they have jobs where sixteen years of camp counseling and church maintenance might get me in the door, where we’re going?
They just might. The person Theo is staying with right now has the most extensive network I’ve ever seen for that kind of thing.
I don’t want charity, I just want to work and help take care of things. No one looks at me here for who I am, they just make assumptions and turn away.
There’s a lot of that going around. I’ll ask our friend if she has any ideas. She adores Theo.
With as hard as Theo has had it, I’m so glad he has so many strong supporters.
We’ll see you tomorrow. Our flight gets in around 11 am.
Thank you, ma’am, for finding me. For helping care for my family when I couldn’t.
It was really no trouble. Theo is an easy person to love. So is Felix.
Is Felix the baby?
Suzanne uploaded a snapshot Jack had sent her, a closeup of Felix’s face, staring curiously into the camera, eyes wide.
God bless you, ma’am. I mean that. I will see you tomorrow.