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Mental Health Day

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Steve had his arms full of groceries — five canvas bags hooked over each of his wrists, three loaves of bread dangling from the bag ends between the fingers of his left hand, and a jumbo pack of toilet paper propped between his right arm and his chest — when his phone rang.

“Oh no,” he groaned, and he quickened his pace. He reached the porch, dumped the items on the swing, and fumbled his phone out of his pocket, dropping his keys in the process.

“Hello?” he said, but there was just silence on the other end. “Hello?” he said again, more sharply this time.

Steve pursed his lips. It was probably that damn cruise ship scam again; any second now there’d be an annoying blast of that horn, and—

There was a click, and a robotic voice spoke. Not the one he was expecting, but another one that had become all-too familiar since September.

“A student in your household in grade—” here, a human voice interjected, “—nine— was absent on— Friday, December second— from period— one, two, three, four.”

“Dammit, Marcus,” Steve said under his breath, as the rest of the recording droned on, telling Steve that he needed to call the attendance line in order to justify the absence. Steve hung up while it was reciting the number — he had it more than memorized by now — and pushed aside enough of the groceries that he could sink heavily onto the porch swing.

This made four full days in as many weeks that Marcus had skipped school, plus at least a dozen individual classes spread out over the semester. Marcus was on the verge of suspension, not that a break from going to school would constitute much of a punishment for the kid. Steve was more worried about his grades; he’d never get ahead if he couldn’t pull off anything higher than a D. But Marcus didn’t care about that. Marcus hadn’t cared about much of anything for a long, long time, since his mother died when he was eight, and he started bouncing around the foster system.

Steve and Sam had taken him in almost six months ago, when they decided they wanted to adopt, and Sam said they were too old to be changing diapers. Marcus wasn’t what they were looking for — Steve had gone into this thinking they’d end up with a couple kids just barely old enough to go to kindergarten — but one of Sam’s contacts in the social services sector told him about this defiant thirteen-year-old who’d been kicked out of every foster home he’d ever had, and asked if they’d like to meet him.

Something about Marcus was heart-breakingly familiar to Steve, and he told Sam so. They’d discussed it, and discussed it, and discussed it some more, and finally, they’d rented a little house in the same part of town, so Marcus wouldn’t have to change schools, and the kid had moved in with them, just in time for the fall semester to start.

This was the longest that Marcus had been with a family, and Sam was convinced that he was pulling out every tool in his arsenal to try to push them into kicking him to the curb, same as everyone else had so far. Steve knew he was right, and Steve was stubborn, dead-set on keeping him if they could, but these constant absences — and the resulting conversations with the vice-principal every few weeks — were definitely draining.

Plus, if they couldn’t make the kid go to school, how were they going to handle everything else?

Steve got to his feet with another heavy sigh, trying not to worry about where Marcus was right then and what he was doing with whom. Wherever he was, Steve just prayed that Marcus was safe. He was a good kid, Steve thought, but the kids he called his friends were nothing but a gang of bullies. Still, Steve suspected that trying to cut him off from them, when they’d been there for him and done more for him throughout his life than Steve and Sam had, would only serve to push him closer towards them. 

He gathered up the groceries again, balancing them while he stuck his key in the door. To his surprise, it wasn’t locked.

“Sam?” he called, stepping through. There was music playing that hadn’t been on when he left for the store, and clatters from the kitchen.

“Please tell me you remembered to get brown sugar,” Sam said, appearing in the foyer and trading Steve a light kiss for an armful of bags.

“Uh, yeah,” Steve replied. “It was on the list. Why?”

“Because you can’t make cookies with just white sugar,” Marcus’s voice rang out from the kitchen. “Despite what Sam’s recipe says.”

“Hey, don’t knock it till you try it,” Sam called over his shoulder. He turned back, and, obviously seeing Steve’s look of complete confusion, added in an undertone, “Don’t worry, I picked him up an hour ago.”

“From where?” Steve hissed. “The school just called me—”

“I know,” Sam whispered back. “He skipped the first three periods, wouldn’t tell me why. But when he called me at work to ask if he could come home for the last one, I told him it was okay.”

Steve frowned. “We said that he could have a day off if he had a good reason,” he protested. “In what universe is baking cookies a good reason to miss school, Sam?”

“This one,” Sam replied. He laid a hand on Steve’s forearm. “He asked me if he could have a mental health day, and I said yes.”

Steve looked into Sam’s earnest eyes for a second, then nodded. That had been one of the reasons they said they’d accept for one absence a month.

“I told him he couldn’t have another one until January, and he accepted that,” Sam went on, like he’d read Steve’s mind. “It’s progress, Steve, he’s trusting us enough to only bend the rules instead of breaking them.”

“Okay,” Steve said finally, blowing out a breath. “But you’re the one who’s calling the school.”

“Deal,” Sam agreed, with a touch of a smile. “Now, come on, I need to show Marcus what real cookies taste like,” he added in a normal tone.

“Bring it on, old man,” said Marcus when they entered the kitchen.

“Hey, Marcus,” Steve greeted the teenager, who was leaning against the fridge, fiddling around on his phone.

“Hey,” Marcus echoed, glancing up and then doing a double take at the load of groceries they both were carrying. “Whoa, can I, uh, help?”

“Sure,” said Steve, even though he could manage. “Your sugar’s in this bag here, maybe you could empty it for me.”

“Okay,” Marcus agreed, setting the phone down and taking the bag. “I don’t know where everything goes, though.”

“Neither do I,” Steve admitted. “This is very much Sam’s kitchen.”

“With good reason,” Sam grumbled.

“Set fire to the kitchen once, and everyone’s a critic,” Steve sighed.

“Fire?” Marcus repeated. “I need to hear this story.”

Steve opened his mouth to tell it, but then Sam caught his eye, and he stopped.

“Only if you tell us why you didn’t go to school today,” said Sam. His tone was gentle, but still tinged with authority.

Marcus’s demeanor changed at once. His smile twisted into something bitter, his shoulders slumped, and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, not looking up from the ground.

“Never mind,” he mumbled, and Steve tried really hard not to let the disappointment show in his face.

“Okay,” Sam replied, easy as anything. “Now are we gonna have this bake-off or what?”

Marcus smiled, just a little. “Maybe... I could tell you later?”

“Sure, whenever you’re ready,” Sam agreed, and Steve nodded. Sam cut open the bag of brown sugar and dumped it into the container that they’d emptied into their oatmeal that morning. “How much of this do you need?”

“Two thirds of a cup,” Marcus answered. “And you have to cream it together with the butter by hand with a wooden spoon, or it’s no good. That’s— uh,” he faltered suddenly. He went on in a lower voice. “That’s what my mom used to say, anyway.”

“Sounds good,” said Steve, keeping his voice steady with an effort. He opened a drawer and handed Marcus their best wooden spoon. “You show us how it’s done.”

Marcus stared for a second, then took the spoon with another small smile.

Agency, Steve thought, watching Marcus flip the butter out of its wrapper into the mixing bowl and measure the sugar. Trust — when the bowl tipped, spilling sugar on the counter, and Marcus flinched when Sam reached out to help him steady it. Compassion, when Sam told him that it was no big deal, that making a mess was the best part of baking cookies.

Sam was made for this, Steve realized. And all I do is carry in the groceries.

But then Marcus started talking, telling them in bits and pieces about what he did all morning when he wasn’t at school, how he’d hid out at the arcade because his friends were gonna beat some kid up at lunch.

“I don’t even know why,” Marcus said, wiping his hands on his jeans. “I mean, some guys, they have it coming, no doubt, but this guy....”

Steve met Sam’s eye again, and he knew they were thinking the same thing: none of them had it coming, but Marcus hadn’t begun to realize it until now. The fact that he was made Steve’s heart lift a little.

“You did the right thing,” Sam told him.

“Even though I missed class?” Marcus asked. He was speaking to Steve now, and Steve nodded.

“Sometimes rules have to be broken," he said. "For the greater good.”  

“And Steve fought the UN, so, coming from him that means a lot,” Sam added.

“I wasn’t the only one,” Steve reminded him.

“Yeah, well....” Sam trailed off, and Steve winced. Sam still didn’t talk too much about his stint in the Raft.

“What’s next in your recipe?” Steve asked Marcus, and Sam sent him a tiny grateful glance.

“Just the chocolate chips,” Marcus replied. “It says to fold them in, how do we do that?”

“Well, what’s it sound like?” Steve asked, trying for agency as well. “What do you think it means?”

“I dunno, like—” Marcus made some folding gestures with his hands. “But maybe that’s stupid.”

“No, man, you got it,” said Sam. “That’s pretty much all there is to it. You do that, and I’ll grease the cookie sheets.”

“What can I do?” asked Steve.

“Nothing, you’re the taste tester,” Sam answered. “This bake-off needs an objective judge.”

“Yeah,” Marcus agreed, with a rare grin. “So Sam’ll know, once and for all, that my cookies are better than his.”

“Oh, it’s on now,” Sam taunted him. “You don’t know who you’re messing with.”

Steve chuckled, his heart warm at the sight of Sam and Marcus loading up the trays with cookies and putting them in the oven. He knew that this moment, this domestic peace, wouldn’t last. Tomorrow, Marcus might snap at them about cleaning his room, and Monday, he might skip another class to hang out with the bad crowd. He might never talk about his mother again after today; he might never talk to them about anything. But baking cookies together — as a family — it was a start, and, for today, that was enough.