“It’s me. I got a call from the school today. Tristan was absent.”
“So…he’s not here, either.”
“Well where the fuck is he? You’re supposed to be keeping track of him. He’s your problem and your responsibility! I told you, you should have done something about him already. You’d better find him. Then….”
“Yeah, I know. I know.”
“You’ve put it off too long already. God dammit, get it done!”
“I will. But I have to find him first. You need to be looking, too.”
“Yeah, just like usual. You sit on your ass and I do all the work. If you want the job done, give it to a woman. OK. I think I have a way to find him. But when I find him, it’s your job to fix the problem.”
“Well, if you do find him, grab him and stash him in Putnam. Then we’ll work out what to do.”
“You know what we have to do. You’ll do it. You. If you weren’t such a candy ass you would have taken care of it already.”
“Yeah yeah yeah. Look, don’t push me! But I guess you’re right.
That evening, after Tristan had spent the day at Jim’s house recovering and having a lot of time to think, the two of them were at the table in the kitchen, a cup of coffee in front of Jim. Jordy was there, too, nursing a glass of juice. There was a fourth at the table, a man who also had a cup of coffee keeping him company.
Garlen Beeks, Jim’s lawyer and a good friend, was there because Jim had called him. Garlen was a skeletal man, taller even than Jim, bony and emaciated-looking. It was appearance more than fact. He trained for and ran marathons and had the metabolism of a 16-year-old. He looked weak; he wasn’t.
They were having a strategy session. They were all talking, sharing ideas and concerns, except for Jordy, who was mostly staring at Tristan in wonder. When Jordy had returned from school and football practice that afternoon, he’d found Tristan in his bedroom, sprawled on the bed, half reclining, half with his back against the headboard, apparently doing absolutely nothing. Jordy had smiled at him. Just the look of the boy did something to Jordy’s insides.
Tristan had squirmed up and to the side of the bed, then sat upright, his feet on the floor, his eyes on Jordy. Jordy couldn’t understand it: the boy’s entire appearance was different. He was meeting Jordy’s eyes, for one thing. For another, his posture was straight up and down—no slouching, no pulling into himself. He looked entirely different.
“Uh….” Jordy stopped. He didn’t know what to say.
“I’ve been thinking,” Tristan said. Even his voice was different. Not lower, but firmer. “I’m tired of being afraid. I’m tired of being a pussy. I wasn’t ever like that before Mom died. But then, my father started ridiculing me, I was crying a lot because of Mom, and I just seemed to go downhill.”
He stood up from the bed. Standing, he was still short, still a lightweight, but now his back was straight and his head was high. There was a presence about him that had been lacking before. “I let him do what he wanted to me, and I never fought back. I was too much into grieving. Well, I don’t like who I’ve become. And I won’t do it any longer. I’m done with that.”
“Wow!” Jordy gave him a tentative smile. “Uh, just what are you going to do?”
“Well,” Tristan said, and gave Jordy a sheepish smile, “first, I talked to Jim a lot today. He says I can stay with you guys, so that means I get to tell my father to go screw himself.”
Jordy was grinning. “Really? You’re going to stay here. With me? Uh, with us?”
Tristan laughed again, his happy mood getting the better of him. “Yeah, with you both and with just you. That’s the other thing. I am gay, Jordy. I just was so scared for anyone to know. Even you. But I’ve spent the day coming to terms with a lot of things. One is, I trust you. Two, I have a crush on you that might be more than a crush if you let it be. And so, three, yeah, thinking about you, I’ve been excited all day.”
Tristan laughed. “Yeah. But scared, too. I’ve only thought about doing things. I might not even like actually doing them. You said you haven’t done things with a boy, but I doubt that. Look at you! You look like a god! I’ll bet girls and boys both have been throwing themselves at you. Why wouldn't you have had a lot of experience?”
Jordy was still wrapping his head around what he was hearing. He moved to the bed and sat down. “Uh, well, you know, we really need to talk. To figure things out. But what I said was the honest truth. Sure, I could have done things. Lots of times. I had plenty of opportunities. But where I was living, sex was in the air all the time, and I got sort of turned off by it. It seemed so casual, like it didn’t mean anything, and to me that made it nasty and sordid. My mom and her boyfriend were just doing it for the physical sensations. I could tell neither one of them felt any sort of love for the other. And maybe I’m too much of a romantic, but I want it to mean more when I do anything. I want to have feelings for the guy I do it with.”
He stopped, looked up, and said, “Tristan, right now, I do have feelings for you.”
“And I for you. But, Jordy, I agree. Let’s talk first. Get to know each other better. First off, stop calling me Tristan. Back when I had friends, before my world collapsed and I went into my shell, I was called Tris. I like that name, much better than Tristan. Will you call me that?”
“I like the sound of that. Tris. That’s great. I will. And we’ll talk. I want us both to be really comfortable before we do anything. When we do, we’ll both have decided what it is, and we’ll have agreed to it. Like right now. I want to kiss you. What’s your opinion of that?”
Tris laughed. “My opinion is, let’s do it.”
Tris approached the bed, and Jordy stood up. They faced each other a bit tentatively and right away saw a problem. Jordy stood about a half inch above 6’ 2”; Tris had to stretch to reach 5’ 6”. Jordy put his hands on Tris’s shoulders, looked down into his striking gray eyes and grinned, a nervous grin. He was about to kiss a boy for the first time, and yet the situation was ludicrous.
“Yeah?” Tris’s voice was suddenly very nervous, much different from the confidence it had shown a moment earlier.
“Let’s sit on the bed. Is that OK?” Jordy’s own voice was husky.
Rather than answer, Tris reached over and took Jordy’s hand, then pulled him down so both were sitting on the bed.
“Yeah, this is better,” Tris said, and leaned in.
The kiss was just like they were: uncertain, but hopeful. Tentative. But neither wanted it to stop. Arms made their way around each other almost by magic. Both felt the sudden urgency, the need. Then they were lying side by side on the bed, their lips never having left contact.
Finally, some minutes later, Jordy pulled away and gulped a huge breath of air. Tris took the opportunity to do the same. Jordy, gasping, said, “What happened to the oxygen in this room?”
“I think we used it all up,” Tris tittered. Then he moved to the side of the bed and sat up. “If we do any more of this, and I mean any at all, then your plan to talk, to get to know each other will be right out the window. But then, talking is way overrated.”
Jordy sat up, too. “Yeah, it is, but I still want to do it. Now, though, I have a feeling that talking or not, we’re going to get to know each other much better tonight.”
That was what was on Jordy’s mind as he sat at the table with the others. He couldn’t get that kiss out of his head, any more than he could forget the change that had come over Tristan. The others were talking. He was staring at Tris.
Tristan had been telling Jim that there was no way his father would allow him to stay with them. He wasn’t sure if there was any reason other than what he’d told Tristan—that the man didn’t want his reputation tainted because his son wasn’t living with him.
“My father always just said whatever was convenient. The truth rarely mattered to him. So I’m not sure that’s why he wanted me living there in the garage, but whatever the reason is, I’m sure he wouldn’t let me live here.”
Which was why Jim had invited Garlen to be there. Jim didn’t know the law as it affected kids and where they lived. Garlen was a partner in a downtown firm, and one of their specialties was family law.
Jim had asked Tristan to fill Garlen in on his situation at home.
“Everything he does,” Tristan explained, an edge of frustration and sadness in his voice, “he has his own best interests in mind. Nothing else—and certainly not me—matters much to him. He’s got the best job in the world, according to him. He has some power, some say in local government, gets a high salary, is in a position to fatten it because of insider knowledge. He gets all sorts of perks from stores and restaurants in town, and best of all for him, he doesn’t have to do much of anything in his job other than give advice and delegate responsibilities.”
Jim spoke up. “That he loves his job seems to give us a lever. He doesn’t want to be involved in anything like a scandal, anything he thinks might look bad enough that the councilman would drop him like that hot potato we hear about. The councilman is in a very political position where the appearance of propriety is important. There’s a city-council election later this year. He’ll want to have very clean hands during the campaign and when the vote is taken. If his chief of staff is involved in any kind of scandal, the councilman wouldn’t get elected and so his chief of staff would also be out of work. So, it’s important to Tristan’s father to be a positive factor in the election, standing behind his man and being white as snow. I think we can use that.”
Garlen looked at Jordy, expecting he might have a comment to make as well. He did.
“We think if we tell Tris’s dad we’ll make a big fuss about how he’s got his son sleeping in the garage, and if we tell him we won’t say a word if he allows Tristan to stay with us, he’ll cave even if he doesn’t like it. An investigative exposé in the papers is the last thing he’d want; we don’t think he’ll risk that. After the election, well, maybe. But until then, he won’t say or do anything.
“But even then, we don’t want Tris to have to go back there. Is there anything we can do to ensure that he stays with us?”
Garlen glanced at each of the three, saw them all looking at him, pinning their hopes on him, and opened his mouth to speak. The doorbell chose that moment to sound. The button must have stuck because it stayed buzzing long after what would have been polite. That noise was suddenly accompanied by a firm and steady pounding on the front door.
“What the…?” Jim felt his blood pressure rising. “Who…?”
Jordy’s chair was closest to the door, and he beat Jim to the punch, getting out of his chair and striding purposely down the entry hall. He glanced through the narrow window that ran alongside the door, then opened up. By this time, Jim was standing next to him. Standing on the front porch, hand raised to continue pounding, was a middle-aged woman. She was tall, stout and red-faced. She was wearing a dress that may have been in fashion a couple of decades earlier. Graying hair—though she didn’t appear to be old enough to have that already—in an uncomplimentary style crowned her head and did nothing to soften the scowl on her face.
“Yes?” Jordy murmured, not stepping aside at all, filling the doorway with his body.
“Are you Tristan Cooley?”
Jordy started to answer, but Jim put his hand on his son’s shoulder and squeezed. Rather than speaking to the lady, Jordy turned to look at Jim, who shook his head. “Excuse me,” Jim said, and stepped in front of Jordy. Then he turned slightly and was looking directly at the lady.
Often, when Jim had confronted women, he’d found that just his size had set them back a little. He had no intention of being intimidating, but he knew that was often the effect he had.
This woman, he could see, wasn’t a bit intimidated. In fact, she moved forward a half-step, invading his space. Perhaps she expected him to move back. He didn’t.
“May I help you?” Jim asked politely.
The woman’s scowl seemed permanent. She raised the hand that she’d used to lean on the doorbell button and flipped open an ID wallet that showed a badge on one side and a written ID on the other. Without giving Jim time to inspect either, she dropped her arm back to her side and said, “This is official business. Step aside, please.” Then she took another step forward.
Jim guessed she was used to abject compliance to her requests. Her manner suggested that. She expected him to move aside. He didn’t, and so she bumped into him.
She was a large, heavy woman, but Jim was a larger, heavier man, and she was the one who stumbled backwards. She gave him an angry glare. “You’re in trouble now, mister,” she said, her voice rising. “Interfering with a government officer on official business. I could call for backup right now, and you’d be spending some time in a cell and paying a fortune to get released on bail. If that’s how you want to play it, you can. Last chance. Step aside.”
Jim didn’t. He simply looked down at her where she was standing on the porch, one step down from the entryway. He didn’t even say anything—just looked at her.
She had the sense not to try to force her way in again. She was still angry, however, and her face was even redder than it had been before. “Well?” she said.
“Well, what?” Jim asked, using a very reasonable tone.
“What are you, stupid! Well, are you going to stand aside and let me in, or do I make the call?” She reached into her commodious bag and pulled out a cellphone.
“Frankly, lady, I don’t much care what you do.” Jim’s voice had lost its politeness and become hard, showing his feelings in response to her officious brusqueness. “Call anyone you want. But you’re not entering this house until you tell me who you are and what you’re doing here. Then I’ll decide.”
“I showed you my badge and ID.”
“No, you didn’t. You flashed something at me that could have been an ID, or could have been a Junior Ranger badge from the back of a box of Cap’n Crunch. You never said your name or your official capacity, if indeed you have one, or what your business here is. Perhaps you’re trying to sell earthquake insurance. We haven’t had an earthquake here in over 50 years.” Jim smiled. There was no humor in it.
“I don’t do business outside. Now step aside and let me in or we’ll get a squad here to take you down.”
“Have it your way, then. Good night, ma’am.” Jim stepped back and closed the door.
Then he waited. Two minutes went by, and then the doorbell buzzed again. He checked. The same woman was again pressing the button. She was still alone. He opened the door. “Yes?”
Her scowl hadn’t changed. Her attitude had softened, however, even if only slightly.
“Good evening,” she said, like it was forced. “I’m Mildred Coppinger. I work for the city; I’m an investigator for Social Services. I work out of Investigations and Compliance. We have a report of a teenager, Tristan Cooley, living here unlawfully. Teens not living at home without consent of parents fall under our auspices. I’m here to remove Tristan from this house. If you resist this lawful order, you will be arrested. I hope I’ve made myself very clear. Now, may I come in?”
She again took a step forward. Jim again didn’t budge. She stopped before hitting
“May I see some identification, please?” Jim asked.
She rolled her eyes impatiently but dug out her ID wallet and handed it to him. “You’re really pushing it, mister,” she said. Jim didn’t acknowledge the comment. He took his time checking her credentials. They showed her name and identified her as a Department of Social Services investigator.
Before she could request entry again, Jim smiled spuriously at her in an ingratiating manner. “I see. Would you like to come in?” He stepped back.
She didn’t answer, just walked into the house. She was going to stride farther as Jim was closing the door, but Jordy was right there, blocking her way. “You don’t need to go farther than this,” Jim said, turning back to her. “We can conduct whatever business we have right here, standing. Now, why do you think Tristan Cooley is here, and on what authority can you remove him?”
“I checked. I’m an investigator, and I investigated. He applied for a work permit a few months ago. I checked the permit application filed with the city and found he works at Antonio’s. I checked there, and they said he had been there last night and left with you. You’re the last one we know of who’s seen him. So officially, I’m here to see if he’s in your house, to collect him and take him to Putnam House until the issue is resolved.”
She was trying to look around Jordy and Jim to see what she could. From the rather narrow entryway hall, she couldn’t see much at all. Jim could sense her frustration.
“In any event, it’s not your concern how we know he’s here. He’ll be coming with me. You can visit him during prescribed hours after the first few days pass, which will be after he’s been familiarized with the rules and customs of the home. That’s all you need to know. Please bring him here and I’ll say goodnight.”
Jim stared at her without speaking long enough for her face to redden further. Then he asked, “And just what makes you think that Tristan would be here without parental consent? Or that he’s living here? I think you’re making this entire thing up. I think we’re the ones who should be calling the police.”
By now, Tristan and Garlen had joined the party in the cramped entryway. The social worker looked first at Jordy, then at Tristan, her eyes moving back and forth. She obviously hadn’t been given a description of Tristan because the two boys didn’t look anything alike, and she had no idea which was Tristan, or even if one of them was Tristan.
Tristan looked very nervous. He was about to speak, but Garlen put his hand on the boy’s arm and squeezed it, shaking his head, stopping him. “This whole thing seems very irregular to me,” Jim said, speaking again to the social worker. “I just asked you a question. Why do you think he’s here without parental consent?”
“I’ve answered all the questions I’m going to. You’re either going to accept my authority and hand him over, or you’ll go to jail. Up to you.”
Jim shook his head. “I have no idea how safe he’d be going with you, and I’m very concerned with his safety. I’ve heard that Putnam Hall is where boys are sent that Social Services picks up; I’ve also heard that it is a poorly run facility. I’ve read about incidents of boys being hurt there in fights and even by staff.”
She ignored what Jim was saying, dismissing it out of hand. “If you don’t turn him over to me right now, you’re in big trouble, mister.” Her voice was rising again. “I’ve already wasted too much time trying to get this done. You’re in defiance of an official order if he isn’t handed over immediately. Is that the way you want to do this?”
At that point, Jim wasn’t sure what to do. The idea of letting this woman have Tristan was anathema. But she appeared to be official, and he was about to give in.
Which was when Garlen stepped forward. “How do you do, Ms. Coppinger? I’m Garlen Beeks, an attorney. Mr. Redford here will be happy to oblige any order of the court. It would be irresponsible of me, however, to allow you to take this boy without first seeing the warrant you have permitting you to remove him. May I see that, please?”
She stared at Garlen for a moment, then raised her voice again. “I don’t need a warrant for an emergency removal. In my opinion as an experienced compliance officer, this boy—” and she pointed at Tristan. Jim figured she must have noticed the resemblance that was obvious between Jordy and Jim and had drawn the conclusion that the odd one out was Tristan “—is in danger here. There are three men, all larger than he is, standing around him. He’d have no way of protecting himself from any of you. I can only imagine what you’ll be up to with him once I’m gone. So I’m enforcing my emergency authority and removing him from danger.”
“Poppycock!” Garlen said, grinning. “He’s in no danger; he’s here because he wants to be, and the emergency order you‘re speaking of relates to children under the age of 11 who are deemed to be unable to speak for themselves. It doesn’t apply to a boy of 15 who quite obviously can speak for himself and make his wishes known. You haven’t even asked him what those wishes are.”
He paused, giving her a chance to question Tristan. She didn’t do so, so he continued. “If you think you have the right to remove him, go ahead and try, and I’ll be a witness to the fact you’ve been told the limits of your authority as you’ve related your position to us, that your authority is in fact misstated and invalid, and that any physical injuries you have sustained when trying to forcibly remove Tristan were justified by those trying to protect him from your unlawful actions.”
She looked first at him and then at Jim. She appeared to have reached the point where she was going to blow a gasket. Red didn’t come close to describing her face. Vermillion would have been more accurate.
“I’ll be back with policemen!” she finally uttered.
“Be sure to bring a warrant when you come. As you don’t have one, you probably don’t have anything at all to bring before a judge to show cause for his removal from here. I’d like to know who told you to come get him? Was it his dad? Are you doing him a favor? Currying favors from someone near to someone on the City Council? Are you aware you can be arrested for something like that?” Garlen’s questions were hitting home and Jim could see her react to each one. Suddenly, she simply turned, took the single step needed to reach the door, opened it and was gone.
Jim considered calling bye-bye after her, but didn’t.
The four of them went back into the kitchen. Jim was edgy, fidgety. Adrenaline, he imagined. Tristan looked scared. Jordy looked determined. Garlen didn’t seem affected at all. Perhaps, Jim thought, he often had angry confrontations and had learned how to compartmentalize them.
Garlen was the first one to speak. “You know, I was speaking off the cuff at the end there. Just trying to shake her up a little. But the way she reacted, I think there might have been something in what I suggested. I don’t think she had any authority at all to take Tristan out of here. And she never responded to your question when you asked why she thought Tristan didn’t have permission to be here.”
Jim shook his head. “I think we’re OK for tonight. But maybe she can get the warrant. Maybe she has a friendly judge who’ll give her a removal order. How can we protect Tristan legally? And what about protecting him from her if she acts illegally? I could well imagine her waylaying him outside school and forcing him into her car and taking him to Putnam, and how long would it take to get him back out?”
“We can’t have him put in Putnam!” That was Jordy. “That place…I’ve heard about it. Everyone at school has. Kids that are sent there…I’ve heard stories….” He stopped and looked at Tristan who now was looking even more uncomfortable. Jordy moved his chair to where Tristan was sitting, across the table from him, and put it right next to him, then sat down and put his arm around the smaller boy. Tristan sank into him.
“OK, that’s the first order of business,” Jim said to Garlen. “Can we get a restraining order or something?”
“It’s difficult to get a restraining order against Social Services,” he answered. “But we probably can get you an emergency foster license. With that, if they tried to remove him, you could request a hearing before any move was made. Even if his dad tried to take him, you could make a major stink to the court, claim abuse or that he was being forced to live in inhumane conditions as a reason not to give Tristan up to him. From what you’ve said, Tristan’s dad wouldn’t risk that right now. So that license would probably work fairly well.”
“Can we do that? Get a license? It would probably have to be through the department she works for, wouldn't it? Could she stop it?”
“I doubt it.” Garlen stood up to pour himself another cup of coffee. “If she wasn’t authorized to do what she did tonight, and it was pretty apparent she wasn’t, then I doubt she’d want that known. It could cost her her job. Besides, I know some people there I can talk to. I deal with them all the time. I think I can get the license quickly, tomorrow even.”
“Anything I need to do?” Jim asked.
“They might want to inspect your house. They’d want to confirm that he has his own space here. But maybe not. Still, putting his things in your spare room might be advisable.”
“Would do if he had any things. We still have to get him some. What about if she, or someone she hires, grabs Tristan off the streets?”
“That’s more difficult. Unless you want to go to the expense of hiring a bodyguard, there’s not much we could do about that.”
“Yes, there is!” Jordy was looking angry. “I can watch him. He can stay in the library at school as he has been doing till I’m done with practice, and I can collect him. Then we can walk home together. There’s no way anyone will be able to get him then.”
“Well…” Jim said, liking Jordy’s determination and protective instincts, but disliking the thought that perhaps he might have to face an adult, or more than one, and that they could be armed. But as he thought of that and thought of the position Tristan’s dad was in, he figured that such a threat was unlikely. The most likely reason for this woman having shown up tonight would have been to help Tristan’s father, and now that she’d been discredited in the attempt, well, wouldn’t that be the end of it? Removing Tristan hadn’t been the cinch it had been considered to be. Yes, just having Jordy watch out for Tristan seemed to be enough.
“OK,” Jim said to Jordy. “That should work.” Then he turned to Garlen. “And I’m sure glad you were here tonight.” Jim smiled at him, and Garlen nodded back, then drank his coffee. When he’d put his cup down, he stood up, shook hands with Jim and patted Jordy and Tristan on their shoulders. “You two, be good,” he said, laughed, and told Jim he’d get on the emergency credential first thing in the morning. Then he marched to the front door and left.
“You get it done?”
“No, they ran me off.”
“What! Son of a bitch. You keep telling me how good you are, and you let a bunch of civilians run you off. Fuck!”
“They had a lawyer there. Nothing I could do.”
“Shit. Look, we got to get this done!”
“I’ve got a plan. It’ll work. We’ll bust up the big kid, then grab your son and take him to Putnam. No problem at all when he’s there to make him tell us what he knows. Then we can make him disappear.”
“It’s got to be right away. No more fuckups.”
“Don’t worry. I got it.”
“That’s what you said before. You make it happen, you hear me? Make it happen. Dammit!”