“They’re having fun,” Carol said.
Alan nodded. “I don’t know where they get the energy. I’m just enjoying not doing anything.”
Carol laughed. “You’ll get used to it. Once you sort out his routine, you’ll breeze through the days. Most of the time, at least.”
Alan and Carol were sitting down and watching Bradley run around the playground with Mike, Carol’s son. They had arranged to meet at the local park so the boys could have a short playdate. Their conversation was interrupted when Alan’s phone went off.
“Alan Thrush.” Alan’s attention was concentrated on Bradley as the young boy started climbing on the equipment with his friend following.
“Mr. Thrush, this is Helen Chambers from Trent, McDonald & Associates.”
It was a few seconds before Alan’s mind engaged and he realised it was from Lisa’s solicter. “Yes? Is something wrong?”
“Not really, but we thought we should inform you of developments. Are you able to come in to see us today? If not, we can do this over the phone, but I think it’d be better if it was face to face.”
Alan didn’t like the sound of that. “Can you tell me what’s happened? I’ve got a busy day, but if it’s urgent, I can change my plans.”
“Thank you, Mr. Thrush. The papers we filed that assign you as the guardian for Bradley and Troy Lynton are being challenged. We just need to know if you want to defend your guardianship.”
“What?” Alan pulled the phone away to stare at it for a moment. He put it back against his ear. “What’s going on? Who’s challenging it?”
“Based on the fax we received this morning, Henry and Penelope Lynton, Bradley’s and Troy’s paternal grandparents, have applied to be appointed guardians instead. Do you want us to try to stop them? The law is very much on your side if you want to maintain custody of the two boys.”
“Fuck, yes!” Alan glared in Bradley’s direction before wincing as he realised what Carol had just heard. He wasn’t going to let the boys go without a fight. “Do you still want me to come in to see you? I can be there in thirty minutes if you want.”
“That would be good, Mr. Thrush. There are number of options to consider, and your input would be invaluable. Are you available after lunch? I’ve an appointment with another client shortly, but I’m free at one.”
“That’s fine. And thanks.”
“My pleasure. One o’clock it is. Bye for now.”
Carol put a tentative hand on Alan’s arm. “What’s wrong?”
Alan gave her a quick summary of the situation, leaving out the history. Though she had obliquely asked earlier if he was single, Alan hadn’t told her about Peter.
“You’re going to fight to keep the boys?” Carol asked.
She smiled. “I believe the phrase is ‘Fuck, yes!’, right?”
Alan chuckled at her adroit acknowledgement of his swearing. “Yeah, I suppose it is.” He scowled. “Why don’t they just leave us alone?”
Bradley came up and stood sheepishly in front of Alan. “It wasn’t my fault, Uncle Alan. It just happened!”
Alan refocused his attention on the boy in front of him. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t be angry. Please?”
Alan forced a smile onto his face. “I’m not angry with you. Just with someone else. What is it, Bradley?”
The young boy held up a stick that had several green leaves attached. “It just came off in my hand when I grabbed it. I didn’t mean to break the tree.”
Alan grinned and pulled the boy onto his lap. “These things happen, but the tree will be just fine. Now, how would you like to go see Uncle Peter for lunch again? It seems we have to go back to Greensborough for some things.”
After getting Bradley’s agreement and realising he shouldn’t have phrased what they were doing as a question just in case Bradley had answered no, Alan thanked Carol Smith and apologised for the truncated playdate before agreeing to ring her later to set another date. He was slowly realising that Bradley needed the breaks as much as he did.
* * *
“Thanks for coming in, Mr. Thrush,” Helen Chambers said as she stretched out a hand.
Alan had been mildly surprised when he met Helen. He had dealt with Phillip McDonald on his previous visit to Lisa’s soliciters. Helen was an attractive young woman with a no-nonsense air about her.
“Please call me Alan,” he said, shaking her hand.
“Okay, Alan. I’ve got a meeting room booked just down the hall. Hopefully this won’t take long.” She glanced momentarily at Bradley. “Melanie can mind him unless you need him with you.”
Alan looked in the direction of the receptionist, who smiled back at him. “I’ve got some books and some paper and pencils. I’m sure I can keep the handsome young man occupied.”
Alan thought for a moment, and decided he didn’t want Bradley to hear some of the things he might have to say. “I’d appreciate that. Thank you, Melanie.”
“It’ll be my pleasure.”
A couple of minutes later, Alan and Helen were secluded in a small conference room. Helen put a manila folder on the table between them.
“I’ll get straight to the point. We don’t expect any real problems with getting this application rejected because the wishes of the parents are very clear. We can even get your sister to reiterate them, though we expect to hear an argument that she’s not currently capable of making a rational decision because of the drugs she’s taking. Even if a judge buys the argument that Mr. and Mrs. Lynton would be better guardians that you, the desires of the parents carry a lot of weight. And I can’t see it going before a judge anyway, because there’s no legal reason to contest the existing guardianship.”
Her steady gaze across the table unsettled Alan. She made him feel like he was a naughty little boy who had better tell her everything she wanted to know. “Then why did you want me to come in?”
“Because we don’t expect this to be the last attempt. With these matters, people don’t give up easily. Also, we need to know what this is all about. Grandparents generally don’t ignore their children’s instructions unless there’s a conflict. The more background we have, the better job we can do. So…what’s really going on?”
Alan glanced around the room as he thought. The prints on the wall showed mountain landscapes and gentle seascapes. The latter introduced the irrelevant thought about the annual holiday to the Sunshine Coast that he and Peter took in November. He wondered if that was still going to happen this year. With a shake of his head he cleared that from his mind and concentrated on the lawyer’s request. He realised that if he didn’t tell her, she might get ambushed by Craig’s parents’ lawyer.
“The problem is that they’ve found out that I’m in a same-sex relationship, and they don’t think I’m an appropriate person to bring up young boys. They tried to take them from us at the funeral.”
“They being Mr. and Mrs. Lynton?”
“Yes, though it was more Mrs. Lynton than her husband.” He paused as a thought struck him. “I’d also like to keep Lisa out of this if at all possible. She doesn’t need the stress of knowing there’s a fight over her kids. I’d prefer it if we can handle this without her knowing.
“I see.” Helen pursed her lips as her brow wrinkled. “I won’t promise, but we’ll see what we can do.” She scribbled some notes onto a piece of paper. “What’s your partner’s name?”
Helen didn’t lift her head as she continued to write. “And do either you have any criminal record?”
“No!” Alan’s glare across the table was wasted as the lawyer didn’t look up.
“Have either of you ever been charged with anything? Especially any sexual offenses even if the charges were later dropped or dismissed.”
Alan planted both hands on the table as he stood and leant forward. “What the bloody hell is it with these questions? You’re acting like you’re on her side!”
Helen met Alan’s angry expression with a calm indifference. “I’m asking because if you have anything like that and the other side finds out about it, they’ll use it against you. I want to be prepared. The one situation where your guardianship can be legally challenged is if either of you is considered to be a risk to the children. If either of you has a criminal record, the Lyntons could use that to invoke a child-protection order.”
Alan was partly mollified, though he still hated the way the accusation had hung in the air. “No. I’ve never been charged with anything, and neither has Peter.”
“Do either of you have any experience or qualifications that will indicate you’re able to raise two young boys?” Helen glanced at one of the documents in front of her. “You’re listed as a motor mechanic. What does your partner do for a living?”
“He’s a salesman.” Alan thought for a moment. “I can’t think of any special qualifications, though Peter has a Senior First Aid rating through his work.”
Helen sniffed. “That’s a plus, I suppose.”
“What the hell do you expect? We’re not parents!”
Helen gave him a faint smile, the first sign Alan had seen that she wasn’t an emotionless automaton. “Calm down, Alan. If I appear negative, it’s because I’m trying to think like the other side. Unless we’re prepared to counter all of their arguments, they just might sway the department to their point of view.”
Alan dropped his gaze. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Department?”
“The Department of Human Services. That includes child protection, and I think you have to be ready for a visit from a department investigator checking if there are legitimate grounds to any accusations made against you. Getting back to what we were doing, I’m presuming both you and…” she checked her notes, “… Peter are employed full time. What arrangements do you have in place for looking after the boys while you’re working?”
Alan pulled a face. “We’re still trying to work that out. Troy’s easy; Peter will drop him off at a school before he goes to work, and I’ll start work early so I can pick him up as soon as school finishes. Bradley’s the problem. I’ve been looking around for child-care places, but I can’t find anything. I know I need to find him care that’s good quality or the Lyntons will try to use that against me. I’ve got him somewhere temporary for next week, and a neighbour has offered to take him a couple of days a week, but we still don’t know what we’ll be doing for the rest.”
Alan swallowed an ‘oh, shit’ thought as he realised that there was yet another thing they had to do before the following week. They would have to buy and fit child seats to Peter’s car if he was going to transport the boys. Alan felt like banging his head on the desk in front of him; there always seemed to be one more thing that had to be done.
“Good, good.” Helen was busy writing while nodding her head.
“Good? What do you mean?”
She glanced up. “It means that you’ve already started to do what’s required. No one is going to expect everything to fall into place, so it’s important that you’re looking for solutions and planning ahead. Exactly what any decent parent would be doing.”
For the first time since he had sat down, Alan felt some relief. She was telling him that he wasn’t a complete failure.
* * *
“Burnside Crash Repairs, Merideth speaking. How may I help you?”
The spiel just rolled off Merideth Burnside’s tongue without her really being conscious of what she was saying. She had been working at her husband’s business for almost ten years and was the emergency receptionist as well as the Human Resources manager.
“Merry, just the person I wanted to speak to. I need to ask for a favour.”
Merideth frowned for a moment until she recognised the voice. “Alan! I didn’t expect to hear from you until next week. Is there something wrong?” She hadn’t been home when Alan had rung the weekend before, but Bob had filled her in on the situation and his decision to give Alan the time off. They had also privately decided that they wouldn’t be taking the days from Alan’s annual-leave allowance. The business was doing well enough to absorb the cost for a week.
“Sort of,” Alan replied to her question. “I’ve got a problem with picking up Troy after school. I need to ask if it’s okay if I start work early from now on. I’ve got someone who’ll drop the boys off in the morning if I can pick them up in the afternoon. If I can start at seven, I can pick up Troy just after he’s finished school.”
Merideth knew what Alan was talking about. One of the advantages of being married to the boss was that there wasn’t an issue with leaving work in the afternoon so she could pick up her kids.
“I don’t see a problem, though Bob’s going to bitch about going in early on Monday. I’ll get a key cut for you so you can do the opening up in the future.”
“Thanks, Merry. I really appreciate it.”
“Don’t worry about it. If there’s anything we can do to help out, just let me know.”
“Well…there is something else. Do you know if there’s a child-care place near the garage? I’ve got Bradley in a place temporarily for a week, but I can’t find anywhere around here to leave him long term.”
“How about I ring around for you? There’s the place where we sent Stuart and Lilly, but given the short notice, I don’t know if they’ll have any free places. How long do you need child care for? How long until your sister gets out of hospital?”
“Thanks! If you can do that, it’d be great. Yeah, I’ve been finding out about how scarce spare spots are.” There was a short pause on the phone line before Alan continued. “They’re talking about Lisa being in hospital for months. It could be up to six. I’m going to be looking after my nephews for at least that long.”
Merideth swallowed her surprise. “Okay, I’ll start checking it out as soon as I get off the phone. Take care, Alan, and if you need anything else, don’t hesitate to ring.”
“Thanks, Merry. I’ll see you on Monday, then. Bye!”
Merideth didn’t start making phone calls but sat thinking for a couple of minutes. She then went in search of her husband. She found him working underneath a BMW alongside their newest apprentice.
“Bob? When you get a chance, can you come and see me? There’s something I need to discuss with you,” she said to his boots.
Bob Burnside slid the trolley out and sat up. “Give me a few minutes to finish up here and I’ll be with you. What is it about?”
Merideth shook her head as Dave, the apprentice, slid out to join them. “It’s private.”
Bob frowned. “Okay. I’ll see you soon.”
Merideth smiled and then nodded at the young man. “And could you see me before you go home tonight, Dave? You forgot to sign your tax-declaration form.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Burnside.”
She laughed. “Call me Merry.”
Ten minutes later, Bob came into her office, wiping his hands on a small grease-stained hand towel. “What’s up, Merry?”
“Close the door, Bob, and have a seat.”
Bob did as he was told while chuckling. “When you say it like that, I wonder if you’re about to fire me.”
Merideth’s lips twisted into a smile. “Very funny. Sorry, but a situation’s cropped up.”
Bob frowned. “Something serious from the way you’re acting.”
“Potentially serious, and I’m really not sure what to do. We don’t have to do anything yet, but I want to be prepared just in case.”
“Well, spit it out. I can’t help if you don’t tell me what’s going on.”
Merideth pursed her lips for a moment before speaking. “First the good news. You’re starting work early on Monday. You need to be here at seven.”
“If this is some sort of joke, it’s not funny. I don’t get out of bed until seven!”
She chuckled. “Do you think I don’t know that? No, seriously, you need to be here at seven, but only for Monday.”
Bob narrowed his eyes. “Why? And why did you say that’s the good news?”
“Because I spoke with Alan earlier. He’s asked if he can start early so he can pick up his nephew after school.”
Bob nodded. “That’s reasonable. Okay, just for Monday. I presume I’ll be giving him the spare set of keys so he can open up in future?”
“Yes, but I’ll get a new set of keys cut today rather than giving him the spares.”
“Sounds good to me. How’s Alan doing? Is he okay?”
“That’s the other point. He sounded fine, but I’ve got grave doubts about how productive he’s going to be as an employee. I’m thinking we’re going to have look at options, including letting him go.”
“Let him go? Never! He’s never caused any problems, and he more than pulls his own weight.” Bob paused and calmed down a notch. “What’s got you concerned, Merry?”
Merideth smiled at her husband. He reacted as she had expected, and she agreed with his opinion about Alan, but she knew what it was like to bring up kids and had a better idea of what Alan was going through. “Alan’s got two boys to look after. One’s at school, but I’ve just learnt that the other is still too young. He seems to have the first organised, but he can’t work if there’s no one to mind the other boy. He’s asked me to see if there’s any child-care places around here, which tells me that he’ll be looking after the boys long-term. I’m about to do that, but I don’t expect to find any, at least none that will be able to take someone at such short notice.”
“Oh.” Bob’s expression told Merideth that he understood.
“Exactly. And that’s where I’m torn. We’ve managed this week by having you help out on the shop floor—and you can’t tell me that you haven’t enjoyed getting your hands dirty again—but we can’t go on indefinitely that way. I expect Alan is going to find himself caught between his job and his responsibilities for his nephews…and you can guess which one I think has to take priority.”
Bob nodded. “Family has to come first. But he’s going to need an income, too.”
“I know, but we’re not a charity. No matter how much it pains me, if he can’t put in the hours, I don’t think we can afford to keep him.”
“How certain are you that this is going to happen?”
“Not certain, but I’m reasonably confident. I hope it doesn’t, but we have to plan for the worst case.”
Bob thought for a moment. “Start planning, but we’re not doing anything—or even hinting to Alan—until we know for sure.” Bob turned to stare through the window that overlooked the main workshop. “And I’ll be hoping that you’re just wasting your time.”
Merideth hoped so, too, but she didn’t think so.
* * *
Alan was on the phone while Peter and the boys were watching television. Dinner had been a struggle, with both boys objecting to the meal that Alan had prepared. It turned out it wasn’t their usual Friday-night meal, and they were both put out that they were given ‘new foods’ instead. It took both Peter and Alan’s conjoling to get the boys to try the chicken-and-cashew stir fry, though neither boy ate a lot. Alan admitted defeat in the end, though he didn’t tell the boys, and allowed them to have large bowls of ice cream to finish off the meal.
Afterwards, Peter took the boys into the bathroom to clean their teeth. Troy did his own, though Bradley insisted that someone do it for him. While Peter was busy, Alan rang the hospital to have a chat with Lisa. It was only then that he learnt that the boys were often cranky on a Friday night, especially if they hadn’t had any snacks immediately after school.
Alan chatted with Lisa for a few minutes more before she asked if she could say hello to her boys.
“Just a sec and I’ll see.” Alan turned to Troy who was watching TV with his brother and Peter. “Troy, would you like to speak to Mummy? She wants to know what you did at school today.”
Troy looked up and pulled a face. “Do I have to? The Simpsons are on!”
Alan stared down at him and tried to use a stern expression. “I really think she’d like to speak to you. It won’t take long, and then you can go back to watching TV.”
“Oh, okay, then.”
Alan handed over the phone to Troy.
“Hello, Mummy. This is Troy.”
Alan was surprised at the polite and formal tone that Troy used. He guessed that the young boy had learnt that at school because he hadn’t heard him use it before.
Troy’s forehead wrinkled as he concentrated. “I played with Ethan a bit—and Ryan. Oh, and Penny, too, but not for long. She’s too rough.”
After listening for a bit longer, Troy smiled. “I’ll check.” He pulled the phone away from his face and yelled at his brother. “Bradley! Mummy wants to talk to you!”
Bradley looked up, as did Peter at the loud voice. An ad break had just started, so Bradley clambered to his feet and walked over to accept the phone from Troy.
“Mummy? I’ve had a really fun day! You’ll never guess what Uncle Alan and I have been doing!” Bradley started.
A smile crept over Alan’s face as listened to Bradley’s enthusiastic side of the conversation. It was interesting listening to what Bradley thought was important.
Bradley still had the phone at his ear when he glanced at the television. “Mummy, can I talk to Daddy? I want to tell him about my day before The Simpsons starts again.”
Alan was horrified. He leapt forward and snatched the phone. “My turn to speak to your mummy now, Bradley. Why don’t you go back to Uncle Peter and watch TV?” He glanced over to his partner who was already up and heading over to collect Bradley.
Troy frowned at his younger brother. “Daddy’s in heaven. You can’t speak to him there.”
Peter took Bradley’s hand and led him over to Troy. “Come on, Bradley. The Simpsons are on TV again.”
Bradley sat next to his brother. “But I could speak to Mummy. Why couldn’t I speak to Daddy, too?” He started to blubber. “I just want to talk to Daddy!”
Alan put the phone to his ear while he let Peter handle the issue. “Sorry, Lisa. Are you okay?”
He heard a sniffling sound. “I’m okay,” she said, though the choked sound contradicted her statement. “I heard part of what Troy just said. What did Bradley say?”
Alan moved away so the boys wouldn’t be able to overhear. “He seems to think you’re in Heaven with Craig. Don’t worry, we’ll explain to both of them that you’re just in hospital and you’ll eventually be coming home again.” Alan paused. “Maybe we should try to bring them back into the hospital again soon?”
“No! Not until I’m looking more like their mummy again. I don’t want them having nightmares with how I look now.”
“Okay, Lisa. We’ll wait until then.”
“Give them a big hug and kiss from me, please, Alan. And give one to Peter, too. I really appreciate what you’re doing for me.”
“Thanks, Lisa. I’ll do that.” Alan’s eyes watered as he heard the pain in his sister’s voice, a pain that wasn’t just physical.
* * *
Alan looked up in surprise when the doorbell rang. After a glance at where Peter was playing with the two boys prior to sending them to bed, he went to answer the door. He was wondering if it would be someone come to express sympathy for Craig or, worse, someone who didn’t know.
Alan’s jaw dropped at the two grinning faces. “Steve? Keidan? What are you doing here?”
Steve turned to his stocky boyfriend. “Isn’t Alan wonderful? We make the effort to come all the way out here to Watsonia to see him and Peter, and he acts like he doesn’t want us.”
Keidan smiled and ignored Steve’s mock hurt. “G’day, Alan. Can we come in, or should we just party here on the doorstep.”
Alan stepped back and waved them in. “It’s good to see you, but I thought Peter told you we couldn’t make it tonight?”
Steve’s head was twisting and turning, his long hair falling across his eyes as he peered around the house. “A lovely place you’ve got here. Your sister shows good taste.”
Keidan, who, despite the temperature, was wearing his traditional, skintight T-shirt to show off his upper-body muscle tone, smiled. “Peter did, so Steve and I decided we’d come out to see you. Just because you can’t go out, that doesn’t mean we have to stay at home. Steve complained the whole way, of course. Seven thirty on a Friday night is way too early as far as he’s concerned, but Peter told me the boys’ bedtime is eight, and we wanted to see the kids.”
Steve stripped off his cream sweater. “Get the story right, Keidan. I wanted to see the boys—I love kids. You just wanted your old drinking partners to keep you company while you watch the footy.” Steve paused at the entrance to the lounge room. “And there they are. Aren’t they simply adorable!”
When Alan stepped up next to the lanky blond, he could see Troy and Bradley hovering behind Peter, who had just risen to his feet.
“Steve! What are you doing here?” Peter grinned as he stepped forward to give Steve an air peck on the cheek and then give Keidan a handshake that quickly changed into backslapping hug. “It’s good to see you both, but I didn’t expect you to come out to see us.”
“It’s Friday night. We always meet up on Friday night; you should know that.” Steve dropped down on one knee and smiled at the two boys. “Hi, I’m Steve. I’m a friend of Alan and Peter. What are your names?”
Troy stayed behind Peter. “I’m Troy, and this is my brother, Bradley.” Troy frowned. “Are you a boy or a girl?”
Keidan burst out laughing, while Alan and Peter chuckled. Steve threw them all dirty looks before smiling back at the boys. “I’m a boy. I just talk a bit like a girl.” He tossed his head to make his hair flick back. “And I love having long hair.”
Bradley gave Steve a shy smile. “You’re funny.”
Steve glanced back at the other three adults. “See? Someone appreciates me.”
“We all appreciate you, Steve, but you have to admit it was hilarious,” Keidan said.
Steve put on a haughty expression. “I don’t see why I should.” He smiled at Troy. “Do you think it was funny?”
“What? Sorry. Pardon?” Troy asked, looking confused.
“And so polite! I think you and your brother are wonderful. What sorts of games do you like to play?” Steve asked.
While Steve chatted with the boys, Keidan turned to Peter and Alan. “Steve thought you two might be needing some adult company, so we decided to drop in and say hello. We’re moving our regular Friday night get-together to here instead of the pub.” He smiled. “So, where’s the beer?”
Peter looked at Alan who shrugged. “Unless there’s some hidden, we don’t have any,” Alan said. “Sorry. I’ve been too busy running around to think about alcohol.”
“That’s easily fixed. There has to be a bottle shop around here somewhere.” Keidan suddenly reached up, grabbed Alan’s chin and moved it from side to side while staring intently. As Alan pulled back, Keidan nodded to himself. “You need some time off, I think. Why don’t you and Peter get some beer while Steve and I mind the boys? Give yourself half an hour by yourselves.”
Alan was conflicted. The idea of not being responsible for the boys, even for only a short time, was very tempting, but he was afraid something would happen while he wasn’t there. A burst of laughter from the room drew his attention. Steve was having a wrestling contest with Troy and Bradley. The two boys had Steve crying for mercy—in between giggles.
“Thirty minutes isn’t that long.” Peter put a hand on Alan’s arm. “You haven’t stopped since last weekend. Keidan and Steve will be fine for that long.”
“But I’m the one who’s supposed to be looking after the boys.” Alan’s protest was weak.
Keidan grinned. “Steve and I look after his sister’s kids regularly. Don’t worry; just go and take some time off.”
A couple of minutes later, Alan and Peter were in the car and heading into Greensborough.
“I think there’s a bottle shop in Watsonia somewhere, but I know there’s one at the shopping centre, next to the supermarket on the ground floor,” Peter said as he drove along the suburban roads. “We’ll have to go for a look on the weekend to see what’s around.” He started to smile, but it died almost immediately. “It’s a bit like moving into a new place.”
“We have moved into a new place. It just wasn’t expected.” Alan stared out the window. “We should start thinking about what we want to do with our old place. We’re not going to be back there for months.”
“I was thinking about that this afternoon after our chat about finances. It’ll make things a lot easier if we just let it go and find another place to rent when your sister moves back home. Annoying, but it’ll save us a bucketload of money.” Peter frowned. “Do you know how the mortgage on your sister’s place is paid? Is there an account we need to make sure it has enough money in it?”
Alan thought for a moment. “I think I remember seeing a large deduction from one of their bank accounts. That might be the mortgage payment. I’ll have to check when we get back.” He pursed his lips. “I wonder how much they still owe? If it’s less than the money they got from Craig’s insurance and super, it might be a good idea to pay it off. Steve’s an accountant; we can ask his advice when we get back.”
“Good idea.” Peter paused as he pulled into the Greensborough Plaza carpark. “We should get some snacks, too, while we’re here. I don’t know what’s in the pantry.”
“Not much,” Alan admitted. “Grocery shopping hasn’t been a high priority. I only grabbed a few essentials earlier today after visiting the solicitor.”
Peter smiled. “Why don’t I take over that job in the future? I can do the shopping immediately after work since I’m here anyway.”
It was almost twenty minutes later that they headed to the car, laden down with a slab of beer and a couple of bags of nibblies—chips and nuts for themselves and Steve, and rice crackers and something from the health-food aisle for Keidan. Alan and Peter weren’t sure what it was, but they both thought that they had seen him eat it before.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t get a couple of bottles of wine?” Alan asked.
“Steve’ll drink beer, and he’s driving, so he won’t be drinking that much, anyway.”
“Keidan drinks wine, too.”
Peter smiled and snorted. “I know. Steve’s been teaching him to enjoy ‘the better things in life’. Keidan’s too nice a guy to tell him that beer’s the only real drink.”
“Watch it, mister. I like a good red, too.” Alan dropped his mock anger. “Unfortunately, the good ones are just too expensive.”
“I’m good, and I’m cheap.” Peter kept a straight face for less than a second before grinning.
Alan laughed long and loud, attracting some quizzical stares from the other late-night shoppers. “Okay, this was a good idea of Steve’s and Keidan’s. I’m feeling relaxed for the first time all week.”
“It shows,” Peter said quietly. “You’ve been tense, which isn’t you. You haven’t really laughed like that since the accident.”
Alan sighed and dropped his eyes to the concrete floor of the carpark as he trudged along. “I know. I still get overwhelmed at times. I just don’t know if I’m being unreasonably stubborn in insisting that I look after the boys. Craig’s parents could probably do a better job; they’ve got experience.”
Peter took a couple of quick steps to get in front of his partner and then turned and stopped. “You wait just a second, Alan.” Peter’s stern voice made Alan look up at him. “We’re effectively new parents. No one has experience the first time; they all just have to muddle their way through. It’s sudden, and we weren’t prepared, but we’ll do a great job looking after Troy and Bradley. And it’s ‘we’, not just you. I’m here, too, and I’ll do my part. You’re not alone in this.”
Alan gave him a wry smile. “Thanks, Peter. You don’t know how much that helps, but it does.” He glanced at his watch. “We’d better get a move on. It’ll be the boys’ bedtime soon.”
They resumed their walk to the car. “It doesn’t matter if they stay up a little later tonight. Not too late, but we don’t have to be too strict about it. They don’t have anything they need to do tomorrow,” Peter said.
They arrived home just after eight. When they entered the house, they found Keidan lying on the couch, watching a football game. He glanced up as they entered. “About time! Did they have to brew the beer for you? I’ve been dying of thirst here.”
Alan smiled. “What? You can’t watch footy without a beer?”
“No. It’s against the rules—or something. At least that’s what I’ve always been told.”
Alan looked around. “Where’s Steve and the boys?”
Keidan returned his attention to the game. “Steve wanted to show them something on the computer.” He paused for a moment. “I think it was a porn site, because they’re the only sort Steve visits.”
“Porn!” Alan was horrified.
“I think so. The kids kept asking him questions about why he talks like a girl if he’s a boy. Steve said he’d show them the difference between the two.”
Alan and Peter exchanged worried glances and then raced to the study. They found Steve leaning over Troy, who was sitting at the computer.
Bradley was jumping up and down with excitment. “Click harder! Click harder!”
“Good one, Troy! Just three to go and then it’ll be Bradley’s turn,” Steve said.
“Steve…” Alan started, but stopped when he caught sight of the screen. He wasn’t sure what it was, but they certainly weren’t looking at pornography.
Steve looked up. “Oh, hi, Alan, Peter. Troy told me that they often play games on the computer, so I’ve shown them the Lego site, and they’re having a ball.”
“Keiden told us that you were showing the boys…er…inappropriate things,” Peter said.
Steve fixed them both with a steely gaze, one at odds with his usual affiable attitude. “Did you seriously think I’d do something like that? How long have you known me? And how many times have you fallen for one of Keiden’s tall stories?”
Alan felt himself going red, knowing the answer to that last question was ‘too often’.
“Sorry,” Peter mumbled. He stepped forward and stared at the computer. “What are they doing?”
“Playing a game, of course.” Steve grinned at Bradley. “Would you like to tell them about it, since Peter and Alan obviously don’t know anything about the important stuff?”
“It’s called Brick Buster, and it’s really cool. We get to blow up bricks and everything!”
Alan left Peter listening to the details of the game, while he headed to the kitchen to organise the snacks. He decided the boys could stay up until half past eight and could skip their bath. Friday night’s would be a special time for them to spend with the boys.
Alan took a bowl of corn chips and a couple of dips into the lounge room. He paused when he noticed that Keidan was the only one in the room.
“I’m not sure I should be giving this to you after you lied about Steve showing the boys a porn site.”
Keidan looked up and gave Alan an innocent look. “What do you mean?”
“They weren’t watching porn. They were playing computer games.”
Keidan grinned. “Was Bradley still jumping up and down excitedly?”
Alan narrowed his eyes. He knew he was being set up for something, but he didn’t know what. “Yeah.”
“He looked like he was getting all hot and bothered when I looked in on him,” Keidan said.
“Well, if something makes a guy all hot, bothered and excited, isn’t that the definition of porn?”
Steve appeared at the other end of the room, with two young shadows. “Ignore him, Alan. Everything’s porn to him.”
Keidan appeared hurt. “Who, me?”
* * *
Alan pulled the doona up to Bradley’s chin. “Night, Bradley. You can sleep in as long as you like tomorrow.”
Bradley slipped his arms out from underneath the cover and held them straight towards Alan. Alan took the hint and leant forward so the little boy could put his arms around Alan’s neck.
“Love you, Uncle Alan.”
“Love you too, Bradley.” Alan kissed his forehead. “Sleep tight.”
Bradley grinned. “And dream of bedbugs tonight!”
Alan untangled himself from Bradley’s grasp and slipped out of the room. He smiled at Peter as they passed in the corridor and then headed in to say goodnight to Troy.
A couple of minutes later both guys were in the living room.
“It was a good night,” Peter said.
“Yeah. I’m really glad Steve and Keidan showed up. The boys stayed up a lot longer than they probably should’ve—Troy could barely keep his eyes open at the end—but they had fun. They’ll sleep soundly tonight.”
Peter smirked at Alan and winked. “They will indeed. How about we take advantage of that?”
Alan smiled. “I’d love to, but I’m knackered. Sorry, Peter. I’m going to bed and crashing. It’s been a long day. Indeed, a long week.”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Yeah, of course, Alan.” Peter moved over and gave Alan a gentle kiss on the lips. “I’m going to stay up a bit longer, but you go and get some sleep. Tomorrow, we’ll see what we can do—all four of us.”
Alan was grateful. “A family day?” he asked with a quirky grin.
Peter laughed. “Yeah, a family day.”
Copyright Notice - Copyright © November 2016 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's express permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank C James for providing feedback on the early drafts, and rec for his invaluable editing. I would also like to thank Ricky for that crucial final review before publication.