The visits by Steve and Keidan on Friday nights were turning into a tradition. Keidan raised his beer bottle in a salute. “Congratulations, guys! I’m guessing that getting a pass from the department means there’ll be no more problems from the Lyntons.”
Alan and Peter exchanged glances. Alan then looked over to where Steve was playing with Troy and Bradley. The two boys had been looking forward to another Fun Friday, and Steve hadn’t disappointed them. The three were on the ground playing Twister, with Steve going out of his way to make the boys laugh at his contortions.
“There shouldn’t be, but I don’t think they’ll give up. I have no idea what they’ll do next, though.” Alan grimaced. “I’m crossing my fingers that it’s over, but I can’t help worry that it’s not.”
Peter put his arm around Alan’s waist and pulled him in tight. “I sincerely doubt there’s much more they can do. With a green light from the government, I can’t think of any options they still have available to them that have a decent chance of success.”
“I hope you’re right.” Alan smiled and gave Peter a quick kiss.
Keidan grinned. “Now that that’s over, how about you two rescue my boyfriend? Troy and Bradley are tying him up in knots.”
Alan glanced over to see what was going on and then laughed. Steve was precariously balanced over Troy with his body twisted and his back arched. Alan knew that Steve had put himself into that position deliberately as part of his weekly effort to have fun with the boys. Alan turned to Peter, grinned, and raised an eyebrow while miming a pushing action. Peter grinned back and nodded.
The two guys crept over and then gave Steve a soft shove. As expected, Steve went tumbling, causing Troy to collapse, too. Steve rolled so he didn’t land on Troy but in the process knocked over Bradley.
Bradley frowned at Alan and Peter as he sat up. “That’s cheating!”
Alan smiled down at his nephew. “True, but it was fun. How about Peter and I play with you guys next and Steve gets to try to make us fall over?”
Troy grabbed the spinner. “I’m going first!”
“Not fair! You went first last time!”
Steve quickly intervened. “It’s Bradley’s turn to go first, Troy.” He leant forward and lowered his voice in a mock whisper that everyone could hear. “Try tickling Uncle Alan when he looks like he’s going to fall over.”
Troy grinned, and his gaze flicked to Peter for a moment. “Can I tickle Uncle Peter, too?”
“Of course! It’s in the rules. All grownups can be tickled while playing Twister.”
Keidan leant over and whispered in Alan’s ear. “I’m going to remember that rule. Steve challenged me to a game of nude Twister tomorrow night.”
Alan blushed. He knew Steve and Keidan had a fun sex life, but he didn’t need to know the details.
* * *
Late the next morning, after Alan had picked up Bradley from his playdate with Sam, Troy crossed his arms and glared up at his uncle. “I don’t want to go! I want to go to Robbie’s house!”
Alan squatted down so he was closer to his nephew’s height. “Maybe you can go to see Robbie tomorrow, though we’ll need to make sure he’ll be home. But we’ve been invited to a barbecue today, and that’s where we’re going.”
“I don’t want to go!”
Alan glanced across at where Peter was packing the ubiquitous bag of snacks and other supplies they now took everywhere, hoping for some advice but only receiving a helpless shrug in response. Alan then looked to his mother who simply raised an eyebrow and stared back. Alan sighed as he realised that it was up to him to resolve the situation.
“I’m sorry, Troy, but we’re going.” Alan tried to make his tone firm. A fleeting memory of Bob’s and Merideth’s backyard surfaced, and Alan seized on the opportunity while mentally keeping his fingers crossed that things hadn’t changed. “I didn’t mention it before, but there’s a slide and swing where we’re going, so you’ll be able to play while we’re there. There’ll be a couple of other kids, too, though they’re a bit older than you.”
Troy paused in thought and then scowled. “I don’t want to go. I want to go play with Robbie!”
“You can play with Robbie another day. Going to Bob’s and Merry’s place is something we won’t be doing very often, so it’s a special treat.” Alan was hoping it would be a special treat, because otherwise he was going to have one very sullen boy on his hands. Alan suspected that Troy felt jealous because Bradley had spent the morning playing with his friend; it was now Troy’s turn to do the same.
“I don’t care. I’m not going!”
Alan could feel himself starting to lose control. He rose to his full height and scowled down at his nephew. “Yes, you are.”
“You don’t get to choose, Troy. All four of us are going to the barbecue and that’s that.”
“I hate you! I don’t want you anymore. I want my mummy!” Troy turned and stormed off towards his bedroom.
Alan froze. That was the first time since the accident that either boy had invoked Lisa in such a way. “Troy, I…” Alan didn’t know what to say.
“Leave this with me,” Rosalie said as she started to follow Troy.
“Mum, are you sure?”
Rosalie paused and glanced back over her shoulder at Alan. “He didn’t mean it, Alan, but for now he needs either me or Peter. Since I’m flying back to Queensland tomorrow, I’m playing the grandmother card and spending some time with my grandson.”
As he watched her disappear, Alan found himself being wrapped in Peter’s arm. He sighed and rested his head on his partner’s shoulder.
“Your mum’s right. He didn’t mean it,” Peter said. “He’s just angry because he’s not getting his own way and said whatever came into his mind.”
“But it did enter his mind.” Alan twisted around to look Peter in the eye. “Do you think it’s time to take them back in to see Lisa?”
Peter gave Alan a light peck on the lips. “Get your mum to ask her while we’re at the barbecue. If Lisa’s okay with the idea, we can take them in tomorrow afternoon after taking your mum to the airport.”
“That makes it a very long day for them. And Troy’s right about going to Robbie’s place to play, too. Bradley got to play with Sam, so Troy should get the chance to play with his friend.”
“Then maybe next weekend. Or one night after school.” Peter cocked his head. “It might do Lisa a world of good, too, if she knows when she’ll be seeing the boys again.”
Alan realised that Peter was right. He smiled and gave his partner a long kiss. “We’ll do that.”
As Peter let him go, Troy entered the room with his head hung low, his grandmother following close behind. He muttered something that Alan couldn’t make out.
“What was that, Troy?” Alan asked as gently as he could.
Troy looked up. His eyes were red, and there were tear streaks down his cheeks. “I’m sorry, Uncle Alan.”
Alan knelt down and held out his arms. Troy hesitated and then rushed forward. He wrapped his arms around Alan’s neck and repeated that he was sorry. Alan lifted him and hugged him tight. Catching Peter’s eye, he tilted his head towards his mum, silently asking him to talk to her about Lisa. He then carried Troy into the lounge room, where Bradley was watching cartoons. They still had another fifteen minutes before they had to leave, and Alan was going to spend that time showering Troy with as much love as he could.
* * *
Rosalie smiled at her daughter. “You’re looking a lot better, Lisa.”
Lisa grimaced. “My hair’s still growing back, and they’ve told me I need another skin graft on my left leg.”
“But we can’t see that, and your hair’s grown back enough that you don’t look too different from how you did before. It’s been three weeks, dear. Do you think it’s time for Alan and Peter to bring the boys back to visit?”
Rosalie didn’t let her surprise at the vehement reaction show as she reached over and put her hand on Lisa’s. “Why not?”
“I can’t hug them properly, not yet, and I can’t give them a real cuddle…” The anguish in Lisa’s eyes was magnified by the tears that started to fall. “I can’t be their mother. I don’t want them to remember me this way.”
“They’ll understand if you can’t hug them, but I think it’s time. You were scared you were going to give them nightmares, and you’re not going to do that now. Please, honey…let the boys come and see you. They need to see you just as much as you need to see them.”
Lisa couldn’t hide her fear. Rosalie knew that Lisa wanted to see her children but was afraid of being rejected again. Rosalie wasn’t sure if there was more to it than that, but she felt the risk of something going wrong was small. The potential gain, both in Lisa’s mental health and in helping the boys remember their mother, vastly outweighed any danger of another bad reaction.
Rosalie had been wondering if she should tell Lisa about Troy’s comment earlier that day but decided against it. She didn’t want Lisa to be worrying about how the boys were feeling; Lisa needed to concentrate on getting better, and that include her mental recovery as well as the physical.
“If you’re not ready just yet, why don’t we work out when the boys can come in?” Rosalie smiled. “How about next weekend?”
“No!” Lisa swallowed and then gnawed at her lower lip. Rosalie waited patiently. “Maybe the week after?”
“That sounds like a good idea.” Rosalie patted Lisa’s hand as she smiled at her daughter. “I’ll let Alan know when they get home.”
“Where have they gone?”
Rosalie chuckled, hoping the change of topic would distract Lisa. “Alan’s boss has invited him, Peter, and the boys to a barbecue.”
Lisa gave her a weak smile. “I didn’t think Alan was out at work.”
“He wasn’t, but circumstances have changed, and he finally took the plunge.” Rosalie grinned. “He was getting nervous when I left. It’ll be the first time Peter’s met Bob and Merideth.”
* * *
Peter and Merideth stood on the back porch watching Troy and Bradley play with Merideth’s eight-year-old daughter. Tahlia had grabbed the two boys as soon as they had arrived and dragged them into the backyard. Merideth had grinned and told Alan and Peter than Tahlia had been planning what games to play ever since she had been told about the two boys. One of Bob’s employees was also in the yard being supervised by his girlfriend as he set up a totem-tennis set. Merideth mentioned that Tahlia was planning on challenging the boys to a game after lunch.
While Peter and Merideth kept an eye on the three kids, Bob’s and Merideth’s oldest child, the eleven-year-old Lionel, was sitting at the far end of the porch playing on his iPad. At the other end of the porch Alan, Bob and two other guys that Peter hadn’t been introduced to yet were by the barbecue, chatting while Bob cooked.
“How does it feel to be responsible for two young kids?” Merideth asked.
Peter shrugged. “It’s a strange experience and not one that I had planned on doing. It’s certainly challenging at times.”
“It certainly is, and it doesn’t stop.” Merideth glanced past Peter to her son and chuckled. “A year ago, Lionel would’ve been out there with Tahlia and the two boys, but he now thinks that playing with his younger sister is for kids. He thinks he’s too old for that.” She winked. “He’s almost a grownup, after all.”
Peter blinked as he looked over his shoulder at the young boy. “Right…” He grinned at Merideth. “Has he started planning for his retirement? It sounds like that’s not too far away.”
Merideth laughed. “No, but I’ll have to mention it to him.” She cocked her head. “How’s Alan coping? I know it’s only been a week since he’s been a full-time parent, but I remember from when I was looking after my two that it can be exhausting.”
“I think he was more exhausted the first couple of weeks. He seems to be settling down now and isn’t as stressed as he was then.”
She made a face. “Yeah…I can appreciate that. It must’ve been a shocking time.” She reached out and put a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “I told Alan, but I’ll tell you, too. If you need any help, don’t hesitate to ask. There’s not a lot we can do, but we’ll do what we can.” A smile played on her lips as she tilted her head towards the three kids playing. “If your boys survive the afternoon, I’m sure Tahlia would love to have them back again. That’ll give you and Alan some time to yourselves. It’s one of the things that I remember the most from when my kids were younger and I wasn’t working; having a break with another adult was worth more than winning the lottery.”
Peter stayed silent for a few seconds. While he and Alan still hadn’t had sex for almost three weeks, at least the night before they had spent some quality time cuddling after Steve and Keidan had gone home. More opportunities for the two of them to be alone were golden, but he couldn’t make commitments for Alan. “Thanks for the advice and offer. I’ll let Alan know, but it’ll be up to him as to what happens. He’s the primary carer.”
“He can’t do this without you, Peter. Did he tell you that we were going to fire him to maximise his finances so he could stay home for the boys, and that the only reason we didn’t is because he told us about you? We know some single parents and have some idea of what it’s like for them. If you weren’t there to support him, he’d be doing it tough.”
“He mentioned it.” Peter wasn’t sure where the conversation was heading.
“He’s going to need you for a long time to come, too. While I’m not surprised he kept you hidden from us for so long—I’ve overheard some of the jokes and comments that are made in the workshop—I’m glad he finally told us.” She gave Peter a wry smile before she swept her gaze over the small number of employees and their guests who were also outside. “Bob and I have had a word with the other guys about cleaning up their act, at least to some degree. I can’t really stop them from talking about girls when there are no customers around, but I can make them tone it down and cut out the homophobic comments. It doesn’t look like anyone is having a problem, so I think things will go well when Alan returns to the workshop.”
Peter smiled. “Thanks. Knowing he’s got a job to go back to means a lot to Alan. He’s always said good things about you and your husband.” He paused before continuing. “He’s not mentioned any problems with homophobia though, at least not to me.”
Merideth shrugged. “Maybe I’m being too sensitive now that I know.” She chuckled in a self-deprecating manner. “Though in hindsight, I shouldn’t have needed the wake-up call to act. We’ve got an obligation to provide a safe workplace, and while we go overboard in that respect when it comes to the physical space, we’ve not done enough when it comes to discrimination. We currently don’t have a female mechanic on the staff, but it’s something that’s been a possibility a couple of times. The guys need to be ready for when that happens, and that includes Bob.” She smiled as she looked over to where her husband and Alan were laughing. “He’s wonderful, but he’s old fashioned in some respects, and he likes to be one of the boys, even though he’s the boss.”
Peter grinned. “I had the impression from Alan that you have him wrapped around your little finger.”
She winked. “I do, but don’t tell him. He doesn’t need to know.” She raised an eyebrow at Peter. “How do you and Alan manage the important decisions? You’ve obviously had a lot of those in the last few weeks.”
“We discuss them, and the two of us come up with mutually acceptable solution.” Peter didn’t want to say too much as she was still essentially a stranger to him, but he knew he couldn’t leave it at that. “Alan’s the one with the legal responsibilities and rights, so I’ve been letting him make the major decisions. So far, though, we’ve agreed on what to do. We worked out that one of us would have to quit his job to look after Bradley. I offered, but Alan pointed out that if something happened, I’m not officially the guardian of either boy. That’s why he’s the one staying at home. After he put it that way, there wasn’t really much of a choice.”
Merideth flinched. “I wish none of this was necessary, but I hope it all works out in the end. Is there any way you can be added as a second legal guardian?”
“Possibly, but it’s not something we’ve looked into.” Peter gave a wry chuckle. “We’ve been a little busy getting ourselves organised.”
“I can appreciate that.” She glanced over at where Bob was transferring food from the barbecue to a serving tray. “It looks like the food is about to be served, so it’s time I returned to my job as the hostess. After you’ve grabbed something to eat, I’ll introduce you to some of Alan’s workmates.”
“Thanks, Merry.” Peter smiled as she walked away. After years of avoiding the issue, it looks like Alan’s coming out at work wasn’t going to be a problem. Peter was happy. It was one less thing to worry about.
* * *
Rosalie smiled at her two grandsons as they galloped into the house. “Did you have fun today?”
The boys’ enthusiastic replies gave her the answer she was hoping to hear. The earlier problem with Troy appeared to be a distant memory for the young boy. Instead, Troy and Bradley were telling her that they wanted to go back again and play with their new friend, Tahlia.
“That sounds wonderful. Now, I don’t know if you’re still hungry, but there are some freshly baked cupcakes in the kitchen. I’m sure your uncles won’t mind if you have one before dinner.” She grinned as the two boys disappeared before she finished speaking.
She saw Alan frowning in the direction of the kitchen and guessed he was going to call out to the boys. “Alan, Peter, while the boys aren’t here, there are some things to discuss.”
The two guys immediately turned their attention to her. Peter put down the bag he was carrying and gave her a quizzical look but didn’t say anything.
“Mum, is something wrong?” Alan asked.
“No, but I didn’t want the boys to hear about this until you’re ready to tell them. Lisa’s agreed to see the boys in two weeks’ time. I won’t be around, but you can take them in on either the Saturday or Sunday. Just let her know so she can be ready.” Rosalie smiled. “She wants to look her best, so don’t surprise her.”
“We can do that.” Alan gave his mother a hug. “Thanks, Mum.”
“Also, Robbie’s parents are happy to take the boys tomorrow afternoon so Troy gets some time with one of his friends. I believe Marcus and Katie will be there, too, though I didn’t explicitly ask if that was the case.” She still wasn’t happy with the parents of those two children, but she wasn’t going to take it out on the kids. “I’ll say goodbye to the boys before they go off to play and then catch a taxi to the airport.”
Alan scowled. “You’re not taking a cab. I’ll drive you.” He hesitated. “I thought we could all go to the airport to see you off. I think the boys would like that.”
Rosalie smiled. “They might, but the drive there and back would bore them to tears. It’s better if they spend time with their friends, especially after Troy’s tantrum this morning. I’ll be back in a few weeks, so it’s not like they’re not going to see me for a long time.”
Alan snorted, a smile playing on his lips. “To them, an hour is a long time. Two or three weeks is an eternity.”
Peter chuckled. “Is there anything else you wanted to tell us before the boys finish gorging themselves on whatever you’ve baked for them?”
She laughed. “No, that’s it. I told Lisa that you’d let her know when you’ll bring the boys. I’ll leave it with you to organise.” She tilted her head towards the kitchen. “Now go before the boys eat everything. I made the cakes for you two as well as them.”
* * *
Alan sighed as they heard the airport announcement calling for all remaining passengers to board the flight to Cairns. “It’s time to go, Mum.”
“I know…” Rosalie stepped forward and gave Alan a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for being here for Lisa and the boys when they needed you. Your father and I will be back as soon as we can.” She then gave Peter a similar kiss. “Look after Alan for me. Don’t let him get too stressed.”
“I’ll do my best.” Peter grabbed her in a quick embrace. “Hurry back.”
“I’ll return as fast as I can, but I’m not going to push it. You and Alan will be fine.”
“And keep that phone charged!” Peter smiled and gave her a gentle shove. “We’ll call you tonight to make sure you arrived safely in Cairns.”
Alan and Peter watched, arms around each other, as Rosalie walked over to the stewardess checking tickets. She wasn’t the last one to board, but there weren’t a lot of other passengers after her.
“I hope there’s no complications once she gets there,” Alan said, resting his head on Peter’s shoulder.
“She said it was all organised, but I agree. I’ve never heard of the airline she’s catching tomorrow morning, though they seem legitimate based on their website. However, once they drop her off, if there’s no one to pick her up, she’s going to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no accommodation—and nowhere to go.”
“We just have to trust her. She said that young aboriginal boy—Thomas?—was going to collect her and drive her to their community. She seemed confident he’ll be there.”
“She knows him, we don’t. He drove her to where the mail plane could pick her up, after all. She trusts him.”
Alan shuddered. “It still scares me. Eighteen and no license…and driving my mum over who-knows-what-quality roads.”
Peter gave him a squeeze. “She promised to ring once she was back with your dad. If we don’t hear from her by tomorrow night, then we can worry. For now, it’s time to go back and collect the boys.”
Alan nodded. As with so many things recently, there wasn’t much he could do except soldier on.
* * *
The next day after dropping Troy off at school, Alan was preparing a bag to take when he and Bradley headed out for another playdate with Carol’s son, Mike. Alan was still settling into a weekly routine, but given how close Mike and Bradley appeared to be, he was willing to take the time to ensure the two young boys had plenty of opportunities to see each other. Other tasks were scheduled around the activities that kept Bradley entertained. Alan was unhappy that he wasn’t able to do as much for Bradley’s brother, but as Troy was in school he had less free time than his sibling.
“Bradley, have you seen… Never mind.” As Alan headed over to pick up Bradley’s wet-weather jacket, he grinned at his youngest nephew, who showed no sign of having heard him. The young boy was too busy building something with his Lego. “We’re going soon, Bradley, so finish up, please.”
This time, Bradley reacted. “Where are we going?”
“To the park to see Mike.”
Bradley leapt to his feet. “Yippee!”
Alan laughed. “Not just yet. We’ve got another ten minutes before we have to leave.”
Bradley frowned. “That’s like forever, isn’t it?”
Alan ruffled his nephew’s hair. “It can feel like it at times, but it won’t be long. Go wash your face and hands, and we’ll head off soon after you’ve finished.” He grinned as the young boy raced off to the bathroom.
He was still smiling while folding Bradley’s jacket in preparation to adding it to the bag when his phone rang. He frowned when the caller ID showed a private number. Those calls were rarely pleasant. He took a moment to debate whether to let it to go to voicemail, but he decided to take the call in case it was a message from Troy’s school. “Alan Thrush.”
“Good morning, Mr. Thrush. This is Helen Chambers from Trent, McDonald & Associates. I’m sorry to bother you, but something urgent has come up. Do you think you can come in to see me later today? Tomorrow at the latest.”
Alan swallowed once before responding. “What’s it about?”
“Despite the favourable review by the Department of Human Services, the boys’ paternal grandparents are continuing to contest your custody. They have applied to the Children’s Court and, again, have somehow managed to make it a priority. As Lisa’s lawyers, we have been informed that a mediation session has been booked for this coming Friday at ten. A confirmation letter has also been sent to your address.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’ll go through it with you in detail when you get here, but basically a court-assigned mediator will try to resolve the issues between yourself and the Lyntons, with the goal being to avoid going before a judge. You’re allowed legal representation at the mediation session, so one of the things we’ll be discussing is whether you want me or someone else to accompany you.”
Alan quickly ran through his mental calendar. “I’m available up until mid-afternoon. We need to be finished by three so I can pick up Troy from school, but otherwise I’m free.” He knew that while Bradley and Mike would be upset, Carol would understand if he had to cancel their playdate due to an appointment with the lawyer.
“Shall we say 1:00?”
“That’s fine. I’ll see you then.”
Alan stared at the bag he was preparing for Bradley for a moment longer and then headed into the kitchen to grab some more snacks to take with them. He also needed to contact Peter to tell him they would be in Greensborough for lunch after the playdate with Mike ended. It looked like he and Bradley were going to be out all day. He also started to make plans for Friday. He made a mental note to ask Tracey if she could mind Bradley for the day.
The concerns he’d mentioned to Keidan on Friday night were coming true. The problems with the Lyntons weren’t over.
Copyright Notice - Copyright © January 2017 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.