It was Saturday morning when Alan knocked on the hospital-room door and poked his head inside. “Lisa?” He saw his sister sitting up in her hospital bed, a nervous smile on her face.
“Hi, Alan. Do I look okay?”
Alan smiled as he stepped inside. “You look fine.” Her hair was short, she had bandages on both arms, and there was some scarring visible on her exposed skin, but she was recognisably the mother Troy and Bradley had known. He could tell that she had used makeup to try to minimise the appearance of her injuries. He looked back over his shoulder and beckoned. “Come on, boys. Say hello to your mum.”
Troy hesitantly led his brother into the room. He paused for a moment when he saw Lisa and then raced forward. “Mummy!”
“Careful, honey. I’m still a little sore.” Lisa gave Troy a light hug and then smiled at Bradley. “Can you come over and give me a hug, too?”
Bradley grinned and gleefully joined his brother. He clambered up onto the bed. “Uncle Alan said we could have ice cream. Can you come with us and have some, too?”
Lisa winced as she shuffled across in the bed to make room for the four-year-old. “Sorry, Bradley, but I’m not allowed out of the bed very often. I need to get better before I can do that.”
Troy frowned. “But I thought you were getting better? Isn’t that why you’re here?”
She gave him a soft smile. “It is, but it’s taking a long time. Have you and Bradley been good? You haven’t been causing problems for Uncle Alan and Uncle Peter, have you?”
A smile appeared on Troy’s lips but quickly disappeared. “We’ve been good, but Uncle Peter doesn’t live with us anymore.”
Lisa’s gaze darted to her brother. “Alan, what happened?”
Troy answered before Alan could respond. “He’s in hospital, and we don’t know when he’ll come home.”
Lisa’s eyes widened. “How badly hurt is he?”
“Troy, who told you that?” Alan gave Lisa a reassuring smile. “He’s not in hospital.”
Troy pouted. “You told me! You said he’d gone away, just like Mummy!”
“Alan, what’s going on?” Lisa asked.
Alan was starting to flounder. He didn’t want to tell Lisa the truth, but he couldn’t come up with a quick lie. “It’s all just a misunderstanding. The police said—”
Lisa interrupted him before he could explain. “The police!”
Bradley started to chat excitedly. “They were looking for Troy for daaays! I got Steve all to myself, but Troy got to ride in a police car.” He scowled at his brother. “I wanted a ride, too, but they wouldn’t give me one.” He brightened. “But I did get to see the police station. I want to be a policeman when I grow up!”
“Alan?” Lisa looked more frightened than confused.
Alan glanced at Troy and Bradley and then at Lisa. He gnawed at his lower lip as he tried to work out what to do. “Is there someone around here who can look after the boys while we talk?” He didn’t want to discuss what the Lyntons had done in front of his nephews.
Lisa frowned at him for a couple of seconds and then reached over and pushed the call button to summon a nurse. A few minutes later—after Lisa gave the boys another light hug and told them that she’d see them soon—Lisa and Alan were alone in the room.
Alan took a deep breath. “It all started at the funeral…”
It took him almost twenty minutes to explain to Lisa what had been going on. He tried to justify not telling her sooner because he wanted her to concentrate on getting better, but he could tell she was angry with him.
“How’s Peter coping?” Lisa asked once Alan had finished bringing her up to date on the situation.
“As well as can be expected. We talk each night, and I visited him at work on Friday after leaving Bradley with Tracey.” Alan screwed up his face. “He looks lost, and I feel the same. I want him back, but we don’t know when that’s going to happen.”
There was a long pause before Lisa spoke. “You should’ve told me. I could’ve spoken to Henry and Penny and told them that they didn’t need to worry. All of this wouldn’t’ve happened if you’d just told me!”
Alan wasn’t confident that the Lyntons would’ve changed their opinion simply on Lisa’s word, but he didn’t want to argue with his sister. “It doesn’t matter. What’s done is done.” He tried to give her a convincing smile. “Your job is to get better so you can go home. You let Peter and me worry about the other things.”
“I’m not going to stop worrying now that I know.” Lisa sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. “But I’d like to see the boys again. Can you go get them for me?”
Alan nodded, his lips twisting in a wry grin. “I’ll go rescue that poor nurse. I’ll be back soon.”
As he headed off, Alan couldn’t help worry not only about the upcoming court appearance regarding the child-protection order, but also whether the news he’d supplied was going to affect Lisa’s recovery.
* * *
Alan made sure both boys were occupied watching the television in the living room before he rang Peter. After a few minutes of chatting—both guys avoided mentioning the court-imposed separation—he broke the news of what happened that morning. “I told Lisa everything.”
“Why? I didn’t think you wanted her to know. Not yet, at least.”
Alan grimaced. “I didn’t want to, but Troy told her you were in hospital.”
“He did what?”
Alan snorted, a smile playing on the edge of his lips. “Well, I told him that you’d gone away, like Lisa, and since she’s in hospital, he assumed you were, too. He’s missing you.”
There was muffled sound that may have been a sniffle. “I’m missing the boys, too. Even Bradley and his chronically wet bed.”
“He’s getting better. I only changed his sheets twice this week.”
“That’s good.” There was a short pause. “How did Lisa react to not being told earlier?”
“She wanted to string me up by my balls.” Alan chuckled, though his heart wasn’t really in it. “If she wasn’t still largely bedridden, I think she might’ve tried.”
“What did she say about the bastards?”
Alan hesitated before responding. Peter had stopped using the Lyntons’ names, only referring to them by various expletives. ‘Bastards’ was one of the milder terms he’d used. “She said she might’ve been able to calm them down and reassure them before everything went out of control. She’s upset with them taking Troy, but I don’t think she understands what’s been going on.”
“Too right! There’s no way that pair of homophobic, fucking bastards would ever let us have anything to do with the boys. They started at the goddamned funeral, for fuck’s sake! I hope they rot in jail.”
“They’ve been released on bail, but Helen’s organised a restraining order as well as a child-protection order. Until their case is heard, none of us should see or hear from them.”
“I suppose they’ve got some fancy lawyer to try to get them off.” Peter’s tone was bitter.
“I don’t know, and honestly, at the moment I’ve got more important things to worry about. You and the boys are what I’m concentrating on.” Alan’s eyes started to water. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that everything goes well on Thursday.”
“Me, too.” Peter paused. “Keidan and Steve have volunteered to babysit the boys tonight so we can go out and spend some time together.”
“When did they decide that?”
“They told me this morning. They discussed it in the car after coming home from Fun Friday last night.” Peter sighed. “They told me that Troy was upset that I wasn’t there to play with him.”
Alan smiled at the memory. “I know. Troy told Keidan he was hopeless and you were better at making things with Lego. Keidan pretended to be upset, and Bradley went over to comfort him. Bradley then told Keidan that Steve would teach him how to do it properly, since you weren’t here.”
“Steve took great delight in telling me that story this morning.” Peter chuckled. “He put in a lot more detail than you did, even though Keidan kept trying to shut him up.” He paused. “So…about tonight…”
Alan screwed up his face for a moment—even though it was almost a week since Troy had been returned, he still didn’t like leaving the boys—and then firmed his resolve. “Okay. What do you want to do?”
Peter’s reply was barely audible. “Just to be with you…”
Alan swallowed in a vain attempt to get rid of the lump in his throat. That was all he wanted from Peter, too.
* * *
“…and we should be there in a couple of days, three at most.” Rosalie said. “So either Tuesday or Wednesday. We’re skirting the edge of Sydney tomorrow—I’m not looking forward to driving through all that traffic—and we’re planning on staying overnight somewhere near Albury-Wodonga if we make it that far. Otherwise, we’ll stop somewhere just off the highway and spend the night in the van.”
A relieved smile appeared on Alan’s face. He had been talking with his mother most nights now that his parents were back in parts of the country with generally reliable, mobile-phone coverage. “That’s great, Mum. We’re looking forward to seeing you and Dad again.” The smile faded as a thought struck him. “If you haven’t gotten to Sydney yet, that’ll mean you’ve got some long drives ahead. I didn’t think you wanted to be driving that much.”
“I didn’t, but Lisa’s told me what’s going on with Peter. We want to make sure we’re there when he goes to court.” Rosalie’s tone hardened. “I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do when you told me you didn’t want Lisa to know about the troubles you’ve been having, but I trusted your judgement. Now, I want to hear your excuse why you didn’t tell me that Peter has been forced to move out.”
Alan froze. “Mum…I…”
“I’m waiting, Alan.”
Alan swallowed. “There was nothing you could do. I didn’t want you to worry.”
“There is something we can do, and we’re doing it. We’re speeding up our trip home. Instead of being on the road five hours a day, we’ll be driving for longer until we’re back.” There was a short pause before she continued in a softer tone. “You’re as bad as your father at times. You never like sharing your problems.”
Alan could hear a mild-and-not-particularly-serious protest in the background from his dad. His concern, however, was for his mother. “Don’t drive when you’re tired, Mum! The last thing any of us need is another road accident.” Alan shuddered at the thought.
Rosalie’s reply was gentle with just a touch of sorrow. “I’ll be careful, Alan. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”
* * *
It was lunchtime on Monday when Steve entered Lisa’s hospital room. “Hi, Lisa! I’ve got some photos of the boys from Friday night to upload for you.”
“Thanks, Steve.” Lisa bit her lower lip before continuing. “How’s Peter?”
Steve sighed and dropped into her visitor’s chair. He had been expecting the query after the call Peter had received from Alan on Saturday night and the subsequent call from Lisa for Peter on Sunday. “To be honest, not good. He’s stressing about not being able to see Alan, and he’s worried that the judge isn’t going to lift the order against him being near the boys.”
“What does the lawyer think? Is Peter going to be allowed to go home?”
“She’s hopeful, but she had to be honest, too. The mere suspicion may be enough to persuade the judge to keep the protection order in place. Helen is going to try to convince him that the accusation was unfounded, but if there’s any doubt in the judge’s mind, he’s likely to uphold the order until the issues are sorted—to minimise the risk to Troy and Bradley.”
“When’s the court case?”
“Thursday afternoon. Alan’s told me that your parents should be home by then. He’s going to leave Bradley with them so he can be at the courthouse with Peter.”
Lisa pinched her lips. “None of this had to happen. If he’d only told me…”
Steve sighed. “He was trying to protect you. Lisa. To be honest, you looked shocking the first time I dropped in to see you, and I’m not just talking about your physical appearance. You were emotionally and mentally hurt, too. Knowing there were problems with your kids would’ve been too much. Alan did the right thing.”
“You don’t think my boys are the most important thing in my life at the moment? If there’s a problem, I want to know about it!”
“Please, calm down.” Steve reached over to pat her hand, but she jerked it away. “You made Alan their guardian. That means he’s responsible for fixing any problems that crop up. You did that for a good reason; because you trust him. Don’t turn your back on him because things haven’t gone perfectly.”
“I’m not turning my back on him!” All of her anger seemed to melt away as she dropped her head. “I just miss them so much.”
Steve reached out again, and this time Lisa let him comfort her. “We all understand. That’s why you need to concentrate on getting out of here as quick as you can. Alan will keep Troy and Bradley safe, but all three of them need you to get better.”
“Four.” Lisa wiped a hand across her eyes. “I hope Alan will forgive me if I’ve stuffed up his relationship with Peter.”
“That hasn’t happened yet.” Steve chuckled, hoping it would lighten Lisa’s mood. “If anything, this is bringing them closer together. They’ve both suddenly realised that they can’t take the other for granted. As soon as this is over, I foresee them taking an extended holiday together and coming back with huge smiles on their faces.”
Lisa’s bark of laughter was followed by a sob, as tears started to fall. It was only then that Steve realised that he’d put his foot in it and reminded her of Craig. Not sure of what to do, he turned and started to download the photos from the previous Friday night. He couldn’t do anything about her memories of her late husband, but he could give her new ones of her two sons.
* * *
Alan and the boys had just finished their Tuesday-night dinner when the doorbell rang. It was with a sense of hopefulness that Alan stood up. “Bradley, Troy, go clean your teeth. I’ll be with you shortly.”
After making sure that the boys were on their way to the bathroom, Alan headed to the front door. He arrived just as the doorbell rang again. Mentally crossing his fingers that it was who he wanted it to be, he opened the door. “Mum, Dad!” He gave each parent a hug, adding a kiss on the cheek for his mother. “I was beginning to worry.”
“I thought you would be.” Rosalie Thrush smiled, though Alan thought she looked tired. “But we’re here now. No more driving for a while.”
“Where are the grandkids?” Alan’s father asked as he carried a couple of suitcases into the house. “And where can I put these?”
“They’re cleaning their teeth—we’ve just finished dinner, but we have some leftovers if you’re hungry—and I’ve moved my stuff out of the master bedroom, so you can use it.”
Andrew Thrush frowned. “But your Mum told me that’s your room.”
Alan dropped his head. “I…I don’t need a large bed at the moment.”
His father immediately pulled him into a bear hug. “It’ll all work out in the end, son. You just have to have faith.”
“Listen to your father, Alan. You don’t have to worry about everything.”
Andrew stepped back and gave Alan a short but piercing visual examination. “I think that tomorrow night—not tonight because your mother and I are too tired—but tomorrow night, you should spend the night with Peter. Your mother and I will look after the boys while you look after your man. That way the two of you can go straight to the courthouse without worry about anything else.”
Alan’s mouth opened, but no words came out. Rosalie smiled and patted his cheek. “Now that that’s agreed, let’s get the luggage inside before the boys realise we’re here.” She glanced around at the sound of running feet. “Too late.”
“Grandma! Grandpa!” Bradley raced over and grabbed his maternal grandfather, the closest grandparent. “What have you got for me?”
“What makes you think I’ve brought something for you?” Andrew’s light tone told Alan that he was teasing his grandson.
Troy grinned as he appeared, light green toothpaste slobber dripping from his mouth. “You always have something for us!”
Alan set his face into a stern expression. He understood their excitement—he was happy to see his parents, too—but he doubted either grandparent would want peppermint-flavoured slobber on their clothes. “Troy, go back, spit out the toothpaste and wash your face.”
Troy pouted. “Do I have to?”
“Yes, you do.” Alan smiled and rubbed the six-year-old’s head. “Do it quick, and then let’s find out what Grandma and Grandpa have for us.”
Rosalie raised an eyebrow as Troy disappeared. “Us? You think you’re getting something, too?”
Alan chuckled, more from relief than anything else. “Yep. I’m getting two wonderful parents to help me when I need it.”
“Hmm.” Rosalie turned to her husband. “I’m going to have a lie down. I’m knackered after that long drive. I’m leaving you in charge of all three boys.”
Alan’s father grinned. “That’s fine with me.” He looked down at Bradley, who was waiting almost patiently. “Go into the living room. I’ll be back soon with a treat for you and Troy.”
Bradley frowned. “What about Uncle Alan? Doesn’t he get a treat, too?”
Alan knelt down and smiled at his youngest nephew as Troy reappeared with a clean face. “I’ve already got lots of treats. You and Troy are two of my treats, and Grandma and Grandpa are two more. I don’t need any more.”
“Except for Peter,” his father whispered from just behind him.
Alan kept the pain from appearing on his face. His father was right; he needed one more treat.
* * *
Peter gave Alan a quick hug, took a deep breath, and tried to smile. “Time to find out what’s going to happen.”
Alan wanted to pull Peter into another embrace, but he knew he didn’t have time. Peter’s court case was about to start, and he didn’t think he would have the willpower to keep a hug short. “Let’s go.” He turned to where Helen Chambers was waiting patiently.
“Now remember, let me do most of the talking initially.” She smiled at Peter. “You’ll get your chance to say what you want to say, but whatever you do, keep calm. Judge Patterson is known to ask oddball questions and approach issues from strange directions. Don’t let yourself get rattled.”
Peter snorted. “Easy for you to say.” He took another deep breath and then waved a hand towards the large wooden doors. “After you.”
Minutes later, the three were seated in a moderate-sized chamber with several rows of seats facing a raised bench. Alan looked around, surprised that the room didn’t match his impression of what a court would look like. While there was the bench for the judge to overlook the chamber, the plain pale panelling didn’t give the aura of authority that he had visualised. Indeed, the room had a similar informal atmosphere to the mediation room he had been in two weeks earlier.
There was a table in front of the judge’s bench with two sets of microphones. Helen and Peter were seated before the left-hand one, and two women that Alan didn’t recognise were seated to the right in smart attire. Alan sat in the front row of seats, immediately behind Peter and Helen and at the edge of the central aisle leading from the door to the front of the room. Even though the room could easily hold thirty people, Alan was the only one sitting in what he assumed were the seats for visitors and supporters.
To the left and below the judge’s bench, a middle-aged man sat in front a small array of electronic equipment as well as a monitor and keyboard. Alan guessed he was responsible for recording the session.
While Helen shook hands with the two women at the opposite end of the table, Alan leant forward and rested his hand on Peter’s shoulder. Peter looked back with a weak smile that didn’t last. He looked nervous as he reached up and put his hand on top of Alan’s. “Thanks,” he whispered.
Before Alan could respond, a balding gentleman—in his late fifties and dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and a red tie—entered and moved to the judge’s bench. The man to the left of the judge’s bench made the announcement. “All rise. This court is now in session. The Honourable Judge James Patterson presiding.” Everyone rose and waited for the judge to seat himself.
“Okay, let’s get started.” Judge Patterson placed a set of reading glasses on his nose and peered down at something on his desk. He then looked up and narrowed his eyes at Peter. “Peter O’Gorman, I presume?”
“That is correct, Your Honour,” Helen said. “His partner, Alan Thrush, the guardian of the children in question, is seated behind us.”
The judge gave Helen a small smile. “It is good to see you again, Ms. Chambers. I hope this goes as smoothly as last time you were in front of me.”
“I hope so, too, Your Honour.”
Judge Patterson nodded to the other two women. “Mrs. Barton, welcome back. Miss Stonebridge, I presume you’re representing the department today?”
“Yes, Your Honour,” one of the women said.
“Then it appears that everyone is here. Shall we proceed?”
“There are a few more people expected, Your Honour, but we can start without them,” Helen said.
The judge frowned. “And who else is attending?”
Peter and Alan stared at Helen and then at each other. Alan could tell that Peter was as mystified as he was. He had a moment of dread that it was the Lyntons who were coming before he shook his head and cleared the thought from his mind. He was sure their lawyer wouldn’t invite the people who caused this mess in the first place.
Helen glanced down at her phone before looking up and smiling. “They’re just exiting the lift now and will be here shortly.”
“If they can’t be on time—” Judge Patterson started to say.
At that moment, the doors behind Alan opened. He glanced over his shoulder and then froze as he saw his father, proudly assisted by Troy and Bradley, pushing a wheelchair into the courtroom. “Lisa?”
Lisa gave him a quick smile before turning her attention to the judge and lawyers. Bradley grinned and waved. Troy also grinned, but he kept hold of the handles on the wheelchair as he called out. “Uncle Peter!”
Helen introduced the newcomers. “Your Honour, this is Lisa Lynton, her two sons, Troy and Bradley, and her parents, Rosalie and Andrew Thrush. Lisa and her late husband, Craig, are the ones who made Peter’s partner the guardian of the two boys.”
The judge’s frown deepened. “Ms. Chambers, I don’t like theatrics.”
“I’m sorry, Your Honour, but it’s all my fault,” Lisa said as she was wheeled forward. “It took longer than I expected to get the hospital to release me for a couple of hours. We were supposed to be here twenty minutes ago.”
Alan was torn between asking their lawyer what was going on and going to talk to his sister. Lisa still didn’t look healthy, with a pale complexion, a thick bandage on one arm and a leg, and signs of additional bandages under her dress. Both legs showed heavy scarring, accented by the withered muscles. From the smirk on his mother’s face, Alan guessed she had retrieved the relaxed-fit blue dress from Lisa’s wardrobe either that morning or the day before. Since he’d spent the previous afternoon and night with Peter, his parents had plenty of opportunities to take clothes to Lisa. He slipped over next to Rosalie so he could speak quietly while his father settled the two boys. “What’s going on, Mum? Why didn’t you tell me you’d be here? And why is Troy out of school?”
She patted him on the arm. “I didn’t want you to worry, dear. You had more than enough on your mind. Anyway, there was nothing you could’ve done, so there was no need to tell you. As for Troy, we asked him last night and he said he wanted to be here.”
Alan knew this was payback for not telling his mother about what was going on while she was driving back from Queensland. He tried to glare at her, but her smile didn’t waver. “Mum…”
“Sit back down, dear. I think the judge is about to have apoplexy.”
Judge Patterson’s eyes were narrowed and his face red as he glared down at the group. “If you’ve quite finished, I would like to get this matter over and done with.”
“Thank you, Your Honour.” Helen’s tone and posture were ones of calm. “Again, we apologise for the late arrival, but it was due to circumstances beyond our control.”
The judge snorted and then turned his attention to the documents on his desk. After perusing them for a few seconds, he fixed his gaze on Lisa. “I was given the impression that you were hospitalised and would be unfit to attend today’s session. Why are you here?” When Helen started to answer, the judge held up his hand. “No, I want to hear it from her.”
Lisa took a deep breath, and then winced while clutching at her ribs. “I’m sorry, Your Honour. The hospital was reluctant to release me for even a couple of hours, but my children are the most important thing in my life. I wanted to be here to make sure that while I can’t be with them, they’re given the best possible care.”
“You are aware, I hope, that the guardianship of Alan Thrush isn’t being questioned today.”
“I am, Your Honour, but when Craig and I asked Alan to be our sons’ guardian in the event that something happened to us, we knew Peter would be by his side looking after the boys, too. I want to make sure that continues.”
The judge drummed his fingers on his desk for a moment. “Then why wasn’t Peter named on the original guardianship papers?”
“If I may?” Helen asked. When the judge nodded, she continued. “I checked our company records of the meeting when the guardianship was proposed. Craig and Lisa Lynton did ask if Peter’s name should be added but were advised at the time that it would be simpler if only Alan’s name was listed as there was no formally registered relationship.”
“Is there a reason their relationship has not been registered under the 2008 Relationships Act?”
Peter scowled before schooling his expression back into one of near-neutrality. “We don’t like the relationship register. If we want to formalise our relationship, we’ll wait until we’re allowed to marry.”
Judge Patterson’s expression softened for the first time. “But if you had, things would be simpler. However, I understand your reasoning, and I’m not going to pursue this point any further.”
“Are you God?”
Everyone’s attention was drawn to Troy who had slipped away from his grandparents and approached the front of the courtroom unnoticed.
Troy continued before anyone could react. “Because if you are, can you give us Uncle Peter back?”
“Troy!” Alan slipped out of his seat and gather up the young boy. “I’m sorry, Your Honour.”
“It’s okay.” Judge Patterson smiled at Troy, losing most of his mantle of intimidating authority in the process. “Troy, isn’t it?”
“Troy, while there are times that I wish I were… No, I’m not God. Why were you asking?”
“Because God took our daddy away, but he gave us Uncle Alan and Uncle Peter to look after us instead. We don’t want to lose Uncle Peter like we lost Daddy. That would be mean.”
“Yes, it would, but sometimes things like that happen. No one wants it to happen, but it does. Something occurred a couple of weeks ago, and my job is to decide if your Uncle Peter should be allowed to stay with you. That’s why we’re here today.”
“Please let him! I promise to be good. We miss him, and I made him a Father’s Day present at school. If he doesn’t come back, I won’t be able to give it to him!”
“Pretty please?” Bradley asked from where he was holding his grandmother’s hand.
The judge drummed his fingers on his desk again as his gaze alternated between Troy and Bradley. He then turned to Lisa. “Lisa Lynton,” he started in a formal tone, “I would like to question your two sons. I am aware of their ages and that they are not credible witnesses, but I would like to see how they respond to the questions I ask. Do I have your permission?”
Lisa stared at the judge, then at her boys, and finally at their lawyer. When Helen nodded, Lisa turned back to the judge. “Yes, Your Honour.”
“Miss Stonebridge, I will not be giving you the right to directly examine the boys, though I’ll entertain questions if you write them out and hand them to me. Do you have any objections?”
The older of the two women frowned. “No, Your Honour,” she said, clearly reluctant but not willing to object.
“Excellent. Troy, do you see the seat over here to my left? Mr. Thrush,” Judge Patterson said, looking at Alan, “would you please escort Troy. You can stay with him as he speaks, if you like.”
“Yes, Miss Stonebridge, I know what you’re going to say, but I pride myself on my ability to tell if a child is lying, has been coached, or is being pressured to answer a particular way. Mr. Thrush’s presence next to Troy will not change that.”
Alan smiled at Troy and led him to the witness box. Once the young boy was seated, Alan repositioned the microphone so Troy’s responses could be recorded and then stepped back.
“Thank you, Mr. Thrush. Now, Troy, can you tell me your full name?”
Troy frowned. “Why do you need me to do that?”
“Because we’re recording what you say, and we want the recording to show who is speaking.” The judge smiled. “So, what’s your name?”
“Troy Lynton.” He gnawed on his lower lip. “I’ve got another name, but I can’t remember what it is.”
“Michael,” Lisa said in a stage whisper.
“Oh, yeah.” Troy grinned. “Troy Michael Lynton.”
“Thank you, Troy.” Judge Patterson paused. “Do you like Uncle Peter and Uncle Alan looking after you?”
Troy hesitated. “I’m going to get into trouble if I lie, aren’t I?”
The judge smiled. “Just tell the truth, Troy. That’s the best thing to do when a grownup asks you a question.”
“I like Uncle Alan and Uncle Peter, but sometimes they punish me when I do something bad. I don’t like it when that happens.”
“And how do they punish you?”
“They tell me off. Sometimes they yell. Once, I wasn’t allowed to have ice cream after dinner.”
“Hmm…” The judge winked at Troy. “I think I’ll have to tell them to stop doing that. No one should be denied ice cream after dinner. Did they ever punish you in other ways?”
“Uncle Alan smacked me once.”
Alan flinched. He could still remember the way Peter had told him off later that night, and he had promised his partner he would never smack the boys again.
“Did Uncle Peter ever smack you?”
Troy shook his head. “Uncle Peter doesn’t like smacking. I heard him yelling at Uncle Alan for hitting me.”
Alan listened as the judge continued to question Troy on how he was being treated. Alan then held Bradley’s hand as the judge did the same to Troy’s younger brother.
After twenty minutes, the judge settled back in his chair and turned to Alan’s parents. “Mr. and Mrs. Thrush, unless you have something you want to say, I think it’ll be appropriate if you take Troy and Bradley outside while we finish up here.”
Rosalie and her husband exchanged glances. Alan’s father spoke for the two of them. “We just want to say that we trust Peter implicitly. We believe the allegations against him are slanderous lies, Your Honour.”
“Thank you.” Judge Patterson smiled down at Troy and Bradley. “I believe Troy indicated that he missed out on ice cream after dinner one night, so maybe you can correct that mistake and find the boys something cold and sweet to eat.”
Rosalie smiled, though Alan could tell his mother was still tense. “Thank you, Your Honour.” Her smile broadened into one of affection as she waved her hand towards the exit. “Bradley, Troy, let’s see if we can find some ice creams somewhere around here.”
“Yippee!” Bradley said as he raced to the door.
Troy hesitated and then rushed to Peter to give him a hug. “I love you, Uncle Peter.” Peter whispered something in reply before Troy let go. “Please come home soon.” Troy stood for a moment, wiped a hand across his eyes, and then ran out of the room.
Once the boys were gone and the doors closed, Judge Patterson turned to the two representatives from the department. “Do you have any evidence to present that indicates that Peter is a risk to those two boys?”
“You have a copy of the original report—”
“The police have ended their investigation without making an arrest.”
“Just because they didn’t have enough evidence to lay charges—”
The judge scowled. “I’ve read what they’ve said. They said that there was no valid evidence to support the charges, and that the only witness was probably coached to say what he originally said.”
“We have to point out that the boy was in the custody of the accused’s partner for a couple of days before he was re-questioned. He could equally have been coached to change his statement the second time.”
Judge Patterson raised an eyebrow. “Are you asking for the order to be extended to Alan Thrush as well as Peter O’Gorman?”
“Not at this time, Your Honour.”
“But aren’t you accusing Alan Thrush of being an accessory to child molestation? If he’s willing to do that, wouldn’t that make him unfit to look after the two boys? After all, he’s now been accused of hitting Troy. That sounds like child abuse.”
Alan felt a chill. While he thought the judge was on their side, finding himself being dragged into the accusations frightened him. He had hit Troy that one time. He looked at Helen and found the lawyer with a slight smile on her face. Alan tried to draw some confidence from her expression, but he wasn’t having a lot of success.
Miss Stonebridge straightened and looked the judge in the eye. “You’re right, Your Honour. We’d like to extend the child-protection order to include Alan Thrush. Troy and Bradley Lynton will need to be taken away from him.”
“No!” Lisa tried to climb out of her wheelchair, but only succeeded in hurting herself. She collapsed back into the chair with a soft cry of pain.
Alan raced to her. “Are you okay?”
Lisa gritted her teeth. “Help me up.”
“There is no need for that, Mrs. Lynton,” Judge Patterson said. “Mr. Thrush, if you could wheel your sister forward, I’m ready to have her statement recorded.”
Helen pulled her chair away from the desk to leave a place for Lisa. Alan adjusted the microphone and then say back down behind her and Peter.
“I’ve known Peter for years. While it may be true that we never really know someone else, he and Alan have spent time alone with my boys ever since they were born. They were our go-to babysitters whenever Craig…” She stumbled a bit saying her late husband’s name. “…and I needed a break. Troy can be naughty at times, and I’ll admit that I’ve given him the occasional smack, too, though I’ve always regretted it afterwards. We trusted Alan and Peter so much that we asked Alan to be the boys’ guardian if anything happened, knowing full well that Peter would be there at his side. My boys need them now. When we finish here, I’m back to the hospital and I’ll be there for months to come. They need…they deserve two parents, and as their mother, I want those two parents to be Alan and Peter. I’ve heard the accusations, and I think they’re ridiculous. If Peter was a child molester, there would be a lot more evidence than one single solitary accusation that was spurred on by my husband’s homophobic parents!”
Judge Patterson turned to the department representatives. “Would you care to comment, or do you have any questions for Lisa Lynton?”
The two women held a quick, quiet conversation. Miss Stonebridge then looked up. “While there is currently only the one accusation, we haven’t had time to investigate if there are others. There is also the new allegation that Alan Thrush has hit Troy Lynton that needs to be investigated.”
The judge turned to Helen. “Ms. Chambers? Any statement or questions? More theatrics, perhaps?”
Helen smiled. “No, Your Honour. I’m finding my role in this case works best if I just keep my mouth shut. In my opinion, Troy and Bradley Lynton have already done my job for me.”
Judge Patterson laughed. “I find myself in agreeance with you.” He turned to Peter. “Peter O’Gorman, I am lifting the emergency protection order. You’re free to go and help your partner look after those two wonderful boys.”
“Your Honour! We haven’t completed our investigations. The boys could be at serious risk!”
The judge stared down his nose at the two department representatives. “Then go ahead and complete those investigations, but if I find out that you’ve turned it into a witch hunt, I will not be happy. Your department has cleared these two young men once. I’ll leave it to you to see if they clear them a second time.” He sighed. “I do not fault you for your zealousness, Miss Stonebridge. It is important that we protect the children that come before us. However, you and I both know that when there is a custody battle, accusations of child abuse are not uncommon. Separating the truth from the falsehoods is often a time-consuming and unrewarding task, and we all know the price of failure could lead to a child suffering needless pain or even death. However, at this time it appears that the accusations against Peter O’Gorman fall into the falsehood category. I do not mind if you are able to shift them into the truth category, but if you do so, make sure you have more than a mere allegation to support your stance.” He smiled at Peter. “I think it would be appropriate for you and your partner to go celebrate by having an ice cream with your two boys. Just remember, ice cream is one of life’s wonders and should never be used as punishment. And as for you, young lady,” he added, scowling at Lisa for a moment before winking. “Get well soon. Your boys need you.”
Alan stood up and grabbed Peter. They held each other tight for several seconds, not speaking and barely breathing as they simply spent time in each other’s presence. Alan then reached over and put his hand on Lisa’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
Even though the department was going to investigate them further, Alan was sure everything was going to turn out okay.
Five Months Later
Peter held Bradley’s hand as he, the two boys, Steve, Keidan and their foster son, Jacob, waited in the front yard. The additional review by the department inspectors had cleared both him and Alan. Debbie Goldsworthy had told him privately at the end of the second visit that she had considered it to be a complete waste of time and that she was happy to go back to looking into situations where she was actually needed.
The Lyntons were not present, something that made Peter more than pleased. They had received suspended sentences for their crimes due to their age and a good lawyer, but access to their grandsons was severely restricted. The once-a-month visit that Alan supervised on a Sunday afternoon visit was more than Peter felt they deserved. Peter would spend those afternoons visiting Steve, Keidan, and Jacob, because he was still too angry to be in the same room as the Lyntons without snarling. The only exception had been Christmas Day, where Peter had spent a couple of hours in their bedroom with headphones on listening to music while the Lyntons visited. In Peter’s opinion, the grandparents had tried to buy their grandsons’ affection with presents, but the boys didn’t seem to care who had given them the toys; it was the toys themselves that were important. That had been made abundantly clear when the boys had subsequently resisted going to the hospital to visit their mother—the first time they hadn’t been keen to see her.
“Where are they?” Bradley asked for the sixth time.
“They’ll be here soon. Uncle Alan sent me a message saying they were only a few minutes away.”
“When are they going to get here?”
Peter tossed up on whether to let the repetition get to him or to laugh it off. He chose laughing. “When they get here!” He grinned as he knelt to bring him closer to Bradley’s height. “But if you close your eyes and count to three hundred and sixty-five, I’m sure they’ll be here by then.”
“Okay.” Bradley closed his eyes. “One, two…three hundred and…” One eye opened and he peered at Peter. “What was the number again?”
Peter stared back as he realised he hadn’t specified that Bradley needed to count by ones. Happily, he saw Alan’s car approaching. “Three hundred and sixty-five.”
Bradley closed his eyes again. “One, two, three hundred and sixty five!” He looked around and grinned. “There’s Uncle Alan’s car!”
“So it is. Now wait until they stop before you run up to them, okay?”
“Okay.” Bradley’s body language indicated he was ready to race forward as soon as the car came to a stop.
While Peter waited for Alan to park the car, he glanced across to where Jacob and Troy stood together, talking quietly. Jacob was two years older than Troy, but after the experiences he’d been exposed to before being fostered to Steve and Keidan, his emotional and maturity levels were closer to Troy’s age. After four weeks of Fun Fridays together—Jacob barely spoke at the first two—Jacob had started to open up at the third one, and now he had a growing friendship with Troy.
“Mummy!” Bradley pulled himself out of Peter’s hand and ran to the car. He jumped up and down so he could look through the passenger-side window. “Mummy!”
“Bradley, you’re going to have to step back so we can open the door.” Peter didn’t try to hide his grin at Bradley’s enthusiasm.
“We also need to get her walker out,” Alan said as he exited the car. He slipped around and gave Peter a quick kiss. “You get the door, and I’ll get the walker.”
“We’ll do that,” Steve said. “You and Peter look after Lisa.”
Alan smiled his thanks and then picked up Bradley. “Give us a chance to help your mummy out of the car, and then you can hug her as long as you want.”
Peter took advantage of the Bradley-free space to open the door. He reached in to help Lisa swing her legs across to the side. “Here you go…”
“Thanks, Peter.” Before Lisa could do anything more than stand, she was assaulted by two young boys. “Bradley, Troy. My little darlings.” Tears were starting to fall down her cheeks towards her broad smile.
“Are you home forever?” Troy asked. “You’re not going back to the hospital, are you?”
“I have to go back from time to time, but I won’t be staying there long. I’ll be here at home almost all the time.”
Jacob stepped forward with a small, poorly wrapped package. “Welcome home.” He smiled shyly and ducked his head. “Daddy S said I needed to give this to you.”
Steve, who was approaching with the walker, chuckled. “That’s only because Daddy K didn’t want to be the one to say it. He’s the one who picked out and bought the present.”
Keidan shrugged. “I merely followed instructions. Steve said to get something, so I did.” He smiled at Lisa. “I hope you like it. For the record, Jacob wrapped it.”
“And it’s wonderful.” Lisa freed up one arm to allow her to beckon to Jacob. “Come here and give me a kiss.”
Jacob blushed and tried to edge away, but Keidan gave him a nudge, and he moved up. After giving Lisa a kiss on the cheek and handing over the present, he backed away and hid behind Keidan.
Lisa smiled at Troy and Bradley. Bradley still had his arms wrapped around her, while Troy was holding tight to one hand. “Boys, I need a little space while I use the walker. Why don’t you go inside and wait for me there?”
Troy grabbed Jacob’s arm. “Come on. Tracey’s made us some Super Scrumptious Silly Cereal Bars and some Marvellous Marchy Marsh Willow Munchies. We need to eat them before Bradley gets them all.”
Bradley let go over his mother and started running. “Marby Mushy Marshy Munchies!”
Peter chuckled as he turned to Lisa. “Tracey’s also made you a tea cake as a welcome-home present. We’ll have some after you’ve settled in.” He held out his arm to help Lisa move to the walker. “Steve, Keidan, do you want to keep an eye on the boys? Tracey’s made them a lot of snacks, and if they eat them all in one sitting they’ll be sick.”
Keidan chuckled. “Like two weeks ago when Troy bet Jacob he couldn’t eat ten Charming Chocolate Chip Cookies in one go?” He tilted his head towards the house as he smiled at Steve. “Let’s go check on the kids.”
As they left, Lisa sighed. “Thanks, Peter. You, too, Alan. You’ve done a good job with the boys.” She hesitated, clearly wanting to say something else but not sure if she should.
Peter smiled. He exchanged a quick look with Alan and knew his partner was in agreement with what he was going to say.
“Lisa, we’ve loved looking after Troy and Bradley. Yes,” he said lifting a hand to stop any response, “there were some problems at the start, but we got through them.”
Peter grinned at Lisa. “Now, do you want to tell us what you’re about to ask, or would you like us to tell you?”
“What do you mean?”
Alan stepped up next to Peter and slipped an arm around his back. “Even though you’re out of hospital, you’re not up to looking after the boys by yourself. You’re restricted to a walker or using a cane, and that’s not going to change. Mum and Dad will help, but they’re getting old and will have trouble keeping up with the boys.”
Lisa looked around. “Where are they, anyway? I thought they said they’d be here when I got home.”
Peter chuckled. “They’re inside, getting things ready for you. They didn’t want to overwhelm you as soon as you got out of the car. Now, if you’ll let Alan finish what he was going to say…”
Alan took a deep breath. “Peter and I are happy to stay here with you and the boys. We’re not their father—no one will ever replace Craig—but we’d love to be their substitute dads if you’ll let us.”
Tears started to fall down Lisa’s face. “Thank you. I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t, not after all you’ve already done…”
Peter stepped forward and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “It’s our pleasure. We love the boys, too.”
Copyright Notice - Copyright ©February 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.