The group home was all ready to basically lock me up for a week or two, but Pam arrived with Mr. and Mrs. Benoit and I had a meeting with them in Henry's office, sans Henry. I don't know if Henry was just not there or if he was asked not to participate. Either way, it was probably for the best. A chair was brought in for me, the Benoits sat together on a small loveseat and Pam Givens sat in Henry's chair. Oh, maybe it was just that there wasn't enough room?
"So," Pam began. "I understand there was some trouble at school today? Another fight?"
Nodding at her I replied, "Yes."
She held her hands out. "Care to elaborate?"
So I repeated my story and invited them to check in with Giles for verification. The Benoits looked at each other, communicating in a silent language known to close relationships. When they turned back, Mr. Benoit spoke.
"Drake, you seem like a nice kid. I enjoyed having you over last night, but I'm concerned that you solve problems with violence. Understand, I've got two small kids at home. You being around them would be setting an example."
I looked at him steadily as he finished and then looked around at the other adults before he asked, "Don't you have anything to say?"
I blinked. "Sure. I just didn't hear a question in there." I paused and adjusted on my chair. "For you and Pam, the first thing I can say is - you weren't there. You can talk a lot about walking away and turning the other cheek, but sometimes there are consequences for that kind of behavior at this age. Secondly, as Mrs. Benoit can attest, I've only had a physical problem with this single person. I'm guessing she may be able to back me up when I say he messes with other people."
Mrs. Benoit pursed her lips and nodded. "Yes. Jeremy Burke has sent a few people to my office since he joined the school."
"Now my point of view is that Jeremy is a bully. One thing you absolutely cannot do is shrink from him. If you walk away, if you turn the other cheek, it tells a guy like him that you're easy meat. He'll come back again and again."
I sighed as I noted his deepening frown. "Look, Mr. Benoit, I really liked your home. I liked your kids and your dog. I loved the cooking," I said with a little smile. "But Jeremy had a smaller kid pinned to the wall with no adults around. He'd already slugged him in the eye. Yeah, I could have walked away. I could have gotten an adult - but do you remember how fast school fights are over?"
He kept up his frown and looked at me steadily, so I took it as permission to continue.
"If I see a bully picking on someone I'm going to stand up. Every time. I don't really see that as being a violent person, not by my standards. I know you and Mrs. Benoit will judge me by your own standards because that's what you did when you looked at who I was now and invited me to your home. I'm sorrier than you know if this means you don't want me around." I leaned forward and placed my forearms on my knees. "I hate it here. I feel like I'm rotting away. I never thought anyone would offer to do anything for me, much less invite me into their home. But I'm not going to lie to get a place at your table, and I won't lie down for bullies."
I sat back, drained from making my little speech.
Pam cleared her throat but Mrs. Benoit beat her to it, speaking softly. "Mrs. Barker came to my office to speak with Jeremy after the fight. We talked afterward. She confirmed that Giles Martin had the same story you did - that you intervened to help him." She looked at me with a kind expression and said, "I know she'd normally suspend you for a week to get a message through. I think it says a lot that she gave you one day of in-school suspension rather than her norm. Jeremy ended up with five days."
She glanced at her husband, placing a hand over his. His expression softened and she returned her gaze to me. "We're both compassionate people. Non-violent. We both feel a great deal of sadness to know your situation, through no fault of your own. I know you used to be a...very different person. My husband and I are concerned, though, how you might influence our children. We don't know enough about you.
"I'd say standing up to bullies is a noble thing to do, but fighting...violence...it's very hard to accept."
I nodded at her. "I know. But think about it this way. Put your son Justin in place of Giles and tell me you wouldn't want me - or you or your husband - to intervene? I'd prefer not to fight, but some situations call for standing up. It may not always be easy to tell when, but if you get to know me I'm confident you'll come to trust I'm not a violent person."
I leaned forward again, splitting my gaze between the couple. "Again, I hate it here. I love your home. But I won't lie to you to make it happen. I can follow rules, I can help out and be grateful for the things you might choose to do for me. But like I said to Mrs. Barker - if Jeremy won't stop, I'm going to be back in this spot again and again. I'm not a punching bag and neither is Giles. Nobody should be."
"Well," Pam said as she looked at us in turn. "I'm not a fan of fighting, but I'm also not a fan of zero tolerance policies. There has to be some gray area, and I think Mrs. Barker sensed that there was and acted accordingly. Having said that." She turned to look at me directly. "If you think this will continue, then we need to meet with the school officials. If this fight were your doing, I'd nail you to the wall, but in this case...maybe the better decision is to look at the real problem."
"Can we talk for a moment in private, Drake?" Mrs. Benoit asked. I nodded and stood, leaving the room and closing the door behind me. I really wanted to know what was being said, but I resisted, barely, the urge to try and eavesdrop. Instead I sat on the stairs and felt a bit glum. The day had gone so well up until Jeremy had crapped all over it. I was glad I'd stood up for Giles, though. He'd remember that and maybe start to forgive me for the embarrassment that the old Drake had inflicted on him.
If the Benoits couldn't see their way clear to keep up visits, well, I guess it was Forest House for a few years until I became an adult. Kind of funny, in a way. Despite my appearance, my clothes, my athleticism...I still had a lot of crap to deal with. Theoretically I had known this to be a fact, but I'd always had a sneaking suspicion that handsome kids had it easier. Maybe that wasn't always true.
I do think it had opened some doors for me. Being athletic had allowed me to gain some grudging respect on the public basketball court and it had been my way into cultivating Kyle. If I'd been overweight or had horrid acne, would that have made a difference? Likely. Humans are, largely, a shallow species. I had to include myself - if Kyle hadn't been good looking to my eyes, would I have pushed through and played basketball with him? Maybe. I'd been lonely, after all.
The up-shot was that despite those things I still had issues to deal with. Jeremy. Home or lack of one. Developing relationships, finding a boyfriend. People weren't just forgiving me because I was attractive or could play a sport. It was still something of a surprise, even though it hadn't made any real sense; I just had a vague idea that pretty people had it easy.
The door opened and I stood up, feeling anxious. Mr. Benoit waved for me to come in, and I resumed my chair in the office.
"We don't approve of the fighting," he began and my heart sank. "As adults we feel that solving problems with violence only creates more violence. That sort of thing can snowball into larger conflicts." He looked at me fixedly before softening his tone. "We do understand, though, that we weren't there and you had to make a choice. We understand your reasoning and, though we don't condone fighting, it's commendable that you're honest about your actions and have enough loyalty to take a punch for a friend.
"With that in mind, we have a proposal."
I stared at him, willing him to invite me into their home. Even for the evening. Just keep up the visits, I thought.
"We'd like you to come spend the weekend with us," Mrs. Benoit said. My jaw dropped. "It would be overnight and it would give us a chance to spend some real time getting to know you better. What do you think?"
In retrospect it was probably a little over the top. But I stood and held my fists up in victory and yelled "Yes!"
The adults laughed at me, but they didn't understand what it meant. I don't think anyone really does unless you live in a place where people are paid to take care of you but not actually care about you. It makes a place cold and no more than a stop-over on your way back to a crappy home or onward to tougher institutions.
Pam said she'd speak to Henry, and that I should plan to come back to the group home after school on Monday. Perhaps we'd recap how I felt the weekend had gone; somewhere in there I stopped listening. Shortly afterward I went up to my shared room and packed a bag for the weekend. I remembered to grab my school bag and headed back downstairs before anyone had second thoughts. Once we were in the car and moving, Mr. Benoit teased me and said, "Looks like you were kind of happy to get out of there."
"Are you kidding?" I countered with a laugh. "A real home and Mrs. Benoit's cooking? You have no idea."
We stopped at Mrs. Benoit's parent's home to pick up the twins. I said hello to the older couple and the twins were pretty excited to see me. That was nothing compared to Ramses, though. There is nothing quite a welcoming as being knocked over and licked by a dog. They show everything on their figurative sleeve and there was no doubt Ramses liked me.
Once back in their home Mr. Benoit showed me to a spare bedroom, and I set my bag at the foot of the bed. The room was clean and bland, much like any spare bedroom in any home anywhere. There was a generic print of flowers in a vase on the wall, full bed with nightstands and attendant lamps and thick beige carpeting. Large windows occupied the corner, a double window on each wall that provided ample natural light. I then helped his wife with making dinner and thoroughly enjoyed the meal. I watched television with the family for a little bit and did my reading duty with each of the twins at their insistence. I took a shower in a clean bathroom that had no mold and changed into shorts and a tee shirt for bed. I then sat up and watched a movie with Mr. Benoit while his wife worked on a puzzle book.
When I'd had my first go-round as a teen I did what most teens do. I complained about having to help around the house and was generally unappreciative. Now I understood what the Benoits were doing by offering me their hospitality and opening their home to me. I understood what it meant to expose their kids to me. Helping to make dinner or clear the table was small recompense. I enjoyed reading to the twins. Children don't understand that doing these small things to show appreciation is valued by their parents.
Helping also helped to make me feel, even for just the moment, a part of the household. While I was very conscious of the home not being my own and of respecting things the way I would if I were visiting a friend's home, it was also a warm and welcoming home. For the first time since I woke up as Drake, I felt at ease in the evening. No roomie to stare at me, no staff standing in the hallway as I tried to sleep. No horrid food with little nutritional value. This was what a home should feel like.
At ten they told me to go brush my teeth, which I did and then wished them both a good night. In the spare bedroom I plugged in my phone and noticed I'd missed a text from Kyle at some point as well as one from Giles. Kyle wanted to know what had happened to me that night and Giles just said thank you. I presumed the date went well.
I propped myself up with a pillow and thumbed in a reply to Kyle. 'Staying with the Benoits for the weekend. Did you miss me?'
I set the phone down and tossed my tee shirt and shorts on a chair, then padded across the carpet and turned out the bedroom light. I made my way back to the bed in the dark, waving my hands ahead of me to help find the bed before I stubbed my toe or something. Really, I should have left the bedside lamp on. My phone lit up as a text came through, probably Kyle. I climbed across the bed and picked the phone up, careful not to yank the charging wire.
'More like I noticed you weren't there,' followed by an emoji with its tongue sticking out. Before I could answer he sent another message. 'So no ballin' this weekend?'
I smiled as I decided he did miss me and wanted to hang with me. 'I don't know what they have planned. Why don't you come by in the late morning? Maybe I'll know more then.' I secretly hoped that, if they did have plans, they'd invite Kyle to join us. It was good for two reasons: I'd get to hang with Kyle and they'd get to see me with him. I think I'm a good person with him.
'Maybe. I don't want to spoil you, make you think I'll just show up 'cause you say so.' This was followed with a laughing face, tears coming from its eyes.
'Hey! I come to your house when you ask me to!' I smiled and waited for him to reply. I really did like this guy.
'Well, okay, maybe you have a point. I might see you around 10:30.'
I grinned widely. 'Okay, Ky. Night.'
'Goodnight, Drake. Draco. What's your middle name?'
'So I call you DD? Too much like a cup size.' The emoji crying with laughter was posted twice. I decided I'd text him all night if I didn't stop, but I liked that he was thinking of something personal to call me.
I tucked myself under the covers and felt instantly comfortable and safe. It felt like a real bed in a real home - which it was, of course. There was something more personal about it and it made me feel good. I yawned and snuggled down and drifted to a peaceful sleep.
Morning light streamed through the windows and I blinked at the new day. The bed was warm and comfortable and I liked the way I felt tucked in. I heard a giggle outside the bedroom door and watched bemusedly as the door handle turned and the door slipped open an inch or so. This was enough that a nose poked in and Ramses' head peeked through. I could see, from the movement of his head, that his other end was shaking with pleasure.
"Come here, Ram," I said sotto voce. He needed no further encouragement, landing on the bed in short order and snuffling at me as I giggled and petted him. What can I say? It was nice to feel wanted.
"He's awake!" yelled a small voice from the hallway, and the twins entered the room and jumped on the bed, piling across me and giggling as Ramses danced on the bed.
"Guys! Guys! Ramses, get down," Mr. Benoit said from the doorway. Ramses ran to him and then turned around just out of his reach and raced back to jump on the bed and then leap off and run back to the doorway and out into the house. The twins were wiggling and laughing, and I pulled each of them under an arm and tickled them, causing shrieks of laughter and orders to stop as they messed with me to keep it all going.
"Okay, guys. Let Drake get up," Mr. Benoit said in a tired voice. The twins jumped off the bed and told me to come eat and then they were gone.
"That's life with younger siblings, Drake," he said with amusement. I chuckled and stretched.
"I'll be right out," I told him and he nodded, closing my door.
This home was a marked difference from the home of my childhood. While my parents cannot be said to have been mean or cruel, they were distant and unhappy. I'm not sure what kept them together. It wasn't me or sentimentality at having a child. Neither of them was devout so I don't think it was religious dogma. I often wondered if they just didn't know any other way to be. The Benoits were the flip side of the equation, with warm parents, laughter in the home and a sense of welcome and belonging.
With a final stretch I climbed from under the covers. I pulled on the tee shirt and shorts I'd discarded the night before and then made the bed. I liked how it felt to climb under the covers of a made bed and had developed the habit of giving myself that gift.
I joined the family and ate breakfast and helped to clear up the kitchen by putting away the clean dishes in the dishwasher before loading the breakfast dishes.
"Wow, thanks for the help!" Mrs. Benoit exclaimed as she entered the kitchen after having gone to change from her robe and nightclothes. "I didn't even have to ask."
"No problem," I told her. The twins were shrieking in the back yard and I stepped outside into the cool air. I had enjoyed the feeling of the thick carpet on my bare feet inside - Peggy had been of the firm belief that carpets were nests of bacteria and we'd always had wooden or tile floors. Because of that I'd been a devotee of slippers. Now my soles registered the gritty feel of the stone steps, cool and rough as I looked at Justin and Jessica playing tag.
"Drake! You're it!" Jessica yelled and ran away. With a smile I jumped off the steps onto the dewy grass and chased them around the yard. The sound of a child's laughter is vastly different depending on the point of view. As a parent you had to divine if the child was being mean in laughing at someone, laughing about trouble they were getting into and various other nefarious laughs. Then, of course, there was the clear, pure laugh of fun.
As a kid again myself, or maybe simply not being their parent, their laughter just fit my overall ideas of the Benoit household. I ran myself ragged, laughing with them and teasing as we played. It was the sort of mindless fun kids should have by right.
"Drake! Leave them alone!" called out a playful voice. I turned to see Kyle standing in the open doorway at the back of the house.
"Ky! Hey," I called and headed over to the door. As I did the twins started grabbing on and hanging on me and I struggled forward with one on my back and one around my calf.
Kyle wore an amused expression as I drew within a few feet. I grinned at him and asked, "Want to tag in? As you can see, the teams are unfair."
His smile pushed to one side of his face and he nodded. I reached out and slapped hands with him and the twins squealed. No one was more surprised than I was when Kyle knocked me over and helped the twins.
"Hey!" I yelled, laughing as the twins squirmed to try and pin me down.
"They needed the help!" Kyle said with a laugh and worked to twist my arms around myself. We probably wrestled like that for ten or fifteen minutes before Mrs. Benoit called to her kids from the back door.
"Okay, guys. Let Drake at least say hello to his friend," she said in an amused tone. Of course they ignored her initially, but eventually released me and went back into the house.
I blew a blade of grass from my mouth and sat up, my knees partially drawn up. I squinted at Kyle.
"Was that really necessary?" I asked him.
"Totally," he said and laughed.
"Help me up?" I asked, holding a hand out to him. He obliged and as soon as I had a grip on his hand I yanked him forward, pulling him down on top of me and we started to wrestle again as he called me a cheater. I had the advantage this time, though, and tickled him without mercy until he surrendered.
The day ended up going very well, from my point of view. We played a board game as a family, Kyle included, and then Kyle, Mr. Benoit and myself went out front and played basketball in the driveway. Mr. B kept stopping us to coach and adjust what we were doing, which was kind of cool. The twins came outside and I lifted Justin onto my shoulders so he could try to dunk. Within moments Jessica begged Kyle to do the same, and he obliged her. Then she didn't want to get down.
After we'd played for a few hours Kyle went home with an invite to join us for dinner and a movie that night.
After showering I dressed in casual clothes again, since I knew we were staying in. They ordered pizza and Kyle came back over to join us. The elder Benoits sat on the couch, while Ramses claimed the easy chair. Kyle and I sat with our backs to the couch, covered by a blanket and with a twin pushed up to each of us. I was starting to think Jess had a little crush on Kyle. Hard to blame her, but I had designs on him myself.
At the end of the movie the twins were told to get ready for bed, and Jess wanted Kyle to read to her. Mr. B read to Justin. I was amused watching Kyle read from the children's book as Jess interrupted him to ask questions, such as did he have a girlfriend. Afterward Kyle said he had to go home. I walked him to the door and then stood on the stoop to talk.
"Thanks for coming, Ky," I told him.
"It was cool," he replied. He bobbed his head and put his hands in his pockets. "They seem really nice. It seems like you fit here. You think they might adopt you or something?"
I shrugged. "I'm just trying to enjoy it and be myself while it lasts. I don't even know if they want another kid full time, you know?"
He nodded slowly. "Yeah. I guess that's the smart way to think about it."
"That's me. I think good," I said and chuckled as he laughed at me
His face grew still and his expression grew contrite.
"Ky? Something wrong?"
"Not...exactly," he replied slowly. He sighed and looked down the street for a moment. "I dodged your question the other day. About the pool. You knew I did, but didn't push it."
"Well, wasn't sure what the point would be. I think you heard me; what I thought. Or maybe more accurately what I felt about it."
His gaze moved back toward me, but he didn't bring his eyes to meet mine. "When we were at the pool, people kept asking me why you were there. It was enough to make me feel aggravated. I realize, now, I took that out on you by saying what I did."
Softly I said, "It's all good, Ky."
He shook his head slowly and looked up, meeting my gaze. "No, it's not. You keep saying what a good guy I am and how that's why you're trying so hard to make a friendship work with me. That doesn't seem like something a good guy would do, does it? To keep letting my memories of who you were - Draco - interfere with who you're trying to be?"
The corner of my mouth pulled up in affectionate amusement. I looked down for a moment before looking back at him. "It means I have a past that's hard to forget. For the record, good guys aren't perfect. But if they screw up, they do what you're doing now - try to make it right."
He pursed his lips slightly and nodded. "We good?"
I smiled and put my fist out. "Better than ever."
He gave me an embarrassed smile and bumped my fist. He shook his head and said, "I can't believe I'm friends with Drake Mathews."
We both laughed lightly, but my heart raced. I'd done it. I'd turned the corner with Kyle and he thought of me as his friend. He headed off down the street and I called out to him.
"Hey! Text me when you get home."
He turned on his heel and walked backward. "Why, Mom? You afraid I'll get kidnapped?"
"Please, they'd give you back in ten minutes!" I said with a smile. "But you might get attacked by zombies or something. No, wait, they want brains. You're safe!"
"Screw you, Drake!" he said with a laugh and then was gone. Grinning I went back into the house only to see the Benoits moving away from the front window of the house and trying to look as if nothing was amiss. I rolled my eyes.
"Did you guys want to see if we kissed goodnight or something?" I asked with a snicker.
They had the good grace to blush slightly and laugh.
"We had a bet. We wanted to see if you had to pay Kyle to come hang out with you for the day," Mr. B joked.
"Oh, ouch!" I said and held a hand to my heart. "That hurts, Mr. B."
The Benoits turned on the radio and set the volume low. Mr. B sat in the recliner with a book, and Mrs. B perched on the couch with her puzzle book while Ramses settled in beside her. I went into the spare room and took my phone and book from my bag and settled in on the floor with my back to the couch. Remembering Giles had texted me the night before, I sent him a quick message to ask how his date had gone.
'Really well. It was a group date, two of her friends were already going with their boyfriends.' I frowned and wondered if she'd invited him as a convenience. Apparently he'd read my mind, however, as his next text clarified.
'I wondered if she'd just needed a warm body to go with, but both her friends told me that Anna has liked me for a while. Can you imagine someone too shy to ask ME out?'
I chuckled as I texted back. 'Hey, your haircut looked good on you. I was thinking of asking you out if Moira said no' I followed this up with a laughing emoji. 'Are you going to have a second date? Did you get a goodnight kiss?'
'I'm not sure we'd work as a couple, Drake. I'm too pretty for you,' he wrote, answering my jibe and then followed up with, 'She held my hand in the movie theater and we did kiss goodnight. Drake, my first kiss!!!!'
I grinned madly and congratulated him.
"Something funny?" Mrs. B asked.
I looked up and realized I must have chuckled out loud and disturbed them, as both eyes were on me.
"Uh, sorry," I said, abashed. I held up the phone. "Giles had a date last night, had his first kiss. He's pretty excited."
Mrs. B smiled widely. "That's so cute. Giles is adorable. Who did he go with?"
"Um, Anna someone? He said it was a group date to the movies. I guess there was some hand holding and he's just about as happy as can be."
A ghost of a smile played on Mr. B's face and he went back to his book. Mrs. B smiled more openly and went back to her puzzles.
'I'm glad it went well. Congrats, G-man.'
A new text came in from Kyle. 'I'm home, Mom. I sent the zombies to your house.'
I smiled but put a lid on any chuckles. 'Thanks, Ky. See you tomorrow?'
'Not if I see you first.'
With a grin I set down my phone and lost myself in the pages of my book.Next Chapter Previous Chapter