I got to my office just as my desk phone was ringing. I picked it up to find Mark Jansen on the line. Travis wheeled over and scrawled 'anaconda' on my desk. I rolled my eyes.
“What's going on, Mark?”
“Brandon, I'm glad I caught you – did you get my message from earlier?”
“I'm sorry, I just got in. I had a meeting at school for my...nephew. Something about an anaconda. What can I do for you?”
Travis was covering his mouth, but I could hear him belly-laughing.
“I was wondering if your client would be interested in beta testing the system? We could roll it out to the units they currently have under the guise of letting them tweak it for their own use, but it would also let us stress test it in real time.”
“I can speak to the sales rep for that account,” I told him. “What kind of a timetable are we talking about?”
“Most of the modules are built already. I'd need to find out which ones the customer is expecting, and maybe we can throw in a few others as a bonus just to get them to guinea pig them for us.”
“I'll look into it and get back to you,” I told him, thanked him and hung up. I looked over at Travis. “Anaconda? Really?”
“Figured it was on your mind after last night, eh? Eh? Get it?”
“Shut up,” I told him with a roll of my eyes. “I'm going to get some coffee and see if they can sell these cloud modules to this company.”
He just kept chuckling to himself. “Oh, hey, was any of your stuff gone? You didn't actually have an anaconda emergency this morning, right?” he said, snickering.
“Tell you later,” I said and headed off to find some coffee. Turns out someone had broken the most sacred rule of the kitchen area: if you finish the pot, make a new one. I brewed a fresh pot and waited a little impatiently. I was going to have to talk to Isaac about the new class tonight, or the possibility of it at any rate. We'd have to make some progress on that mountain of homework he had to complete. I also had to firm up plans for my date on Friday. My lips twitched involuntarily. It didn't seem like it had actually happened; in fact it felt insubstantial in my head. Maybe I just dreamed it?
Lacy walked in and smiled widely. “We're having lunch in today!”
“Oh? What's the occasion?”
“It's Thursday,” she said with a grin and a shrug. “We have to eat every day, right? Even better if we don't have to pay for it.”
“Well said,” I replied. I turned and filled my cup.
“So I was talking to Hal and he mentioned he was gay. I hope it was all right that I told him you were, also,” she said. “Did I cross a line?”
“In that context, I'd say you were fine,” I replied and smiled at her. That's more or less what Hal had said. I tipped my cup in her direction and sipped from it as I left the room. Nothing better than a fresh cup of coffee that's just a tad too hot for easy drinking. I wandered over to Hal's cube and found him on the phone.
I leaned in his doorway, such as it was, and listened to him as he worked with the customer. He glanced at me and blushed right over his cheekbones, which made me melt just a little. Given I'd been asked on a date, I felt it was okay to get a better look at him than I'd allowed myself before. He had his jacket off and he looked quite professional and attractive in his white dress shirt. He'd rolled his sleeves up to reveal his forearms which were strangely attractive in the mood I was in. He spoke confidently to the person on the other end of the line and set up an appointment for a call-back after whomever he was speaking to had time to review the package. Package I thought with a snort. I guess some part of us remains twelve years old for the rest of our lives.
“Hi, Bran,” he said as he turned toward me. “What's up?” He smiled, something between shy and seductive; it was kind of amazing if you think about it.
“Um. Oh! Right!” I said, shaking myself mentally. “I actually had a reason to come over here.”
He put his chin on his knuckles and looked at me, all of a sudden looking younger. “I hope it's not to tell me we're playing darts tomorrow night?”
“That's Wednesdays. We drink, eat wings, and play darts on Wednesdays.”
He grinned widely and leaned back, putting his hands behind his head. My stomach pulled slightly. It's kind of amazing how knowing someone else is interested in you affects you. “So what's up?”
“Well, first I got a call from Mark Jensen about the Cirrus situation,” I told him. He leaned forward, all business. “He wanted to see if you could or would sell them on beta testing the modules without really telling them it's a beta test. Selling it under the guise of allowing them to take it around the block and give feedback so we can tweak it to fit their needs.”
He pursed his lips in thought. “I think I can sell that. Is it smart? What do you think?”
I took a breath. “Anytime we roll out something new there will be bugs to work out. I think selling it to them honestly – not calling it a beta test – but telling them that there may be bugs while we tweak the modules to suit them is wise, if you choose to do it at all.” I paused. “Keep in mind that this will have to be tested somehow by someone and that there will be bugs. It may be the best out you have, given that it's sold in, and a product they want.”
He nodded slowly. “That makes all kinds of sense to me. How soon does he think a module could be ready? If we tie it into the six machines they have now we could get a small sample for testing and get started.”
“We can probably start feeding data from those six now, since it wouldn't affect the customer – they'd never see it. If it's working okay, you could forward them a link or some screen shots of what they might be able to use from the system.”
“Perfect! Okay, can you get me Mark's email? I should probably run this by Harvey, right?”
I tilted my head side to side. “I would. First account and Harvey looks after his people, so it'd be best if you had him on your side.”
“Yeah, good thought. I'll see him in a second,” Hal said. He smiled confidently and leaned toward me just a bit. “I'd like to know what you'd like to do tomorrow night?”
Wow. Loaded question. “Well, I'm pretty open about food, so is there something you have as a favorite or something you want to try?”
He tilted his head in thought. “Italian and Mexican are my favorites. Garcia's is really tasty. Have you been there?”
“No, I haven't tried it yet. Shall I meet you there or pick you up?”
“Uh,” he said and then sighed slightly. “Picking me up would save time, if you don't mind.”
“Not at all. Let's go see Harvey.”
I was honestly surprised when Mrs. Okoye called me late in the afternoon, and I told her so. “Normally, you wouldn't hear from me so quickly,” she said with a little laugh. “But I've had my eye on Isaac for a long time, and if you don't jump on situations as they arise, you miss out – or your student does. So I spent a good chunk of my day walking this through. It will still have to pass an official meeting of the department, but that's just a formality that we'll have done by Friday.”
“So he qualified for the class?”
“He's a great candidate. I spoke to each of his teachers and they were very enthusiastic that he's got some support at home, and for his prospects once he starts working in the new classroom. I have to say, it was refreshing.”
“Well, this is great news. I'm going to have to talk to him about this tonight and prepare him.”
“Yes, you may have a challenge there,” she said. “Kids tend to feel singled out when they initially join the class. You'll hear some complaints about things other students may say to them. You know how mean kids can be. Casually cruel.”
“Yeah, I have some experience,” I said sourly. “The thing is, school is to give him opportunities later in life, so that's what I have to focus on.” I figured I was preaching to the choir to say that, but she should know we were on the same page – or I should know if we weren't.
After I hung up I sat back in my chair, arms crossed.
“Hey.” Travis was leaning back in his chair as well. “A few weeks away on a Friday we've got the day off. How do you feel about hitting the lake? We'll grill up some burgers, some dogs, maybe you can make your pasta salad?”
I turned to glance at him. “You just want my pasta salad. Admit it.”
“It's a bonus,” he admitted with a grin. “Besides, I told Dawn about your new project and she actually said she'd gut me if she didn't get to see this for herself.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. He held his arms out wide. “Isaac? Why?”
“Single you as a parent? To a terrible teen? Personally I think she just wants to see someone else suffer,” he said with a laugh.
“Well, there's a good classroom I can get him into, but he may not be happy about it.”
Travis's eyebrows shot up. “You've talked to the school? Damn, you're taking this thing kind of seriously, aren't you?”
I chewed on my lower lip for a moment. “This may be a very short term thing. I won't say I don't feel for his situation, even though he hasn't come across as particularly lovable or anything. Still, if I'm going to hold up my part of looking out for him, then I'm going to go all in.” I glanced over at him. “His mother could show up again at any time. He could choose to run. He could simply defy me, and I might have to walk away. I have no real authority here, except that he doesn't want to go back into the system. In a way it's shitty, but it is what it is.”
Travis smiled at me. “Kid doesn't know how lucky he got.”
“You're turning me into a SPED?” Isaac snarled, his body language intense.
I frowned. “What's a SPED?”
“Special Ed,” he spat.
I sighed. “I won't force you. This is something we need to have a conversation about. Let's eat dinner, and then we can talk about the drawbacks and benefits. Okay?”
He tilted his head back a bit. “I get a say?”
“Yes, you get a say,” I told him. It wasn't a lie. No education plan was going to work if he wasn't invested in the program. That settled and his temper simmering rather than boiling over, I started getting dinner ready. I was pleased he offered to help, which was his version of apologizing for his outburst. We put together a nice meal of baked chicken, pasta with a light sauce and mixed veggies. We sat down at the table together and I asked after his day.
“It was okay. My English teacher was happy I turned in the back work to her. Liz Bishop asked me to the dance tomorrow night. I have to buy a wristband tomorrow at lunch for five dollars, if it's okay with you.”
I nodded. “Well, I think you've been making solid progress on your work, so I think you've earned a night of fun.”
His eyes widened in surprise, but he quickly corralled it. “Um. Cool. I, uh, need a ride back and forth.”
“Okay. I'll need to know what time as I have a date tomorrow night.”
His jaw dropped. “You have a date?”
I frowned. “You don't have to look so surprised. I'm not dead.”
He got a sly look on his face. “Well, not quite, but enough to fool some people.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I'm not sure I have money for a dance, all of a sudden.”
“I'm sure you'll have a great time!” he said, breaking down in laughter. I gave him a suspicious look, but couldn't help but enjoy the sound of him laughing. It wasn't something I had been sure he could do.
After dinner we sat in the living room, he all angles on the corner of the couch and I in my reading chair.
“So, you know I'm concerned about you being able to understand the material so you can do your work,” I said.
“It's only because I've missed so much time.”
“You know, I believe that,” I said. “I heard so many good things about you at the school today, you might be surprised.”
“I don't cause any trouble, so no – I'm not surprised,” he said.
I smiled lightly. “Yes, I heard that, too. But most of the praise was for you being smart but not getting the support you need.”
He frowned. “So they think I'm so smart I should be a SPED?”
Changing tactics I asked, “Have you decided if you're going to college or a trade school when you graduate?”
He studied me for a moment. “I thought about enlisting.”
I nodded slowly. “Military service is an honorable thing. Is it what you want to do?”
He shrugged. “I don't know. What else would I do?”
I leaned forward. “If you had the proper support? Anything. Sky's the limit.”
He looked at me mistrustfully. “How do you figure?”
“There's a disconnect right now. Gaps in your knowledge because you've traditionally missed a lot of school. The knowledge you missed out on won't just fill in all by itself, and that shows when you do your work. Let me be clear,” I said, holding out my hand in response to his frown. “It's not that you aren't intelligent enough to learn, it's that you missed the time when they taught what you're missing. I think you see my logic when I say they can't reteach the whole class for the days you missed, right?”
He pursed his lips, but gave me a single, sharp nod.
“So, here is where I'm coming from,” I said. “I have an obviously smart kid who just needs some organization and some help to catch up. A kid who could probably be an honor student if he's given the tools.” I raised an eyebrow and tilted my head at him, and he looked back at me steadily. “So Mrs. Okoye said that this class could get you caught up because there are aides that can spend the extra time to teach you what you missed, and get you on track to pass for the year. At the end of each quarter you have the option to leave the class, so it doesn't have to be forever.”
He regarded me with suspicion, rather like how I looked at used car salesmen giving me a pitch. I tried another tack. “You’re worrying about being a SPED. I found out that many of the kids in the class are actually very bright, just like you, and I think you’ll find yourself with kids you’ll like and that will probably like you. It seems a win/win to me.”
He still looked at me suspiciously, but maybe a little less so. What he asked sounded like a question, not like he was establishing a defensive position.“But you're saying you won't force me to go into it?”
I sighed. “No, I won't. People do things best when they buy into a system, program or idea. If you're going to fight it and be miserable, then say so and we'll forget about it. But I should mention, they help you get all your schoolwork done at school so you usually don't have any to bring home – which you guys get too much homework as it is.”
He nodded slowly, face pinched as he considered. “So if I do this, and I get all caught up and I'm doing well, no one will make me stay in that class?”
He looked away for a minute and I let him be. I was quietly impressed that he'd calmed down and was actually having a reasonable conversation. In one sense it was more mature than I'd expected, but on the other hand, he'd probably had to be more grown up than the average kid due to his home life. “When would this start?”
He opened his mouth and ran his tongue over the top of his teeth. “So soon? Well...okay. I'll give it a try.”
I signed Isaac's slip Friday morning and got myself to work. The day was busy as I worked with Mark Jansen to get the information flowing to the modules that were now set up in a test environment. It sounds easy to say, but it was rather complicated to do. Just after lunch, however, we were getting data into the test server, and Mark was working on generating reports from the data to show the client.
Travis's phone rang and I slid my chair over and wrote on his desk calendar 'disco'.
He shook his head. “Yeah, I know. The problem is with the code on line 1264. See how we have that – yes, right. That's what's causing the fail, I think. Makes the app deader than disco.” He turned and gave me a thumbs up before going back to his call. “Yeah, let's pop it on test server two and give it a whirl.”
“Nice work,” I said to him with a laugh.
“That was potentially disastrous,” he said with a grin. “I thought I'd have to tell a joke to squeeze that in somehow.”
“A joke about disco being dead?”
“That's no joke, Bran,” he said seriously and we both laughed. “What are you and the kid doing tonight? How'd he take the new class, by the way?”
I turned toward him, but was interrupted by Lacy. “Office romance is a bad thing, huh?” she asked, a little huffy. I sighed inwardly.
“It's not something I really advise. Sometimes it works out if the two people arent' in the same chain of command, if you follow. Still, it doesn't work out often,” I replied evenly.
“Did you know he was gay?” she asked, her attitude rolling back a bit toward normal.
“I found out Wednesday night when he, um, asked me out,” I said. I glanced at Travis who looked entirely too smug. I'd deal with him in a minute. I looked back at Lacy. “I would likely have never asked him out because we work together, but...he asked me and...I want to. So it's on me.”
She nodded and grimaced slightly. “Sorry for coming at you like that. It just kind of felt sketchy, considering what you said before.” She hesitated. “I hope you have a good time.”
“Thank you,” I said as she walked away.
“Gonna play hide the salami, eh? Eh?” Travis asked, grinning and chuckling.
“I don't know why that interests you so much. Maybe Dawn should worry.”
“Maybe she should. If I got laid more, I might be more grossed out by gay sex. I should tell her that.”
“Oh, just wait for me to be there, please?” I asked with a chuckle. Then, my thoughts returning to his earlier question, I sighed. “I'll find out Monday how his class went. Tonight, Isaac has a school dance, so I'll have to adjust my date scheduled a few hours since I have to drop him off and pick him up. Still, I look forward to being on a date with a nice guy.”
“It'll be good for ya. If it goes well, you should bring him to the lake when we go.”
“Maybe,” I conceded. A big maybe.
Isaac cleaned up nicely for his dance and I gave him twenty dollars for drinks and sugar once he was inside. He seemed quite surprised. I dropped him off at six and made my way over to Hal's place. I was just getting out of the car when he came down his front steps, dressed in jeans with a green unbuttoned shirt over a white tee.
“Hi!” he greeted me enthusiastically. “This will be nice, getting an early table. By seven or seven-thirty the place would be mobbed.”
“Undoubtedly,” I replied, smiling at him. God, he looked good.
Traffic wasn't bad and we arrived at twenty of seven, and our reserved table was waiting. I ordered a margarita to start and he decided to have one with me.
“My father loved margaritas,” I told Hal as the waitress walked away. “When I first tried them I didn't like them much, and he said I couldn't be his if I didn't like margaritas.”
Hal laughed. “Are you out to your parents?”
“Yes,” I said fondly. “I never had any trouble on that score with them. My siblings, though, fell in with a particular kind of religion and we don't speak.”
“That's great – about your parents. You and Travis seem to be pretty tight.”
I shook my head and laughed. “We've known each other for years. It used to be that we each worked in this industry, but as competitors. We became friends during the merger of the companies and we've really just gotten along ever since. His wife, Dawn, is just as funny as he is. They have an easy-going relationship, and have two pretty good kids.”
“How do you feel about kids?” Hal asked as our drinks were delivered. We placed our order for dinner and I took a sip of my margarita.
“They put it in an actual margarita glass and salted it properly. Not bad. Not bad at all,” I said, taking another sip.
“There is a specific glass for this?” Hal asked, sipping his own drink.
“Yes. This wide mouth glass is perfect. Some places will try to serve it in a beer glass, and then you get less salt on the rim. Getting some salt with each sip it what contributes to the overall flavor.”
He raised an eyebrow, and sipped from his glass again, but being sure to get some salt in his mouth. He nodded. “You're right, it's a big difference!”
I leaned back a bit. “To answer your question, I don't mind kids. My husband and I had a daughter. They both passed away in an accident.”
“Oh. I'm sorry,” he said awkwardly.
“Thank you. I don't bring it up to be awkward, but rather because I think of dates as getting to know each other. If we're out together, I assume we're attracted to each other so it makes sense to get to the next stage. Sorry if that was...a bit much.”
He chuckled. “No, not at all. I think it can be awkward trying to dance around family histories or past relationships for very long. You're right, of course, about the attraction,” he said, once more turning red just at the tips of his cheeks. It really was rather adorable.
“Oh? You have a sordid history?” I asked, teasingly.
The corner of his mouth pulled up in amusement and he sipped from his glass. “I suppose I'm a little bit unusual that I always was attracted to older men. When I went to college I slept with two professors, one of them mine and another I met by chance.” He paused. “While working on my bachelors I was dating a man who worked in school administration when I got the call that my parents had...died suddenly.”
“Oh. I'm very sorry for your loss,” I said quietly.
He nodded and smiled a bit sadly. “Thank you.” He took a breath. “The relationship ended because I had too much drama in my life for this...man.” He looked up at me. “I was upset over my parents, but also had to make a major life change by putting off finishing my education and moving home to take care of my sister. She was my appointment the other night, I had to pick her up from school.”
“Wow. That's a lot of responsibility. You know, I was under the impression that you don't drive.”
“Not much,” he said with a grimace. “I'm very out of practice so unless she needs a ride home after practice or something, I usually take the bus.”
“Ah. I see. How old is your sister?”
“Fourteen going on fifty,” he said and let out a mirthless laugh. “I swear, teenage girls!”
“Happens that I'm taking care of a teenage boy of that age at the moment. He's a good lad, so far. I'm sure he'll give me more guff once he's comfortable.”
Hal pointed at me. “That's the key, keeping them uncomfortable so they never give you guff.”
“Indeed,” I said in agreement. Our food arrived and I ordered water to go with it. The food was good, and the conversation steered away to lighter things. After dinner we took a short stroll, but I had to cut it short in order to pick up Isaac from his dance. Hal explained that his sister was being a bit weird about him parenting her, so he wanted to get a goodnight kiss out of the way before we got in the car. I like the idea of starting kisses earlier in a date and took it as a good omen that he wanted to kiss me. I'll say this: kissing him was a cosmic experience. He struck a very nice balance between being aggressive and tender, and it certainly left me wanting more and a little breathless. I think I expected him to be more deferential because of our age difference, but perhaps he was just someone who knew what he wanted. He certainly knew what he was doing.
I picked up Isaac, who was waiting out front and chatting with other kids. He was completely disheveled – shirt untucked, hair askew, and his tie dangling from a pocket of his trousers. He hopped in the car and waved to his friends.
“You look like you had a good time,” I said.
He tossed his head back against the headrest. “Ugh, so much fun! They had some junk food, and they played some really cool songs in between a bunch of lame stuff. Darren messed up my hair like eight times and I wanted to punch him, except Liz was telling him to stop and she seemed to kind of want to defend me. I...think it worked out in my favor?”
“Sometimes, yes,” I said. “If someone already likes you and someone picks on you, they feel for you and against the other person. Is Darren after Liz?”
“Nah. He's just a twat.”
I snorted. “Let's keep the language to a minimum, all right?”
“How was your date?” he asked.
“Really nice,” I told him. “We went to Garcia's for dinner, really good Mexican food. I'll have to take you there sometime.”
“That's be cool,” he said, the tone of his voice shifting. “Um, thanks for letting me go to the dance.”
I smiled at him. “Part of growing up, as long as you're behaving. Don't you normally go to school dances?”
He looked away and out the window, replying nonchalantly, “No. Mom is kind of tough to catch for permission, and for the cash to go.”
I could be wrong, but I interpreted his words as it was better that he not ask her.
“Well, I'm glad you had a good time. Uh, so is this Liz a good looking girl?”
He gave me a contemplative look. “She's pretty. Not, like, crazy pretty, but I like her.”
“Liking someone is really more important than looks,” I said.
“Yeah? What about your date? Is he all personality?” Isaac asked, snickering.
“He's got both looks and personality,” I said, smiling lightly. He snorted, but made no further comment. Once home I told him to shower since he was covered in dried sweat. I changed and checked my phone to see what the weather was supposed to be like tomorrow and was pleasantly surprised to find a message from Hal.
Had a great time. U can pick 2nd date spot.
I grinned foolishly. How about lunch Monday?
It's a date!
My grin got wider. Isaac called out a goodnight as he went to bed, and after answering I sat up texting with Hal like a lovesick teen. It was kind of nice. I'd gone on dates in the last year or two, but I hadn't become crippled by loneliness. I hung out with Travis and Dawn, babysat for their boys Simon and Pete a few times. I talked to Ray and Amber, though I guess some people would find that weird. Still, texting with Hal was kind of like courting in the way it made me feel. It was exciting and interesting, especially knowing he was just as interested. It was actually sort of amazing.