Once at the station, things took a turn for the odd. Isaac and I were separated and I was interviewed again. They were asking questions about my relationship to Isaac, and I felt like there was a trap being laid for me. Instead of trying to fumble my way through the fiction of me being his uncle, I came clean.
"His name is Isaac Shelters. His mother, Mona, took off. He was my neighbor. He told me she's done this sort of thing before, but he and his sister usually weathered it together. The sister bugged out a few days after Mona did. The rental place was going to boot him for his mother not paying rent, and I agreed to let him stay with me until his mother showed up again."
"Just...let a strange boy stay in your home?" the officer asked, a detective Mosher.
"He wasn't unknown to me, not completely. Besides, he'd been in the system before and didn't want to go back. What's up with a question like that?" I asked, frustrated.
"Relax, just covering all the basics. So, walk me through this attempted kidnapping again," he said. I'd already been through it five or six times and told him so. "I know, I know. The thing is, we sometimes remember new things when we go through the story more than once. I'm just trying to get the clearest picture of what's going on here, but this concerns me that you have a strange boy living with you who doesn't belong to you." He spread his hands out and tried to look reasonable. "Who isn't related to you." He shrugged. "Yet you're calling to report someone trying to kidnap him from you. It's a little sketchy, you ask me."
"I didn't," I snapped. "We called you because this man almost certainly will try again."
"Well, help me out, here," the detective said. "Why is this man after Isaac?"
I pursed my lips. "Isaac told me he'd been on some message board thing. I'm not sure if it was before or after Mona - his mother - abandoned her kids. He said these people would purchase items off a wish list if the other person sent images or items to..." I frowned, disgusted to repeat it and the detective's eyes went wide. "Exactly," I said in response to his facial expression. "Isaac told me the man had sent him a new laptop in exchange for a pair of...so disgusting," I said, wrapping my arms around myself and looking away. "The man asked Isaac for a pair of his underwear. Used. When Isaac sent the...item...he foolishly put his return address on the package."
Mosher leaned back and let out a low whistle. "So this guy got the garment and now he's looking for the whole boy."
"I think so," I said firmly. "Again, which is why we called you."
He nodded slowly. "Has this guy tried anything before that you're aware of?"
"Actually, yes. Before Isaac moved in, this fellow was banging on his door, trying to get Isaac to let him in - or to take Isaac, I don't really know."
"Why didn't you call us then, given your concern for the boy?"
I frowned. "The man was gone by the time I knew any details. A rental agent had been at his door earlier the same evening trying to evict him without notice. I had no idea who this man was or why he might be there until Isaac clarified it several days later."
"You didn't ask Isaac before why that man was there?" Mosher asked.
I tilted my head and shot him a look that said I plainly thought he was stupid. "Have you ever asked a strange teen for the truth, an embarrassing truth?"
He chuckled lightly. "Well, that's sure a good point. So what do you get from having Isaac in your home?"
"Pardon me?" I asked, narrowing my eyes.
Fire lit off in my gut. "And you can just fuck off. Fuck off right out that door."
"Then you can fuck off again in the hallway. After that? You just keep fucking off, you bigot."
He tilted his head to one side and smiled at me. "You got that all out of your system?"
I frowned. "Fuck. Off."
"Look, sir," he said slowly.
"Done speaking to you."
He clapped his hands together before him, elbows on the table. "I'm going to need a little more than that."
"Oh?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. "Are you charging me with something?"
His expression hardened. "If you want any chance of walking out of here with that boy, you better listen the fuck up," Mosher said, his voice tightly controlled.
"Do I need a lawyer?" I demanded. "I think I might. I also banged my head, I may need medical attention."
"Considering you have a kid who doesn't belong to you, isn't related, that may not be your worst move," Mosher said. "But if you care about this kid the way you seem to be claiming, then you better slow your roll because I will pop his skinny ass right in juvie, and hold you for forty-eight hours until I'm satisfied you weren't porking this kid, and the one that you're claiming tried to kidnap him was just a client that tried to make off with your merchandise."
I stared at him. "You son-of-a-bitch. Could you possibly have a detective shield and be that stupid?" I asked, truly dumbfounded. "If any of that were even remotely possible, do you think I'd call the police to report an attempted abduction of a child I was abusing? Are you listening to yourself?"
"Hey, people are stupid," he said in a bored tone.
"Clearly," I said, glaring at him. He stood and left the room, and I spent the next several hours beating myself up for taking his bait. I worried about Isaac and what they might be saying to him. How upset must he be? Were they threatening to send him into the system? Each thought sent me spiraling further into anger, self-recrimination and doubt. To make matters worse, the aspirin hadn't done much for my headache and I couldn't stop myself from reaching around to touch the tender spot on the back of my head.
Eventually I stood up and turned the doorknob, only to find it locked. I pounded on the door, demanding to be released. My actions went unheeded for several minutes, at which point I turned from the door and anxiously ran my fingers through my hair. How had this all gone so horribly wrong? If I'd been faster, maybe I could have stuffed that pedo in his own trunk and driven the car into the river. Fitting end for him, and would have saved Isaac and me a good deal of trouble.
Belatedly I realized my phone was at home and I had no way to tell time. I don't think Isaac had a phone, at least not one that was active. Eventually exhaustion set in and I cried until I had a worse headache than before. In a rage I stood up and kicked the door repeatedly, alternating with my fist until a uniformed officer pushed the door open and yelled at me to sit down.
"I demand to be charged or released! I know my rights!" I yelled back.
"I gave you an instruction, mister!" he said, ignoring my statement.
"I'm going to sue you," I said. "I want a badge number! You have no right to hold me!"
"I said sit. Your ass. Down," the officer snarled.
I drew myself up. "What have you done to Isaac? I demand to be charged or released."
"Okay, have it your way," he said, and with a brief but loud struggle - I was loud - he handcuffed me to the table and forced me back into the chair.
"I want a lawyer! I get a phone call!" I screamed as he left the room. I didn't know what time it was, but it felt well past dinner - possibly past Isaac's bed time. He had school tomorrow and I had work. I'd just wanted to celebrate his grades, damn it!
I broke down sobbing again, filled with impotent rage and at the extreme unfairness of it all. My mind ran in circles between fixed points - helplessness, anger, fear, worry for Isaac, worry for myself. It was a never ending litany. Eventually, an untold amount of time later, a middle aged woman entered the room with a Styrofoam cup in each hand.
She set them both down and I could see black coffee in each. She pulled creamers and sugar packets from her jacket pocket and placed them on the table. She sat down and started to fix her coffee.
"Are you my lawyer?" I asked.
She raised an eyebrow at me. "Do you need one?"
I snorted. "To sue this department, for sure."
She nodded slowly. "When children are involved, we all tend to lose our heads a bit."
I stared at her. "Are you my lawyer or not?"
"Not," she said. "My name is Sondra Du Morne and I'm a social worker for the county. Specifically, I'm the worker who has been assigned to the Shelters' for the past four years."
I stared at her. "And you let that woman keep her kids after she just wanders off and abandons them? Do you have any idea how far behind in school Isaac was before he came to me? I just got a call today that his grades are honor roll, if he can maintain them! You must really, really suck at your job, lady."
She pursed her lips and let out a slow breath. "I understand you're angry. Why don't you fix a cup of coffee," she said, tilting her head toward the cup, "and we can talk"?
I rattled the handcuffs. "Because the Gestapo hasn't charged me, but they've insinuated I'm abusing Isaac. They won't let me call a lawyer, they won't release me or tell me what's going on with Isaac. I may have a concussion. We called them for help, not for this...harassment!"
Her expression softened. "I understand your position. Let me get the cuffs removed, and we'll go from there. I have news on Isaac, and -"
"Is he all right? He's had a rough damn night," I asked quickly.
She leaned in and smiled. "Isaac is very well. Let me get Detective Mosher and we'll try to make some headway, all right?"
I nodded reluctantly, feeling relief at the first word of Isaac since we'd arrived and been separated. Detective Douche walked in and uncuffed me before taking a seat beside the social worker. I rubbed my wrists and glared blackly at the policeman.
"That's better," Sondra said. She let out a tired sigh. "Your questions about Mona and the family are well taken. In this state the system focuses on family reunification, which sometimes isn't the best thing for the child."
I snorted, but held my tongue.
"Even when Mona is present, she's...ineffective," Sondra said, twisting her lips to indicate displeasure. "That's really as far as I can go due to privacy laws. I want you to know that, while your night has been awful and you've been left dangling by the short hairs unfairly, it was for good reason."
I'm sure my expression let her know I wasn't buying that for an instant.
Surprisingly, she smiled at me. It was a tired, worn smile that seemed to be filled with a genuine joy. "Mr. Maddox, I see a lot of kids fail. Failed by their parents, failed by the system, failed by politicians that expect kids to be in some kind of insulated limbo while someone like me tries to help their parents pull their heads out of their asses. Of course, the child actually suffers. They develop awkwardly, and even if we do get a child freed from a bad parent, that child now has needs not every person can fulfill. They become hard to place. They act out. They get involved in dangerous things, like bartering underwear to strange men on the internet."
My jaw tightened. "That's why we called. That man was trying to kidnap him! Instead I have the Keystone Kops holding me for no reason, practically accusing me of molesting Isaac!"
Mosher remained stone-faced at my statement, but Sondra nodded her head. "My grandson finds these little videos on the computer. Sometimes they're video games, or sometimes just silly music videos. But his mom, my daughter-in-law, told me he found a series of these dumbest criminals videos. Have you heard of them? People who get their drugs robbed, and then they call the cops on the people that stole their drugs?"
I narrowed my eyes, and my tone was like ice. "Just because I'm gay doesn't mean I'm either stupid or seducing a child."
Her eyes widened. "I didn't realize you were gay. But you're right, it has no bearing." She shifted in her seat and pushed the coffee cup toward me. More for something to do than anything else I took the cup and sipped. Ugh, what swill. I pushed it away.
"Detective Mosher became concerned when Isaac didn't know his Uncle Brandon's last name," she said. Shit. Had I never told him? "I'm sure you can see where that leads to questions that must be answered. I'm afraid there was more delay as they found me, and I had to make some after-hours phone calls to some of my friends at the school."
I cradled the cup and waited for her to continue.
"Having searched far and wide for responsible relations for Isaac and Sarah," she said, covering her heart and looking up at the ceiling, "I was both stunned and relieved to find out an uncle had stepped in and turned Isaac's education on its ear! I mean, I was full-on Praise Jesus!" she said and laughed loudly. I smiled slightly in sympathetic response.
"Of course, the trouble was that Isaac had no Uncle Brandon. Mrs. Okoye at the school confirmed that she'd met Uncle Brandon, and that Isaac's attendance had been perfect since that uncle had stepped in. She reported the change in classroom and how well Isaac was doing. In fact she's met with him a few times, and she came away overjoyed that someone finally took the appropriate interest in him."
"He's a good kid," I said, perhaps defensively.
Sondra smiled. "That he is. A little closed-off sometimes, but a good soul in that one. So I decided I needed to speak to Isaac about this mystery uncle of his." She paused. "This coffee is truly vile, isn't it?"
"Matches the employees," I said.
She nodded. "I know you feel completely justified in saying that, but from the other side of things, this looked damn peculiar."
I remained silent, but fumed a bit more at the suspicion.
"So I just spent some time with Isaac - he's very worried for you, by the way. He said you hit your head when that man attempted to kidnap him?"
"Yeah. On the trunk lid. I have a headache, and the skin split a little, but nothing too serious. Still a little tender."
She nodded sagely and rifled around in her purse, pulling out a packet of headache powder. I accepted it as she resumed speaking. "Well, the rental company put up a fuss about letting the police see their video recording. Turns out one of the feeds they have goes to a woman's bathroom, but that's a whole 'nother basket of messed up. It took some time to straighten that out and arrest this other fellow. The good news is the video showed the truth of your words, and of Isaac's." She put her hands together and leaned forward. "I'm afraid the detective, here, was keeping things in place until we could iron those things out."
"He didn't have to be a complete douche," I said, glaring at him. "He also confined me here, his goon handcuffed me and they denied me legal representation. There will be a lawyer involved, I guarantee."
Mosher stiffened, but remained silent. He was the one who dropped his eyes before I looked away from him.
"Yes, I understand why you might feel that way," she said. "I think the detective understands where you're coming from, which is also part of the reason I'm here."
"Oh?" I asked.
She nodded. "While Detective Mosher's methods may have left something to be desired, his job is to protect people. Trust me when I say this man had Isaac's best interests at heart." She paused. "He's also acutely aware of how bad things can be for a kid in the system."
I looked at the douche.
"I'm not apologizing," he said firmly. "I've seen too much crap to not walk around looking for who is trying to scam people out of what." He paused and his lips twitched. "At the end of the day Isaac Shelters is the one who is important here." He jumped slightly, perhaps from a kick to the ankle by Sondra. "But," he grated out, "there isn't any question it could have been handled better."
"Isaac does seem quite fond of you," Sondra said with a smile. "I've never seen him defend someone. With Mona it was more or less just acceptance. Like he'd just accepted that it is what it is. He's been telling me how your head was hurt, how you were so heroic - my word - in stopping that man from taking him. He talked about getting to go to a dance, and how he got to go to the movies. He was very impressed, amazed even, that you gave him money for that and never even complained about it. You just did it. I've never seen him so happy."
I wasn't sure where she was headed. I felt like there was a shoe to drop somewhere. I was tired, hungry, and frustrated. Definitely not in a any mood for games.
"Where is this going? Why are you explaining instead of him? What's the bottom line?"
"The bottom line," she said, as if tasting the words.
Mosher spoke up. "Well, it goes like this. A man named Gary Keith Hobart was caught driving the vehicle that was involved in an attempted kidnapping."
"You caught the bastard?" I asked, staring at them both. "You could have led with that!"
She tilted her head side to side. "There is something to be ironed out, though. Something I can help with." She leaned forward and clasped her hands, resting her forearms on the table. "Charges of police misconduct give the department a black eye. They work very closely with me because I'm one of only three social workers the county has, so we look out for each other."
I closed my eyes and sighed. "What's the deal?" I opened my eyes to see her smiling back at me.
"I can see Isaac is safe, cared for and happy. We have a program called kinship care where we can use family or friends to legally care for a child. I can usher you through that process painlessly, and make Isaac happy."
I frowned. "If I keep quiet? You'd risk him just to protect these guys?"
Her smile disappeared. "I live in the real world. I need the police or I lose more Isaac's than you'd believe. Do I enjoy this? Not one damn bit. I know Clarence, here, has his heart in the right place. I know the blood boiling rage that comes when you think you may have someone who is hurting a child in your grasp." She paused to take in a steadying breath. "There is no making people outside this world see what humans are capable of, especially when it comes to children. If Isaac were unsafe with you or I had a shred of doubt, I wouldn't make the offer. But there it is. We can all go home happy."
I looked at them both, gaze flicking back and forth between them. "And when Mona shows up?"
She smiled widely once more, a feral quality to her. "Then you - not Mona - will have both social services and the police department in your corner recommending he remain in your custody. As long as that's what Isaac wants."
I closed my eyes and sighed, placing my fingertips on the bridge of my nose. I looked up. Took a moment to stare at Mosher till he again dropped his eyes. Then turned back to Sondra. "Agreed. Where's my kid?"
"Brandon!" Isaac called out, and I reached for him as he crashed into me. It was sort of like being attacked by a stick figure. I held him close and asked if he was okay.
He leaned away from me and cocked an eyebrow in the air. "I'm not the one that got hit on the head. How are you?"
I smiled tiredly. "Hungry. Tired. Have a headache."
He gave me a concerned look. "Can we go home now?"
"I can drop you off," Sondra said with a smile. I rode mostly in silence with the exception of giving the odd direction. She had already figured out that we lived in the same building as Mona had, and I grunted when I finally remembered, she'd know the way without any help from me.
Once at the building Sondra said she'd stop by Monday evening with some paperwork and that we could expect to go to court next week to make things official. I merely nodded at her and we headed inside.
"I'm hungry," Isaac said, a whine in his voice.
"Yeah, me too," I said. "Let me grab my phone and we'll hit a diner, okay? I don't feel like cooking."
"Ugh. Yeah. If I wasn't so hungry, I'd just go to bed," Isaac muttered. I picked up my phone and we headed down to the the car, then to an all-night diner. It was after one in the morning, but we both perked up at the smell of food. I glanced at my phone screen and saw a few missed calls and messages from Hal. I opened my texts to him and read his increasingly agitated attempts to reach me. I sent him a quick message that we'd had a rough night, that I wouldn't be in the office the next day, but that I'd explain sometime tomorrow.
I had expected him to have been asleep, but the phone rang as I placed it on the counter.
"Hi, Hal," I said to him tiredly.
"Hi. Are you okay?"
"Yeah," I said and sighed. "It's a long story. Isaac and I have been in the police station all night, and I didn't have my phone."
"The police? What happened?"
"Honestly, it's a long story. We're going to have something to eat and collapse. We're okay, now, so I'll fill you in tomorrow, okay?"
He let out a small sigh. "Okay. As long as you're sure you guys are okay."
I smiled. "We're okay, Hal. Call me on your lunch."
Isaac was perking up from drinking his chocolate milk. "Hal was worried about you?"
"About us," I said as I set my phone down.
"He's nice, I guess," Isaac said.
"Glad you approve," I said dryly.
"Can I ask you a strange question?" Isaac asked a few moments later. "I mean like 'none of my business' strange?"
"Sure. I reserve the right not to answer," I told him.
"I don't understand you and Hal. Like...how do you fit together?"
I raised an eyebrow. "I'm not sure I understand the question."
"Like," he said with a sigh. "I get the whole gay thing. But you and him dating, it seems like a weird age difference."
I nodded in understanding. "In some instances, age is just a number. You can love at any age, have your heart broken at any age, for instance." I glanced at him and saw that he was looking at me with interest. "There are some real world things that can make a relationship like that harder. If there's a large age difference, the two of you don't have the shared experiences of youth. For instance, I grew up with Saturday morning cartoons. There was no 'Cartoon Network' or 'You Tube' for me to watch cartoons anytime I wanted, and the cartoons back then were different from how they are today. Less violent, or the violence was funny, cartoon violence. Younger people will fondly recall different things from their lives than I might not have any idea about.
"That doesn't mean those relationships can't work. It's just a challenge particular to that kind of relationship."
"Like, what do you like about him, though?"
"He's intelligent, dependable, trustworthy, funny, and I think he's very attractive."
He nodded absently. Our food arrived faster than I'd expected and we ate hard and fast - ravenously wasn't even close to it. In about five minutes we'd blasted through the meal and leaned back as our bellies began to register they'd been filled.
"Hey," Isaac said with a little frown. "Something doesn't add up."
"In what way?" I asked, stifling a yawn.
He shook his head and looked at me. "That cop kept saying things like if I ever wanted to go back home with you and stuff like that. Even Sondra wasn't totally nice. I thought for sure they were going to pack me off to juvie or a group home. So...what happened?"
I sighed and rested my head against my open hands. I lightly rubbed my eyes and then the bridge of my nose. Without opening my eyes I said, "I had to agree not to sue them to get you back."
Silence filled the space between us. My head started to throb a bit, centered on the back of my skull where that trunk lid had struck me. I wanted to look at him, to get an idea of what he was thinking, but it seemed like too much effort. I was barely holding things together, despite outward appearances. I was the sort that things seemed to bounce off, outwardly, but once I broke, I broke all the way. Like the way I had after Ray and Amber's accident. I felt like I was skirting a crack in my armor right then. Somehow Isaac had become very important to me. I loved the kid, and the idea of losing him....
"You should sue them anyway," he said quietly. "They pulled a lot of asshole crap."
I nodded slowly and opened my eyes. I blinked a few times, trying to focus and regain some of my poise. I looked at him and said, "If they don't keep to their word. Every letter of it. I'll sue the badges off them."
He smiled. "Liz asked me to her birthday party Sunday afternoon."
I couldn't help but smile back at him. "What sort of gift do you think she'd like?"
"Clothes," he deadpanned. "Clothes and shoes seem to be the things girls like most. Why? I don't get it. Who cares about those things?"
I could have launched in on societal expectations and conditioning for girls, and then for boys...but I was tired. "What do you like, instead? And when is your birthday?"
"June 12. I like electronics, but I really want to go camping."
"You know there is usually no wifi when you go camping, right?"
"Well, still seems like fun."
"Would you like to do that for your birthday? Go camping?"
He looked at me uncertainly. "You don't have to do anything for my birthday. I mean, thanks, but you've done enough."
I smiled tiredly. "Ask me, Isaac. Ask me about camping."
He hesitated for a moment, then asked, "Can we do that for my birthday?"
I smiled. "Sure."