20 days before Miles
In the middle of yet another incredibly loud debate, Singer Thurman’s doorbell rang. The familiar voices continued in predictable movements of attack and retreat as he rose from his chair and answered the door.
For a second–half a second–he didn’t recognize the woman on the front porch. Until he did.
“Lisa?” It was as if she were somehow insubstantial, as if this image of his sister, with the forbidding dark nimbus around each eye and shoulders rounded defensively, wavered over his mental picture of Lisa as he’d last seen her: self-assured and defiant, clothes and makeup her armor against the world. His popular, unassailable older sister, whom he hadn’t seen in three years.
He blinked, but of course she was solid. And increasingly awkward. She dropped her eyes, murmuring a vague, “Hi, Singer,” almost under her breath.
The boisterous group in the living room erupted (Did he just say “Lisa”?), but Singer was only aware of Jake stepping up to his side and holding out a hand to her.
“Hey. You probably don’t remember me. I’m Jake Derrie. Singer’s boyfriend.”
She frowned. “I remember. Sorry.”
The Lisa he’d known never apologized. And she really didn’t look right. She looked almost . . . scared. Singer turned his body so as to invite less interference from the living room and gestured her into the house. Their house. His and Jake’s now; his and Lisa’s growing up. “Come in. I didn’t realize you were, um, visiting. Do Mother and Dad know you’re here?”
“Yeah.” She shook her head. “I’m tired. Would it be all right if I went to bed?”
Why on earth are you asking my permission? Before Singer could say anything, Jake joined him in physically blocking off the rest of the house, and smiled at Lisa. “Definitely. Half my cousins are in the living room, sorry. I’ll make them go out back so they don’t keep you up.”
She started down the hall. “Oh, no, it’s okay—”
“Seriously, they’re obnoxious. It’s no problem.”
“And we enjoy herding them,” Singer added. “Let me get you sheets and blankets.”
When he returned, Jake was helping with the sofa bed. Lisa accepted the stack of linens without looking up, and she seemed a little pale. Sweaty, even.
“Good night.” Singer shot a look at Jake, which he greeted with a very slight shrug.
“Nice to see you, Lisa.”
They went out, and she closed the door very quietly. Something scraped along the ground, something heavy. It landed with a thump, making the door rattle.
Jake mouthed, Oh my god.
Laughter from the living room drew their attention, and they went to shoo the Irregulars outside, where they’d only annoy the neighbors.
Lisa was home. She’d spent three years in a cult, five days with Mother and Dad, and now she was here. Once reassembled out back, the gathering dropped all previous debates in the name of exchanging wild theories about what had precipitated Lisa’s sudden arrival, but Singer mostly remained silent. He’d never known her well. He had no idea what would have made her come home.
Or if she even considered this her home.
* * *
Hours later, Singer stood in his kitchen, rinsing the last of the dishes. The night’s guests had at long last gone home. Jake had seen everyone out before heading to bed, but Singer had lingered. He enjoyed the sanctity of the house when it was quiet after being filled with voices, perhaps especially tonight.
He listened for a moment in the hallway outside Lisa’s room. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t made a sound since she blocked the door. And, well, he was pretty used to Jake’s relatives by now, but he couldn’t fault the instinct to bar the door against them.
Jake came from a big family. A big, tight-knit family of siblings and cousins, full of people who spoke loudly, laughed even more loudly, and never stopped poking into one another’s business. In high school he’d watched from afar as the Derries moved in a group, a herd, their volume making them impenetrable. These days he was frequently swept up in their wake.
He slipped quietly into the master bedroom and went to the alcove where the bathroom was, smiling helplessly at the inevitable mess Jake made rinsing his face. How one person could splash quite so much without meaning to was beyond Singer.
“Hey.” Jake caught his eye in the mirror. “What’cha thinking?”
“That sometimes it’d be nice to have a drawbridge between us and your family.”
“Oh my god, only sometimes?”
Singer smiled. “I love the Derries.”
“You have the luxury of being able to pretend you aren’t stuck with them.” Jake picked up his toothbrush. “Note I said ‘pretend.’”
“You don’t think I could do something so horrible your family would disown me?”
Jake laughed out loud and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Ha. They’d ditch me before they’d ditch you. Anyway, speaking of family, did you call your parents?”
It wasn’t really the same, Singer didn’t think, but he played along. “No. Was I supposed to?”
“Well, yeah, considering Lisa just sort of showed up here. You didn’t want to find out what the hell happened? It’s been, what, less than a week since she got out of her cult?”
Singer sank down on the bed, Lisa’s silent presence heavier than it had been a minute ago. “True. I’m not sure what I’d say.”
“Well. You could start with, ‘How’d you guys screw up so badly you sent Lisa packing already?’”
He shot his boyfriend a look. “That does not sound like something I’d say to my parents, Jacob.”
Jake smirked, as he nearly always did when Singer took a tone with him. “Ha. It’s weird. I don’t think your family has more money or more, like, rich white people entitlement than my family, but I always feel like a Dickensian waif around them.”
“A Dickensian waif.”
The smirk cracked into a smile. “Okay. That might have been an exaggeration. Definitely they think you’re settling, though.”
“You only met them once.”
“Once was enough. And I don’t hear you arguing with my assessment.”
They didn’t think of Jake as “settling.” They didn’t think of Jake at all. But Singer wasn’t prepared to follow that train of thought to any of its logical conclusions. Still less to explain it to Jake.
“New topic, please. Frankie lived with us for a year and a half. How long do you think Lisa will be living in our scrapbooking room?”
“We have a scrapbooking room. How has Frankie never made fun of us for this?” Jake finished at the sink and walked over to sit beside Singer. “Listen, I feel a little bad. About Frankie, and generally my entire gene pool. We can tell them to hang out somewhere else. I’m pretty sure Lisa’s not going to want to be around that. All the time.”
“It’s not your entire gene pool. Just . . . a lot of it.”
“And Alice and Emery, don’t forget.”
“My fellow honorary Derries. They haven’t made it into my mental roll call yet.” Singer groaned. “Oh no. I just realized something.”
“If Lisa’s staying, we need to call the social worker. She’ll want to do another home visit.”
Jake’s face contorted. “That sucks. Seriously. I keep thinking they’re gonna figure out there’s like no way we could be parents and reject us.”
“We passed all the classes and read all the books. They already approved us.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still mess this up somehow.”
Singer pressed a hand to Jake’s chest, pushing him down on the bed. Even now he watched carefully, ever wary, waiting for the pulling-back in Jake’s body that had been a hallmark of their early relationship.
Not tonight. Jake stretched his arms over his head and assumed an expression that Singer found immediately suspicious.
“What?” he demanded, kneeling with legs on either side of Jake’s.
“Nothing. Just waiting for you to reassure me.”
“Now you say, ‘But Jake, we’ll be fabulous parents!’ and I say, ‘You don’t know that!’ and you say—”
“I can’t recall a single time I’ve used the word ‘fabulous’ in the last five years.”
“Remember when you used to talk extra-gay?”
Singer allowed himself to fall forward, deeply pleased when Jake’s arms wrapped around him. “I did not.”
“You did! I remember.”
“By the time we met—”
“Not when we met again, I meant in high school. I was thinking about Lisa and the cheerleaders, because Frankie always mocked them relentlessly, like to the point where we’d tease her that she secretly wanted to be a cheerleader because it was the only way to shut her up. And I have this memory of you, at a football game, doing that snap thing—remember? Snapping back and forth, like to make a point?”
“I did not.”
Jake grinned up at him, arms still draped over his back. “I thought you were so, um, desirable. And brave.”
“I wasn’t, really. Not the way you mean. I just couldn’t be anything other than what I was.”
“Yeah. That was pretty attractive.”
Singer caught his breath, trying very hard not to be visibly flustered by his boyfriend calling his much younger self “attractive.” “I’m sorry I don’t remember you that clearly from back then. Do you hold it against me?”
“I’m relieved. I was scared all the time. Totally not cool.” Jake allowed his arms to flop back. “When I think of us having a kid I get scared all over again, except now I have backup.”
“I will be your backup any day. And we’re going to be great.” Singer took advantage of the bedroom—and its accompanying looser physical boundaries—and kissed Jake. “You’re going to be a completely amazing dad.”
Jake gulped. “I’m glad one of us thinks so.”
“I totally trust you. It just feels like there should be a test, like for driving.”
“Like, you’d get your parenting permit, and then when you demonstrated you knew what you were doing, you’d qualify for your license?”
“Well . . . yeah.” Jake’s left hand idly rested on Singer’s arm, stroking the skin. “What if we don’t know what to do?”
“I’m not too worried about it. I mean, my dad was never around, and is still basically a stranger to me, so as long as our child—or children—know that we’re here for them, that we care about them, then I think everything else will work itself out.”
“Huh. I guess I’m kind of the opposite. I think if I’m like my dad, I’ll be okay. I’ll just keep thinking, What would Dad do? That’s good. I can try that. I mean, if we, you know, eventually have a kid placed with us.” Jake glanced up, just for a second, eyes barely meeting Singer’s before sliding away again. “I used to do that with you. If I didn’t know what to do in a situation, I’d think, What would Singer do right now? and it made it easier.”
Singer kissed him. “I didn’t know that.”
“It’s kind of silly. But I either don’t stop to think before doing something, or I stop to think and then can’t do anything. Like when your parents moved down south and wanted you to take over the mortgage. Remember?”
They’d stayed up half the night in his old closet-sized apartment in the Castro, drinking wine and making up lists of pros and cons, complete with mortgage calculations scribbled in the margins. “Well, that wasn’t purely a financial decision.”
“I know you were mostly trying to help your parents out, but still. You’re so good at like . . . triaging what’s important, what needs to be done, and then doing it.”
“Thank you. Though that’s not what I meant.” Singer allowed his fingers to drift along Jake’s jaw, heart stuttering at Jake’s convulsive swallow. “You were here. And I hadn’t been sure how to bring up moving in together. So my parents deciding that retirement means creepily stalking their oldest child just kind of . . . gave me a good excuse. To con you into living with me.”
Jake glanced at the closed bedroom door. “I used to feel a little guilty that Lisa joining a cult was basically the best thing that ever happened to me. If she hadn’t, we wouldn’t have moved in together. At least, probably not for a long time. I guess I still feel crummy about it. I, uh, can’t imagine being in a cult.”
“Me neither.” It had seemed like a joke, at first. Lisa, looking more confident about this than anything she’d ever done, unemotionally announcing at Thanksgiving dinner with Mother and Dad that she never planned to come home again, that she had a new family now, and she didn’t need her old one anymore. As if it were out of a movie: she was reading her lines from a script and no one else had a copy. But—also like the movies—it had seemed pointlessly melodramatic and temporary.
Until she hadn’t come home.
Jake blinked up at him. “I guess I didn’t think about it that much when she was inside, but now I wonder what it was like.”
“I have no idea. Mother has theories, but I’m not sure how factual they are. We’ll probably never know.”
Silence aside from the occasional car driving down the street outside, or dog barking in the distance.
Singer slid to the side and laid his head on the pillow beside Jake’s. “Is it weird that I hardly ever thought about her?”
“I don’t know. I guess I always thought about Carey, even when we weren’t talking. Even when he was in New York. I don’t know if he always thought about me, but knowing him, he probably did. He’s only been back like three months, but now I think it’d be weird to go longer than a few days without seeing him.”
True. The relationship he and Lisa had wasn’t really comparable to the Derrie brothers, who had spent most of their lives incredibly close. They resembled each other superficially—pale skin, brown hair, brown eyes, Jake a little taller, Carey slightly broader—but it was more that they aligned in some subtle sense, clearly connected.
He and Lisa had been the negative ends of two magnets, repelling each other so completely they hardly ever crossed paths.
“Anyway.” Jake settled lower in the bed. “I’m glad she’s safe. Even Frankie’s glad she’s safe, which is saying something.”
“I always wondered why Frankie hated her so much. I don’t remember her bothering to hate anyone as much as she hated Lisa.”
Jake’s tone made him raise his head. “What?”
“So probably I could tell you, and it’d be fine, but do me a favor and ask her yourself. Is that okay?”
Singer blinked. “Of course. Is there— Did Lisa do something—”
“No, no. It’s all Frankie. But it’s, I don’t know, kind of a thing. Or maybe it’s not and I’m making it a big deal, but anyway, let her tell you why she hates Lisa. And I’m not sure it’s hate as much as Lisa was that girl, in school, who lived like every day was her own personal Dawson’s Creek, or something. And Frankie was Daria.”
“Frankie was Daria. I can’t believe I never made that connection before! Only her hair was very Jane.”
“Oh my god, Singer, did you watch Daria?”
“Didn’t you? Come on, Jane’s brother was hot.”
“Emery kind of looks like him. With the soul patch or whatever.”
“And the ‘I’m so hot I don’t even have to try’ deal he has going with his hair.”
They grinned at each other.
For the most part, they kept affection locked down in the presence of other people. Jake was a little more relaxed around Frankie, who’d lived in the guesthouse for a while, but otherwise he never touched Singer if anyone else was near them. It might have felt stilted, or worrisome, if it weren’t for how intense it made the moments when they were finally alone.
“You ready for bed?”
“Unless you have better ideas.”
Ever since the beginning, since the first early dates after they met again seven years ago on a street corner, even before Jake was out to his family—this part had always made sense. The two of them alone in the dark, communicating through fingertips and murmurs and pleasure.
There was nowhere else in the world Singer would rather be.
7 hours until Miles
Singer’s phone rang as he was staring deeply into his empty coffee pot. Every now and then his eyes slid to the note hastily held in place with the sticker from the side of an avocado:
No coffee. My bad. Will stop on the way home. SORRY.
The SORRY was appropriately retraced in order to signify contrition.
Damn. The phone. He really needed his coffee.
“Hi, Singer, it’s Brandi Leone from Social Services. Is Jake with you?”
“He’s at work.”
“Rats, I was hoping he’d be there. Listen, I have a foster placement and you’re the first family I’m calling, but I need a commitment from you right away. Ten-month-old African American boy named Miles, drug exposed at birth, but developmentally on target. I’m really looking for a permanent placement for him. Reunification with Mom was terminated a month ago and his recent placement had some complications, so I’m only looking at adoptive placements right now. I need an answer from you, ASAP.”
All the websites, all the books talked about this. Don’t let them rush you. Don’t let them pressure you. Singer, heart pounding, forced himself to be reasonable.
Termination of reunification. “So is Mom out of the picture? There’s a TPR?” Questions. Ask questions.
“Mom didn’t follow through with her plan, and she’s missed more visits than she’s showed up for. We’ve still got one or two scheduled, so hopefully she’ll make it.” Brandi didn’t sound all that hopeful, but Singer cautioned himself not to read into her tone. “It’s still too soon for the Termination of Parental Rights, and I’d like to have him nice and settled well before then. I completely understand if the risk feels too high, Singer, but I need a yes or no.”
Singer and Jake didn’t want foster placements. They wanted an adoptive placement with a TPR on file. Singer closed his eyes.
Nine months. This was the first call in nine months for a kid less than a year old. And it had hurt to say no to the three calls they’d gotten for older kids.
“Can I have fifteen minutes?” he asked.
“Fifteen, okay. Then I start calling other families because I need a home for this kid pronto.”
“I understand. I’ll call you back.”
His “No, thank you” was lost to the click of the line disconnecting.
Oh my god. Oh my god, oh my god. With shaking fingers he hit Jake’s number and waited. Please pick up, come on, I know you’re in the office somewhere, pick up.
He dialed again.
Ten-month-old boy. Ten months. Not talking, but maybe crawling? He’d have to look it up.
No, don’t look it up. Don’t get attached to the idea. It’s a bad call. Wait for a kid with a TPR, or at least with a permanency order. Wait for a kid who’s available for adoption. Except what if one never came? What if the people who fostered those kids snapped them up the second they could?
Jesus, it wasn’t like foster kids were limited-edition flat-screen televisions on Black Friday, available while supplies last, except everything in the adoption process made him feel like they were. The system was sick. Or maybe that was Singer.
If Jake were here, he’d be jittery and freaked out, but he’d probably want to go for it. If Brandi had called Jake instead of Singer, Jake would have said yes.
He tried one more time and left a fourth voicemail message. Then he dialed Brandi back.
“We’ll do it. We’ll take him.” Singer braced one hand on the counter and tried to breathe slowly.
“Great. I was hoping you’d say that. Now I need you to have a crib and a car seat on hand, obviously.”
Brandi kept talking for a few minutes, but Singer lost track of what she was saying while he scrambled for something to write with. He ended up with a whiteboard marker and the glass carafe of the coffee maker: crib, car seat. What else had she said?
“Fantastic. I’ll see you around four.”
“Wait. Did you say there are visits scheduled?”
“One, next week. Um, Tuesday at 10 a.m. here at Social Services.”
Singer added that note to the carafe. “Okay. So, what happens now?”
“Now you get ready to meet Miles. I’ll see you at four.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
Brandi laughed. “Thank you. This is exciting!”
Singer bent all the way over and fought a wave of nausea.
Exciting. Terrifying. Oh my god.
He tried Jake again, left another voicemail, then contemplated taking a shower. But no. He had to actually say this to someone or it wasn’t real.
He’d be thinking so much more clearly if he had coffee. He could run to the store. No. He couldn’t possibly. Certainly not without showering.
He should shower. Then buy coffee. Then make coffee. And at some point in all that, surely, surely Jake would get his damn voicemail messages.
A thump somewhere in the house abruptly reminded him he wasn’t actually alone. Lisa was here. And he’d have to tell her eventually, considering this would impact her, too.
Singer walked down the hall and stopped outside his sister’s childhood room. They’d never been close. He knew he was her last choice of refuge. Still. She was here.
He knocked. “Lisa?”
Like they were neighbors who barely knew each other.
“Yeah. Hi.” Was she going to open her door? In the three weeks she’d been in the house, he’d only seen her a couple of times, when he surprised her in the kitchen, or when they had the bad timing to pass through the hallway at the same moment.
Rustling. The drag of something heavy on the ground. The doorknob turned and he could see half of her face. Not the makeup-shielded face she’d had as a teenager, before the cult. An older, longer face. No makeup, no defenses.
“Hey, so, I just got a call. It looks like our worker at Social Services found a placement for us. For Jake and me.”
“A placement? Is that like a kid?”
He winced. “Sorry. Yes, a kid. A little boy. He’ll be here this afternoon.” Oh my god, he’ll be here this afternoon.
“Huh.” Lisa pushed her hair out of her face, eyes landing somewhere on the pictures lining the wall behind him. “Then . . . congratulations. That’s what you wanted, right?”
“Yeah. We’ve been waiting for months.”
“Okay. Well, good. That’s . . . good.”
Another awkward beat passed, and Singer shifted on his feet, wishing she’d at least look at him, or smile, or do something that answered the intense swirl of his own emotions.
“Yeah. It’s good.”
“That’s cool, Singer. So, I’ll see you later.” She pulled back into the room, and the door slid shut. The sound of dragging furniture again. A slight thump. Then nothing.
I’m going to go crazy if someone doesn’t get excited about this really fucking soon. Singer walked back to the master bedroom, already dialing Alice. In a world where the Derrie brothers were inclined to get married, Alice would be his sister-in-law.
In this world, they pretended.
“We got a call,” he said when she answered.
And Alice, being Alice, jumped right in. “Oh my god. Is this happening?”
“It’s happening.” Relief flooded him. “I can’t get Jake on the phone. I just did this whole thing by myself and I keep leaving him messages. Oh my god, Alice.”
“I’m coming over. You want me to leave Care and Emery here?”
“No, bring them. And coffee. We’re out.”
“You’re out of coffee? Sweet bleeding Jesus, why didn’t you say something? We’ll be over in a minute, and then you’ll tell me everything.”
“Nothing much to—”
Between the hanging up in his ear and the door shutting in his face, Singer was going to get a complex. Were parents allowed to get complexes about silly things? Probably not. They had to be responsible. They had to be adult. Parental.
He braced himself on the bathroom mirror and stared at his reflection. He’d apparently slept on his right side, facing Jake, judging by his hair. Also, his eyes were a little wild. He looked as freaked out as he felt. Was that a bad thing? He smoothed his hair down, but there was nothing he could do about the crazy expression in his eyes.
It took roughly ten minutes for Carey and Alice to drive from their new place. A quick shower, then. One of the advantages of being enmeshed with Derries was that you only had to deliver big news to one person, and soon everyone would know. Of course, that was the downside as well. Still, the entire network would know that he and Jake were about to be foster parents without Singer having to make another phone call.
Parents. Oh my god.
Nine months of waiting. It was as if he’d been staring at a locked door for nine months and now he’d heard the key turn, the lock disengage, but he was suddenly afraid to open the door.
He and Jake were going to be foster parents. This was happening.
Of all the days to be out of coffee.
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