William Baldwin McKenzie sat on the bottom step of the stairs outside of his new school waiting for David to come and pick him up. Soccer practice had been over for almost fifteen minutes, but David had still not arrived by the time William got tired of standing at the curb. David’s never late, he told himself as he checked his watch, a digital watch, a birthday gift that his dad and David had given him. William looked up and down the street once more as his fingers played absentmindedly with the heavy-duty rubber strap of his new watch. Not really that new anymore, William thought; it was hard to believe that it had been three months already since the best birthday he’d ever had and almost a whole year since he’d arrived at the ranch.
He couldn’t help but wonder what kind of adventures the three of them would have during spring break; it was only two weeks away. Even if they didn’t do anything as special as what they’d done at Christmas, William would be happy to spend the days in the barn helping his dad or in the house helping David. He’d come home after his last day of school before Christmas break to the surprise that David and Jerry had planned for months, a trip to Switzerland. Not only had they been able to spend Christmas in Europe—which had always been William’s favorite time of year when he’d been a student in Switzerland—but they’d also been able to stay until January 2, so they could all celebrate his eleventh birthday. And not just by themselves. He remembered how excited he’d been when Jerry and David had driven him to a beautiful house in Fribourg, a typical Swiss house with white stucco and wooden beams. William couldn’t remember ever having been to Fribourg in all of his years at the boarding school in Lausanne, so he had no idea what his dad and David had planned. His curiosity grew even more when they insisted that he ring the bell while they waited a few feet behind him. He did as he was instructed, and when the door opened, he almost forgot to breathe.
Frau Zimmerman stood there, an apron around her ample waist and smelling like she’d been baking all day. He turned to look briefly at his dad and David, and seeing their smiling faces, launched himself into Frau Zimmerman’s arms and tried not to cry as he heard her voice and felt the kisses to the top of his head for the first time in almost a year. How many times he’d thought about her and about when he could—or would—ever see her again. Even though they communicated sometimes via e-mail, William had lain awake so many nights wondering if she missed him as much as he missed her. But then Jerry wanted to be his dad, wanted to adopt him, and William found he didn’t think of her quite so often. When he did, he would find himself smiling.
The rest of the evening seemed to pass in a blur, but he was quite sure that he’d heard Frau Zimmerman thank David, in German, over and over for having called her to arrange the visit. I was so worried about William, she explained in English when David pointed out that William’s dad didn’t speak German. William was so excited to see Frau Zimmerman again—never having expected it—that he’d found himself speaking German to her, only to hear David translating for Jerry. This is your day, cowboy. Jerry would smile whenever William apologized for rambling on in German. You go ahead and speak German if you want. William felt like his heart would burst, it was so full—a new dad, two new dads who loved him enough to bring him back to see a woman who had always been so kind and loving toward him. William had fallen asleep that night convinced that he was the luckiest boy in the world. Within a few months he’d gone from being alone, not wanted by anyone, to having two dads who wanted him more than anything else.
A noise off in the distance brought him back to the present. He stood up as he saw a car coming down the road, his hands finding their way to his side to grab his bag, his heart racing at the memory of eating Schweinsbraten, Weinzenbier, and knodel, foods William had never thought he would eat again when he left Switzerland for Canada. But then he had no idea that he would meet David, let alone that David would become one of his two dads. As the car approached, he sat back down on the step; the car was red, but wasn’t David’s.
William jumped a little, having thought he was all alone out here, and turned at the sound of the nickname that only one person used. “Hi, Cory.” William scooted over on the step, his smile broad and sincere. He liked Cory, a high school boy who was volunteering as the soccer coach’s assistant. Even though William was only in sixth grade, Cory—who was in the tenth grade—always found time to talk to him and the other members of the soccer team. William hadn’t been all that confident that he would make the team, but Cory had been really patient with him, showing him some tips and tricks to compensate for his small size. It had been Cory, in fact, who had shown William that being smaller than some of the other boys could be used to the team’s advantage. It may have been only a month or so since William had made the team, but he could still depend on Cory to stay a few extra minutes after practice to help him improve his skills.
“Parents forget you?”
“I don’t know.” William looked at his watch again. “David’s never this late.”
“You call your dad David?” Cory finally took the seat beside William. “My dad would kill me if I called him by his first name.”
“David’s not my real dad,” William started.
“Oh, I get it.” Cory nodded as if he understood. “Stepdad, huh?”
“No.” William looked over and smiled. Jerry and David had explained to him that not everyone would understand, but he was pretty sure that Cory would be okay with his having two dads. “David’s married to my dad, Jerry. Jerry adopted me after my parents died.” William saw Cory’s head turn and study his expression for a moment.
“I’m sorry about your parents, Billiam, but it’s cool that you’ve got two dads,” Cory offered after a brief smile. “I have a cousin who’s a lesbian. She lives in Ireland, I think.”
“Cool,” William echoed. He looked both ways down the street, checking to see if he recognized any of the cars that might be approaching. When he saw nothing, he turned to Cory. “What about you? Are you waiting to be picked up?”
“Me? No.” Cory shook his head to emphasize the point. “I usually hang out here and kick the ball around for a little while before I bike home, or I go over to my mom’s work and wait for her to finish so I can walk home with her.”
“Where does she work?”
“She works over at the grocery store, just over there.” Cory pointed to the other side of the main thoroughfare that separated the middle school and the large outdoor mall complex that housed a large supermarket and a few lesser-known retail outlets. “I’m going over there to meet her in about twenty minutes.”
William nodded. “Hey, thanks for showing me those new tricks today.” He pointed off to the large field beside the school. “I would never have made the team without your help.”
“Anytime, sport.” Cory draped an arm over William’s shoulders and offered a sincere smile. “You may not be able to tell now, but I used to be smaller too.”
“Really?” William’s eyes widened in disbelief. “But you’re so tall now.”
“No lie, man.” Cory nodded for emphasis. “You’ll see. One day you’ll wake up and you’ll wonder why the ground looks so far away.”
“I don’t know. My dad says that I may not get to be very tall.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” Cory shrugged and looked down the road and back at William. Cory pointed to the pickup truck coming down the road. “Is that your ride?”
William looked, studied the pickup, and recognized his dad’s beat-up two-toned truck. “Yeah, that’s my dad.” He pushed himself off the stairs and waited until the truck was stopped near the curb. Cory followed suit and stood with William until the truck stopped parallel to where they were standing.
“Hey, chief,” Jerry yelled as he came around to the passenger side of his truck. “Sorry I’m late, but David just told me…” Jerry turned to look at Cory. “Jerry McKenzie, William’s father. Thank you for waiting with William. I’m sorry if you missed anything while you waited for me.”
“I’m Cory.” Jerry noticed the firm handshake and that Cory was only about two or three inches shorter than he was. “It was no bother, really. William’s a great kid.”
“Cory?” Jerry let go of the young man’s hand and looked over at his son. “Cory who’s been helping William, who helped him make the team? That Cory?” Jerry looked from the young man to William, who was beaming from ear to ear. Jerry smiled at the slight blush that creeped across Cory’s face. “Man, I can’t thank you enough for working with him like that. He hasn’t stopped talking about you for weeks. Do you need a ride?”
“No,” William answered. “He has his bike and his mom works just over there.” He turned to indicate the supermarket across from the school. “He showed me some more moves today.” William stepped closer to his dad, his hand reaching out to grasp the tail of Jerry’s denim shirt. “Hey, can we have Cory over to ride the horses sometime?”
Jerry pondered this for a moment. We’re hardly ever home anymore, he thought before nodding. “Sure,” he said with a smile at his son. “We can do it this Friday, if that’s okay with you, Cory?” Jerry stole a glance at his son, delighting in the big smile and the happy, but anxious way his son was studying this young man.
“I, uh,” Cory stammered. “This Friday’s not really good. My mom will be working, and I have to be home when my dad gets home from work when she’s not there, and….”
“No problem,” Jerry said and put a big hand on his son’s shoulder. He guided William to the truck. “If we can’t find a good time, maybe we’ll just have to have you and your parents over.” Jerry laughed at his own joke, but stopped when he was caught off guard by Cory’s reaction.
“No!” Cory put out his hand, as if he knew he were about to fall into a hole from which he would never possibly escape. “I mean, they don’t like to socialize much. And they’re real tired by the end of the week and all.” Cory took a deep breath and stuffed his hands in his pockets. Taking one out quickly, he turned to William and offered a closed fist. “I’ll see you soon, right, Billiam?”
“Right.” William smiled and bumped his fist against Cory’s. “Bye, Cory.”
Jerry was pretty sure there was more to this story, but he told Cory he understood and got into the truck, looking over quickly to make sure William was buckled up properly. When he had the truck in gear and moving toward the intersection, he turned to study his son. “So, Billiam?”
“It’s what Cory calls me. He asked me if anyone ever called me anything other than William.” He shrugged when he looked up at his dad. “He told me I was like a forty-year-old in a kid’s body because I’m always so serious all the time.”
“Well, Cory seems really nice. And he obviously thinks you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
William laughed a little nervously. “That’s such a weird expression.”
“Better than ‘He thinks you’re the bee’s knees’.”
William laughed a little louder this time. “Bees don’t have knees.”
“How do you know?” Jerry reached over and gently squeezed his son’s knee. “And I can see how much you admire him, partner. I’m happy there was someone who could help you make the team.”
“Yeah,” William agreed with a little sigh. “Dad?”
“When people lie to you, are they doing it because they don’t like you enough to tell you the truth?”
“Uh, not always.” Jerry rubbed his two-day growth of beard as he looked over at his son. William was looking out the window, his face a study of indecision. “Why? Is someone lying to you?”
“I don’t know.” William looked over at him. “I think Cory’s hiding something.”
“What makes you say that, chief?” Jerry glanced at his watch. David’s instructions had been very clear: pick up William and stall for at least thirty minutes. “Hmm,” Jerry said thoughtfully as they approached the Dutch Maid. “I don’t know about you, but I always think better when I’m eating ice cream.”
“You’ll spoil your dinner.”
“So we’ll get small cones.” Jerry smiled and looked over at his son; William looked as if he were working all of this out in his head and arriving at an unhappy realization. Jerry wanted to stop the truck and hug him, hoping he would never grow up and have to face some of the disappointing facts of life. There will be people that lie to you, treat you badly, and some might even try to hurt you on purpose just because of who you are or what you believe.
“No,” William urged, “David won’t like that.”
“Nah,” Jerry muttered as he shook his head. “Not if we bring him one.”
“Vanilla!” William wrinkled his nose. Neither of David’s men understood how he could possibly like plain vanilla ice cream. No sprinkles, no chocolate sauce, nothing but vanilla ice cream. They’d both managed to turn David onto ice cream sandwiches, but that was about as daring as he’d ever gotten.
“I know,” Jerry sighed, as if it was an answer that father and son had shared enough times to negate the need for any further explanation. “Come on, sport, let’s see how many sprinkles you can pile on today.” Jerry pushed open the door and let his hand rest on William’s head as they passed through the second set of doors and into the cool, sweet air of the ice cream shop.
William announced his usual to the petite blonde girl behind the counter and turned to look up at his father, smiling when he felt the big hand come to rest on his shoulder. Jerry ordered a small cone with a single scoop of chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce and looked down at William, offering a knowing smile. Jerry had almost gotten accustomed to the ribbing that William and David gave him about his inability to stay away from anything chocolate, and he was getting better at resisting the urge to indulge that particular vice. Of course, it was easy to resist when David always promised him something better when their son was fast asleep in his own room. Who would be fool enough to choose chocolate over that?
“Okay, partner, you go find us a table, and I’ll bring the cones.” Jerry smoothed his hand over his son’s soft blond hair, his chest tightening a little when he saw William smile and nod. He continued to watch, partly out of fascination with where his life was now as compared to a year ago and partly because he still found himself worrying about William. Not just the height and the small, too-slim frame, but that he still seemed to have only a few friends, and part-time friends it would seem. Jerry couldn’t really remember the last time William had been to someone’s birthday party—one that hadn’t involved some of David’s colleagues or Lenore’s twins. He’d thought that by this point in middle school, William would have been able to make more friends.
He’d hesitated to say too much, especially in front of David, after he’d made the mistake of wondering—out loud, late one evening—if William was still suffering the effects of the Bennett Brigade’s efforts to dictate everyone else’s morality. Sometimes when Jerry thought of how Bennett Thiry had taken it upon himself to try to have David removed from his position as a teacher, he still felt the panic at having almost lost the family he now cherished more than anything. David had almost let Bennett and his brigade win, but in the end, he couldn’t bring himself to acquiesce to the intimidation. Jerry felt the raw emotion of that night when he learned David had not given up fighting after all, the night when he’d vowed never to be without David or William again. Perhaps this was one of the reasons he was so concerned now; after all, it was his responsibility to keep his family happy, wasn’t it?
There was no doubt in Jerry’s mind that William was full of love and compassion, and he probably had Frau Zimmerman to thank for that. Jerry was sure that his son would grow to be the smartest, bravest man of any he’d met in his life. But there was still this annoying voice in the back of Jerry’s brain that told him that he wasn’t doing enough for his son.
He turned when the petite blonde girl announced that his orders were ready, and he took the cardboard tray from her. After asking for a small empty cup, he stood at the little counter with sprinkles, scooped some into the cup, and headed to sit with his son.
“Okay,” he sighed as he lowered himself onto the chair. “So what makes you think that Cory is hiding something?”
William thanked his father for the ice cream and studied the spoon and the cup of sprinkles for a moment, finally deciding to invert the cone into the sprinkles. “He always seems to be alone.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like tonight,” William said through a mouthfull of sprinkles and ice cream. “Even Mr. Lapis, the soccer coach, was gone, but Cory was still there. Why didn’t he go home? Or meet up with some of his friends afterwards?”
“Maybe he doesn’t have a lot of friends.”
“Maybe,” William said as he shrugged. “I never hear him talk about his friends or even himself.” William licked some of the sprinkles from his ice cream and wiped at his chin when some of them managed to escape. “All the other kids around his age, like the grade eight kids at my school, all they talk about is themselves and what they’re doing and how they go out and drink and party—”
“You mean,” Jerry gasped and then took a breath before looking around the almost empty Dutch Maid. “There are kids in grade eight who are drinking and… stuff?”
“Sure,” William said as he licked his lips.
“Sure?” Jerry suddenly lost his appetite and couldn’t help the growing ball of tension in his stomach at how easily his son seemed to accept the fact that twelve-year-olds were drinking and partying and doing who knew what else. “Do… have you… I mean, have any—”
“Relax, Dad,” William interrupted and took a bite of his cone. “That’s not what I want. I’d rather ride my horse and help you and David on the ranch.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Jerry protested, but knew from the look on his son’s face that he’d been caught. He looked at his watch. Forty-five minutes and a near-coronary. That should be enough time for David to have done everything he needs to do, Jerry thought as he thanked William for collecting the trash.
He made a mental note, as he followed his boy out to the truck, to speak to David about this drinking and partying thing; surely David would know more about it. Maybe I’ll ask him if there is any more stuff like this I should know about.