I've also been giving some thought to having him quit the force at some point and start a private detective business with Max, simply because Max randomly jumped up and decided it was an awesome idea. You also have him to blame for the whole runaway side plot, although the kid is totally all my fault (but him showing up so early is aaaaall Julia's fault; I asked her in family group if he should come in now or later on, and she was all "NOW!"). But dudes, I'm totally on schedule for Nano! And I'm more than double my former best! So I am pretty damn happy, dawgz.
“Well, it's definitely a corpse clutching a canary.”
“Thank you Captain Obvious.”
“Hey, I've been promoted!”
Rivera smacked both me and Adessi in the back of the head. “Shut up, both of you. I swear, you're worse than my kids.” She and Ethan had come along mostly because who the hell was going to believe the captain's story without seeing it with their own two eyes? Certainly not us paranoid cops (although, is it paranoia if they are out to get you? And is it retarded to repeat the most common saying in the current sarcastic universe?).
Catherine Appleby lived in an IKEA catalog. No, really. I had spent half my childhood in IKEAs, either following my mother around or playing in the play place. All of furniture in my old room was from IKEA (which is why it was all primary colors; I did not personally pick out the colors, because then it would be all in different shades of red, and it would possibly burn the eyes upon viewing). But even my mother and her compulsive shopping could not compare to Catherine Appleby, as while all the furniture was from IKEA, all the appliances were ordered from QVC – I could tell this because she had stacks of QVC boxes next to the front door, and also because I watched a lot of QVC early in the mornings when there wasn't anything else to watch unless you really wanted to know how to wax your own legs with ice cream.
Not that I'd watched that. Longer than a half hour. And I definitely hadn't tried it. More than once. Moving on...
There wasn't anything particularly interesting about how she was posed – this was always important to note, because if the victim was posed peculiarly, it gave you a good indication that the killer was probably a sick bastard. I mean, there was one time when the vic had been all twisted around in this one pose – but you know what, that's a different story that I probably shouldn't be thinking about while on this case, because it was already too tempting to crack up over the stupid canary here, and thinking about that other case... I'd just lose it.
She had definitely been strangled, in my expert opinion. Of course, I thought that Wolters had suffocated on a VHS tape and not been bludgeoned, so I probably wasn't going to be qualifying for my medical examiner's license any time soon. Which brought up an interesting question: is there such a thing as a medical examiner's license? Hm. Anyway, Ms. Appleby – and didn't that just sound like the name of everyone's first grade teacher? - appeared to be a perfectly normal, typical strangulation. Except for the canary and the coincidence of her name and occupation. Which, sadly, meant it was time for the routine police work.
Which brings up the question, if I didn't like routine police work, why'd I become a cop? I could have been a firefighter like my dad and brother, or maybe an accountant like my other brother – although probably not, numbers didn't like me and I was afraid of computers and technology – but no. I freaked out my family by becoming a cop. (Even though firefighters have a higher risk than cops for on-job injury or death, and my mother had gotten used to being a firefighter's wife, and even a firefighter's mother, she still got all upset over me wanting to be a cop. Pat says she was more worried about my emotional well-being than my physical, since while everyone loves firefighters, everyone hates cops. Firefighters, when they show up at your house, are there to save you, but cops are there to either take you away or take someone you love away. Why my mom thought that people hating me would make more of an impact on me when it was because of my job, rather than my personality, I do not know.) But I actually kind of love the routine. It gives me rules and regulations and guidelines to follow, which is always good for my rather obsessive-compulsive personality. Plus, I like the idea of brotherhood, but don't have the discipline to be in the military or the lack-of-asthma to be a firefighter.
The lab guy was taking samples of everything (unlike what they show on TV, it tends to be one guy from the crime scene unit at the scene, and then everyone processes it back in the lab while the first guy moves on to collecting from other scenes. Much like the SWAT team and canine, they're only on the job until their part is finished, then they move on to the next because there's so few of them to go around. The only ones who saw through every part was the detectives and/or regular cops assigned to the case.), and Adessi and Ethan started chatting up witnesses and those who knew the victim. Rivera was going through the desk near the corpse, and I... I was standing there snickering. Go me.
Well, I guessed I could always check out the body. I mean, I wasn't allowed to move it at all until the medical examiner arrived, but I could check pockets and things. So I knelt down next to what had, at one point, been Catherine Appleby, pulled on a plastic glove, and started to look through her pockets. Thankfully, she hadn't been into the trend of paint-on jeans, so I was able to get things out of her pants pockets without becoming a contortionist. Fairly typical pocket contents – a nice black leather wallet with about thirty dollars in various bills, a couple of credit cards, and about seven forms of identification; a mechanical pencil and ballpoint pen; a small steno pad; chapstick; and a cell phone, one of those newfangled ones that act more like mini-computers that can call people than phones. I gave the phone an untrustworthy glance, and then opened the steno pad.
Oh. Great. Journalist shorthand. I stared at the random scribbles that looked closer to Greek than English, and gave a defeated sigh. I knew that I should have majored in Ancient Greek, not sociology! This was just further proof. Of course, my brothers and Max had mocked me more than enough over sociology as a four-year plan of study, I'd hate to think of what they'd say to Ancient Greek. Actually, they probably wouldn't say anything – they'd be too busy laughing their damn asses off and hyperventilating.
That left the phone. I picked it up slowly and uncertainly, squeezing it between two fingers, the rest of my hand pulled as far away from it as possible. Ew, technology cooties. I started to open it, when I was (thank God!) interrupted by Rivera.
“Guys!” she hissed, regressing to about the age of her daughter. “Look!” I turned to do as she said, as I was likely to get shot if I didn't (Rivera has some rather homicidal tendencies sometimes). She was holding, in much the same way I had been holding the cell phone, a fortune cookie she had, it seemed, found on the desk. I rather like fortune cookies. Not so much for the fortune, which was always crap – I was still waiting, for instance, on my inherited gold mine in Africa that I'd been promised – but the cookie itself, which is perfectly delicious. Still not as good as cream cheese wontons (Question: how much does a Chinese elephant weigh? Answer: wonton!) or those eggrolls the Vietnamese place down the street from my house sells, but still damn good.
Rivera, with all us watching on, carefully cracked open the cookie and pulled out the fortune. “'Curiosity killed the Cat'.” She paused, nice and long. “Well, that's perfectly creepy.” Nods all around, although I was also grinning in the smug satisfaction that I had been right. I do so love being right, makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
A check of Catherine Appleby's background found that well yes, she definitely had made some enemies in her career, they were all either dead, incarcerated, or had a bulletproof alibi. As for her personal life, well, there wasn't one. She belonged to a volleyball club at her local rec center, and that was it. Which made me a little more than scared because hello. Besides my bowling league, exactly what social life did I have? None, that's what. I didn't even have a bar I hung out at, because I hated alcohol and suck at playing pool. Catherine Appleby could, one day, be me. If I had a sex change and became a journalist and changed my name. But still. One day...
I leaned my head against the keyboard (formerly known as 'boxy thing with squares representing the alphabet'; Rivera had started to insist that I call things by their actual names), surprised to find that it was actually incredibly cool against my forehead. Nice and cool... Which was odd, because I'd been typing for at least a half hour, which meant the keyboard should be really hot. Odd. I lifted my head up to frown at the computer monitor ('shiny box where stuff appears, kinda like TV'), and nearly fell over backwards, dizziness coming up and smacking me around the head. “Whoa.”
“What's up?” Ethan asked, glancing up from his own computer to look at me (Ethan was the most technologically proficient member of our little group). While Adessi and Rivera were still shooting me weird looks over my association with a known felon, Ethan's thankfully short attention span had finally kicked in and he seemed to have forgotten about it entirely.
“I just nearly fell over, that's all,” I said, turning my head slowly and getting the same off-balanced feeling I had a moment ago. Woozy. Woozy was a good description word to describe how I was feeling right then. Dizzy was another one. I wondered, momentarily and light-headedly how many other words there were to describe how I felt that ended in 'zy'. I couldn't think of any, but that didn't mean anything. I wasn't, after all, a walking thesaurus. Hell, I was barely walking at this point.
Ethan leaned over both our desks – I cursed his long-armed-ness – and felt my forehead. “Dude, you're burning up!”
“Well, yeah, it's hot in here,” I said, waving an annoyed arm at the room in general. This, thankfully, did not make me any more dizzy.
He gave me a weird look, and I suddenly noted that while I had my shirt sleeves rolled as far up as they could go and was sweating, Ethan and a few others were still wearing their jackets and didn't seem the least bit worried. “You totally have a fever,” he decided, nodding to himself. Which was patently ridiculous. I may have terrible allergies, and asthma, and near constant head-colds, but I never get fevers. I paused, and remembered how the previous night I had felt like I was going to throw up – another thing which hasn't happened hardly at all since I was ten. I had just thought that it was a psychological response to the wonderful (note sarcasm) evening I'd had, but maybe Ethan was right and I was getting sick.
“Why don't you go home and get some rest?” Ethan suggested kindly, making me wonder for about the fiftieth time why such a soft-hearted child had decided to become a cop, of all the asinine careers he could've chosen.
“Right, and just let the captain fire me. No thanks, I'll hang here until he comes in and personally tells me I'm free to go,” I said. After all, I did at least want to give him a challenge. Leaving in the middle of a case was a good reason to fire me, when compiled with a nice long list of other crap I've pulled and/or said in the three or four years I'd been working homicide.
Ethan frowned, but didn't push the issue. Hey, the guy may be soft-hearted, but he wasn't a complete moron. Well, most of the time.
It was hours – at least four, maybe five – later, and my fever had progressed to the point where I was so cross-eyed that I'd given up on trying to straighten my vision long enough to read sentences and was instead training myself to read while cross-eyed. It was possibly causing minor brain damage, but it gave me a new hobby to add to my far too short list. Then suddenly Rivera's head whipped up and she knocked half of the papers off her desk diving for a folder, which she quickly flipped through and pulled out a large photo before jumping to her feet and racing to the stairs.
The rest of us shared a glance that to me meant “Crazy women”, but to the others probably meant “Hm, I wonder what she found?”, and then we all got up and followed her, me a lot slower than the other two because I had to concentrate on not going down the stairs headfirst, a concern that they didn't share. Stupid Rivera with her hatred of elevators.
It was almost instantly apparent where the crazy, stupid woman was going: the forensics lab. Oy. Definitely stupid, and quite probably insane. Especially for Rivera who was tolerated only a tad more than Adessi by the lab rats – and considering the last time Adessi had popped his head into the lab, Tommy had actually thrown a stapler at his head, this was not saying much.
Adessi realized where they were going too, as he suddenly started to slow and then came back to help me down the remaining stairs. “I'm... going to wait outside for you guys, okay?” he hissed under his breath as he grabbed my left arm and took about half my weight – I'm skinny, he's muscle-y, so he didn't even dip a little under my weight. Boy, I hated muscular people. Although, well, it could be argued that I hate pretty much everyone. And they'd win the argument with their tongue tied behind their back. But still.
I nodded soundlessly to Adessi's statement (it wasn't really a question), concentrating too hard on moving my legs to bother saying anything. We finally reached the end of the stairs, and could hear some sort of commotion going on in the lab, where the rest of our team had been for about half a minute already. I raised an eyebrow at my partner and he shifted out from underneath my arm, patting my shoulder (the one he hadn't shot me in) as he leaned against the wall, gesturing with a grin at the slightly open door. I shook my head – bad idea was my next thought, as I nearly fell over despite throwing my hand out against the wall for balance. Passing out really started to seem like a good idea. And yeah, sure enough...
It was dark, and dank, and dreary in the alley way I was huddled in, knees up to my chin and arms wrapped around the legs. My clothes were torn and dirty, my hair fell to my shoulders in lank chunks, and I wanted nothing more than a bath and a bed out of the pervasive wet and chill. But neither of those were going to be happening until Max came to his senses, if he ever did. That was what I was starting to fear, that he'd never get over what made him runaway in the first place, and we'd both be on the streets until we died – which, since winter was coming up, was probably going to be sooner rather than later.
I was distracted from my thoughts by the weak cries of a baby. I pulled myself to my feet and staggered further into the alley to where Dovey was passed out against the dirty wall. She had Kit cuddled in her arms, and the baby was screaming his head off. “Do?” I croaked, collapsing in front of her, legs weak from lack of food (Max always said that hey, we'd only been on the streets four months, so of course we weren't too good at scavenging and begging yet, but we'd get there; I tried telling him I didn't want to get there, because that would mean we'd be on the street for more months, but I stopped myself before I said anything, because I knew he'd just start feeling guilty, and that wasn't what I was trying to do). “Do? Wake up, Do,” I tried again, jostling her shoulder a little. Her head flopped onto her shoulder, and I suddenly realized that she was pale and cold, colder than she should be even in this weather, and her jaw wasn't shut all the way and I didn't think she was breathing. Shit. Shit shit shit.
“Max! Max!” I cried, suddenly at a loss as to what to do. I grabbed Kit, of course, and backed away from Dovey's dead body, but that was all I could seem to do. My brain was in complete shutdown, and all I could do was clutch Kit's screaming body and whimper softly.
Unfortunately, Max didn't come to my call. He was still out trying to scavenge something for our dinner – mine, his, Dovey's, and Kit's, that is, Max takes care of us all. Instead, my screams got the attention of Fireboy. Fireboy was a guy who usually had the alley five blocks north, said he didn't like associating with us runaways, bad for his image, so what was he doing here? From the look on his face and the knife in his hand, nothing good. He stalked towards me, and I backed up flat against the grimy wall, clutching Kit like he was my last lifeline. “No, please...” I whispered weakly, hating myself for saying it even as the words left my mouth, and knowing that if I managed to survive this, I'd never forget or forgive myself for that moment of pathetic whimpering.
And there, suddenly, was Max, and I could swear I'd never seen a more beautiful sight in my life. He didn't say anything, just gave a growl that he must've picked up from the dogs on the street, and tackled Fireboy from behind. Even then, he was bulky for a teenager, so when he knelt on Fireboy's chest and started punching him in the face, I knew he wasn't going to get up. I stood up and leaned against the wall, legs still weak. “Max, Max, Dovey's dead, we gotta leave Max,” I babbled, rocking Kit gently in my trembling arms. “Max, please,” I said again, almost crying. This time it seemed to get his attention, and he stopped punching Fireboy's broken and bloody face, and instead just stared at him. “Max,” I half-sobbed again. He looked up at me, and then slowly got to his feet, trembling from the leftover adrenaline. He came over to me and took Kit from my trembling arms, and I nearly collapsed into him.
“Ry,” he said, not even looking at me, instead staring down at the baby. “I think... I think it's time for us to go home.” I gave a sobbing nod, and he helped me out of the alleyway.
We had taken Kit to a hospital and left him there, since we didn't know what else to do. We were only fourteen, we had no clue what we were doing. And then we went home, and two months later everything seemed like a really, really bad dream, and nothing more.
I woke up to bright white lights and a white ceiling and white scratchy sheets, and I started to panic. The dream I'd had while I was out – well, memory, more like – had taken me back to the scared, panicky fourteen year old I had been, and I reacted the same way he would have, by scooting backwards until I was pressed firmly against the backboard of the hospital bed, knees nearly up to my ears, chin pulled down tight to protect my neck from attacks.
“Ry?” My terrified eyes flew to a familiar form and my breathing relaxed and I let go of my legs, and then became aware that Max wasn't the only one in the room, and that my co-workers were all staring at me, confused and worried and far too close to my bed.
“Go 'way, 'm crowded,” I muttered at them, starting to curl back up. Not that I'm claustrophobic or nothin', but when I'm sick I don't like to be stared at by lots of people. Usually I'm all about people staring at me, because I'm just that awesome, but when I'm sick it becomes far too unbearable.
Max immediately wheeled on all of them and gave them his death stare that was perfectly kick ass even before he lived on the streets or went to prison, and had only gotten better for the experience. Ethan opened his mouth to argue, but Adessi saw the look on my face and ushered the younger detective out. It's odd, Adessi's known me the shortest amount of time, but he seems to actually understand me, unlike Ethan most of the time. Rivera doesn't really care about whether or not she understands me, as she does whatever it is she wants anyway, and you gotta respect her for that.
So then it was just me and Max in the room, and Max came over and sat down on the bed next to my feet, drawing his legs up after him and crossing them to sit Indian style. I gave him a slightly worried look. “Are you still mad at me?” I asked, this seeming to be the more important question than how I had ended up in the hospital, since I had a functioning brain that was telling me that I had been running what was probably an extremely high fever, and had quite probably passed out and then been brought here by my ever-loving co-workers, one of whom (probably Adessi) had seen fit to call Max and let him know. But my functioning brain could not, sadly, predict the actions and emotions of others, so I had no idea whether Max had been momentarily worried and was now back to pissed off, or if he had gotten over it and we could move on with my shouting left in our memories as an uncomfortable time in our lives.
“No, I'm not mad at you, you stupid child,” he said, voice soft. He liked to call me 'child' when he was worried about me, even though there was only about three months of age difference between the both of us, so to me his choice of words was as much a comfort as the meaning behind them. “Why did you keep working, even when you couldn't stand up straight?”
I blushed, I knew it, and I cursed myself for it even as Max grinned at me. “I didn't want to leave in the middle of a case,” I said, my brain adding in, And I didn't want to go home with you all mad at me and everything. But even though I didn't say it, I'd swear Max knew what I was thinking from the smile he gave me.
He leaned against the bars at the end of the bed, then leaned forward and snatched one of my pillows and put it behind his back before settling down again, obviously preparing to stay a while, even though this was far less comfortable than it had been when we were both smaller and would sit on each other's hospital beds and sleep there until whoever was injured or sick was released. (Our teachers had taken to calling us the Siamese twins, because we could count the number of times one of us had been at school without the other on one hand and still be able to flip people off.)
A thought suddenly occurred to me, but I resisted saying 'I've just had a thought', because the last five times I'd said that Max had replied with 'Beginner's luck'. “Hey,” I said instead, “Why are Adessi and the others here? They should be working on the case.”
Max shrugged. “I dunno.” Then he leaned over and raised his voice to yell, “Hey coppers! You can come in again, just no crowding!”
They had been eavesdropping, most likely, since they came in almost immediately, with slightly guilty looks on their faces (and by 'their', I mean Ethan's face only, as he was the only one with a conscience and no poker face). “Why aren't you guys working on the case?” I asked them, less sharply than I'd intended, which I was so blaming on whatever medication they were giving me. Which I might want to find out. I turned to Max. “And what medications do they got me on?”
Max shrugged again, making me want to shake my finger at him like an old auntie. Yeesh. “Do I look like I got a medical degree? 'Cause I don't, really. They just keep putting some stuff in your IV bag over there.” He gestured, and I noticed for the first time that I was hooked into an IV. Oh, great. Just what I needed. Although it was better than lots of needles, I hate needles with a passion that is surpassed only by my derision of curling as a sport. But I still didn't like things stuck into my body without my knowledge – or, hell, even with my knowledge. It's just not a fun thing for me, alright?
Seeing the wide-eyed way I was looking at the tube going into my arm, Max tried to distract me. “So yeah, pigs, why ain'tcha working on the case?” he asked, going into the full-on street talk that he had never actually spoken in for anything other than school plays. I saw Ethan start to bristle at Max's tone, but Adessi seemed to just ignore him. Smart man, really.
“You remember how Rivera had a great revelation right before you decided to take a nap?” he asked me. I nodded. “Well, we looked into it, and turns out Appleby? Died of auto-erotic asphyxiation.” Ethan started blushing at that, the red starting at his ears and neck and growing to cover his entire face. I kicked Max to keep him from saying anything, which I could tell he so wanted to. He obligingly bit his tongue, and I turned back to Adessi with a raised eyebrow.
“So, what? We've got a serial... scene tamperer with a bad sense of humor?” I asked, trying to put the clues together.
“Well, technically, it takes three occurrences to be serial,” Max pointed out, going into his professor of law and vocabulary mode. “From what I've gathered, you only have two so far, which legally just makes it coincidental.”
“Thank you, Professor Garcia,” I said dryly, kicking him again. Not that I'd be able to hurt him with a kick even if I was full strength, and with me being sick it probably felt like a little tap to him, but it was the principle of the thing.
Despite the case being closed, my co-workers couldn't hang around too long. They had families and girlfriends to get home to, meals to eat and games to play and sleep to have. They all promised to visit if I had to stay in the hospital any longer (which wasn't likely, the docs said I was responding great to the antibiotics they had been injecting me with, although it seemed I had also been greatly dehydrated, which added some complications, so they were keeping me overnight so they could watch me). Max had, thankfully, not been on a case of his own at that time, so he was free to stay with me at the hospital. The staff tried to kick him out, including the nurse who had to put up with me babbling high-pitchedly about Johnny Depp movies the time I had been when Adessi had shot me (not that I'd been admitted that time, it being mostly a graze), but they gave up soon enough. The combination of my “I'm a pathetic baby, feel sorry for me” look and Max's smoldering good looks broke them down soon enough, and they were used to giving cops special treatment. They did, however, threaten Max on pain of death (or at least influenza) that he wasn't to leave my room for the night for anything more than using the bathroom, otherwise all the other patients might see him and start demanding their own special privileges. Max gave them his classic “Who, me?” look, and they left us alone.
Not that I was such good company, I kept falling asleep. Max was surprisingly gracious and non-bitchy about this, quite unlike I would have been in his position. He'd just gather up the cards we had been playing war with and start playing solitaire until I woke up, and sometimes he'd nap too, stretching his legs out next to me so that I was in perfect position to tickle the bottoms of his feet when I woke up and he was still asleep.
I was released noon the day after I had been admitted, with the admonition to drink lots and lots of water, and not to exert myself overly much, which made Max leer at me and made me wish to smack him a couple of times, but the doc would probably consider that exerting myself, so I refrained.
Max drove me home, fussing over me like a mother hen (speaking of mothers, I'd asked him if they had informed my family, and he told me that he managed to convince my co-workers that really, it wasn't necessary. I thanked him almost embarrassingly profusely, glad that my mother wouldn't be hanging around for the next week fretting over everything and plying me with more chicken soup than a third world country could use) the entire way, taking a pause only long enough to let me know that Adessi and Ethan had brought my truck back to house from work, which was quite nice of them. He then told me in no uncertain terms that I would not, however, be driving said truck for at least a week. I protested that I was not an invalid, thank you very much, and he just gave me that serious, worried frown he uses to keep me in line, and I settled down and sulked.
He turned out to be almost as bad as my mother with fretting, although he did let me eat solid foods, knowing my dislike of all things of a soup consistency that wasn't tomato soup with grilled cheese (he didn't, though, let me have either of those, which I pouted over for a bit). He also let me sit in the living room in my pajamas (he'd questioned me at length about where on God's green Earth – I'd pointed out that it was actually mostly blue, since the planet was mostly water, but he'd ignored me – I'd managed to find footie pajamas in adult sizes, and I smugly pointed out that not all of us were the size of the Jolly Green Giant) and watch television, although he kept rolling his eyes at my choices. Right, like he didn't love MacGyver. I knew he did, we both spent all our childhoods watching and emulating Richard Dean Anderson, to the horror of our parents – well, actually, mostly just my mother, because we went around trying to find acid leaks while waving chocolate bars around. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
It was two days after I'd left the hospital (and therefore three days after I had passed out at work; the captain had actually been nice for once and told me to take a week off from work, although he expected me to work on my paperwork while I was home resting), and me and Max were curled up on the couch, eating extremely buttery, artery-clogging popcorn while watching some British comedy series on PBS. Then, like this was a stupid poem or story (likely written by an Edgar Allen Poe wannabe), there came a knocking on the front door. I groaned and nudged Max, but Max just gave me his stupid it's-your-house excuse, and I pulled myself to my feet slowly. I was sick, man, and ill too! I shouldn't be made to answer the door in such a position! Besides, I was wearing flannel plaid pajama pants and an undershirt, while Max was at least wearing jeans. He was clearly the more presentable person.
I raked my hand through my hair, attempting some semblance of order and knowing that I failed quite horribly (because I always just mess it up further whenever I do that), straightened my clothes, and prayed it was just a delivery guy or a Jehovah's Witness, who were quite fun to mess with. The Mormons, though, you didn't want to mess with them. I mean, they rode around on bicycles. They were obviously bad-ass.
But alas, it was not to be, because instead there was a face from my past (not long-ago past, but not quite recent either) behind the heavy wooden door. A face attached to a body that had a toddler hanging to it like a limpet.
“Erin? What're you doing here?” I asked, completely confused. Erin Burke and I had dated for a while nearly four years ago – one of my longer relationships, it had lasted a full three weeks before we got entirely sick of each other. We had met through the marriage of a common acquaintance, a cousin of hers that I had gone to school with, and had gotten roaringly drunk together that night and decided that hey, why not? But that had been before I moved into my parents's old place, and had been living in the Box, so how'd she know where to find me? And moreover, why'd she want to?
“Long story,” she said shortly. Ah, yes, the vast impatience commonly associated with the Irish that Erin had gotten in spades. “This,” she gestured at the limpet, “Is Zack, he's yours, and you're taking care of him now.”
I was vaguely aware of my mouth hanging open like I was a turkey standing in the rain (turkeys, when it's raining, will look up and open their mouths, and will actually drown their dumb-ass selves) as I stared at her.
She rolled her eyes at my expression. “Look, after our fling-” Well, that hurt, it was my second-longest relationship and she called it a 'fling'. “- I got pregnant. Do I have to explain the process to you?” I shook my head mutely. “Anyway, I was fine taking care of him, but I'm trying to join the military now, and they don't take single parents whose children depend entirely on them, so you need to take care of him now.” She sorted through the messenger bag she had on her hip, and pulled out a folder full of papers. “Here's all the custody papers, you just need to sign them and give them to my lawyer. His card's in the folder.” I took the folder, still completely mute. “And in case you don't believe me, the first paper is the paternity test results. He's definitely yours.”
As if I could doubt that, after taking a good long look at the limpet – Zack, that is, my son Zack. Hell, he could have even been me when I was three, right down to the highly distrustful and slightly sarcastic (despite kids that age not having a concept of sarcasm) look on his face.
After handing me the folder, Erin pulled forward a rolling suitcase that had been out of sight to the side of the door. “Here's his suitcase. I'll bring over some more of his clothes tomorrow.” Seemingly satisfied with our arrangement, even though I hadn't said a single word to acquiesce, she turned to Zack and knelt in front of him. “Now Zacky, be a good boy for your father, alright? Mommy will come and visit when she can.” She gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek. “I love you, baby.” She then stood up, patted him on the head, nodded at me, and walked back to her car that was parked on the street. Leaving me and Zack staring at each other with nearly identical looks.
Zack was average height for his age – rather, what I assumed was his age, three years and a handful of months. Unlike me at that age, though, he wasn't completely scrawny, instead having a completely normal build for a three-and-some-odd year old. Hm, maybe I should take a look at that paternity test, as surely no child of mine could be completely normal in any way. He had short blond hair that seemed to spike up on its own, unlike mine which I had to use copious amount of gel to get any sort of lift to my hair, and large brown eyes. He was, in one word, adorable.
“Well. Uh. Hi.” Wow, smooth one Galloway, real intelligent of you. Zack seemed to agree, from the look on his face. “Um. Let's get inside, alright?” I grabbed the suitcase, surprised to find that I could actually lift it, despite my sickness (or, rather, despite the fact I'd been laying around for three days doing absolutely nothing, which is very bad for your muscular structure; Max had tried to get me to join him working out, but I got into a coughing fit the second I tried to lift a weight, so we'd decided it wasn't too good an idea). I waved him in ahead of me as I dragged the suitcase into the house. I glanced around and decided to just leave it next to the door.
“Was it a Mormon?” Max called out at me from his sprawled position of the couch. I smirked to myself.
“Not quite,” I said in reply, motioning for Zack to stay quiet. He gave me another suspicious look, although he added a hint of a smile this time around. I walked into the living room and took up my previous position on the couch, motioning discreetly for Zack to come and sit between us. Which he did, although he didn't stop clutching his stuffed animal like it was his only lifeline (like I'd clutched Kit that cold night). I shook my head a little to clear it (not getting dizzy for once). “So where were we?”
Max blinked down at the small blond boy sitting stiffly between us. “Who...”
“Oh, right. Max, this is my son Zack. Zack, this is my friend Max Garcia,” I introduced, my evil smile getting some play right then.
Max's reaction had to have been a total mirror of mine when Erin had told me just about twenty seconds ago. His mouth gaped open and he kept switching from staring at Zack to staring at me. He got over a bit quicker than I did, though (and well he should, wasn't like he was finding out he was a dad or anything) and closed his mouth and started rubbing his eyes. “Who...” was all he managed to say again.
“You remember Erin Casey?” I asked. He nodded, with a sort of 'a-hah' look in his eyes. It explained not only who the boy's mother was, but also why she hadn't involved me in his life up to this point. For the entire first week we dated, I was set on one day marrying Erin, and I hadn't given up that hope even when we broke up. She knew that if she had told me she was pregnant, I'd insist on marrying her, even though we couldn't stand each other by the end of the three weeks we were together. The only person I'd ever dated who'd managed to last longer was Max's older sister Lizzy, and I think she only held on that extra week because she didn't want to mess up mine and Max's friendship. Which us breaking up didn't do, although us getting together in the first place almost did (Max refused to even sit next to me, much less talk to me, the first two weeks I dated his sister, insisting on sulking in the corner constantly).
Zack had pulled his knees to his chest while Max and I had our short conversation, the stuffed giraffe between his legs and his chest clad in a T-shirt with a cartoon lion on it. I shared a look with my best friend, and he shut off the television before standing and stretching. “Well, I think I'm going to go get some food for dinner. Hey midget, you like pizza?”
My son looked up in surprise at being addressed. “Pitha?” he asked, lisping somewhat horribly, causing me a momentary panic, thinking he had a speech impediment, until remembering that one of my nephews had spoken the same way when he was three, and my sister-in-law had told me that it was perfectly normal, and no reason to be worried unless it was still present when they were five. Max smiled at him and nodded. Zack nodded back. “Like theese,” he said softly, face half-buried in the giraffe's neck.
Max smiled at him again, a soft friendly smile that I don't remember him ever using before, not even with other kids. “Cheese it is, little man! Your dad likes cheese the best too, you know,” he added. Zack turned to look at me with the expression of 'Really?' on his face. I nodded my head and smiled at the boy. My face, however, isn't made for smiling, so it came out as more of a grimace than anything, causing him to bury his face in the animal again. I looked up at Max helplessly, and the jerk just shrugged at me and left to go get pizza for us three.
I turned to Zack, who was completely ignoring me. Gee, wonder who he got that from. Come on Galloway, you're always saying you love kids and you're good with 'em, shouldn't that go double for your own kid? “What's his name?” I asked suddenly, gesturing at the giraffe.
Zack looked at me, and then down at the giraffe. “Grathy,” he said, voice as soft as it had been with everything else he had said so far. Hopefully I'd be able to break him out of that soon enough – I realized, suddenly, that I was taking him staying here, and me raising him, as fact. Fact. I couldn't raise a kid, I'd be the worst father... No, that's not true, I corrected myself, even when I'm exaggerating. I had seen far too much both as a cop and as a kid to think that I'd even be considered a bad father by the standards of this city, but the fact remained that my kid deserved the best, and I was nowhere near that. Plus, I had a dangerous job. How could I subject to maybe losing me to some coke head criminal one day? And – shut up, self, I told myself firmly. Take it one day at a time.
I realized that Zack seemed to waiting for some kind of response (other than my momentary panic attack). I brought my mind back to the present. “Grassy, huh? Cool name. Why don't we and Grassy go and find you a room to stay in?” I asked gently. Zack bobbed his head in agreement, and actually let me take his hand to lead him to the part of the house with rooms, which gave me hope.
I was currently staying in what had been my parents's bedroom, and Max had Will's old bedroom (that reeked of gym socks), which left either my old room (home of board games), or Pat's (home of abacuses). I'd let Zack decide.
“You got two choices, buddy. There's this room,” I showed him Pat's room, boring white walls with a couple of inspirational posters on the wall and the periodic table of the elements up on one wall. “And then there's this one.” My old room now, with two bright red walls and two royal blue walls, and bookcases all over the places filled with toys and books and random trinkets I had picked up over the years, looking incredibly chaotic but was actually extremely ordered. To me, the choice was obvious.
It seemed to be just as obvious to Zack, as he glanced back and forth between the two for a moment, then pointed firmly at my old room. I beamed at him happily. “Good choice! That's my old room.”
Also, I had the random idea that if this were a movie or TV show, Neil Patrick Harris should play Ryan. Because I'm a dumbass like that.