In any other bar in town, he'd have been carded and turned around three seconds after he opened the door. Wheat-sheaf blond hair, blue eyes, a round sweet face, and skin as fair and smooth as satin; if that kid was a day over seventeen, I would eat my hat. Without salt. But Charlie's was a gay bar, and his blazing, innocent beauty bought him a few minutes' grace. It was enough time for his eyes to meet mine, and even in the dim of the bar I saw them brighten.
I dropped my gaze to the glass of Coke-and-nothing I was nursing between my palms. Whatever brought that boy to this place, it was no business of mine. Really, I had no business even looking at him. I had passed my fiftieth birthday years ago. Hell, sixty was breathing down my neck. His clean lines might be a breath of fresh air in this dark bar, and I wasn't dead, or blind, but that was all the slack I would cut myself. I focused hard on the glass, turning it in my hands.
A touch on my arm startled me, and I spilled a few brown drops onto the polished bar. When I turned, his face was close to mine.
"Jamison? You are Dr. Jamison Seavers?"
"I'm not a doctor," I said gruffly.
Surprisingly, he grinned. "I knew you would say that. But you are Jamie Seavers?"
His smile dimmed only a little. "Toller Grange is my father."
For a moment I couldn't breathe. Not like a punch in the gut. More like a hand closed around my throat, cutting off all air, all hope of breath. I hadn't heard that name spoken out loud in twenty-three years. Except in those moments when I woke to the hoarse sound of my own voice, calling out...it didn't happen much anymore.
The boy was looking closely at me, his earlier open expression shading to concern. I took a big mouthful of the Coke, swallowing it past that stranglehold of the past on my neck, and looked at him. There wasn't much of Toller about the boy. Toller had been dark, lithe, and quicksilver slim. Toller's eyes had been storm-grey, angry, hurt, and wary. They had held the world at bay, except in those rare moments...they had been nothing like this child's innocent gaze.
The boy was bigger than Toller too, and fairer. His mother must have been a beauty to mark him so completely with her own looks. He had his own grace, but it was muscled and confident, large through the shoulders and heavy in the bone. He had a bulky backpack slung easily over one shoulder. He would be as tall as me, if I stood up from my bar stool, and the width of his wrists hinted at more growth yet to come. Toller had clearly found a sturdy Nordic lass when he had gone looking for something permanent. It wasn't the future I'd wanted for him. He must have decided once and for all that the healing I had given him wasn't enough, would never be enough. A wave of regret choked me as completely as my earlier surprise. I thought I had at least given Toller that.
Then the boy said, "He's told me and my Papa-Tris a lot about you. We feel like we almost know you, but I guess you don't know me at all."
"You guess right, kid." I took another long swig, wishing there was something stronger in the glass. And yet my breath was coming easier again. Papa-Tris? "You have two dads?"
"Sure. Toller and Tris. Dad is gay." The boy's smooth forehead wrinkled perplexedly. "You know that. You are Jamie?"
"Guess so." Better, that was at least better. "I just figured there was a woman in there somewhere. I did study biology once."
He laughed, his face clearing. "Well sure, but Dad and Papa adopted me when I was six. I hardly remember anymore."
George, the bartender, appeared behind the bar across from me. "Jamie, I gotta send the kid out of here. Unless he has valid ID?" He cocked a skeptical eyebrow at the blond kid.
"That's fine," I said. "He's coming home with me."
George blinked and hesitated. He'd seen me in there off and on for a couple of years now, playing my personal form of Russian roulette with the booze, and occasionally appreciating a pretty boy in a purely platonic way. I never touched a man younger than me. He should have known I was no chicken hawk, but still he turned to the kid. "You sure about that, boy?"
"Jesus Christ!" I snapped. "What kind of baby-raper do you think I am?"
"I'm his grandson," the kid said, draping an arm over my shoulders.
Well, that stung a little, and frankly made me an incestuous baby-raper, one generation back. But I didn't contradict him.
"If you say so." George wiped the spilled Coke out from under my hand and turned away down the bar.
When the kid didn't move I shrugged his arm away impatiently and slid off my stool. I headed for the door without looking at him. He would come if he wanted to. Sure enough, he tagged along behind me and out into the humid darkness.
The el-train stop was two blocks down. It wasn't late, and there were still plenty of people out and about. I headed out at a brisk clip and the kid stuck by my elbow. I could tell he was looking around like a tourist, but I deliberately set a pace that kept us dodging strolling pedestrians and left no room for conversation. I swiped my transit pass twice to get us into the station and my luck held; the train was just pulling in.
I stepped through the doors and found an empty pair of seats. I sat by the window but spread my legs out and wide, blocking the space. The boy hesitated and then dropped into the seat opposite. I pretended to stare out the window, but the dark glass provided a good mirror. I saw the boy fidgeting, gazing around him, straightening the handles of his bag against his knee.
After a few minutes he said, "Are you...angry that I'm here?"
Good question. "Did Toller send you?"
"Huh? No. He doesn't even..." In the reflective glass I saw the boy flush and bite his lip. Now that was interesting.
I turned to look at him. "He doesn't what?" When the flush only deepened, I suggested, "He doesn't know you're here, does he?"
"Where does he think you are then?"
"I left a note, told him I was staying with a friend for a few days. I have a cell phone. He can call me."
Which left the question of why. But I wasn't having any kind of meaningful conversation on the el-train. "What's your name, kid?"
"I'm Heath Grange."
"Holy crap, don't call me sir." But I didn't want Jamie in this boy's mouth either. "My name's Jamison."
"Yes, sir. Jamison."
"Next stop." I got up and stood at the doors, waiting.
The air was soft and still as we went down the stairs from the platform to the street. Here there were fewer people out, and the dying blooms from the lilacs scented the air like an old lady's linen closet. I cut across the street toward my building. The boy was a step behind me, so all I knew of him was the faint motion of a breeze across my back and the odd doubled sound of my footsteps.
I let us into the door of my place in the lower corner of a quad building and snapped on the inside lights. The boy, Heath, set down his bag and looked around with open curiosity. "Is this where my father lived when he stayed with you?"
"God, no." I tossed my keys and watch into the dish on the counter and headed into the kitchen. That place had been a pit compared to this one, although I still lived very simply. I opened the refrigerator. "Want a soda?"
I pulled out two Cokes and tossed a can to him. Then I turned and leaned back against the counter. I popped the tab, took a long swallow, and fixed my gaze on the boy. "Now. How did you find me and why are you here?"
"Finding you was easy." He fastened eagerly on that half of my question. "I knew where you lived. And when I came here earlier, the guy next door heard me knocking and he told me you would likely be at the bar. And he gave me directions." Heath started to say something else, swallowed hard, and then raised his eyes to meet mine and just asked it. "Are you drinking again, sir?"
"Jamison. No." I didn't elaborate. It was none of his business why I went and sat in front of those shelves of bottles two or three nights a week. Not his business or Toller's.
"Okay." He nodded like he accepted that.
Time to push for the answers I wanted. "You didn't say why you're here. Last I heard, Toller was in New York." Although it had been well over a decade since I had let myself do a computer search for the man's name.
"Yeah, we still live there."
"Bite the bullet, kid. You didn't come this far to give me a hard time about being in a bar."
"No, I..." He dropped his gaze for a moment and then lifted his eyes. For a moment, despite being blue and not grey, his eyes looked just like Toller's. "I need to talk to you. I need to know stuff. About my father. Stuff he said you know, but he won't tell me."
"Whoa." I held up a hand. "Not my place to tell anyone Toller's secrets, not even you. Damn it, kid, where did you come up with this harebrained scheme?"
Heath's mouth twisted in wry amusement. "Dad told me to. He just didn't think I'd take him up on it. We were fighting, arguing, you know, and he said he had reasons, good reasons. And I asked him to talk to me, explain it, not just put his foot down. And he said he couldn't. He said, 'Hell, the only person who could tell you the whole story is Jamie.' So I said I was going to fucking go to Chicago and ask you, and he said, 'Yeah, you do that.' And so I did." He managed to look pleased with himself and a little appalled at the same time.
"I'm missing something," I said. "What were you fighting about?"
"I want to major in social work when I go to college. Dad told me over his dead body, and he wouldn't pay for school if I was going to waste the opportunity on shit like that."
"I don't get it," Heath said plaintively. "I just want to help people. You'd think he would get that, being a doctor and all. He says go into medicine, but I don't have the brains for that. I just don't."
"What does your other dad, um, Tris, say?"
"He doesn't get why Dad's so set against it either. But he'll never go against my Dad when he's got his mind made up. Papa-Tris is kind of a mellow guy. He hates arguments."
I nodded slowly. "So you packed a bag, got on a bus? Train? Or did you drive?"
"Bus. I have my license, but I don't have my own car yet."
"How old are you anyway?"
"Seventeen. I'll be a senior next year. I should know what I want to do with my life."
"Many seventeen-year-olds don't," I said mildly, buying time. My mind was racing through the options. I could send the kid away, send him back to Toller and his nice little family, and let them work it out on their own. It would be the easy thing, and ten years ago I would have done it in a heartbeat. But now I was reluctant. The thought of hearing about Toller, of maybe even calling him and hearing his voice, suddenly held as much appeal as pain. And the boy had come all this way. Seemed like maybe that was a sign things were ready to change.
I stared at Heath for a long time and he looked steadily back, biting his lip either from nerves or to keep from saying more. Finally I held out my hand. "I'll talk to Toller. You have a cell?"
"Yeah." He dug in his hip pocket. "You want me to dial home?"
"Yep." That would keep Toller's number off my own phone, harder to dial again if...if... Heath handed me his phone and it was ringing.
Three tones and then a man's voice on the other end. Older, deeper, a little more resonant and blurry with sleep but Toller. "Heath? Is there a problem?"
I swallowed hard, glanced at the clock. Ten-thirty. That would be eleven-thirty in New York. "It's almost midnight," I said, and my voice was steadier than I expected. "Do you know where your kids are?"
For a moment there was only the sound of breathing over the line, then Toller said hoarsely, "Jamie?"
"This is Heath's phone number."
"So it is."
"He didn't." I could hear the alertness coming back in Toller's voice. "Oh, fuck, he did. Jamie, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry. I never figured he would actually track you down and show up on your doorstep."
"I don't mind," I said, surprised to find it was true. "Thing is, he wants to hear stories of the old days. And I'm not sure what you want me to do with him."
"I...shit, I don't know. God, Jamie, it's been so long. I hoped I'd get to talk to you again, but I would never have sent Heath... Damn it, put the kid on."
I held out the phone. "Your father." An odd warmth ran through me, saying that. Toller had a kid. It was...unexpected.
Heath wasn't saying much more than yes and no and I'm sorry into the phone. He looked contrite. I figured Toller was reaming him a new one. Then he said, I found him in a bar, and I thought I might do the reaming myself. After a minute he held it back to me. "He wants to talk to you again."
"Damned stubborn kid." I could hear pride and worry mingled in Toller's voice. "Jamie, can you keep him overnight? You can stick him on a train back home in the morning. I'll buy the ticket for him online and he can pick it up at the station."
"What about his questions?"
Toller blew out a breath. "Did he say why he was asking?"
"You don't want him to grow up to be a social worker. You would rather he sold his soul to the devil. He's having a hard time understanding your point of view."
"Something like that. Damn it, Jamie, I know it sounds unreasonable, but I can't stand the thought of him putting all his youth and hope and energy into a system as fucked up and life-destroying as that."
"But you won't tell him why you have such a high opinion of his chosen field."
"I should. I can't."
Still not healed, after all these years. I gentled my voice. It still came easy. "Toller, baby, do you really want me to do it?"
That baby echoed between us for a moment. Wrong, wrong thing to have said, but it had come to my lips with the tone. And Toller's voice when he answered matched it, younger and unsure. "Would you? Not everything, Jamie. But enough for him to understand."
"He said you're married. And your husband didn't get why you were so worked up about it either."
"Not married yet. Although now it's legal here, we'll do the deed soon. But with one guy, yeah, fourteen years now. Tristan. And I've told him some of it. Enough, I thought."
"Might want to make sure of that."
There was a long pause. Then Toller said softly, "Still making me do the right thing, huh, Jamie. I'll talk to Tris again. You talk to Heath. Tell him what he needs to hear. I trust you. I always have."
Motherfucker. I held the phone out to Heath silently.
"Dad? Can I stay for a bit? Okay. Yeah I promise. I will. Tell Papa I'm sorry. Yeah, me too. Good night."
Heath pocketed his phone and eyed me uncertainly.
"So. It's you and me kid, at least for a couple of days."
"Dad said he'd buy me a ticket for Monday. So we have tomorrow to talk."
I had the sudden impulse to call Toller back and ask him to make it longer, let me have this beautiful, young, unwounded boy around for a while. But by the time we were done talking, I might be ready to send him home. I nodded. "Come on. I'll put sheets on the couch for you. Did you eat anything?"
"Had a sandwich on the train." But he looked at me hopefully. Seventeen. I'd been a bottomless pit at seventeen, and Toller... "Come on. I'll dig out some leftovers before you crash for the night."
A couple of hours later Heath was fast asleep on the couch, breathing deeply just on the edge of snoring. I sat in a chair by my bedroom window. Outside the street was quieter than daytime, but distant sirens and trucks and honking horns came and went. The music of my city. I listened to it with one ear cocked to that steady rhythm from the living room. Foolish really. Heath was strong and confident and whole. There was no need to listen for the uneven catch of breath, the whimpering movements that would signal a nightmare. Just old, deeply-buried habit, so easily resurrected.
In the morning I would have to decide what to tell Heath and what to keep back. How to make him understand Toller, without putting things in his head that would poison his image of his father. Tonight, though, tonight I would just remember it all. The good, the bad, and the fucking ugly. Toller Grange, and the days that he spent in my life...