They Thought He Was Safe

they thought he was safe

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chapter-1

drop-cap-the little family gathered around the dining room table was about as far from a traditional nuclear family as one could get. Lorne Peterson had been Zachary’s foster father for a few weeks when he was young, following the house fire that had been the last straw in the break-up of his biological family. But Zachary and Mr. Peterson had kept in touch, connected in part by a love of photography and his former foster father’s darkroom facilities.

Mr. Peterson—Zachary tried, but could rarely bring himself to call him Lorne—had gone through his own family dissolution a few years later, when his wife had become aware of his alternative relationships. They had lost their certification to foster, and separation and divorce followed soon after.

Zachary remembered the initial shock when he had stopped in to visit Mr. Peterson and get some film developed and he realized that Pat, the other man in the apartment, was not a neighbor who had stopped in for coffee, but Mr. Peterson’s partner. He had known that Mr. Peterson was seeing someone named Pat, but had mistakenly assumed that Pat was a woman. More than twenty years later, Lorne and Pat were still together, and society had changed enough that they were able to live together openly in the mainstream rather than keeping their relationship quiet.

Pat was between Zachary and Mr. Peterson in age, still muscular and vital, though he was definitely looking more distinguished than he had in his twenties, gray creeping in at his temples and fine lines mapping his face. Mr. Peterson’s deeper wrinkles all pointed up, ready to burst into a sunrise when he smiled. He was losing his hair, and the fringe that was left was almost pure white. But even as his body got older, he remained energetic and young at heart.

They had been a constant in Zachary’s life for two decades and, despite the fact that Mr. Peterson had only been his foster parent for a few weeks and Pat never had been, they were the closest thing to family that Zachary had. He hadn’t kept in touch with any of his other foster siblings or parents, and much of his adolescence had been spent in youth centers and group homes. With his severe ADHD and PTSD, he hadn’t been an easy kid to parent.

Tyrrell’s face at the table was a new one. In spite of the fact that he was Zachary’s biological brother, they had not seen each other from the time that Tyrrell was six until he and Zachary had been reunited on Christmas Eve.

As Christmas Eve was the anniversary of the fire that had destroyed their family more than thirty years previously, it was always a dark time for Zachary. Some years he had almost not made it through the holiday. Being reunited with his brother had been the fulfillment of what he had thought was an impossible dream. He had been sure that he would never see any of his biological siblings again. Even being a private investigator, he had never looked for them, never daring to interfere with what might be happy lives to remind them of the horrible thing he had done in causing that fire.

Tyrrell’s facial features were similar enough to Zachary’s to recognize a family resemblance, though Zachary’s face was still gaunt, not yet filled out following his pre-Christmas depression. Tyrrell’s hair was dark like Zachary’s, but longer and shaggier. He was clean-shaven. It was his eyes that Zachary found startling. In spite of the hard life that Tyrrell had been through, they were still the shining blue eyes of the six-year-old brother he remembered.

They gathered around the table to exchange stories of Zachary’s and Tyrrell’s separate lives, comparing notes and getting to know each other again. Zachary needed an environment where he felt safe to share in spite of any flashbacks or surges of emotion brought up by the retellings. A restaurant or bar would just not have worked. Some of their experiences were similar, and others were not. Tyrrell had been younger at the time of the family’s dissolution, and therefore less damaged than Zachary, and he had been able to stay with the two younger kids for most of his childhood, so he’d had that constant in his life. Zachary had been alone, bounced from one family to another so quickly that he’d been known to return to the wrong family after school, forgetting where he was supposed to be.

But in spite of the smiles around the table, Zachary knew there was something wrong.

At first, Zachary hadn’t been able to put his finger on it. He thought that maybe Mr. Peterson and Pat were just awkward having a new ‘son’ at the dining room table. They were used to Zachary and his quirks, but Tyrrell was a recent addition and they didn’t know enough about his past to know what might trigger him, or about his interests to know what questions to ask to encourage his participation in the conversation.

But it was more than that.

There were a number of looks exchanged between Lorne and Pat that didn’t seem to follow the rhythm of Tyrrell’s participation in the conversation. Mr. Peterson put his hand over Pat’s as they ate, something Zachary had rarely seen him do at the table. Their natural cheer was diminished, as if there were something pulling them away from the conversation to think sad thoughts. Like someone who had recently lost a loved one but was trying to act unaffected.

He watched the two of them more closely, but didn’t call them out in front of Tyrrell. Obviously, whatever was going on was something they didn’t want to share with Tyrrell. Maybe not with Zachary either.

Tyrrell didn’t know Pat and Lorne like Zachary did, and didn’t seem to notice anything amiss. He tried to catch Zachary’s eye.

“Do you remember that?”

Zachary hadn’t realized how distracted he had become from Tyrrell’s story. He licked his lips. “Uh… sorry… I missed that.”

Tyrrell looked at him for a minute, nonplussed. He shook his head. “About time to top up your Ritalin?”

“Uh… not taking any ADHD meds right now,” Zachary admitted. “Sorry.”

“I didn’t mean…” Tyrrell flushed pink. “I wasn’t serious. It was just supposed to be a joke. Because you were distracted.”

Zachary flashed a look toward Mr. Peterson and Pat, noting that their hands were again touching, and Mr. Peterson was giving Pat a questioning look as he thought Zachary was occupied by a separate conversation. Zachary swallowed.

“I try to only take them if I really need to focus on something. I don’t like to have to take them all the time, and they can interfere with other meds. So I just take them when I really need to.”

“I didn’t mean you to take it seriously…”

“What were you talking about? That I missed?”

Tyrrell looked like he didn’t want to cover the same ground again. Mr. Peterson put down his fork and jumped in.

“It was about your sister Jocelyn. I gather she was sort of a second mother to you guys?”

Zachary nodded, glad to segue to something in the past rather than focusing on the issues he still battled. “Yeah, she was really bossy. I resented it, because… well, who do you think got most of that bossiness? It wasn’t the little guys; she was pretty patient with them. But me… she figured I was old enough that I should have figured out how to behave myself. We were supposed to pay attention to her and fly straight, but… I was always going off-script.”

Tyrrell chuckled. “Is that what you call it?”

Zachary felt his own face get warm. “I tried, but… I wasn’t any better at following her rules than I was anyone else’s.” He included Mr. Peterson and Pat in his broad shrug. They had either experienced or heard the stories of some of his more disastrous choices.

“Joss was a little bossy,” Tyrrell admitted. “But she really helped me to figure out what I was supposed to do. I really wished that we’d been able to stay together when we went into foster care. She would have been able to help me to figure out the rules when I was in a new home. I often heard her little voice in my head, telling me how to behave properly, when I was trying to sort it out.”

Zachary often had too many little voices in his head, and they all told him different things. But it wasn’t usually until after he’d impulsively done something that he actually heard them. The voices of Joss, his parents, his social worker, or some other authority in his life, telling him that once again, he’d done something exceptionally stupid and that there were going to be consequences.

Zachary shrugged and looked down at his plate. He ate a couple of bites, forcing himself to eat despite the bubble of anxiety in his stomach from trying to figure out what Mr. Peterson and Pat were so worried about. As he’d told Tyrrell, he was off of his ADHD meds, so he actually had an appetite, and Pat was a good cook, but the unspoken tension in the room was getting to him.

“Have you had any contact with her?” Mr. Peterson asked with interest.

“A little,” Tyrrell said. “Mostly just email or social media, you know. We haven’t gotten together face-to-face. I think… she’s got her own life and isn’t that interested in reconnecting. It can be hard… stirring up old memories. She’s got her own family now.”

“You guys should have a reunion, get everyone together. It sounds like you know where everyone is now.”

Tyrrell nodded slowly. He glanced sideways at Zachary. “I have ways to contact everyone now. But I’m not sure if everyone wants to get together. They’re all living their own lives.”

“But you grew up with the younger ones. You guys must have a pretty good relationship.”

“We were together until I was fourteen or something, so yeah, we have a lot of shared memories, but then we didn’t have anything to do with each other because we were in different homes until we were adults. It’s a real hodgepodge of relationships.”

“I can’t imagine what it must be like not to know where your siblings are,” Pat contributed. “I just have one sister, and we’ve always been in contact, even if she didn’t particularly approve of my ‘lifestyle choices.’ It would be hard, not even knowing where they were.”

There was a suspicious crack in Pat’s voice that set alarm bells ringing for Zachary. Pat didn’t usually get emotional about his family. He laughed about their attitudes, mentioned them now and then, but even when his father had died, he hadn’t cried about it. Not in front of Zachary, anyway. With the number of times that Zachary had broken down around Pat, Pat certainly shouldn’t have felt awkward about shedding a few tears in front of Zachary.

Zachary studied Pat closely, and then Mr. Peterson. Lorne apparently caught the significance of the look. He made an infinitesimal shake of his head, which might have even been unconscious, and Zachary knew it wasn’t the time to ask what was going on.

“I guess it’s a different experience,” Tyrrell agreed, “but I’ve never known anything else, so for me, that’s just the way families are. You spend a few years together, and then you don’t have any contact for a decade or more. Now with the internet, you have these opportunities to touch base again and find out what people have been occupying themselves with. We’re all adults now, so it isn’t like we’re looking to live together as a family again.”

“I’m glad you reached out to Zachary,” Mr. Peterson said. “It’s been really good for him to have contact with someone from his family again.”

Zachary nodded reflexively.

“I think everyone needs to know that they have somewhere they belong,” Mr. Peterson went on. “Not just somewhere like this,” he spread his hands to indicate his home, where Zachary was a welcome part of the family any time, “but biologically, too. I’ve heard that a lot of people who are foster or adopted kids really miss that biological connection, even if they never met their biological family before. There’s just a hole where they feel like they don’t belong or aren’t a part of the family who raised them.”

Zachary let his eyes linger on Mr. Peterson for a few moments. It was only natural that, as a foster parent, he would be aware of the needs of foster kids to find some kind of genetic connection. But he didn’t want Mr. Peterson to feel like he hadn’t been a good enough parent or friend to Zachary.

Tyrrell gave a shrug. “I guess so. I always knew I had biological siblings out there. Even parents, if I wanted to look for them. But I was more interested in building a family of my own. Getting married, having kids. I guess that was my way of having a genetic connection with someone. My own kids.”

Zachary felt a pang. He hadn’t told Tyrrell his own history with his ex, Bridget, and the issues that she’d had with having children. Zachary had always thought that he would have a family, a house full of kids to remind Zachary of the family that he’d lost. To make up for the pain that he’d caused.

Even though Bridget had said from the start that she didn’t want kids, he’d thought that she would change her mind. That biological clock would start ticking, she would see what a great father Zachary would make, and she would decide it was time.

He’d been sadly mistaken and things had not ended well.

Mr. Peterson flashed a look at Zachary, knowing the history. Maybe that too was part of what he had read. How kids with no biological heritage longed for children of their own. Maybe it was an established pathological desire.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

They Thought He Was Safe

By P.D. Workman

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