Owen Haskins climbed stiffly out of his car and glanced into the backseat at Ian. His blond head was barely visible under the blanket Owen had tucked around him. At least he’s not crying. He eased the car door closed so as not to wake the child, and strode toward the farmhouse where he’d been raised.
In the light from the harvest moon, Owen stared at the house. One of the black shutters on either side of the front windows had pulled free and hung crookedly at an angle, giving the house a lopsided grimace. More rundown than I remembered. He stepped onto the first porch step. A nail squeaked as if in pain. Just like I feel, he thought. But this move was for Ian. If only the kid would talk, though his tears were a clue. I should have got him out of there sooner.
Owen fumbled for the key and hesitated. Once inside, he’d be looking at his past, something he’d escaped years earlier. But his mother’s house was now the key to his present and Ian’s future. His house now, and the reason Owen had sought the district attorney position in East Shore, Washington. When he’d had to deal with the details of his mother’s estate, the house had become a godsend, pushing him to leave Boise and the problems it represented. East Shore was small, unlikely to have much crime, which meant he wouldn’t be handling many cases and thus could spend time with Ian. If this doesn’t work out, I can always start my own firm. Moving again wasn’t part of his plan, at least not until he helped Ian.
Owen shook his head. Be honest. He’d moved to East Shore to get away from his own memories, too, of his wife, Ursula’s death, followed by near-constant disagreements with her parents about what was best for Ian. Owen felt worn down, at the same time relieved that at least Ian’s grandmother was no longer in the picture. Zara’s insistence on doing things her way had embittered Owen, causing him to question himself when it came to how best to raise Ian.
Owen grunted under his breath. Work. At least he had a job here, and a place that didn’t remind him or Ian of unhappiness. From the topmost porch step, Owen glanced over his shoulder. No movement in the car. Time to go in.
He opened the door, flipped a switch. Light flooded the living room. Even after so many years away, a familiar smell blanketed him, a combination of his late mother’s perfume and the floor wax she’d used. He walked into the kitchen and turned on the faucet. Water poured out. A quick check of the stove confirmed that the gas had been turned on. The housekeeper he’d hired must have prepared the house. The furnace clicked on with a low whoosh.
A noise behind him caught Owen’s attention. Seven-year-old Ian, his hair spiked on one side and plastered wetly to his head on the other, squinted at him from just inside the front door. “Are we going to live here?”
“Yes. You can sleep in my old room. Come on.” Owen motioned for Ian to follow him up the narrow stairs, past the hole punched in by his father years earlier, past the smaller dent his head had made before his mother had intervened in one of the many fights he’d had with his father. Patches still showed through a paint tint he didn’t remember.
Owen turned right and opened the first door. The room was unchanged from the last time he’d been there. The high school football jersey he’d worn his senior year, now twenty years old, was tacked onto an oversized bulletin board. Had his mother done that? To the side were several photos of Owen at different ages in one or another team uniform. Soccer, baseball, football. The jersey that held pride of place on the wall proclaimed his favorite sport. Competitive play had freed Owen, even as he was watched over by coaches who seemed to understand his need to exorcise his anger at his father through sports.
His dad had bragged on Owen’s athletic prowess. But why hadn’t his mother packed away his things when he’d left for the university? The multi-sports scholarships Owen had received were his ticket away from East Shore and his dad’s insistent demands. It also meant Owen wasn’t around to protect his mother. Guilt that he’d abandoned her, allowed her to deal with his dad alone, still resonated.
He’d used college as an escape from his mother’s pitiful attempts to maintain a semblance of peace in the household. Owen often wondered if the neighbors across the fields had heard her plaintive cries for his father to leave Owen alone. The corn and potato fields were gone now, replaced by a pair of subdivisions planted randomly around the farmhouse with undulating streets his father would have ridiculed.
His father had sold off most of the property years ago, reserving only a quarter-acre plot and the farmhouse. After his death—had it been only fourteen months?—his mother had begged Owen to come home when she talked about selling the house and moving into something smaller. But he’d referred her to a local realtor who specialized in farms and acreages, claiming that the incident at Ian’s private school and Ian’s grandparents’ wishes required that Owen remain in Boise. Zara had explained away the bruises on the boy’s arms by saying that Ian was being bullied.
Owen had insisted on pulling him out of private school and hiring a tutor.
Owen suspected Zara knew more than she admitted. And Ian had taken to flinching whenever anyone waved an arm in his direction. Owen asked his father-in-law about it, but the older man had offered no explanation. He’d said only that boys sometimes got into it with other kids and that he’d told Ian to run away if any kids approached him, especially if they were bigger, older than Ian. Hadn’t Owen endured occasional dustups with his peers, too? But no one ever bullied me. But Ian was small, of slighter build than Owen at the same age.
That his mother had willed Owen the farmhouse was a surprise. He opened the closet. It was empty, save for a pair of pillows on a top shelf. At least Mom got rid of my old clothes. Or maybe someone else had. Dad did it, after I left. The old man had probably tossed them in the trash in a drunken rage. But the bed was dressed in a coverlet similar to one he’d picked out as a ten- year-old, blue with racing cars in primary colors. Owen pulled the cover back, and saw that the bed had blankets and sheets. The housekeeper must have dressed it, using the money he’d sent her.
“We’ll hold off on a bath until tomorrow, Ian. But why don’t you wash up while I get your suitcase? Bathroom’s across the hall.”
Ian turned in that direction and shut the door. After Owen heard water splashing in the sink, he trotted outside and retrieved two suitcases from the car. He opened Ian’s and pulled out a pair of pajamas, patterned with stars and moons.
Yawning, Ian allowed Owen to help him out of his clothes and into his pajamas. He cast a worried eye at his father. “Where will you sleep?”
“In your grandma’s room. Just down the hall.” He opened his parents’ bedroom door. But the room was devoid of furniture except for an old rug, faded around the edges. Ian’s small hand clutched his father’s fingers. “There’s no bed.”
“I’ll take the couch downstairs. We’ll get new furniture over the weekend.”
“I don’t want to sleep up here by myself.” Ian’s voice stuttered into fearful mode, an increasingly-frequent reaction to anything new. It was an emotion Owen vowed he’d erase from his son’s present; his future, too.
“If you wake up, you can climb in with me,” he declared and placed his hand lightly on Ian’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s get you into bed. You can dream about racing cars, just like I did.”
After tucking Ian into bed, Owen found extra bedclothes in the hall linen closet and hauled them downstairs to the living room. He pulled the old couch into a smallish double bed. After making up the bed, he retrieved two more suitcases from the car, set them in the dining room then returned to the car for the boxes in the trunk.
The three boxes he’d crammed into the trunk weren’t so heavy he couldn’t carry them in one trip, but as he stepped onto the third porch stair, the wood gave way and he lurched to one side. The boxes bounced out of his arms and onto the porch with a set of loud thuds. He looked around, certain the neighbors would hear the noise, but no porch lights came on.
Owen pulled his foot out of the hole, swearing at the tear in his jeans. His shin burned where it had scraped against the jagged edge of what was left of the step. He limped into the house, washed, then wrapped his scraped leg in a kitchen towel. First aid supplies. Hadn’t he packed them with the bathroom items? He returned for the boxes on the porch and left them in the living room, wanting nothing more than to fall into his impromptu bed.
He glanced at his watch. Past midnight. He set his cell phone alarm for six-thirty. That would give him enough time to get Ian bathed and ready. In public school, Ian would make new friends. Nice friends. Ian needed to be with kids his own age. No more homeschooling, even if he was at risk for being bullied. But Owen didn’t want his son surrounded only by old folks. And East Shore wasn’t near a college where a tutor might be found.
Owen leaned down and rubbed his sore leg, then ran a hand through his hair. Moving to Cedar Island in Puget Sound put distance between Ian and his grandfather. But it couldn’t be helped. Perhaps after Ian was settled, Owen would invite Hamilton for a visit. For now, unlike in Boise, Owen would be a fulltime father. Every day.
Owen never figured on his mother dying before she’d even qualified for social security. She’d been circumspect about her health during the few times he’d spoken with her. He should have come to see her, but he’d had his hands full with Ursula’s difficult mother, an excuse he now realized that he’d used too often. Owen sighed, disliking that he’d allowed so many issues to get in the way after his father’s death.
A new start. Owen slid under the covers and rediscovered what he’d forgotten about the old pullout bed. The bar cut into his back, forcing him to lie crossways. His six-foot-one-inch frame forced his calves and feet to dangle off the end. Tonight he was too tired to care. He’d replace the missing bedroom set later. First, he’d get Ian settled in school. Then he would go to the courthouse and get acquainted with his new colleagues.
~ ~ ~
The next morning, the insistent ping of Owen’s cell phone roused him. After a moment of confusion, he squinted in the direction of the light shining weakly through the front windows. The extra warmth at his back told him Ian must have joined him some time during the night. The boy’s body was curled next to Owen’s, one leg pressed close. Ian’s favorite stuffed dinosaur was perched next to Owen’s shoulder. He slid carefully away from his son, positioned the dinosaur on his pillow, and headed for the shower.
When he emerged from the bathroom, sporting a towel around his middle, newly shaven and showered, Ian was still asleep. Owen leaned down, brushed a hand across his son’s thick blond mop and murmured, “Time to get up, buddy. You have school today.”
Ian groaned and covered his eyes with one hand. “Do I have to?”
“School is your job, son. Just like I have a job. Didn’t you say you wanted to go to school with kids your age?”
“I guess.” Ian scooted over and sat on the edge of the pullout, his short legs dangling. “What if they don’t like me?”
“They’ll like you. These kids are nice.” They’d better be. Something he’d talk to Ian’s teacher about. “Come on. Up and at ’em. While I make breakfast.”
“But you can’t, Dad. We never stopped for food before getting on the ferry.”
Owen halted on his way to the kitchen. “Then we’ll hit Mickey D’s on our way.”
Ian trotted in the direction of the stairs. “Can I wear what I had on yesterday?”
“No. I’ll lay out your clothes while you’re in the shower. Don’t forget to brush your teeth.”
Owen climbed into his best suit, pressing his hands against the wrinkles that angled down the front of his dress shirt. While Ian finished in the bathroom, Owen went into the boy’s room and rummaged in the suitcase. He pulled out clean underwear, socks, a pair of jeans, and a blue flannel shirt.
Minutes later, he ushered Ian out the front door. After a quick breakfast at the fast food place he’d spotted on his way into town, Owen drove to East Shore Elementary. The principal had told him to come to the front office. A counselor would meet them and escort Ian to his room.
“You’re sure Ms. Russell is the right teacher for him?” He recalled his conversation with the principal. “My boy is a lot smarter than kids his age. He needs someone who’s… flexible.” The word revealed little, but Owen hoped it would give the principal and the teacher a hint about Ian.
“She’s a very experienced teacher,” the man had assured him.
As they walked into the school, Ian clung to Owen’s hand, refusing to make eye contact with the students they passed in the hallway, his backpack sliding off one shoulder. He stumbled into Owen’s sore leg as they walked to the office.
“Hello, there,” the woman behind the counter smiled down at his son. “You must be Ian.”
Owen had to jostle Ian’s arm before the boy replied, his eyes downcast. “Hi.”
Ross Oakley, the principal, introduced himself. “The counselor, Mr. Dunne, was delayed this morning,” he apologized. “He said he’d call you over the lunch hour, if that’s okay. Or, if you prefer, he’ll meet you this evening at your home if you can’t come to the school around three.”
“I’m not sure if I’ll have time over lunch,” Owen replied. “But I was intending to pick up Ian, so an after-school meeting works for me.”
“I’ll tell him. Let’s go meet Ian’s teacher.” The man walked slightly ahead of Owen and Ian down a long hall and stopped in front of the last door. “Here we are. Room twenty-one. See, Ian?” He pointed to the number near the door. “It has Ms. Russell’s name here, too, in case you forget the number when you come to school tomorrow. Maybe you could write the number down and put it in your backpack.”
“I won’t forget.” Ian stared at the pudgy man in the bright red sweater and dark wool trousers.
“Glad to hear it.” He smiled at Owen and the woman who approached the doorway from inside the room. A clip at the back of her head held her dark-blond hair off her face. Random golden wisps floated near her cheeks. Her blue eyes reminded Owen of the color of deep water. She wore an over-large shirtwaist dress that barely hinted at her curves. Its beige color gave her a slightly-washed out look until her cheeks pinked up when she glanced quickly in his direction. Her gaze lingered on her newest student and she smiled in welcome.
The principal spoke. “Faith, this is Ian, your new student and his father. From…?”
“Boise. Owen Haskins.” He shook the teacher’s small hand. She had a firm grip and her soft skin was warm, warmer than his own, he decided. She glanced again in his direction, the corners of her mouth lifting slightly, her eyes widening before he released her hand.
Owen felt a zing of awareness at her touch and a surprising disappointment when her fingers no longer curled into his hand. His gaze swept her form.
She continued to look his way when she spoke. “Mr. Haskins, did you bring Ian’s transfer papers? Or a report from his previous teacher, since he’s starting eight weeks after the start of the school year? I’d like to review what he’s already accomplished.”
“Sorry, I forgot. I’ll bring them this afternoon, when I meet with the counselor.”
“Thank you.” The woman turned toward Ian, who glanced at her before he took in the desks and chairs in the room they’d entered. “Come right in.”
Ian bit his lower lip, as if doing so would prevent his chin from trembling. The boy shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and followed his teacher when she walked over to one group of four desks near similar clusters scattered about the room.
“I’ll bet this desk will fit you. Why don’t you sit here?”
Ian watched her warily.
“Go ahead, Ian. Have a seat,” Owen urged.
Ian sighed and shifted his backpack to the floor next to his chair. In the silence that followed, he lifted the lid of the desk and pulled out one of the books inside. “I’ve already read this.” His voice wavered.
“Then why don’t you check the other books in our library under the windows?” Faith suggested.
Ian ignored the students already in the room and walked over to where the library books were stored. He ran his fingers along the edge of the books before returning to his desk. “That’s okay. I brought my own to read.”
“You can show it to me later.” The teacher smiled encouragingly.
She’s attractive, Owen thought. But her expertise as a teacher was what was important. Not that she wore no rings on her left hand and might be single. He sensed an attraction to her that he’d banned ever since Ursula’s passing. Too bad his body wasn’t obeying, was instead making insistent commands to do something that would again place the woman’s hand in his… and maybe her lips on him, too.
The bell rang and other students began to enter the room and take their seats.
“It’s time to say good-bye to your dad, Ian,” Faith observed quietly.
Owen kneeled next to his son’s chair and pulled him into a hug.
Uncharacteristically, the boy clung to Owen, trembling. His pale blue eyes welled, but the boy made no effort to wipe away the tears that escaped and slid down his pudgy cheeks.
Owen slowly peeled the boy’s arms off his body and patted his shoulder, willing him to be brave, wishing he’d thought to bring a tissue. “I’ll see you this afternoon, buddy. You know my cell number. But you won’t have to call. I’ll come get you after school’s out. If I’m delayed, just go to the office where we met Mr. Oakley.”
Ian nodded, looking miserable.
Owen felt the boy’s eyes on his back as he departed the classroom. Let’s hope this works. Anything has to be better than what happened in Boise.
~ ~ ~
Late that afternoon, Owen trotted down the hall to the counselor’s office located in the high school building. He’d forgotten that the East Shore school campus had been designed to accommodate the full range of grades—elementary through high school. He was eager to get the meeting over and pick up Ian. As he approached the room, he saw Ian’s backpack lying next to the chair and scooped it up. Owen knocked on the door.
“It’s open.” A dark-haired man Owen thought he recognized smiled at him as he opened the door.
“Sorry I’m late.” Owen scanned the room before settling his gaze on Craig Dunne. “I figured Ian was already here.” He held up his son’s backpack.
“Maybe he’s in the boy’s room.” Craig motioned for Owen to take a seat. “Before he comes back, tell me about him. Ross said you had concerns.”
Owen opened the backpack and pulled out a book Ian especially liked, Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Craig’s gaze met Owen’s. “He understands that book? Seems a bit much for a seven-year-old.”
Owen took satisfaction in setting the counselor straight. “My boy started talking before he was two, reading on his own before he was three. He’s been reading high school and college-level stuff for over a year.”
“Then why is he enrolled here? I’d have thought you’d want him in a private school, maybe with a tutor.”
“Been there, done that. A bad experience. Not the tutor so much, except Ian was lonely. And the private school didn’t work out.” He pulled some papers out of his suit coat pocket. “Here’s the transcript his teacher wanted. It’ll show her what he already knows.”
He sighed and leaned back in the chair. “May I speak candidly?”
Craig Dunne’s brown eyes felt like a laser as they focused on Owen. “Of course.”
“My son needs the socialization of kids his own age. He’s small for his age, even though he was born with an adult brain.” He coughed out a sardonic laugh.
“Where he was before, for the first grade, he was bullied. If you saw him on a playground, you’d notice he isn’t all that comfortable around other kids, especially those bigger than him, even if he reads rings around them. From what the other teacher said, when he met with me, that was part of the problem. His grandmother claimed the kids who beat him up thought he was talking down to them. Ian’s teacher denied the kids were hitting him, but I saw the bruises. If they weren’t the culprits, someone was. I figured Ian used words they didn’t understand and they took offense. One reason we moved. To get him away from a bad atmosphere.”
“We have a zero tolerance policy for bullying in this school,” Craig assured him. “Any other reason you moved?”
“I inherited my late mother’s house. Made it convenient to start over here.” He shifted in his seat, unwilling to go into additional detail. “I want Ian to progress as rapidly as he’s able in school, even if it means he’s way ahead of the other students, but I’d prefer that he remain in the second grade, although if you want him reading with another class, I guess that’s okay—as long as that teacher makes sure he isn’t picked on. Or can Ms. Russell handle that? He’s not a problem in a classroom unless he’s bored. That’s why I let him read whatever he wants.” He paused. “Within reason, of course. No porn. No violence. I insisted we talk about Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island when he read them. He was five.”
“But you don’t want him skipping grades?”
“As I said, he’s not comfortable around kids bigger than him. I’d rather he stay with his age-group most of the time.”
“I’ll talk with Ms. Russell. I doubt she’ll have a problem with what you’ve described. How about we bring Ian in and talk to him about it?”
“Sure. I’ll get him.” Owen rose from his seat and opened the door. “Where’s the boy’s bathroom?”
“Three doors down the hall on the right.”
Owen strode down the hall and entered the boy’s bathroom. He looked for feet behind the half-open doors and saw none. His heart now racing, he quickly retraced his steps.
“He’s not there. Where else might he have gone? The cafeteria?”
“It’s closed and he wouldn’t know where the one in this building is located. I’ll check the principal’s office.” The counselor pulled his phone out of his center desk drawer.
Owen nodded, his pulse racing. “I’ll call his teacher. Maybe he went back to her room.” Glad he’d asked the principal for the teacher’s phone number before he’d left Ian that morning, Owen punched in her number.
“This is Ms. Russell.”
“Owen Haskins here, Ian’s father. Is he with you?”
“No. I left him at Mr. Dunne’s office a good half-hour ago.”
Owen’s voice descended into a lower register, not caring that it was almost a growl as his fear amped up. “Well, he’s not here. Just his backpack.” His heart pounded as he recalled the other times Ian had run away, all related to the bullying, according to the boy’s grandmother. Not again. Next to the day Ursula had died and what Hamilton had described in Zara’s sewing room, this was turning out to be one of the worst days of Owen’s life.
Craig met Owen in the hall. “I called the school security office. We have two officers. They’ll help us look. Maybe he wandered into another classroom. We have two science labs in this building. Since he likes science, maybe he’s checking them out.”
Ian loved science. Owen hoped his son was still in the building, but somehow, he doubted it. Maybe he got tired of waiting for me and walked home. But why didn’t he take his backpack? Did he remember where they lived? I should have written down the address. Another detail he’d neglected. While they’d eaten at Mickey D’s, he’d spent most of his time making lists, for groceries, repairs the old house needed, and new furniture to buy. He hoped he and Ian would do the repairs together. He scanned his phone. No messages, no texts. Ian didn’t have a phone. He’d have to ask someone for help. But would he do that when he was so shy of strangers?
Owen picked up Ian’s backpack. He examined what was inside, as if the contents might give him a clue. But everything he’d had when Ian left home that morning was there, including the book Owen had shown the counselor. Also stuffed inside were lessons his new teacher had given him to complete.
Owen slumped into a seat and raked both hands through his hair, not caring what others might think of his dishevelment.