Paul could tell something was wrong when he came home from work, kissed his wife, and felt the tension in her slender frame. Annie was one of the most easy-going people he'd ever known; for her to be upset meant that something was definitely not normal.
"All right, what happened?" he asked.
"Our foster son has finally succeeded in making me angry," she replied tersely.
Paul raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Yeah, he must've, if you're calling him your foster son. What did he do?"
She sighed. "He came home from school, and I could tell something was bothering him, so I asked what it was. He said he was trying to decide where to go after graduation, because since he was eighteen, it was time he was on his own. That we weren't responsible for him anymore, but he appreciated our letting him stay until he finished high school."
"He said that?" Paul couldn't believe it.
"Almost word for word," his wife confirmed. "I finally had enough of it--his constant pushing at us. I lost my temper, told him that if he really believed that, then he hadn't learned anything in the time he's been with us." She sighed. "And then I said something that I think hurt him."
"What did you say?"
"I said if he really wanted to leave that much, then maybe he just didn't love us enough."
"What did he say?"
"He didn't. He just--left."
"Where did he go?"
"I don't know. To be honest, I was so angry with him, I wasn't paying any attention to where he went. I don't think he's in the house."
"I'll find him," Paul reassured her, "talk to him. You just take it easy. He's upset, confused. He's practically an adult; practically, but not quite. He doesn't know whether to be a grown-up or a kid."
"Then let us help--don't push us away!" she insisted. "If he thinks that all we've been doing is our civic duty--honestly, I don't know why we've been bothering!"
"Babe, you know why," Paul soothed. "He's scared. He pushes when he's scared. He's graduating from high school, he doesn't know what he wants to do with his life, so he's scared. But you know he loves us."
"Well, I thought so--but sometimes I'm just not sure. I wish I could get inside that head of his--figure out what he's thinking. But he puts up all these walls--I can't get in."
Paul didn't think this was the time to tell her that she'd gone further toward breaching those walls than anybody.
"I'll find him, talk to him," he repeated, kissing her cheek.
Finding Peter was never too difficult. He had his special places he'd go to when he was feeling blue or simply wanted to think. When Peter hadn't been in his room, Paul headed out to the wooded area behind the house. It had become one of Peter's usual "hideouts"--a place he went to be alone, think. Early on, it had also been the spot Peter would go to sneak cigarettes--a bad habit picked up in the orphanage. Paul believed he'd mostly cured his foster son of the habit, but knew Peter still snuck the occasional smoke, especially when he was stressed. So he wasn't too surprised to see a curl of smoke coming from behind one of the larger trees.
He came around the tree and Peter, obviously lost in thought and not hearing him approach, jumped and started to hide the cigarette. Then his eyes narrowed and he deliberately took a puff--an act of defiance. It set the tone for the conversation.
"What do you want?" Peter asked.
I want you to stop behaving like an idiot. I want you to throw away those cigarettes. I want you to tell me what's really bothering you. But instead he said, "I think you should apologize to Annie."
"Why? She yelled at me."
"And you know her well enough to know that she never gets angry like that without a damned good reason. Now, I've heard her side--why don't you tell me yours?"
Peter looked down, stared at the cigarette burning between his fingers, and dropped it to the ground, grinding it beneath his tennis shoe. When he finally spoke, his voice had lost its belligerence and gained an uncertain note. "I'm eighteen--it's time I was on my own. She doesn't understand that."
"You've been eighteen since August. Why the rush now?"
Peter shrugged. "I'm through with school now, or will be in a couple of weeks. I mean, you were sort of responsible for me while I was in school, but--"
"We're still responsible for you," Paul told him.
He looked up. "No you're not--I mean, not legally. Not once I turned eighteen."
Paul smiled and looked away. It wasn't fair to laugh at the kid, but he could be so exasperatingly earnest sometimes.... "Is that what this is about? Legal rights? Peter, every kid in the country is legally an adult when they turn eighteen. That doesn't mean all their parents kick them out, though I've no doubt some of them are tempted. Most kids live with their parents for years after their eighteenth birthdays--through college, once they start working-- In fact, most of them don't move out until they get married. You don't have to leave us just because you're legally an adult."
"But I'm not 'most kids'," Peter said quietly, and the pain on his face was evident. "I'm not even your kid."
Paul sighed. It felt like they went through this all over again every couple of years. Though to be fair, Peter hadn't had a really good bout of 'I don't belong here' insecurity since shortly after he'd come to stay with them. "You are our kid, Peter. You're part of our family and have been for four years now. That hasn't changed just because you're graduating from high school."
"But you don't have to take care of me anymore--"
"We didn't have to take care of you to begin with," Paul interrupted, trying not to get angry. "It was something we chose to do. It would have been easier, and God knows it would have been cheaper if we'd left you in the orphanage. But we didn't want to do that. We wanted you to be a part of our family, so we took you in. We wanted you to be a part of our family legally, that's why we became your legal guardians. No one was holding a gun to our heads to do these things, Peter. We did them because we wanted to. Because we love you."
Paul sighed. He knew that question was coming. It always did. He'd never met anyone so easy to love, and so loving in return, who was at the same time so resistant to the idea. As if Peter couldn't believe he could be lovable. Or perhaps that he couldn't be loved by anyone who wasn't his father. "I can't explain love," he said, "it just--is."
Peter just shook his head. "No. You couldn't have loved me so soon--not when you first met me," he insisted.
"Don't be so sure about that," Paul said with a sly smile, remembering the almost instant bonding between his wife and the boy. "But all right, for the sake of argument, let's just say that it wasn't love, not at first. It was certainly liking. You were a good kid, you got along well with the family. And you--" He paused, knowing Peter could so easily take this the wrong way, "You needed someone so badly. You needed to know that someone out there actually cared about you. We cared, right from the start. And we wanted to show that to you. To show you life wasn't all hard knocks and tragedy. There was still room for laughter and hugs, and being with people you liked, who also liked you. And if that isn't love, it damned well ought to be."
Peter wasn't convinced. He looked away, chewing on his bottom lip, trying to get his thoughts in order. Paul watched the play of emotions across the expressive face. It was if he wanted to believe--but didn't dare.
Finally, he spoke. "But that doesn't change the fact that--I'm an adult now."
Only chronologically, kid, and that means less than nothing, Paul thought, but answered, "That's not even in question, Peter."
"It is to Mom."
"No, all Annie and I are saying is that just because you're eighteen doesn't mean you have to go anywhere. We're not about to kick you out. Now, if you've got your heart set on going, I don't suppose legally, there's any way we can stop you. But you can bet we're going to do our best to convince you to stay. Not only that, but without a job, without a place to go to, there'd be no way in hell I'd let you leave."
Peter's eyes narrowed. "You couldn't stop me--not if I really wanted to go," he said belligerently.
"I'd do my damndest," Paul told him frankly. "What kind of parents would we be if we let you go, without a job, without a place to stay, without a way to make a living and keep a roof over your head? Pretty lousy, that's what kind. Now, if you get a job and find an apartment, then we'll talk about it. But before then, forget it." He gave Peter what he hoped was his best "Dad Blaisdell" glare, fully prepared, should Peter trot out his 'but you're not my parents' argument, to paddle his backside. So he was satisfied when Peter, who started to glare back defiantly, dropped his eyes and looked away.
"Now, I'll grant you've got a lot of decisions to make," Paul went on, "but leaving home doesn't have to be one of them. Besides--" he sighed, "whatever happened to the idea of the police academy?" That equation had been conspicuously absent from the discussion.
Peter swallowed. "I don't know-- It's what I've always wanted, but--I'm not sure anymore whether I want it because I really do want it, or whether I want it just because I've always wanted it--because I've never bothered to think about maybe doing something else. Does that make sense?"
Paul smiled. "More than you know."
"I hate it--you graduate from high school and suddenly you're supposed to know what you want to do with the rest of your life. You have to pick a college and a major, and that determines how you'll spend the rest of your life. Well, what if you change your mind? I don't know what I want to do for the rest of my life! I mean, what if I suddenly decide to go to college? You have to start applying and stuff when you're a junior! If I decide now, I'll already be behind everyone else. Again."
Anger, bitterness and confusion mixed in equal parts on his face and Paul couldn't help but feel for the young man. Unlike Peter, eighteen year old Paul Blaisdell had thought he'd figured out his life pretty well. He was going to work for a year after high school, then do what he assumed would be his obligatory two year stint in the service. He chose the navy, for the chance to "see the world". But near the end of his tour, the US became involved in Korea and the course of his life had changed forever. Peter's life was much less defined--he was at that crossroads now. And he was right on one point--the decisions he made now would have an impact on the rest of his life. A hell of a responsibility for a boy barely out of adolescence.
Paul sighed. "I know it's confusing, kid. But you don't need to make these decisions alone. That's what I'm here for, what Annie's there for. To help you find your answers. It doesn't matter to us whether you're fourteen, eighteen, or twenty-eight. You're still our son and we'll always be here for you, no matter what."
Peter looked at him through his fringe of too-long bangs. "Really?" he said quietly, not quite believing.
"Really," he answered with a wink.
Peter looked away again, but not before Paul saw the beginnings of a smile tease at the edges of his mouth. "Thanks," he said, unable to disguise the sudden roughness in his voice. Paul saw him swallow, saw a tightness in his face as he closed his eyes.
"C'mere," Paul murmured and reached for his son, and Peter went blindly into his arms, holding on tight.
It had been some time since Paul had held Peter like this. He was surprised when he realized that Peter now topped him by a good two inches, maybe more. But despite his size, despite the deep baritone of his voice, the spirit inside was still a little boy.
It was Peter who broke the hug, a little embarrassed at letting himself go like that. Paul smiled. There were people and places with whom Peter felt comfortable enough to reveal his needs and wants; Annie was one of those people. With Paul, that privilege was granted only rarely; it was a special gift when it was offered, and he was pleased it was offered now.
"Now then," he said, gently ruffling Peter's hair, "you still planning on leaving?"
Peter swallowed. "Maybe not right now." His voice was soft and uncertain.
Paul smiled. The kid was bound and determined to keep his independence. Then again, he'd always been independent--strong-willed. "Fair enough. But you do have to make a couple of decisions. Like what your plans for the immediate future are. After high school."
Peter frowned. "Can't I take the summer off? Think about it?"
"Well, that depends. If you want to get into a program, there's always some lag time between application and the start of the term. It's too late to get into anything except junior college now. I'd been assuming you were going to go to the community college until you could get into the academy; I hadn't realized you weren't sure about it."
"I--I didn't realize it either. Until recently. But--I don't know. I'm not sure about anything anymore." Peter sighed and leaned back against his tree, running a hand through his shaggy hair. "I know what I've got to do right away, though."
"What's that?" Paul asked.
"I've gotta apologize to Mom."
Paul just smiled. "That you do. And the sooner the better."
Peter nodded and pushed himself away from the tree, ready to go back inside. "Peter--" Paul stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. The young man turned around as Paul reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of gum. "Can't do anything about the smell on your clothes, but she'd better not smell it on your breath," he said. An ex-smoker himself, Paul still remembered all the tricks. Peter shrugged sheepishly and muttered a thanks as he took a stick and popped it into his mouth. "And you can give me the rest of the pack," Paul continued. Peter sighed, then pulled out the pack of cigarettes (Camels, for God' sake! Not even decent cigarettes at that) and handed them to his foster father. He winced when Paul crushed the pack in his hand. "You don't want to see your money go down the drain, don't buy the damn things to begin with."
"I don't--most of the time," Peter defended feebly.
"I know--just sometimes you've got to have one. I know it's tough, sport, but you're better off without them. Trust me on this one." Peter nodded resignedly. "Come on, let's go in." Hand on his son's shoulder, Paul guided the boy back to the house.
"Paul?" Peter said, his voice still soft, uncertain.
"After--after I talk to Mom-- Can I talk to you? About--about some of my options?"
"Any time, Peter," Paul smiled. "Any time at all."
Annie was in the living room. It was her domain, just as Paul's den was his, and the family room and kitchen were "family" places. Annie's piano, and the good stereo were in there, and many was the evening she could be found in the living room, classical or jazz music playing softly on the stereo as she read or knitted. Annie knitted by feel, and Paul was always amazed when he watched it. Her creations were simple, but her use of texture was exquisite and they were always beautifully finished. The stereo was playing softly now, and a braille book was lying ignored on her lap as she stared into space, seeing images only Annie could see. Her glasses were neatly folded and resting on the end table.
She turned her head slightly when she heard Paul and Peter come to the door. Paul stopped at the doorway, and Peter hesitantly came into the room.
"Mom?" Peter's voice was soft, unsure.
His tension was tangible as he swallowed, wiping his hands on his thighs. "I owe you an apology," he said.
She looked at him, in the way she had which made you feel like it didn't matter if she could physically see you or not--she was staring into your soul. "Do you understand why I was upset, Peter?" she said, and there was an edge to her voice which was usually absent. Paul did notice, however, that she said 'was', not 'am'.
"I'm sure you don't mean to, but when you say things like that--it hurts."
"I know. I'm sorry." He looked down, unable to handle her penetrating gaze any longer. The tension in his back and shoulders came off him in waves. Annie was the sunshine of his life, and he'd hurt her.
She gazed at him for a moment longer, then she sighed--the kind of sigh a mother makes when dealing with a difficult child she loves. "Come here," she said, and extended an arm to him.
His shoulders sagged, his face crumpled, and he practically threw himself into her arms, whispering, "I'm sorry." She smiled as she held him; her son was back where he belonged.
Paul watched them for a moment, seeing not the tall, lanky young man before him but the awkward, frightened fourteen-year-old who had just discovered mother-love for the first time in his life. Peter had grown up a lot since then, but in some ways, he hadn't changed at all. He was still and would always be, Annie's little boy. And her place in his life was sacred.
Paul smiled and left them alone. So the parents had won this round; Peter would stay, at least for the time being. But Paul knew that Peter was too much the restless spirit to stay in any place for too long. Get some college behind him, get him through the academy, and then they'd see. It wouldn't surprise him if Peter should decide to get a place of his own as soon as he was financially able to do so.
But not yet. Not for a couple of years at least. Until that time, they'd still have him here, eating them out of house and home, finding trouble to get himself into, causing him and Annie many sleepless nights of worry. Peter was never less than a challenge, but always a pleasure. He was more trouble than their two daughters put together. He could be irritating, stubborn, selfish....generous, concerned, helpful, kind, funny, sweet, young and wise all combined. He was the son of their hearts, if not their bodies. And life without him would seem very empty indeed.
Chapter 18: Heroes
Go to the Table of Contents