Drew finished taping a box full of books with a loud shruuunnnkkkuunkkk off the roll. He gave Suzie a nod as he hefted a couple of boxes and beat a hasty retreat. She took a few of extra minutes staring at his beige bedspread to pull herself together, then stood with the intention of going down to the kitchen.
“Mom, I need to talk to you.” Ben burst into Drew’s room. Gene and the girl, Lisa, followed right behind.
“Sure,” she said, though she would much rather have gone past him to Gene. She desperately needed to speak with Gene as soon as possible.
“What do you need, Ben?”
“It’s not for me. It’s for Gene.” Ben crossed his arms over his chest, and shifted weight to one foot. There was something white in his hand. It took Suzie a minute to identify it as a pair of underwear.
“That’s right.” Ben’s tone of voice was stronger with conviction than she’d heard it in years. She was impressed. Her boy was turning into a man. What next? Deodorant? “Gene says you won’t let him have this room.”
“Ah.” She really didn’t want to have to talk about this in front of Ben, let alone in front of Lisa. It was hard enough to apologize where an apology was due.
“I think you’re totally wrong. Drew isn’t going to use this room, is he?”
She would have thought Ben’s reaction to Drew’s incipient departure a bit cold except for the next moment, when they looked at one another, his expression as desolate as her own heart.
“So, he really is going to go away forever.” All the wind went out of Ben as he said it.
Suzie crossed the space between them in two long strides. She took her son into her arms and sighed.
“No. No, Honey. He said he might come back, that he will if he can. But if he does, it’ll be as your step father.”
He broke from the consolation of her arms, an enormous grin in his face. “Really?”
“Nothing is certain, but yes.”
“So there’s no reason Gene can’t move in to this one.” All the vigor was back, along with a hawk-like eye for his goal.
“That’s right. He can move in here tomorrow.”
“Yes!” He pumped a fist and crow hopped around the room. “Did you hear that, Gene? I got you the room!”
Gene grinned like an idiot. Even Lisa threw her arms around the two boys and laughed in relief.
“Let’s celebrate with milk shakes!” Ben headed for the door, both his friends tucked under his arms. “I call dibs on the Hershey’s sauce.”
“Gene, stay a moment, all right?” Suzie grabbed him by the shoulder as the other two headed for the door.
“Sure, Mrs. H.”
“Ben, could you and Lisa go remind Vin it’s his night to cook?”
“Yeah. Sure, Mom.” Ben went out with a spring in his step, so proud of having gotten something for Gene.
Suzie waited until they were well out of earshot before she said anything. The whole time she kept Gene in place with a hand on his shoulder. She could feel his tension, tension she’d put there with her thoughtless outbursts.
“Gene, don’t tell Ben, but he isn’t the reason I agreed to this.”
“Yeah?” Gene gave her a distrustful, sideways look.
“Sorry, it wasn’t you either. I’m letting you have Drew’s room because Drew made me see what I was doing to you. It wasn’t fair to you, and I apologize.”
“Oh. Um… Okay. Yeah. Thanks.” Gene looked much younger all of a sudden.
“This is about more than a room, isn’t it. It’s about how we treat you. Well, things are going to change right now. Beginning with you.”
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