***Chapter Twenty***
Word Count: 4,169

February 2004

This was the time of day he dreaded most. Not because he didn't like her kids. As far as he could tell they were pretty decent as kids went. He didn't have vast amounts of experience with kids to compare and contrast. They were, for the most part well behaved and polite. They had the occasional spat, which was typical of siblings he knew, from his own personal experience growing up. No, that wasn't the issue at all. Bryce was still getting used to the fact there was someone home some days when he was used to coming home to just the nanny and Betsy. Most of the time he was gone by the time he got home from school even the days he started later.

Randy was the one who alerted John to the fact something was different about today. It had taken him a few weeks to adjust to being here full-time and not reacting every time a door opened in the house. He was used to it being just him and John. A door opening indicated someone who wasn't supposed to be there was around.

John wasn't sure Claire realized how close of an eye on Randy John kept. He wasn't as steadfast about keeping Randy with him today as he was in December when John started staying here every night. He still kept an eye on where the dog was, though, at all times. He was a good dog, exceptionally trained. He was, however, trained to attack if he felt threatened. He, for instance, didn't let him wander the house at night or sleep anywhere but with him. (Much to Betsy's absolute tearful displeasure on that subject.) For now. He imagined the more comfortable and adjusted Randy became that'd change.

Betsy still threw him for a loop, though, because she was at the house all of the time and there was a nanny here during the day. Plus she was different than Bryce was to him. Bryce liked him and was good to him as well as their dogs, but Betsy was all about giving him crazy amounts of attention. She petted him, brushed him, and just in general spent time with him. He just wasn't used to that.

John tried to stay out of the nanny's way as best as he could. There were some days she probably wondered why she was there since John was at the house, too. If she'd asked Claire that question John had no idea.

He was here alone with Betsy today because the nanny had needed the day off for some reason. John didn't work this evening as it turned out, so it had worked out okay because Bryce would have been home to watch her by the time he had to leave. Claire was going to take the day off from work when the nanny first mentioned it, however, John thought that was pretty foolish. He just put in to work the evening shift. Then he and Randy had been requested to go on a bust with a nearby town. That bust got pushed off until tomorrow evening, which meant John would be working a very long day tomorrow.

"Oh, hi," Bryce said when he spotted John in the kitchen.

John arched a brow at the kid because while he was still not overly fond of John they'd sort of gotten used to one another by now. So his rather abrupt greeting sort of surprised John.

"Hi to you, too. Were you expecting me to be someone else," he asked, eyes falling on Bryce. He looked a little different today. He always wore nice clothes, but John had noticed on more than one occasion he left the house in the morning forgetting something as basic as running a comb through his hair. Today, though, he looked nice.

And then he spotted the girl when she walked into the kitchen, too.


And shit.

What the fuck was he supposed to do with this?

The nanny would leave Bryce alone for the most part. She included him in after-school snacks and stuff, but her focus was on Betsy so he was left to his own devices for the most part. Homework and what not was the unspoken rule as soon as he got home. The nanny wasn't there to harp on him, though.

"Hi," he said.

In what way was she here? That was an interesting question because John knew at their age he sure as heck liked girls. He wasn't quite sure what to do with them and he wouldn't have brought them back to his house after school. That was because of his house not because he wouldn't have wanted to if he'd had a normal upbringing. Things were very different today, though, and he knew there were kids as young as ten having sex. He didn't get it, but he knew it happened. So, the girl being here for more than homework was a distinct possibility.

"Hi," she said shyly. She was kind of cute. At that awkward stage he remembered girls being at this age, not quite little girls but not quite teenagers yet.

"I'm John," he said. "Mr. Bender," he corrected. The kids' friends all called Claire Mrs. Mercer.

"I'm Tina."

"Nice to meet you, Tina. Do your parents know you're here?"


"Okay," he said. Her parents were one up on him. He'd have to ask Claire if she knew Tina was going to be here today. Nothing like blindsiding him.

"Where are you going?" he asked Bryce when he headed to the basement.

"Where do you think?"

"Yeah, all right, leave the door open, though."

"Sure," he said, as they went downstairs.

"Who's she?" Betsy asked.

"A friend of your brother's it seems."

"She's pretty."

"Yeah? You think so?" John asked.

"I like her hair."

"Ah, yeah," John said. Betsy was very fixated on her hair and what she could do with it. Hers was fairly long so Claire could put it up in all sorts of styles and braids. John wasn't sure if he had ever seen Betsy's hair not done up somehow other than first thing in the morning and before bed. And there were some mornings he woke up after Claire had left for the day so he didn't see it down then.

"I'm going to call your mom. I'll be right back."

"Okay. Crackers?"

"Yeah, sure," he said, grabbing a box of the crackers she liked before heading to the other side of the kitchen where the phone was.

He rolled his eyes as the girl who answered the phone went through her usual greeting. He always let them finish, though, because it seemed rude to him to interrupt them.

"Hi, Lori, it's John. Is Claire free?"

'Well, she's got an appointment, but let me see if she's gone in there yet.'

"Thanks. It'll just be a minute. Nothing urgent, but I have a question."

'Sure, just a second,' she said, putting him on hold.

'Is everything okay?'

"I told her it was nothing urgent."

'She told me that, but I still couldn't figure out why you'd be calling me otherwise.'

"Is Bryce allowed to have girls in the house?"

'I'm sorry?'

"A girl came home with Bryce. Tina."

'I know of Tina, but she's never been to the house before.'

"Is she allowed to be here?"

'What are they doing?'

"They went down to the basement. I told them to leave the door open, which they did. Am I supposed to go down there? Send Betsy down there? What?"

She laughed.

"I'm glad you find this amusing. You didn't tell me he was old enough to bring girls to the house."

'And you didn't like girls at that age?'

"Well, sure, but I didn't bring them home."

'They're fine. Just, yes, leave the door open and probably it'd be a good idea to check on them once in a while without making it obvious that's what you're doing. You know, go down and offer them something to drink. See if they're doing their homework.'

"Uh huh. Okay."

'Did you ask her if her parents know she's here?'

"I did. I figured that much was called for."


John glanced at Betsy who was tugging on the phone cord.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"Hi to mommy."

"Betsy says hi."

'Tell her I say hi.'

"Mommy says hi. Go back and sit down."

"So just check on them? That's it? Am I supposed to call her parents and make sure they know she's here?"

'You could, but I'd hope she wouldn't lie.'

"You'd hope, but they seemed surprised I was here instead of Dorothy."

'Oh, well, then I suppose you could just to make sure. If both of her parents work, though, you may not be able to get them.'

"All right. I bow to your expertise here. I'll check on them in a bit."

'Thank you for checking.'

"Yeah, sure."

'Was there something else?'

"You are going to be home on time, right? You're not staying late to do an emergency declawing or something?"

'I don't think there is such a thing as an emergency declawing, but I'll be home as soon as I'm done and I have nothing on my schedule that should make me late.'

"Thank you," he said. He could handle this for a couple of hours. "Love you," he added.

'Wow. Thank you. I love you, too.'

"What's with the wow?"

'You don't normally say it over the phone.'

"Oh." He didn't? He didn't notice he didn't. He didn't intentionally not say it.

'I guess that's because you're normally calling me from work not from the house.'

Was that wrong? Bad? He wasn't sure. He was a loner for the most part. He spoke to people at work when it was called for, but he really didn't go out of his way to extend himself beyond that. He certainly didn't talk about his personal life. A couple had heard he was living with someone and commented or asked about it, but that wasn't through him they'd learned the information.

"There's no reason for that. I mean, I don't go out of my way not to say it or anything."

'I know, John, I'm not mad. I'm just not used to hearing you say it over a phone.'

"But you like hearing it?"

'Well, sure who wouldn't?'

Indeed. As someone who didn't think he'd heard those words aimed at him since he was maybe Betsy's age he could admit he liked hearing them more than a grown man probably should.

"I'm sorry if I've done something wrong."

'John, you haven't. I was just surprised. You're fine.'

"I'll work on it."

'John, there's nothing to work on.'

"No, there is. I know how it makes me feel when you say it to me. So, yeah, I can do better."


"I'll see you when you get home. I think Betsy's going to help me make some noodles to go with dinner later."

'Uh, okay?'

He chuckled. "She's just going to help me drop them in the water. I've got the stool there and everything."

He'd seen her do that with Betsy a few times now, so he didn't think he was doing anything wrong.

'What are we eating with the noodles?'

"I put that roast in the crock pot you had in the fridge. It's kind of a cold night, figured that'd be good."

'It will be delicious. Thank you for doing that.'

"Yeah, sure. It turns out I don't have to go to work tonight. When I put it in there I didn't know that and figured I'd save you a few steps, but that's all right. It still saves you from having to do it when you get here."

'I'll see you in a couple of hours then.'


He hung up then.

He made his way to the kitchen table where Betsy was still sitting there coloring. She was far more patient than he expected someone being at this age. Then he wasn't sure he remembered three very well and his parents wouldn't have tolerated anything less than him being patient. There was a difference, though. She just sat here coloring and stuff where John had done those things because they were expected of him, but he'd wanted to be doing other stuff.

"All right since your brother is downstairs with a friend. I'm going to go see if they need anything."

"All right," she said. "Can I have some popcorn?"

"Yeah, sure. I'll be right back and we can make some."

Bryce could make their own popcorn, Betsy not so much. They had a real popcorn popper, no microwave stuff. Though he wouldn't let Betsy open the bag by herself either because those things could burn you.

"What's your step-dad do?" Tina asked.

"He's a cop," Bryce answered.

"Oh," Tina said.

"He's not my step-dad, though," Bryce said. "He may as well be, I guess," he added. "It doesn't matter anyway. I guess you just wanted to know what he does that he's home right now. I knew who you were talking about and everything."

"Basically," she answered.

"He's still not my step-dad," Bryce said.

"I'm sorry," she said, sounding as sincere as a thirteen-year-old could be about being sorry. In John's experience thirteen-year-olds were never really sorry.

"His dog's a cop, too," Bryce said.

"Really?" she asked.

"Yeah. I think they search for dead bodies, drugs, and bombs. You know, cool stuff."

"You should have him go past Marty Schlotermeier's locker."

"We can't do that," Bryce said.

"I'm not going to," Tina said. "But why not?"

"Because he lives here! Everyone would think I snitched if he did that."

"Oh," Tina said.

They moved onto another topic, John gave them a few minutes to get into it before making his way the rest of the way down the stairs.

They were playing a game. The two of them were sitting around the table down here for things like games and puzzles. He didn't get that, but then maybe she was really just a friend there to hang out.

"Betsy wants popcorn. Do you guys want some?"

"Sure," Bryce said.

If either of them had an inkling John just overheard their conversation they gave very good poker faces.


"Yes, please," she said.

"Are your parents picking you up later?"

"Uh, yeah, my mom said to call her when I'm ready to come home," she said, distracted by whatever was going on on the TV in the background. Nothing unsavory seemed to be going on, so he left them to it and went back upstairs.

"All right, Betsy, your brother and his friend want some, too. So we'll make a whole batch."


He wondered as he regarded Betsy how his life had gotten here. A year ago he was … Well, he was a pretty miserable guy. He hadn't even gotten laid in a while because he was getting to the age getting laid just for the sake of that and nothing else just wasn't as fun anymore.

He certainly never expected to be here, though. Strange how it worked he imagined. He still hadn't come to a definitive conclusion on his house. So for now it stood empty except the furniture. Everything else was here in boxes, taking up residence in the old house. It was pretty sad as he was packing stuff up to realize that he hadn't accumulated a whole lot of shit despite being a homeowner for the past sixteen years. No pictures, no Christmas cards, no cards period, no memorabilia that wasn't from the department.

"You want to see what they want to drink while I do this? You can help me with the noodles after I've made the popcorn. Okay, Betsy?"

"Sure," she said, running to the stairs. "Bryce," she called as she made her way down there.

He didn't need help with the noodles. It wasn't like spaghetti where they needed to be broken into smaller pieces or anything, but she liked dumping them into the pot. She'd liked helping him mix the spices together to coat the meat with earlier in the morning.

After an entire day with Betsy without her brother here for most of it he could admit to admiring what her nanny did every day. Granted, if he'd really needed Claire she was across the street, but little kids were hard work. The only break he'd gotten was when she took a nap on the couch – with him. That had lasted over three hours, two hours of those on her own as he'd shifted her off of him and gotten up when he woke up an hour into it.

"You want to get the oil for me for the popcorn?" he asked as an afterthought. She could reach that where it was in the cupboard and it was a plastic bottle so wouldn't break if she dropped it.

"Sure," she said. Bryce had followed her upstairs John noticed.

"Do you work tonight?" Bryce asked when he got into the kitchen.

"I was supposed to," he said.

"Oh," he said.

"Why?" John asked.

He shrugged. "I have a Boy Scouts meeting tonight."

"Oh," he said. Sometimes the dads went with their sons and hung out with the other dads. John hadn't done that to this point. "And you want me to go?"

"Sure," he shrugged, but John was guessing he was trying to pretend he didn't care.

"Well, let me talk to your mom when she gets home. Okay?"

"You will?"

"Sure," he said with a shrug. How bad could it be? "You do understand I can only be so sure to a point, right? Something bad happens and I get called into work I have to go. What Randy and I were supposed to help out with this evening got postponed."

"I know," he said.

"As long as you get that, I'll do my best and talk to your mom. Grab the container of popcorn since Betsy already brought me the oil."

"'kay," he said.

He had no idea what was expected of him at a Boy Scout meeting. If anything. Maybe he should have cleared with Claire going before he'd said he would. It still sort of bothered him that she was letting him live here with no seeming expectations of more than this. She seemed not to care, though that couldn't be accurate. He'd never in his experience encountered a woman who didn't expect something when moving in was mixed in with a relationship.

He'd ask her later. Maybe it was like the 'I love you' thing. She didn't say anything but it was something that made her feel good.

He'd also have to talk to his captain about the kid's locker he'd heard them talking about downstairs. They hadn't said what he had in it, and it could be nothing. It could also be something bad. Ten years ago he never had to worry about many bad things being found in junior highs. That wasn't the case anymore. Fuck, there were drugs being pushed in grade schools these days. It was crazy.


"Hi guys," Claire said to the dogs when she came in.

"Mommy," Betsy said, running up to her. It was, Claire had to admit, her favorite part of her day.

"Hi sweetheart. Did you have fun with John today?"

"Uh huh."

"Good. I'm glad. I'm going to let the dogs out and go change before dinner. Okay?"

"Already out."

"Oh, they were?"

"Uh huh," she said.

"Okay. Well, then I guess I'll wait for a bit then. Is your brother's friend still here?"

"No," she said.

"Oh, all right." She was kind of curious who the girl was. Bryce had mentioned her once or twice, but she hadn't realized they were friendly enough for her to come to the house after school.

"You go on back downstairs then. I'll come get you when I'm changed and we're ready to eat."

"Okay," she said.

"What are you doing up here?" Claire asked him when she found him in their bedroom.

He shrugged, glancing at her as she worked the buttons on her blouse. Randy was on the bed with him. He clearly hadn't been sleeping, though.

"The kids were all down in the basement. That Tina's mom picked her up about ten minutes ago. Dinner's ready. I figured you'd be home soon."


"I thought it'd be fun to watch you change."

"Oh," she said. He chuckled softly and she knew she was blushing.

"Yes, oh. And I figured it would be the only time I could ask you about this Boy Scout meeting business."

"What about it?"

"Bryce seems to want me to take him."

"Oh. You don't have to."

"He seems to want me to. What's it mean?"

"Mean? It's the Boy Scouts."

"I know that. What do I have to do?"

"Nothing. You'd take him and pick him up."

"That's it?"

"Yeah. You might be stuck there for a little bit afterward, and they might try to recruit you to help."


"Bryce could never go…"

"Ah," he said.


"Will Betsy be a Girl Scout?"


He snorted a bit at that.

"I suppose you weren't?"

"Uh no. I had a neighbor who was, did the whole bit I'm pretty sure. Tiger, Bear, Webelos, or whatever the fuck it was called. I was envious as all hell so I stole this rocket he'd made with his dad."

"John," she said.

"Yeah, well, I was nine, you know and it was just one more way I stood out as being incredibly different."

"What did you do with the rocket?"

"Put it on the railroad tracks behind our house."

"That's terrible."

John shrugged.

"And now look where I am. Ironic, right?"

She set her blouse in with her pile to go to the cleaners on Saturday before hanging her skirt up.

"I can take him."

"I can do it. He asked, so he must want me to."

"Maybe so. Bryce did with Bryce Jr. when he was younger, but once we got past that first year it sort of fell to me."

"Like everything else, huh?"

"That's not uncommon. There's a lot more Scout mom's."

"All right."

"Yeah, you already have a Scout mom."

"I know."

"Just reminding you," she said.

"Maybe Bryce is trying to get rid of me, pawn me off on someone else's Scout mom."

She joined him on the bed, unhooking her bra and setting it beside them as Randy moved to the floor almost immediately at that. She kissed him and he groaned as she pressed against him. She loved hearing his reaction to her. She was still so very new at doing this. Undressing in front of him was a huge step let alone initiating anything.

"Do you want someone else's Scout mom?"

"Not a chance in hell."

"Show me," she whispered, reaching for the waist of his jeans.

"Yeah? Now?"

"Uh huh."

"I mean, sure, you know, whenever you want. I just wasn't expecting…"

"You keep talking and someone's going to come up and knock on the door."

"Yeah, right," he said, getting the picture clearly evidently. He took over then, peeling her panties off after he'd shed his jeans.

He seemed to know exactly what she needed just now, too, which was really just him. She'd half expected to come home to him packing up after being stuck with Betsy all day. She certainly hadn't expected him to make dinner and see after Bryce and his friend, too.

"Thank you," she whispered, kissing his chest and shoulder when they'd finished.

"You're thanking me? You came onto me, remember?"

"I know, but you could've said no."

He scoffed. "I'd never say no to you. Not in a million years."

"I'm glad to hear that."

"Betsy took a nap with me today."

"She did?"

"Uh huh."


"I can understand why you had two more of them."


He shrugged. "It was pretty all right. I fell asleep there, too, for an hour or so. I woke up and she was so still, just lying there, her arms stretched out around me. It was…"


"Yeah, it was."

"Enjoy it while it lasts. She'll probably do that a little longer than Bryce did, but sooner or later she won't want to snuggle anymore."

"She's like a furnace, though."

"Yes, she's warm."

"I thought for a minute she was feverish or something."

"No, she's just naturally warm."

"Yeah, I figured that out."

"You took her temperature?"

"I did."

"Without waking her up?"

"No, after she woke up. I'm not that good."

She laughed softly. "I'd beg to differ with you."

"You make me good, but thank you. Now, are you going to get dressed again so we can eat and I can do this Boy Scout thing with Bryce?"


"Thank you, by the way. You coming home, wanting me is never a bad thing."

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