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The Benefit of Ductwork
by Kira Harp
Andy's father's voice was clear, although a little metallic and distorted by the acoustics of the heating duct. "I thought we agreed one kid was enough."
Yeah, I thought so too. Andy pressed his cheek against the rough carpet beside the vent cover and strained to hear the reply. During these discussions down in the study below his bedroom, Dad usually stayed put and was easy to hear. Pops paced around, and his voice would fade in and out maddeningly.
This time Pops must have been holding still because his response came through the vent distinctly. "We did. And I don't feel like we need another kid. But I think this kid needs us."
Dad sighed. "Tell me again."
"He's just thirteen. He showed up at the shelter and...God, Rob, you should have seen this kid. He'd been sleeping down under a bridge somewhere, until the rain last night washed him out. There he was, just this young, skinny, dirty boy with wild curls. And he walked up to Veronica and smiled and said, ‘I hear a guy like me can maybe get something to eat here, if I know the secret handshake.'Like being on his own was nothing."
"If he's thirteen, don't his parents have to take him back?"
"The cops went and talked to them. I guess they claimed he ran away; said he was uncontrollable and a danger to the younger boys in the house."
"And you still want to bring him here?"
"It's a damned lie!" Pops must have started pacing, because his voice began to fade in and out. "...not a danger, he's just gay...don't want him around, and don't want to admit...in foster care now but...bullshit, they just...they shouldn't call themselves parents."
Dad's light, reasonable tones cut over Pop's deeper rant. "So he's in foster care now. That's good, right?"
"It would be. But Clarke says there aren't many open slots. He's in a short-term emergency placement but...and the only long-term opening is a nice Christian conservative family. He might survive but...may not be any better than that. And if not there, he'll have to go into a residence."
"So you want us to foster him? For a while, until a good placement opens up? Or forever?"
Upstairs, Andy bit his lip until he tasted blood. Eleven years he'd been in this house with these two men, and he knew they were committed parents. Hell, they'd adopted him when he was six, and never given him reason to doubt them. They'd lived through his silences and his tantrums and his teen moodiness with patience. And yet he realized now he'd always wondered if they might not replace him, if some better kid came along. Not really, not like he believed it with his head, but somewhere down in his gut where he didn't feel quite like enough for them, he'd wondered if they might not want to try again.
Down in the study, Pops said, "If we take him, we should keep him. The last thing this kid needs is another rejection. Although adoption may not be possible unless his parents give up their rights."
Dad grunted noncommittally. "What about Andy?"
"What about him?"
"Are we going to ask his opinion?"
Andy closed his eyes and tried not to be hurt, tried not to be surprised when Pops said, "No. I don't think so. This is our decision."
"He's seventeen and he's had us all to himself for eleven years. Don't you think he should have some say?"
"I think it wouldn't be fair to him, actually." Andy heard a chair creak like Pops had sat down. Yeah, good, hold still so I can hear while you decide to screw my life to hell and gone.
"How do you mean?"
"Andy doesn't share well."
"You know why. We've talked about how little he had as a child, and the way it makes him cling possessively."
"I'm not saying it's not understandable. But if we ask him about bringing Kyle into the family Andy has two choices. He can do what he knows is right and say okay, and hate himself for not speaking up for what he really wants. Or he can be selfish and say no, and hate himself for denying another kid a good home. I don't think he can say yes and mean it, and I don't think we should put him in the position of having to choose."
"Mm. That almost makes sense." There was a sound like kissing, and Andy would've closed his ears if he could. He knew his fathers loved each other, and slept together, and he was glad of the warm stability of their home. But he didn't need the actual evidence.
Eventually, Dad said softly, "You're trying to buy my vote."
Pops chuckled, low and a little breathlessly. "Is it working?"
"You really think we're the best place for this kid?"
"I really do. He came out to his folks and they dumped him out the door. They said shit he'll probably never completely get over, judging by the stuff they laid on the cops when they showed up. They told him he was so perverted it wasn't safe to have him around his little brothers. This kid needs a home where he won't just be tolerated; he'll be encouraged to be exactly who and what he is. And that's us. We're already on the foster parent list from when we thought we might have to take in Randy's kids for a while. We can have him here before another family has a chance to reject him. And Rob, he reminds me of you. His eyes, his build, the way he moves and smiles...it's like looking at a teenage you. And he breaks my heart."
There was a long silence. Andy pressed his cheek to the grate itself, heedless of the waffle print it was probably creating on his skin. This was his life they were wrecking down there. More kissing noises. How could they think about making out when they were deciding whether to replace their kid with a better model? Realistically, he knew it wasn't that bad. They weren't going to kick him out or anything. But he would be going to college in a year and a half. If this new kid really was thirteen he would stay here at home, with Andy's house and Andy's things and Andy's dads. And they would gradually become more this kid's parents than Andy's own. It wasn't fair.
Eventually Dad said, "Okay. If you're that set on it. I want to meet him first, but then...okay. But Geoff, you get to break the news to Andy."
Pops'laugh was strangled. "That may be the hardest part of the whole thing."
There was a sound like a light smack. "If you think that, you've forgotten what it's like to have a thirteen-year-old boy to raise."
"Oh, I haven't forgotten anything about teenage boys. I remember the first time I met you, when you were thirteen..."
Another long not-quite-silence and then Dad said breathlessly, "We could discuss this further upstairs. You could bribe me some more."
Andy pushed up hard off the floor and sat up away from the grate. He knew that tone in Dad's voice and it wouldn't be long before his fathers came upstairs. Their bedroom was at the other end of the hall, and they would take it behind a locked door, but he would hear the muffled whispers as they passed his room. A gay kid probably wouldn't be bothered by that.
Andy wandered over to his dresser and stared at himself in the mirror. He didn't turn as the sound of uneven footsteps went past down the hall. His reflection gazed back forlornly. Stupid reflection. His brown eyes peered anxiously out from under an ill-kempt swatch of mid-brown hair. His face was solemn, which didn't do his boring features any favors. At least the lack of a smile meant his crooked front tooth was hidden. He'd declined braces when Dad had suggested them, because he knew money had been tight.
Maybe you should have insisted you needed them, taken Dad and Pops for whatever you could, before they spent it on the new kid. He turned away abruptly. He was supposed to be working on an English paper. This was his junior year in high school. This one counted big in the college entrance scheme of things. Not that he had real goals in mind yet, but he knew college was what his fathers wanted and expected from him. And he wanted to prove to them he could do it. But he couldn't get his mind to give even one thought to updated versions of Shakespeare. He walked past the open books on his bed to look out the window.
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