The perfect match, p.15
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       The Perfect Match, p.15

         Part #2 of Blue Heron series by Kristan Higgins
 
Page 15

  Author: Kristan Higgins

  He doggedly kept up the chatter: the weather, the town, the lake, the Buffalo Bills (he had no idea if Charlie was interested in football, and he himself wasn’t, but you never knew) until they pulled into the parking lot. And finally, the boy spoke.

  “What are we doing here?” His voice, once so angelic, had changed over the past few months to a respectable baritone. Still a bit hard to get used to, that voice. Like when the little girl starts speaking with the demon voice in The Exorcist.

  “It’s a gym,” Tom answered.

  Charlie cut him a glance so filled with disgust it was hard to recognize the boy who’d once jumped into his arms.

  “Right, right, the sign does tell you that, doesn’t it?” Tom cleared his throat. “Thought we could check it out. ”

  The truth was, Tom had no idea what to do with Charlie, whose only interests seemed to be terrifying music sung by Satan and body-piercing. The days of kites, bike-riding and make-your-own sundaes were over.

  But Tom had boxed for years, gone through university on a scholarship, in fact, and made it through several regional championship matches. It had been a bit of a surprise that Manningsport had its very own boxing gym, an old-school type of place filled with the smell of sweat and leather and the rhythmic smacks of men and women punching the bags or jumping rope. He’d joined the first week he moved here.

  “I’m not going in there,” Charlie muttered, looking out the window.

  “I can’t leave you in the car. ”

  “Yes, you can. ”

  “It’s cold. Besides, I’ve got you till seven, so we’ve got to find something to do. ”

  He waited, and after a second, Charlie opened the door and shuffled inside the gym. Tom followed, gym bag in hand.

  “It stinks in here,” Charlie pronounced, the earbuds still in place.

  “It smells like a gym, that’s all. Come on, mate, give it a try. ”

  “I’m not your mate. That sounds so gay. ” His voice was loud.

  Tom tried not to clench his teeth. “Where I’m from, it means friend. ”

  “You’re not my friend, either. And you’re not my father, or my stepfather, and I hate it when you call me your stepson. ”

  “Right. At any rate, I thought we’d give boxing a shot. No harm, is there? It wouldn’t hurt for you to have some life skills. I got you some trunks, a helmet, a pair of gloves—it’ll be fun. ”

  “It’s not fun!”

  “And keep your voice down, all right?” He pulled out one of Charlie’s earbuds, and the kid reacted like Tom had slapped him.

  “Don’t touch me! I don’t have to do what you say!”

  Oh, fantastic, someone was coming over. Someone with impressive muscles, a military-looking tattoo, no less, and a badass look on his face.

  “Problem here?” the guy said.

  “Not unless you count moody teenagers as problems,” Tom said, forcing a smile.

  The smile was not returned. Nor did the man look sympathetic to Tom’s plight. “Everything all right?” he asked.

  “No,” Charlie said, rolling his eyes. Tom almost wished they’d get stuck, the way his own father had always promised.

  “I’m Police Chief Cooper,” the man said to Charlie. Bloody wonderful. “How do you know this man?”

  Soon, Tom imagined, he’d be in a cell for attempted child abduction, or worse. Though now that he thought of it, being sent back to England—or prison—didn’t actually seem so bad, when compared with dealing with the kid.

  Charlie didn’t answer.

  “I’m a friend of the family,” Tom said.

  The chief didn’t seem impressed. “Is that true?” he asked.

  “I don’t know,” muttered Charlie.

  “Would you like me to take you home?” the chief offered.

  “No. ” Charlie said it in the way he said everything these days: with thinly veiled disgust.

  “And what’s your name, sir?” the cop asked, and Tom found himself giving his name, address, Janice’s phone number and waiting as Chief Cooper verified the information and then called the police station to run a check of his criminal records, of which there were none. Finally, he put away his phone, then offered Tom his hand. “Sorry,” he said. “Can’t be too careful. ”

  “No worries. Thanks for checking up. ” Perhaps you can do a cavity search next time, mate. Cheerio.

  The chief nodded and walked back to the bag from which he’d come, and began throwing some jabs.

  “I’m not boxing,” Charlie said. “It’s so stupid. ”

  “Fine,” Tom said. “Then sit here and watch. And don’t walk out, or I’ll have to call the nice officer over and report you as a missing child. ”

  Tom went into the locker room, changed out his teacher’s clothes and into boxing trunks and a faded Manchester United T-shirt. Sighed at his reflection in the mirror, then went out again.

  He’d reserved the ring for an hour, naively thinking that Charlie might welcome a little instruction in self-defense. Back in the day, they used to pretend to spar. Back in the day when Charlie loved him. “Into the ring, mate,” he said, keeping his voice cheerful.

  Charlie obeyed, his baggy pants making it difficult for him to get between the ropes. “All right, now, I thought I’d show you a few basic jabs and punches,” Tom said. “First thing, fighting stance. Relaxed, yeah?” He demonstrated, holding his hands up by his head, feet apart. “Keep your weight on the balls of your feet, because you want to be able to move. This is your space, and you own it. ”

  His unofficial stepson slumped to the floor of the mat and took out his phone, which began emitting irritating little burps and beeps. Tom went over and squatted in front of him. “Charlie? Pay attention, mate. ”

  “Why?”

  “You might learn something. ”

  “It’s stupid,” Charlie muttered, going back to his game.

  It was hard not to slap the stupid thing out of his hand. “Right,” Tom said. “So you move like this, always keeping your feet going. In, out, in, out. Just a little movement, very controlled, hands up by your temples, weight forward. ”

  Charlie wasn’t listening. And it was bloody embarrassing, talking to a kid who was clearly ignoring him, the eyes of the cop on them more than once. But they were here, and a boxing ring was one of the few places Tom knew what he was doing. “Jab, turning your hand, put your shoulder into it, and then, snap, back again to protect yourself. ”

  The computer game continued to chirp and beep.

  Bollocks.

  The clock slowed to a crawl, but that was the thing with kids, right? You couldn’t let them dictate everything. Or something.

  After a lifetime, the endless hour passed, and Tom pulled on his sweatshirt.

  “Let me know if you want a sparring partner sometime,” the cop called.

  “Will do,” Tom said, raising a hand. “Thanks. Come on, Charlie. Off we go. ”

  The boy remained barely conscious, for all that he interacted with Tom, as they drove the short distance to Tom’s place. He unlocked the door and stood back as the kid went in.

  “So I decorated a bit, tried to make it a little more homey than the last time you were here,” Tom said. “I bought some things for your room. ” Was that a mistake, to call it Charlie’s room? He’d wanted him to feel like he had an option to Janice and Walter’s, that any time he wanted a place to go, he could come here.

  Hadn’t happened yet. Despite the Tuesday afternoons, when Janice forced the lad to spend time with him more for her sake than his, Charlie hadn’t taken him up on the offer.

  But now, to his surprise, the boy went upstairs, his feet thudding heavily on the stairs. Tom followed. Charlie glanced in at Tom’s room, which was bare bones at best, then went into the room across from it. This was the room Tom had worked to make appealing, and he said a silent prayer that Cha
rlie would like it.

  The walls were white; the bed was covered in a black comforter (Charlie’s favorite color, after all). A bureau from IKEA, which had taken seven hours to assemble, and him a mechanical engineer.

  On one wall hung a Manchester United poster; once upon a time, Charlie had watched matches with him on the rare occasions that American television carried British football. On the bureau was the Stearman PT-17, the last model airplane he and Charlie had worked on together, still waiting to be finished. A bookcase filled with half of the young adult and science fiction novels the small bookstore in town had stocked, because Tom didn’t know what Charlie was reading these days. A collector’s edition of Lord of the Rings, just in case. The complete Harry Potter series, once beloved by the boy.

  And then there were the photos. A shot of Charlie—his school picture from last year, one of those ghastly photos set against a gray background, Charlie’s face unsmiling and hard. Another of a younger Charlie, standing in front of a stream. Tom had taken him fishing—they’d caught nothing, but had a fantastic time throwing rocks into the water.

  And on the nightstand, a photo of Charlie and Melissa, both of them smiling.

  She’d had her flaws, absolutely, but she had certainly loved her son.

  Charlie stared at the photo.

  Then he turned and shut the door in Tom’s face without a word.

  * * *

  LATER THAT NIGHT, after the agonizing visit had ended and Charlie had been returned to his grandparents’, Tom was considering a trip to O’Rourke’s, which had a magnificently stocked collection of single malt whiskey and Scotch in addition to eighteen types of beer. Perhaps Droog was up for a drink and some darts.

  Then again, it was past ten.

  Perhaps Tom should get a dog. Or a cat. Or a fish.

  But chances were he’d be leaving America soon. He’d had emails from both of the companies he’d applied to, informing him they’d hired another candidate, as Tom had expected they would. No work visa meant he’d have to go home.

  It would be all right, he told himself, ignoring that flash of pain in his chest. It wasn’t like he was doing any good here, anyway.

  The bleat of his cell phone startled him. He looked at the screen. “Charlie?” It was a first, the boy calling him.

  “Can you come get me?” The words were muttered, barely audible over the background din.

  Tom paused. “Yeah. Of course. Where are you?”

  Charlie mumbled an address and hung up.

  Twenty minutes later, Tom turned onto a grungy street in Bryer, two towns over from Manningsport. His heart pulled the second he saw Charlie, a small, dark smudge sitting on the curb.

  “Hey,” Tom said, rolling down the window. “Hop in. ”

  Charlie did, walking faster than his usual shuffle. He slumped in the seat.

  “Buckle up, m—”

  “Just get out of here,” Charlie said, pulling the seat belt across him.

  Tom obeyed. It was hard to tell in the dark, but by Charlie’s careful breathing, he thought the boy might be crying. A block down from where Charlie had been waiting, people streamed and yelled from the porch of a dilapidated two-family house. Most were wearing similar clothes to Charlie’s—black, torn, adorned with chains and metal. A thunking bass rhythm slammed into the car, making it reverberate.

  Charlie sat low in the seat, looking at his lap.

  When they left the neighborhood, Tom glanced over. “Bad time?”

  Charlie shrugged. There was a trickle of blood coming from his ear, where the safety pin pierced the cartilage, and for a second, Tom’s vision flashed red. He turned his eyes back to the road and loosened his death grip on the steering wheel.

  “Did someone hurt you, mate?” he asked softly.

  “No. ”

  “Your ear’s bleeding. ”

  Charlie reached up and touched it. “It got caught. ”
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