Nothing’s been easy for Derrick. Even now with a big change occurring, nothing is certain.
The large black man with humorless, unreadable eyes, wearing a dark gray suit and a light blue tie contrasting with a darker blue shirt, nodded at the man behind the desk, told him the boy’s things were outside with the secretary, said goodbye to the boy and walked out of the office, shutting the door quietly as he left.
The man behind the desk spoke. “Hi. I’m Gregory Scott, the guidance counselor here at Prescott High. Please, sit down.” His voice was soft and unthreatening.
To emphasize the welcome, the man smiled; the boy did not, nor did he immediately sit. He remained standing as he looked around the small, cluttered office, then at the desk piled with papers. He’d seen many desks, stood before too many in his life, met too many officious adults who sat behind those desks, acting like the desk was a fortress. He’d found that whether it was a bare desk or a cluttered one, a scarred or polished one, new or old, none of it made a difference. No matter how the desk appeared, it didn’t help in classifying the man behind it.
He’d learned to read men pretty well, read them from their body language, clothes, eyes and voice. The shape and character of a desk wasn’t a reliable tell of anything. Unfortunately, a soft voice and smile, like those of this man, while suggesting some pleasantness, were often unreliable; just a voice and a smile didn’t foretell much. But that was neither good nor bad. Could mean anything at this point. The boy simply stood still, watching, evaluating.
Mr. Scott was watching, too, looking for signs of nervousness, aggression, timidity, anger, obsequiousness, fear, truculence—he’d seen all those and more from the kids standing in front of him in his office or out in the hallways of the school. He’d never had a boy in this one’s situation, however, and he was very curious how the boy would behave, what sort of attitude he’d display. The boy’s name was Derrick Winters, and so far, he wasn’t revealing a thing. The only vibe he gave off was of cautious patience. Perhaps, too, some wariness. Mostly, he was simply waiting.
It did give Mr. Scott a chance to appraise the boy. He knew a lot about him. He’d received a folder containing the boy’s personal information before this initial meeting. He was 15 years old, 5’ 10” tall—just a bit over average for his age—and quite slender. Maybe skinny. It was difficult to tell in the loose-fitting T-shirt he had on. His arms and neck, though, looked like they had some tone to them. Otherwise, it seemed fair to use the label ‘skinny’.
The boy had a shock of very dark brown hair, which needed cutting and was uncombed in the way so many teens wore theirs. He did think the boy was fairly good-looking, perhaps a little better than average in that regard. In fact, looking at the boy standing in front of him staring back occasionally while he was taking in the office, Mr. Scott decided that there was nothing about his appearance to distinguish him from any other teenage boy. Nothing stood out to give anything away about him. Unless it was the lack of animation in his face and eyes.
Overall, the boy seemed not far off from ordinary. For a boy in his position, being ordinary would be a surprise. Mr. Scott thought a boy like him could be expected to have an attitude at the very least. But Derrick wasn’t showing any. He wasn’t showing anything. Mr. Scott wondered what he was feeling. He had to be feeling something. Animosity would be normal, and certainly he’d feel put upon and had to be experiencing the unsettling feeling of not knowing what to expect, what was coming next; so showing nothing at all was perhaps the wisest stance he could take. It gave Mr. Scott pause to think maybe meeting strangers like this, strangers who’d have a great deal of say about how his life would go for some unknowable time into the future, was something the boy had experienced before. His file suggested more than it detailed about his earlier life.
Mr. Scott pointed to a chair in front of his desk, still smiling, not speaking, and after his initial hesitation, Derrick sat down.
“So . . .” Mr. Scott had the manila folder, Derrick’s file, open in front of him. He didn’t glance into it, however. He knew what it said. “Your name was Derrick. Have they told you your new one? I hope you’ll like it.”
Derrick didn’t respond, and his face still showed nothing. If he was simply waiting, Mr. Scott thought, he was doing a very good job of it.
“How much did they tell you about what was happening, what was expected?” Mr. Scott asked. His voice was gentle, his body language relaxed. The signals Derrick were getting all lacked threats or hostility or even officiousness. So far, so good, he thought, but he didn’t drop his guard at all.
Mr. Scott remained silent, waiting for Derrick to speak. He’d dealt with enough kids to know that many would allow him to talk as long as possible when there was any silence to fill. But, also, that they were as uncomfortable with silence as they thought he probably was. Now, he simply waited, wanting an answer to his question.
After an extended moment, he was rewarded.
“They said that you knew everything and that I could trust you.” Mr. Scott’s smile grew wider, and he was careful it didn’t look triumphant; that would have turned the boy off completely. But he was very pleased; there were many opening statements this boy could have made. This was the best one. He’d thought he might get attitude; not getting any was a good first step.
Mr. Scott remained silent, and as he hoped would happen, the boy took the cue. “They said I was to contact no one. As I’ve never had a cellphone and have no one to call if I did, that won’t be too hard. They wanted to take my phone away, and I don’t think they ever really believed I didn’t have one. But there’s a monthly fee if you have one. So I didn’t.”
Mr. Scott nodded and still didn’t respond. The boy was silent then, too, and only after what seemed an interminable wait, continued talking when he saw Mr. Scott wasn’t going to speak.
“They said I’d be here as long as necessary; they weren’t sure how long that would be. And that you’d be my contact person here for any information from them. You’d arrange a place for me to stay; they said it would be a good home, but how would they know that? Or even care? That you’d see about my school registration and all that. They really didn’t tell me much at all. But I’ve winged it before and can do so again. No big deal.”
“They did tell you you’d be getting a new name, I’d guess?”
Derrick nodded. “They did but didn’t tell me what it was. I asked, and they said it was best if I didn’t know till I was here. They didn’t tell me where ‘here’ would be, either. I only know now because I saw a sign driving into town. They didn’t say who’d be giving the name to me. Maybe you?”
Mr. Scott couldn’t help but be amazed at the resiliency of youth. This kid’s whole life was being turned upside down, and he was apparently facing it calmly and with more composure than Mr. Scott thought he himself would have exhibited should the situation have been reversed. He’d have been angry and scared. This boy seemed neither.
“Yep,” he said. “Me. Telling you, not making it up. They did that. As for finding you a place to stay, they left that up to me. They called that another layer of separation. I was going to . . . well, I considered calling the foster agency in town but then thought about what sort of information they’d want. I think I came up with something better for you than going through all that. But look, you have a say in this. I’ll tell you what I’m thinking. Feel free to tell me if it doesn’t suit you.”
He paused, wondering if the boy would speak. He didn’t, so Mr. Scott continued. “What I decided was, it might be better if you stayed with me. Fewer people in the know that way. Fewer questions you’d have to lie to answer. This way, one easy lie: I’m your uncle and you’re staying here while your parents work through the details of a separation. That should be easy enough and not invite a lot of awkward questions.”
He watched Derrick to see what his reaction would be. What he got was no reaction at all.
He took a deep breath, kept any annoyance or frustration out of his voice, and continued. “I’m not in charge of your new name, however. That’s all them. While you’re here, you’ll be Jacob Delgado, my nephew. Your parents didn’t want you to be involved in any of the haggling they’ll be doing while they’re separated and working to fix their marriage, and they sent you to stay with me, your closest relative, for the duration. You used to live in Kirkson, a small suburb of Chicago that’s entirely fictitious so you won’t meet anyone from there. How does that sound to you?”
The boy was silent for a moment, then said, “And suppose someone I meet says they’re from Chicago and never heard of Kirkson? They’ll be suspicious right off the bat. They’ll ask a bunch of questions. Not good. I think it would be better if we invented a place where no one from around here would know about, and maybe a less specific place than a city. Say I came from a small town in New Hampshire rather than a city we invent in Illinois? That should be much safer. If someone then wanted to know the name of the town, I could just play it by ear.”
Mr. Scott wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He had no say in any of this. But he thought the boy had a point. “Maybe I can suggest that to them. We haven’t told anyone anything about you yet, so there’s still time to make changes in the plan. Anyway, first, the housing arrangement. With me. That okay?”
“How can I judge?” For the first time, Mr. Scott thought, the boy was showing some emotion. And it wasn’t the emotion he expected. Most mid-teen boys tended towards being uncommunicative, surly with strangers, and often defiant. Anger was common. Especially if they were under stress, and this boy should certainly be feeling that. This boy wasn’t exhibiting any of those traits, however, and now being asked if he’d like to live with a man he’d just met, he appeared to be making a joke. His ‘how can I judge’ comment was delivered with an actual slight upturn of his lips and an almost-twinkle in his eyes. He followed it with, “You’re as good as anyone, I guess. You’re at least accustomed to dealing with teenagers. You should at least know how temperamental we are and what you’re getting into.”
He finished with a slight smile. The first sign the kid had any emotions at all. Or personality, for that matter. Very good, Mr. Scott thought. And quite a vocabulary, too! It was also impressive that Derrick wasn‘t a bit defensive. He returned the smile. “Fair enough. Silly question on my part. I want you to be happy, as happy as is possible, and so I guess I went fishing. Sorry. Way too early for you to know how this is going to work out or what a badass I am.” He smiled; Derrick didn’t.
“I do want to say one thing right off the bat. I’m on your side, and I’ll give you all the help I can. Let me also say, while I know kids, deal with them all the time and generally like them, I’ve never had one living with me, so this will be brand new for me. I’ll screw up; that’s a given. I expect you will, too, and we’ll both need to have the patience to work things out. The best, the very best thing we can both do, is communicate. If we know what each other is thinking and feeling, things should go much smoother. By the way, I’m single, sort of a confirmed bachelor, so it’ll be just the two of us.
He paused a moment, then soldiered on. “In that regard, and walking the walk rather than just talking the talk about open communication, I’ll tell you upfront: I’m gay. It’s why I live alone. I haven’t found a partner I want to share my life with, and unlike what you may have heard, gay men aren’t necessarily any more promiscuous than straight ones. So I don’t have orgies, I don’t have multiple men showing up at the house, I’m the only one there, and I don’t perv on boys. You’ll be perfectly safe there, at least from me. But if this troubles you, I can make other arrangements for you.”
He watched Jake as he said this. He was expecting some reaction but didn’t get one. The boy seemed to excel at keeping a blank stare.
“Okay,” Mr. Scott said after a moment of silence, a time that he left for Jake to comment. “Let’s move on. First off—your name. What do you want me to call you? Jacob or Jake, or some other nickname?”
For the first time, Mr. Scott saw a real smile. Not a wide one, but certainly a smile. “I’ll have to think about that. I was Derrick or Der or some crude and disparaging name like dickhead or fuckface all my life. I kind of like the name Jake, though. It fits me. You don’t know me any more than I do you, but as you get to know me, I think you’ll agree. To me, Jake implies a sort of built-in independence, maybe even a little touch of rebellion along with a dislike of being told what to do, and that’s pretty much how I am.”
Mr. Scott could see the boy was relaxing a little. So far, so good. Speaking to him was allowing some insight into the boy. He seemed to be handling a situation with aplomb that would floor most teens. He seemed much more well-spoken than most or even all boys Jake’s age he’d encountered, which was a large number indeed. It was becoming clear that there was more to Jake than one could expect from just looking at him. His looks were deceiving. He didn’t seem nearly so ordinary as one got to know him a little.
“Okay. Jake it is. Welcome to Reston, Washington, population 43,000, give or take a few souls. And to Prescott High School, home of the Prescott Falcons. Don’t suppose you play football, do you?”
It was a silly question; Jake was slender enough that even a water boy position might be too much for him. Jake shook his head.
“Okay, then. You’re lucky you got here today. The school year just started this week, on Wednesday, so we’re only two days into the term and there won’t be much of anything you need to do to catch up. School’s over for the day,” Mr. Scott continued after Jake just looked at him without commenting, “and as I’m done for the day, too, this would be the perfect time for me to take you home. That’ll let you see where you’ll be living right off the bat, and it’ll give you a little time by yourself to decompress if you need to. How does that sound?”
Jake’s smile was gone. Once again he remained silent, and Mr. Scott berated himself for continually asking meaningless questions. The boy would do as he was told, at least this early in the game. Maybe he’d show more mettle when he was a little more familiar with and comfortable in his surroundings—and even with Mr. Scott. It was no surprise he didn’t answer now, especially to meaningless, puerile questions. Instead, Jake simply stood up, showing he was ready to go. Perhaps he wasn’t speaking simply because he was gathering his energy and courage for his next step into the unknown.
Derrick had spent most of the last year before that dark, terrifying, almost-tragic night on his own, most of it on the streets, making his own decisions. The witness protection people, officially titled the Witness Security Service and abbreviated as WITSEC, had sequestered him in a building in Manhattan on an upper floor. He’d been assigned a private room with its own bathroom. There was a common room with a TV set, a cafeteria and a library available to him. Accustomed to the streets and fresh air, such a small area and the inability to move freely wherever he wanted was stifling. He was the only kid there among three adults also being sequestered and two armed officers always in attendance. By choice, he’d ended up staying in his room or the library except for meals, reading the books they’d made available for him or watching TV. He was alone most of the time, and books and his guitar were his only friends. He’d read or played his guitar in his room, working on smooth chord changes, practicing riffs, finding odd chord progressions that fit his mood. His books and guitar kept him sane.
Now, here in Reston, he’d be among kids again and free to move around however he liked, spared the constant observation he’d been living with. Definitely a step up. Living with an adult, with adult supervision? School was still out on that.
One thing he’d have to remember: he wasn’t Derrick Winters any longer. He was Jake. Jake Delgado. Of all the sudden changes in his life, that might be the hardest to get a grip on. He decided that it would be better for him not to just temporarily adopt a new name. As well as that change, he hoped he could also change his persona, become more open and cheerful and outgoing. To do that would be a major adjustment, and he knew he couldn’t pretend to be someone other than Derrick Winters by simply playing a role. For this to work, he’d have to become Jake Delgado. From now on, he’d be Jake and think of himself that way. He’d stuff Derrick Winters back into the corner of his memory and no longer even think of him—until he had to return to NYC for the trial.
= = =
Mr. Scott didn’t drive Jake home. He’d started out in that direction but then had a thought and changed his mind. He pulled into a parking lot of a place not far from the school. Jake saw the name on a sign out front: Chez Burger.
“It occurred to me,” Mr. Scott said, taking the key from the ignition. “You’re fifteen. That means you’re hungry. Kids always eat after school. A lot of high school kids come here before going home. I’m not set up for after-school snacks at home yet. Unless you’d rather not, we can get something here, and you’ll get to see some of the kids you’ll be going to school with. But if you’re uncomfortable doing that, just say the word. We don’t need to stop here.”
Jake was ravenous. He’d had a rushed breakfast at the airport and nothing on the plane but a small packet of pretzels and a Coke. He wasn’t sure he wanted to meet a bunch of kids with the school’s guidance counselor acting as a watchdog for him; he didn’t want to appear to need an adult holding his hand. It would be like having his mom accompany him to school on the first day of high school. Hard to live that down.
But he couldn’t deny the fact that he was famished, and the aromas venting from this place were making his hunger more acute. In his head and body, he was still on New York City time, and it was early evening there.
“This’ll be fine,” he said. “Thanks.”
The place was nearly full of kids, and they lucked out when a booth emptied just as they walked in. Mr. Scott grabbed it. Jake sat across from him and looked around.
There were very few adults in evidence. This was obviously a high school hangout, and the kids were all around him. They were mostly dressed like NYC kids with differences Jake thought only kids would notice. Their clothes for the most part were slightly nicer than what NYC kids wore, at least the ones at the school he’d attended, and not quite so grungy; many looked a bit newer. The hair fashions were about the same, but again, a bit neater, a bit shorter and to his eye more fashionable.
Something else he noted right away was how the kids sounded. They lacked a NYC accent. Not all kids in New York sounded the same, but many of them had more nasal-sounding vowels, and they often added an R sound to words ending in a soft A or AW. The kids in Reston sounded much more like TV announcers, speaking with very little accent. Jake wondered how his voice compared. And, he wondered if the fictitious place he would be telling people he’d relocated from should be placed near the Bronx—or maybe Queens.
Mr. Scott took a menu from the holder at the back edge of the table and handed it to Jake. “Order anything you want. I’m paying. I’m just having a cup of coffee, but I don’t have the metabolism you do.” He sighed, then grinned, showing Jake how at ease he was with him and that sitting in a kids’ hangout with a boy he hardly knew but who would be living with him wasn’t stressing him out at all. And by doing so, he hoped that Jake would see that he had no reason to be stressed, either.
Jake was reading the menu when there was an interruption. A kid had approached the table, glanced at Jake, then spoken to Mr. Scott. “Hey,” he said. “Would it be okay if I did your lawn Sunday instead of tomorrow? I’ve got something going on tomorrow at the mall.”
Mr. Scott smiled at him and answered. “Sure. No problem. But hey, yourself. While you’re here, meet Jake. He’ll be staying with me for a while. Jake, this is Jeremy Carston. Jeremy is a sophomore like you, and he cuts my lawn so I don’t have to.”
He turned back to Jeremy and said, “Jake is my nephew and going to be staying with me. He’ll be starting at school on Monday. Maybe you could show him around town on Sunday if you have the time after mowing? He could use my old bike.”
Jeremy was looking at Jake, and Jake was doing the same back. Jeremy was one of those boys who looked younger than his age, who hadn’t started the process of losing his preteen appearance. He was short, for one thing; he really didn’t look like a high school student. He was quite obviously still waiting for a major growth spurt. He had red cheeks and large, very blue eyes, light brown hair and a cheerful look. He was also fidgeting as he stood, almost bouncing on his feet. He reminded Jake of a Labrador puppy: enthusiastic and wanting to be liked.
“Hi,” Jeremy said. “Sure, be glad to show you around. That’ll be fun! I’ll be over to do the lawn about eight. Yeah, I know, early. But my aunt goes to church and gets me up when she gets up, always hoping I’ll go with her. I don’t. But she gets me up anyway, hoping, and since I’m up, going back to bed seems lame. But I’ll be at Mr. Scott’s house around eight, and if you’re awake and ready by the time I’m done, we could go out then. You want to go then? Or, I could come by later, after lunch maybe. What works best for you? Most anything works for me.”
Eager. Just what Jake had thought. Eager and friendly and garrulous. The boy had hardly paused to take a breath while saying all that. What pissed Jake off a little was he wasn’t being given a choice here about hanging with the kid.
Jake had always had been reluctant to let anyone boss him around, and this seemed very much like being bossed. He’d learned how to deflect and did so now as a normal reaction. “I’ll let you know Sunday, Jeremy.”
Mr. Scott broke in then. “Your taking him around to see the town was my idea, Jeremy, not Jake’s, so I need to touch base with him about it first. We’ll let you know when you do the lawn. That okay?”
“Sure. See ya then. Nice to meet you, Jake.” He threw another big smile at Jake, hesitated a moment, then turned and walked off.
“That was Jeremy,” Mr. Scott said, and then he broke out laughing.
Jake went back to reading the menu.
When the food arrived, Mr. Scott was happy; there’d been dead silence since Jeremy had left; now at least it didn’t need to continue. When Jake bit into his burger, Mr. Scott spoke, knowing Jake now had a legitimate excuse not to reply. “I’m sorry, Jake. I shouldn’t have invited Jeremy to escort you around town without talking to you privately first. It was presumptuous of me. I realized that as I was saying it, but it was too late to stop. If you don’t want to go with him, I can find an excuse so you won’t have to. I do apologize, though, for letting my mouth get ahead of my brain.”
Jake took his time finishing chewing, then picked up a fry and dipped it in ketchup. Mr. Scott thought he wasn’t going to respond, but instead of sticking the fry in his mouth, he held it at the ready and spoke. “I’m sorry, too. I’ve been alone a lot and have to get used to talking to kids again, and I need to start getting involved in things and stop being such a loner. Even before this mess I’m in, that’s what I’d become. I’d become very uncommunicative. Even talking to you like this, saying this much, is uncomfortable for me.”
He stopped, and Mr. Scott had the impression he hoped that would be all he needed to say and that Mr. Scott would jump in. He didn’t, and eventually Jake continued. “Jeremy is a little much. I prefer quieter, more reflective kids, kids who appreciate quiet as much as I do, but I should start to get out, to see the town and meet people. To be sociable, which is something that doesn’t come naturally for me. I’d already told myself I was going to do that. So, going out with Jeremy is a way to start. I doubt we’ll ever be great friends. I don’t make friends easily, and . . . well, I guess I shouldn’t be judgmental.”
“Good.” Mr. Scott nodded. “That’s settled then. Now, we have a lot of other stuff to talk about. First, at school, I’d like you to call me Mr. Scott. At home, that’s way too formal and I’d like to think of us as companions—well, maybe housemates would be a better way to put it—and different from the set roles of parent and teenager. We’ll be sharing chores and spending some time with each other, and it makes more sense to me that if I’m calling you Jake, you should be equally as familiar with me. So, at home, and anywhere out of school, really, I’d be happy with you calling me Greg. My name is Gregory, but Greg’s what most people who aren’t high school students call me. So, depending on who’s around, if anyone, Greg or Uncle Greg? How’s that sound?”
“I’m not used to calling adults by their first names,” Jake said. “But what you said makes sense. I’ll try it. If it’s uncomfortable, I can always go back to being more formal.”
“OK, that’s taken care of. As for rules at the house, I’d rather not try to set out a bunch of them. That seems like it’s asking for trouble. You said you like your freedom, dislike being told what to do and can even be a little rebellious. Well, if we don’t have rules, it seems you’ll have a hard time trying to rebel against them. No rules lets you feel you have the freedom you want. The independence. So, let’s try it without any rules and see how that goes. If we find we need some, we can talk about them then. Okay?”
Jake grinned. “You’re giving me a lot of room to screw up,” he said and laughed.
“I’ll probably be doing some of that, too. Like I just did with trying to get you going with Jeremy. I want this to work, Jake. I want us to get along well. But you say you’ve been a loner. I’ve lived alone for a long time, so living together will be an adjustment for both of us. I think we can just feel our way along and talk about anything that needs it. There will be issues and challenges for sure. But maybe we can get them worked out without a whole lot of fuss.”
“Sounds good to me.” Jake hesitated, then finished his sentence with “Uncle Greg.” Then he smiled.
= = =
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