Updated: Mar 4
"I don’t wanna go," said Cole, peering up at his older brother.
"It'll be fun. It's just the weekend. A sleepover." replied Zac, his throat tightened with each word.
Cole moaned. "Why can't you come along?"
"Because I’ve got a test to study for." Zac tousled the mass or auburn curls atop of Cole's head to appear playful. Inside, turmoil bubbled like hot, molten lava. He wanted to grab his little brother's hand and run as fast as their legs would take them.
A few feet away, their caseworker, Tonya Masters, shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She sighed audibly and checked her watch, a performance entirely for Zac to let him know her patience was wearing thin. "Okay, Cole, let's go; Mr. and Mrs. Parks are waiting for us." She extended her skeletal hand.
Cole wrapped his arms around his big brother's neck. Clinging tight, he whispered, "Got your back."
"Back at ya, buddy," responded Zac, fighting back tears, holding tight. He didn't want to let go.
"Alright, come on," Ms. Masters said, irritation radiated from her entire body. Out of Cole’s sight, she glared at Zac.
Zac cleared his throat and pulled away, looking his little brother in the eyes. "You be good. And make sure you brush your teeth. Got it?"
Ms. Masters seized the young boy’s arm with a claw-like hand, tugging him toward her black SUV.
Cole shouted over his shoulder, "See ya, Monday!"
Zac swallowed hard and tried to respond. His throat constricted, trapping the words he wished to say. In the end, all he could do was wave goodbye. Frozen in place, he watched the black SUV pull away from the curb and drive down the street. He glanced down at the license plate; IHLPKDS—I help kids. Of course, a person like her would believe they were helping. He closed his eyes and committed the letters to memory.
A soft hand touched his shoulder, startling him out of his thoughts.
"Why don't you come inside?" said Carla, his foster mother. She and her husband, Jorje, were the only two bright spots in their lives. A genuine, friendly couple who only wanted to help others, the Almeidas were a true rarity in Zac’s world. After raising two kids of their own, the couple faced a choice; Do they downsize into a smaller home and embrace the empty nester lifestyle? Or do they make a difference in the lives of other young people? Luckily for the two brothers, the Almeidas chose the latter. The past four months in the Almeida home were a gift to the two boys. It was almost like being home… Almost.
“Come, have a seat in the kitchen,” offered Carla. “I’ll make some coffee and we can talk.” Zac knew Carla only wanted to help him feel better. He simply wasn't up for it. He needed to be alone. After a brief apology, he made his way upstairs to the bedroom he and Cole shared.
A worn teddy bear sat silent against his pillow—a note lay atop its belly. Written in Cole's crooked handwriting with a dark blue marker, the message read—
Waffles is gonna stay and keep you company while I'm gone. I'll see you both on Monday.
Tears flowed down his face. Cole didn’t know he wasn't coming back. That the family he was spending the weekend with, a family they had both met multiple times before—were adopting him. Ms. Masters felt it was best not to say anything, especially since the family didn't want Zac.
“It's better if he doesn't know right away,” she said in a hushed tone. “It could be traumatic for him and could disrupt the transition.” She paused and waited for Zac’s reaction. When none came, she continued, "You don't want him to end up in permanent foster care, do you?" She fiddled with the binder filled with all the information about the two brothers. Impatience emitted from her like a foul odor. "Don't forget, you're aging out in a few months. He can't come with you. You know that."
Zac stared. Silent. He studied her face. Her small, brown eyes reminded him of the rats that scurried around in the old barn. Her pinched face gave the impression she had just swallowed a lemon peel. He loathed her with every fiber of his being.
She leaned close, the noxious odor of sour coffee emanating from her breath. "Don’t make this any more difficult than it has to be," she hissed. "We will do whatever we have to in order to make this adoption happen."
He understood the veiled threat loud and clear. Like everything else over the past few years, he was powerless to effect any change in the outcome. If he reacted to his feelings, he would make a bad situation worse than it already was. As much as he hated it, the severe woman was right. Any reaction would only traumatize Cole. Zac couldn't do that to the little guy. Cole had suffered too much already. So, holding back the roiling firestorm of emotions, he played his part in the charade.
Zac lifted the ragged stuffed animal and sunk heavily on the bed as though the lead weight in his belly was pulling him down. Named after Cole's favorite food, the little bear was his most treasured possession. Whether in the backyard or bedtime—Waffles was always in Cole's arms. He even brought him along on his first day of kindergarten. The day the state came to take them away from their family home, Cole held Waffles firm against his chest with one arm while holding tight to Zac's hand with the other.
Matted fur covered the entire body, with small balding patches around the ears and face. A worn piece of black wool felt covered the hole where his left eye used to be. Zac ran his finger across the pilly surface, a sad smile on his face as he recalled the memory of that day. After an unfortunate accident involving a pair of scissors and a boy named Preston, their mom decided it was best to cover the hole with a patch. Worried over the plight of his fluffy friend, Cole paced nervously while their mom did her magic. Zac did his best to distract the little guy, playfully teasing. When their mom presented the newly repaired Waffles, Cole squealed with glee. What's better than a beloved teddy bear? Well, a pirate stuffed bear, of course. He ran around for days calling him "Waffles Black-Eye Flynn."
Zac sighed and pinched his eyes shut, breathing deep as a flood of memories washed through his mind like a tidal wave, bringing with them all the emotions he fought so hard to hold back over the past few years. He didn't want them—they hurt too much. There was nothing he could do; he stopped fighting and forced himself to concentrate on something happy.
Waffles. Zac remembered the first time he laid eyes on that bear. He saved up for months, taking on any chore his father would pay him for. The months flew by and his mom’s belly grew. Zac searched every shop they visited for the right gift. It seemed an impossible task. He could never find the right item. The day Cole was born, his grandma brought Zac to the hospital to visit his new baby brother for the first time. Nervous and excited over the prospect of being an older brother, Zac insisted they stop by the gift shop before going upstairs.
It was now or never. His brother was here—he needed to find something now. His mind reeled as he wandered the aisles. What if there’s nothing here either? He scanned the shop. Bright lights glinted off sterile glass shelves. In one corner, bright balloons brandishing messages like "Congratulations" or "Get Well" floated above bouquets of colorful flowers. Across the room, a shelf overflowing with stuffed animals beckoned him. His face lit up—finally, the perfect gift. The black bear popped out against a backdrop of grey stuffed elephants and pink bunnies. Face frozen in a permanent, though slightly crooked smile, arms outstretched as though he were reaching for Zac. This was it.
Though only nine years old at the time, he could vividly recall nearly every detail of the first time he met his little brother. The flickering buzz of fluorescent lights and the sterile scent of bleach as he walked down the long corridor leading from the nurse's station to the room where his mother stayed. His sneakers squeaking on the sparkling white floor tiles. The gentle smiles on everyone’s faces as he passed by. His sweaty palms and the soft feeling of Waffle's fur against his fingers.
His Grandma pushed open the door. The first thing Zac saw was his mother sitting up in bed, her long red hair cascading over her shoulders. Her face turned down as she gazed lovingly at the tiny bundle in her arms. When he entered the room, she turned and beamed, one arm outstretched toward him, the other holding the new baby. Her smile was so beautiful and full of love. He ran forward and hopped up alongside her on the bed. She tussled his red hair and kissed his forehead. The baby writhed and let out a tiny, pathetic protest.
His mom gave him a quick hug, then introduced the two brothers.
"Zac, meet your new baby brother—Cole." She faced the baby. "Cole, this is your big brother, Zac. He's very excited to meet you."
"Hold up, hold up," said Zac's father. He got to his feet. "Come on over here, son. Sit down so you can hold him."
Zac hopped off the bed and climbed into the chair, his feet dangling inches away from the floor. He waited anxiously as his dad scooped the baby from his mother's arms and gently handed him to Zac.
"Be careful. Make sure you support the head," his father warned.
Zac nodded and stiffened his arm, making sure he was providing proper support. The baby was so tiny. Much smaller than he had imagined. Though, upon reflection, he realized he didn't know what to expect. The baby stretched and yawned, the most adorable yawn Zac had ever seen. How funny that he would think a yawn was cute. Around the room, the adults were busy talking. Zac heard nothing they were saying—he didn't care. At that moment, he and Cole were the only two people in the world.
"I got your back, little guy," he whispered.
The baby opened his eyes and stared up.
Zac kissed the top of his warm, fuzzy head, already showing signs of their signature auburn hair. After that, he lost track of time. It could have been minutes. It could have been an hour. The only thing he was aware of was the weight of the wee baby in his arms and the soft cooing sounds that emanated from the tiny being who had stolen his heart.
Alone in his room, the afternoon light flickered and waned as the sun moved across the sky. Staring up at the ceiling, Zac watched the orange-red light dim to a cool dusk blue. His sadness subsided, replaced by a deep, hollow emptiness. A black void where things like happiness and hope once lived. With Cole gone, his entire family was no more. Erased. The only proof they ever existed was the memories buried inside him. The memories that were too painful to recall. He wondered if there would ever come a day when he could think about the time before and not feel as though a red-hot poker was being shoved straight through his heart.
The hours passed. A gentle knock on the door from Carla interrupted his thoughts. A couple of hours later, it was Jorje. Zac didn’t mind. He understood they wanted him to know they were there—in case he wanted to talk to someone. After a brief check-in, they left him alone to wallow in his misery.
It was nearly dawn when he finally rose and packed his belongings—he was leaving. One of the good things about being in foster care was the lack of personal belongings. Everything he owned fit in his pack with plenty of room left over.
There was no sense in waiting around for his birthday. The outcome would be the same either way. To their credit, months ago, the Almeidas told him he had a home with them as long as he wanted; regardless of his age. They let him know that he and his brother were welcome members of their family. With Cole gone, Zac couldn’t imagine staying. Everywhere he looked, he saw his little brother.
He carefully folded Cole's note and stuffed it in a side pocket of his pack. Now, what to do with you? He stared down at the bear. Cole would be heartbroken if he never saw Waffles again. He needed to get the bear to his brother unnoticed. How was he going to find him?
IHLPKDS. That was it! He would find the government woman and get Cole's new address. He slid open the window and leaned his leg outside, then scanned the room one last time—all set. As quiet as a shadow, he slid out the window.
The early dawn streets were empty—not a single person in sight. He was not in a hurry; both Carla and Jorje were asleep, as were all the occupants of the homes he strolled past. He was invisible—a ghost moving through the world of regular people. A world he hadn't felt a connection to for a long time. As the sky turned pale blue, birds chirped in their nests, hidden in the trees. He picked up his pace.
It was seven o'clock when he arrived at the front door of the library. His stomach growled, suddenly realizing he hadn't eaten a thing since yesterday morning. With two hours before the library opened, there was plenty of time to find some food. He pulled out his wallet and took stock of the money he had on hand—thirty-five dollars and some change. He cursed under his breath for not thinking ahead enough to pack some food before he left. Too hungry to worry about it, he shoved the wallet back into his pocket. Recalling the small, twenty-four-hour diner around the corner, he walked off in that direction.
A trio of strange teens sat on the curb across the street: one blond and two with dark brown hair. One of the dark-haired ones wore a pair of sunglasses—an odd choice for so early in the morning. Their disheveled clothes were not quite filthy, but not clean, either. As he passed along his side of the street, the teen wearing sunglasses studied him closely while the other two continued to banter back and forth. Zac nodded at him. No response. No wave or return nod. All he did was stare at Zac, smirking.
A little closer to the diner, a gray-haired, scruffy homeless man lay propped up beside the building's stone edifice, his black dog lay by his side. As Zac approached, the dog lifted its mangy head and wagged its tail.
The reek of sour alcohol, urine, and vomit wafted up like a noxious cloud, assaulting his senses. Zac recoiled and stepped aside, putting as much space between himself and duo as possible. The old man never looked up. The dog yawned and lay his head back down.
The old door to the diner slammed shut behind him with a loud thwack. Inside, the place was nearly empty. Fifties era rock and roll played quietly over the speaker. It was barely audible over the clanging and sizzling sounds emanating from the kitchen. The enticing scent of fried eggs and bacon permeated the air, making his mouth water. He took a seat in a tight corner booth at the far end.
The waitress, an older woman named Kim, kept calling Zac "honey" or "baby" as though she were his mother or an aunt. Not wanting to overspend, he kept his order straightforward and small, only to be met with a questioning, maternal stare.
"Is that all?" she asked. "One egg, one slice of bacon, and a piece of toast?"
He nodded. He wanted so much more, but he couldn't risk all his money on one meal.
Kim sighed, shook her head, and walked away.
Less than twenty minutes later, she returned with her arms full. One plate had three eggs with bacon, several slices of toast and hash browns. The other, a short stack of pancakes. This was not what he ordered. Nervous over the bill for so much food, he looked up at Kim and stammered, "There's a mistake. I-I didn't order this."
Kim shifted her body and smiled. "No, no, you did not. I did. A growing boy like you needs more food than that."
Still worried about the bill, he struggled to form the words to explain that he couldn't afford such a meal. Kim was one step ahead of him.
"It's on me," she winked and smiled. "At least I know. No matter what else the day brings, I made sure at least one person was properly fed. Go on, eat up. It's getting' cold." She turned and walked away.
True to her word, Kim did not charge him for any of his food. Before leaving the diner, he tried to give her a tip, but she refused to accept. He thanked her. She didn’t know how much he needed to meet someone like her at that moment in his life.
Back on the street, his steps were lighter than before. A feeling of hope had crept in. He could almost smile. Passing by the old man, the dog lifted his head again, wagging his tail. Zac was ready for him this time; he leaned over and pat the dog on his head. The animal responded with even more furious tail wags. The old man smiled. "She's a good old dog. Friendly—always friendly."
Zac pulled a napkin from his pocket. The meal really was too much food for him to eat alone, so when he had his fill, he tucked away a couple slices of bacon inside a napkin and put an egg between two pieces of toast. His intention was to pass the kindness along. He handed the food to the old man, who was full of gratitude.
Feeling buoyed by the two positive interactions, Zac headed back over to the library. As he passed the corner where he encountered the trio of teens, he noticed that only the one with sunglasses remained. The other two were nowhere in sight. Once again, Zac nodded. The teen nodded back.
As soon as the library lock clicked open, Zac pushed his way through the giant wooden doors. Without pause, he made his way over to the computers. He began his search, using the license plate to locate the home of the caseworker. A pang of guilt coursed through his body. His palms sweaty, heartbeat pulsating in his head like a drum. He scanned the area nervously, hoping that no one came close enough to see what he was doing. To his horror, the librarian came up behind him. Where did she come from? He didn't see her until she was right on top of him. To block her view of the computer screen, he leaned close. This only made him look suspicious, which caused the woman to move even closer.
Tsssss… crrrack… pop.
The distinct sound of someone opening a can of coke erupted behind the woman. She spun around on her heels, turning her attention to the sunglass teen who was standing in the middle of two bookshelves. He raised the can to his lips and took a large swallow, then let rip the loudest burp Zac had ever heard. The entire library stood still. All eyes were on the young man chugging soda. The sound of his gulps resounded throughout the building.
"Sir! You cannot drink that in here!" scolded the librarian as she rushed toward him.
Wearing a mischievous grin, the dark-haired teen allowed himself to be taken by the arm and guided out of the building. On his way past Zac, he gave a slight nod.
Taking advantage of the diversion, Zac found the address he was looking for and wrote the information down on a piece of paper. By the time the woman turned her attention back to him, his task was complete. He gathered his pack and left.
Outside, the teen was leaning against the corner of the building. He flashed a smile and waved two fingers in the air.
"Something tells me you did all of that on purpose," said Zac. "Thanks." He reached out his hand. "I'm Zac."
They shook hands.
"I appreciate the distraction."
Finn waved dismissively. "No worries. We wouldn't want her to interrupt your porn gazing."
"What? No!" Zac shook his head. "That's not what I was doing."
"No, seriously." Zac scrambled to come up with a lie about what he was doing. His mind was blank.
"Hey, don't worry about it, I ain't judgin'," replied Finn.
"There's nothing to judge!"
"Aight, whatever you say, man. I don't care either way."
The other two teens rounded the corner, stopping abruptly alongside Finn.
"Don't care either way about what?" asked the blond-haired one.
"I don't care that he was watching porn on the library computer," replied Finn.
"Stop it!" shouted Zac. "Oh my god, I was not looking at porn! Are you always this thick?"
"Mais la!" responded the blond. "Finn's got a real thick head." He tapped his head for punctuation. "Which is good cause he's always bangin' it up against something." He chuckled.
"This is true," agreed Finn, nodding.
Zac stood there, dumbfounded. Did he want to walk away? Did he want to stick around? He couldn't decide.
The blond one reached out a hand. “I'm Teague.”
"This is Zac," replied Finn.
"Well, Zac," said Teague, "This is Cash. Unfortunately for you, you met Finn first."
"We're gonna go find somethin' to eat," said Teague. "Wanna come along?"
Zac wasn't hungry after his big breakfast earlier. It was still very early in the day, and he had several hours to burn before he could get close to the house without being seen. So, he decided he would spend some time with this new trio; to say he was curious would have been an understatement.
The afternoon sun peeped through the trees, casting tiny points of yellow light on the soft green grass. The air was warm, with a slight hint of honeysuckle. Zac couldn't recall the last time he was this comfortable around a group of people. They teased one another relentlessly and laughed wholeheartedly. Their presence made him feel better than he had in a long time.
"So, you hop freight trains to get around?" he asked.
"Anywhere we want," replied Cash. "Well, most places. Sometimes we have to hike a part of the way or catch a ride."
"What do you do in the winter?"
"Head south." Cash smiled. "Try to stay in the warmer climates where we can camp or find odd jobs to put us up for a couple weeks."
"You're welcome to come along," offered Teague. "I mean, it looks like you're on your own with not much else to do—"
Zac had to admit, the thought of taking off was intriguing. He really had nothing else to look forward to. Hell, he was already homeless. "Alright, I think I will," he responded. "But first, I have something I gotta do."
"Yeah?" asked Finn. "What's that?"
The mere thought of Cole caused a wave of sadness to wash over Zac. He inhaled. "I gotta bring my little brother's favorite bear to his new home. He'll be lost without it."
Silence. Long, uncomfortable silence.
"Where's this house at?" asked Teague.
"That's what I was doin' in the library. I got the license plate from the caseworker and looked her up on the state database." Zac glared at Finn. "I figure I can go to her home and maybe find the binder she had with our files in it. Maybe somewhere in there is the address where Cole's at."
Finn nodded. "Count us in." He sat up straight and popped the last bite of sandwich into his mouth. "Aight," he said. "Tell us where we're goin'."
Crouching low in the darkness among the bushes made everything all too real for Zac. What the hell am I doing? Across the street stood a neat, cozy white house. Inside, the caseworker paced back and forth. Cash and Finn snuck up for a closer look and returned to report she was getting ready to leave. That was good news. As they waited impatiently, Zac's mind reeled with thoughts about everything that could go wrong. Never did he imagine himself doing something like this. Adrenaline coursed through his body, his stomach in knots. The others seemed more at ease, a small benefit to having them along.
"How're we getting in?" asked Teague.
"There's a hidden key just off the back porch," replied Finn.
"Where?" asked Cash. "I didn't see a hidden key."
"That's cause it’s hidden, dumbass," replied Finn. "It’s under a rock. One of the big things in the prepper catalogs a few years back was these fake rocks. They’re used for hiding extra keys. To the naked eye, they look like the real thing. There's a hidden compartment on the bottom for a spare key, cash, or whatever. She has one of those in the bed by a rosebush."
"And what if it's just a rock?" asked Cash.
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because we had those same rocks. My old man had a bunch of them all over the yard. Some held money—others, spare keys to the cars, storage shed, sturdy boxes—"
A silver jeep pulled up in front of the house. A blonde-haired woman hopped out and ran up to the door. Shortly after, both women came out, laughing and chattering away as they climbed into the vehicle. A moment later, they drove away.
A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Zac's face. His hands were shaking. Christ! What did I get into? He wiped his palms on his thighs. Looking up, he realized the others were staring at him.
Teague placed a hand on his shoulder. "You okay?"
"Just hang back and follow our lead," said Teague. "We'll get us in there, then you can find that binder. It'll all be over quick."
They covered their faces with gaiters and bandanas, then crept out from the bushes and around to the back of the house. The black SUV sat idle in the driveway. IHLPKDS—there were no words to describe how much Zac hated that license plate. They skirted around the vehicle. By the rose bush, Finn picked up a rock the size of an orange. To Zac, it really looked like the real thing. He would have never guessed it was manmade.
Finn opened the little compartment on the underside. Sure enough, there was a key. “Haha. What did I say, motherfucker?” he taunted. He crept up to the back door. “Fingers crossed.” A moment later, they were walking into the kitchen.
The house wreaked of stale air and artificial room freshener. Zac could almost hear his Meemaw say, "Open a damn window and get some fresh air in here."
A barely audible beeping sound called out from somewhere. Zac strained to listen, only to realize the others were doing the same thing.
"You hear that?" asked Cash. He crept slowly—head tilted toward the sound, pausing in front of a door. He swung it open and peered inside. There on the back wall, a small keypad with flashing red lights called out one beep at a time. Cash turned back to the others. "We might have to do this a lot faster than we thought."
"Merde!" exclaimed Teague. "Alright, let's get this done. We probably got about fifteen minutes before cops arrive. Which means we need to be out of here in ten."
Zac's apprehension gave way to determination. He made his way through the living room, into a small office, where a table lamp cast a yellow glow across the top of an ornate wooden desk. A calendar, pencil holder, and an idle laptop sat neatly on the shiny surface. As he approached, he spied precisely what he came for—the black briefcase sitting on the brown office chair. A sense of joy spread through his body when he found the binder. He placed it down on the desk and flipped through the contents.
Finn's hand slid into his periphery as it swiped a sheet of paper. Until that moment, Zac had forgotten all about the others. He looked up to find them all standing around the opposite side of the desk. He set his focus back on the binder.
"Our boy here's got a temper," said Finn.
Zac didn't need to look up. He could hear the smirk in his voice. "Anything there about Cole?"
Finn shook his head. "Nah, this is all just about you and your anger management issues."
Zac reached for the paper, and Finn jerked it back only to have Teague yank it from Finn's hand. He shook his head and placed the sheet back on the desk.
"Let's not waste the little time we got," admonished Teague.
Zac flipped through the papers, scanning them as quickly as possible. He was about to give up when he came across a slip of paper with a photograph attached. It was the family who was adopting Cole. He lifted the photo and scanned the form. The address was there.
"Is that it?" asked Teague.
"Yeah, it is."
“Good,” replied Teague. “Take a picture. Then put it all back exactly how you found it. We don't want to leave any sign that we were looking for that info.”
Zac nodded. Good idea. He took extra care to put everything back. One last look around the office confirmed everything was in its place.
Outside, Finn placed the rock back under the rosebush, then picked up another large rock and threw it at a kitchen window. The sound of shattering glass filled the night.
"What did you do that for?" demanded Zac.
Finn turned to face him. "They already know someone tried to break in. I'm just givin' them a reason that ain’t gonna lead them back to you. The cops will think someone tried to break in through the window, heard the alarm, and took off. Just a garden variety break-in."
As they passed the SUV, Finn stopped and pulled out his bowie knife. He turned the blade around and held it out to Zac. "You wanna do the honors?"
"What? You mean cut her tires?" Zac shook his head, "No, I don't. That's not who I am."
Finn flipped the knife, so the handle rested in his hand. "Well, it might not be who you are, but it is exactly who I am." He stabbed the blade deep into the rubber tire. Air hissed as he pulled the knife free.
On the other side of the vehicle, another hiss erupted. Teague stood holding his own knife. "Needing to replace four tires ain't that much of a price to pay for being an asshole, but at least it's something." He said as he punctured the other tire.
The vehicle sank.
Blocks away, the sound of sirens rang out. They took off through the neighborhood, not stopping until they were far away.
Across town, they pooled their money and got a motel room for the night. The air reeked of old cigarette smoke and mold, but the sheets were clean—at least they appeared to be.
Zac stood under the shower, letting the warm water envelop him from head to toe. He breathed in, letting the warm, steamy air fill his lungs. His mind reeled, trying to make sense of the last twenty-four hours. A week ago, he would have laughed if someone told him he would do any of the things he just did. What he found most surprising was the fact that he felt no guilt at all. In fact, he wished he would have taken the knife and stabbed a tire or two.
When he finally emerged from the bathroom, the room smelled of onions and ketchup. A cloud of steam billowed at his heels as he walked over to the worn-out table and reached for one of the greasy bags.
"I told you he'd come out when he smelled food," said Teague.
The smell was overpowering—Zac's mouth watered. He could hardly wait to dig in. As he raised the burger to his mouth, he shot a glance across the room at Finn and froze.
Sitting on the bed alongside Teague, Finn dunked a handful of greasy fries, covered in bright red ketchup, into what appeared to be a strawberry shake. Unceremoniously, he stuffed the entire dripping mess into his mouth. Cheeks puffing out like a hamster, pink ice cream, and red ketchup oozing out of the corners, he struggled to chew and then swallow. A moment later, barely stopping for a breath, Finn repeated the same action.
Unable to look away, Zac stared, his appetite temporarily suspended.
Cash's voice broke through his paralysis. "You won't ever get used to that." He flashed a crooked smirk. "It's best if you ignore it. Just don't look."
Over on the bed, Finn swallowed, then wiped his mouth with a napkin. "What?" he asked. "Y'all shouldn't be so worried about what I'm doing and worry about your own food."
No sunglasses. Zac realized he could see Finn's eyes for the first time since meeting him—he also realized why Finn hid them behind the dark lenses. His eyes were shocking—one blue, the other amber brown. Zac stared. He didn't want to; he just couldn't help himself. Finn fidgeted self-consciously. It was Teague who finally broke the uncomfortable silence by playfully shoving Finn's head.
His concentration broken, Zac set his focus on the warm, delicious smelling food in his hand and dug in.
2486 Amistad Circle. That was where the family who was adopting Cole lived—where Cole now lived.
Zac stood in the shadow of a copse of flowering trees and shrubs. Studying the house, his heart racing, his hands fidgeted anxiously with Waffles as he planned his next move. His mind blank. Truthfully, he didn't think he would get this far. He fully expected to be arrested while trying to break into the caseworker's home. Okay, Zac, you've come this far—now what? The mid-afternoon-sun sat high in the pale blue sky, not a single cloud in sight. A warm breeze rustled through the leaves, carrying with it the sweet scent of fresh flowers. He inhaled.
The house was impressive—gray brick with ornate mahogany trim. A large 3-car garage sat a little further down the driveway. A brand-new basketball hoop glistened in the sun above the center garage bay. In front, a perfect row of azaleas sat on either side of the narrow walkway that led to the giant front door. The house was more impressive than any Zac had ever seen.
"Nobody's home," said Finn. Fresh from a short recon around the property, he leaned close to the others to report back. "There's a dog door in the back of the house." He held his hands out to show the size. "It's big enough for a lab to get through, so you'll fit easily."
"What about the dog?" asked Teague.
Finn shook his head. "He's a big dopey, yellow lab. When he saw me, he came up waggin' his tail. He ain't gonna be a problem."
Teague nodded, then turned to Zac. "Cash’ll stay out here and watch the street. Finn and I will keep the dog distracted while you go in and do your thing."
One more glance around the neighborhood, then the trio crept along the driveway and slipped quietly through the gate into the backyard. A giant yellow labrador loped toward them across the lush green lawn. Tail wagging so hard, his backside could barely keep up with his front.
"Come on, boy," called Finn. To entice the dog, he picked up a filthy tennis ball and tossed it in the air. It worked. The big dog set his focus on Finn and the ball, allowing Zac to skirt past and wriggle his way through the dog door.
The house was silent. The soft scent of lavender saturated the air.
Slowly, he made his way through the cavernous family room. Two sectionals sat facing a giant television hovering atop an impressive carved wood mantle and stone fireplace. Everything about this house was Texas-sized.
He peered down a high-ceilinged hallway. Sunlight poured in through the windows, casting a golden glow on ornate vessels filled with real flowers. At the end stood a large bedroom. From what he could glean, it was the master—nothing he needed there.
He took the stairs two at a time, halting at the top. The loft was a kid's paradise, complete with a pool table, comfy sofa, and another large television. He imagined Cole laughing and playing in this space. A sense of melancholy spread through his bones.
Keep your head in the game, man. Let's get this done. His left hand squeezed the little bear tight. Three bedrooms were visible from the loft. One door blank, another adorned with a colorful wooden name plaque "Tyler," it read. The last door had a similar plaque; only this one read "Cole."
Zac took a deep breath and entered.
The room was large. Much larger than any room they shared—even in the old farmhouse. Dark blue, Cole’s favorite, was the predominant color. Toys littered the floor. Zac walked over to the bed, sat down, and stared at the single photograph atop the nightstand.
The faces of two smiling brothers stared up at him, their curly, deep auburn hair shining in the afternoon light. Running his finger over the surface, Zac recalled that day in vivid detail. It was his birthday, and they had just finished tossing the football around. He closed his eyes. Letting his mind wander, he could almost smell the savory scent of the smoker. His dad was great at bar-b-q. His mom's laughter echoed in his memory as she teased her two sons and snapped the picture. The world was full of promise. Their parents and grandma were still alive, and they lived in the old farmhouse in the country with the cows, cats, and the old rickety barn. A sharp pain stabbed at his heart. That time was long gone. Best to move forward. Let it go. He pinched his eyes to push back tears, then placed the picture back on the table. After a moment's pause, he gently placed Waffles against the pillows. From his back pocket, he pulled out a handwritten note.
I realize you're probably too young to understand any of this, but I need you to know that I love you, and I will always have your back, little man. I have to leave for now. It’s not what I wanted to do but, it is what it is.
Be good. We'll see each other again some-day. I promise. Until then, take care of Waffles.
With all my heart, I love you,
P.S. It's best you don't tell anyone about this. Keep it between us.
Zac folded the note and placed it down atop the bear.
He gave out a final deep sigh, and left the room. In the backyard he found Finn and Teague sitting under a magnolia tree. The giant lab lay on the grass between them, belly up, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth as they rubbed his belly. As soon as they saw him, they got to their feet.
"All set?" asked Teague as he wiped his hands off on his thighs.
Unable to say any words, Zac nodded.
Teague clasped a hand on Zac's shoulder and gave him a sympathetic smile. "You did good, big brother."
Zac's chin quivered. Tears welled up in his eyes. He struggled to hold them back.
"Aight, time to go," said Finn, shoving Zac toward the gate. "Enough of this heavy shit. We got a train to catch."