Hand Me Down

by Evan Carlton

Chapter 3

I stared at Charlie, feeling myself go cold as I digested the information. I couldn't believe what he had just told me. My only living relative wasn't able to look after me. I was going to end up in the Child, Youth and Family system after all. I looked at Steven and he reached out a hand and laid it on my forearm. I put my hand on top of his and closed my eyes, suddenly feeling dizzy.

"What happens next?" I said finally.

"Well we need to look at getting you into the CYF system, of course. We don't need to do anything until after your Mum's funeral, so don't get too worried. If Evan and Steven are still okay with you being here…?" He waited for them to signal their agreement before he continued. "...then we can make some inquiries and see what we can get organised."

I looked at Evan, trying to see what he was thinking. I thought of the story Steven had told me last night, and I was just about to ask if he would consider fostering me when he spoke. He had obviously understood the look in my eyes.

"I'm sorry, Ben. You're still only fourteen, and I can't foster you. I don't have a caregiver license, and I'm single. But you can stay here as long as you need to. I'm sure CYF will find a good foster home for you, and you're always welcome to come and visit us here."

Michael looked at Charlie and I could tell he was nervous about what he had to say.

"Ben, could I ask you something?" Michael said. I nodded cautiously. "Steven told me that you were pretty sure you're gay. Is that how you would describe it?" I felt myself starting to blush as I looked around the table. I had never discussed this with anyone except Steven before, and now three adults were all staring at me intently. Evan looked at Steven, his eyebrows raised.

"Umm, yes. I think so," I said at last. "I've never had a boyfriend, and I don't feel like I'm ready right now, but I know that I want a boyfriend one day. I'm just not interested in girls." Michael and Charlie looked at each other, then back at me.

"When Michael and I married, we agreed that we'd like to start a family," Charlie said. "Michael's almost ten years older than me, so we wanted to start one straight away, but the laws here in New Zealand make it quite difficult for gay couples to start families. By the time we get it sorted out, it may be too late. Michael doesn't want to be a new father at fifty. So we decided to become foster parents in the meantime. We only got our license three months ago. We trained especially so that we could foster gay kids or kids who were having trouble getting settled in other foster homes. Problem kids, I suppose you could say. Of course, the real problem is the system, not the kids themselves. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part gay kids don't get the support they need in straight families, especially if they have other behavioural problems."

I stared at them both as what Charlie was saying became clear to me. "You could foster me?" I said, scarcely able to say the words in case I jinxed it. Evan and Steven looked just as surprised as I was. I stood up and walked around a bit, trying not to cry. I failed. In the end I had to sit down again and bury my head in my hands to hide my tears from them. I felt Charlie's hand on my back, and then he spoke quietly.

"It's not a done deal, Ben. We have to convince the judge and CYF tomorrow. They're going to be asking you a lot of personal questions, and how you answer is going to make the difference. A lot of judges are very sceptical about letting gay men foster kids at all, even if the kids are gay. He's going to make it sound like we want something from you, when all we want to do is give you a home. We know you're a good kid." I jolted up when he said that and stared at him. 'Please don't say that' I thought to myself. 'Anything but that'. He looked at me worriedly.

"Is everything okay Ben? Do you want to think it over first" he asked.

"No, of course not," I said quickly. I'd love to be your foster kid. I'm just a bit nervous about tomorrow, that's all." Charlie smiled at me reassuringly. I tried to imagine living in a house with him and Michael, coming home from school and seeing their faces every day. I decided it was definitely something I wanted. A lot.

The rest of the afternoon went by in a blur, the adults planning and talking while Steven and the dogs did their best to distract me in the pool. I could hardly eat my dinner, my nerves getting more frazzled with every passing hour. I tossed and turned most of the night and only fell asleep once my exhaustion was enough to cancel out the sense of apprehension that gnawed at my guts.

The next day I put on my best polo shirt and a pair of chinos and tried to eat some breakfast. In the end I managed to get half a piece of toast down before Steven headed off to Taradale, his trail bike roaring off into the distance as Charlie and Michael pulled up in front of Evan's house. They looked as nervous as me. I wondered if the judge would just tell us all to go home and come back when we had pulled ourselves together.

Evan drove us to the CYF offices in the Range Rover. I sat in the back with Charlie, and the best part of the trip was when he put his hand on top of mine and smiled at me. I smiled back, but mostly I just wanted to throw up, so it was quite a victory for all of us when we finally arrived at the CYF without any vomiting.

The room where the hearing was to take place was a huge surprise. Instead of the courtroom I'd been expecting, it looked like someone's living room. There was a couch and two armchairs. Evan waited outside while we took our seats, Charlie and I on the couch, Michael in an armchair. As soon as we sat down we had to jump up again when a stern-looking man walked in through a side door, followed by a plain-looking woman about Michael's age. He introduced himself as Judge Anderson, and we all took our seats. The woman said she was Mrs. Grant, from CYF, and that she had been assigned to my case. I didn't think she looked very friendly.

The judge spoke first, saying how sorry he was for my loss and explaining that the decision he would be making today was based entirely on my welfare, and that the most important thing about this case was that the authorities find the right home for me. Finally he turned to Charlie and Michael.

"Sergeant Charles Drake," he said. "I see from your file that you are a respected member of the Napier Police Force, and that your record is unblemished. Professor Michael Drummond, your work at the National Aquarium is recognised at the highest academic levels. On the face of it, I can see no reason why I should not bring this hearing to an immediate end and grant your application to foster Benjamin Collins on the spot." My stomach did a little somersault when he said that, but I could tell that he wasn't finished yet. "However I must take into consideration that you are inexperienced foster parents, never having applied to foster a child. And I must, however distasteful it may be to you, question the motives of two homosexual men, regardless of their obviously impeccable reputations, in fostering a fourteen year old boy. Gentlemen?"

"Your honour," Michael began carefully. "I'd like to remind you that we have training in dealing with children with behavioural issues and also children who identify as homosexual." My heart lurched as the judge raised his eyebrows. "Benjamin suffered a significant trauma recently and we feel we're more than capable of providing the care he needs to work through that and lead a normal life in the future. We also feel that Benjamin would benefit both from our knowledge and our own experiences as gay teenagers."

Charlie jumped in "We're also able to provide a loving and stable home where Benjamin would have every opportunity to thrive both as a teenager and as a young gay man. I believe a trust bond has already been established and I'm absolutely certain we can build on that."

"I must confess, gentlemen," Judge Anderson said, glancing at Mrs. Grant "that I am very concerned about the assumptions you are making about Benjamin's sexuality. He will not be fifteen for another five months, and I scarcely think that his sexual identity is fixed at this time. We are running the risk of taking a child who is merely questioning or uncertain, and placing him in a home where he will be influenced, out of a misplaced sense of familial duty, into following a path he may otherwise have rejected."

It took me some time to work out what the judge was saying but in the end I realised he was trying to make it sound like I wasn't really gay, but that, by living with Charlie and Michael, I might become gay. I could tell that Charlie was about to explode, so I spoke out myself.

"Sir, Mrs. Grant, can I say something?" The judge nodded and I took a deep breath and went on. "I knew I was gay when I was eleven. I've never even thought about girls that way. I've never felt bad about it, even when some boys at school started bullying me just because they thought I looked gay, whatever that means." The judge smiled at that and I relaxed a bit. "I don't want to be fostered by a family that makes me feel bad or guilty about what I am. I want to be able to talk to my foster dads about it, to ask their advice, to get their help in making the right decisions in life. I want to grow up knowing I can always turn to them and to be sure they will understand me. As for the other thing you said." I took a deep breath. "Charlie and Michael have been so kind to me in the last few days. Before I met them, I didn't feel safe. I'm sure it's in my file that my mum was a drug addict. But it probably doesn't say that she was also a prostitute." Charlie turned to me in surprise, but I ignored him. My heart started to race. "She always made sure that the rent was paid and we had enough food, but usually she didn't have enough money left over to buy drugs. Mostly, she made sure I didn't see what was going on, but I knew. I always knew. Most days, I felt like the end of the world was waiting for me just around the corner. It was like walking a tightrope, over and over again." I took a deep breath. "Things got really bad last month. I was in the house when two men showed up. When they saw me they made me…join in." I couldn't look at their faces any more, knowing what I would see there. I heard, rather than saw, Michael raising his hand to his mouth, breathing hard. "After all that, I still feel perfectly safe with Charlie and Michael. If you can find a straight couple who can do that for me, then go ahead and place me with them. But I know you won't be able to, and I think you know that too."

The room was absolutely silent when I stopped talking. The judge stood up slowly and told us that he was going to take a few minutes to reach a decision. He and Mrs. Grant left through the side door and I turned to Charlie. "I'm sorry," I whispered. "I should have told you before. I didn't know how."

"Jesus, Ben," he said, trying to pull his face into a smile and almost managing it. "You do have a flair for the dramatic." He reached out for me and I hugged him back. I felt Michael's hand on my shoulder and for a few seconds we were a family.

"How could anyone do that to you?" Michael murmured.

"Because I let them," I said into Charlie's shoulder. "I had to protect her. Nobody else was going to. They would have hurt her, or worse." 'And in the end, who hurt her the most?' I thought as I clung on to Charlie.

The judge came back into the room alone ten minutes later. I didn't really understand much of what he was saying until he got to the words "...application to foster Benjamin James Collins, born 15th of March 2002, is herewith approved." My head snapped up and I looked at Charlie and Michael, scarcely able to believe it. They were staring at each other like they had lost the ability to hear. The judge signed a piece of paper and closed the file on the table in front of him.

"One more thing, Sergeant. And you, Professor. You will do right by this young man, otherwise I will personally hunt you down and skin you both alive. Do I make myself clear?" Charlie and Michael nodded furiously.

"Benjamin," the judge continued, "nothing can make up for what has gone before. However you now have a chance to put some of the terrible things that have happened to you behind you and to begin to build a new life. Please don't let the past prevent you from having a bright and wonderful future."

"Yes sir," I said quietly. "I won't sir."

And then we were outside and Evan was hugging all of us and I was laughing and then I was crying. Then somehow we were back at Evan's house and I when Steven ran in waving his helmet and cheering, I hugged him and we were both laughing and nobody was crying. We agreed I would sleep out at Haumoana for two more nights as Charlie and Michael needed to 'get the house ready', whatever that meant. Mum's funeral would be on Thursday and after that I would go straight to my new home.

The following morning, after Steven had left for school, I asked Evan if he would drive me to Mum's house so I could pick up the last of my things. We stood together in front of her bedroom door and I felt Evan's hand on my shoulder.

"Don't go in there if you don't want to," he said quietly. "You'll have happier memories than those. I promise you that."

I smiled and walked straight past her room to mine. I bundled up the rest of my clothes, my books, the few things I'd bought for myself and we got out of the house as quickly as possible. I didn't look back.

Charlie and Michael came out to Haumoana that evening and we talked about Mum's funeral. I was worried how I was supposed to pay for it as I only had fifteen dollars in my savings account. I asked if my new foster dads would lend me some money until I could pay them back and they very solemnly agreed to 'put it on my tab'. I think they were making fun of me, but I wasn't sure. We agreed that it would just be the three of us and Evan, since my grandmother couldn't come and I didn't know anyone else who would want to be there. Steven would be in school so he couldn't make it, but he promised to go with me to the cemetery whenever I wanted to see her grave.

We had a very awkward conversation about what I was supposed to call Charlie and Michael. In the end we just agreed to leave it the way it was until we could think of something better. I was sad when they left without me, but I knew this would be my last night at Steven's house. I was glad I would get a chance to say goodbye properly. We spent the evening playing PS4 and talking about anything but the funeral the next day. Even the dogs sensed that something was wrong and were kind of sad for me all evening. Steven and I curled up in his bed and chatted for a long time before I started to feel drowsy. He steered me to my own bed and I couldn't stop myself hugging him before I got under my own duvet and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

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