Hand Me Down
by Evan Carlton
The next evening I was on my way to bed when I heard Michael's voice coming from their bedroom. It was so rare to hear him sounding angry or upset that I stopped dead in my tracks. The door was only open half an inch, and I could only hear Michael's side of the conversation. Charlie's voice was just a low murmur in the background. I couldn't catch everything Michael was saying, but what I heard made my heart race.
"I know we agreed not to say anything to him before Christmas… I don't want to ruin it either…he has a right to know… Charlie, it's not fair to him to keep him in the dark like this. The sooner we get it over with, the sooner we can get started. We have so much to take care of before term one starts in January." My heart started pounding. Suddenly I knew what was going on. I felt an ache start to spread through my chest, and I was dizzy. I walked quickly to my room and slammed the door. I stared at my clothes in the wardrobe, my computer, my books. I wondered how long it would take me to pack everything up, how many boxes I would need. I tried to get angry but instead I just started to cry. I sat down on the bed and wondered how I could have forgotten what Charlie had said. They had never lied to me; they'd made it perfectly clear that first day at Evan's, the day after Mum died…
There was a quiet knock on the door. I wiped my eyes on my T-shirt and told them to come in.
"What's the matter, Ben?" Charlie said, a worried look on his face.
"I wasn't eavesdropping, I swear," I said quickly. "I was just on my way to bed and your door was open a bit. I could hear what you were talking about." They looked at each other in confusion, then back at me. "It's okay. I understand. You want to start your own family. I think it's really great."
I'd been trying not to cry, but I couldn't stop myself anymore. I put my head in my hands and began to sob.
I felt Michael's hand on my shoulders and heard him saying my name over and over.
"Ben, please stop crying. We have no idea what you're talking about. Please talk to us." Between sobs I repeated what I had heard and Charlie suddenly burst out laughing.
"So you thought we were going to bump you off to Firewall so we can raise our own beautiful babies? Oh Ben, you are such a wonderful, amazing boy. But you can be a bloody idiot sometimes." I looked at them both, confused. Michael smiled at me and took hold of my hand. Charlie sat down and took hold of the other. I sniffled and Charlie produced a tissue and wiped my nose solemnly.
"The day I met you was the day after your mum died. Do you remember?" I nodded. "I came home to Michael and I told him about you."
Michael picked up the story. "I was surprised because Charlie never speaks about his work. The minute the uniform comes off he stops being Sergeant Drake and becomes my husband again. It's been one of the things that have kept us sane and happy for twelve years now. But with you it was different. He was really upset about what was happening to you. He couldn't believe that CYF didn't have any way of dealing with a traumatised gay kid other than to stick you in a detention centre, without any counselling or special care."
Charlie took over again. "I kept saying to Michael that if it didn't work out for you with your grandmother in Palmerston North, we had to do something. That's when we first had the idea of fostering you. Sure enough, the next day I got the call from Social Services that your grandmother was in a home. We were scared because we had no real experience as caregivers, but I managed to convince Michael to at least come out to Haumoana to speak to you. I was pretty sure he would feel the same as I did."
"And I did, of course. I told myself that I would go home with Charlie and we would talk it over again. But when I met you, I just knew it was the right thing to do, for you and also for us. Charlie and I have had easy lives. Our parents and friends have always been supportive. We've made successful careers for ourselves. We've prospered, we've thrived and we've made each other happy. But none of it was as important as helping someone who couldn't help himself. When we met you, we knew we could do something that had real meaning. So we asked you there and then, and when you said 'yes' I don't think I've ever been happier or more petrified in my whole life."
"I couldn't believe it when Michael told me to ask you. I'd been hoping he would, but I had to know he was a hundred percent okay with it. When we got home, we just sat downstairs, our heads spinning. But we knew we were doing the right thing. There was never a moment of doubt about that."
"We prepared ourselves for the worst," Michael said. "Temper tantrums, bed-wetting, violence, self-harming. We'd trained for months so that we would be able to look after you. We were like Olympic athletes, waiting for the starting pistol. We waited and waited. And nothing happened. You just…adapted. Once the nightmares stopped, you seemed almost happy."
"I felt safe," I said. "The last year with mum was like being off-balance the whole time. Every day, I thought I would fall. I taught myself to iron my school shirts, clean the house and get the shopping, cook for us. It was my survival instinct more than anything else. Every time mum's cheque came, I took what I needed for the house first, and then gave her what was left. I knew it was all the wrong way round, that she should be looking after me, but I just knew that I had to deal with it. So I kept going. But I was angry at her for not being a good mum. That first month with you guys, I learned to feel safe again. I also had to learn how to be looked after again."
Charlie laughed out loud. "The first time I went to check your room to make sure it was clean enough for you to have earned your pocket money, it was like looking at a military barracks. Your bed was made perfectly, everything was put away and your shoes were all lined up neatly against the wall. I made Michael come in and take a picture." I looked at them sheepishly.
"I told Charlie we had to make a different rule for you. You couldn't have your pocket money unless you messed your room up first. We had to hide the vacuum cleaner to stop you cleaning the house all day."
I looked at them indignantly. "I wondered why it was in a different cupboard every time I looked for it!"
"Then the accident happened," Michael said, his voice subdued. "Those first three days were awful. We sat there, watching those bloody machines, listening to them beeping, waiting for you to wake up. I knew you were only sleeping, but it felt like you were just gone. I couldn't stand coming back to the house. It was so empty without you. When you woke up properly I was so relieved. I think we should have asked you then, but the thing with Connor started, and we wanted you to get used to being in your first relationship before we asked you. Then we decided to wait until after Christmas in case you said no." His voice trailed off and he looked at Charlie helplessly.
"Asked me what? What do you mean?" I asked.
Charlie reached over and patted Michael's hand. "You were so important to us already, but when you got hurt, we both experienced that fear that goes with being a parent. The fear that you won't be able to protect your child. That, no matter what you do, somehow they'll be taken away from you. And that's when we knew we never wanted to lose you. That we needed you as much as you needed us. So we want to ask you if you'll become our son. If you'll allow us to adopt you. "
"Please say yes," Michael said quietly as I tried to get my head around what they were saying.
They wanted me to be their son. Their real son, not just someone passing through their lives. Their son forever. I would watch them grow old together, grow old with them. I stared at them both in wonder.
"Yes," I said. "Of course I'll be your son."
The next morning, the atmosphere was weird when I came downstairs. It was like coming to the house for the first time again. I kissed them both on the cheek and helped myself to a bowl of muesli.
"I think I'd like to try becoming vegan, if that's all right with you."
Charlie put down his newspaper and looked at Michael. "The adoption's off," he said simply. And with that, we were back to normal again. Just me and my two dads.
-wow that's amazing, Connor signed and gave me a big hug.
-I know I can hardly believe it. I'm so happy
-so what will your name be?
-oh crap I never thought of that. Drake-Drummond or Drummond-Drake, I suppose. They both sound weird. I don't like either. But if I choose one name over the other, someone's going to get hurt. I'll talk to them about it
-so what are we supposed to wear to the dance on Friday?
-smart casual. A jacket but no tie
-thank God. I hate ties
-I know. I just realised I don't have a jacket
-do we have to dance?
-do you want to?
-I can feel the bass so I could probably manage it, but if you don't want to, I'll be fine with that
-let's see what happens. We can wing it.
Charlie and Michael took me into town to get a jacket for the dance. In the car, I raised the subject of my name.
"You don't have to change your name if you don't want to, Ben," Michael said with a smile.
"No I want to, but I don't want it to be both your names. And I love you both the same, so it's hard for me."
"You're right. Drake-Drummond is a bit of a mouthful. I think it should be Drake," Michael said firmly. "Charlie was the one who met you first, and I don't need you to have my name to know you're my son."
"Can I think about it some more?"
"Of course. The adoption hearing isn't until the end of January, and we have to put in a separate application to change your name legally, so you've got plenty of time."
I felt an idea starting to form. I smiled to myself.
Charlie drove us to the dance in his police car, which was pretty mortifying. Heads were already turning when we pulled up outside the hall, and I swear I heard some necks snap when I stepped out with Connor. I tried to ignore the looks as Charlie walked us to the door of the hall. Music was already blaring from inside. Mrs. Taylor greeted Charlie warmly. He was in full uniform except for his gun.
"And who's this young man?" she said, looking at Connor. "He's not a Taradale boy is he?"
"This is Connor Thompson. He goes to Tamatea," I answered. "He's my date this evening." I saw her eyebrows shoot up, but she recovered quickly.
"Well it's a bit unusual, but have a good evening anyway, Mr. Collins. And you, Mr. Thompson." Connor put on his most charming smile and then we were inside. We stopped at the top of a small flight of stairs leading down to the dance floor. There were around three hundred boys there, dancing with about three hundred girls. It felt like at least half of them turned to stare at us. Connor grinned back at them and waved cheekily. I felt his hand slip into mine and we walked slowly down the stairs. Gradually the stares stopped and people went back to dancing. I breathed out for the first time in about ten minutes. Lachlan Hammond came over to greet us, followed by Steven and Kelvin Ngata. They both hugged me and Connor, which earned us a few more inquisitive stares. I'd already told Steven about the adoption over the phone, and he must have told kelvin because they both congratulated me. Kevin and Denny waved for me to come over and I grabbed Connor's hand and pulled him across the dance floor to where they were sitting.
"Hi Ben," Denny said. "You really stopped the show."
"Not our intention," I said, signing for Connor at the same time. "We just wanted to walk in and not be noticed."
"You're the first gay couple ever to attend a Taradale end-of-year party. What did you expect?"
"We're not, believe me. We're just the first to do it holding hands." Kevin laughed so hard his Coke came spraying out of his nose.
"Well people seem to be taking it well enough. Look"
I looked around at the faces of my schoolmates and their friends. Most were curious. Some were genuinely enthusiastic. I didn't see a single hostile look. I began to relax.
Ian Carter came over and introduced us to a really pretty girl called Suzanne.
"I didn't realise you had a girlfriend," I yelled into his ear as the music got louder.
"We've only been going out for three weeks. She goes to St.Hilda's with Sam."
"I always wondered if you and Kelvin…" I left it hanging in the air. Ian grinned at me.
"You don't have to be gay to love a guy, Ben. Times are changing."
"They certainly are, Ian," I grinned back at him. I told him about the adoption and he went crazy, hugging me so hard I could feel my ribs getting ready to crack.
The evening went about as well as we could have hoped for. A steady stream of people came over to talk to me, and Connor was charming to everyone, especially the girls. The music got louder and louder until my chest started to throb. I put my hand over my chest and looked at Connor with a smile. He started patting his own chest in time with the beat.
-screw it, he signed . Let's dance. I love this beat
-you know the whole school is watching?
-let them watch. Are you dancing for them or for us?
-For us. Always for us
And we danced, and they watched. Some cheered. They all clapped. And we kissed, and they all cheered. And, afterwards, I was so angry at myself for waiting so long.
The week before the adoption, I announced my decision to Charlie and Michael.
"I think I know what I'd like my name to be." They looked at me curiously.
"Michael was right. Charlie was the one who found me that day, so I'd like my name to be Drake. But Michael's every bit as much my Dad. Waking up in hospital and seeing you sitting there was the most fantastic feeling. I'd never felt anything like it before." Michael smiled at me and ruffled my hair awkwardly.
"You guys said that I had to apply to change my name legally. That means I can change my whole name, right? Not just my surname."
"That's right. You can call yourself Britney Drake if you want," Charlie joked.
"That sounds tempting, but I'd like my name to be Benjamin Michael Drake from now on."
And as much as I've enjoyed telling you this story, I'd like to ask you to leave us alone now, my Dads and me. We're just going to sit here for a while and hug each other. We're a family now and that's what families do. Mine, at least.
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