A Storm Named Zach

by Flip McHooter

Chapter 12

It took a few minutes for everyone to calm down. For me, it had been a long time since I went through something so intensely emotional, and I had to wipe the tears streaming down my face on the sleeve of my shirt. Even the young girl, Natalie, was crying her eyes out, although I don't think she fully understood what was happening. She just knew something special was going on.

"Mama Sally?" Isaac asked once he had stopped bawling. "Is it okay if I take Zachary to my room to show him my photo album and the letter from Mommy when she died?"

"Of course. You boys go right ahead. You need to get acquainted, so take all the time you need."

"Thanks! C'mon, Zachary." The kid grabbed Zach's hand, and they were off like security had just opened the gates at Coachella.

To me, she said, once they hustled down the hallway, "Wow. That sure was something. We've been fostering kids for a while now, and that was probably the best reunion I've witnessed in a long, long time."

"No kidding. I'm glad I was here to see it. Zach is going to be so happy. He's been so sad lately. This is just a great surprise for him."

"Jeremy, how long have you and Zach been a couple? You obviously care deeply for each other. You don't see that very often."

"Don't laugh. Not even a week."

"What? No way. You boys seem like you've been together forever. How is that possible?"

"To be honest, I've known him for several years. I have twin nephews that I've lived with since I was six, and Zach was a friend of theirs growing up. They're all the same age. He and I had a connection even way back then. Anyway, he showed up on our porch in the middle of the night last week when his mother…well, let's just say she passed away. He had nowhere to go. I know it's fast, but I think some people are brought together for some reason, and well, we just fit. We've always had a spark even if we were too young to recognize it, and now, we're crazy-mad about each other."

"It shows. Someday you're going to marry that boy, aren't you?"

"How'd you know?" I laughed. "Yes. For sure. That's a no brainer. I'm his, and he's mine. No doubt about it."

"Can I come to your wedding?" Natalie asked. She had slid in next to me at the table and was drawing a picture. Of what, I had no clue.

"Of course you can. How old are you, Natalie?"

"I'm eight. But I'm big for my age, at least that's what they say."

"Eight is a great age. One of my cousins has five-year-old twin girls, Wendy and Lisa, and they can't wait to grow up. We call them the purple princess."

"Why? They sound pretty."

"They love everything purple. Their room, their bedspreads, and especially their purple princess dresses they wear all the time."

"Really? I had a princess dress once, but it doesn't fit anymore. It's frozen."

"Frozen? Really? In the freezer? Why would you freeze it?"

"No, silly. From the movie."

"Oh, I guess I missed that one."

"That's because you're a boy."

"That's true. Well, when you come to our wedding, we'll make sure you wear a beautiful princess dress that fits you perfectly. Any color you want."

"Any color? You promise?"

"Absolutely. Here, pinky swear with me."

"I like you."

"And I like you, too."

"Can I paint your fingernails?"

"Oh. Um, yeah, I guess. Nobody's ever done that before. Can you stay in the lines?"

"Of course! I'm a girl. Not a dummy."

"I didn't say you were. I just wanted to make sure because this is my first time. What color are you thinking?" Sally was watching us and had started to giggle.

"Can I do zebra?"

"Yeah, you could do that. That sounds cool. But I have a better idea. Can you paint them like rainbow unicorn colors?"

"Yes! Oh, yes. I'll be right back. Don't move. I gotta find my stuff."

"You just made that girl very, very happy, Jeremy."

"Well, how could I say no? Besides, I've never had my nails done. It washes off, right?"

"Sort of. You and Zach remind me of my Billy. We met in high school and were instantly together. We barely graduated before we got married."

"He sounds like a good guy. Steven talks very highly of you both."

"Steven's my son's best friend since forever. They're not just friends, but more like brothers, actually. He's over here all the time. We love Steven like he's our own son, too."

"That's what he told us. What does your son do?"

"He's in the Marines teaching linguistics. He knows six languages which is strange since he had trouble finding his way in high school, but this is a perfect fit for him. It's good to see him so happy."

"That's great. You must be very proud of him."

"Oh, we are. He's coming home on leave next month. With his fiancé. We haven't met her in person yet, just on Skype."

"Wow. That's huge. So, can I ask a question? How did you get into being foster parents?"

"After our son was born, I had complications, and the doctor said I couldn't bear any more kids. Because we love children, this was the next best thing. Hard to believe we've had sixteen kids through here."

"Wow, that's amazing. I don't know how you do it. I was six when my parents were killed by a drugged-out driver, and I had to move in with my way older sister and her husband and their three-your-old twins. I was instantly a big brother. It was the worst thing, and the best thing for everyone in the house. Thank goodness they were potty trained."

"I imagine that was tough for a little kid at that tender age. But it took. You seem so mature, like an old soul in a new soul's body, if that makes sense. And I can tell you're a caregiver, too."

"Yep, that's what everyone says. My best friend Fiona always tells me I'm a forty-year-old trapped in a twenty-year-old's body. Hey, you're back. Did you find the unicorn paint?"

"No, I think I used it all up. But I can still do zebra. Is that okay?"

"Of course! Let's switch places so I can talk with Sally while you do your magic."

"This is going to be fun. I've never done a man before."

I had to choke down a laugh. "I imagine not."

"How many other kids are staying with you besides Natalie and Isaac?"

"We're licensed for six children, but four works best. Natalie is the youngest, then Isaac and our newest are Jabril and Baji. They're brother and sister."

"Baji and I share a room. She doesn't talk much," Natalie said, starting on the undercoat of white nail polish on my thumb. She was actually doing a great job and was cute with her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth in concentration.

"They're older and didn't want to be split up. We were lucky to keep them together since that very rarely happens in the foster system."

"Their mama's in the pokey," Natalie said.

"The pokey? What's that? Gumby's friend?"

"The big house."

"She's in prison. Natalie, you know we don't gossip about our foster brothers and sisters, right?"

"Sorry, Mama Sally. I forgot."

"Next time, don't forget."

"I promise."

"What does your husband do?"

"He works construction, framing tract houses. There's so much work right now that he gets all the hours he can handle. In fact, he has Jabril and Baji with him today. They're his apprentices this summer."

"That's so great. Do they like it?"

"Baji loves it, and it seems right up her alley, but Jabril, not so much. He hates being told what to do. But he sticks with it because he gets a fair wage, which he needs because he's aging out of the system pretty soon."

"I get that. I have a Navajo friend who works with Native American at-risk youth, so I kinda know how that goes. It's a shame the second the kids turn eighteen they're shown the door. I don't think it's right."

"It's not. That's why Billy is teaching them a trade so they have something to fall back on, or to put on their resume if they want to do something different. Jeremy, I need to change the subject here for a second before the boys come back. I have a question for you that you and Zach are going to have to discuss. It's a bit complicated."

"Okay. Fire away."

"That young man needs his family. That's the whole point of foster care, to keep the kids safe and healthy until a family member can step up and take over the job. Is that something Zach, and possibly with you and your help, can do for Isaac? And before I get too far into this, I'm not talking tomorrow. But the sooner he's with his family, his real family, in a real home, the better it will be for him."

"Oh, wow. I hadn't thought of that. I mean, this was a huge surprise, and we've barely met him. I mean, I haven't even said hello to the kid. Plus, we don't know if he'd want to live with us. His whole life's been here in Vegas…I'm kinda at a loss here. Obviously, we'll do whatever we can for Isaac, but we have to make sure it's the right thing for everyone involved."

"Of course. I understand that. But put yourself in Isaac's position. And Zach's too, for that matter. They both thought they were going to be alone without any family, and by some strange twist of fate, they found each other. And if it turns out to be true that they are indeed brothers – which my gut tells me they are – they're going to want to be together."

"Okay. I get that. I was lucky I had my sister to look after me when my parents were killed. But Zach doesn't have a job, doesn't know how to drive, let alone own a car. He doesn't have much money. How can he legally take care of a fifteen-year-old?"

"He can't, not without you. But you can help, Jeremy. Look. You love Zach, right? I know you do. It's apparent to anyone that looks at you that you love Zach with your entire being. I see you staring down the hallway every couple of minutes, wondering where he is, is he happy and safe. Am I right?"

"Yes. I love Zach more than anything and I'd stop the world for him if I could."

"Well, when you love someone like that, this is part of the package. And by extension, if Isaac turns out to be his kid brother, you'd do anything for Isaac too, right?

"Of course I would."

"So, all I'm saying here is that this is fast, a bit crazy, maybe, but that's how life is. Only this time, it's a miracle. And how this turns out – Jeremy, listen up – it's really all up to you."

We stayed late into the evening at Billy and Sally's house. Billy and the other two kids showed up a bit after five, looking hot, tired, sweaty and starving. After introductions, I suggested I'd order a bunch of pizzas and hot wings to make up for the fact we'd totally messed up their routine and invaded their space. Sally was so happy she didn't have to cook for a change, she said yes immediately. Everybody else was onboard, too. I was pretty sure pizza delivery was a luxury this family didn't get to enjoy very often. And while I didn't count, it looked like the four teens wolfed down a pizza each. That made me smile.

After dinner, Jabril and Baji bid us good night to take showers and later, text with their friends. Natalie headed to bed soon after that, not before giving me a big hug and thanking me for letting her do my nails. Zach borrowed my phone to take a picture of her and me with my awesome zebra nails that he fired off to Fiona. I'm sure that was going to go viral in a nano-second to all my friends and family. Oh well.

That left Billy and Sally, Zach and myself plus Isaac. Isaac hadn't left Zach's side except for the minute he had to jet to the bathroom.

It was fun getting to know Isaac, and in a weird way, he was exactly like Zach. For the most part. There were certain differences between the two, sure, the most obvious to me was his seriousness. That probably came from being without a family. In any event, Zach and I would get to know him better tomorrow, since we made plans to spend the day with him, just the three of us.

Around eight, we said our good-byes and headed back to the hotel. Zach seemed exhausted and quiet from such an emotional day, so I gave him his space as we jumped on the freeway. The Strip was as colorful as ever off in the distance. It really was an extraordinary sight at night.

"Want me to drive us up the Strip so you can check out all the lights?" I asked.

"Um, would it be okay if we just headed back to the hotel? Today was not what I was expecting, and I need to talk to you about something that's bothering me. But right now, I'm trying to process what I'm going to say."

"Sure. No worries. Can I ask, is it a good thing or a bad thing? Or something in between?"

"I don't think it's a bad thing, but I need to think it through for a bit. Today was super-overwhelming. It really was. I met a brother I didn't know I had, and then I found out my real mom passed away a few years ago. That's a lot for anyone, you know?"

I grabbed his hand in mine and said, "I do know. I was too young to fully comprehend what actually happened to my parents when they were killed, and it took me a couple of years to come to grips with it. There's no kids' storybook that gives you tips for losing a parent. Like, 'Mommy and Daddy are Dead. What Now?' So, take all the time you need, and I'll be right here when you're ready to talk."

"Thanks, Jeremy. You're the best. And thank you, seriously, for helping me with out with all of this. I couldn't have done it on my own. Every minute we're together I love you more and more. I am so glad you're in my life."

"Right back atcha, buddy. That was the best thing ever, finding your brother. So, no worries. When you've got this all sorted out, I'll be right here by your side. That you can count on."

"Thanks, Jeremy."

"You got it."

We pulled into the valet parking area, and sure as nuns have moustaches, the guy Antoine was there once again. How many hours do these people work?

"Mr. Jeremy. Did you and your husband have a good day?" he asked, opening my door. "Are you enjoying your honeymoon in our fair city?"

"Yes, thanks. We are. Don't you ever get time off, dude? Seems like you're always here."

He laughed at that. "I'm doing a double, and get off in a couple of hours. This is my Friday, so I plan to sit by our pool at home for the next three days, drink lots and lots of beer and have the missus feed me her awesome food. Nothing better than that."

"That sounds amazing. You've earned it."

"I know. Need the Escalade tomorrow?"

"Yes, we do. Hey, can I ask you a question?


"Do you know Steven, the cabana dude at the pool? The hyper one with the spiky blond hair?"

"Yeah. Not well, but he seems like a cool guy. Why?"

"He did us a major solid today. Because of him, Zach met a brother he didn't know he had. I think Steven should be rewarded for doing that. Do you guys have an employee of the month or recognition reward kind of thing?"

"We do. You should talk to someone in the Chairman's Lounge. They can help you out with that."

"See, that's the problem. Steven's aunt works there. That could be misconstrued as nepotism."

"Gotcha. Here," he said, digging around in his wallet. "This is the number for personnel. These are exactly the kind of things they look for. Ask for the director. I'm glad you're doing this because all we hear are complaints – day in, day out. I wish all our visitors were like you guys. You're all right, man."

"You are too, dude. Enjoy your days off," I said as I slipped him a few bills, more than I normally would. But it was worth it.

"Mr. Jeremy? Thanks for this. And by the way, love the nails."

"Anytime you need yours done, let me know. I just met an eight-year-old who can help you out."

"I don't doubt that. Thanks, but I think I'll pass. We have a dress code here."

"Got it. One more question. What's cool to do around here for a fifteen-year-old boy? Zach and his new-found brother need to bond over something fun tomorrow."

"Okay, let's see. The concierge can help you out with that and make you reservations, but here's what I know. Definitely the rides on the Stratosphere. It's not cheap, but wow, is it ever wicked. I almost peed my pants on that ride that shoves you off the side at 1200 feet in the air over the Strip. The roller coaster at the New York is good, too, but after you do the rides on the Stratosphere, it would seem kinda tame. Helicopter rides are a big thing. In fact, they fly all the way over to the Grand Canyon. Also, now that I think about it, there's a couple of Laser Challenge things at Circus Circus. A kid his age – that would be the bomb."

"His age? I'd love to do that too. Antoine, thanks for being so cool. I'm glad we met. I hope you're here the next time we stay here."

"I hope I am too. Enjoy the rest of your stay, man."

Back in our room, Zach plopped down on a chair and started staring at the spectacular fountains without really watching them. There was this little slide thingy on the bottom of the window that let in fresh air, but it also allowed in the music from the speakers outside. Some opera song was going on, but he wasn't listening to that either.

"Jeremy? Can you sit here with me for a minute or two? I'm kinda lost."

"Sure, buddy. You ready to talk?"

"Yeah. I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be. What am I going to do?"

"Do about what?"

"Isaac. I need to take care of him, but I'm in no position to do that. It…it…hurts that I can't do that for him. He's my brother for shit's sake!"

"Okay. Slow down here, Zach. Baby steps. One thing at a time, okay?"


"So, let's break this down into manageable pieces. First, let's talk about your mom. That must have been a huge blow that you'll never get to meet her."

"It was. But Isaac has pictures, and well, I guess that's better than nothing."

"You're right. At least you got to see what she looked like, and how great a mom she was to Isaac. And I'm sure Isaac has stories to tell you about her, probably better than the ones you have about your dad. Does he think Ziggy is his dad?"

"Yeah. I asked Isaac if he had long balls," Zach said, laughing a little. "At first he thought I was nuts, but then I told him about mine."


"Yeah. The guys in the locker room called Isaac 'hangers'. He didn't like being called that."

"I'm sure he didn't. Did you tell Isaac you were gay, and that I'm your boyfriend?"

"Yeah. He thinks you're hot, by the way."

"Not as hot as you are."

"If you say so. He's calling himself bi, but yeah, I think he's gay. I was the first and only person he's told that to, and it was difficult for him to get it out. I think he's sticking his toe into the rainbow pond and felt comfortable telling me. But it was kinda cool he trusted me like that, especially so soon."

"No kidding. You realize we're going to have to get you guys a DNA test to make sure you're actually brothers, right? But I think you guys are total brothers. That's just one more thing you have in common."

"I know. It still seems weird Isaac looks and acts exactly like me."

"So…if I had to guess, I'd bet your mom had something to do with getting you guys together today, wherever and whatever she is now. I don't believe life is just random stuff. Our world is just too intricate. I know my parents are somewhere, helping us out, and we don't even know about it. That's the best love ever. When Wolfie's back, we'll put together a drum circle for your mom. I bet Isaac would like that. There's something magical about that ceremony, and you both can do a proper goodbye that means something special."

"More than going to the cemetery tomorrow?"

"Maybe. But we'll still go so you two have some closure. But this is my take: I've been to the cemetery a few times to see my parents grave. It always made me feel worse. Flowers on a headstone? What does that mean? They're dead. What are they going to do with flowers? My parents wouldn't have wanted that. Now, this is just me, but my parents aren't there, six feet under. Sure, their skin, bones and whatever's left, but not their souls. I picture my parents having the best time flying all over, doing crazy, fun things all over the universe. Helping people out. If we live, die and end up in a box in hole, or a wall for eternity, what's the point of all that?"

"That makes sense. But still…"

"I know. This is all new to you. But let me ask you this. When you die, and it better be a long, long time from now, buddy, where do you think you go?"

"I'd like to be a ghost. A good ghost. That would be fun. But seriously, I have no clue."

"Neither does anyone else. We'll never know until it happens to us. So, my personal opinion is this: Be the best person you can be, help out everyone you meet, and treat them with respect and with love and kindness. I'm very fortunate that I have the means to do that. Even if you meet a scary homeless person, don't dismiss him or her. Everyone has a story. We're lucky we have good ones to tell."

"You're right!"

"I hope I am, but who knows? I just try to be the best I can be. Seems right."

"And I'm going to do that too. Thanks, Jeremy."

"You're more than welcome. I'd do anything for you as well. I love you so much, and I'm so grateful to whoever or whatever brought us together."

After a bunch of toe-curling kisses, I asked, "So, next question. Do you think Isaac would want to live with us? You'd have to go to court to get legal custody, of course, and it might take some time."

"I know he would love to live with us. And he likes his foster parents, but it's just not the same as living in your own home with real family. I feel for him. But there's no way I can take care of Isaac until I get a car and a job and my own place. I'm kinda stuck."

"While you guys were in his room talking, I had a good chat with Sally. I really like her."

"I do too. They seem sincere. And Isaac likes them."

"Good. She said the same thing you just said, that basically family needs to be with family. That's something I've always been taught as well. And for us, a family isn't always defined by blood. In my house, friends are family too, and you take care of them –"

"Like what you're doing for me."

"Exactly. So, once we get you legal custody of Isaac, he can stay with us. No problem. He can have the guest room or one of the twin's rooms. They'll be living on campus when they go to college in a couple of months."

"No. No way. I can't ask you and your family to do that! C'mon, you're already taking care of me. That would be way too much."

"It would take some getting used to, but we'll make it work."

"No, Jeremy. That's super nice and all, but we can't do that. I'll have to figure out some other kind of plan."

"Not going to happen, Zach. I'm not going to let you go. Anyway, I have a much better solution I think you'll like. Only, it's going to take some time. Did you ever meet old man Johnson that lived behind us?"

"No. But I remember his house was really overgrown and creepy, like an old haunted house. Why?"

"As you said the other day, shields up and brace for impact. Guess who owns that house now?"

"No clue. More crazy rich Asians?"

"Nope. Your crazy-ass boyfriend. I bought it last month after he passed away. It just closed escrow."

"Are you serious?"

"I am. I bought it for several reasons, the biggest one is because I've wanted my own place for a while now. I love my family, but it's time to be on my own. Also, after I fix it up, I'm going to take down the wall that divides our backyards, so that way we'll have like a mini-compound. Indy can come over, and I'll still be able to use the pool. And the best part?"


"That you and Isaac and me are going to be living there together. We're going to be a family."

Zach didn't say anything for a few seconds, and I could almost see the wheels spinning in his head as he digested that. Five seconds later he started bawling, and then launched himself into my lap, practically squeezing me to death. "Thank you," he whispered between sobs. "I can't believe you'd do that for us. I love you so much, Jeremy, you have no idea."

After a while he asked, "Can I tell you a secret?" He was still on my lap, holding me tight around my neck.

"Sure, if you want to."

"I used to go to sleep thinking about you when I was like twelve or thirteen. Or fourteen or fifteen. Basically always. You'd hold me tight in your arms, like this, then we'd kiss, and then we'd make out. I guess dreams do come true."

"I guess they do, buddy, I guess they do."

"Can we go make love now? I don't have much to offer, but this I can do. I need you inside of me, right now. I'm going to make you feel so good."

"Zach, hold on tight, buddy. I'm going to rock your world and prove once and for all there's no one for me but you."

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