Sometimes, he wishes that he could just have a normal family.
Like. one dad and one mom who loved him, and at least one of them would have an actual job, and the shape of their family would be familiar, comforting, recognizable from the outside. Easy to explain.
But he knows he's lucky to have anything at all, so he keeps his mouth shut.
Sure, it's a little weird, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
Most of the time.
For a brief period in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record, he is possessed by something that can only be classified after the fact as heat-induced delirium, as he gets the bright idea to play Cupid for Ben and Melanie and devotes most of his free time to the project.
Alan takes him aside one morning and says, “You're not exactly subtle, kid.”
He blinks. “Huh?”
“Are you unhappy?”
“Of course not,” he says. “Why?”
Alan just shakes his head. “Just leave it alone. You don't have all the--just trust me, okay? That is never going to happen.”
“I have no idea what you're talking about,” he says innocently, laying it on as thick as he can.
“Good. Keep it that way.”
Kelsey doesn't see Alan for the rest of the day, and goes to bed early with a stomachache.
After that, he starts to feel a little guilty, not to mention paranoid.
That night, he can hear the low murmur of voices through the walls, rising and falling, but the words are indistinct. They're talking about me. Alan is probably saying, “This isn't working out.” So Ben asks why. And Alan tells him, “Because he's not happy. After everything, he still wants more.”
But I don't, he thinks. I don't want more.
He really doesn't. Except, well, sometimes he does. Not more, exactly, but different.
He can hardly say that aloud, so he just keeps imagining reasons for Ben and Melanie to sit on the same side of the booth, to be alone together. In his mind, he can just see it: a mom, a dad, a wacky uncle, a happy kid, just like an old TV show.
But Mel's not his mom, and Alan's not his uncle, and real, true happiness is reserved for people who have never seen just how awful the world really is.
Alan and Ben have seen it, he can tell. Mel, too.
So maybe none of them can ever really be happy.
The voices stop abruptly, and he braces himself for footsteps down the hall, time to have the talk. We tried, they'll say, but we just don't know what to do with you.
Nothing he hasn't heard before.
The footsteps don't come, and he falls into a restless sleep. The next morning, he practically flinches at every word Alan and Ben say, but they just act like everything is normal. Well, sort of.
Alan watches him closely, like he's nervous about something, too. Like maybe he wants to tell Kelsey that it's over, but he can't. He's not looking at Ben, either.
Kelsey's on edge the rest of the day, but the other shoe never drops.
Eventually he forgets to expect it.
Mel's the one who finally puts an end to his summer project. She comes by and picks him up on a Saturday morning in mid-August, and takes him to a moderately nice restaurant downtown that is not Wiggles, which he finds only slightly disappointing. He orders a gigantic bacon cheeseburger.
“You have to stop,” she says, after the waiter has collected their menus.
“Stop what?” He cocks his head to the side, just a little, to really sell his confusion.
“Kelsey.” She takes a long sip of her soda. “This little scenario you're trying to construct, with me and Ben, it's never going to happen. So you have to stop, okay?”
He drops the act. “Why not? Why couldn't it work?”
So she tells him. Everything. Well, almost everything. Mostly about Alan and what happened to him, about Alan taking Ben when he had the chance, about Alan and Ben every day since. He doesn't really realize what happened to her until he's old enough to figure it out on his own. But halfway through his bacon cheeseburger, his sitcom fantasy dissipates for good.
“Listen,” she says as they pull up to the house. “Don't tell Alan what I told you. It's between us. Okay?”
“Got it.” He reaches for the door handle, then hesitates. “I'm sorry.”
He doesn't answer. She smiles at him, no harm done. “I'm sorry your plans didn't work out.”
“It was a dumb idea, anyway.”
“Yeah,” she says, wrinkling her nose. “It really was.”
So that's the end of that.
When he gets out of the car, he sprints toward the house.
“I'm home!” he yells, and locks the door behind him.
"Did you have a good time with Mel?"
"Uh huh," he says, pretending to be absorbed in an old issue of People magazine. He's not even sure where it came from.
"She has a great car, huh?" Ben eyes him carefully.
"Uh huh." He draws out the syllables and brings the magazine closer to his face, hoping Ben will take the hint and stop asking questions.
"She give you the talk?"
He sighs and closes the magazine. "She told me some stuff."
"Good," Ben nods, as if that's the answer he was looking for. "You want to ask me anything?"
"Nuh uh," he says, like he's not even paying attention.
"Good," Ben repeats, and leaves the room.
That night, the house is silent.
He makes his first real friend a few weeks after the summer ends.
At school, he's more or less blessed with anonymity; he's a little taller and a little more tan than he used to be, after spending three months trailing Ben and Alan around the entire city, learning the trade.
When Sam shows up in his English class, he recognizes the dark circles under her eyes, the stringy hair, the bitten-down fingernails. He can see that she has an idea of how awful the world can be.
She doesn't talk much in class but she's smart, it's obvious, so he waits until the last possible second and volunteers to be her partner for an assignment. “You can come over if you want,” he says. “We have soda.”
She looks at him like he's a little slow, or maybe she is, but finally she says, “Okay.”
It only occurs to him afterward that he's going to have to explain the whole thing to someone for the first time, and then he instantly wants to take it back, but he doesn't.
“I'm having a friend over. It's for school,” he says over dinner, so fast that it all sounds like one long word. Imhavingafriendoveritsforschool.
Ben is the first one to parse the syllables. “A friend?”
“Wait, you're having a friend over?” Alan chimes in.
Ben sets down his fork. “I don't know how I feel about this.”
“Well,” he says, “Join the club. How am I supposed to introduce her to you?”
“Uh,” Ben says. “Her?”
“I can have a girl friend if I want,” he says, careful to lean on the girl and the friend so no one gets the wrong idea. “You have a girl for a friend, too. Mel.”
Ben laughs. “Yes, that I do.”
“You can introduce her however you want,” Alan says, looking at Ben. “We've talked about this. We're cool either way.”
“What are the two ways?” He raises his eyebrows. Playing dumb might just be his greatest skill.
“You said you're cool either way. What are the two ways?”
“Oh,” Alan says. “You can use our names, or, whatever.”
“Yeah,” Ben says. “Whatever. It's up to you.”
“That is incredibly unhelpful,” he points out.
“That's what we're here for." Ben grins. "Wow, a friend. And a girl. We'll have to clean up.”
He groans. “I knew this was a bad idea.”
Kelsey and Sam spend most of the day parked on the floor in the living room, with Ben's old laptop between them.
Ben is the first one to invade their space. “Can I interest you in some--”
“No,” Kelsey says quickly, but it's too late. Sam regards Ben with interest. He sighs. “This is Sam. Sam, this is my dad.”
Ben almost chokes, but he tries to recover quickly. “Nice to meet you,” he croaks out, and disappears.
They're just wrapping it up for the day when Alan pokes his head in. “It's getting dark out,” he says.
“I know,” Kelsey says, resigned. He closes the laptop. “This is Sam. Sam, this is my dad.”
“Hi,” she says, like it's nothing, and finishes shoving her books in her backpack.
Alan's practically beaming. “Do you need a ride home?”
“Sure,” she says, and Kelsey's stomach sinks.
He gives Alan his best pleading look, but Alan pretends not to notice. Jerk. The keys are already in his hand, anyway. “I'll be in the car,” Alan says, pausing for dramatic effect. “Whenever you're ready.”
Sam hoists her backpack onto one shoulder.
“I think we're almost done with this stupid thing,” Kelsey says awkwardly. “Another paragraph or two.”
“Thanks for having me over,” she says. “I like your dads.”
“Maybe we can do it again next weekend,” he ventures.
“I'd like that,” she says.
After he hears the car leave, he heads into the kitchen. Time to face the music. At least it's just Ben.
“Well,” Ben says. “How'd it go?”
“Fine,” he says, getting himself a soda. “We're not getting married or anything.”
“That would be a little fast.”
Might as well get it out of the way. “We don't have to talk about it or something, do we?”
“Talk about what?” Ben asks, but he's smiling like an idiot. Just like Alan.
“Ugh, stop it,” he says. “I'm going to bed.”
He stomps out of the room.
“Good night, son,” Ben calls, laughing.
“Good night, dad,” he mutters.
“I heard that! I'm telling Alan!”
He turns around and bellows, “I was being sarcastic!”
He sighs theatrically and closes his door a little more firmly than necessary.
But he's laughing, too, when he throws himself on his bed, and he's still smiling when he falls asleep.
In the morning, Alan and Ben are insufferable. Sam this and Sam that.
So he just smiles and says, "Cool it, dad, we just met."
"I'm sorry, which one of us were you addressing just then?" Ben asks. He slings an arm around Alan's waist. Alan looks a little like he wants to die.
"Both," he says. "You don't have to pretend, Alan. I'm old enough to know how this works, you know." He's not, actually, but he's put the pieces together: the way Mel looked when she told him about their great escape and their life together, and the way Ben talked to him that afternoon, and, well, now that he thinks about it, the whole thing is just incredibly obvious. He probably could have picked a more productive way to spend his summer vacation.
"Could have fooled me," Ben says. "Pretty sure you were hoping Mel and I would end up in a tree."
"In a tree?"
"K-I-S-S-I-N-G," Alan clarifies. "Which, to be clear, is never going to happen."
"Yeah," he says. "I get that now." He blinks. "You do know that I like girls."
"I love girls," Ben says. "I could tell you stories that would--"
"Ben," Alan says.
"Put Penthouse to shame," he stage-whispers.
Kelsey's eyes widen as he tries not to think about the possibilities.
"Another time," Alan says firmly. "Or, better yet, never."
"Another time," Ben repeats. "The point is--what was the point?"
Kelsey shrugs. "Whatever."
It's not the life he'd imagined for any of them, but it's his and it's theirs, and honestly? It's kind of awesome. Even if it's hard to explain.
"So, when is your girl friend coming over again?" Ben waggles his eyebrows suggestively.
Well, it's not awesome all the time.
Just most of the time.