He thought long and hard about his conversation with Sam.
He thought long and hard about his feelings for Lè.
He thought long and hard about life and what he wanted from it and how he wanted a woman to fit in.
Then he made a decision.
Gage called a local realtor and asked to be shown some houses in Riverview. With the money he inherited from Jennifer, he could afford to purchase a home. He could move out of his aunt and cousins, even though he really liked his aunt Missy. He could find a place, maybe on the edge of town, so he could hop on the I-55 more easily to Simcago for his classes three times a week. He could invite Solèi to move in with him. The thought sounded nice.
He enjoyed his times at the Cherry Moon Collective, but it would be nice to have some real privacy. Even with her private bedroom, Lè and Gage were still interrupted during intimacy on occasion. Once because Heather wanted to take a private bath, and their room was the only place with one. She walked in and they were in the middle of the “throes of passion.” Heather just giggled and said “carry on.” It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen him naked before, but Heather made Gage uncomfortable. Even with the wall divider between the bath and the bed, he just couldn’t perform after that. Another time one of the other collective members chose that precise time to train the horses right outside the walls. Granted, he and Lè were “getting it on” in the middle of the day, but still, horses neighing and baying weren’t exactly a romantic soundtrack for their lovemaking.
Gage caught himself daydreaming about growing their own little garden, and fresh vegetables for salads, and snuggling on the couch watching television after dinner. Did Lè watch TV? They had never watched anything together, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t, right?
After three hours of driving all over Riverview with the realtor, Gage decided to walk around in Dogwood Park neighborhood. He liked this one the best. The houses were quaint and cozy. The price range was within his budget. It was an easy walk to the bus stop. The neighbors seemed friendly, and more than willing to talk with him about the local fishing spots, the best places to walk a dog, and community gardening. Gage smiled to himself as he wandered into a children’s playground. Me. Living with Lè. A dog. Maybe a sweet little terrier like that dog from that kids’ show I used to watch… the one where the dog acted out stories. Yeah, I could see myself with a dog and Lè. Living in a house in this neighborhood. Maybe then I’d stop feeling so out of place.
A child laughing pulled Gage from his thoughts. He watched a young girl with reddish pigtails chase a little toddler down a slide. He smiled again. And kids… someday. A little girl and a little boy. I suppose I should talk to Lè about that… we haven’t exactly discussed children. I wonder if she wants any. Wow… I didn’t know I wanted any.
He recalled a conversation with Kass once about kids. His former best friend had been steadfast that she didn’t want children, ever. Too messy and whiny and loud. It’s just not for me, she had said. Yeah, he had agreed at the time. Hell, he had never even gone babysitting! But now the sound of kids with a woman he loved, Lè, sounded really nice.
Gage was so lost in his reverie, he almost didn’t notice a certain pretty librarian who had captured his attention only a month before. Constance. He found his heart beating faster, and frowned, annoyed at his physical reaction to her presence. I’m with Lè now, he internally reminded himself. Constance seemed unaware of his presence, staring intently at a chess table. He wondered what she was doing here because he was pretty sure she lived downtown. He thought about turning around and walking away, leaving her be, but then decided that was rude.
“What do we have here?” he said, trying to sound casual. “Hi Constance. Fancy finding you in this community. What are the odds?”
Ugh! I sounded like a creeper.
“Oh,” she fluttered her lashes rapidly, startled by his greeting. “I… um…” she swallowed hard, evidently flustered. “Hi Gage.”
“What brings you to Dogwood Playground?” he asked.
“Chess,” she said curtly, her brow furrowing. “You?”
“You play chess?” he arched a brow. “Interesting. I’ve always wanted to learn but I never had the patience. You should teach me.”
“I’m meeting someone,” she said, taking a seat. “If you’ll excuse me…”
“Oh well, I’ll wait here until he comes,” Gage replied, sitting across from the librarian. “It is a he, isn’t it?”
“She,” Constance corrected with an edge in her tone.
“Ah,” he nodded.
“Marisol Lobos,” Constance added. “We play chess together every Wednesday.”
“Then while you’re waiting for her, do you mind teaching me a few pointers,” Gage asked. “This is a bishop…” he held up a piece. “And I think this is the queen…” he leaned across the table and offered a sultry smile. “…and you always want to protect the queen.”
Constance flushed a deep shade of red, and she dropped her gaze, folding her hands in her lap. Gage smirked a little, almost enjoying putting the woman “off her game.” Does that make me evil? he wondered. Of course, I sound like a whopping presumptuous jerk!
“How have you been?” he asked, trying to change the subject.
“Busy,” she said, pursuing her lips. “Look, I have a book to read. You don’t have to keep me company while I wait for Anita.”
“A book? What book?” he asked, genuinely curious.
Constance pulled a novel from her thick pink skirt pocket – Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
“You like penguins?” he remarked, thinking the idea was cute.
“Yes,” Constance hugged the book to her chest and replied defensively. “They are quite adorable in their little tuxedos.”
“That they are,” he agreed. “Look, we agreed on something.”
“Mister Briody...” Constance began, her words short and tight. “I am certain you have better things to do in this neighborhood than harass women.”
“Harass?” he shook his head. “That’s not my intention… actually I’m house hunting.”
“Really?” she looked as if she didn’t believe him.
“Yes,” he pulled out a brochure and his realtor’s card from his inside shirt pocket. “I was thinking of buying the house right over there. I think it’s called Pomeranian Hybrid.”
“Buying a house? In this neighborhood?” Constance perused the brochure before looking up at him. “But this is a family neighborhood. The school is right around the corner. You don’t strike me as a white-picket-fence, nine-to-five, kiss-the-wife-and-kids kind-of guy.”
“Maybe I’m full of surprises,” he said smugly.
Her response surprised him. “Maybe… so why do you want to buy a home?”
“Well…” he began, and then stopped.
Why do I want to buy a home?
“I’ve never had a home,” he said, soberly.
“You mean, you’ve never owned a home?”
“No, I mean, I’ve never had a home. I grew up in foster care.”
Constance looked remorseful. “Oh I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he said, kicking a weed in a crack between the sidewalk with his shoe. “It’s my life. It’s a lot of kids lives. It could’ve been worse for me.”
“You were never adopted?” she asked, and then quickly added, “I’m sorry if I’m prying.”
No, don’t be. I actually don’t mind. He thought. It was nice to talk with someone about his past. He hadn’t even talked with Lè yet about his childhood.
“Almost, but my birth mom… she refused to sign the papers.”
“Oh I’m sorry. Have you met your mom?”
“I haven’t seen her since I was a baby so it’s no skin off my back,” he shrugged.
“Yes it is,” Constance said, her voice surprisingly soft and soothing. “It is a big deal, Gage. “Every kid needs a family…and a home. I am sorry you were deprived of it. Actually… I was adopted.”
“You were?” his eyes widened in surprise.
“I was born Constance Claire Kraft. My father was…taken…I had no real birth mother… at least not one I know…I was born in a lab in Osimceana. My father abandoned me shortly thereafter.”
Gage didn’t know what to say. He was shocked. Constance Shelley was the result of an alien abduction and experiment?
“I wasn’t adopted right away…” Constance swallowed hard, and averted her eyes.
It was the tell-tale look. Gage knew it. Every kid who grew up in foster care did.
“I spent six years in foster care before I was taken to the home of Rigel and Diana Shelley. It was another six years before I was adopted. I lived in another four homes in between there before the Shelleys were able to take me back.”
“You’ve been in the system… you know the horrors… reading was my only escape. When I could get my hands on books…”
Gage instinctively reached across the table and placed a hand on top of her hand. Constance’s face fell and she looked almost ashamed, but she didn’t remove her hand.
“…life is tough for a foster kid, isn’t it?” she said sadly. “I love my parents. Rigel and Diana are my real parents, but it doesn’t erase those twelve horrible years of not having an identity.”
He knew all too well.
“Even after adoption, things aren’t quite the same. You’re never quite normal. I think that’s why I love reading so much. The books never judge me. They never ask questions about my appearance or beat me because I forgot to brush my teeth.”
Gage winced. He still had the scars too.
“…they are a comforting friend, you know?”
She looked up at him, her eyes moist with tears. “I’m sorry,” she laughed dryly, and wiped at her eyes.
“It’s okay,” he said, taking his hand back.
“Gage, why do you really want to buy a house?”
For security. For peace of mind. To feel like I belong.
“To have a home,” he replied, instead.
Constance shook her head. “A house is not a home. It’s the people who make a house a home or a hellhole. It’s not the building and the bolts and nuts and boards and glue. Never ever forget that, Gage. We can’t buy a home, people like us, foster kids, rejected by our parents. We can only make one.”
Gage shifted back in his chair and stood up abruptly. He swallowed hard, avoiding eye contact with Constance. Her words hit a wound still too fresh, still too raw. He couldn’t stay.
“I should get going,” he said gruffly.
“Goodbye Gage,” Constance called, her voice low and sad.
As he walked away to catch the bus, Gage couldn’t help but ponder Constance’s words. Unfortunately, he knew the words were all too true, but he didn’t want to admit it. He didn’t want to admit he was powerless to stop the feelings of guilt and shame and pain wandering through his being.
A house is not a home.
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