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“Are you kidding? No way.” Jarod led Oliver back out of the stall to finish washing his hands. “You ate that whole pancake and you grabbed that syrup like it was going out of style.” He placed his hands beneath a heat vent and dried them off. Then he watched Oliver’s reaction, moving his hand and shoving his face in front of it.

“Brisk.” He started to feel the object. “Mom had paper towels in her bathroom. I have paper towels in my bathroom. This is neater.”

Jarod let him explore a bit before he brought Oliver’s hands back down to it. “Explore the world a little more later, let’s clean hands for now. Let’s stop trying to eat more stuff that will make you sick? Okay?”

“Still worth it!” Oliver held his hands steady. Well, as he could. “Always enjoy everything while you can because you never know what happens when ‘That Place’ gets you again.”

“It won’t get you again.” Jarod bent down beside him. “I promise, it’s not going to get you again. You won’t be bouncing off the walls of white anymore with no one to talk to and nothing to do but sims.” From the way the boy acted, he imagined that’s what it was like. “You’re free now.”

Oliver pursed his lips, like he only half believed him. “Unless you see the future, you can’t promise that. I’m here with my mom now, and I get to hang out with you too, Jarod. That’s what is important.” Then he wrinkled his nose up. “If I stay out of That Place forever, it’s a bonus!” Then he went over to the door to try to open it. Too heavy.

“Okay, you got me. I will do my best to keep you out,” Jarod bended for him on that. But? “It’s Dad though,” Jarod tried again with him. Jarod never had any problem calling his dad, Dad. It was the first thing he shouted out when he saw Major Charles. Oliver even knew it, had goals to get his things. Always wanted to see him. “I really want you to call me Dad, okay?”

Then something broke. Something Jarod never even thought of, and something that made Jarod want to just run to the phone to call Sydney. To thank him. For remembering his real spot.

“Trying, Dad,” Oliver said, “but it’s weird to call you dad though. Gil was Dad.”

Okay. Deep breath. Major Charles had to go through this too. “No. Gil was your teacher,” Jarod said. “I had a teacher too. His name was Sydney. They are there to teach and offer what comfort they can for you that The Centre will allow. Gil wasn’t your dad though. I’m your dad. Does that make sense?”

Oliver shook his head. “Dad Jarod and Dad Gil?”

“No. Not Dad Jarod, just Dad. Gil is Gil and Jarod is Dad.”

“Not to Gil,” Oliver said. “He barely considered you a dad. He never even knew if you’d be crazy enough to snap my neck. To him? He was Dad, and you were the BP. Biological Parent. I figured Jarod Dad sounded nicer.”

Ouch. The phrase ‘from the mouths of babes’ made a lot of sense just then.

“But I never called him Dad in front of mom. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. He didn’t like it.” He patted the door again. “Can we go now Jarod? I ate enough, I won’t do anything wrong. I just wanted to try the syrup.”

 

Mary watched Oliver come out and about to bounce up to her lap again. He gave her a big hug again. He was going to suck up every minute with her, a part of him probably still believing The Centre would find them again. Then she watched Jarod come out. He didn’t look happy. He was soaked to be sure, but it wasn’t that.

“Jarod, you okay?” His dad asked. “You need to sit down, Son?”

“No, Dad.” He put extra emphasis on the word. “I hate to ask you again, but can you watch Oliver one more second? I need to talk to Mary.”

Okay? Mary put Oliver down on the chair. She made sure she could see him from outside, but found her hand in Jarod’s grasp. She was going outside whether she wanted to or not.

When they were outside, she waited to see what he was fussing about.

“Who was Gil to him, and who was Gil to you?” Jarod commanded. “His job description was to teach Gil and take care of you, right? Did he overstep that boundary?”

Ah. “The Dad thing with Oliver? He’s confused, Jarod. You just came into his life last night. Gil’s been there for him even more than I was allowed to. He never overstepped with Oliver. He’s just very young and all he’s ever known is him.” He still didn’t look convinced. “You escaped late in The Centre. 1996. Imagine how confused you would be if you were born there, all you knew was Sydney, and you were five?”

“He calls him Dad when you aren’t around.” Jarod moved closer. “He overstepped. I’m Dad.”

Yikes. Okay. I know that like everyone else trapped in The Centre, Jarod wanted his family. He didn’t know about him, but he wants to know him. Now. Lost time. Names make all the difference. He feels threatened. Afraid someone took his place. “I didn’t know that, but family is more than just a name. I’ll talk to him about it. He’ll get that. Keep at it. This is a five year old,” she reminded him. “Give him room to breathe about this. He switches on and off with you because he’s not sure. He’ll stop switching eventually when he learns what a real dad does for his child.” Well that look? Good, he understood now.

“That makes me feel half better,” Jarod said. “He was an instructor. He was paid to be there.”

Hm. “He adopted him too. Officially, he had to, to make sure The Centre didn’t go overboard and take him away.”

“I don’t care about papers, I make up papers all the time.” Oof, that didn’t help him. “Papers doesn’t make him his, he is mine!”

Okay. Jarod got angry for a second, but she watched him visibly turn himself calm after a minute. He had a very good teacher to do that.

“Okay. I know what Gil was to him. Now what was Gil to you?”

Oh, here we go. “I know everything is new to Oliver and you, Jarod. Gil is the only person he ever interacted with. I was the only person he ever interacted with. We were the only people he ever interacted with that was good. Gil is my instructor too. Although?” Hm. Rankled. Angry again? Why? Why am I so angry again at him? He was a lousy protector who could have done more but- She took a step back from Jarod. “I knew I just didn’t know.” Crap! I can’t blame that on her, that was me. That was all me.

“What do you mean you knew but you didn’t know?” Jarod asked. “Mary.”

“Nothing, what’s it matter? Oliver’s been alive five years, if there was anything it was when I was just really young. Not like young, young. Like twenties.” Damn. “Nothing happens. Everything’s fine.” I want to shoot something now. That tree over there on the side of the road would be nice. I don’t have a gun. I need a gun.

“You look like you want to shoot that tree over there.” Oh of course he noticed it. “Mary?” Great, now he was creeping up on her.

“What?!” What was he doing? She felt really confused as he hugged her. “Not the time for hugs, Jarod. You know, your dad is only going to be here for so long. Do we really have to do this?” He still embraced her, but he looked at her from the side. “Quit that.”

“When?” Simply put.

“I hate pretenders, you can’t get away with anything around them.” Ouch. “Oh. Oh, I’m sorry, Jarod I didn’t mean to.” Be so mean. He just held her a little longer.

“Don’t worry about it.” He still hung on for a little longer before letting go. “You’re right. My dad is only here for so long. Let’s go. We can talk about it later.”

“I don’t want to talk about it later.” Seething again. “Drop it.”

“Can’t,” Jarod said. “Have to work it all out.”

“It wasn’t Miss Parker, okay?” Geez.

“It doesn’t matter. It still needs worked out,” he insisted.

“Oh damn it, Jarod, if it hadn’t been him it would have been Alex, so thank his fucking ass!” Ouch. She covered her mouth. She cursed, and not just a little word. The F word. “Gil would be so disappointed in me.”

“He shouldn’t be. He did that act with you.” Jarod’s voice was deep and nasty.

Jarod. Damn, Jarod. Damn him. Just, damn him. “I lured him to me,” she confessed. “Nineteen. He didn’t lure me to him.”

“It doesn’t make it anymore right. He was your instructor.”

“Stop judging me!” Jeez, like she didn’t feel bad enough?

“I’m not judging you. I have nothing against you. I’m judging him.”

“Nothing else has happened since . . .” Okay, that didn’t sound so good. “A couple. A few times. Twenty three, maybe, just drop it.” He still looked mad. “Your spot is secure, I never let him call himself dad. If he was doing it, it was behind my back. Which means Oliver should know. Okay? It’s a word to him right now. He’s just associating words. He knows words, give him time.”

“My son is never seeing him again.” Flat out cold.

Oh just great. “I told you, I was the one doing the-“

“Doesn’t matter, he was the instructor and he crossed a line on both of you! Never should have stepped over that line with my son! And he never, ever, should have stepped over that line for you. Especially for?” He lifted up each finger on his hand. “Five years. No cameras. No one looking over his shoulder.”

“It wasn’t like that.” Damn it. “Who cares?!”

“You do. You are the one who started to get angry before I did.” Jarod grabbed her hand gently. “If you had said it like it was nothing. Like you loved him. If you were bashful and said ‘please don’t hurt him it was all my fault’. If you didn’t have this look in your eye like you were ready to rage down this road and kill everything in sight. I wouldn’t care. You said before that you hit him twice with no remorse when you left The Centre.”

“So?”

“There is always a reason for everything.” He kept his eyes trained on her hand as he rubbed the top of it. Touching and feeling. She didn’t think much of it, she knew it was how pretenders thought. He was deep in thought. Then, he stopped. Whatever he was thinking about, it was done. “We’ll go back inside. You’re right. I only have so long with my dad.”

Yeah, but she could already tell this conversation wasn’t over.

 

“So? His mom clearly needs some work,” his dad told him as he parted from the restaurant with Gemini. “I’m guessing that’s going to take time. Can you handle them until then?”

“Handle them?” Oh. “Yeah. I can handle them until then.”

“Does she need to work with you or is this something she works out on her own over time?” His dad asked more clearly. “If I need to take them now or later, let me know.”

“K.” A single consonant fell out of his mouth. I don’t want to lose Oliver. I can do everything and hold them. Right?

“We’ll make plenty of room,” Gemini assured him. “No matter how underground we go, the Major always makes room enough for everyone. Like, we never know when everyone will finally be together.”

Gemini was a pretender himself and Jarod never watched him. He needed a father. He gave him his. That didn’t mean. “They’re mine.” It wasn’t the same situation. Emily. He was supposed to get her to his father that one time. She didn’t stay with him, but she was old enough. Had her own life she could live. Yeah. His dad didn’t like that harshness though. “I mean-“

“Yes, I know what you mean,” his dad blocked him. “He’s your boy. That’s his mother. You don’t want to separate yet. That’s fine. When you pretend though, things get dangerous. When The Centre is on you, things get dangerous. Make sure if you are going to keep them near during your pretends? That she is fully recovered, because you are not going to be happy if either The Centre gets them, or she steals Oliver away not knowing which way is up. Remember? The Centre wasn’t even bothering with your girl Zoe until-“

“Yeah, I know!” Just remind him. “Sorry. Just. I will be the most careful. The lightest. The farthest. No clues, nothing. Minimal.” Jarod picked up the part of the heart on his necklace.

“Okay.” His dad hit him playfully on his shoulder. “Okay, Son. As long as you understand the risks, it’s fine by me. It’s your family.”

“I know the risks. Once Miss Parker is back to normal, there’s no way anyone could even survive and touch Oliver without her permission.” He could do what he had to, and she could watch him. Miss Parker could hold her own, he had no doubt about that.

When she got better though. Not as Mary. Not yet.

“Alright then. You take care. Have fun with your son. We’ll meet again, okay?”

“Okay.” Jarod let go of the heart piece and gave his dad a hug. “Oh. We should get him for a hug.” Oh, wait. Mary. “Maybe not.” He watched as Mary moved Oliver outside of the restaurant doors with her. Oh good.

“Bye, Oliver.” Gemini patted his head. “Good to meet you. See you again soon.”

Oliver looked confused by the action. He patted Gemini’s cheek instead. He went over by his Grandpa and hugged his legs. “Goodbye, Major Grandpa Charles Person Sir.”

“Saying goodbye is the same greeting. Grandpa Charles,” The Major said to him. “You have a good rest of the day. I’ll see you again soon, okay?”

“Okay, Grandpa Charles.” He let go of his legs and went back toward his mom.

Jarod watched them leave. Away. Again.

“Off of that sign!”

Jarod looked back and saw Oliver almost to the top of a stop sign. He went after him like Mary did.

“You are not an Olympic athlete, you haven’t been one for six months so no excuses, get down!” She commanded.

Jarod helped grab one but couldn’t help but crack on that one. “Stop signs are for stopping, not for climbing.” He put him back down. “No climbing signs.”

“My weight can clearly be held,” Oliver said in his defense.

“No climbing signs,” Jarod said again.

“They aren’t dangerous, I can balance myself just fine,” Oliver said. He looked over in the street. “That one I wouldn’t do. Not because I can’t, but because mom won’t let me.” He looked back to his mom. “Right?”

“A light post? Oh don’t even ask.” She rolled her eyes.

Freedom from the perspective of a young child who lived in a white room with nothing to climb on or do. From that height and that angle? If I was lighter, I would have done it myself when I first left. He smiled. In fact? He probably would have gone for the light post.

 












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