WHEN FRANCESCA CAME home from the gallery that night, she found Ian sitting quietly at the kitchen table with Marya, eating a bowl of soup. His father was nowhere in the room, and Francesca was instantly aware that it was Thursday, a day when Chris didn’t normally see Ian. And he only came to the house on weekends. Something was clearly out of step.
Francesca set down her bag, and slipped into a chair next to Ian and smiled at him. She wasn’t sure what to say. She wanted to hug him but didn’t want to overwhelm him. Marya had been reading him a story.
“I’m happy to see you, Ian,” Francesca said softly, and ran a gentle hand across his hair. He looked up at her with sad eyes, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and when he looked at her it nearly broke her heart.
“My mom got sick last night,” he said quietly. “She fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up. I tried to wake her but I couldn’t. There was a lot of blood. I thought she was dead. I called nine-one-one.” Francesca tried not to look as shocked as she was as she listened and nodded.
“That must have been so scary for you.” He nodded, and Francesca didn’t want to ask if his mother was still alive or had died the night before. It would have explained the expression of shock and sorrow on his face. He looked like an orphan sitting there, and she wanted to put her arms around him, but he seemed so fragile she didn’t dare.
“She’s in the hospital now, but she’s very sick. I’m going to stay here with Dad.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said softly.
“So am I,” Marya added. “You can help me bake lots of cookies. You can take some with you to school.” He nodded again, as his father came into the room, and Chris looked as traumatized as his son. There were dark circles under his eyes from the night before.
Chris took a seat at the table and smiled at Ian, as though they had come through the wars together. Francesca suspected they had, given what she had just heard.
“How are you doing, Champ?”
“Okay,” Ian said quietly. He had eaten very little of the soup.
“I think we both need to go to bed early and get some sleep. How does that sound to you?” Chris looked utterly worn out.
“Okay,” Ian said again. He wasn’t the bouncy, happy child he normally was on weekends, but if he had watched his mother nearly die in a pool of blood, it was easy to understand why he was so subdued.
Marya touched his arm sympathetically, as Chris picked the boy up and carried him upstairs. He looked gratefully at Marya, who had been wonderful to Ian all that afternoon. Francesca stayed and talked to Marya for a while. Neither of them knew exactly what had happened, but it sounded bad, and the horror of it was written all over the child’s face.
Francesca was watching TV in her room when Chris came upstairs to see her after Ian fell asleep.
“Sorry for all the drama,” he said, looking acutely unhappy, as she motioned him to a chair in her bedroom and he sat down. She was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, and so was he. “This isn’t new for us, but it’s always shocking anyway. Ian’s mother is a heroin addict. She OD’d last night. She told me she was clean, but she never is. I don’t know what happened, I think she’s been involved with some bad guy recently. She shot up, slashed her wrists, and proceeded to nearly bleed to death in front of Ian. He saved her life and called nine-one-one. He was keeping pressure on her arteries with his fingers when they showed up. He was covered with blood, and so was she, but he saved her. She’s going to rehab again after she gets out of the hospital. I’m sorry to tell you all this, Francesca. It’s pretty nasty stuff, and it’s really tough on him. I got out, but she’s his mother and we have joint custody.
“As long as she stays clean, we share him, and as soon as she gets better after this, he’ll probably go back to her. I hate it, but that’s the way it is. She’s very convincing whenever she cleans up. And judges don’t like taking kids away from their mothers, so they always give her another chance, at least so far. She gets drug-tested weekly, so they give us shared custody until she blows it, like now. And Ian’s very loyal to her. She’s his mother, and he loves her. Every time something like this happens, it tears him apart, and me for his having to go through it. I used to want to kill her for this. Now I just want to get him through it without having it destroy his life. She did a pretty good job on me. I’d love to get sole custody, but she talks a good game and sounds like Mother Teresa in court when she’s clean. The judges fall for it every time.” Francesca could see how ravaged he was by what was happening to his son, and she could only imagine what their married life together must have been like. He was the last person she would have suspected of being involved with a drug addict. He was so square and sensible. But clearly, she wasn’t. It struck Francesca that you never knew what people’s private lives were like. His had obviously been a nightmare, and now Ian was living it. Chris looked near tears as he talked to her about it.
“I came up to talk to you because I don’t know how long Ian will be with me. She’s supposed to go to rehab when she gets out of the hospital. If she’s willing. She says she is now, but she could change her mind when she gets there. Ian won’t go back to live with her unless she’s drug-tested and clean. She could get her shit together in a month, or two or three. Or she could kill herself with it one of these days. I told you Ian would only be here two weekends a month, but that’s not going to be the case right now for a while. I wanted to ask you if you want me to move out. You weren’t expecting to have a child here full time, so I’ll look for an apartment for me and Ian, if you prefer. I didn’t think I needed an apartment when I moved in here, but apparently I do right now. It’s up to you, Francesca, and I understand perfectly if you don’t want us here. Just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll take care of it as fast as I can.” He looked utterly washed out as he volunteered to move, and she looked at him in horror.
“Are you kidding? Do you think I would ask you to leave with all of that going on and happening to Ian? He’s welcome to stay here, and so are you. I wouldn’t think of asking you to move out, and I don’t want you to. We love Ian, and I’d like to be there for him too. This has to be a really hard time for him, and for you both. I’m sorry you have to go through it.” She was truly sorry for him.
“So am I,” he said, with the vision of his child covered in blood when he picked him up at the hospital the night before. “No kid should have to live with this. If she had half a heart, or a brain, she’d give up custody, but she won’t do that. She’s afraid of how it will look to her parents, and they’ll stop giving her money, so she hangs on to him. She can’t take care of him. But they don’t want her to give him up, which stinks. I have to go to a temporary custody hearing tomorrow. They’ll give him to me now, but as soon as she’s back on her feet and can bullshit a judge and look halfway clean, they’ll give Ian to her for our custody arrangement. It makes me sick to send him back. This is the third time this has happened, and they keep giving him to her when she looks okay. Her father is a very powerful man. That holds a lot of sway with the judge.”
“What does Ian want?” Francesca asked him softly.
“He’s afraid that if he’s not there to save her, she’ll die. This is the second time he has. But one of these days it won’t work, and she’ll die right in front of him with a needle sticking out of her arm.” There were tears rolling down his cheeks as he said it, and Francesca got off her bed and gave him a hug.
“Do you want me to go to the hearing with you tomorrow? No one should have to go through that alone.” He shook his head.
“I’ve been there before. And thank you, but I wouldn’t do that to you. This is my problem, not yours. But thanks for offering and being a good friend. At least the judge said Ian doesn’t have to be there. This should be pretty quick, and it’s only temporary custody till she gets out of rehab. Her lawyer can’t say much after everything that happened last night.” It was agony for him and Ian, and Francesca could see it in his eyes. She understood now why he spent his time alone. He was obviously still traumatized by everything he’d lived through with his ex-wife. He said all he wanted now was to be with Ian and enjoy a peaceful life. He had lived through hell when he was with her, and Ian still was. But Chris knew that if he tried to take him away from her permanently, the child would blame himself forever for not being there for her. It was a nightmare for him. Ian had become the caretaker, and his mother the child.
They talked for a few more minutes, and Francesca reassured him again about not moving out. He was very grateful, and then went back to his room to be with Ian. They had hardly slept the night before, and Ian had terrible nightmares that night. She could hear him screaming through the floor of her room, and the deep rumble of Chris’s soothing voice. She felt desperately sorry for them both.
Marya baby-sat for Ian when Chris left for the temporary custody hearing early the next morning. Chris was wearing a dark suit and a tie. He looked more serious than Francesca had ever seen him, and her heart went out to him as he left in a cab to meet his lawyer at the courthouse. He’d been through it before, too many times. Ian knew all about it too. He explained it to Marya and Francesca as they sat with him in the kitchen and tried unsuccessfully to distract him. He explained that he would live with his dad now until his mother got out of the hospital, and then he had to go back to her to take care of her, otherwise she might die. He said it with the saddest eyes Francesca had ever seen. Chris had confided to her the night before that Ian saw a therapist twice a week just to get through the trauma he lived with on a daily basis. Francesca thought it was criminal to put a child through it, and an agonizing blackmail for the child.
Ian had spoken to his mother early that morning on the phone, when Chris let him talk to her. But they both knew that once she got to rehab, she wouldn’t be able to call him until she was clean and got out. It could be months before Ian would talk to her again, and a grieving process for him every time. He looked like he was in mourning as he sat on Marya’s lap and she held him, and then he cuddled up next to Francesca and fell asleep. He was still dozing when Chris got home at eleven. The judge had given him temporary custody of Ian, as he expected. He whispered his thanks to Francesca and Marya, scooped the child up in his arms, and took him back to their room to sleep and try to recover from everything he’d been through. Francesca was still shaken by it when she left for the gallery, and she thought about both of them all day. She wished that she could do something to help them, but there was so little anyone could do, except be there for them. They were rapidly becoming friends and taking care of each other. It was better than Francesca had ever hoped when she decided to take in roommates. It felt like the residents of 44 Charles Street were a family now.