A quick fling five years ago changed my life forever.
My answering machine was blinking like a Christmas tree when I got home that Thursday evening. I unfastened the top button on my shirt, flung my tie over the back of a chair, and grabbed a beer from the refrigerator. It had been a frazzling day. I’d sold two SUVs at the dealership where I worked—one to a woman who’d taken two hours to decide on the color. The other vehicle had gone to a hardcore price-haggler using a magnifying glass to find imaginary flaws in the finish.
I flopped down into a chair and listened to my phone messages. The first call was from Laurie, my current girlfriend. “I heard about a great new band playing at one of the clubs, she said brightly. Want to check it out?”
The second call was a mystery.
“This is Molly McGowen from Child Protective Services,” the voice said crisply. “I’m calling for Jarred Gillman. Please call me back as soon as possible. It’s important.” There had to be some kind of mistake. Child Protective Services? What was that about? The only kids I had any contact with were the ones dragged unwillingly into the dealership by their parents. Not yet concerned, I returned the call. She answered immediately.
“Are you in a place where you can talk privately?” she asked.
“Yes, but are you sure you’ve gotten the right person?”
“As best as I can tell. Did you have a relationship about five years ago with a woman named Renee Carlson?”
“Yes, but not for long. What are you getting at?”
“Mr. Gillman, are you aware that she later had a child?”
My stomach tightened. “No . . . ”
“There’s a very distinct possibility that you may be the father.”
The tautness in my midsection was now a hard, burning knot. “What—how?” I stammered. “I mean, wouldn’t she have let me know? This makes no sense.”
“She didn’t want to involve you at all,” the case worker explained. “She’s not asking anything from you. It’s just that the child has been in foster care, and the foster parents want to adopt him. Renee signed away her rights from the beginning because of an alcohol problem. She refused to list anyone as the father on the birth certificate. Now that the adoption is pending, we’re obligated by law to do everything we can to determine the father’s identity to make sure that all parties’ rights are protected. When we finally convinced Renee of the importance of this, she gave us two names. One was yours.”
“It has to be the other guy,” I argued. “I’m always very careful.”
“He’s been tested,” she said. “He’s not the father.”
The room seemed to tilt slightly. “But there could be others—”
“In theory, yes. But we need to get a DNA sample from you first.”
I swallowed hard. “Sure. When?”
She gave me the name and number of a laboratory. “It’s important that the test be done as quickly as possible, because it takes at least two weeks to get the results,” she explained.
“I’ll do that.”
I thanked her, not knowing why except that it filled up space in an awkward conversation. I hung up and walked around the room in a daze.
Renee Carlson had been in my life five years and a couple of dozen women ago. I wouldn’t have remembered that much about her, other than the fact that she could put away more martinis than anybody I ever saw and still be able to walk a straight line.
I met her, fittingly, in a singles joint. I was new in the city and feeling lonely and disoriented when I walked into Swizzle’s and found her sitting at the bar. I was struck by her dark beauty and slim figure. Her sable hair flared out slightly at the ends and barely grazed her shoulders. Her big green eyes and childlike gaze made her look more like she belonged in a church choir instead of in a bar. Surprisingly, there was an empty stool next to her. I slid onto it, figuring she probably wasn’t too interested in the three-hundred-pound guy to her left, even though he was making a valiant effort in the face of all odds.
As it turned out, she’d come with a girlfriend who’d left with an old acquaintance just moments before. On her third martini, she was in a social mood. We hit it off right away. She told me about the city and all the hot spots, adding that she was between relationships. I had two beers, she had two more martinis—extra dry, with two olives—and the next thing I knew, I was taking her home.
Honestly, I had no ulterior motive. Without my giving her a ride, she would have had to call a cab. She invited me into her apartment and poured herself a glass of wine while I nursed a beer. We talked a little about our backgrounds. She was pretty candid. It must have been the liquor, because it came out that she had run a stop sign as a teenager, resulting in the death of her identical twin. Renee was a graphic artist, she was twenty-six, and her goal was to have her own professional design studio someday.
My goal was simply to make a little money. My father had abandoned my mother and me when I was two. My mom supported me by working as a school secretary. Six months before my high school graduation, she died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. A coach took me in, but after that I was pretty much on my own.
My love of cars led me to learning how to fix them, but I discovered I could make more money by selling them—especially the most popular ones. When I met Renee, I’d just moved up to one of the biggest dealerships in the state.
Our relationship lasted all of about four weeks. Frankly, I was concerned about her drinking. She was great fun as long as she had a drink in her hand; but in the morning she awoke irritable and moody. It didn’t take a psychiatrist to guess where the need to drink might have come from. When I suggested that maybe she could use some help, she denied that the problem was serious. The relationship ended on that mind-your-own-business note.
We’d had sex maybe a dozen times. She was taking birth control pills. She’d even showed them to me, so I figured we were safe. I took measures of my own, mainly for disease protection . . . at least that’s the way I wanted to remember it.
After Renee, there had been a string of others. The first was a woman I fell hard for, but she dumped me for Todd Holcombe, a rich guy with a BMW and an MBA. I’d grown up without a father, I’d lost my mother, and then I lost the only girl I’d ever loved. Emotionally, I kept my distance after that. From then on I was out for fun, nothing more.
I took a deep breath and sat down. At that moment, I was having no fun at all. Me, a father? I only halfway knew how to be a son, let alone a dad. Surely, this was sort of a mistake.
But what if it wasn’t?
The next morning I was the first in line when the lab opened at seven. They swabbed some cells from inside my cheek. It was quick and painless; the wait that followed wasn’t.
Sixteen days later, the social worker called. Sweat broke out all over me as I closed my office door.
“The results are in,” she said. “There’s a ninety-nine-point-nine percent probability that the child is yours.”
Chilled, I slumped onto the corner of my desk.
“Mr. Gillman, are you still there?”
“Yes. But that’s not a hundred percent, right?”
“No, but it’s virtual certainty.”
I took a few seconds to absorb it. “I guess we need to talk about it.”
“Of course. I’m at your disposal.”
I left work early, telling the boss I wasn’t feeling well—which was the truth—and headed toward the CPS office on the other side of town. As I drove, the fog in my head failed to clear.
I had a son. He was four years old. And I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do next.
In addition to being a social worker, Molly McGowen was a grandmother. The evidence was a framed, finger-painted picture on her wall. On it To Nana, with two backward N’s, had been scrawled. I should have been amused, but anything having to do with kids was now scary.
She got me a cup of coffee, then sat down across from me. A folder about three inches thick rested on her desk.
“What is he like?” I asked. “Have you seen him?”
“He’s a lovely child,” she said. “The foster family has done an excellent job. They’ve had him since he was a month old.”
“Where was he up until then?”
“He was in the intensive care nursery. He was several months premature and had a heart problem. Both were believed to be connected to his mother’s use of alcohol during pregnancy. He later had corrective heart surgery.”
I stared at her, stunned. Suddenly, I felt a flare of resentment toward Renee. How could she have continued to drink when she knew it could harm the baby?
“How is he now?” I asked.
“He’s fine, mentally and physically. He can do anything a normal four-year-old can do, as long as he doesn’t overdo it.”
“Can I see him?”
“You’re the father. You have the legal right.”
I swallowed hard. “I know it might be awkward. . . . ”
“It’s a delicate situation. The foster parents were quite shocked to learn that the father issue hasn’t been put to rest after all. Understandably, they’re upset. They thought the adoption was all set to go through. They’re very worried now about what you might do.”
“For right now, I just want to see my son,” I said.
“I understand. We’ll have to go through some legal channels. Once that’s done, I’ll notify the foster parents. Of course, someone from the agency will need to be present.”
I nodded. “Can you tell me anything about the foster parents?”
“They’re in their late thirties and have their own real-estate company,” she said. “They’re well off, decent people, married for twelve years. They’ve done a lot of volunteer work in the community.”
I couldn’t deny that they had a lot going for them. “Where does that put me, exactly? I mean, what are my options?”
“Of course, the first option would be to forfeit your rights, clearing the way for adoption,” she explained. “Another would be to seek visitation privileges. You would also be within your rights as a father to seek sole custody. All would have to go through the courts, but the last option would likely involve a court battle.”
“I’d have to fight for my own child?” I asked.
“The foster parents have legal custody and desperately want to keep him,” she said.
My head swam. I still didn’t know what to think. “Just one more thing: Why did Renee finally reveal my name after all these years?”
“At first, she didn’t want to complicate anyone’s life. She felt she’d already complicated enough lives as it was. She was also ashamed of her behavior. She was essentially too drunk to remember much. As the adoption drew near, and with her alcoholism under control, she realized that the father had the right to know.”
I sat quietly for a moment. I didn’t know whether to be grateful or not. Mostly, I was overwhelmed. “Looks like the next move is mine,” I said.
“Yes, Mr. Gillman. You hold the future of four people—yourself included—in your hands.”
For starters, my first move upset three people. After taking Laurie to see the new band that she was excited about, I broke the news about the three-hundred-and-sixty-degree turn my life had taken.
She nervously twisted a stand of long blonde hair. “ What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I can’t just walk away.”
“This complicates things,” she said as we shared a nightcap in her apartment.
“It certainly does for me.”
“I mean . . . this is not where I hoped our relationship would be heading.”
“What do you mean?”
“Suddenly, you’ve got all this . . . baggage. I don’t know if I can deal with it.”
An uneasy feeling passed through me. “What were you hoping for?”
“Commitment, maybe more. Just us . . . two people steering our own course.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t ignore what’s happened.”
“You could if you signed away your rights,” she insisted. “That might be the best for all concerned. The child is obviously happy and secure where he is. You wouldn’t want to disrupt that.”
I felt a stirring of anger. “Look, this is a child, not a dog, and he happens to be mine. I’m morally obligated. I’m a father, and with that comes responsibilities.”
She stood and took several steps toward the door. I took that as a sign that she was ready for me to leave. “I respect that,” she said. “I hope everything works out for you.”
I got up. “I understand what you’re saying. It’s been nice knowing you, Laurie.”
She paled. “So . . . it’s over, just like that? There’s no chance you’ll change your mind?”
She opened the door and I walked out. It was just as well. Even if my son were not in the picture, Laurie wanted more than I was willing to deliver.
Steve and Jenny Norwood were the couple who wanted to adopt my son. They had named him Collin. When they learned that I wanted to see him, they were understandably nervous. Worse, they were angry with CPS for hurling this last-minute, radioactive obstacle at them. That obstacle was me.
Forewarned by CPS and coached on what and what not to do, I drove to the Norwoods’ the following Saturday morning. Their neighborhood, referred to as “Country Club” because of its proximity to that vaunted establishment, was thick with old trees and old money. Their house was a sprawling, brick two-story colonial, with lush landscaping and matching luxury vehicles in the driveway.
In front was a compact car with the state seal on the doors. I parked behind it, wiped my sweaty palms on my new gray suit, and vainly patted down a sprig of dark blond hair that jutted from my crown. My heart beating hard, I got out of the car and made my way to the front door. Nervously, I ran my fingers over the dimple in my chin and punched the doorbell.
Right away, the door opened. A guy with dark hair appeared. He had a polish about him that triggered a memory from the past—that of Todd Holcombe, the rich guy who had stolen my girlfriend. Like threatened animals, we instinctively eyed each other.
“You must be Jarred Gillman,” he said. Norwood extended a hand. It was cold.
I followed them into a formal living room. A petite woman stood by a baby grand piano. Attractive, with shiny auburn hair cut stylishly short, she stepped forward and introduced herself. She smiled but her dark eyes were overcast with fear.
“I’m pleased to meet both of you,” I said. “I’ve been told that you’ve been very good foster parents.”
“Thank you,” Jenny Norwood said.
An awkward silence followed. I glanced about the room but there was no sign of Collin. The social worker stepped forward.
She gave us a little more information about each other and struggled to put us at ease, but the tension in the air was almost palpable. I was anxious to see my son, though no one seemed to be in a hurry to get him.
Finally, Mrs. McGowan asked if I was ready to meet him.
“Yes,” I said, my throat dry.
The social worker gave me a knowing look. “Remember what we talked about.”
I nodded. We were going to ease into this; I wasn’t going to present myself as his father—at least until we could see how things were going to unfold.
“I’ll bring him down,” Jenny Norwood said. “He’s with his aunt.”
My pulse quickened as she disappeared. The social worker tried for some semblance of conversation, but I was beyond engagement.
Then I heard footsteps. I turned, and my heart almost stopped. There was Jenny Norwood with a blond, blue-eyed boy. Here was the missing fraction of proof that this child was mine. From the straight eyebrows to the dimpled chin, he was almost a copy of a portrait of myself at that age. His eyes shyly met mine.
“Collin, this is Jarred.” Mrs. Norwood’s voice cracked slightly. “He’s come to visit us.”
I crouched down to his height. “Hello, Collin.”
He stepped slightly behind his foster mother.
“He’s a little shy,” she explained.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a toy fire engine. “This is for you.”
Cautiously, the boy stepped forward and took it. With a bit of coaching from his mother, he thanked me and began pushing the toy over the Oriental rug.
“He goes to the top preschool,” Steve Norwood said. “He lacks for nothing.”
I nodded without taking my eyes off the boy. Was the father trying to reassure me, or hinting that they could give Collin more than I could?
“How far can you count?” I asked the child gently, but he ignored me. “What’s your teacher’s name?” I persisted.
Collin turned away and scurried onto his foster father’s lap. “Look, Daddy! It has two ladders.”
Oddly, I felt an ache at the sound of the word Daddy. Could I ever mean anything to this kid? From the first moment I saw him, he meant something to me. It was as if some primal force had pulled him straight into my heart.
“Does he like sports?” I asked.
“Basketball,” Steve Norwood said. “He has a child-sized goal. We play in the back yard.”
“That was my sport in high school,” I said. “Our team made it to the state semi-finals.”
“That’s interesting to know.” He looked at me warily and tightened his arms around the boy.
“What are your impressions of Collin so far?” Mrs. Norwood asked.
“I can’t put it into words. Wonder, amazement . . . ” I stopped short of saying that I couldn’t believe this beautiful little boy was mine.
“I can assure you that you’ll never have to worry about him,” Norwood said. “He’ll have the best of everything, every advantage.”
“He’s our heart and soul,” Mrs. Norwood added, her eyes misty. “We couldn’t love him any more if he were . . . ”
Silence hung in the air as we all focused on Collin. He was spinning the wheels on the toy truck, happily oblivious to the delicate semantics at play around him.
“I’m afraid we’re out of time,” the social worker said. “Let’s take a few days to absorb things, then go from there.”
The Norwoods exchanged nervous glances. “That will be fine,” Mr. Norwood said.
I got up and touched my son’s shoulder. “See you, sport. How about a high-five?”
“What’s a high fly?” he asked.
I demonstrated by touching my own hands together. When I turned a palm toward him, he gave it a slap and grinned. Maybe I was getting as dopey as a new parent, but to me that little smile was the eighth wonder of the world.
The Norwoods walked us to the door. They went through all the usual courtesies, but I sensed they were anxious to part company. A few feet down the sidewalk, I turned back for another look at my son, but the door was already closed.
I drove away, replaying the whole scene in my head, especially the image of Collin in Norwood’s arms. Once again, I thought of the rich guy who had stolen my girl. Now this one had my child.
I didn’t know what to expect when I went over there. I’d worked hard over the years at being emotionally guarded. “No deep feelings, no heartbreak” was my motto. Maybe I thought I could satisfy my curiosity as to what Collin looked like, make sure he was in a good home, then go on with my life. But without even trying, the kid had put his hooks in me. I couldn’t get loose, nor did I want to. I wanted him to know me, to know that I cared, to know that I would always be there for him.
Three days later I got a call from a man who identified himself as the Norwoods’ attorney. He asked if we could talk. Right away, I was on guard. “What about?”
“Something that might interest you . . . in a positive way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s discuss it in my office.”
An hour later I was sitting in front of Richard Markley, a partner in one the city’s top law firms. His office had more leather than a feed lot.
“My clients have had Collin since he was practically a newborn,” Markley began. “They’re the only parents he’s ever known. He’s happy and healthy. The Norwoods have passed all the pre-adoption tests with flying colors. It’s a winning situation for all of you. You have the assurance he’ll be well cared for, and you’ll be able to go on with your life. They’ll have the family they wouldn’t otherwise be able to have.
“That in itself should please you, but the Norwoods want to offer you even more. For not standing in the way of the adoption, and for granting them sole custody, they’re prepared to pay you fifty thousand dollars immediately.”
I stared at him. “You mean they want to buy my child?”
“Of course, not. Baby-selling is illegal. They’re just trying to avoid what could be a long and expensive legal battle. They want to avoid any negative impact on the child. I’m sure you do as well.”
Heat crept up my neck. “So, in exchange for a bag of money, I’ll agree to relinquish my rights. Is that correct?”
“You can go back to the life you were living and be free of any obligations or responsibilities.”
“No,” I said flatly. “I’m not signing. I want to be able to see my son again.”
“The Norwoods wouldn’t be averse to occasional visits.”
I looked at him distrustfully.
“Think it over,” he said.
“I already have.” I got up and walked angrily out the door.
I didn’t have a lawyer, but I already knew after talking to the social worker that relinquishing my rights entitled me to nothing. The Norwoods could say I could visit, but they wouldn’t be legally obligated to do anything once I’d given him up. I thought of the money and bristled. Sure, someone else might be tempted, but not me. What kind of person did they think I was?
I thought of the scout outings and ball games of my childhood, and how it seemed that everyone but me had a father or stepfather present at one time or another. I’d spent years wondering what was wrong with me that had caused my dad to leave. It didn’t matter that I was just two years old when he’d left. In my kid’s mind, I figured it might have had something to do with me. It especially haunted me on every birthday, when no card or letter ever came. Mom did her best, but she couldn’t be both mother and father.
A lump formed in my throat. I wasn’t going to let my son grow up thinking his father didn’t care. Furthermore, I wasn’t going to let the Norwoods come between me and him. They had money and power, but I had something more: blood ties.
The next day, I hired my own lawyer. My immediate goal was to get legal visitation rights. A few weeks later, the Norwoods, who had little choice, agreed to regular visitation. The judge specified that the visits were to be supervised by a CPS representative. Yet the thorniest issue remained: the adoption. There was no way I was going to sign off on that anytime soon.
My life now had meaning and purpose. The partying, the girlfriends, all of it now seemed hollow. The big hole in my heart was now being filled by a little boy.
On the first Saturday after my regular visitation rights were granted, I loaded up my car with some toys I’d bought. There was a child-sized football, a make-believe Army uniform in desert camouflage, like the one I’d worn during Operation Desert Storm. I’d even brought a duplicate of my own army jacket. Then there was something really special—a toy gun I had as a kid.
The Norwoods and I greeted each other with a hollow and stilted politeness. They knew I was displeased over the deal they’d proposed because my lawyer had told their lawyer. But with Mrs. McGowen present, it just really wasn’t a matter for discussion.
“Collin is upstairs,” Mr. Norwood explained. “We thought it would be best if we had a little chat first.” He glanced at Mrs. McGowan.
“Collin has been told that you’re his ‘second daddy’ and that you’ll be visiting him once a month,” he explained.
I felt a slight twist in my gut. “I’m not a ‘second daddy.’ I’m his father.”
There was a glint of resistance in Norwood’s eyes. His wife, looking paler than I remembered, laid a hand over his.
“Collin will understand more later,” the social worker interjected. “Remember, he’s only four years old. We don’t want to give him more information than he can handle, especially from an emotional standpoint. It’s important to move slowly.”
I backed off. “What did he say when you told him?”
Norwood took a deep breath. “He said that Timmy, a boy in his preschool, has two daddies, so it wasn’t a foreign idea to him. Timmy has a father and a stepfather.”
“See, this isn’t going to be so hard,” I said.
The Norwoods responded with silence.
“Are you ready to bring Collin down?” the social worker asked, filling an uneasy void.
A few minutes later, the boy appeared with his aunt.
I moved toward him. “Hey, pal.”
He shrank back against his foster father, but he kept his eyes on me.
“How about a high-five? Remember how to do that?”
Collin nodded and held up his hand. I smiled and touched my palm to his. “ ’Atta boy!”
His look of caution melted into a grin.
“I brought you something,” I said.
“A toy?” he asked.
“No.” After a teasing pause I said, “Three toys.”
“Let me see!”
I grabbed the bag I’d brought. “For starters, here’s a football,” I said, tossing it up in the air. His blue eyes sparked. “Do you know how to throw a pass?”
“I’ll teach you.” I glanced at the Norwoods, who wore strained smiles.
“What’s the other toy?” he asked.
I pulled the tiny army uniform out of the bag. “How about dressing like a real soldier?”
“Let’s try it on.” I helped him into the jacket. Thanks to the clerk at the store, it was a good fit. Then I pulled out my own and put it on. A look of awe crossed his face.
The Norwoods’ expressions froze.
“I was in the Army,” I explained quickly. “An artillery unit.”
They nodded stiffly.
“And here’s what every soldier carries—although it’s not exactly regulation,” I said. I pulled out a six-shooter. “It’s to protect yourself against bad guys.”
Collin examined the toy gun with fascination. “Does it really shoot?”
“Just caps. It won’t hurt anybody. I played with it myself when I was a little boy. It’s very special. I saved it just for you.”
He pointed it across the room. “Bang! Bang, bang!”
I laughed. “Maybe next time we can play, soldier.”
“Let’s play now!”
“Perhaps some other day,” Mrs. Norwood interjected. “How would you like to show your . . . second daddy your room?”
Collin took off upstairs. The rest of us followed to a room at the end of a hallway. In it was a set of twin beds with headboards that looked like halved canoe hulls. The whole room was done with a red, white, and blue nautical theme. Even the curtains, which were a navy blue and white stripe, hung from oars mounted across the tops of the windows.
I didn’t see any toys except for some educational-type gizmos. Instead, there were a lot of books lined up neatly in a built-in bookcase. I could tell by their thin spines that they were all kids’ books.
“Look, fish!” Collin said, pointing toward a small aquarium. He grabbed some food and sprinkled it inside.
“Collin has responsibilities,” Mrs. Norwood said. “One of them is to feed the fish.”
“And I have two beds,” he exclaimed. “The other is for Ralph.”
Ralph, he explained, was the family dog, a mixed breed from the animal shelter. Then he pulled out all the drawers to show everyone what was inside as the adults softly chuckled. I felt a lump rising in my throat again. This was my kid, and he was a great kid.
“Where’s the television?” I asked. I figured every rich child these days had a television in his room.
“We don’t encourage a lot of television watching,” Mrs. Norwood said. “What we watch, we watch together downstairs.”
I was introduced to Ralph, had Mrs. McGowan take a few shots of Collin and me in our matching army jackets, and before I knew it, visitation time was over. I wasn’t sure if the Norwoods would ever really loosen up, but I felt I’d made progress with Collin. How could it be any other way? We were father and son.
I’d just returned home from dropping off the film when the phone rang. It was Norwood.
“Can we talk?” he asked.
“I mean in person.”
I felt a tightening in my chest. “Look, I thought the money matter was settled.”
“No, it’s something else.”
My heart beat uneasily as I drove to his real-estate office. At the door he shook my hand briefly, then slipped his hands casually into his pockets. It was a gesture that reminded me once again of Todd Holcombe.
He led me into a comfortable but not lavish office. On a ledge behind his desk was a recent portrait of him, his wife, and Collin.
“I know you meant well,” he began, “but we try not to spoil Collin with lots of toys.”
I bristled. “Are you telling me that you don’t want me to bring him any more?”
“Maybe if you could just use some restraint—with guns, in particular.”
“But it’s just a toy,” I protested. “It was mine when I was a kid.”
“We’ve never bought him toy guns. We feel they’d lead to an acceptance of violence as a way to solve problems.”
Wavelets of heat crept up my neck. “I hardly think a cap pistol is going to turn him into a hardened criminal. Ever heard of shooting as a sport? There’s even a category for it in the Olympics—”
“Maybe so, but the purpose of most guns is to kill or incapacitate.”
I glared at him, unable to contain my anger. “I gave him the only thing I had from my childhood. It was a gift from the heart. When my mother got that for me, I thought she was the greatest mom in the world. Let me remind you, Mr. Norwood, that he’s my son. I have the right to give him whatever is mine. You didn’t like the army uniform, either, did you?”
He took a deep breath. “I think we’d better let it go at that.”
“Any objections to the football?”
“Look, I know I’m the last person you ever wanted to see, but I have rights, too. That child is my flesh and blood. I appreciate everything you’ve done for him. I would have done those things, too, if I’d known he existed.”
“Mr. Gillman, indications are that you might have been too busy. Some have used the word ‘playboy’ to describe your lifestyle. How would Collin have fit into that?”
I leaned forward. “How do you know anything about my past life?”
“We’ve done some checking.”
“You’re investigating me?”
“We’re only doing this in the interest of our son.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “No, you’re doing this in your own interest. You’ve already got everything—money, a big house, nice cars—and now you want the only thing I have—my boy.”
He swallowed hard. “Mr. Gillman, we’re the only parents he’s ever known. We’re the ones who sat up with him when he had an earache. We’re the ones who paid the doctor bills. We’re the ones who fed him, clothed him, and rocked him to sleep. We’ve been here for him twenty-four-seven for four years. No one could love him more.”
“I appreciate what you’ve done, but he’s not for sale!”
Norwood’s expression hardened. “That was never what we had in mind. We just wanted to give you something in appreciation for doing what’s best for Collin. We never intended to shut you out of his life. That wouldn’t be right.”
“I don’t trust you. Those of you with means are always taking from the rest of us.”
He stood up. “You don’t know anything about me!”
I rose to face him. “No, I don’t, because I don’t have the money to investigate you like you did me. But I do know one thing: I’m not going to let you keep me from being a father to my son.”
I turned and stalked out of the room.
That evening I sat in my apartment, holding the pictures of Collin that I’d picked up at the one-hour photo booth. There was a football game on, but the sound was being drowned out by my own thoughts.
This child was mine. There we were, wearing matching coats and matching smiles. But the Norwoods were gearing up to take him out of my life, just like Todd Holcombe had taken Holly. Why else would they be investigating me?
Although I’d lost Holly five years ago, the hurt and humiliation was no distant memory. I’d felt some of it again when the Norwoods had reacted negatively to the gifts I’d given Collin. I was his father, for heaven’s sake. How dare they?
I studied the pictures again. As his blue eyes sparkled back at me, I knew what I wanted: I wanted sole custody of my son. It was the Norwoods who should be the visitors in his life.
During my next visit with Collin, I took educational puzzles, so I wouldn’t upset the foster parents. They would be plenty upset as it was when they learned of my decision.
This time, I talked Mrs. McGowan into allowing me to take Collin out for ice cream and to a park. Since she’d be with us, the Norwoods reluctantly agreed.
I was nervous at first, thinking Collin might cry when separated from his foster parents. But the promise of a fun afternoon seemed to override any anxiety he might have had. We took the football I’d bought him and I taught him how to handle it. I pushed him on the swings. We walked through the park as I carried him on my shoulders. Mrs. McGowan walked a few yards behind us.
“Do you like this?” I asked. “Are you having fun?”
“Do you think I’m a pretty good second daddy?”
“Yes!” he said without hesitation.
“Would you like it if we could spend more time together?”
“I love you, Collin.”
“I love you, too.”
The next day, when I told my lawyer to file the paperwork so I could get custody of Collin, one of his eyebrows rose.
“Are you sure you don’t want to think about this a little more?” he asked,
“What do you mean?”
“This can be an expensive and protracted battle. You could be out tens of thousands of dollars.”
“He’s my son. I’ll do what I have to.”
“The Norwoods will pull out all the stops. They’ll bring in child psychologists to say that the child will be harmed if he’s torn from a stable and secure environment. They’ll question your fitness as a parent—a single parent, at that.”
“They already have me under investigation,” I said, providing the details.
He stroked his chin. “Things could get nasty, Jarred.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“I’m playing devil’s advocate with you, like I do with all my clients. I want you to know what you’re getting into.”
“But he’s my kid,” I argued.
“You’re right, but it’s just not that simple. In these cases, there’s more to consider than that. Take a few days to think about it.”
“All right, but I’ve already made up my mind.”
A week later, my lawyer notified the Norwoods’ lawyer of my intentions. Needless to say, they weren’t pleased. “Devastated” was the word their lawyer used. I took no pleasure in causing them pain. I’d experienced enough of it myself. But Collin was only four. He was still malleable and resilient. It wouldn’t be like taking an eight-year-old out of his home. Besides, I was his father; there was a bond between us, and the Norwoods would be able to visit him. We would all adapt.
One day, when I got home from work, I was surprised to see Jenny Norwood get out of a car in the parking area in front of my apartment.
“I have to talk to you.” There were tears in her voice.
“I’m sorry, but that’s what we have lawyers for.”
“Please,” she said, taking off her sunglasses. Her eyes were red. “I just want you to hear this in my own words. Can we get in the car?”
“Just five minutes. Please.”
Reluctantly, I got into her SUV. I couldn’t help but notice the child’s booster seat in the back.
“Please don’t take Collin away from us,” she said. “We’re the only parents he’s ever known.”
I gave a short sigh of impatience. “Look, I know it’s tough, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s my child.”
“Think of him. It would devastate him.”
“I’m not sure about that. I’ve asked him how he would like for me to be his full-time father, and he said he would.”
She responded with a stricken look. “I don’t believe that.”
“You’ve been manipulating him!”
“You’ve been trying to buy him,” I shot back. “You rich people have a sense of entitlement. That just doesn’t work when it comes to other people’s flesh and blood.”
Her cheeks reddened. “Is it so wrong for a woman to feel entitled to have a child? Being able to have one is a given for most women. Do you know how it feels not being able to have one of your own, to go to doctor after doctor, only to be told there’s nothing else they can do?”
“I’m sorry, but with your money, I’m sure you can adopt another child.”
“Collin is my child,” she rasped out the words. “He might not have grown under my heart, but he grew in it. No one could ever love him more. As for money, there’s something about us that you don’t know. We’re not the callous rich people you seem to think we are. We built our real-estate company ourselves from the ground up. We started with nothing. Steve’s father was a maintenance man. My father was a prison guard. Does that sound like bluebloods to you? We’re just two hardworking people who want to continue being this baby’s parents.” She broke into tears.
Instinctively, I reached out to touch her, but I drew back. I didn’t know what to do or say. Collin’s mother was to blame for the mess we were in. I handed her a clean tissue from a box on the seat and waited for her to calm herself.
“I’d better go now,” I said.
“Please, I beg you, don’t take Collin.”
Without responding, I opened the door and slipped out. There was nothing I could say to make her feel any better.
Although I wasn’t unmoved by Jenny Norwood’s tears, I continued on the path I’d already chosen. I couldn’t walk away from my own son like my father had done to me. With both sides gearing up for a court battle, I continued my visits. My plan that weekend was to take Collin to a festival in a large city park.
With Mrs. Johnson, a representative from Children’s Protective Services, I picked up Collin. Never had the atmosphere between me and the Norwoods been so tense, but they were struggling not to let it show in front of the boy.
Mrs. Norwood gave him a hug and a kiss. “I love you. Be good.”
She looked at me with a sober expression. “Please watch what he eats. He’s not used to junk food.”
I nodded curtly. “I’ll take good care of him.”
“We’ll be at the park in a few minutes, but we won’t interfere,” she said.
I nodded, although I was definitely unconvinced.
At the park I carried Collin on my shoulders, but once he saw all the kiddie rides, he dumped me for them. I watched with a mixture of love and amusement as he bobbed up and down on the merry-go-round. It was a warm day, and after a few rides I suggested that we get something to drink.
We found a lemonade booth in the thick of a churning crowd. Not far away was a band playing in a large gazebo.
“Uniforms!” Collin said, pointing at the band. Since I’d bought him the army uniform he’d developed an interest in uniforms of all kinds.
“Cool,” I said, balancing him on my shoulders.
But I saw something of interest to me, as well. One of the women running the lemonade booth was a gorgeous brunette with a megawatt smile and a low-cut T-shirt. I put Collin down and led him up to the booth. Mrs. Johnson, the CPS chaperone, stepped over to a window on the opposite side.
“Hi, can I help you?” the brunette asked with an inviting tone.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I asked. It might have been the oldest line in the book, but it had never failed to work.
“I’ve only been in town for a year.”
“Ever been to Swizzle’s?”
“A time or two,” she said coyly.
“What do you do here in the city?”
“I’m a dental hygienist. Part of the proceeds from this booth go to the County Dental Society.”
“That partially explains the great smile,” I said.
She blushed slightly. “What do you do?”
“I sell cars.”
She asked me what kind. I invited her in for a test drive.
“I’d like that,” she said, taking one of my cards.
“I work on the first Saturday of each month. Two Saturdays are reserved for my son—I’m a single dad, but most of my nights are free.”
The meaning of that didn’t escape her. “I have some free nights, too.” Her eyes twinkled as she handed me one of her cards. “How about some lemonade?”
“Two.” I glanced down at Collin, but there was a blank spot where he’d stood.
I whirled around, eyeing the immediate vicinity, but I didn’t see him. My breath caught at the back of my throat.
“Collin!” I yelled.
There was no answer. The CPS worker appeared. “Do you have him?” I asked.
A sick feeling spread over me. I plunked some money on the counter and went off without the drinks.
“Collin!” I yelled. “Has anybody seen a little boy with blond hair and a red T-shirt?”
There was a mumble of regretful no’s.
“I’ll get security,” Mrs. Johnson offered.
With my heart beating fast, I made a sweep of the general vicinity, but there was no sign of him. Sweat broke out over me as I pushed desperately through the crowd. I thought of the families of missing children I’d seen on television and began to understand their horror.
A security officer appeared, asked me a few questions, then made an announcement about Collin on the public address system. After ten minutes, there was still no sign of him. The Norwoods, who had heard the announcement, appeared along with another security officer. Norwood was red-faced with anger, and his wife was hysterical.
“How could you let this happen?” she demanded.
“It could happen to anyone,” Mrs. Johnson said, trying in vain to reassure them.
Sickened, I apologized and joined in the search. City police arrived on the scene. As the minutes ticked by, I knew that the chances were increasing that Collin had been taken from the park. In kind of an eerie backdrop to the whole thing, the merry-go-round, which had been temporarily stopped to search for Collin, resumed revolving to a happy tune.
Dizzily, I searched the perimeter. Suddenly, there was a cheer in the distance and a voice came over the PA system.
“Mr. Gillman, please report to the grandstand. We’ve found your son. He’s unharmed.”
I literally leapt for joy. Running at speeds I hadn’t reached since high school track, I was at the grandstand in nothing flat. I found Collin in Norwood’s arms. Both of the Norwoods were crying with happiness. I extended my arms to Collin.
“I couldn’t find you,” he said, clinging to my neck. “I tried and I tried.”
“I’m so, so sorry,” I said.
As it turned out, he’d stepped over to watch the band as I was talking to the girl in the lemonade booth. As the band left, he followed them, but as he turned to come back to the booth he couldn’t find his way back through the crowd. Having been warned against abductions and talking to strangers, he hid under a tarp covering some packing boxes. When he heard his name over the loudspeaker, he was still afraid to venture out until he saw someone he could trust. In this case, it was a policeman.
“You’ve got a smart boy there,” said the officer who found him.
“He’s had good training,” I said, crediting the Norwoods.
Despite the happy ending, the event left me shaken. It made me realize that it takes a lot more than biology to be a father. While I was behaving like a playboy, my son was unguarded.
I’d come into his life at full tilt, showering him with gifts to win his affection. I’d moved too fast. I wasn’t taking the time to think things out. Emotions and old baggage got in the way. There was my hostility toward the Norwoods because of some rich guy who’d probably done me a favor by stealing my girlfriend. There was my desire to spare Collin of the fatherless childhood I’d known.
During those awful minutes when he disappeared, I realized how much I loved him. When you love someone that much, you put their interests above your own, even though it hurts. That’s why I’ve dropped the suit to get full custody.
Arrangements are being made for an open adoption. Collin will live with the Norwoods. I will visit regularly and have a secondary role in his life. No more spoiling, either. I know better now, although I still have things to learn.
If life were fair, the Norwoods would have children of their own and Collin would have been born into better circumstances. But we must play the hands we are dealt. You can be sure that for the sake of one great little boy, we’re all going to do the best we can.