A year passed, and Franco was having the time of his life.
It still involved painting. Another set of spring finals were over, and Franco got the usual remarks. He had brilliant form and no sense of identity, but it still translated to a good grade. But he scoffed at that one criticism. Franco couldn’t put pain into art when he had none of it in Bridgeport.
Sure, he still had Hannah stuck 2,000 miles and two timezones away. But no matter where she was, a pleasant Seng was always within arm’s reach.
Franco almost regretted having Seng sign a lease to live with him in the first month, but it turned out to be a great idea for the both of them. They went from strangers to barely being able to spend a day apart. There was so much of Bridgeport that Franco would have never seen without him. Although Seng worked long and hard in law school, and as an assistant for an unnamed local attorney, his favorite way of decompressing was through clubs. Clubs and bars and lounges and parties thrown by friends he made as an undergrad.
It took a while, but soon Franco became one of Seng’s best companions for those thrills. He found ways to enjoy it too. There was often wine involved, for starters, and Franco grew a taste for it again.
And he and Seng were the closest of friends when they were both a little tipsy.
But he was good at home too. Seng did the dishes and his share of the laundry, and the rest of Franco’s lease terms were doable for anyone. Keep all furniture in place, be quiet in the apartment after 10, don’t fucking dare to touch Franco’s art supplies. Seng might have been a bit of a rule-breaker elsewhere–not to mention being a complete deadbeat to his bastard son–but that didn’t matter in the confines of home. And even if it did, Franco wouldn’t have him around forever.
He started a cup of coffee when Seng was in the shower. It was his reward for laying another color down on the canvas, and he was up since 4:30 working on it.
It didn’t take him long to feel a familiar warm glow on his back.
Portal light? That was strange, even if it wasn’t to him. He didn’t ask Annette for any baked goods, even though he would appreciate a platter of fresh muffins too.
“Mum! I hope they’re cranberry orange-”
He stopped once he saw exactly who stumbled through that portal. Instead of Annette with her food, it was three kids. As much as Franco wanted to see Samira and Julian again, it shouldn’t have been without warning and in his pristine apartment. And them bringing a third child as an unexpected guest? How rude. They should have asked about her…about all of that!
Samira failed to hold back a laugh. “I knew that she’d fall for her first time.” The unrelated third girl with them was on her rear on the floor, but Franco wouldn’t laugh at that. Breaking time and space was a rough ride.
“Samira, that isn’t nice,” said Julian.
“Guys, what is going on here?” Franco asked, with a whining panic in his voice.
Samira turned around, smiling her adorable smile. “We had a sleepover and mum wanted to play a cool game with us.”
“And it was…throw three kids into a wormhole and into my flat? Why? And who’s that other girl?”
“Lita’s our new best friend. She had to join in on the fun!” Lita got up from the floor and gave Franco a shy wave to say hello. “Mum really loves her parents.”
Franco rolled his eyes, knowing more details about something Samira was innocent and in the dark about. It’s easy to get friends for your kids when you’re screwing their parents. Though it didn’t narrow down the list of potential parents for Lita either.
“Fine. But what do they think of this?” He looked over at Julian, looking him into his narrow green eyes. The poor little guy had a tight scowl and fidgeted with his hands. Like a Takasugi.
Lita bit her lip too. “It’s kinda weird,” she said. “Wait…you guys have an XBox 5?”
“It’s my roommate’s,” Franco said. “But…No! I really should get you guys back to Twinbrook.”
Samira gave her brother a cheeky grin. “Mum told me not to do that. We get to stay here until someone calls us back.”
“Samira…look, I know you miss me, but I can’t keep you here. And Lita’s parents are gonna be worried sick about her,” Franco said. “And I’m your older brother. I have a say too.”
“Whatever. She did want me to give you this.” Samira handed him a ring. Annette’s ring. As in, that one with the magic amethyst in the center, under a golden lattice. “Maybe you’ll send me back to one of mum’s parties! She never lets me in those.”
The ring lay inert in Franco’s hand. And if there was one thing he never wanted to be responsible for, it was introducing a first-grader to swinger parties.
“You win for today. I’ll make pancakes,” said Franco. “I know I’m not as good as mum with those, but I guess you don’t have much of a choice.”
He was about to grab some flour, when the bedroom door opened. Seng, with his naughtiest parts hidden by a towel, exited and noticed the kids in the flat.
“Franco…is this one of your supernatural bullshit things?” he asked.
“Do you mind not saying that around the kids?” Franco replied.
“Sorry for reacting? This isn’t really a kid-friendly place. Are…are they related to you?” Franco responded with a nod, even if he knew Lita about as well as any stranger. It didn’t seem to placate Seng, though, who still looked on with mild mortification.
Franco approached him. “It’s my sister and my step-brother and one of their friends. It’s just something my mum did.”
“Alright. What are we supposed to do with them?” Seng asked. “All I have are first-person shooters for the XBox, no one shows Saturday morning cartoons anymore-”
“Winter War II it is, then,” said Franco. “I bet my mum shows them worse.”
It was noontime, and the kids were content and full of pancakes and video game violence. They crowded on the one couch and could stay there all day if they needed to. Meanwhile, Franco and Seng got dressed. He had work to do at his apprenticeship with Smith, and Franco wanted the snug feel of one of his sweater-vests again.
He also hid his mother’s ring inside his dresser, not wanting to try and squeeze it onto his sausage fingers.
“Look, I don’t know how long they’re gonna stay here for,” Franco said. “Just stop fretting about it and do your job.”
“I’m…we’re friends, but this is fucking ridiculous,” said Seng.
“I don’t care how you word it, because it is. I don’t glowingly endorse my mum or anything.”
Seng checked the time on his phone. “Crap. Gonna be late anyways.”
None of the kids were old enough to stay home alone, at least in good conscience. But Franco wasn’t going to stay cooped up in his flat on such a beautiful day. And would the kids stand it either? All video games had to come to an end. The problem was a simple one: Franco didn’t have any clothes to fit young children. His shirts would be like tents for them, and even slim Seng’s wouldn’t fare well either.
Maybe he could just leave them home for an hour, if that. Franco handled more than enough clothes he tailored and laundry he folded to eyeball their sizes.
It was still early in the afternoon once each kid was dressed in something new, and ready to take on Bridgeport.
“Now kids, I’m not cooler just because I’m not any of your parents.” Franco wagged a finger at them.
“Don’t worry, none of us think you’re cool,” Samira said. Her shit-eating grin reminded Franco of his mother too much. “You’re just a good brother.”
“Can we get out of this building?” Julian asked. “I don’t like looking out the windows. It makes me feel sick.”
“Yes, that was the point.”
Perhaps due to being a brand new adult, Franco didn’t spend an ounce of time researching his options for how to entertain children in Bridgeport. He knew of places to get wine, mostly. There were a few small, niche museums in the old industrial sector of town. What kid wouldn’t want a hands-on exhibit about textiles or industrial-level fishing?
Instead, there was a playground that all four of them could see out the window, at Marina Park near the harbor. And for a group of first-graders, the allure of a swing-set won over anything else.
It was a fine park. Samira and Lita found another girl on the swings, and Julian started on a sandcastle. The first walls he built were straight and smooth, without any moulds or help! Perhaps it was in his blood to sculpt.
But Franco decided to try and get to the bottom of why he had surprise babysitting duties. He tried calling Annette that morning, but it went straight to voicemail. Her spouses had to have some insight, though.
He had two phones to try.
Hey guys! You reached Amy Takasugi, and I can’t get to my phone right now. Be a dear and leave your number with me. Talk to you later!
Sinbad Takasugi. Leave a message, and piss off.
Franco rubbed his temples and groaned. Of any time they couldn’t be reached…at least no one in Bridgeport was in mortal danger. But it made him wonder about his folks back home.
He turned his head to Julian. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but do you have any idea why you’re here? My mum usually doesn’t do this.”
Julian dropped the fistful of sand he had. “I heard the police,” he said. “And then Annette threw us into the hole.”
“So things have caught up to her after all.” Franco sighed. It was only a matter of time until bailing Annette out of jail was his job. “Look, things will be fine for us. I want you kids to have fun here.”
Because of that, Franco walked off to let them have fun without boring old Franco around. Still, he couldn’t hide his disgust with the whole situation. Just Annette’s arrest or just babysitting, maybe he could deal with just one.
But if he had both…it would pay off to get answers,
He parked himself close to a picnic bench and looked up another number.
“Hello, Twinbrook Police Department. This is the non-emergency line.” The voice on the other end was that of a sweet young woman, instead of someone like Goodwin. Franco didn’t like him either, so it was an improvement for everyone.
There was no use in not being cordial. ‘Hi. I know this is an odd request, but I was wondering if there were any reports for Annette Waverly Racket.”
The dispatcher’s voice darkened immensely. “Sir, we don’t disclose information about any of our arrests. Especially not for that bitch.”
“I apologize,” he said, before hanging up.
Useless, just useless.
The rest of the afternoon was better, though. The group got distracted by a street performer. Franco picked up some sleeping bags, and he found an ice cream truck on their way back to the apartment. The kids got cones and Franco bought a guilty pleasure for himself. He demanded only the most gourmet of frozen desserts, and Fudgsicles. Even off-brand ones satisfied his cravings.
All of them enjoyed the night too. Franco knew of a Thai place that delivered. The owners had some tangential relation to Hannah and the rest of the Pradchaphets. Whenever she visited Franco, she liked using that to get free desserts from them. Franco could still pull out the “boyfriend” card on his own to get complimentary fried bananas. After dinner and teaching the kids how to play Parcheesi, everyone was ready for bed. Even Franco was.
But he had trouble getting to sleep. He tucked the kids into their new sleeping bags and didn’t feel like getting into his pajamas. And god forbid he sleep in a blazer, even in one of his mediocre rayon ones.
He picked up his palette. The oil paints on there hadn’t dried, and Franco had a few more details to fill in. However, he lay down only one stroke on the canvas down when he heard the front door open.
“Fuck, it’s gonna be a long night,” Seng muttered. He slurred some of his words, whether due to exhaustion or from drinking from his secret flask at work.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Ugh…need coffee…make it strong please.”
It was a quickly-made, bitter-tasting cup. Franco could smell its caustic horrors as soon as it trickled out of the machine. But bad or not, it woke Seng up. There was a surplus of paperwork at Smith’s office, and he didn’t have the excuse of classes that summer to get out of it.
“Look, I’m really sorry about today,” Franco said, in a cautious tone. His roommate could get ornery after work, not that he’d blame him. “I’m gonna make sure that the kids get back home tomorrow.” All he could hope for was for them not to get sent back, and for Lita’s parents to be understanding. The last thing Franco needed was to start adulthood as a kidnapper.
Seng gave him a cross look. “I’ll live with this for now, but I think we’ll be better friends once we have separate houses.”
“Well, you’re gonna get a month without me soon enough.” Seng and his family had plenty of relatives back home that they couldn’t visit. Foreign airfare could make any middle-class family struggle. But Franco “anonymously” pitched in the money for tickets. It was well before that day when he had a magic portal-opening ring in his possession. That would have made a landing in Krung Thep so much faster! But the Waverlys wouldn’t miss the money anyways.
“Not gonna lie…I’m gonna like that a lot. Normal life, lots of family, hopefully some mangoes…”
“I’m really glad that you guys get to do that,” said Franco.
“And maybe you’ll get this crap with your family sorted out. Glad they’re not mine.”
Franco went back to his easel, once Seng opened up his laptop. He expected a surge of inspiration and got a rush of nothing. Wouldn’t spending time with innocent children who came in through a portal help him? It could remedy that pesky “no identity, no culture” criticism his work always got.
How cruel. How cruel it was to feel useless, for something about him that he never even asked for.
Not to mention how he was alone.
Bridgeport was a big city, but Franco wasn’t running into much understanding. Confusion. Malignment from those who knew too little or too much. Out of 600,000 residents, maybe he was all alone.
Alone in the city, alone in the hills.
As far as he was concerned, all alone everywhere in Bridgeport. With hardly a place to teach him.
A/N: Krung Thep is the proper name for Bangkok. It was easier to find flights from Milwaukee or Seattle to Bangkok than it was to find them to Vientiane in Laos.
I do think that Franco would usually be above going to an ice cream truck, but the animations of him eating a popsicle are just so cute!
Lita is actually the daughter of Molly Coddle and Marc Brandt, and may or may not have a bigger role later on, so I’m getting introductions out of the way now.