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Baywatch fic: Burnt Out Rainbows

December 19th, 2018 (02:31 pm)

Title: Burnt Out Rainbows

Disclaimer: Not mine.

A/N: Fill for my homesickness square on hc_bingo. Unbeta’ed. As a note: I’m not an expert on the foster care system. I tried to represent it fairly, neither all good or all bad. I hope I’m doing it justice.

Summary: Brody has a family emergency. The implications are not what he expects.



-o-

Lately it seems we’ve been chasing what time’s resolved
Maybe something means nothing here after all

-from Burnt Out Rainbows by Collective Soul

-o-

When things are going well, Brody is prompt, courteous, eager and engaging. Now that he’s an established presence on Baywatch and Mitch’s roommate, this is most of the time.

When things aren’t going well, Brody is late, rude, lazy and flippant. Even though he’s an established presence on Baywatch and Mitch’s roommate, this still happens sometimes.

Mitch used to get pissed off about it. He used to yell and make a big deal about it. After enough time with Brody, however, he began to notice a pattern. Brody only acted out when something was bothering him. Usually it was a personal issue: a fight with Summer, a negative surge in press coverage about him, a save he couldn’t quite pull out on the job. Brody handles these types of stressors poorly, and he essentially lashes out due to his inability to process them.

So when Brody is late to work one, Mitch tries to think if anything has happened.

When Brody tells him, whatever, procedure is overrated, he asks Summer if anything is up.

When Brody blows off a work meeting, gets smashed and comes home late, Mitch tries to break into Brody’s phone to figure out what’s up.

Because Mitch knows something is up. He wants to help Brody.

He also wants to stop living and working with an asshole.

This is the definition of mutually beneficial.

-o-

It turns out, Mitch is doing it the hard way.

All he has to do is ask.

He makes dinner, waits for Brody to come home, ignores a few insults and then serves it up with a question. “What the hell is going on?”

That’s it; that’s all the prompting it takes. Two days of sulking, and Brody confesses to everything in excessive detail.

As it turns out, Brody got an email two days ago from one of his foster dads. His last one, according to Brody. He lived with the family for three years until his high school graduation when he cut and run and never looked back.

“They were good ones, okay,” Brody continues, looking miserably at his hands. “Like, nice. Like, they were doing it for the right reasons. And they put up with me, through, like, all my shit. When I was cutting school and getting drunk and shit. They stuck by me. Even paid for, like, expensive private swimming lessons. They’re a huge reason I went to the Olympics.”

Mitch nods, because that’s a good story, but somehow he knows it’s not the story. “Okay. So what’s the problem?”

Brody looks up at him, and his face is taut with emotion. “My foster mom, she died this week,” he says. “The funeral is in a week. My foster dad said I can come.”

This statement, in and of itself, would not actually warrant the level of self destructive lashing out that Brody has exhibited this week. Sure, grief is a hard thing, but Brody’s not making it overtly clear that what he’s experiencing is grief. It’s conflicted, to be sure, but it’s like that Brody either doesn’t want to go to the funeral and feels like shit about it or that he wants to go to the funeral but doesn’t know how to actually make that happen for a variety of emotional and practical reasons.

The speculation is moderately pointless.

Mitch decides to go with the outright approach. “Are you going to go?”

He asks it without intention, genuine as an inquiry.

Brody shrugs, feeble and forced. “Why would I go?”

He probably actually wants to know, but Mitch doesn’t have an answer for that. Instead, he asks, “Why wouldn’t you go?”

He suspects that Brody knows the answer to that. His suspicions are confirmed when Brody’s face darkens. “You don’t understand, Mitch,” he mumbles over his dinner. “You can’t possibly understand.”

That’s all Brody says about the matter.

For some reason, Mitch can’t bring himself to ask any more questions.

-o-

Mitch would leave well enough alone; he would.

Except this isn’t well enough.

This isn’t even remotely well.

For several days after their conversation, Brody mopes around the house. He mopes around HQ and he mopes up and down the beach. He’s not acting out anymore, which is something of a relief, but he’s downright morose. Summer asks him if he’s worried that Brody is depressed.

It’s a little worrisome, sure. But it’s not without recourse.

See, the problem is relatively simple, as best Mitch can figure it.

Brody wants to go to the funeral. A lot.

He’s scared to do it, though. Maybe scared to spend the money; Brody is still relatively broke, living in Mitch’s spare room rent-free. Mitch has a feeling it’s an emotional barrier, however. Brody doesn’t talk about his time in foster care very often, and he rarely talks about it in much depth. The highlights are never framed as negative, but Brody’s got so many issues with anxiety, abandonment, self worth and more that Mitch knows it messed him up in more ways than one.

Now, it’s possible that this family was part of the problem. Maybe they made it worse.

Or, they tried to help Brody. They tried to make it better.

If they were assholes, Brody wouldn’t feel guilty about not going. There would be no acting out, no moping.

Which leads Mitch to conclude that they were good people.

And Brody doesn’t know how to pay them respect now when he probably should have done it years ago.

Knowing Brody, he’ll never figure it out. He’ll stay in California until it’s too late and then hate himself forever. That sounds like shit, for him and for Brody. Mitch has worked too hard and too long to get Brody this far. He doesn’t want to go back.

So, Mitch does what any reasonable boss turned roommate turned best friend would do.

He buys Brody a plane ticket for Iowa.

Then, for good measure, he buys an adjoining round trip ticket for himself.

-o-

Brody doesn’t get it.

“Why the hell did you do that?”

Mitch knows that Brody is probably terrified about going to some degree. He’s also probably genuinely confused that someone would be that kind and thoughtful on his behalf. What he hasn’t grasped, even though it’s the most obvious bit, is: “Because you want to go.”

Brody looks like he’s ready to panic. “I never said that!”

Mitch shrugs. “You don’t have to. It’s kind of obvious.”

This only appears to make Brody panic more. “But she wasn’t family to me,” he tries to explain. “It was, you know, like, a legal thing. She got paid, right? It was an obligation. Not blood.”

The explanation speaks to Brody’s most profound insecurities, which are all things Mitch knows about. If he hadn’t worked so hard to deconstruct those notions of family, he probably would have let this slide. But Brody’s come too far in his understanding of family to not point out the obvious problem with his failed logic.

“We’re not blood,” Mitch replies, ever plaintive.

Now, Brody is flat out stricken. “That’s different.”

Mitch’s eyebrows arch up. “Is it?”

Brody’s eyes are bright; his look is nothing short of intense. “That’s different.

This time, when he says it, there’s something definitive about it. Mitch has to concede, it might be a little different in a lot of ways, ways he’s not even thought about yet. That doesn’t change the fact that Brody really does want to go, and the more he protests, the more Mitch is certain of it.

“Whatever,” Mitch says, and he’s not quite as indifferent as he sounds. “I have two tickets for Iowa, so unless there’s something else you want to see in corn country, then I suggest you email your foster dad and tell him we’re on our way.”

-o-

Brody does. He emails his foster dad; he packs his bag. He goes with Mitch to the airport and is sullen in security. When they board, he slumps in his seat and doesn’t say a word.

Mitch lets this go. There’s a lot more to this trip, and Mitch doesn’t want to expend all their emotional capital before they even land. Instead, Mitch sits in the plane and watches the landscape as it changes below them. He watches the mountains rise and fall across California, then again in Colorado. When they get to the Midwest, the mountains give way to hills, which soon flatten out into vast, open plains.

They stretch for miles in all directions, fields sectioned off by roads and fence lines. Rivers and creeks wind their way through as occasional forests break up the landscape.

It’s not California, that’s for sure.

And it’s nothing like the ocean.

That doesn’t make it bad, though.

Just it’s own thing entirely.

-o-

There’s not much hustle and bustle at the Des Moines airport, and Mitch manages to pick up their rental car without too much trouble. He’s got no idea where he’s going, but the navigation on his iPhone gets them out of the city well enough. Once they make the transfer from 235 to I-80, Brody says it’s not hard to figure out the rest.

They head east, passing towns like Grinnell and Newton as they make their way toward Cedar Rapids. Brody watches the towns rise and fall in the expanses of farmland, his face composed and expressionless.

When they hit I-380, Brody tells him to take the interchange to the north, and Mitch merges on as the sun starts to set. As Mitch settles in, he can’t help but look out across the horizon as the sun starts to color the sky, sinking slowly down on the skyline as its brightest rays fall slowly across the corn, which is tall and ripe in the fields.

They stretch for miles, as far as the eye can see.

-o-

Brody gets tense as they approach Cedar Rapids, and he’s anxious as he directs Mitch to get off at one of the early exits. His foster family lived in on the southwest side, apparently, close to a town called Fairfax. This seems to matter to Brody, but it’s kind of all the same to Mitch.

Mitch winds through a series of neighborhoods until they’re in a subdivision with wide loads and two-story houses. They can’t be more than 30 years old, probably having been built in the 90s. He can tell that they’re nice homes but they’re not elite, and it’s a funny sort of class of homes that doesn’t quite exist in a place like California. Mitch’s little bungalow by the beach has to cost three times as much as this spacious lot, and he’d normally think he got the better deal.

As they pile out of the car, he watches Brody’s face as he looks up at the home, and he remembers that value is not measured solely in monetary terms.

-o-

The front door’s unlocked, but Brody rings the bell anyway. The man who opens the front door is not exactly what Mitch expects, though in the rush to come, he probably didn’t give the thought of being here much thought at all.

The man is older than Mitch would have guessed, though. He’s probably pushing 70 with thick white hair that curls slightly on his head. He’s got something of a belly, and he’s wearing a collared shirt that is tucked into his dockers. His black belt is cinched under his belly and it matches his Rockport shoes.

“Matt! You came!” he exclaims. He reaches out, taking Brody first with a handshake before pulling him across the threshold and into a hug. Mitch squeezes in behind them as Brody eases out of the embrace.

“Yeah,” Brody says without much enthusiasm. His smile actually looks pained. “I came.”

The man turns his eager gaze to Mitch, giving him a long double take. “ And this, uh, must be…”

He’s waiting for Brody to make the introduction, but Brody is standing like an awkward teenager with his hands in his pockets. Mitch smiles on his behalf and extends his hand. “Mitch,” he introduces himself with a firm handshake. “Mitch Buchannon.”

The man nods, like that makes some kind of difference to him when it clearly doesn’t. He looks to Brody again. “And you two are together?”

The question is posited without malice or judgment. It’s probably not a silly conclusion to make. Bringing a guest to a funeral across the country usually implies a very intimate connection.

Mitch has no problem with this, but Brody reddens immediately. “No, uh, Mitch is, Mitch is, like, my boss,” he explains poorly. He seems to realize that and tries to clarify. “Coworker. Roommate.”

The clarification only somewhat works. After all, Brody uses every word but friend.

Every word but family.

-o-

The house has four bedrooms, but there are two already full. The man, who finally introduces himself as Al when Brody fails to do so, tells Brody there’s a bed for him in his old room upstairs. Mitch can sleep on a pullout couch in the family room.

Mitch thanks him and helps Brody take his things upstairs for the lack of something better to do. Brody seems to know exactly where he’s going, and he walks past two other doors before opening the one in the far left corner.

It’s bigger than he expects with a queen bed on the far wall. There’s a matching dresser and a desk under one of the windows. It’s a corner room, and the other window lets in a lot of the remaining sunlight as dusk rapidly approached outside.

“Your room?” Mitch asks, looking around at the neutral walls with some curiosity.

Brody stows his suitcase next to the bed, barely sparing a glance around. “I guess,” he says. “But it’s been the room for lots of kids. I wasn’t the first, wasn’t the last,’ he says. He shrugs, looking at the floral curtains and the farmscape printed frame above the bed. “None of this stuff is mine.”

Mitch paces the length of the room, pausing to look out the window. They’re up high, and across the rooftops of the neighborhood, Mitch can see open fields to the west. “Still,” he says. He looks back to Brody. “Seems pretty nice.”

Brody’s sits on the bed with a sigh. “I guess,” he concedes noncommittally. “But it’s a foster home, you know? Al and Kathy, they had a lot of kids over the years. We were always coming and going. It never sticks.”

In other words, it’s never home.

In other words, it’s never family.

-o-

Al calls them down to eat, and a few other people show up in the meantime. There’s fresh meat and sweet corn to eat, and Mitch meets world of Al’s daughters, one of which is clearly biological, the other of which is clearly not. They’re both lovely girls, though, and one has a husband and two kids in tow. The other is pregnant and she explains that her husband had to work tonight but he should be at the funeral tomorrow.

They both know Brody, but he hardly speaks to them at dinner. In fact, he barely makes eye contact while he mumbles yes or no answers about the Olympics. No one asks about that last race, but they sound sincerely thrilled about the two golds.

Mitch talks a little about Baywatch and all that they do. The girls seem fascinated by it, and when Mitch tells them how valuable Brody is to the team, Al actually beams.

Brody is visibly relieved when the kids need to get ready to bed, and he barely says goodnight before disappearing upstairs, leaving Mitch to fend for himself. He helps the other daughter do the dishes while Al makes a few last minute arrangements for the service tomorrow.

“He’s really doing okay?” the daughter asks when Mitch hands her a freshly washed plate to put away.

“Yeah,” Mitch says. “Everything I said at dinner was true.”

She looks thought for a moment. “In foster care, you never know who’s going to make it and who’s not,” she says. “Until I came here, I thought I was doomed.”

It’s probably none of Mitch’s business, but he did buy these plane tickets. “And Brody?”

“Matt?” she asks with a chuckle. “Well, I think he’s made it.”

“You sound surprised,” Mitch observed, washing a serving platter.

“We all knew he was good, that he could do anything,” she explains. “The Olympics, none of it, surprised us.”

She means the good.

She means the bad.

“But the lifeguard thing? Him being here?”

Mitch holds out the platter, which she accepts.

“Now that’s nothing we expected from Matt,” she says, but then she looks a little thoughtful, a little wistful when she adds. “But everything that we probably hoped.”

-o-

After cleaning up, Mitch excuses himself. His space in the family room isn’t exactly private, but he’s keenly aware that he’s not family here, and he wants to be respectful to the things they’re going through. He lies awake, listening as the children settle down to sleep, as the young women wash up and turn off the lights. He listens to the shuffling footsteps of Al as he locks up for the night.

He listens, but he can’t hear anything from Brody.

It’s possible he’s already asleep.

Somehow, Mitch knows better.

-o-

When Al comes downstairs at 6:30, Mitch has already been awake for a half hour. He’s showered and dressed, and he’s tidied up his meager sleeping space until it looks like he hasn’t been there at all. Al apologizes for rousing him anyway.

Mitch joins him for a cup of coffee and explains that he’s naturally a morning person anyway.

Al grins at that. “So much easier to get stuff done in the morning,” he says. “I’ve always believed that. Most of the kids never believed me, of course. Matt especially. Never could get him up and out the door on time.”

It makes Mitch laugh. “He’s gotten a little better about it,” he says. “But I have to have a lot of coffee ready in order to get him out the door for work.”

“It’s still impressive,” Al says, nursing his coffee. “And something I’d very much like to see.”

People say that stuff, they say it all the time, but the way Al says it, he means it. Mitch sets his own coffee on the table and continues, somewhat unprompted. “He’s doing great, by the way,” he says. “He’s really come into his own a Baywatch. He’s an invaluable member of the team.”

A smile tugs at Al’s face. “Kathy would have said that she wasn’t surprised,” he says. “She always said he had potential that one. She’d hate to think that she missed seeing it played.”

Mitch considers this. He considers offering more insight into Brody’s life at Baywatch, but he can’t deny the fact that he has questions, too. Questions that can’t be answered anywhere but here at this dining table in Iowa. “How long was Brody with your family, then?”

“Matt? Oh, I’d have to think,” Al says, and he looks truly thoughtful for a moment. “Three years, probably. Give or take.”

“Is that typical?” Mitch asks, because he knows shit about the foster system, and it’s only occurring to him now that the result is that he kind of knows shit about Brody.

“That varies, you know,” Al says. “We always preferred long term placements with our kids, but other families take them on a much more transient basis. Short term placements, you know. And some families, it just doesn’t work out. It’s not for me to judge how or why; that’s just how it is, and it’s why Kathy and I never wanted to approach it as anything but family.”

Now that Mitch has asked the question, he finds that he just can’t stop. “And Brody was happy here?”

At this, Al looks moderately crestfallen. “Oh, Matt was one of those hard cases. That’s what the case worker called him. The kind that has never had a placement work out, the kind that’s been tossed from family to family so often that the idea of it becomes impossible for them to understand.”

“And that was Brody -- Matt?”

Al nods a few times wistfully. “That’s how the case workers talk about them, is all,” he says. “I mean, in the foster system, it’s documented and by the book. You take classes, you have home visits. All of it, you know? So when they put a child in your home, they have this file that tells you their whole history, all the places they’ve lived, any familial relations that still exist, behavior problems, the whole gamut. They want you to be prepared to handle the needs these kids have before they step foot in your home.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Mitch ventures.

“Reasonable, yes,” Al agrees. “But those files, they can tell you a kid’s history but they can’t tell you who the kid is. Who that kid can become. The case worker can’t tell you. Most of the time the kid doesn’t even know. It’s something you have to discover along with them, and that’s not usually an easy process.”

Mitch has to chuckle. “I think Matt’s still figuring it out.”

Al laughs with him. “That kid,” he says. “When we first met him, we understood why he’d burned through so many homes. But that’s sort of a chicken and the egg sort of question. Was his rotten behavior caused by so many homes or did his rotten behavior cause him to go through a lot of homes? There’s probably no way to ever know for sure.”

Mitch studies his coffee for a moment but doesn’t take a drink. “And how old was he when he came here?”

Al makes a face as he thinks. “Just turned 15, as I recall,” he says. “That’s old for us. Usually we take kids who are still in grade school because we want to have a chance to really bring them into the family. We’ve adopted most of the kids we’ve fostered, you see. Seven of them, as a matter of fact. Plus one of our own. But we were their last resort with Matt. When Kathy heard that the next step was a group home, she had to say yes. There was no way she was letting any child into one of those homes when we had a bed to spare.”

At this, Mitch is frowning. “Last resort?”

“Kids who can’t find a long term placement are sent to group living facilities. We don’t call them orphanages, and kids can move in and out of them for sure, but the kids all know that’s what they are. It’s not a rule or anything, but those facilities get filled up with the kids who have special needs. Emotional, behavioral problems,” Al explains. “And don’t get me wrong, Matt had his share of issus. The two years before he moved in here, he got bumped from a dozen homes, mostly because of his behavior.”

It’s not exactly Mitch’s business, but it’s also completely Mitch’s business. “What behavior?”

Al looks at him, and he seems to ask himself the same question Mitch is asking: what right does he have to know.

“How well do you know Matt, then?” Al asks instead.

“Well,” Mitch supplies. This time, he does pick up the coffee and takes a sip. “He was right, I am his boss. I trained him and mentored him. I’ve been letting him live with me, and we spend most of our time together. He’s probably my best friend.”

Al chews his lips. “I’d imagine,” he says. “Coming all this way for the funeral of a woman you’ve never met.”

“I’d do anything for Brody,” Mitch says, and he says it in that way that everyone knows he means it. He means it. “Anything.”

It’s a sentiment Al seems to understand; one he seems to appreciate. “If you know Matt, then none of it will surprise you,” he says. “He swore a lot, especially around younger children. He stole, mostly small things. He stole from teachers, other kids, the gas station, that sort of thing. Candy bars, baseball cards, nothing important just like a kid does. And he skipped school constantly; flunked out of nearly every class he took. The first time they caught him drinking was 13, but nothing would surprise me with him.”

It doesn’t surprise Mitch, not really. Because he still remembers the smart ass who showed up on his beach. The idiot who drank himself out of a gold medal and heaved his way into poverty. He knows the times Brody has let him down.

It’s just hard to make that parse with the guy Mitch sees now.

The guy who wants to do better.

The guy who tries.

“I didn’t realize how bad it was,” Mitch confesses.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong. Matt was never a bad kid, not really, not even if that’s what his file may have said,” Al clarifies. “You just had to read his story to understand why he acts out. A file like his, I’m pretty sure all of us would act out.”

“He had other placements, then?” Mitch asks.

“Two long terms placements before us, yes,” Al says, nodding along as he remembers. It’s amazing to Mitch that he knows this. That this isn’t just information in a file to him. It’s Brody’s history, and that’s why the details matter. “He’s been in the system since birth, as I understand it. No contact with any of his birth family. Usually that makes kids easier to place, but there were a series of misfires, so Matt was nearly one before they finally placed him with a family for fostering.”

Mitch arches a curious eyebrow. “Misfires?”

“Long stories, mostly,” Al says. “It’s not a perfect thing, matching kids to families. All these people want babies, but things change. People lose their jobs; people get pregnant. People move out of state or a diagnosed with cancer.”

Mitch puts his coffee cup down again as he listens intently.

Al shrugs a little as he continues. “Everything looked good on the placement at age one, but the paperwork got dragged. The procedure got slowed down. By the time adoption was on the table when Matt was 4, the family learned they were pregnant with their own. For some families, that never makes a difference. For others, it just does. They gave it a shot, but shortly before the baby was born, they requested a new placement. Matt had just turned 5 when he was tossed back in the system.”

Mitch’s heart feels tight in his chest; his throat feels constricted.

“Of course, by that age, it gets a little harder to place kids,” Al says, sounding like he’s apologizing for something that’s entirely not his fault. “When he was six, he got a spot with another family. They were one of the prolific types. Lots and lots of kids going through.”

“And that didn’t work out?” Mitch asks.

“It did, and it didn’t,” Al says. He pauses to take a drink, then he shakes his head. “Funny thing about some of those families. Some of them, they’re less personal, I think. It’s a roof over a kid’s head, it’s someone taking you to school each day, it’s food on the table, but with so many kids at a time, there’s only so much you can do. You ask Matt, and he’ll tell you it was great. They had a pool, and they let him swim as much as he wanted. That’s probably why he went to the Olympics, no doubt about it. But that was no family, not for a kid who needed family more than he needed a hobby.”

“So what happened with them?” Mitch asks.

This time, Al sighs. “Legally, I’m not even sure, to be honest,” he says. “It never went to trial, some sort of plea deal. But all the kids were put back into the system, Matt among them. He was 11. They pulled the kids so fast that they didn’t even get to go home and pick up their things. They didn’t even get to say goodbye to the kids they’d been living with.”

That’s almost too much for Mitch to imagine. He pulls drowning people out of the ocean for a living. He literally saves lives on a daily basis. And what Al is telling him about kids in the foster system doesn’t even compute.

“They’re not all like that, you have to understand,” Al says. “We met great families who took in kids, all sorts of kids. A lot of us just want to provide these kids with family, with stability. And the kids, they’re not always easy. I can’t say I didn’t want to whack Matt upside the head more than once during his stay with us.”

“Well, to be fair, I still want to do that,” Mitch consoles. “So I know it’s not easy.”

“But it’s worth it, you know,” Al says. “We’ve had a few placements not work out, some that we can’t quite reach, some like Matt who we just want more for. But it’s always worth it.”

“It sounds like you did a lot for him,” Mitch says.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Al says, and he takes another drink. “We tried, of course. We provided rules and guidelines. And he got privileges when he followed those rules. Kathy was insistent about that. She set up private swim lessons for him if he stayed in school and kept his act together. That boy loved those swim lessons.”

“Well, and they paid off, I think,” Mitch says.

Al doesn’t seem particularly encouraged by that. Instead, he’s wistful again. “It was more than swimming for us, though,” he says quietly. “We wanted him to know that, that it was about love.” He shakes his head, gazing down at his coffee. “I don’t think he ever quite got that. I’m not sure he could. He came to us broken, I think, and we just didn’t have enough time to put the pieces back together.”

Mitch isn’t sure what to say to that. He’s not even sure what to think. He stares at his own coffee cup instead.

“But Kathy, she always believed, even after he left, that he’d find a place,” Al adds. “She’d say that Matt was a person who belonged with a family and that he’d find a place for himself one way or another.”

At this, Al lifts his eyes and smiles at Mitch.

“And here you are,” Al says, the implications clear.

Mitch swallows. His eyes are burning for some reason. “At Baywatch, we have a saying,” he says. “It’s not a job, what we do. It’s a way of life. We’re not coworkrs. We’re family.”

Al is grinning now, his own eyes brimming with tears. “She’d love that, Kathy would. She’d love that.”

Mitch draws a breath, and he feels strangely revitalized now. Strangely certain. “I’m sorry I never met her,” he says. “But I’m glad to meet you.”

“Likewise, likewise,” Al says with a congenial nod. “I’m being honest, you know, when I tell you that I didn’t think Matt would come.”

“Oh, he wanted to,” Mitch assures him. “Completely.”

“I thought about reaching out to him, after the Olympics, just to tell him how proud we were, that we were still here if he needed something,” Al says. “But I didn’t want him to think we wanted to use him or something.”

“Ah, well,” Mitch commiserates. “He wouldn’t have taken you up on it anyway, I think.”

“No, I imagine now,” Al laughs with a light scoff. He looks genuinely bemused. “You bought the tickets to come here, didn’t you?”

Mitch can’t lie. He doesn’t lie. He won’t lie, not here, not about this. “Maybe,” he says. “But trust me, he still wanted to come. He was just a little scared to figure out how.”

“Ah, well, that’s Matt,” Al says. “Always scared of the things he wants most.”

Mitch shrugs. “He’s never been scared of swimming.”

Al inclines his head knowingly as he gets to his feet. “And that’s never been the thing he wanted most.”

-o-

They finish their coffee.

They finish their conversation.

But the day’s just starting. For Al, that means burying his wife.

For Mitch, well, he’s not really sure what it means.

It’s probably about time to find out.

-o-

He waits until the rest of the family is up and has eaten. The kids are running around while their mothers try to get them into dress clothes. The husbands show up, and so do a handful of other children. Mitch is tired of awkwardly introducing himself as Brody’s plus one when he excuses himself to go check on Brody.

At the door, he hesitates. With a single knock, there’s no answer. Mitch knocks again, and then cracks the door open.

He’s surprised by how light it is. The windows are open to the sunlight and the overhead light is on. Brody’s perched on the edge of the bed with his suit laid out next to him. It’s not clear how long he’s been sitting there, but Mitch can wager a few guesses.

“Everyone has eaten downstairs,” he says, closing the door behind him. “People are starting to get ready to go to the church.”

Brody nods a little, but it’s a knee jerk response. There’s no clear sense that he’s heard Mitch at all.

Mitch walks over and looks out the window. Then, he turns to the bed and fusses with the suit that’s laid out. “I told you that this was a good investment,” he says, rearranging the tie pointlessly so it looks straighter on the suit laid out on the bed. “You thought I was crazy.”

“You are crazy,” Brody says. “We’re lifeguards. We literally wear swimsuits. We don’t need suits.”

“We need it now, don’t we?” Mitch asks. His own suit is hanging up in the bathroom. He’s just waiting for his turn to use it.

This doesn’t seem to be an overly compelling point to Brody. “That’s something she would say,” he says instead. “She made sure I had a nice shirt with a tie. Dress pants, too. She even took me to get dress shoes and a matching belt once.”

He’s talking about Kathy, of course. It’s both fond and something else. Something more, something less. “Well, that seems smart,” is all Mitch can think to say.

Brody laughs a little, but it’s a humorless sound. “I didn’t take them with me,” he says. “I didn’t take any of it. They bought me books and school supplies. They bought me video games, even. I left it all.”

This seems like a strange confession. A day ago, Mitch would have thought Brody to be rude and ungrateful for it. But he remembers what Al says, about leaving at a moment’s notice, about all of the stuff being left behind. He thinks about how Brody rolled into Baywatch with everything he owned in a single duffle bag.

It makes more sense.

It makes the worst kind of sense.

Brody shakes his head and looks at his hands, which are resting in his lap. “I shouldn’t have come.”

“Hey,” Mitch cajoles, giving him a nudge. “Everyone is thrilled you’re here. There are all these other kids down there now. They want to see you.”

Brody looks up, somehow more miserable than before. “That’s the problem, though,” he says. “I mean, these people, all of them, they wanted to give m a home here, they wanted to be my family, and what did I do? I threw it back at them. I was a total asshole; didn’t even say thank you, not even close. I walked away and never even looked back, not even once.”

Mitch abandons the suit and looks at Brody. “It’s not too late. I mean, you’re here.”

“Yeah,” Brody says with a incredulous snort. “And she’s dead.”

“Yeah,” Mitch agrees. “But Al’s not. Those other kids, the brothers and sisters and their kids -- they’re here. And they want you here with them, buddy. They do.”

Brody sighs, turning his head down again. “I don’t know,” he says. “Being here, it’s just so weird.”

Mitch does his best to commiserate. “Makes you wonder what you might have had,” he muses. “You’ve been homesick is all.”

When Brody looks up, he’s actually surprised. “No, that’s not -- no,” he says. “It makes me think of what I do have.”

It’s Mitch’s turn to be caught off guard. “What?”

Brody shakes his head. “You’re right, I am homesick,” he says with emphasis now. “But not for Iowa. I mean, these people, they’re good people, okay. I was shitty to them, and I feel terrible about that, but I don’t miss them. This isn’t home. I’m homesick for Baywatch.”

Inexplicably, Mitch feels his chest start to swell again. This time, however, it’s pride. It’s pride and something much more.

“Maybe I was too young or too stupid or maybe I just needed someone to hit me over the head enough times before I figured it all out,” Brody continues with a vague shrug. “And maybe this could have been, you know? If I’d been better or something. But this place can’t be home. Not when everything I am is back on the beach where I found it in the first place.”

That’s more than Mitch expects.

It’s more than he thought he’d get.

And it’s everything he’s never known he wanted.

Brody looks down again, studying his hands. “I really don’t know why I came.”

Mitch moves the suit aside, squeezing in next to Brody this time. “I do,” he says.

Brody raises his eyes again, somehow tentative. Somehow ready.

“Sometimes you don’t realize you’ve found something until you’re separated from it,” he says. He leans in, gently nudging Brody with his shoulder. “You don’t know what home is until you’re away.”

That much, Brody gets.

Brody really gets it.

A smile spreads across his face. Slow at first. Then wider and wider. “Thanks, Mitch.”

Mitch grins back. “Sure thing,” he says. “Now, you ready to do this?”

Brody gathers a breath and nods. “I have no idea.”

Mitch rolls his eyes, getting to his feet and picking up the suit. He hands it to Brody. “You are,” he says, holding out the suick until Brody takes it from him. “And if you’re not, I’ll be right here the whole time.”

That’s a promise one might make to a friend, to be sure.

But with family, it’s just the assumption you make.

-o-

It’s a good day.

That’s a strange thing to say about a funeral, but Mitch doesn’t get the impression that anyone would disagree. Kathy, though Mitch never met her, was clearly a good person, an honest person, a person who loved deeply and who was well loved in return. Her impact is palpable, and even as a stranger, Mitch feels her loss keenly.

In that regard, the funeral is sad at times. People cry. The children, in equal turns, dab at their eyes and blow their noses. A few of them sob openly from time to time, and Al looks barely composed throughout the ceremony.

The other kids have saved Brody a spot in the front, and they insist that it’s just fine if Mitch sits there, too, with the grandchildren and significant others. It’s a little weird, maybe, but really it doesn’t matter. It’s more important that Brody sits there, one in a long line of children, biological, adopted and foster.

True, he’s the only one who doesn’t cry, but he’s still there. He’s there when it starts; he’s there when it ends. When it’s over, he hugs his foster siblings and lets Al clutch him to his chest a little longer than all the others.

It’s the right way to remember a good person. It’s the best way to honor a life well lived.

So yeah, it’s really a pretty good day.

-o-

There’s a private graveside ceremony, just for family.

Brody stands, one of 15 children.

Standing a few steps behind them, they all look the same. Equals, somehow. It’s clear to Mitch that Kathy and Al didn’t play favorites, and as hard as it is for Brody to accept, he knows he has a place here. That counts for something.

That counts for a lot.

Still, from the back, their bowed, grieved silhouettes, Mitch knows which one is Brody.

He knows which one is his.

-o-

When the services are over, there’s dinner back at the house. There’s food everywhere, and Mitch doesn’t know where it came from but he suspects it doesn’t much matter. The family is all their, the children and their children and their spouses. One of the kids, a middle aged man with gray hair around the temples, introduces his great-grandson to Mitch.

And more than that, friends and neighbors have shown up. People from church. Other foster parents. There are coworkers, fellow volunteers, teachers, you name it.

Mitch talks about Baywatch as family.

But this is family.

This is seamless, this is encompassing. It’s having to say nothing and getting to say everything. It’s laughter and tears, it’s joy and sadness. It’s everything.

That’s it, really.

It’s everything.

Brody, though he tries to stay out of the limelight, quickly becomes the center of attention. Everyone wants to know what he’s up to, everyone wants to say how proud they are. Two gold medals, after all. A world record pace in the 200 fly.

It’s impressive, the way Brody turned his life around and made something of himself.

They’re right, of course.

But not for the reasons they think they are.

-o-

Before the end of the night, Al gathers everyone up for a family photo. This is a bit of work, gathering up all the people and sorting out the family members from the friends and coworkers. It seems like when they find one member, another one has wandered off, and it takes a good 20 minutes before they’re all assembled.

A multitude of cameras appear out of nowhere, but Al hands his to Mitch, asking him to take the shot. Mitch has no reason to say no, so he lines up the the shot to make sure everyone is in the frame. It’s a large group, and they have to crunch together. A few children need to be passed around, and a few people end up sitting on the floor in front of the group just to make room.

There, right in the middle, is Brody. He’s standing awkwardly, like he knows he doesn’t quite belong. He doesn’t quite fit in the way everyone else does.

All the same, when Mitch takes the picture, Brody’s smiling anyway.

-o-

That night, Mitch volunteers to sleep on the floor in Brody’s room. Some people are local, but more people are crashing at Al’s tonight and they’re just out of room.

Mitch doesn’t mind.

Brody doesn’t either.

When they’re both lying there with the lights off, Mitch stares at the ceiling and reflects on the day. From the stillness, Brody speaks from the bed.

“Thanks,” he says.

Mitch glances at him, but Brody’s eyes are fixed on the ceiling.

“Thanks for being here,” Brody adds. “For making me come.”

Mitch shrugs, even though it’s a gesture Brody can’t see. “You wanted to come. I just helped you along.”

“Still,” Brody says. “It means something.”

He doesn’t say what.

Mitch thinks they both know.

“Ah, well,” Mitch says. “There’s no place else I’d be.”

“That’s not true,” Brody says.

“Yeah,” Mitch corrects him, eyes staring up into the now familiar darkness. “It is.”

That’s the truth, the promise, the reality that lingers between them as the night falls deeper and sleep descends.

-o-

Mitch is up early, and he gets Brody up, too. Their flight is midday, but they still have to drive to Des Moines. They make a point to be quiet, but Al’s still up with fresh coffee and donuts in the kitchen.

Brody accepts both, and he sits with Al at the table while they eat. Al asks what’s going on in California, what comes next. Brody admits he’s not sure. Probably just more work.

“Baywatch?” Al clarifies.

“Yeah,” Brody says.

Al smiles at Mitch knowingly.

Because Baywatch is a job, sure.

But it’s a way of life.

It’s a family.

That’s what Al wants to hear more than anything else.

-o-

On their way to the door, Brody stops and turns. He hesitates for a moment before hugging Al again. This time, it’s his choice. This time, there’s no pressure, no expectation. It’s just a hug with no strings attached.

“You should come out sometime,” Brody suggests when he pulls away. He’s trying not to make it awkward. “Come see my home.”

It’s such a forward offer that neither Mitch nor Al quite know what to make of it. Al is still gaping when Mitch recovers. “Yeah, anytime,” Mitch adds. “There’s plenty of room.”

Al closes his mouth and his eyes are locked in Brody. He’s trying not to cry while also trying not to smile too wide. “That sounds wonderful, Matt,” he says. “It really, really does.”

-o-

Brody takes his things out to the car, but Al pulls Mitch aside. This time, the tears are not quite held back like they were for Brody’s sake, and when he speaks, his voice is trembling. “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you for being Matt’s family.”

Mitch offers his hand, and they clasp fingers firmly. “Just finishing what you started,” he says. “That’s all.”

Al shakes it back more fervently than ever. “That’s everything.”

-o-

As they take off, heading down 380, the sun is still rising up in the east. The sun across the cornfields is warm and vibrant, even as each field grows distant in the rearview mirror as they pass.

One hand on the wheel, Mitch spares a glance at Brody. In the seat next to him, Brody’s eyes are fixed on the road ahead.

Mitch follows his cue and looks forward, thinking about Baywatch.

It’s time to go home.