Big hazel eyes peered up at her, pleading and as innocent as the teenage boy could make them. Mason had always been good at getting what he wanted by appealing to the men and women that worked in the foster program. After the first few foster parents brought him back and deemed him an ill fit for their home, the staff started getting smarter, dismissing his antics with a wave of their hands.
“No, no Mason. You know we don’t have a choice in the matter. We may not have the room, but we have enough, and you’re the lucky one!”
Mae had been working there for twenty-seven years and had seen just about everything the program could throw at her. But it was never something to be celebrated when older kids had a hard time finding homes. There was another foster system outside the city with overflow, and a few of their older boys were going to be transferred over later that afternoon.
“You will have some new friends your age, isn’t that exciting?” Mason’s lips pursed for a moment before he looked away from her, giving a nonchalant shrug before the charm was immediately put back in place.
“Why do I need anyone else when I have you, Mae?”
She wasn’t going to fall for it, not for a second. Despite adoring the boy, there was a reason he was an ill fit for most homes and his charm was just a cover for his restlessness. He was a flight risk and had proven to be many times before, despite how well mannered he appeared. Her old hand extended to mess up his sandy blonde hair for a moment as she shook her head.
“Get out of here, Mason - go clean up your room, we will be moving in some extra beds shortly. It’s only temporary.” Temporary. That was a word he heard many times from her and if there was one thing Mason knew for a fact, it was that temporary was often much longer than one thought. But he didn’t need to sit there and push his luck with her, especially when she was one of the only people at that establishment he actually cared for.
It wasn’t that he meant to be a bother, or purposefully ruined his chances of having a family…no, not in the slightest. He was hungry to get out of that home and away from the babies and young kids shoved into the cookie cutter house. He was different. It was something he felt deep within him, a restlessness that had become almost unbearable that last year in particular. It was that very feeling that drove him from his new homes and into the city lights, searching for a place to run. A stirring beneath his skin that forced Mason to escape, feeling more animal than human.
He always returned to those who were fostering him, but often they were already privy to his nightly disappearances. It was never long before the sarcastic and smart seventeen-year-old was back with Mae, on his quest for a family yet again.
A family that fit with him, that made him feel as though he really belonged. That was what Mason had always wanted, even after having no memory of one whatsoever. He was dropped off as a young child, barely out of his toddler years and from that moment on, Mae was his grandmother in a way. She always found a reason to stick up for him despite the disciplinary issues he seemed to have.
Things had just started to settle again, or so Mason had thought. Now, he was, once again, going to be crammed into a room with boys his age. He had experience with other boys his age in the past. Normally, they left the system as runaways or stuck with it until they were of age. The question this time was which end of the spectrum these new boys would fall into. Would they stay? Or would they bolt the first chance they got? His vote was on the latter. Mason sat somewhere in the middle, embracing the urge but never leaving entirely. He always found a way back. But things needed to change, and soon. His stagnant role was ending, most families passing over teenagers, especially those as old as him. He was only a year away from having to plan his life outside of the orphanage. Where would he go? What would he do for work? Would he be accepted? After all, if he spent almost his entire life in the foster care system, something had to be seriously wrong with him, right?
Making his way down the hallway towards his room, Mason peered down at a small fluffy creature following him. There were several cats that roamed around their home and the damn things never let him be. He pushed out with his foot, trying to move the tabby from his feet.
“Go on, get away from me.” The cat responded with a loud meow, refusing before Mason hissed down at it. As the thing scampered off, he resumed his mission.
The home had a casino night with prospective parents later and most were busy preparing for it. He had a little bit of time to himself in his room before it became a hotel, and he was going to use it to lock himself away. The moment Mason turned that corner and caught sight of his door, he paused.
It was already wide open, several of the volunteers carrying in mattresses and a long wooden dresser. The room wasn’t large to begin with and had previously been one of the playrooms for their preschool center. It had taken him weeks to scrape off and rid the room of the drawings on the walls, to cover the smell of Play-Doh.
So much for getting some time to himself.
Leaning against the door, he watched the adults move his things around. It didn’t matter. There was one thing Mason was aware of when it came to personal items; he didn’t really have many. They were always getting lost, forgotten, or ruined at some point. His body was the only thing he had control over, and even that seemed overwhelming these days.
“So…when do my new roomies get here?”
“Not sure, soon!” A volunteer announced, flashing him a smile before plopping down a mattress and wiping his hands on his jeans.
Mason didn’t familiarize himself with the blue shirted volunteers, there were so many of them, and the turnaround rate was high there. He liked to think he didn’t have some hand in that, but who knew.
A few minutes later they had cleared out, providing him with his new living quarters. Or what was left of them.
Norah Wainewright sat behind the large oak desk in her office, overwhelmed and tired. It was yet another day of running the foster home, and each moment was bringing her closer and closer to the breaking point. How many orphaned children had to pass through these doors before it crushed her completely? The worst part was seeing the older kids, the unwanted ones. These kids were lost, scared and had no way to get over the traumas of their past while being bounced from home to home. Truthfully, that was exactly what kept her rooted behind that desk for the last eight years. It was a drive, a true passion to try and place these kids with acceptable families and when she couldn’t, she did her best to make sure they were safe, loved and well-cared-for with what little funds the group home managed to scrape up.
A sane person would have left it all behind after so long but evidently, Norah was a glutton for punishment. Her glasses slipped to the tip of her nose and her hand came up, finding the bridge of the frame to shove them back up into their proper spot.
That day she was expecting two more kids. They were male and both around the age of seventeen. Regardless of whether or not they were like the oldest boy here - Mason - placing them into a home at that age would be difficult. The unfortunate reality was that these homeless children were a lot like homeless pets - people wanted the young, the easily moldable…the kids that didn’t really remember the past traumas and would believe the adoptive parents were their biological ones. While puppies and kittens flew out of shelters, the seniors sat. It was no different with these teenagers. That was especially true for the wild ones. Speaking of the wild ones…Norah leaned back in her chair, peering out her open office door. She could hear Mason harassing the volunteers down the hall.
The phone on her desk rang, making her jump as hands darted out to snatch it off the cradle. Bringing the telephone up to her ear, she rested it between her cheek and shoulder.
“Norah Wainewright, this is the New Beginnings Home For Children, can I help you?” It wasn’t typical for a director to be the one answering phones but when you barely had enough to feed the kids under the roof, well, you just had to step up to the plate.
“Ah, Ms. Wainewright. Good evening, this is Diana. We spoke earlier. I’m on the bus with the boys now. I wanted to let you know we were about an hour away. I know it’s after hours and I apologize for making you stay so late.” Norah laughed, placing her pen down on the day planner.
“Nonsense. I’m here later than this every day. I look forward to meeting with you. Thank you for taking the time to escort them here. It was proving difficult for me to find an appropriate substitute and go there myself.” The two boys on their way, like most under her care were, were troubled. Perhaps even more so than the current residents.
“Oh, it was not a problem. We’re going through a dead zone, I’ll see you in a bit.” That was the thing about this place; it was off the beaten path and about an hour outside the city.
Having this home so far into the woods meant the children were away from the influences of the city. But on the flip side, it was part of the reason funding was so damn hard to get.
After a quick goodbye, she placed the phone back in the cradle. Norah stood, brushing off the black pencil skirt before she straightened out the royal blue button up. She didn’t always look this presentable, actually, dressing like this made her uncomfortable. But there was always an exception to the rule when fellow higher-ups from other foster homes came for a visit. There was a chance they could help with funding and if they found out her typical daily wear was oversized t-shirts and paint-smeared jeans? They wouldn’t take her seriously.
Norah wobbled a step on those four-inch tall black heels, right hand moving to grab hold of the door to steady her. Regaining her composure, she headed into the hallway to track down the voice of her favorite wild child. Norah came up behind Mason and crossed her arms over her chest as she cleared her throat.
“Mason.” His name came out like a whip crack.
“Stop harassing the volunteers. As I’m sure Mae has already told you, we have two boys your age joining us. They’ll be here within the hour and I’d like to have a little chat with you before they arrive.”
Mason jumped the moment Ms. Wainewright approached and his name escaped her lips, despite having heard her heels from down the hallway several moments before. Turning slowly, that sly and sweet smile was already spreading. Her words had started a small ball of anxiety in his stomach; it wasn’t the first time she had to have a talk with him. But this time Mason was having a hard time figuring out what he had done. There was no way he was going to tell her he was already quite aware that he was going to be forced to share a room, not when he already might be in trouble.
“Norah! You look great!” He said with a playful wink, moving away from the door and his previous station hovering over those volunteers.
A soft, warm smile met his sly one as she blushed. Waving a dismissive hand, she shook her head. “Enough, enough.” The wink of his was too much.
“I always have time in my busy schedule for you.” He quickly added.
“Busy schedule.” Norah shook her head.
“Sometimes I wonder if your main goal is to have my hair turn grey before I turn thirty-five. Seven months left for you to nail that feat.” Turning on her heel, she gestured for him to follow and backtracked the way down the hallway to her office.
Mason tagged along after her down the hallway, still thinking about her previous words. He had less time for that small window of freedom than he had previously anticipated. Great. Turning the corner to her office, Mason walked ahead and opened the door for her, giving a small sweeping bow in the process. “After you.” He murmured softly, figuring there was no harm in sprinkling a little bit more sugar on things in the process. There went that eyebrow again. “Mason, why can’t you act like this in the homes we place you in? These people are not cruel spawns of Satan. They want to help you. If you did this instead of running…” Norah sighed, shaking her head.
Following her inside, Mason suddenly felt as though he was being suffocated. Something in his chest was fighting to get out. Taking a seat in an old chair on the other side of the room, Mason pulled his long legs up and crossed them awkwardly as he watched her.
“I am all ears!” He said, brows furrowed, his face far from the playful one he had sported earlier.
Clearly, he was about to get a mouthful, and he was willing to bet he knew what it was all about now. She was probably going to tell him he couldn’t mess with the new kids, couldn’t pick any fights. Despite never being the one to openly swing, his words had ignited more than enough fires in the past. Mason distinctly remembered several situations in which he had been the culprit, yet had gotten away without a scratch.
One where an obnoxious bully had pressed his luck. All it had taken was a few whispers about how some of the other kids disliked him and that boy went on a rampage. Mason shouldn’t have been to blame, how was he to know the kid’s ego was so fragile?
At that point Mason was finding it hard to agree to any terms she may come up with when she did come up with them. His playing around with other’s minds had been the only thing keeping him sane up until that point and if he had to put it under wraps? There was no telling where that new unharnessed energy would be directed.
“You’re not in trouble, quite the opposite, actually. I have a proposition for you, should you choose to accept it.” One delicate eyebrow ticked up as she shot him a questioning glare.
She never could get a straight answer from him as to why he was so adamant to destroy trust. Moving around the desk, she sank down into the chair near Mason and kicked her heels off. “First of all, Mr. Mason. How are you doing today?” He had recently come back from yet another foster home and there was always some minor breakdown under the surface with him.
Mason kept his mouth shut when she asked that magic question. Why? It wasn’t something he could explain. It was simply that he did not belong with those she placed him with. Mason was finding it harder and harder to control those urges, the need to get out of four walls and escape…somehow.
The homes he was placed in were filled with nice, caring people and he had not endured any of the horrors he had heard some of the others speak of. They cooked him dinner, gave him a room and things to entertain him, some even told him his age made him even more special to them. Still, Mason never bonded with any of them, never shed a tear when he was brought back with disappointment, the foster parents not knowing what to do or how to make him happy.
Her noticing the way he felt about the rejection from home after home was something he could never charm his way out of. No matter how hard he tried to hide it. She and Mae knew him like the back of their hands. Mason had been in the care of the orphanage longer than she worked there, no spring chicken.
Norah crossed one leg over the other and reached down to rub her sore foot. Heels were a bitch, especially when you weren’t used to wearing them. “Here’s the deal. I know you’ve had a rough go of things the last couple of years and I’ve decided to stop looking for another home for you. I can’t keep doing this…vetting the perfect family only to have you do everything in your power to rip it apart. So, for the next year, you’re stuck here until you’re released from being a ward of the state. You’ll remain under my watchful eye.” She held up a hand to cut off whatever protest was about to come from him.
“Here’s where I need your help. The two boys that are on their way here are coming from a very serious situation.” This was breaking so many rules.
“There are a lot of special circumstances surrounding them. So special that they too will remain here until they’re released from the system. If anyone understands how those boys are feeling, it’s you. I’d like you to make them feel welcome here. I know that sharing a room isn’t ideal and I’m sorry. I can’t say no to them. They have nowhere else to go. We’re their last hope. They’ll need someone to show them the ropes. Introduce them to the other kids and the staff. I trust you can do that?” She let her eyes linger on him.
“If you can do that for me, I’m happy to reward you for it.”
Why did it sting when she said she would stop looking for a home? Wasn’t that what he desired? Just staying here where he knew the run of the place, could keep to himself if he wished?
Norah easily picked up on his silence and lack of response to her mostly rhetorical question. She knew he didn’t have a reason for his behavior, he rarely did. But that was the least of her worries. If Mason was hard to place, that was on him. There was only so much she could do to make him see these families only wanted to help. Admittedly, this kid was the most hardheaded boy she had ever come across. It was something she admired in a way. Whether his mission was foolish or not, at least he always stayed true to it.
Norah kept those green eyes trained on Mason, studying his reactions to her words. When his shoulders sagged, she frowned. Was he upset or relieved to be here for the rest of his days? Her money was on relieved. If he were upset about the decision, he would have never acted out the way he had. Well, maybe not so frequently. Eventually, he would have quit testing the patience of the families he was placed with, right? Not necessarily. There was no way of knowing what was going through that kid’s head and she was certain he wouldn’t share if she asked.
Thankfully, the news of his roommates pulled him from that contemplation and threw him into twenty more questions. Questions he knew she would not entertain. Naturally, Norah wasn’t going to let him know about their indiscretions and despite how possible it could be, Mason had a hard time believing they were in the same situation he was. Even if they were in the same program.
Her words gave Mason reason to believe they had been in some sort of danger. Perhaps that was just his overactive imagination, but the moment she said the words ‘serious situation’ he was sitting at the edge of his seat, listening intently. She would reward him? With what? He knew he could get creative. Perhaps it was a good time to bring up how badly he wanted to go into the city and explore? No, he wasn’t looking to press his luck, knowing well enough that this conversation was both stripping him from a future family, not that he hadn’t done a good enough job of that himself, and also giving him an opportunity to finally settle where he was most comfortable.
“Under your watchful eye? Would I have it any other way?”
Some of that charm was gone, his brain going too fast to calculate the way he wanted her to perceive things. It was as though something stirred right beneath the surface, fighting and…Growling to get free? Sitting in that chair was no longer an option.
Lifting himself to his feet, Mason made a spectacle of dusting his jeans off despite the lack of dirt on them.
“I suppose I can show them the ropes, heal them emotionally…the usual.” He teased, but when those hazel eyes fixed on Ms. Wainewright they were serious and calculating, “I’ll be good. I don’t want to be kicked out of here.”
It was the truth. He didn’t care about those homes that passed him around, these were the people and this was the place he was most familiar. Leaving it each time was plunging him into unknown situations and others that did not understand his humor or appreciate it in the slightest. People that gave up too easily, who didn’t know what to do. There was a small part of Mason reminding him that Norah was doing the very same thing. But that wasn’t fair in the slightest and he knew it.
Her eyes narrowed for a quick second when that sarcastic response rolled out. Would he have it any other way? Of course, he would. Mason wanted freedom and everyone in this house knew he was chomping at the bit to get it. Norah sighed. “Oh, Mason.”
When was he going to learn she was one of the few people in this world that he didn’t have to worry about impressing? “Hey, hey. You’re no psychologist; you don’t need to heal them emotionally. Just don’t chase them off or pick on them. These boys aren’t like the others that have come through here. I need you on your best behavior. For me, please?” She begged.
Norah stopped dead in her tracks, blinking when he spoke. She absorbed that serious expression, the one that made him look so much older than he really was. “Now you listen to me. You may fight, stir up all the trouble you can create, drive me to the brink of insanity and back but you will never get kicked out of here. I promise you that. As long as I am sitting behind this desk, you will go nowhere. Do you hear me?” Mason had a special spot in her heart.
A spot so special she had been considering taking him into her own home. It was a conversation she and her fiancé had had several times in the past. Before she could get another word out, Mason was backing toward the door and slipping into the hallway.
Shaking those negative emotions away, he quickly recovered with a charming smile and gave her another low bow - that messy dirty blonde hair falling around his face and providing a small, temporary hiding place. The boys would be arriving soon, and if Mason wanted any chance of privacy in that room before they arrived, he had to retreat as soon as he could. Without another word to Ms. Wainewright, he backed up towards the door and fumbled with the handle before slipping back into the hallway, leaving her in the office.
“It was a nice talk, Mas!” She called out to him.
Mason hummed to himself, practically skipping down that long hallway as he thought about the conversation they just had, eyes drifting to all the art projects along the walls. It was like a permanent fridge, sporting all the inadequate but appreciated drawings and scribbles from the young kids. It gave the entire establishment a sweet and gentle feel. Had this really been what he wanted all along? To be trapped there until he was eighteen and able to leave and start his own life? What did that even mean for him?
Sure, there were classes provided and things he had picked up from the volunteers and those who worked there, but did he really know what the world was like out there? Hell, he was having a hard-enough time figuring himself out. It was a scary thought, but there was no time to sit on it as he had many times before. It was action time.
Mason’s door was still open, but this time the room was empty. Slipping inside, Mason immediately closed the door and made his way over to his comfortable bed. Plopping down upon his back, he stared at the ceiling in silence for the remainder of his time alone. Had it been twenty minutes? Thirty? He couldn’t tell, just enjoying the silence.
By the time the footsteps of a group came down the hallway and the cheerful voice of Mae spouting out directions and locations of things were heard, he had all those walls back up in place with his defenses set. The footsteps stopped at his door for a moment before that old hand of Mae’s rapped a few times.
She didn’t wait for a response before she barged in, but of course, it wasn’t only his room anymore. Her brown eyes immediately flashed over to Mason on the bed before she smiled and moved to the side, allowing the two boys behind her to come in with their things, which didn’t seem to be much at all.
The first boy to walk in was far from readable. His face was locked down, not a bit of emotion showing there as his bright blue eyes took in his surroundings. When those eyes looked to Mason, they nervously shot over him. His hands were shoved into pockets as he shuffled into the room and sat down upon one of the empty beds, the backpack slung over one shoulder slid off and onto the mattress next to him.
“Mason, this is Jax,” Mae said cheerfully, gesturing towards the boy and then back to Mason before turning to the other male at her side.
The dark-skinned boy chilled Mason to the bone. There was something eerie about him. Jax had been nervous and unfriendly, but Mason had a Ph.D. when it came to dealing with those who needed some shaking out of their shell. This other newcomer? Mason’s gut twisted with a reaction he had never had before, like an internal warning.
The energy in the room was unlike anything he had ever experienced, but Mae didn’t seem to notice the air around them buzzing, the tickling of…something along his skin. It was unnerving and there was nothing Mason could do to keep Mae in there with them, not wanting to be left alone.
“This is Julian. Boys, this is Mason. Now I have to go get things ready for casino night. I will see the three of you then - five tonight!”
Without another word, his only hope left the room and shut the door, leaving the three of them in there together. Julian’s light blue eyes fixed on Mason, unmoving. Mason realized he much preferred the shy demeanor of his counterpart. But it was the three words that Julian spoke that made Mason freeze.
“What are you?”