"Hey, Tango! You busy?" Mark called from across the room.
Jeff turned around. He had a coffee cup in one hand and a stack of papers in the other. "Just going to make some copies," Jeff answered, making his way over to his colleague. "But I've got a minute. What's up?"
Mark was standing outside his office. Behind him stood an older woman in a shabby black suit and a little boy with spiky blond hair and a dark blue backpack. "Do you mind watching the kid for a minute?" Mark asked. "I've got a meeting and it would probably be better if he stayed out here."
"Um," Jeff glanced down at the kid uncomfortably. He didn't really do kids. He tended to find them loud and annoying. And for some reason they always seemed to be sticky. And if there was one thing Jeff could not abide by, it was sticky little jam hands all over his $2,000 suits.
"Just for a couple of minutes," Mark assured him. Apparently Jeff still looked unconvinced because Mark rolled his eyes. "He's seven, Jeff. It's not like you're going to have to change his diaper. Just keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn't wander off."
Jeff nodded. "Oh. Right, I can do that."
"Thanks." Mark turned to open the office door, holding it open for the woman to enter first. When the door had clicked shut behind them, Jeff looked down at the boy and found him staring right back.
"Um. Hi," Jeff muttered awkwardly.
The kid immediately reached up and held out his hand for Jeff to take.
"My name is Tyler."
Jeff's eyebrows shot up in surprise.
"Jeff," He said, hesitantly shaking the boy's hand.
Tyler let go and moved to take a seat in one of the chairs outside the office. He calmly slid his backpack from his shoulders and began to dig through it, looking for something to occupy his time. Jeff shrugged. The kid seemed fine, so Jeff set his stuff down and leaned back against the empty desk behind him. It belonged to Mark's secretary. He was sure she wouldn't mind. Jeff fished his cellphone out of his jacket pocket, intending to peruse Twitter until he was released from babysitting duty, but something about Tyler caught his eye. The boy was sitting quietly, his feet barely skimming the ground, completely absorbed in the comic book he held out in front of him.
"Spider-Man, huh?" Jeff asked.
The boy looked up from his comic book and blinked at him for a second.
Jeff nodded, feeling awkward. He wasn't quite sure why he was making conversation with a seven-year-old.
"Is he your favorite?"
"Yeah," Tyler said again.
The boy cocked his head to the side and closed the comic book, setting it down in his lap.
"He is? Why?" He seemed genuinely curious.
Jeff shrugged and averted his eyes, focusing on the pattern in the carpet as he spoke.
"He always seemed a lot more relatable than the other heroes. Plus, I liked his powers." When he looked back up at Tyler, the boy was regarding him seriously, his eyes bright. "I still have my whole collection of comics. A big box of them. Mint condition, too."
"Cool." Tyler responded with a smile.
After a pause, Jeff held out his hand.
"Can I see?" He asked, gesturing to the book that rested against Tyler's legs. The boy eagerly handed it over.
Jeff flipped through the pages and smiled. Comics sure had changed a lot since he was a kid. "I started collecting these when I was around your age." Jeff said, "My dad bought me my first comic book."
"Mine, too!" Tyler said with amazement.
Jeff's heart fluttered and he looked up in surprise. "Imagine that." He muttered. He couldn't be bothered to say more than that. He was too busy trying to understand what had just happened to him. His body tended to reserve strange emotional responses for a select few people. Six in particular. He wasn't used to this kind of thing at all.
Tyler swung his legs gently back and forth, his toes quietly dragging against the carpet. He was grinning up at Jeff, clearly delighted to have found someone that he had so much in common with.
"I'm supposed to be going to live with my dad soon," Tyler said, totally oblivious to Jeff's current inner turmoil. Jeff turned his attention back to the comic book in his hands, flipping the pages but not really seeing them. He just needed something to do with his hands and somewhere to look that wasn't at the kid.
"I think that's what they're talking about in there," Tyler continued softly, pointing his thumb in the direction of the closed office door. "I haven't seen my dad in a long time. I think they're trying to find him for me."
Jeff's head snapped up. He looked from the door to the boy.
As if on cue, the office door opened and Jeff jumped to his feet like he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Mark and the woman stepped out into the hallway and shook hands. With a slight twist of his gut, Jeff realized who that woman must be. She was a social worker.
"Ready to go?" the woman asked, turning to Tyler with a kind smile. The boy nodded and slid out of his chair.
"Oh, here," Jeff said, remembering the comic book in his hands. He passed it back to the boy. "Thanks for letting me look at it."
"Take good care of those," Jeff said nodding at the book. "Might be worth a lot of money one day."
Tyler grinned and very carefully slid it into his backpack.
"Bye, Jeff." He said with a little wave as he hefted his bag over one shoulder and hurried after the woman, who stood waiting for him a few steps away.
"Bye, Tyler," Jeff whispered to their backs as they walked away from him, headed for the elevators.
"Thanks for doing that, Tango. I know kids aren't your forte," Mark said, coming up beside him and watching the pair retreat.
"It was no problem." Jeff's response was automatic, but he was surprised to find that the statement was actually true. He hadn't minded at all. Jeff gave his head a minute shake, and turned to gather his stuff from the desk he'd commandeered. He needed to get back to work. The distraction would be a welcome one.
"Poor kid," Mark muttered. "Cases like his make me question why I chose family law."
Jeff turned around and looked at Mark, the words leaving his mouth before he was even aware he had thought them.
"Cases like what?"
"His mom passed away about a year ago. Single mother, no other family. He's been living in a group home while the state tracked down the father. They found him, explained the situation, and he didn't want anything to do with it. That's what this meeting was about. We're putting together a forfeiture of parental rights."
Jeff's response got stuck in his throat.
"That's the nature of the job, though," Mark said, clapping Jeff roughly on the back. "'Get over it or get out of it,' right?"
"Right," Jeff managed to agree, forcing a smile onto his face.
Mark started to move down the hall towards the break room. "A few of us are going to Skeeper's tonight for drinks. You in?"
"Yeah, I'll see you there."
Jeff stood alone, clutching his stack of papers and his now cold cup of coffee, feeling unbalanced. He turned to stare down the hall in the direction that Tyler and the social worker had headed, thinking about what Mark had told him. He wondered when they would tell Tyler that he wasn't going to go live with his father after all. Jeff's heart reacted again, but this time it didn't flutter; it twinged. Jeff watched the spot where the boy had disappeared and felt his whole world begin to shift. "Damn it."