***Federal Building, Houston, TX***

J. T.’s head was pounding, and he still had hours left in the office. “What do you mean she won’t cooperate? Considering the shit we discovered in that place, this deal is better than the woman deserves.”

Esmerelda was a pain in the ass. They didn’t even have the woman’s real name. Let alone the corroboration they would need to make a case against Diego Garcia for kidnapping, human trafficking, pimping, and murder. Though the doctors said it was unlikely the man would ever be fit to stand trial. The federal hospital for the criminally insane was likely as close to justice as the man would ever come.

Was this it? After years of investigation, the only ones to stand trial and do prison time would be a handful of middlemen? Sure the Garcia cartel was effectively broken up, but already that territory was being fought for and absorbed into other organizations.

Maybe what bothered him most was the number of people who were dead. Sean Riley, Stephen and Gerald McBride, Saunders, Earl and Wanda Kerr, Consuela, Anna, and Roberto Garcia. The whole thing seemed almost as much of a mess as his personal life.

Still, J. T. felt obligated to tie up loose ends before resigning. Esmerelda was one of those. As was finding and prosecuting McBride Industries former Chief Financial Officer Stewart Childress. He made a note to speak with Laura again about her former fiancée. Maybe the man said something casually during their years together?

And of course, there was the missing Garcia brother, Martin. Though there was no evidence to indicate the man had ever been involved with his family’s business, he was a material witness and should at least be questioned. But there was no record of the man for close to two decades, not since a few years after he ran away to Mexico City’s Zona Rosa. J. T. admitted a certain amount of empathy and perhaps envy and admiration for the man. Being the gay son of Consuela Garcia couldn’t have been easy. But still, he had a job do.

At least for a bit longer. J. T. was not really listening to whatever the new Supervisory Investigator with the agency said. As he stared off at the dark panel walls of his office. The clock caught his attention. Twelve fifteen. “Shit.”

“Excuse me, sir.”

But he had no more time for the man, “Put it all in a report and email it to me. I will speak with her myself.” He got off the call as quickly as he could. Then pushed the intercom button, commanding, “Hold all my calls.”

The new personal assistant wasn’t as good as Trent, but she wasn’t in the hire of cartel leaders either. So that was one loose end that he had tied up, along with Stephens. Both men had cut deals, plead guilty to their crimes, and were already serving their sentences. Though unfortunately, neither was privy to any valuable information.

J. T. pulled out his phone and dialed into the video conference. Sixteen minutes late. To his own counseling appointment. The young blond woman smiled indulgently, “Hey, J. T., we were wondering if you were going to make it. Let me just add Jeb to the conference. We’ve been chatting while we waited for you.”

He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or leary, but Jeb was smiling too as his face appeared on the now split-screen. “Hey, did Josefina make it?”

His son rolled his eyes, “Yes, everything is fine, dad. Did you enjoy your bus ride?”

J. T. laughed at his son’s dig. “It was interesting, to say the least.”

“I bet, Learning how the other half lives for the great James Travis Tyler, son of the illustrious Marianne Buford Walker Tyler.”

“Just remember, smart ass, that you’re in that gnarled family tree, too.”

“I’m glad to see that you two can kid around. That’s a good thing. So, J. T., as I was saying, Jeb and I were getting to know one another. In your email, you mentioned needing my assistance to mediate some parenting issues. What issues exactly?”

He wasn’t certain how to phrase things exactly. But he needn’t have worried; Jeb jumped in, “I’m fourteen. I don’t need a bunch of rules. Or to be told what to do all the time.”

She nodded, “I can appreciate the desire for autonomy, Jeb. Even in just the short time we spoke, I can see you’re an intelligent and responsible human being.”

“But as a parent, partner, and head of the foundation, may I point out that we all need some boundaries. They not only provide us with a sense of security, but they also make it easier for us to understand and fulfill our roles in life.”

His son rolled his eyes. J. T. was relieved to see that it was not just him. “But those rules and roles should never encumber who we are.”

Her words were like a slap across the face. But that was exactly what his whole life had been. For four decades, his role had been the ‘great’ James Travis Tyler, son of Henry Stafford Tyler and the illustrious Marianne Buford Walker Tyler.

There was no room for anything short of perfection from him. He was a Tyler. He had a responsibility to ‘others.’ And whether it was the one ‘B’ he had gotten in gym class or being gay, nothing was more important than those rules and his role as heir apparent to the Tyler, Buford, and Walker dynasties.

One thing he knew: that was not the life he wanted for his son, for any of his children. J. T. inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled slowly.

Kaitlin Danvers smiled on the screen, “J. T., care to share your thoughts and feelings about this.”

He wasn’t sure that he did. Was showing that level of vulnerability appropriate with a child? But Jeb was almost the same age he had been when he discovered his feelings for Steve. Those had been the purest and most genuine emotions of his life, perhaps the only real ones. Until now.

“I don’t want that. I don’t want Jeb, or George and Laura, to ever feel that rules and roles define them. Keep them from being true to themselves.” His voice was quiet and broke a couple of times. Both of the faces on the screen noticed and reflected the more solemn tone.

“I know that I haven’t been much of a father to my children. And that my absence has been especially hard on Jeb.” J. T. inhaled again, sent another of those prayers to the universe as he felt the tears fall from the corners of his eyes. “I know that I put my son’s life and mental health in danger by my actions, or lack of them. And I’m sorry. I know I have no right to suddenly start making rules, but I’m just worried about how it will look….”

“To Grandma? My mother? Your friends? Who, Dad?” Anger burst from his son like a thunder cloud in the late afternoon on a hot summer day.

But anger wouldn’t get them anywhere. “I know you might not believe this, Jeb, but no. I don’t give a damn what any of those people think. Not anymore. I’m tired of living my life that way.”

“But there are other people to consider. People with the power to take you away from me. To place you back in danger or send you…. god only knows where. Your social worker, for one. Ultimately, a judge. My concern is how those people are going to react to your ‘friends’ and ‘roommates’ suggestion.”

Kaitlin nodded, “J. T., while I understand your concerns, might I point out that none of those people need to know the details of what actually happens in your home? Their role is primarily the safety and well-being of the child, though I prefer the term little human or person.”

“Yes, but what about things like school? I get why Jeb didn’t want to go today, but….”

“I’m not going back there,” his son’s angry wall was up again instantly.

“See, Kaitlin? If I can’t get him to go to school, things aren’t going to go well for me.”

“I appreciate that, J. T. But do you know why Jeb doesn’t want to go to school?”

“Well, no….”

“Then, how about we start there? Jeb, would you be comfortable sharing with me and your father why you don’t want to go to school?”

Jeb laughed, “We don’t have that much time. Stupid rules designed more to indoctrinate you to an unfair and unjust system of oppression that only benefits a few. Teachers that don’t give a shit about anything but their paychecks. Or worse, the idealistic ones who think they can change the world but are forced to adhere to someone else’s curriculum. The jocks, nerds, and all the other cliques that just conform to societal expectations of them.”

Soft, feminine laughter filled the space as Kaitlin held up her hands. “Okay, I get you and mostly agree with everything you said.”

Surprisingly, so did J. T. when the argument was elucidated so clearly. “But if you don’t go to school, social services or a judge could see that a reason to give you back to your mother.” Not that it was fair or just, but it was the likely outcome.

He watched the fire go out of his son’s eyes as Jeb’s shoulders slumped, “What about homeschooling? I’ve been reading about this really cool thing called self-directed learning or unschooling? Why can’t we do that? Homeschooling is perfectly legal.”

J. T. was unsure how to respond to that. Again, Kaitlin stepped in, proving that he had been right to ask her to mediate this. “You’re right, technically, Jeb. And trust me, I’m a huge fan of SDL; it’s what we want for our children.”

“But now might not be the best of times for you to deviate from that schooling norm. J. T. is right. Something being legal does not make it acceptable, especially to social workers or judges. So, how about we talk about a compromise? At least for now?”


“I’m glad to see I have your full and unbridled support,” she chuckled. “But can we begin with specific reasons why you don’t want to go back to school, please?”

“The truth? Bullies.”

J. T. wanted to protest. Why was he just now hearing about the issue? But when would Jeb have had the time to tell him? And it wasn’t like he had been the type of parent that you confided in. “I could speak with your principal….”

“Who do you think encourages them, dad? Mr. Johnson doesn’t want ‘no long-haired sissy at his school.’ So he just turns his back to what’s happening.”

“J. T., since you’ve moved to another part of town, wouldn’t it make sense to transfer Jeb to another school? I’m sure that social services and the courts would both find that perfectly acceptable.”

He had to admit the idea had merits. He had been trying to figure out the logistics of getting Jeb to and from his old school without a car anyway.

“A new school could be even worse.”

“Perhaps if you and your father checked a few of them out together? I would recommend a democratic school, but those tend to be private.”

“And I bet Grandma wouldn’t foot the bill for something like that.”

“I have an idea. Cat, your doctor at the hospital, her wife runs a youth group at the LGBT center here. What if we spoke with her? See if she knows any more supportive schools….”

“LGBTQIA….” Both his son and new shrink said at once. Then laughed.

J. T. enjoyed his turn at, “Whatever.”

“Nope, dad. I’m not letting you become one of those middle-aged white gay men who thinks his rights are the only ones that matter. Lesbian, gay, bi, transexual, queer, intersex, and asexual.”

“Technically, plus, plus, plus, to include the dozens and hundreds of variations in terms of gender and sexual preference,” Kaitlin added.

“I stand corrected. And you’re right, Jeb, I don’t want to be like that. I’ve spent my whole life doing what other people told me was the right thing. I’d like to spend whatever time I have left doing what the right thing is.”

“So, do we have a workable plan? At least for now? Is there anything else?”

“No, the school thing was the one that concerned me most. Like you said, Kaitlin, I lucked into an intelligent, compassionate, and responsible kid. I think I can trust his judgment on the rest.”

“Thanks, dad. There’s hope for you yet. But I prefer Kaitlin’s human being or person, too. Kids are baby goats.”

“Fine, I stand corrected again. Person. But I better get back to work if I’m taking more personal time to check out schools. I’ll text Cat and asked for her wife’s details. Then we’ll see what she has to say, okay?”

“Sure, but I’m going in full drag. I want to see reactions, not hear the right words.”

“I look forward to that, Jeb,” J. T. meant it too. It showed a new level of trust. That his son felt comfortable enough to be himself around him. Maybe one day, he’d feel comfortable enough to be himself. Whoever the real J. T. Tyler was.

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