Matthew was crying, arms locked around my neck. His curls and shirt were damp as he clung to me. “Matthew, are you hurt?” I asked. I wanted to make him let go so I could check him for injuries, but somehow it seemed more important to hold him right at that moment.
Jamie Appleton was holding her little girl, Becky. Her face had blood on it. I was betting the other little boy’s foot had caught her as he went over the table. Kevin Appleton was making his way through the crowd.
Nathaniel was patting Matthew’s hair, trying to get him to look up so we could see him better. Micah hovered around us all, but he kept his attention on the other father. I realized that it hadn’t occurred to me that the fight could spread from the children to the adults. It was stupid of me to let my guard down just because I had a little kid wrapped around me crying, but it was like the feel of him in my arms had hit a switch and all I could think of was, Is Matthew hurt? Is he okay? Other than looking at the boy and man, I hadn’t really seen them as a threat. Stupid, but luckily Micah hadn’t forgotten that everyone can be a potential threat under the right circumstances.
The dark-haired boy was bigger than Matthew, but I wasn’t sure he was older. The man was asking him, “What happened? You know the rules on fighting, Cyrus.”
“He’s g*y,” Cyrus said, and his face was hateful as he said it.
The man looked embarrassed. “Cyrus, apologize.”
Matthew raised a tear-stained face from my shoulder. “Gay isn’t bad,” he said, his lower lip still quivering, tears still trailing down his face.
The father asked, “What did you say?”
Micah said, “We’ve taught Matthew that no sexual orientation is bad, it’s just the way that people come into this world.”
The man stared at Micah. “Why would you . . .” Then he looked from Micah to Nathaniel and me. “Oh, yeah, I forgot.”
“Forgot what?” I asked, and my tone was enough to make Micah touch my shoulder.
“That everyone says your boyfriends are . . .” He stopped as if not sure how to finish the sentence.
“My boyfriends are what?” I asked.
“Let’s not do this in front of the kids,” he said.
I said, “We’re teaching Matthew that no sexual orientation is bad, and that love between consenting adults is always precious and should be valued. What are you teaching little Cyrus?”
The man’s face clouded up, the beginnings of anger, or maybe I’d hit a sore spot.
Kevin Appleton was holding a napkin to his little girl’s nose. “Your kid bloodied my little girl. What kind of boy kicks a girl in the face?”
“Cyrus, did you kick her?”
“No, Daddy, I don’t hit girls.”
“He did, too,” Becky said, pushing her father’s hand away, so she could point a dramatic finger. “He kicked me, in the face!”
Zerbrowski and Katie were there now, trying to figure out what to do with their guests, but it was their son, Greg, who said, “Excuse me, excuse me, everybody.”
Zerbrowski had to use his cop voice to say, “Everybody shut up for a minute.”
We all looked at him.
Greg looked a little uncomfortable with everyone staring at him. He had his father’s dark curls, but Katie’s delicate bone structure, so he was a pretty kid, and looked even younger than twelve. “I know what started the fight.”
“Tell us?” Zerbrowski said, his hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Cyrus here told Matthew that only g*y boys played with girls. Matthew said that he liked to play with girls and boys. He totally didn’t get that he was being insulted. Cyrus asked, ‘What does that mean?’ The little blonde girl told Cyrus that he was being boring just like at school and kissed Matthew on the cheek, that’s when Cyrus tried to hit him.”
Cyrus’s father looked at his son. “Is that true?”
Cyrus wouldn’t look at his dad, or anyone else. It was hard to look tough when you’re being held in someone’s arms, but he did his best to pull it off, even crossing beefy arms across his chest.
“Cyrus, I asked you a question, don’t make me ask twice.”
“Yes,” he finally said, very sullen.
“I don’t know what got into him, but I’m sorry.”
Kevin Appleton said, “When Becky does something wrong she does her own apologizing.”
Cyrus’s father glared at Appleton, but he said, “Apologize to the little girl, Cyrus.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt her. I wanted to hurt him!” He pointed his own dramatic finger at Matthew.
“Matthew didn’t start the fight, Cyrus, you did. Apologize to both of them, now.”
He turned a pouting face to Becky. “I’m sorry I hurt you, I didn’t mean to.”
“I don’t accept!” Becky said. Her eyes were dark and furious. I liked her.
“Now, apologize to Matthew.”
“Won’t,” Cyrus said. It was a very firm word, he meant it.
“Cyrus, apologize, now.”
“Maybe if you told him what he’s apologizing for,” Nathaniel said.
The father looked puzzled. “He knows what he’s apologizing for.”
“Is he apologizing for the fight, trying to call Matthew bad names, or being jealous?” Nathaniel asked.
“I don’t even understand that,” the man said.
“Are you sorry you called Matthew names?” Nathaniel asked.
Cyrus looked daggers at him, but finally said, “I’m sorry I called you names.”
“Do you accept his apology?” I asked, Matthew softly.
“Are you sorry you started the fight?” Nathaniel asked.
“I’m sorry I fought you, Matthew.”
Matthew shook his head. “I didn’t like that. If Becky cannot accept your ’pology, I don’t accept it either.”
Someone had found ice to put on Becky’s face. She was crying again, saying, “It’s cold!”
“We’re really sorry, aren’t we, Cyrus?” his father said.
“Yes,” Cyrus said sullenly.
“Can you behave yourself the rest of the day, or do we have to leave?”
“I don’t want to go.”
“Then promise me, no more fighting.”
He promised, but not like he was happy about it, or really meant it. We’d keep a closer eye on Matthew, just in case. Didn’t want to give him back to his mother damaged.
They went one way. We went the other. I told Greg, “That was quick thinking about the water.”
He flashed me a grin that was the duplicate of Zerbrowski’s shit-eating one, and suddenly he was so his father’s son. It made me smile just to see it.
Zerbrowski hugged him one armed from behind, because he was getting too big for a public hug. “That’s my boy.” They grinned at each other, and it was a good moment.
The curly-haired blonde came over with a woman in tow who was as blonde and blue-eyed as she was. “Mommy, this is Matthew, he takes ballet just like I do, and he fought Cyrus for me.”
I was pretty sure that Matthew hadn’t seen himself as defending the little blonde’s honor. I started to say something, but Matthew was looking entirely too pleased with himself for me to spoil the moment.
The girl was Jeannette, the mother was Jean, and the father was Detective Mitchell Forbes. Forbes had lost most of his hair, so I added five years onto his age, but when I had more time to look at his face, and the toned body that showed in his polo shirt and shorts, I subtracted the five years and put him early thirties at most.
“Thank you for taking care of our little girl, Matthew. It was very brave of you.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about these assumed dynamics, that the girl needed saving and that the boy did the saving. It seemed sexist and under six there really wasn’t much difference in physical potential. Jeannette could have “protected” herself as well as Matthew, with training in martial arts maybe better.
“You know, girls can protect themselves,” I said.
Jeanette and Jean looked at me as if I were speaking in tongues, blinking big, blue eyes at me. Then Jean wrapped her free hand through her husband’s muscular arm, still holding Jeannette’s hand in her other.