I hope everyone’s having a wonderful summer! It’s been hot here lately, and I find myself increasingly thankful for air conditioning. I’ve also discovered the joy of playing video games with my husband and son. I’m terrible at video games. My character is constantly dying. I can never remember which buttons to push for what. When I want my character to duck, she jumps jump. When I want her to run, she stops to take a drink. I’m a video game mess. Thankfully, my husband and son find as much entertainment in rescuing me from myself as they do in actually playing the game. At least, I assume that’s the case since they haven’t stopped asking me to play. ^_^
Speaking of finding new things to do…pretty soon, I’ll have to find something new to blog. I have this post and one more, and then this story will be wrapped up, and I’ll need to move on. (And I’m pretty sure another year-long serial story is not in my near future. Maybe a shorter one, though…) The problem with writing a serial story over the course of a year is that the finer details get lost form month to month. I’m looking forward to going back through this one, tightening it up, and making sure I don’t have any crazy loose threads or characters that changed names mid-story. :-)
I hope you enjoy this installment! If you haven’t read the previous installments or want to refresh your memory, you can check them all out here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6. Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, and Part 10.
** ** **
Three days had passed since I’d blown up at Maxie in the elevator. Since he’d touched me in a way that made me feel special. Since we’d shared a smile about anything.
And it hurt.
I showed up each morning, got the twins up and off to school. Then I ran any errands Maxie had for me before showing up at the office. Without the twins there as a buffer, our conversations were stilted and uncomfortable. I bided my time each day until I could escape to pick the kids up from school, help them with their homework, fix dinner, and run away to the peace of my apartment.
I’d even started making excuses for why I couldn’t stay and eat dinner with them. The looks in the twins’ eyes broke my heart when I would slip out the door, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sit there across from Maxie and act like he hadn’t accidentally shown me how deeply I cared for him.
Who was I kidding? On some level, I loved that man. I’d been mooning over him for months without realizing it. He made my toes curl and my heart dance the cha-cha, and that was just when he was talking to me about an upcoming meeting. When he smiled at me or laughed? It was like the sun broke through the clouds, and the whole world was put to rights.
Only, I’d been in denial. I was a big girl. I could admit it. I’d pretended he was my boss and only my boss. Meanwhile, he’d moved in and taken over my heart.
And he in no way felt the same. To him, I was…a tool. An object to be used, either by someone else or by him. That kind of pain… It was too big, too deep. I wasn’t ready to sit through dinner with him. I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough. Or indifferent enough.
What I wouldn’t give for a dose of internal indifference.
To make the discrepancy in our feelings even more clear, Maxie was giving me extra errands. It kept me out of the office and away from him more. That helped. It cut, too, though.
I didn’t blame him. But, still. The whole muddled mess hurt.
I washed my hands at the sink of the executive restroom as I stared in the mirror at my bloodshot eyes. The lack of sleep was catching up with me.
I’d just settled back in at my desk when Maxie’s phone rang. “What? Now? What happened? I have a meeting. No, no. I’ll…I’ll send Miss Prentice.”
Obviously, that got my attention.
I eyed Maxie, wishing my gaze wasn’t constantly drawn to him like a hummingbird to nectar.
“That was Manda. The school called. I need you to go pick up the kids.”
“Why? Are they sick?”
He frowned. “It sounds like they got in a fight. They’re being suspended. Or expelled. I’m not sure. I’d go, but I have that meeting with…”
With marketing. The seventy-two hours were up, and blue shirt and his team were expecting Maxie in the conference room in fifteen minutes. I’d been looking forward to that meeting about as much as I’d once looked forward to getting envelopes with “OVERDUE” stamped out in giant red letters. I’d been hoping for a way to get out of the meeting, but rescue-by-expulsion hadn’t been on my list.
The twins were a lot of things. Rambunctious. Independent. Mischievous. Fighters, though? That’s something they were not. “I’m on it.”
I grabbed my purse from its drawer and my coat from the hat rack. Why again are those things called hat racks when I only ever see them with coats hanging from their stiff limbs?
Then I booked it for the elevator at as much of a jog as my heels would allow.
“I don’t think you understand the severity of the situation.” The headmaster’s stare was impassive.
“Explain to me again why you feel compelled to suspend Alistair and Amaria.” I stood my ground. Something fishy was going on, and he wasn’t getting out of it.
“Alistair punched another child in the face. Then when a teacher attempted to restrain him, Amaria bit that teacher. This could be much worse than just a suspension.”
“Why did Alistair punch the child?”
“That’s not relevant.”
“Hold on a sec here. Not relevant? Whatever the other kid did or said to cause the attack is not relevant? You’ve got to be kidding me.” Maybe calling it an attack wasn’t in Alistair’s best interests…
The headmaster’s stare softened the barest bit. “Just as I’m not able to tell the other parent information about your children, I am not able to tell you information about the other child. We have privacy rules.”
I opened the door to the secretary’s office where the twins were swallowed up sitting in chairs meant for adults. “Alistair, Amaria, come in here.”
I left the door open. Who knew? The whole thing might blow up in my face. We had a better chance of making a quick getaway with the door open.
Once the kids entered the headmaster’s office, I squatted down in front of Alistair. I looked him straight in the eye the way I’d taught him to do to others when he had something serious to talk about. “Why did you punch someone?”
He glanced at Amaria before looking back at me. “He called Ahmee a name.”
Okay. Name-calling was bad. The twins called each other names sometimes, though. They didn’t always get along like superstars. “What name?”
“Name-calling is hardly sufficient grounds for punching someone.” The headmaster huffed behind me. Okay. Maybe he just stated it calmly, but in my mind, he was totally huffing. And ticking me off with it, too.
With a finger on Alistair’s chin, I drew his attention back to me. “I need you to tell me what the other boy called her.”
Alistair did his best to stare at his feet despite my finger under his chin. “He called her a half-breed. And said God didn’t make half breeds which meant she was nothing but a mistake.”
Shock shoved me back onto my heels. I reached out and gripped Alistair’s clenched hand in my own, running my thumb along his knuckles. Violence was wrong. So, so wrong.
Yet the hand not holding Alistair’s clenched into a fist as I envisioned punching something.
I stood, tucked the children into either side of me, and faced the headmaster. “Is this the kind of environment you foster here? Where children are told they’re not good enough for God, let alone for this school?”
He rubbed a hand across his eyes. Much as I wanted to say he was cold and heartless, the look on his face was pained. “My hands are tied. I have to suspend them.”
“Is the other boy being suspended for what he said to Amaria?”
A single shake of the head.
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss that.”
“I’d like the children’s transcripts and whatever else we need to transfer them to a different school.”
He nodded to someone through his open office door. “I think that’s for the best.”
Anger coiled through my middle. I had to swallow a couple of times before I could find words that weren’t filled with poison. “For the record, a school that suspends a child for punching or biting is okay. A school, however, that does not punish a child for claiming there is something fundamentally wrong with someone else, that she is somehow less than, because of the color of her skin, her parentage, or even her economic bracket is absolutely unacceptable.”
The headmaster’s eyes snagged on something behind me before he could respond.
“Alistair and Amaria aren’t perfect, but they are good-hearted kids. They work hard, get good grades, participate in class, and are kind to others. All you have to do is speak to their teachers to know how well-liked they are. This –” I waved my arm around, not even sure what I was trying to capture. “This is on you. This is your mess. You failed to protect them from prejudice and hate. I could probably get over that, but that fact that you refuse to discipline that same prejudice and hate is an atrocity we won’t soon forget. You can kiss the patronage of the Short family goodbye.”
I’d managed not to yell, and I reveled in that victory as I turned on my heel, took the hand of each twin, and headed toward the outer office. Two steps, and then I froze.
Maxie stood there in the doorway. His gaze boring into mine. His attention flicked briefly to the headmaster before returning to me. “Are we ready to blow this joint?”
I’m not sure which shocked me more – his use of slang or his speedy appearance.
He would have had to skip the marketing meeting, or push it back, to be here right now. He’d done that for the kids. As hurt and angry as I’d been at him, I could never fault his love for the twins. And his care for them never failed to melt my heart into a gooey puddle. Which was kind of a gross visual, since my heart was in my chest…but oh well. I gave him a nod. “As soon as I get the kids’ paperwork.”
One of the ladies behind the counter held out two manilla folders behind Maxie’s back. The look she gave me was sympathetic. That is, until she glanced down and checked out Maxie’s backside. Her look got a little dreamy at that point.
Maxie turned, snagged the folders from the woman, then stepped aside so that the kids and I could pass. He fell in behind us, and I could feel his eyes everywhere, touching every inch of my skin.
Maybe I’d gone too far in there. I’d boxed Maxie into a corner that he was going to have to get out of eventually. How did one go about finding a new private school? One that was right for Alistair and Amaria? One that loved them just the way they were and that valued them as human beings, as little people made in the image of God?
We exited the school and made our way to the parking lot. I stopped by my car. Maxie’s was parked next to it, and the kids looked from one vehicle to the other, the unspoken question clear on their faces. They’d felt the tension the last few days, too. There was no way they couldn’t have. They knew that not everything was okay between me and Maxie, but they hadn’t asked about it. Which meant they were uncertain, maybe even afraid. When it came to Alistair and Amaria, not much was off the table for discussion. They didn’t normally exercise great restraint – or any kind of restraint – in the questions they asked or the comments they made. Their silence spoke more loudly than their words could have, and it was our fault – Maxie’s and mine.
The twins should probably ride with Maxie, but I wanted to explain to him what had happened and why I’d told the headmaster they wouldn’t be back. I didn’t want him to take any frustration he had at me out on the kids. Not that he would. He never had.
“Why don’t you guys ride with Miss Zee, okay? I’ll stop and pick us up some dinner and will meet you back at the house. What are you guys in the mood for?”
Amaria’s lower lip puckered. “Anything we want?”
Maxie’s eyes crinkled. “I’m not letting you eat ice cream for dinner.”
The little girl’s voice was tentative. “Maybe for dessert?”
Maxie squatted down in front of her. “I could probably be talked into that.”
“What would talk you into it?”
The powerful businessman whispered loudly into his niece’s ear. “A hug would probably do it.”
Amaria threw her arms around his neck, squeezing tight. He wrapped her up in his embrace and closed his eyes, the taut lines of his muscles relaxing as he held his little girl in his arms.
“Do I get ice cream, too?” Alistair dug the toe of his expensive loafers into the polished cement sidewalk.
Maxie held out an arm for him, too, and Alistair rushed into it, burying his face in his uncle’s shoulder. Shudders shook his small body, and Maxie pulled him in even tighter. “Everything’s going to be okay, guys. We’ll talk about it more tonight, but I don’t want you to worry about anything.”
“Because that’s your job?” Alistair’s voice held wisdom beyond his years.
Maxie tipped his head back until the kids looked at him. “I don’t waste time on worry. I know God’s got us in the palm of His hand. My job is to take care of and look out for you guys, to make sure you’re loved and protected.” His voice cracked on that last word. The look he shot my way said it all. He thought he’d failed, that he hadn’t protected them well enough.
He couldn’t have known.
And I couldn’t leave him there to flounder.
“Come on, my darling kiddos. Hop in. We’ll see Uncle Maxie at home.”
Amaria giggled. “He prefers Uncle Max. Or Uncle Jake.”
“Eh. Maybe someday you’ll call him Dad.” The second the words were out of my mouth, my hand shot forward to try to capture them back. It was too late, though. I’d said it, and I couldn’t take it back. Not that I wanted to. I’d often wondered why the kids didn’t call Maxie Dad. After he’d told me about his sister and brother-in-law, though, I thought maybe it was out of respect for them, that he didn’t want to try to take their memory away from the kids. Or some sort of misplaced honor thing like that.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure. And I’d never quite felt comfortable asking about it. Clearly, I’d been thinking about it, though. Or the words wouldn’t have flown from my subconscious to my mouth like they had.
The kids shot looks from me to Maxie before climbing into my car without comment.
Maxie’s eyes were glued to my face for the longest minute of my life before he nodded at me. “I’ll see you at home.”