Angie pulled her minivan into the elementary school parking lot. It was a quiet day and she was the only car in the vistor’s slot. While the van’s engine clicked into idle, she leaned back, fingers tight on the wheel.
It was the fourth time in four weeks that she’d been called up to the school because of something William had done.
She opened up her purse and fished out her powder compact.
Why did he choose to misbehave in the middle of the Gardening Club’s fundraising pitch? She had felt her face burn when she’d been interrupted by her cell. She could still see the smirks of the stuffy investors as she’d hurried to the side to take the call. Worst yet, she’d had to hand the call over to Nyosha Chang, her personal enemy and rival who was constantly vying for her position as chairman.
As she redrew her lips, she resigned herself to handling this.
David was presenting a pitch for the biggest French account the firm had ever handled and she’d be damned if their impulsive nine-year-old ruined his chance at a promotion. The Gardening Club, stuffy as they were, would forgive her once she revealed the orchid breeders that she’d gotten to commit to the show. One good call to Better Homes and she’d have their smirks wiped away with awe. Nyosha could eat it.
She snapped her compact shut, satisfied and slid out of the van.
High heels, nude nylons, a sky blue dress, and her grandmother’s pearl necklace painted the perfect image of a woman with which whom people did not mess with. Her confident stride as she marched towards her son’s latest disaster completed the image.
The elementary school was cheerful. The tiles were clean and the walls covered in different classes’ artwork. A draconian black woman with a no-nonsense expression greeted her at the principal’s office.
“Hello, Darlene,” Angie said, using her own pen to sign in. Pens held germs that all small children seemed to collect like craft store glitter.
“Mrs. Bauer,” Darlene replied. “I’ll call Mrs. Mozelle and let her know you’re here.”
Angie straightened and clicked her pen.
“Is William with her?”
Darlene rolled her eyes at the name. It was a common response from authority figures. She privately shared their frustration .
“Yes ma’am. Right this way.”
It was a formality. Angie had walked into the Principal’s office enough times in the last three years that she didn’t need an escort.
She was ushered into a large room with a u-shaped desk, behind which sat a bronzed-haired woman in her mid-fifties. Her grey skirt suit was quality, though old. Her make-up was worn from a day of dealing with children and the rings on her fingers seemed loose, as though she’d recently lost weight. Her hairline revealed she was definitely in need of a touch up.
In a chair, looking like a grumpy puppy who’d been caught chewing the couch, sat her boy. His uniform tie was askew but he didn’t have mud or dirt on his clothes and to her relief seemed unhurt. Angie sat down next to his slumped form.
The wooden chairs were large and heavy. Being petite, Angie found her feet dangling off of the bottom, only her toes touching the carpet.
“Hem,” Principal Mozelle said with deference as Darlene shut the door. “Thank you for coming to discuss William, Mrs. Bauer.”
She laid her purse in her lap and raised one perfectly trim eyebrow.
Principal Mozelle slid over a folder.
“I’m afraid it’s very serious this time, Ma’am. Based on his fighting, I feel that we have no choice but to expel him.”
“That is…an extreme reaction,” Angie said, taking the folder into her lap, “for what all accounts sounded like some school yard shoving.”
“He broke his classmate’s nose,” the principal said..
“Did not,” William snapped.
“Young man, I am tired of your lying. You were seen by two students.”
“William,” Angie said, her tone warning.
He pulled his knees up and glared at the desk, his pale little face so red she could see the flush of fury along his whitish-blonde hair on his scalp.
“He’s fought with students in previous years and you’ve never reached for expulsion,” Angie said, trying to make her voice reasonable. The principal tightened her lips and laced her fingers into a nest on her desk.
“It’s out of my hands. The school board has just issued a zero tolerance policy down on this matter.”
Alarm and annoyance ran through her.
“The School Board? Principal Mozelle, you called the school board?”
“It was an unfortunate necessity after William broke the nose of the superintendent’s son.”
Ice ran down her back. The head of the school board was Tommy Jameson, an old college friend who had been known to hold a grudge.
“Send us his medical bills,” Angie said, her face neutral. “I’ll talk to hi—”
“You aren’t going to buy him out of this scrape, Mrs. Bauer,” Mrs. Mozelle said. “His father is furious and based on William’s history, insisted that he had enough prior suspensions to warrant the expulsion.”
“My son deserves a hearing,” Angie snapped, “Not to be tossed out like garbage because of the hearsay of two minors. This is his future, Principal Mozelle and I won’t stand—”
“There is really nothing more to discuss here, ma’am.”
Rage burned and she imagined that she was beginning to match William. She took a deep breath and then held her purse out to William.
“Will, honey, take the keys and let yourself into the car. Mommy will join you in a minute.”
William snatched the purse and slid out of the chair, skulking to the door. Angie tucked on ankle behind the other, straightened her back and waited for the door to close.
“Hannah,” Angie said, her voice cool, “this is something you will dearly regret.”
“Mrs. Bauer, William must learn to be responsible for his own actions.”
“Hannah,” Angie said again, as though Mrs. Mozelle’s explanations were a misting of rain against her windshield, “I am going to give you a chance to fix this. Let me son continue to attend school until I straighten this matter out with the board.”
“I can’t do that, Mrs. Bauer. If I go against the board, I’ll lose my job.” Mrs. Mozelle said.
“Hannah,” Angie said, as though finishing an incantation, “I assure you, if you don’t? I will make sure of it.”
When she returned into the minivan, Led Zeppelin was cranked high, Immigrant Song wailing through the car while William glared outside, avoiding her. His face was an angry little onion of resentment reflected in the window. She switched off the CD and the echoing silence reverberated with the absence of Robert Plant’s voice.
She swiveled her body to face him.
“William, what are earth were you thinking?”
Once more he pulled his knees up and buried his face against them.
He tucked his head tighter and wrapped his arms against his legs.
“William, I need you to talk to me. This is a big deal. Do you know what expelled means?”
It was like talking to one of his action figures—folded and silent.
“Fine. Ignore me,” she snapped. “But at least put on your seat belt.”
He snapped a hand over and zipped his belt around, unfolding enough for the lap and chest strap to snug him in, but refused to look at her.
She turned over the engine and focused on the road instead of his temper tantrum. As those went, she reflected, she was getting off easy. The silent treatment was much easier to handle than his manic screaming fits.
Since he was able to talk, the moment he felt misunderstood or overwhelmed, he’d cry and throw his toys, struggling with the enormity of emotions that a two or three year old couldn’t handle. He’d fling himself on the ground and wail as though the simple act of being told ‘no’ were the end of existence. Well—he had until one morning, while she was helplessly attempting to suss out the basis of the latest meltdown—her husband had taken a glass of water and dumped it on his head.
The shock of the ice water had startled them both and before she could snap at David that a wet toddler was even harder to wrestle, he’d knelt down, stared into icy baby blue eyes and commanded, “Knock this shit off.”
They’d never cursed at Will before. She’d bristled but for some reason, beyond all common sense, the solid lack of amusement by his father was what the doctor ordered to end the reign of tantrum terror.
David needed to know, she decided. And he didn’t need to hear it by phone. She turned and took the exit towards the bridge. When in doubt, call in the calvary.
The drive was soundtracked by a quieter run of the Led Zeppelin album. William’s glare turned into a blank stare while they worked through way through city traffic and merged into the sea of yellow taxies that flowed through Wall Street like fish. When they arrived at the building, she handed her keys to the valet, allowed him to assist her out of the car, and came around the side.
William had already wiggled down . He ignored her offered hand, preferring instead to troop miserably behind her as they went inside, his best impression of a prisoner on the green mile towards execution.
She loved David’s building. It was elegant and beautiful. He didn’t own it—yet—but his financial group was one of the most important businesses in the skyscraper. Down the block her own father’s building sat, full to the gills with old banker money, established real estate companies and powerful men who’d cultivated their wealth for generations. She glanced back at William when they stepped into the elevator.
One day, this would all be his.
The future heir to an empire slumped in the metallic elevator as the doors closed. Angie waited but he remained a lump against mirrored glass.
“Don’t you want to press the button?” she asked, voice gentle.
“No,” He said.
A whole word. The most he’d given her since they got out of principal’s office.
Encouraged that he at least was going to give her confirmation, she pressed for floor seventy-five, then waited as the powerful lift shot them up towards Bauer Financials Incorporated.
One felt like a queen stepping out of the lift, her little prince in tow. Gladys, the head of the clerical and secretarial sector of the firm was talking to their newest hire—a senior from NYU about something on a computer, when they walked in.
“Mrs. Bauer,” she said warmly, disengaging from her teaching to cross over and greet her.
“Hello Gladdys,” Angie breezed, as though she were just popping in for a random visit with no seriousness instead of bringing her husband news that their son had been exiled from public education. “Is David available? We didn’t call so he isn’t expecting us.”
“We’ll make sure he is, ma’am. Hi, Will!”
Angie turned her head and arched a threatening eyebrow. He might be upset about what had happened but he was not going to embarrass them in front of his father’s staff.
“Hi, Mrs. Stone,” he mumbled, stepping closer to her leg and leaning his head against her hip. The cling was…alarming. She’d known William was upset, but upset enough to lean against his mother who he pretended most days he had outgrown?
“Right this way,” Gladdys said leading them down a hall of cubicles and conference rooms towards the senior staff offices.
The decor of the place was rich and appointed in browns and golds. Angie had helped design it while she and David were newlyweds. While she’d never been involved in the day to day operations of the business, she did have her hand in what art was chosen, connections that opened doors to her husband’s biggest clients, and an inbred understanding of the social lubricant that made financial success possible in the wealthiest sector of the world. These plush carpets and luxe walls were as much a part of her legacy as the child that trudged in with her.
Her husband was in his office, standing against the wall while flipping through a folder. He looked up and smiled, clearly pleased by the surprise. Seeing David unknotted a stress in her chest.
And for some reason by simply looking at the two of them, he knew that something was up.
She sank into one of the chairs in front of his desk and kicked off her heels while William did the same. She heard the door close and rubbed her neck. How was she going to—
“Alright, William,” David said as he opened his mini fridge and retrieved some waters, “What happened today and why aren’t you in school?”
He’s not going to tell you, she though bitterly as she accepted a water. He won’t even tell me.
“Robbie Jameson broke his nose and blamed it on me and now Mom and the school think I’m a bad guy,” William burst out.
Angie whipped her head sideways, stunned that the words she’d been trying to get out of him for hours would just pour out unbidden for someone else.
“Two children said you did it,” she snapped. She looked up at David, feeling as though what she brought to him was suddenly spinning out of her control. “They expelled him for this, David.”
Today, David had worn a brown suit, his golden hair experiencing the lightest touches of white in the corners of his temple. He uncapped a water and took a long swig, looking between them with eyes as warm as hot chocolate.
“Why don’t we start from the beginning,” he advised, leaning back against the edge of his desk. “William, tell me about your day.”
Angie leaned back in amazement as William dutifully unloaded the events that transpired.
“It all started at recess. Robbie, Wayne, and Howie were mad because I made them look dumb during the vocabulary review. They didn’t know what gargantuan meant and thought it was a monkey. And I said it wasn’t a monkey, it was a big thing. Like super big. Like WAY super duper big. Like—”
“It was big,” David said gently, “but maybe we should focus on what happened?”
William nodded, playing with his water bottle label, pulling on it as he recounted.
“Anyway, so when we were in line…” he stopped talking and glanced at his mom. She frowned.
“Out with it, son,” she said.
He flushed red and sped forward.
“Well, Robbie said ‘I bet you think you’re a real smart ass, Will’,” he glanced up and she knew she was frowning harder. She didn’t like the type of language that the kids at the public school seemed to perpetuate. It wasn’t good for William to talk like a dock worker.
“And what did you say?” David asked, reminding them both that it was him leading this interrogation, not her.
“I uh…told him…it was better to be a smartass than a dumbass.”
Angie bit her inner cheek to keep from laughing. She didn’t want him to think it was okay to cuss, no matter how clever it had been.
David also did not smile. Unlike her, his lip didn’t even twitch. “Then what happened?”
A surge of gratitude welled over her frustration. While it was irritating for. William to be so open to David, he didn’t condone the cursing and it made her feel listened to and valued. She pushed to her feet and leaned next to him on the desk, wanting to appear united. She was rewarded when he snaked an arm around her waist, pulling her into his warmth.
“Then Stacy laughed behind us and repeated it to Lindsay who uh…told Ashley. And Robbie got really mad and said he’d get me for it. And I told him that he couldn’t even get a vocabulary word right so how was he going to get me?”
She started to open her mouth, to point out that escalating situations were wrong when you’d already defeated your opponent, but David squeezed her hip lightly, a warning to stay silent and let him continue.
Despite all logic, it worked. William relaxed a few more degrees, his knees falling open and his hands stilling on the water bottle.
“So then,” he said, “we went out to play. I went looking for the ball box because I wanted to play kickball. They’re over beside the gym, in a storage closet. The monitor always lets me get them because I always put them back. And when I was out there, someone fell off the monkey bars so the monitor left because she was the closest adult.”
He looked up at both of them and said grimly, “That’s when Robbie and his friends cornered me. Right there in the ball room. They said a bunch of mean things. Like, no one liked me and they were going to hit me. And then…Robbie rushed at me. He just sort of…” William made a ‘whooshing’ motion with his hand. “Came at me like one of Pop’s bull cows. So I did what Pops and Uncle Bob taught me to do.”
“Punch him?” Angie asked, concerned.
William rolled his eyes.
“No Ma, I ducked. I went sideways. He was running so fast he ran right into the wall behind me and crunched his face.”
Heat rushed into her face in shame as she realized that’s what he’d meant. It wasn’t him. Well, he’d antagonized the boys. He’d helped create the hostility between them. But he’d never actually broken another child’s nose.
“William, let me see your hands,” David said gently.
William put the bottle down and held out his small hands.
Perfectly clean. No bruises. Dirty fingernails but no scrapes or swelling like there would be if a child punched another child.
“Noses are pretty hard,” David commented, turning his son’s fingers too and fro. “Did you tell the teacher that you didn’t hit him?”
Tears sprang into her son’s eyes and he nodded.
“They didn’t believe him,” Angie whispered, guilt weighing with fury. “And damn it, Robert Jameson is Thomas Jameson’s son.”
David’s head snapped up.
“One and the same,” Angie said grimly.
David sighed then pushed off the desk and scooped William up.
He’d been getting so big, Angie couldn’t lift him easily anymore. But her husband was a large man and hadn’t let his weight training go any more than she’d ignored her cardio. He made their boy look small as he held him.
“I’m in trouble but I didn’t do anything,” William cried, burying his face into his Dad’s shoulder, oblivious of the effect salty tears and snot would have on the silk suit. David, unlike her own father, didn’t seem to mind.
“We’re going to get it worked out, Will,” he soothed.
Angie clutched the wooden desk behind her and nodded in grim agreement.
She wasn’t sure how yet, but someway, she was going to get her son’s name cleared and get him back in school.