“You’re going to be late.”
Rey glances at the clock hanging on the wall across the diner. “Shit.”
“Hey, you don’t say that mama, that’s a bad word!”
She casts an apologetic look to the scrutinous little four-year-old staring back at her from the corner booth. “I’m sorry, honeybear. You’re right.”
Ren shakes his head, returning to his coloring, and Rey doesn’t miss the smirk Poe gives her from the kitchen window. “Still going to be late.”
“I know, I know,” she huffs, pulling her apron over her head and tossing it over the counter. “Are you sure you’re okay to watch him?”
Armitage scoffs as he pushes through the swinging door as he saunters out from the back. “I’m half-certain the little hellion likes me better than you.”
Rey opens and closes her mouth, deciding against arguing. She’ll never know why Ren is so taken with the snarky ginger, but she can’t exactly argue with him. “Fine. I shouldn’t be more than an hour or so at most.”
Poe sets a plate out for Kaydel to grab. “Are you sure? I thought these things went on forever.”
“It’s pre-K,” Rey counters. “What could there possibly be to extensively parent-teacher about?”
“Still.” Armitage scooches Ren over in the booth, grabbing for a black crayon and waving it nonchalantly. “If you go over, we’ll just take him home with us after closing.”
“Okay.” She strides across the black-and-white checkered tile, leaning over the booth to cradle her son’s face in her hands. “You be good for Poe and Armitage, okay?”
She brushes his chestnut hair from his eyes, too long already even though he just got a haircut before school started three weeks ago, and starting to curl much like hers did when she was his age. She kisses his freckled nose, grateful for the millionth time in his life that he looks everything like her and nothing like the deadbeat asshole he’ll never meet.
“Maaaama.” He tries to squirm out of her grip. “You’re squishing my face.”
“Be good, little man,” she reminds him.
He nods resolutely. “Uncle Armie promised to draw me a dragon.”
“Uncle Armie is a good boy,” she coos, casting a sly grin in the direction of her now-frowning red-haired friend.
He snorts as he shakes his Crayon at her. “I allow it with the gremlin, but that’s quite enough from you.”
“Okay, okay,” she concedes. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Have a good day at school dear,” Poe yells from the back.
Rey is still rolling her eyes as she walks out the door.
Ren’s school is across town, and Rey has to swap buses twice just to get there. The note in Ren’s backpack last week had certainly worried her, asking her to come in tonight for a parent-teacher conference, and she wishes she at least had some inkling as to what to expect.
Ren doesn’t have much to say about school when they talk about it, hardly wanting to talk about what they’re learning or how is day went when the bus brings him to the diner every night. He’s even taken to telling her that school is scary—which of course is worrisome, but it’s only their third week after all. It’s all so new for him, having spent the first two years of his life staying with Maz while she worked, and then with Armie a lot when Maz’s age caught up to her. She knows it will take time to adjust to it all.
Ren’s teacher, he tells her, is nice at the very least. She has to admit she’d been a bit thrown to find out that the pre-K teacher was a man, but the limited things Ren has to say about him all positive, so she thinks that’s a plus.
She navigates down the long hallway of clean, white tile—mentally ticking off the doors she passes in search of the correct one mentioned by the secretary in the office. The door is closed when she finds it, and a peek inside reveals a woman a little older than her sitting across from a large man in a beige dress shirt, the only thing easily recognizable being his head of dark hair that is just a bit longer than she would picture for a teacher.
Rey notices a little chair outside of the classroom, and she settles into it while she waits, studying the little cork board on the opposite wall that is littered with little handprints of paint that have little names attached to each one that look to be written by the actual students. She picks out Ren’s after only a moment, smiling to herself at the wobbly writing beneath the bright red handprint that is just a little larger than any of the others.
Ren has always been a big boy for his age.
She notices a grease stain along her thigh, frowning as she licks her thumb to dab at it, knowing it will do no good, but hating that she will be meeting her son’s teacher for the first time in her dirty work clothes. Not that she ever has time or reason to dress any other way.
She’s still fiddling with it when she hears the turn of the door handle, the woman that went before her offering up her thanks as she steps out. A deep voice kindly responds, and Rey’s ears perk up at the pleasant timbre of it, quickly ceasing her useless efforts of stain-fighting and straightening in her chair as the other woman turns to go. Her eyes land on buttons that look a little like they might be in pain, gaze settling unwittingly at mid-chest level, having had no idea she would have to crane her neck to look up at the teacher’s face.
Rey doesn’t think she’s ever gawked at a person in her entire life—but she’s gawking a little now.
He’s smiling at her—full lips (and she means full) curling at the corners as he hangs halfway out the door endearingly. “Hi, are you Ren’s mom?”
She might have forgotten how to speak. Rey hasn’t looked at man with anything remotely resembling interest since, well, in a very long time—but she can’t seem to look away from this one.
He’s Ren’s teacher for God’s sake.
“Y-yes,” she manages, rising from the chair and only wobbling just a little. “Yes, that’s me. Hi.”
He motions his head inside the classroom, signalling she follow. He moves to let her step inside past him, and she doesn’t mean to brush against his chest as she goes, but he is just so damned big. He fills up the door and perhaps even the room, she thinks.
He closes the door behind her, and she stands frozen on a colored mat that is littered with various shapes and colors, her tongue still a little glued to the roof of her mouth. What is wrong with her?
“I’m Ben.” He offers her his hand. “Ben Solo.”
She takes his hand, marveling at how it swallows up her own. “Rey. Rey Jackson.”
He really shouldn’t smile like he is. In fact, she thinks maybe that it should be illegal. She watches as he takes a seat behind his desk, leaving her still standing like a statue on the damned carpet. He gestures to the seat across from his desk when he notices her gawking, still smiling at her politely. “You can have a seat if you like.”
She shakes off her strange new sense of dumbfoundedness, quickly moving to the seat he’s pointing to and settling into it. “Sorry,” she mutters, her cheeks feeling a little warm.
“Thanks for coming,” he tells her. “I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet at orientation.”
“No, no.” She shakes her head. “That’s my fault. I was working a double every night that week, and I just couldn’t get away.”
“It’s okay,” he offers. He cocks his head curiously, and she forces herself not to count the spray of beauty marks across his face. “Are you a nurse?”
God, his voice.
Surely there is some sort of moral hazard regarding impure thoughts about your son’s pre-K teacher, right? She stamps down those wayward musings, trying to focus only on the conversation.
“Nothing so grand.” She can’t help but give a little snort, tapping at the diner’s logo on her chest. “Waitress.”
“Hey, people have to eat.” Another one of those little smiles that are making it very hard to keep her less-than-pure thoughts locked up tight. “Nothing wrong with that.”
“Right,” she laughs. “But I’m sure I smell like a grease trap, so. Sorry about that.”
“I smell like Purel and Juice boxes most of the time, so. No judgments.”
She laughs a little, tucking her hair behind her ear in a nervous gesture. “You know, I have to say, I was a little thrown when I learned the pre-K teacher was a man.”
“Yeah.” He huffs out a little laugh. “I get that a lot.”
“Can I ask how you…?”
He blows out a breath. “It's a… long story. I just enjoy it.”
“Fair enough.” She nods slowly. “Well, Ren says nice things about you,” she offers. “When I can get him to actually talk about school.”
“That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about.” He reaches into his desk drawer to pull out a little stack of papers. “How Ren is adjusting.”
“He’s not… taking to the whole thing as well as we might like at this point.”
“It’s only been a few weeks,” she offers, concern creeping up into her stomach. “Surely it takes a while, right?”
“That’s true… but it’s the way he isn’t taking to it that concerns me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Has he ever been in any sort of structured environment like this? Daycare or the like?”
“No.” She wrings her hands in her lap, suddenly feeling as if she’s about to be scolded. “He’s always stayed with family and friends while I work.”
“Ah.” He frowns a little. “That explains a little, at least.”
“Is it that bad?”
He leans over the desk, brow furrowing. “It’s not bad at all. It’s just an adjustment, like anything else. It’s only that Ren seems to be very withdrawn during class activities and when engaging with the other kids, and I just can’t seem to get him to really open up for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“For example, every morning we have circle time where I ask them all to sit in a circle on the carpet there—” He points to the wide carpet she’d been frozen on moments earlier. “—and before they can leave to sit at their tables I will ask them to find an object that starts with the letter we are studying that week.”
“Refuses to participate.”
“Oh, no.” She feels her heart sink. She had no idea. “He’s not—is he just not understanding?”
“That’s the thing.”
Ben leans back in his chair, running his fingers through his hair and frowning in thought. Her emotions are at war with worry for her son and fixating on the way his bicep strains against the fabric of his shirt. “I think he knows the answers, he just… well. He says he’s scared every time I ask. Sort of withdraws, and sometimes he even cries.”
She feels her heart breaking a little. Her poor baby. “Is that normal at all? Have you ever seen it before?”
“In degrees. I think Ren is a bright kid, there’s just some that you can tell, you know? He’s very articulate and some of the details he picks up on… well. I’m sure you know.”
She does, she nods to tell him so. “So what can I do?”
“There are ways you can work with him at home. I think what's happening is a bit of social anxiety. If he’s never been in this sort of environment before I think that is even more likely. It’s a culture shock.”
“Yes, of course. I can do that.”
“You could devise some sort of point system for when he correctly identifies the numbers or letters we are working with, even if it’s working towards something small like a candy, maybe? Just something to give him some incentive. Make the whole thing more positive for him.”
“Absolutely. I can do that.”
Her worry must read all over her face, because Ben leans back over his desk looking concerned. “Hey. Things like this happen. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it, and it won’t be the last. I just wanted to make you fully aware. At his age, I’m assuming he isn’t communicating any of this.”
Rey shakes her head. “I feel like I did something wrong. That I should have prepared him better.”
“Hey. Hey.” He reaches across to pat her hand, surprising them both, she thinks. “You did nothing wrong. Things like this happen sometimes, Mrs.—”
She blurts it out without thinking, completely interrupting him, and she feels her cheeks heat a little further. “Sorry, I just—it’s just Miss.”
“Oh. Miss Jackson. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed.”
“It’s okay.” She shakes her head. “Ren’s father isn’t… well. He couldn’t even tell you what color eyes Ren has.” Her own eyes widen a little, surprising herself. “I have no idea why I just told you that. I’m sorry.”
He looks at her for a few seconds longer than necessary, and the warmth in her belly blooms a little deeper. “Ren is a special kid,” he says finally, quietly, carefully, even. “He’s lucky to have you, at least.”
“Thank you,” she half-whispers, a sudden tension between them that she isn’t sure if she’s imagining or not. She clears her throat finally, her nerves getting the best of her. He is Ren’s teacher. “Anyway, I’ll be sure to start working with him every night that I get home in time. I’m sure his uncles and grandmother would be more than willing also.”
Ben smiles that slow, quiet smile that makes her dizzy. “I’m glad there’s a support system for you both.”
“We’re lucky in that way, at least.”
He grabs for the little stack of papers he withdrew earlier, sliding them across. “These are the worksheets I printed out with the numbers we’ve been working on, as well as the three letters we’ve started with. We’re teaching them to recognize capital letters versus lowercase as well.”
“Perfect.” She takes them stack, flipping through it idly. “Could he do any of it?”
Ben points to the marked areas. “So, he recognized these two numbers, and all of his shapes—but refused to tell me what these letters were.”
Rey frowns as she takes in each red x that Ren missed. “I promise I’ll spend all my spare time with this. I hate to think of him getting behind.”
“Don’t stress,” he urges. “It’s not the end of the world. Just something we want to stay on top of.”
Those words are innocent, she reminds herself. She shouldn’t be squirming at stay on top of. It’s ridiculous. “Right. Thank you.”
“Also…” He grabs for a post-it from his desktop, jotting down a note in what she can see even from across the desk is handwriting much neater than her own. “Here’s my cell. I want you to call or text me with any concerns, and I’ll be sure to send you some updates about Ren going forward.”
“Wow, that is…” She tells herself that he probably does this for all the parents. That it doesn’t mean anything. “That’s really nice of you. Thank you.”
“Of course.” She’s going to go into cardiac arrest if he doesn’t stop smiling at her like that. “I’m just glad to help.”
She reaches across the desk to take the post-it from him, the extension of his arm making the sleeves of his shirt ride up a fraction of an inch. There’s a flash of inked color there that wraps all the way around his wrist, and she has to suppress her surprise from reading on her face because how far does that go up? And he isn’t wearing a wedding ring. Not that it matters. Not that it’s important.
Suddenly it’s a thousand degrees warmer in the room.
“I really appreciate it, Mr. Solo.”
“Ben is fine,” he murmurs.
“Ben,” she echoes. Her clothes feel a little too tight, and she awkwardly rises from the chair with a need to separate herself from this ridiculously good looking man who is good with children and may or may not be littered with tattoos under his too-tight button down. “Thank you.”
Ben rises with her, smoothing a hand over his stomach to straighten his shirt, she thinks, but all it does for her is accentuate how firm his stomach seems to be. God help her.
He follows her to the door, reaching for her elbow as she opens it to halt her. She stares down at where he touches her with wide eyes, and he quickly releases her with a somewhat dazed expression as if he hadn’t meant to touch her in the first place. “Please don’t hesitate to use my number,” he offers quietly, clasping his hands behind his back instead. “If you need me.”
“I’ll do that,” she assures him, throat dry and heart pounding with something she hasn’t felt in a very long time. Something ridiculous, because he is Ren’s teacher. “If I need you.”
“Have a good night, Miss Jackson.”
“Rey,” she tells him softly. “Rey is fine.”
“Rey.” That fucking smile. “Right.”
She makes a fairly hasty exit, and at this point, she isn’t sure if she’s running away for his benefit or her own.
“Come on, honeybear.” She pats his mattress. “Time for bed.”
“But I want to watch Ryan.”
“No, no.” Ryan’s Toy Review is going to be the death of her. “Ryan will be there tomorrow.”
“Fine,” he huffs, flouncing onto his bed.
“Did you have fun with your uncles?”
Ren wrinkles his nose. “Uncle Poe made me watch football.”
“Yuck,” Rey chuckles.
“Yeah, it’s not my favorite.”
“Did Uncle Armie draw your dragon?”
“Yeah. It had purple wings. It was awesome .”
“I’m glad you had fun.” She runs her fingers through his hair as he settles under his Paw Patrol sheets. “You know… I talked to your teacher today.”
“Mr. Solo. He seems nice.”
“He gives me stickers,” Ren says proudly, “and cookies.”
“Wow, that’s awesome.”
“It is awesome.”
“So you like Mr. Solo?”
Ren shrugs. “Yeah. I guess so.”
“He says you’re scared to do what he asks you to do.”
Ren looks down at his hands, giving another half-hearted shrug.
“Ren…” She kisses his hair. “School isn’t scary.”
“It’s not my favorite,” he whispers.
“Are the other kids mean to you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
Another shrug. “I don’t know.”
“Ren. Talk to mama.”
“I miss mama and grandma Maz and Uncle Armie and Poe.”
“Oh, honey.” She squeezes him tight. “Everyone has to go to school. It’s just part of life.”
“School is scary.”
“It’s not scary,” she urges. “You like your teacher, right?”
Ren nods. “He’s nice.”
“You have to do what he asks, okay?”
“Baby,” she chides gently. “When you’re at school, you have to listen to Mr. Solo just like you would me, or grandma Maz, or your uncles. Do you understand?”
His little lip pokes out, and she feels her heart clenching in her chest. “I understand.”
“You don’t have to be scared to do what he asks. He just wants to teach you things. You’re my smart boy, right?”
“I guess so.”
She kisses his temple. “Okay. Go to sleep now. We’ll practice your letters in the morning before school, okay?”
“I love you.” She puckers up her lips, making him giggle.
He gives her a smacking kiss. “I love you.”
She tucks the covers around his shoulders, sliding out of his bed and hitting the lights. She gives him one last look before she closes his bedroom door, smiling to herself as the gravity of how much she loves this tiny human hits her full force. It’s hard, knowing he’s growing up, and she reminds herself to enjoy the little moments like this with him. That one day he’ll be too big.
She’s climbing into her own bed a short time later, her eyes flicking back and forth between the clock at her bedside table and her cellphone in her hands. It’s only 8:30–surely it wouldn’t be too late? And she does want him to have her number as well, so that he can give her updates for Ren like he mentioned. It’s innocent, she tells herself. Completely innocent.
She taps out a quick message, offering her number and thanking him again for updating her on how Ren was doing. Completely casual. Nothing about it that could be construed as invasive.
And if her heart rate picks up by a dozen counts when her phone sounds with an answering alert? Well. That’s just coincidence.
I’m really glad you came by. I think Ren is going to be fine. Try not to stress too much about it.
Rey bites at her lower lip, tapping out a thanks again— quickly plugging up her phone and settling under her covers. It’s too early to sleep, really, and she’s more than likely going to stare at her ceiling for a half hour before she passes out with the knowledge that she’ll be crawling out of bed at five am to get her and Ren ready—but her mind races and her chest flutters and it’s ridiculous that she’s sitting here thinking about her son’s teacher but he’s so nice and caring and Jesus Christ the tattoos. He could only have one, it’s likely, even—but her imagination has already fully run away from her. As it has done with every other aspect of Mr. Solo—Ben.
Rey thinks about that little flash of color at his wrist for the rest of the night.