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"I didn't hit her." Small arms folded across his chest, bottom lip at a salute, five-year-old Caleb McCreedy looked ready for battle.
Only three months into his kindergarten year and he'd managed what his two older brothers hadn't.
A trip to the principal's office.
"My lunch box hit her," Caleb finished. He made a face and paused as if in deep thought.
John Deere baseball cap in hand, Jared McCreedy shifted uncomfortably on one of the hard brown chairs in the too small office and frowned. His youngest son was no stranger to battle. He had the example of two older brothers. They, however, knew better than to bring it to school.
Mrs. Ann Tyson, principal of Roanoke Elementary for all of three months, turned to Jared as if expecting him to do something besides sit and listen as the story unfolded. Although his memories of being in trouble a time or two should have helped him speak up, they hadn't.
All he could do was frown.
"On purpose!" This outburst came from Cassidy Tate, a loud, little girl with wild brown curls.
The principal cleared her throat, not because she needed to, Jared could tell, but to let Cassidy know she'd been out of line. Then Mrs. Tyson glanced at the referral in her hand.
Jared took the time to study Cassidy. He'd heard about her many, many times from his middle son who sat behind her in a second-grade classroom.
Cassidy tore my paper.
Cassidy pulled the head off my LEGO and now I can't find it. Never mind that Matt wasn't allowed to take LEGOs to school.
Cassidy keeps following me.
"I like her," Caleb informed the family every time Matt shared a "Cassidy" story. With Caleb, it was a love/hate relationship. Caleb loved her when he wasn't throwing lunch boxes at her, and Matt, although he wasn't allowed to hate, avoided her at all costs.
Cassidy's mother, Maggie Tate, sat on the brown chair right next to Jared, but she didn't look uncomfortable. At one time or another she must have spent time in a principal's office, too, because she seemed to know exactly what to do, how to sit and what questions to ask. She looked in control, something he wanted very much to feel at the moment.
Since his wife's death, Jared had tried for control but realized that his idea of being in control didn't mesh with the chaos of his three sons, each with varying needs and each missing their mother.
He wished Mandy were here.
When the principal finally set down the referral, Maggie was ready. "Are you sure it was on purpose?" She didn't raise her voice, change her expression, or so much as clench a fist.
"I'm sure." Cassidy glared at Caleb who was trying hard not to wriggle in a couch designed for much bigger people.
That couch hadn't been here the first time Jared had visited this office. He'd been five years old and had taken something that hadn't belonged to him. He no longer remembered what.
The next time he'd stood before the same principal's door, it was because the principal, Billy Staples, wanted permission to take something from Jared.
Jared remembered what. As oldest son, albeit in junior high, he'd willingly given his permission for his mother and Billy to marry.
Mrs. Tyson leaned forward, and Jared could see her fighting back a smile even as she said, "He did throw the lunch box up in the air on purpose. Three times. Along with five other little boys. The lunch aide asked them to stop. Two did. The aide was on her way over to intervene, yet again, when Caleb's lunch box hit Cassidy in the face."
"I wasn't aiming for her face," Caleb insisted, his voice breaking. "We were trying to see ifsince our lunch boxes had peanut butter on themthey would stick to the roof if we threw them hard enough."
"Ceiling," Cassidy corrected.
Beside him, Maggie made a low-pitched, strangled sound. If Jared hadn't been sitting so close to her, he wouldn't have noticed. She was a master at keeping calm.
"But the fact that you might hit someone is exactly why the aide asked you to stop," the principal said patiently.
"And you didn't listen," Jared added, finally getting his voice.
"If you'd packed me leftover turkey from Thanksgiving, like I wanted," Caleb accused, "this wouldn't have happened. Turkey doesn't stick."
Caleb had the good sense to stop talking.
Cassidy looked from Caleb to Jared before saying, "See, Mama, I told you it wasn't me."
Now that Jared looked again, the woman in question didn't look old enough to be so in control of the situation, let alone a mama, or a business owner. Yet, she was all three. This past summer, Joel, Jared's younger brother, had done some work on her vintage clothing shop. Because Joel's fiancée wanted a vintage wedding, Joel had spent a lot of time talking about vintage clothes and about the shopkeeper. His description hadn't done Maggie Tate justice.
Her deep brown hair fell in a blunt cut that was shorter than he liked and barely reached her shoulders. When she'd walked into the principal's office, five minutes late and looking non-repentant, he'd noted the short gray-and-red dress that gave him a chance to admire a nice pair of legs encased in some sort of black tights. Black clunky shoes with ridiculous heels finished the outfit.
She'd probably been chatting up a customer in her store when she'd gotten the call from the school. He'd been in the field wrapping up corn harvest.
She smelled of some sort of jasmine perfume; he smelled of sweat.
". .not the first time for either of them," Mrs. Tyson was saying.
"What?" Jared straightened up. He'd missed the first half of the sentence.
Again came the half smile and Jared knew the principal was enjoying this. Maybe because Jared's stepfather had been principal of Roanoke Elementary for thirty years and some parents still went to him first, only to be redirected back to Mrs. Tyson. Maybe because Mrs. Tyson had heard about the McCreedy boys, and their escapades, even though more than a decade had passed since they'd been students here. Maybe because Mrs. Tyson knew the color in Jared's cheeks wasn't because Caleb was in trouble but because it had been far too long since he had admired a pair of legs.
"I was talking about throwing lunch boxes. This is not the first time for either of them."
Maggie looked at Cassidy. "Were you throwing lunch boxes, too?"
"But some other day?" Maggie insisted. "Did you hit Caleb with a lunch box some other day?"
Cassidy's lips went together. The answer was in her expression. Yes.
The principal's brows went together. Clearly, this was the first she'd heard of it.
"Why did you tattle," Maggie asked, "if you've done the same thing to him?"
Caleb and Cassidy exchanged a look, no longer adversaries, now conspirators.
"She didn't tattle," Mrs. Tyson said. "The aide did and the aide had plenty to say. Seems that while Caleb was removed from the lunchroom and escorted to his teacher, Cassidy hid his lunch box and doesn't seem to remember where."
Jared closed his eyes. Caleb's teacher was soon to be Jar-ed's sister-in-law.
"We'll take care of this at home," he said firmly as he stood, giving Caleb a look that said we're going. "I promise you that."
"We'll find the lunch box," Maggie quickly offered. "Or" she shot Cassidy a glance that could only mean trouble "we'll buy him a new one from your allowance."
Cassidy's mouth opened to an exaggerated O. That quickly, Caleb was back to adversary.
"If he threw the lunch box at her, she's not buying him a new one," Jared argued.
"People." One word, that's all it took when it was an elementary school principal.
Ten minutes later, Jared stood outside the principal's office door tightly holding Caleb's hand. Maggie and her daughter were still inside.
"This is my baddest day." Caleb didn't even try to fight the tears. Of Jared's three boys, he was the one who cried freely, whined often and ran full tilt from the time he got out of bed until he fell back into it. He argued the most, too. But, Caleb was also the one who still climbed on Jared's lap, laughed until tears came to his eyes and who knew the name of each and every animal on the farm.
If they didn't have a name, Caleb gave them one.
"I doubt that," Jared said calmly. "We'll talk later. Now, don't start whining."
"I can't help it. I really want my lunch box. It's my favorite."
Jared pictured the lunch boxes sitting on the kitchen counter. Grandpa Billy packed them every morning. Ryan's was a plain blue. Nine-year-olds no longer needed action figures or at least his didn't. Matt's was Star Wars. Caleb's was Spider-Man.
"We should go buy a new one," Caleb suggested. "There's a really cool one"
"No, we should go to the cafeteria and see if the lunch ladies found it."
Caleb followed, feet dragging. "I don't want to go there."
Of course he didn't. The principal had just assigned him a full week of wiping down tables instead of going to recess. Jared intended to do the same at home along with no television for a week.
The cafeteria hadn't changed all that much since Jared's years. There were still rows of tables with benches that could be levered up to make mopping easier. Large gray trash baskets were in the four corners. Right now, decorations of snowflakes and wrapped presents were taped to the walls. Snowmen and Santas shared messages of "Don't Forget our Winter Program."
No way could Jared forget. He'd recently been put in charge of props. In just a few weeks, Caleb would be dressed like an elf and singing with his class. Ryan actually had the part of Santa. Matt would pretend to have a stomachache the night of the program. According to the note sent by Matt's teacher, he had the role of delivering presents to people in the audience. Smart teacher.
"You start in here," Jared ordered. "I'll go in the kitchen."
A few minutes later, Maggie Tate joined them in the search. She poked her head in the kitchen door. "I'm so sorry. She'll be wiping down lunch tables with him."
Jared almost bumped his head as he looked up from the cabinet he'd been going through. "That's okay."
She nodded and then went into the cafeteria, presumably to search.
Jared was on his fifth cabinet when he heard the giggles.
He followed the noise to the cafeteria and stopped. In the middle of the lunchroom tables stood Maggie and the two children, all of them looking at the ceiling. In her hand, she held Caleb's lunch box. Jared could see the peanut butter smeared all over it.
Finally, Maggie hunched down and shook her head. "Caleb, it would take a lot more peanut butter to make it stick."
"I wondered about that," Caleb admitted.
"I can go find some peanut butter," Cassidy offered.
Maggie simply shook her head again, smiled at Jared and sashayed past him into the kitchen where she washed the offending lunch box before handing it to Jared.
For a brief moment he'd been worried she'd gone looking for peanut butter.
Maggie helped Cassidy into her coat and out the front door of Roanoke Elementary. Together they walked the mere block to Maggie's shop Hand Me Ups.
Well, Maggie walked; Cassidy did more of a sideways hop with a scoot and jiggle follow-up.
"I don't think it's fair that I got in so much trouble," Cassidy said after a moment. "I didn't throw my lunch box at him, and we found the lunch box right where I hid it. And I only hid it so he wouldn't throw it at me again."
"But you didn't tell people where you hid the lunch box when they asked. That was wrong."
Cassidy contemplated, for all of thirty seconds. "But, if I gave it back, he might have thrown it at me again."
"Once adults were involved, that wasn't likely. You were wasting our time. I might have missed a customer at the shop. And I'm sure Caleb's dad had work to do. Plus, even you admitted he didn't exactly 'throw' it at you."
"And, what if the lunch box was gone when we went back to get it?" Maggie asked.
"He could have one of mine."
Cassidy had two, both pink and both secondhand, one with Dora on it and the other with Cinderella. Cassidy's greatest wish was to get rid of both of them in order to buy a new one with a pony on it. Maggie doubted Caleb would be inclined to accept either.
"No, if the lunch box disappeared, we'd be getting him a new one, with your piggy bank money."
"But I have to use that money to buy presents!" Cassidy's scoot and jiggle stopped for all of a moment. Then, she was on to a new subject: one where her piggy bank wasn't in danger and there were other problems to solve. "Am I pretty?"
"Getting prettier every day."
"Today, Lisa Totwell said that she was the prettiest girl in class and that I was second."
"Well," Maggie said carefully, "do you want to be the prettiest, or is it okay if Lisa is?"
"It's okay if she is. She's my best friend, you know. Cuz we're both the new students in second grade this year. Everyone else has been here forever."
Yesterday, Brittney Callahan had been Cassidy's best friend. Before that, it was Sarah, a girl Maggie had yet to put a last name or a face to.
Didn't matter. Maggie was thrilled at how quickly Cas-sidy was fitting inmaybe fitting in a little too well. Coming to Roanoke, Iowa, was the right choice. For both of them.
"Cassidy, you know that Caleb is only in kindergarten, right?"
"Maybe you need to play with the kids in your own class." Cassidy stopped so quickly, she nearly stumbled to the ground. "No way, Mom. Caleb is my friend, and he's fun.
Plus, he's Matt's brother."
Matt McCreedy was the subject of many a conversation. He was the only one in Cassidy's second grade who hadn't been given best-friend status, and Maggie suspected Cas-sidy might be going through her first crush.
Now that Maggie had met Matt's dad, she figured he and Matt were cut from the same clothrugged, sturdy denim. Caleb seemed to be cut from a different sort of cloth.
Which meant that Mr. Jared McCreedy didn't understand his youngest son's creative personality.
"We'll talk about it later." Maggie didn't want to dwell on the plight of the misunderstood child.
She'd been onean army brat with an errant mother and a father who was used to giving orders and having them followed with a "Yes, sir. Right away, sir." Her dad was a man who tried hard, but one who definitely didn't understand girls.
"Mom, you've got that look on your face again," Cassidy complained. "Did I do something?"
"Yes, you did something. You got sent to the principal's office for the second time, and I had to leave work to come deal with it. After taking most of last week off, I really needed to spend time in the shop."