“We have a problem, Mr. Dowe.”
“Who is it this time?” I put the report down—I hoped I’d remember where I left off since the whole thing was pretty forgettable—and tried not to sigh.
Almost the end of the school year and almost teenage hormones made a bad combination. That was why a lot of teachers wouldn’t take on middle school work. The idea made them break out in a cold sweat. It was probably the reason I’d been hired as principal two years ago. No one else really wanted the job.
But even with the crap reports to read and the crazed students to educate, I fucking loved it. Fights weren’t high on my list of fun things for the principal to handle, but I understood fights. I’d been in plenty of them when my hormones were new and desperate for action.
“Jessica Mayers and someone who isn’t a student here.” Miss Gunderson looked unhappy. She always did. This time I couldn’t blame her. I was starting to feel unhappy too. Already there were complications I didn’t need with her news.
“An outsider got into the school during school hours?” Parents would be howling about lack of security. I’d have to meet with them to say we’d look into the problem and talk about how this was an exception to all the rules we had. Then I’d be howling about lack of security at another meeting where parents couldn’t hear me. School politics.
“Not exactly. It was one of the sixth graders touring the school today.”
“Not enrolled in our school yet, and already there’s trouble?” I pulled off my reading glasses and placed them on the report. It looked like I wouldn’t be going back to checking requisitions anytime soon. I got up, ready to throw my weight around for the good of the school. “All right. What’s the kid’s name, and has her principal been informed? At least I hope Jessica was mixing it up with a girl. She’s not quite tough enough for most sixth grade boys.”
Jessica was not quite five feet and had a mouth at least that big. She hadn’t yet learned to put a filter between her brain and her words.
“Her name is Antigone Ramsey. I’ve already called her principal and her father. I can’t locate the mother.”
Antigone. I stopped dead at the threshold of my office door.
There might be other Ramseys, but there couldn’t be anyone else named Antigone. I remembered Chris and his choice of a classics major. He’d gotten so into it that he’d insisted on naming his kids after famous Greek women.
And now Antigone Ramsey was here. Damn it. That meant complication piled on complication.
“She’s in the vice principal’s office?” That’s where we usually put our worst offenders until we determined on school suspension or something more.
“Yes. Mr. Filmer is keeping an eye on her. She’s saying something about her Miranda rights.”
I snorted. “Well, her dad is a lawyer. I suppose it comes naturally.”
“You know her?”
“I know about her. I used to be friendly with her dad back in the day.”
Miss Gunderson’s sour face told me exactly what she thought about my circle of acquaintances. I wondered what she’d say if I told her the kid who was trying to get suspended before she was even in school was the reason her father had been shoved over to a list of former friends from “back in the day.”
Oh hell. That probably wasn’t fair. There were a lot of reasons I hadn’t known Chris was even in the city right now, much less living in the school district I worked for. But his marriage and fatherhood had been big, big problems.
Thing is, he wasn’t Chris once he got married. The Chris I knew was usually cheerful. People liked him. He was open. He talked. God, he talked all the time. I didn’t know there were that many words stored up in a person. But what he said was usually damn funny. He took things seriously, but he also laughed at himself and the world around him. He laughed at me, which sometimes made me want to pound him, but usually ended up making me laugh too. Most people ran scared of me or hated me when I was a kid. Not Chris.
Ten years. We’d been best friends for ten years.
Then Chris announced he was getting married.
Husband Chris was edgy. Tense around the mouth and the eyes. I could even spot traces of his parents in him.
I didn’t like Husband Chris. I was pretty sure I’d like Daddy Chris even less. So I stopped seeing him. It got a lot easier to do once I joined the army, of course. No one expected you to visit from Iraq, even if you had been the best man at a guy’s wedding. A guy wasn’t expected to respond to engraved birth announcements, either. And if you didn’t mention to someone you hadn’t re-upped in favor of going back to school—well, it was just one of those things. You still didn’t have to go see him.
People change, friends grow up and go their separate ways, blah, blah, blah. Pick any cliché you want and move on. The fact was Chris and I hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, and we hadn’t really tried to stay in touch. That part of our lives was done. I hadn’t seen Chris for almost as long as I’d been friends with him.
None of that explained why my palms were a little sweaty before I opened the door to the vice principal’s office to meet Antigone Ramsey.
* * * *
Antigone Ramsey wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. I wasn’t sure what I’d anticipated, but it hadn’t been someone who greeted me with “My father will make you sorry I’m here.”
She had more of an attitude than her dad used to when he was a kid.
I could have dealt with attitude, but then she mixed it up on me when she sniffled and swiped at her nose with the sleeve of her pink shirt. It was difficult to be a hard-ass when someone looked that pitiful.
I’d be sorry? Hell, I was already sorry.
“Do you want to tell me why you are here?” I hunched a little, trying not to loom. She didn’t look like her dad had at eleven. He’d been small and stocky back then until he grew into some height and shed his puppy fat.
She wasn’t small for a kid her age, but she looked…well, oddly delicate. Like she was too skinny for that body, too fragile for her size. Like maybe she hadn’t been eating right for a while.
I’d heard of kids her age on diets, but—damn…I hoped she wasn’t. The world could screw with a kid’s head way too early. Did she think she needed to be skinny, or was something going on that made her not eat right? Bulimia, anemia, depression…
“I’m here because Miss Dumberson out there made me.” I tried not to snort at the nickname. Sometimes I wasn’t much older than my students. Antigone sniffled again and peeked up at me through her eyelashes, probably deciding what kind of bullshit I’d believe. “It wasn’t my fault.”
Whoa. I’d seen that look on older girls before, and it never meant anything good for the person they directed it at. She sure as hell better not be trying to flirt.
“What wasn’t your fault?”
Her gaze dropped down. “Nothing was.”
I kept quiet and hoped sweat wasn’t dripping down my back. This kid was trouble. Of course Jessica would have singled her out. Because Jessica was a trouble-seeking missile.
And next year both of them would be in my school. Joy. Why did I like this job again?
A sharp, anxious, very familiar voice cut into my thoughts.
“Excuse me. My name is Christian Ramsey, and I was told my daughter would be h—”
He stopped when I looked up at him. I’d been so focused on his daughter that I hadn’t heard his entrance. But here he was, whether or not I was ready. I wasn’t sure what I expected from him either, but it hadn’t been seeing his expression look blank, as if he wasn’t observing what—or who—was right in front of him. Then again, Chris had gotten good at not seeing the obvious over the years.
He blinked and recovered. He smiled as he focused on me. Held his hand out. “Bill. It’s been a long time.”
I shook his hand and then stepped back. Come to think of it, he didn’t look so good either. He had almost as fragile an air as his little girl. What the hell was going on at their place?
“Dad! They kept me here forever!” Antigone began to cry again.
“We barely had time to put away the rubber hoses before you arrived.” I shut my mouth, wishing I had managed to do it before I let that sentence out. Jokes were for the old Chris and Bill, not the father of Antigone Ramsey and a principal who had her in custody.
Even so, for a minute it looked like Chris might smile.
But he didn’t.
“What’s going on?” He glanced at Antigone and then went back to looking at me.
“That’s what Antigone is about to tell us.” I kept my eyes on his kid.
“Annie. Everyone calls me Annie except—except—” She nodded toward her father. “And only when I’m in trouble.”
So she didn’t talk to him directly? Interesting. I said, “All right, Annie. Now. Tell us.”
She mumbled something, and all I caught was “war.” I cleared my throat, and she looked up.
“Try it again. I didn’t catch that.”
“That girl called my mother a war and I hit her in the mouth.” Annie spoke up and then folded her hands primly. But she didn’t stop there. “A few times. Hard. She started it. I told her she better not say that word, and she did it again. It’s a bad word, isn’t it? So she should be in more trouble than me.”
I looked at the swollen knuckles and wondered what the school nurse’s aide would have to say about Jessica’s condition. “You need some ice for that?”
“Yes, please. It hurts.”
“I bet it did.” I almost told her how to hit so it wouldn’t hurt that much and caught myself. Sometimes you shouldn’t teach people what they needed to learn.
“Why the he…ck would some stranger call your mother names?” Trust Chris to fasten on that question.
“Because the teachers asked us who would volunteer for stuff like school trips and things, and I had to say no one.” Annie cleared her throat. “And the kids asked if I was an orphan or something, and I explained, and then that girl laughed at me when I said I wasn’t sure where Mom was, and…then I hit her. Really
hard. There was blood.”
“We got that part, Annie.” I made a mental note to have the teachers try for a more private way to wangle volunteers for the bake sales.
“She’s a bitch. I’m not sorry I hit her. I won’t say I’m sorry.” Annie’s chin wobbled a little despite the words.
“I think your lawyer here would advise you to keep quiet now.” I put my hand on her shoulder, hoping she wouldn’t make things any worse. “That’s part of those Miranda rights you asked for. The right to keep silent.”
“All right.” Annie swiped at her nose again and sniffled.
Just like Annie, I realized I wasn’t sure if I should call her father Chris or Christian or Mr. Ramsey in this situation. And like Annie, I decided I could avoid the whole problem by not calling him anything at all. Instead I looked over at my former best friend and said, “I need to talk to you privately. Let’s go to my office.”
He nodded and stood up.
I would have been fine, but I made the mistake of opening the door, and as I did, my hand brushed against his elbow.
And God…it all came back in too-vivid detail.
* * * *
“You’ve always been my best friend since forever,” Chris told me, his eyes a little too bright as he leaned over his beer. He never could drink worth a damn.
“Likewise.” My throat felt tight. Like I was choking.
I’d imagined scenes like this before. Where Chris finally saw the light. Where he knew what we meant to each other.
But I’d imagined scenes that went the other way too. Where Chris shut the closet door forever and didn’t even realize what had happened. Because he was a good guy and wanted to do the right thing and was sometimes so fucking fucking fucking
clueless. I knew this guy, but I didn’t know which way he would jump this time.
“I know I’ve been sort of awkward since…” Chris did his usual hand wave that meant everything and nothing.
“Since the big shower scene?”
“Um. Well.” His cheeks pinked up some. “I meant since I started dating your ex.”
No, he meant the shower. Everything that came after that had been because of the shower. I knew this guy well enough to know that much.
“Dumping me as soon as I got the separated shoulder was a little cold but effective. I don’t give a shit about her.” And if Chris couldn’t see she dumped me because suddenly I had lost my scholarship and wasn’t a football player and therefore unimportant—and that she was after something wealthy and worthy—then he was stupider than I thought. “Want another beer? And no, I’m not mad at you for taking her up on what she offered. Hell, I sure did at the time.”
I didn’t like it, but I understood. Chris had been desperate to find some pussy. I’d told him I used available pussy. His picking up one of my exes actually made a kind of sense. But I was hoping now that he’d had some sex with a girl, he wasn’t as interested. Besides, I knew Stephanie. She couldn’t be as hot as what Chris and I’d had with just those few minutes in the gym. Not even if she’d stayed in bed with him for the past six weeks, which was as long as the two of them had been together so far. Not that I was counting or anything.
But it was time for Chris to wake up. To tell me—
Christ, he better tell me he was done with her.
“So would you?” He stopped and cleared his throat.
“I’m messing this up. Second try. You’re my best friend, and I would really be happy if you’d be my best man. Stephanie and I are getting married as soon as we can.”
“You’re shitting me!” I shut my lips, but it was too late. Chris leaned away from me and frowned.
“It was a serious question, Bill. Will you be my best man?”
I’d been thinking more in terms of being his man.