“Mommy! Wake up! It’s time for school!”
Beth turned over and eyed the alarm clock on the night stand. “Sweetheart, it’s six o’clock. We don’t have to get up until seven thirty.”
The bed started to bounce as her son jumped up and down. “I know, but I’m just so ‘cited, Mommy! Is Daddy going to take me to school too?”
“Yes, Marcus. Daddy’s coming over to have breakfast with you and then we’ll go to school. Why don’t you lie down next to Mommy,” she said, patting the spot next to her. And please for the love of all that’s holy go back to sleep, she silently begged. She’d stayed up late doing laundry, and reading the first couple of chapters for her Functional Anatomy class. She was in her first year of grad school for physical therapy and with work and a five-year-old she was doing her best to not get behind in her studies.
Marcus plunked down on the bed and giggled. “School is gonna be so much fun! I’m gonna play and read and have lots of friends.”
“Mmhmm,” Beth murmured drowsily as her head hit the pillow.
“Daddy,” Felix said, pulling on the sleeve of Rio’s hoodie as they walked towards the door of his classroom. “I want my Legos.”
Rio sighed as he looked down at his son who looked very preppy in his button down shirt and khaki pants. He didn’t have a good feeling about this.
“Sorry, pops, but we can’t go home and get them right now. You got school, but first thing when you come home you can play with Legos.”
Felix screeched to a halt, crossing his arms over his tiny chest. “Legos, first. Then, school.”
“Sweetheart, I bet Ms. Reed has Legos in her room plus lots of other toys,” Beth said, rubbing Felix on the back.
Rio glanced over at Beth. She was wearing a navy dress that emphasized her curves in all the right places. He loved her penchant for wearing dresses. It made it much easier to… He stopped his train of thought instantly. He was still angry with her. And last night’s phone call hadn’t made things any better. The sound of his son screaming quickly turned his thoughts back to the present.
“I don’t care! I don’t want to go and you can’t make me!”
Deciding to go for the ripping the band-aid off quickly method, Rio scooped Felix up and briskly walked to the woman who was attempting to keep a smile plastered on her face even though it was clear she could see the storm brewing as well as he. He heard Beth’s footsteps trailing behind him. Setting Felix down, he gave him quick hug and Beth bent to kiss him on the cheek and hand him his lunch box. “Kill it at school today, little man.”
“Love you, sweetheart!” Beth said, before they both turned quickly and almost jogged away.
Beth swiped at a tear rolling down her cheek only for another one to shortly follow. It was so stupid. Why was she crying?
“You aiight, ma?” Rio asked, turning to look at her for a moment before his eyes drifted back to the road.
“It’s nothing. I’m…I’m just being stupid.”
“You're in grad school. You can’t be that stupid. What’s bothering you? Marcus?”
“Yes!” Beth cried, bursting into tears. “All the other kids were hugging and begging their parents not to go. And Marcus just trots through the door happy as a clam. He didn’t even tell me goodbye.”
“You wanted him to cry and act a fool?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know! I just wanted him to at least feel a little sad that he’s leaving me.”
“It’s kindergarten. We’ll be back in seven hours to pick him up. He knows we ain’t leaving him forever.”
Digging in her purse, Beth took out some Kleenex and dabbed at the faucets formerly known as her eyes on her face. “I’m being crazy. I’m fully aware of that. I just wasn’t ready for him to be so grown up and be at school and not need me anymore.”
Rio shook his head and chuckled. “He’s five, ma, not eighteen. He still needs you.”
“I really didn’t think I’d be this sad,” Beth sniffed. “Everyone’s kids have to go to school at some point. I thought when the time came I’d be able to handle it. It’s harder than I thought accepting the fact that he’s not my baby anymore.”
Coming to a stop at a red traffic light, Rio turned and reached out to stroke her face, brushing away some of the tears with his thumb. “You ain’t got nothing to be sad about, ma. He’s a happy kid. He’s happy to go to school. We did our job right. Besides we wouldn’t want to have one of those sniveling little brats that hangs on your legs as you try to get out the door.”
“Take me with you! I wanna go home with you!” Felix yelled at the top of his lungs as he dashed passed his teacher and clamped onto his mother’s leg.
Beth blushed beet red as she noticed all the other parents and teachers’ eyes on her and her family.
Rio made short work of picking up Felix and dropping him off at the door of his classroom for a second time. “Don’t. Leave,” he warned.
In the blink of an eye, Felix squirmed past the throng of adults and headed out the side door and, as Beth stared in disbelief, up a freaking tree.
Rio was torn between wanting to laugh and curse at the same time. So he did both. This kid was absolutely nuts. He thought about climbing the tree and grabbing him. He thought about threatening him with taking away all his toys or a spanking. But instead of all that he took a seat at the base of the tree. He was tired. It had been an eventful morning from the get go and last night he hadn’t gotten much sleep because he’d tossed and turned thinking about the proposition Elizabeth had given him.
He watched as Elizabeth assured the principal that they had the situation handled. Once the administrator had left, Elizabeth walked over to the tree and looked up, sighing in exasperation.
“Might as well sit down. He ain’t coming down til he’s ready. He’s stubborn like that.”
“Wonder where he gets that from?” Beth asked sarcastically as she took a seat next to him.
“Like you ain’t stubborn too, ma? What do you call that hate boner you’ve had for me the past few years?”
“I’m never coming down,” Felix singsonged. “I’m gonna live in this tree. Eat bananas like a monkey!”
Beth rolled her eyes as Rio couldn’t help but chuckle. His kid was crazy and sly as a fox. “This is an acorn tree. Ain’t no bananas in it,” he shouted towards his son.
“Then, I’ll be a squirrel!”
Shaking her head, Beth turned to look at him. “Did you give any thought to what I called you about last night?”
“Did I give any thought to giving you some of my money?” He asked.
“Not giving. I’ll earn it. Just…no drugs. I don’t want to be a part of that. I’ve heard you’ve got another business. I could help you er wash, I think that’s what you call it, if you wanted.”
“Why you so interested in being in my employ? You got a job still, don’t you?”
“I do. I just need a bit of extra cash.”
Rio scratched his cheek. “They’re my kids too. I’ll pay for whatever they need.”
Beth shook her head. “It’s not about our children. It’s my mom. She’s not doing so great and needs round the clock care. She needs to go to a nursing home, but it’s expensive. My job pays well, but not that well especially not with the other expenses I have - student loans and what not.”
“I offered to help pay for that…”
“I know, but we were so off and on during that time. It didn’t feel right.”
“So you chose to get in a ton of debt? Sounds smart.”
Obviously rattled, Beth shook her head. “Are you going to let me work for you or not?”
Rio was torn. There were so many reasons why he shouldn’t let her help. Number one being she was a terrible criminal. She made too many decisions from her heart instead of with her mind. He doubted she could be ruthless enough. Then, there was all the extra contact they’d have. As mad as he was, he knew it wouldn’t be long before they’d wind up where they always eventually did…in bed. Also, there was the issue of their kids finding out.
On the other hand, it would be fun to see her squirm, to see how she tried to finagle her way out of difficult situations. Besides had he ever really been successful at telling her no?
Before he could answer, they heard a little voice say, “Mommy? Daddy? I think I’m ready to go to school now. It’s boring up here.”
“Aiight, son. Get down here.”
“I can’t. I’m stuck!”
Rio poured a glass of bourbon and set it in front of Beth. “Drink up.”
Shaking her head, but reaching for the glass, she said, “I shouldn’t. It’s only ten o’clock.”
“You look like you need it.” Pouring himself a glass, he raised it. “Besides it ain’t everyday your firstborn starts kindergarten.”
“Firstborn? Only born is more like it. Are you thinking of having more?”
Rio shrugged. “Maybe. Only kids are kind of sad. And kind of weird.”
“Well, you’ll be the one to give him siblings then.”
Rio made his way over to Beth, stopping mere inches from her and brushing a wisp of hair off her cheek. “Really? You don’t ever think about having another kid?”
Flushing, Beth took another sip. Rio bit his lip. He couldn’t deny that he loved flustering her.
“And,” he said in the softest murmur, leaning forward. “Making one is the fun part.”
Beth blushed again before pushing him back. “That sweet talk might work on other girls, but not me. I don’t have time for another kid.”
Shrugging, Rio took a step back and grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl. “Not now obviously, but a few years down the road? Once you’re done with grad school? You wouldn’t think of it even then?”
“I don’t know. I like being a mom and…I wouldn’t mind having a little girl.”
“Marcus is lucky to have you. You’re a very good mom,” Rio said, leaning in. This time Beth didn’t push back.
“Hi, Ms. Reed, sorry about earlier,” Beth said as they approached the pre-k classroom for the third time that morning. “I think Felix is ready for school now. Aren’t you?”
“I guess,” Felix shrugged.
“We’re so glad to have you here, Felix. We were just having morning play time and then we’re going to read a book and paint a picture. Why don’t you come in and join us?” The teacher said her hand outstretched.
“OK, you got Legos?” Felix said as his parents collectively sighed when their son took his teacher’s hand and walked into the classroom.
“Let’s leave before he changes his mind.” Rio leaned over and murmured in her ear.
“Yes, oh and you’ve got a leaf on…” Beth said, motioning to his shoulder.
Beth sighed as she slowly stroked Rio’s arm. She heard the gentle thudding of his heartbeat. She’d had so many plans today. Plans to check on a new waitressing job down the street, plans to clean, plans to get a head start on some of her homework. And that had all been derailed.
Rio gingerly lifted the moon pendant that was resting in between her breasts. “You kept this?”
Beth bit her lip and turned to her side. She wasn’t exactly sure how to explain it. They weren’t together anymore. She shouldn’t wear it, but it was kind of like her lucky charm. She’d worn it during her graduate entrance exams. Not saying that was the reason she passed, but it had given her confidence to try her best.
Looking at the clock, she bolted upright and scrambled for her clothes, throwing Rio’s boxers at him. “Oh, crap! We’re gonna be late to pick up Marcus!”
Beth fiddled with the moon around her neck as she drove to the school that afternoon. She hoped that everything had gone alright with Felix. He’d been so worried last night and his acting out this morning had really concerned her. He was always a bit of a stinker, but never quite this bad.
She and Rio had told Felix that if he had a good first day of school they’d meet up at the ice cream shop with Marcus and all get sundaes.
Beth grabbed the sign with Felix’s name on it and went to stand outside where all the other pre-k parents were waiting. She hadn’t gotten a call from the school so she assumed he’d at least stayed inside his classroom all day.
The doors opened and students began to straggle outside, one or two at a time. After a minute, Felix came outside with a picture she assumed he’d drawn and a bag of Cheez-its.
“Hi, sweetheart! How’d today go?” Beth said, giving him a big hug.
Felix shrugged. “It was OK.”
“Just OK? Are you looking forward to going again tomorrow?”
“I don’t know.”
“It was the bestest day ever, Mommy. I can not wait until tomorrow!”
“What’d you do that was fun, pop?” Rio asked as he stole the maraschino cherry from his son’s sundae.
“First, we played. Then, we read a story. Then, we read another story. Then, we traced our hands. Then, we played some more. Then, we ate lunch. That was kind of gross. That was the only thing I didn’t like about today.”
“You can start bringing your lunch to school,” Beth suggested.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea, Mommy. I want a peanut jelly sam’ich and go fish.”
Beth smiled at Marcus’s lispy attempt to put in his lunch order. “I think I can do that.”
“OK. Let me tell you about the rest of my day. We ate the yucky lunch, but then the best thing ever happened! We got to play outside! Then, we went back inside and read a story. Then, we sang some songs. Then, we drew a picture. Then, we played some more. Then, you picked me up from school. Now, we’re having ice cream. It’s just the bestest day!” Marcus grinned as he shoved a spoonful of ice cream in his mouth. “Did you guys have fun today?”
Beth recalled the hours she and Rio had spent together and blushed for the millionth time that day.
“I had fun today,” Rio said. “You have fun, Elizabeth?”
Beth glared at Rio exasperatedly before breaking into a grin and shaking her head at his innuendo. “Yeah, it was alright.”
“Just aiight?” Rio asked, raising one eyebrow.
“Just alright,” Beth replied teasingly.
“What did you and Mommy do?”
“Eh, grown up stuff,” Rio said, ruffling Marcus’s hair. “Eat up, buddy.”
“Did you have fun at school today, Felix?” Marcus asked as he dipped a French fry into his chocolate shake.
Felix shot his older brother a scowl.
Leaning over to wipe Felix’s face with a napkin, Beth shook her head and said, “Let’s not talk about Felix’s day. How was your day, Marcus?”
“That rough?” Marcus chuckled before shrugging. “My day was so-so. You remember Mr. Bell? Was he that corny when you had him as a teacher?”
“Yes,” Rio said. “How’s he doin’?”
“This is his last year. He’s retiring in May.”
“Oh,” Beth said. “I really liked him. Corny or not, he was one of the best teachers I had in high school.”
“How are you and Becky doing?” Rio asked.
Marcus looked down in his shake. “Not so great. She broke up with me at lunch. Definitely wasn’t the best day ever.”
“Oh my gosh! Why?” Beth asked.
“She’s just jealous of this girl. I really try to stay away, but it’s like every time I turn around there she is. I’m not gonna be rude and not talk to her. Plus it’s not like I planned for her to be in my science class with me.”
“Who’s this other girl?” Rio asked.
“Devi. Dad's old friend, Devante’s daughter. Remember how I said I saw her at the park a couple weeks ago? Well, I’ve been seeing her all over the place lately.”
A worried look passed across Beth’s face, but she didn’t say anything.
“Sorry you and Becky broke up, but there’s plenty of fish out there in the sea. You’re just lucky you got your old man’s looks,” Rio said.
“Ha ha,” Beth laughed hollowly. “Marcus, would you do me a favor? Would you take Felix to the play area before we leave. Your dad and I need to discuss some things.”
“Sure, come on, little bro,” Marcus said, scooping his brother up out of his seat.
After Felix and Marcus were out of ear shot, Rio turned to Beth and lifted his hands in surrender.
“Fine. I give in. You want work. I’ll give you some work.”
Beth looked surprised and pleased for a second before her facial expression turned grave. “That’s great, but Rio, I think we’ve got a problem on our hands.”
“And what’s that?” Rio asked, leaning back in the booth.
“If a teenage girl is our biggest problem, then life’s pretty good.”
“I’m serious Rio. What if she knows about what really happened to her dad? What if she knows about our part in it?”
Rio shrugged and downed the rest of Marcus’s milkshake. “There’s no way she knows. You ain’t got nothing to worry about, ma."