“Do you want to hang out with me and August?” Sofia asks after finding Morgan in their dorm room.
“I’d love to… but later, please? I have a conference with Mr. Carbonell and my Mom in like—” Morgan pauses, looking at the time on her watch. “—now.”
“Oh,” Sofia says with a nod. “Let me know when it’s done? We’re going to be hanging around at the quad but we might not be when you’re done.”
Morgan just nods in understanding before she grabs her keycard and walks down the hallway, Sofia following loosely behind until they part ways on the diverged cobblestone path.
A couple moments pass by when she makes it to the double doors that led to the high school academic building. She waves to the security guard before walking inside and running up the stairs.
She gets down the hallway and slows down her pace abruptly when she’s about three feet away from the classroom door and hears her mother’s voice.
“How did you think I would’ve reacted?” Pepper asks. “I’m not exactly fond of you, y’know. You left us, Tony! You left her the second you found out I was pregnant with her.”
Tony rebuts, “Pepper, you don’t know the whole story—“
“Don’t you dare call me that,” Pepper interrupts with a sputter. “You are her dad, Tony. You should’ve been here, all this time. End of discussion.“
The words that were dancing around in her mind were like giant knives to her chest. ‘You are her dad, Tony.’ ‘You left her the second you found out I was pregnant with her.’
Before Pepper can turn around and either contributor to the argument can try to intervene, Morgan’s already halfway back down the hall.
Both members of the ex-couple run to the doorframe and look out. The girl’s just now taking the stairs.
“Morgan Hope Potts, you get back here right now!” Pepper yells.
There’s no response and the teenager runs even faster down the stairs then.
“Oh my God,” Tony mumbles, his eyes wide as he watches her run away. “She hates me.”
Pepper looks at Tony and sighs, unable to say anything. But there’s sympathy in her gaze at her ex when she looks at him… and she’s unsure why. She thinks for a moment. “You said that I-I, um… I didn’t know the whole story. Tell me before I go find the kid. I’ll listen.”
Tony blinks at her before stepping back into his classroom. He stands beside his desk and takes in a sharp breath. “Howard forbade me from contacting you when he found out that you were pregnant,” he explains as he taps on the base of his desk with his index and middle fingers rhythmically. His face twists in a grimace as he thinks. “E-Every single way I tried… every time I tried... it got i-intercepted somehow. I tried when I finally got away from his chokehold a-and your number was either changed or I couldn’t remember it or something. Next thing I know, a fourteen year old girl from Stoneham, Massachusetts who shares your last name shows up to my class... w-who looks just like me and acts just like you. I promise you, I didn’t want to abandon you… or her. I loved you… I loved her before I even met her. Leaving was never my choice, Virginia.”
Pepper stares, pain behind her eyes as tears gently fall while understanding dawns. “Howard did this?”
Tony nods once.
“Is that why you, um… you changed—“
He nods again.
“Can you please talk to Morgan for me? I-I don’t… I know she probably hates me now, but I don’t… ugh,” he stammers. “Like over a dinner o-or… I don’t know—“
“That’s your story to tell, Tony. Not mine,” she says. “And she’s not going to want to talk to you for a long time… just wait it out until she’s willing to hear you out.” She looks over her right shoulder and gestures to the stairwell outside of both of their vantage points. “I need to go find her and see if she’s okay. Raincheck on the conference? Maybe over email?”
Tony nods silently.
Before Pepper walks out, Tony speaks up: “Pep? Can I ask you one thing?”
Pepper stops in her tracks and looks back at him.
“H-How did she come to the conclusion that her Dad didn’t want her? From you?” His voice cracks when he asks.
She shakes her head. “I never talked about you in a negative light… not around her. She scrambled for an answer and she came up with the same one I believed. She asked me about you once when she was about six years old and I was silent because I didn’t have an answer for her.”
It’s not long before Pepper’s pushing through the double doors of the academic building to find a security guard standing by. She walks over to him and says, “Did you see where my daughter went? Brown hair, brown eyes, glasses, bangs… she ran out of here a few minutes ago.”
“Morgan?” he asks. “Are you her mother?”
Pepper nods, noticing his name badge says ‘Harold Hogan’.
“Ambrose Hall,” he answers. “Poor girl was crying when she passed by. I tried to ask her what was wrong and see if I could help at all and she just stared at me for a second before continuing.”
“Thank you,” She says with a frown before making her way to the dorm hall in question.
It’s not long before she’s stood at the door of Morgan’s and Sofia’s room. Pepper knocks on the door three times.
There’s not an answer but the sound of muffled tears and heavy breathing.
“No,” Morgan speaks up from the other side of the door.
“Can I please talk—“
Morgan interrupts again, “No! I don’t want to talk to you. Or him. Or anyone. Just leave me alone! Go back home.”
Pepper huffs, looks around the hallway for a moment. “Either you’re going to let me in or I’ll go find your dorm parent because I don’t want to cause a scene in the middle of a boarding school dorm hallway with my own daughter.”
It’s quiet for a moment before Pepper notices that the handle is jiggling followed by the door to her daughter’s room opening.
Morgan’s face is flushed and her eyes are red, making Pepper’s heart ache. The teenager walks back to her bed while the eldest woman shuts the door.
“You lied to me,” Morgan mumbles. “My friends were right.”
“Your friends?” Pepper asks.
“On the first day of class they were telling me about this girl Mr. Carbonell used to date with the same last name as us,” she recalls. “A-And about how he wasn’t over her yet because something pushed them away and he wasn’t exactly planning on letting her go or whatever. Her name is Pepper and how h-he hasn’t dated anyone since her. I denied everything because… well, I’ve never heard anyone call you that before… then, y-you left parents day early last month and I found you in the car crying when class was dismissed and when I asked you why… you blamed it on the radio. It wasn’t the radio, was it?”
“It wasn’t the radio,” Pepper says as she shakes her head. “I’m so sorry, kid. I was trying to protect you.”
“I don’t want to go back there,” she sighs. “I-I just don’t. This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have applied. He was just helping me because he knew who I was.”
Pepper sits on the side of Morgan’s bed and reaches out her hands for her daughter. Morgan hesitantly holds them.
“Maybe he was only trying to be nice to you because he found out who you were,” she says. “But he was still helping you keep your grades up. He saw you needed help and he offered what he could… I know him enough to know that he would do that for you even if you weren’t his daughter. He’s a nice guy, Morgan. He was and always will be. I didn’t believe that for awhile, but...”
Morgan stares wide eyed. “Why are you taking his side? Are you two buddies now all of the sudden?”
“I’m not, and no…” Pepper takes a sharp breath before squeezing her daughter’s hands comfortingly. “I wish I could tell you that you could drop his class and not have to deal with him as a teacher for the rest of this year. But you can’t and have to roll with the punches. And I know you can get through it.” She takes a beat, glancing at the calendar pinned on Morgan’s wall. “Hey, next week even marks when you come home for Christmas. That’s some time away, right?”
“Do you have any important tests or things tomorrow or Thursday going on?” Pepper inquires.
She shakes her head. “Just review... maybe a movie if a teacher is feeling lazy.”
“Want to blow off school? I’ll take off two days with my PTO and we can both take a mental health break. You’ll be back by Thursday night,” the eldest of the two suggests. “It’ll be fun.”