The sign loomed large to anyone walking up the inclined driveway to retrieve their children:
OUR LADY OF THE HOLY TRINITY SCHOOL & PARISH CENTER EST. 1906
Quite a mouthful if you asked Waverly. She also found it a tad pretentious that the administration had refused any attempts to shorten its name, even in colloquial circles. (Though maybe that was to be expected from an institution so stuck in its ways anyway).
She did her best to push the thought aside and remember her purpose as gaggles of children filed out the doors of the school behind their teachers, the excitement of being released from school after a long first day back palpable. To their credit, their teachers held them in line while each one waited for their respective adults to retrieve them.
School let out at two-twenty, but Waverly Earp had been waiting in the shade of an overhanging tree since just before two o’clock. Since taking on a new role at work, Waverly’s schedule had become insanely flexible, leaving her free to take some of the burden off of her sister’s plate. Though she was hardly a burden, Wynonna’s nine-year-old daughter did require some things, like being dropped off at and picked up from school. Alice Michelle had long complained about having to wait in the school’s aftercare program until her mother finished work and was able to pick her up, and now that she’d be being picked up directly from dismissal this year, Waverly refused to let her niece wait any longer than absolutely necessary.
Alice said that made her Auntie of the Year, and who was she to disagree with a fourth grader?
Waverly had been to Alice’s school once prior, for Alice’s role of a Who in the school’s production of Seussical Jr., but hadn’t really been back since. Wynonna had put her daughter into the most wildly expensive Catholic school that the Big City suburb of Middlestown had to offer to, quote, “Give her an actual shot in hell at this life thing”. (Apparently, John Henry’s parents had some money from business ventures back in Georgia and were more than willing to spend it on their granddaughter’s education). Still, even for a private school, its size surprised her. It was a Pre-K-through-8th Grade school, housing just under two hundred students total across its ten grades. The entire campus—the school, playground, and its connected church building—filled only the land required for two mid-sized homes with small backyards. Technically, the school owned the parking lot across the street and the empty plot of land surrounding it, but it still remained smaller than any of the campuses she’d attended in the town of Purgatory.
She kept an eye on the door Wynonna had told her to look out for, waiting for her niece’s class to emerge. It seemed that the fourth grade was the only class not to have come out—on the far end of the driveway, parents of what she assumed were the middle schoolers grabbed their charges and took off down the hill and back toward their cars to leave, and in the middle, parents of little girls in plaid skirts and boys tiny maroon polos with backpacks bigger than them had to steady their children before they toppled over.
“Hi, excuse me,” a voice came from behind her. Turning around, she found it belonged to a woman—taller, wisps of red hair poking out from underneath her well-loved Expos cap, eyes hidden behind shades that made her look way too cool to be talking to Waverly. Beside her was a girl, probably an eighth grader by her height and the looks of her uniform, tapping away at her phone with what could only be described as middle school disinterest for the world outside the device. (It was clear that the girl was with her, though perhaps not related; the woman’s red hair and pale skin stood in stark contrast to her younger companion’s olive complexion and chestnut brown hair).
“Hi,” Waverly greeted.
“Is this still where the fourth grade comes out?”
“Uh, yeah,” she nodded, “I’m pretty sure.”
“Cool,” the woman looked around, over the tops of heads in search of the class. “I haven’t missed them, have I?”
“Well, if you’ve missed them, then so have I, so…”
Luckily for them, the side door opened once more, and out poured a line of students behind an already tired-looking teacher. At the back of the line was Alice Michelle, tugging on the straps on the backpack of the red-haired boy in front of her. The boy whipped around, arms crossed over his chest to scowl at Alice, to which the tiny brunette (who was so very much her mother’s daughter) just giggled and poked at his shoulder. To his own credit, the boy swatted away Alice’s attempts to again pull on his backpack straps, leaving her in a fit of mischievous giggles.
Eventually, the boy was able to distract himself enough from Alice’s antics to spot his adult and point them out to his teacher. Alice, doing the same, pointed an excited finger in Waverly’s direction, and the teacher sent both children off with an almost relieved look on his face.
It wasn’t until both Alice and the boy were walking in the same direction that Waverly registered that Alice’s “friend” belonged to the redheaded woman standing beside her. The boy took one look at the woman beside Waverly, before glancing over to the girl lost in her phone and back to the woman with a look of confusion and excitement.
“I thought Auntie Hayley was picking us up?” He squealed, throwing himself around her legs, and Waverly smiled at the sweetness of the young family. She may not have been sure of the relationship between the redheaded woman and the teen girl beside her, but there was no mistaking the familial resemblance between her and the boy.
Alice tugged on her shirt, tearing her attention away from the scene next to her.
“Auntie Waverly, I had the best day in school today,” she cheered.
Waverly grinned, wrapping the Wynonna mini-me in a hug, “Did you now?”
“I did. I’m taller than all the other girls in my class,” she held her head high, proud. “And faster than Robbie Jones too.”
“That’s awesome,” Waverly praised, knowing of all the times Alice had lamented coming in second best to the boy last year in third grade Phys. Ed. “Anything else important happen in your first day of fourth grade?”
Alice nodded, purple bow bouncing with each shake of her ponytail, “My teacher does magic tricks at recess and snack time.”
“Oh, that’s cool!”
“Noooo,” the girl giggled, rolling her eyes, “it makes him a total dweeb.”
(Alice makes that same face her mother makes when she knows she’s wrong but thinks it’s hilarious anyway. Waverly’s got that face memorized by now).
“What? He’s a grown man who thinks magic is real. Sounds like a dweeb to me.”
“Your mama is a bad influence on you,” she played, hearing her sister’s voice project itself through her niece.
Out of the corner of her eye, the redheaded woman and the two children in her care started to make their way toward the parking lot, but not before the woman waved in her direction.
“Thanks again,” she said, craning her neck over the crowd to keep her eyes on the teen who had already started off down the driveway of the school without the other two.
“Oh,” Waverly answered, turning briefly away from Alice to return the wave, “any time.”
Then, the red-haired mystery woman—whose name Waverly would kick herself for not getting—smiled a perfect, luminous smile at her that would be burned in the back of her mind for the entirety of her drive home from school (and embarrassingly long afterwards).
“Ooh, pizza!” Alice cheered as Wynonna dropped a box onto the center of the table. A pepperoni pie from Vincenzo’s, Alice’s favorite. Wynonna placed a kiss into her daughter’s hair before moving on to place a Greek salad and pita pocket in front of Waverly.
“Very good! I guess that school is teaching you somethin’,” Wynonna deadpanned, cracking open a bottle of root beer. “We’ll have to tell Nana and Paw that their money ain’t going to waste after all.”
“Mom,” the tiny Wynonna spawn snarked. She’d given up calling Wynonna ‘Mama’ over the summer. (Fourth grade was just too grown to be callin’ your mother mama, apparently). “Pizza’s my favorite, of course I know what it is.”
“Yeah yeah,” Wynonna rolled her eyes, plopping herself down in the seat beside her daughter. “Anything noteworthy happen at school today?”
Alice didn’t miss a beat. Not that she ever did.
“My teacher does magic tricks at recess and snack time.”
“Sounds like a dweeb.”
“That’s what I said!” Alice, talking through a mouthful of pizza, looked very pointedly at Waverly. “But Auntie Waverly said that you were a bad influence on me.”
Waverly’s jaw dropped in shock at the way her niece had no qualms or hesitation about throwing her under the bus.
“That’s because Auntie Waverly is a dweeb too,” Wynonna said in a tone sounding like a secret, but voice very purposely meant for Waverly to hear.
“Wynonna,” she chastised, frowning at her sister.
“Waves, he’s a grown man who believes magic is real,” Wynonna echoed her niece from earlier, “that’s the definition of dweeb.”
“How about teaching her to respect her teachers? Magician or not.”
“Waves, relax. Beta-version human over here already knows I’ll kick her ass if I ever hear she’s disrespecting a teacher,” Wynonna eyed the brunette beside her. “Right Alice?”
“Mhm,” the baby brunette nodded. “But you said the a-word, mom. You said you’re only allowed to use bad words on the weekends.”
Wynonna narrowed her eyes at the girl, but nodded in agreement, “I guess I did, and you’re right.”
“That means you have to put a dollar in the jar.”
Alice pointed to a jar on the counter by the microwave, three-quarters-filled with bills and various coins, labeled “Alice’s First Leather Jacket Fund”. It had honestly surprised Waverly that Wynonna and Doc hadn’t swaddled their infant in one, let alone that she’d made it nine years without a jacket of her own.
“That one was worth twenty-five cents, tops.”
“Seventy-five,” Alice bargained, crossing her arms.
“Fifty cents,” Wynonna arched her brow, almost impressed but still holding her own ground. “Take it or leave it.”
“Can you believe it,” the woman turned to Waverly as she pulled two quarters from her jacket pocket and crossed the kitchen to open the jar, “my own kid trying to swindle me.”
“You would’ve done the same thing,” Waverly mentioned. “Just sounds like you’re a good teacher to me.”
“Yeah yeah yeah.” Wynonna dropped the coins in the jar and retreated to the table, pulling two slices out of the box and dropping them on a paper towel (even though there were perfectly good plates right in front of her). “You make any new friends today, Alice Cooper?”
“There’s one new girl in our class, but we’re not friends yet.”
“Why not?” Waverly asked, wondering why the normally outgoing girl seemed opposed to a new friend.
“Because she’s gotta work for it first,” Alice shrugged, the answer an obvious one to her. “I’m not out here just giving out my friendship.”
Wynonna had never looked more proud, extending her fist for her daughter to bump it. “Atta baby.”
Waverly thought back to the interaction her niece had as her class exited the building earlier that afternoon, finding herself curious for more reasons than just some fourth-grade friendship.
“What about that boy whose backpack straps you were pulling earlier? Are you making him work for your friendship too?” She asked with a giggle, trying to play into Alice’s attitude.
“No,” Alice giggled back, “that’s Tater Tot. He’s been in my class since kindergarten.”
Alice hadn’t actually said Tater Tot, had she?
Wynonna’s look of recognition and her nodding along to Alice’s comment like it made sense told her that maybe she had.
“Tater Tot?” She had to ask, just for her own clarity. She’d never heard Alice mention a human named after a potato snack before. “His parents didn’t actually name him Tater Tot, did he?”
Waverly had expected an amused squeal—at least a little bit of a laugh—at her admittedly silly question, but Alice had become too cool for such foolishness these days.
“Auntie Waves,” Alice said flatly, looking at her like she was a little dumb for asking, “nobody’s actual name is Tater Tot.”
“Right, how silly of me.”
“It’s okay, you didn’t know.”
“So,” Waverly tried again, since it was clear Alice wasn’t going to answer her question without her actually asking it. “What is this boy’s name? Since it’s not Tater Tot.”
“His name’s Nathaniel, but he plays hockey with some of the boys in the class and they all call him Nater,” Alice started, pausing to take another bite from her slice. (So very much Wynonna sometimes that it hurt). “That sounds like Tater, and his last name is Haught…”
She figured she could put two and two together from there, “Which sounds like tot?”
(She also figured that if the redhaired woman who picked him up was his mother, then that last name was rather fitting, but she could keep that thought to herself).
“Exactly. So…Tater Tot.”
“Right. It makes so much sense when you think about it,” Wynonna nodded her approval.
“Okay,” Waverly also nodded, but had the obvious question on her brain that she needed to ask, “but does he like being called Tater Tot?”
“He never said he didn’t,” Alice shrugged.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s okay with it though, Alice.”
“No, but I’d know if he hated it. Like, in second grade all the girls started calling him Ed Sheeran and he cried on the playground, so obviously he didn’t like that nickname.”
So attentive her niece was, really.
The door swung open and was then gently closed, alerting the family that Doc had returned home from work. Hanging his coat by the door, he removed his hat and lowered himself to the sofa in the adjacent living room with a groan. Always the gentleman, Doc removed his boots before entering the kitchen. Wynonna waved her hand in front of her face, causing Alice to laugh at the notion that her father’s feet smelled from being in his boots all day.
“Evenin’ Miss Waverly,” Doc said as he entered, tipping the hat that was no longer on his head to her.
“Daddy!” Alice leapt up from the table to hug the man. Being a daddy’s girl wasn’t something Alice seemed to care about being too cool for.
Doc, who looked at Alice like she was the entire universe wrapped into a four-foot-six-inch body, held the girl tight and ran a hand over her hair.
“Hello lil’ lady,” he said. Wynonna did her best to pretend she was jealous that her husband had greeted the other two before her, but Waverly could tell she was bursting at the seams with love. “I trust you’ve had yourself a marvelous day at school?”
“It was stupendous,” Alice said, glimmering with pride. Doc had been trying to impart more and more of his extensive vocabulary on her, and Alice was keen to impress.
“How magnificent. Now tell me, is that young gentleman still among your peers?” He asked, running his fingers along his chin, showing himself to be in thought. “What was his name now? Potato Skin, I reckon?”
This earned a squeal of laughter from the nine-year-old. A daddy’s girl indeed.
Waverly found herself back in relatively the same spot she had been in the day prior, waiting for the fourth-grade class that seemed to be making a habit of taking forever to be dismissed. She held onto the slim hope that she’d run into Tater Tot’s mom again, and maybe actually catch her name this time.
The early-September sun was not nearly as strong as it had been the day before, choosing to hide behind a healthy layer of grey clouds, warning of rain in the future.
She shifted on her feet, occasionally looking up to the sky, wondering if she should’ve brought her umbrella with her, moving a little further back under the canopy of the tree.
“We checkin’ to see if the sky’s fallin’?”
The same voice from yesterday caused her to jump slightly. The same mystery redhead with the same disinterested teenager. Waverly felt a little silly, staring up at the sky and all. (It takes her a moment to recover).
“Wha—No, just looks like rain.”
“Maybe,” the redhead agreed. “Maybe the sky’ll start actually fallin’ though. Who knows?”
Waverly narrowed her eyes at the woman. She’d forgone the hat and sunglasses today, and now that Waverly could see her face, she knew the last name Haught was far too fitting for it to be a coincidence.
“You’re making fun of me,” she said with a touch of annoyance that came mostly from the intimidation she felt of being in the presence of the most striking woman she’d laid eyes on.
“I’d do no such thing, Chicken Little,” the woman snickered, a cool confidence about her only rivaled by Wynonna Earp herself. “I don’t make a habit of making fun of strangers.”
“Friends on the other hand…” Mystery redhead trailed, implying something. If Waverly were on her game, she’d recognize that this woman was trying to befriend her a lot faster than she did.
“Yeah, friends. Or at least acquaintances,” the redhead provided a secondary option. “Maybe at least knowing each other’s names, since we seem to keep running into each other.”
“You gonna keep repeatin’ everything I say?”
Waverly didn’t mean to come off this dumb, she just happened to be the tiniest bit starstruck by this woman. (It probably didn’t help that the redhead wearing a deep navy Purgatory Ambulance Company t-shirt that clung a little too perfectly to her biceps).
“N-no, I just…had a long day at work,” she lied, but the redhead couldn’t know that.
“Fair enough,” the woman shrugged. “Whaddya say to friends, though? If you wanna, that is.”
Alice’s comment from the night prior crossed her mind. The one about how she planned to make the new girl work for her friendship. Part of Waverly wondered if she could say no to the redhead, make her work for it too. But, she wasn’t sure she wanted to say no. (Even if she wasn’t sure how she could possibly maintain a friendship when she could barely string together a couple sentences).
“Yeah, unless you’re some kind of serial killer,” she joked, and when the redhead raised a brow, she added, “you’re not, are you?”
“If I were a serial killer do you think I’d tell you?”
“No, probably not.”
“Guess you’ll just have to trust me then.”
(Waverly got the feeling she would trust the woman with her life, even if it did turn out to be ill-advised).
“I guess I would. I’m Waverly,” she extended her hand for the woman to take it. She found a small part of her wondering what kind of teenaged annoyance at this interaction was running through the girl’s mind beside the redhead. “Waverly Earp.”
“A pleasure to officially meet you, Waverly Waverly Earp,” the woman grasped her hand to shake it. She had a warm hand and a firm handshake. Maybe Waverly could trust this woman a little bit. “Bit of a peculiar choice, your parents giving you the same first and middle names.”
“Oh, no, that’s not—I didn’t mean—My name’s just Waverly.”
“Right, so Just Waverly Earp. Got it.”
Despite the smile that threatened to shake the earth, Waverly groaned at the woman’s intentional denseness. At her expense no less.
“You know what? I’m starting to rethink this whole friendship thing.”
“No, no, no,” the redhead immediately capitulated, “I’m just playing. I know your name’s Waverly. I’m sorry for messing with ya. Forgive me?”
It was as though this woman had ripped a page straight from Alice’s book the way that she pouted and jut her lip out as she asked for forgiveness. The move, unfortunately, had always been her weakness.
“I’ll forgive you if you tell me your name.”
This time, though they had already shaken hands, the redhead extended her arm, revealing more details of her toned bicep and strong forearm. Waverly hoped the way she licked at her suddenly dry lips came off as subtle as she tried to make it look. “I’m Nicole Haught.”
“So you are,” Waverly blurted before she could even stop herself, forgetting to take the hand extended to her. Nicole tilted her head at her, raising a brow in surprise, indicated she had heard her slip of the tongue. Waverly coughed, partly to clear her throat of the embarrassment, and partly because she wished she’d choked on those words instead of saying them. Where the hell was that darn fourth grade class. “I mean…Your last name, Haught. Like Nathaniel, he’s in Alice’s class.”
“He is,” Nicole nodded.
“Which is obvious, because you were here to pick up a fourth grader yesterday, and he went right to you, and Alice came to me and then we took them home…Because that’s what we do.”
Nicole smirked, laughing under her breath surely, just letting her keep talking herself out. (Into a hole, more like). Waverly wished the world would swallow her up whole.
“Yes, thank you for the explanation. I was wondering how the how the whole dismissal thing worked.”
“Sorry, I sound like an idiot. Obviously you knew all that.”
“Hardly,” the redhead dismissed. “I seriously doubt you could sound like an idiot.”
“Stick around long enough and I’m sure I could prove you wrong.”
“I’d be honored to be around long enough for that,” the redhead rocked on her heels, slowly up onto her toes and back down, looking the slightest bit like her Casanova persona had been a bit dampened. She’d been acting so suave throughout the conversation that Waverly partially expected a subtle (totally unsubtle) lip bite, or at least a wink. “Though I get a sneaking suspicion that the world might end before anything close to that could ever happen.”
“How could you be so sure? You barely know me.”
“I’ve met a lot of stupid people, Waverly Earp,” Nicole said, teasing gone, replaced by earnestness, “you’re so completely different from all of them.”
“Maybe I’ll have to keep you around after all,” she answered, the fourth grade class spilling outside from the corner of her eye. “If you’re gonna keep pumping my ego like that.”
“At your service.”
Cheeks tinted from the way Nicole seemed to switch her charm on so effortlessly, she used her search for her niece as a distraction. It felt like Nicole was flirting with her, but it was entirely possible she was just being nice. After all, she’d proposed friendship, and the woman could very well be in a relationship considering she was picking children (one of whom looked almost exactly like her) up from school. Maybe it had just been so long that she’d been flirted with that she wound up projecting it onto the situation. Maybe Nicole found her reactions really weird.
Just like the day before, Alice was at the back of the line with the boy she called Tater Tot, today choosing to step on the back of his sneakers to bring him annoyance. Maybe she’d need to have a serious talk with her niece in the car about why she felt so inclined to pester the boy unprovoked.
“So…Alice Earp is your…” Nicole trailed, trying to change the subject, attentive enough to notice the awkward nature of the lull.
“She’s my niece,” she provided. “She’s my sister’s daughter.”
“Oh, cool. I didn’t want to assume anything…I just thought that you looked a little young to have nine-year-old,” the redhead said, and apparently it was her turn to talk herself into holes. “Not that there’d be anything wrong with that or anything. I just—”
“—It’s okay,” she tried to assure that there was nothing wrong, even if she did find the charming woman’s moment of fretting just the tiniest bit adorable. She was kinda glad that she wasn’t the one to put her foot in her mouth, wondering the same thing about Nicole with Nathaniel or the older girl still tapping away on her phone. “Really. Alice might not be my daughter, but I love her like she is.”
Nicole smiled, visibly thankful, “Oh. Well that’s sweet. I’m sure she’s lucky to have you.”
“I’m lucky to have her. She’s kinda awesome. What about Nathaniel?” She tried, hoping she wouldn’t let her own curiosity spell her demise. “He’s your…”
“My brother’s kid. Though people always think I’m his mom for whatever reason.”
“Well,” she chuckled, knowing she was one of those people herself, “to be fair, he kinda does look exactly like you.”
“Really? ‘Cause I don’t see it. Looks more like my other brother than anyone,” Nicole supplied, elaborating, “Not his father. My oldest brother.”
The approach of footsteps cut into their conversation, as Alice chased Nathaniel all the way over to where she and Nicole were standing. A few stray raindrops began to sprinkle their way down from the sky. Nicole chuckled a breathy chuckle under, looking up to Waverly with a sly smile.
“Looks like you were right there, Chicken Little. The sky really is startin’ to fall.”
Alice eyed Nicole skeptically, “The sky can’t fall. Can it Auntie Waverly?”
“Yeah,” Nicole mimicked, “can it Auntie Waverly?”
A heavy raindrop rolled down a leaf and smacked her in the head, and the girl on her phone grumbled in exasperation. She must’ve gotten a raindrop to the face as well, or heaven forbid, her precious cellphone.
“Do we really wanna stay out here and find out?” Alice shook her head feverishly at the question, and Nathaniel only frowned at the sprinkle starting to turn into a full on rain shower. “Alright, then we better get to the car before it gets really heavy.”
“Ugh, yes please,” the tiny brunette grabbed her by the hand and started pulling, picking up speed once they’d left the safety of the tree. Waverly added Irish Goodbyes to the list of things to lecture her niece on as she turned back to Wave to Nicole and her clan.
“Bye Nicole! I’ll see you tomorrow,” she yelled to the redhead, feeling an excitement bubbling in her over hopefully seeing the woman again.
“Bye Waves,” Nicole called back, and Waverly thanked the currently-opening-up heavens that Nicole couldn’t see the embarrassing shade of pink her face turned at the nickname. “See you tomorrow.”
The sound of raindrops hitting the pavement as Alice pulled her away made it hard to tell, but it maybe sounded like Nicole shared the same hopeful excitement of what the next day could bring.