After burgers from Big Buns, Dan drove his family out to the elementary school. He was astonished at the sheer number of cars. He dropped Fionna and Aida off at the door and finally located a pseudo-parking space along the edges of one of the playgrounds.
Fighting through a throng of parents all trying to get the free McCarron Elementary PTA plastic cups for joining the organization, he eventually made it into the cafeteria. His extremely pregnant wife was leaning against one of the concrete brick walls, looking supremely uncomfortable.
The lunch tables were folded and put away. Chairs were arranged in rows, enough to accommodate most of the crowds of parents and students. However, as the Vindicos had arrived with just a few minutes to spare all of the seats appeared to be taken.
Dan glared at the sheer number of able men all seated comfortably. Shaking his head, he headed to the remaining cafeteria chairs stacked near the kitchens. He lifted one off of the stack and added it to a row near the back. “Mrs. Vindico.” He pointed to the chair.
“Thank you,” she gushed in relief.
The woman that had called Dan out for entering the school in an attempt to pick up his own daughter on the first day stepped up to the podium. Her entire being appeared to have been attacked by faded denim and he’d seen fruit bowls that contained fewer apples. They were appliqued all over the denim vest she was wearing and apple shaped buttons made a line down the front of her long denim skirt.
“Thank you everyone for being here tonight at McCarron Elementary’s Have a Beary Good Year Open Cave, night,” she giggled at her own play on words.
Fionna bit her lips together and then covered her mouth to keep from guffawing. Dan leaned in. “I am usually a big fan of open cave nights,” he breathed over her cheek.
That did it. A slight giggle sprang free.
My name is Cindy McBeecham and I’ll be your teacher liason this beary good year,” she announced in a high pitched squeal that made Dan’s skin crawl. “Now, I know I’ve met some of you and many of our returning bears but if I haven’t gotten to know you. I’ll either be stopping by your homes or you can make an appointment here for a brief conference about your little bears.”
Fionna’s head shot back as she scowled at Dan. He tried not to laugh at Fionna’s disdain that someone from the school might take it upon themselves to just show up at their home. Certain she was exaggerating for the Principal and Vice Principal’s sake, Dan shook his head. “She won’t be getting in our house without a warrant,” he assured his wife.
“Our first beary exciting bit of news tonight will be our beary first school fund raiser of the year!” She clapped and leapt up and down as Dan and Fionna both laughed outright but halted abruptly as they received odd stared from the people around them. “We’ve decided to pair two of our most successful sellers from the past few years,” she trilled, “So, it is my distinct honor and pleasure to announce the esteemed head of Bingham Cheeses and Holiday Gift wrap, Tipton McClain.” She applauded excitedly as a man in a polyester suit moved to the microphone. Thirty-three and a half minutes later, Dan rubbed his temples and very seriously considered offering to just write the school a check so that Tipton would shut the fuck up about all of the amazing opportunities selling processed cheese food and severely overpriced Christmas wrap would be for their children.
Fionna was shifting uncomfortably in her chair and had briefly exchanged texts with Dan making fun of a few of the people seated nearby and of the esteemed Tipton McClain. They’d stowed the phones when Meredith, Dan’t sister, had shaken her head at them as if they’d begun making out in the cafeteria.
Mrs. McBeecham returned to the podium patting tears from her eyes as she blew kisses to Tipton. “Now, let’s remember, all of my mama bears and papa bears, we’re working this year to replace the metal slides with plastic ones on all three of our playgrounds. The weather in the summers here in Arlington can get quite hot and if a child were to slide down the slide or even touch the slide it could quite easily burn them.”
Dan clenched his jaw to keep from pointing out that school in Virginia let out just before Memorial Day therefore there were no children out on the playgrounds in the heat of the summer.
The school counselor went over the standardized testing the children would take in the spring. She spent fifteen minutes discussing the fact that some children simply didn’t take tests well but that those children were just as important to the McCarron Bears as the ones that made McCarron’s test scores the highest in Virginia for the last ten years.
The school nutritionist was next. She covered what was considered a completely meal according to McCarron’s lunch system. Breakfast and lunch menus were then passed out to everyone.
A mother in the back shot her hand in the air. When she was called on she explained that she was a pediatrician and that there didn’t appear to be any fresh fruits or vegetables anywhere on the menu. Dan listened to the nutritionist restate the fact that ketchup packets counted as a vegetable and a fruit.
“And for all of our mama and papa bears that have decided that you’d prefer to make your little bear’s lunch each day please remember that you are creating more work for your child’s teacher, and more work for the lunch room staff,” Ms. McBeecham scolded.
“How is my making Aida lunch more work for them?” Fionna huffed under her breath.
Almost in answer to her question the dreadful woman continued, “The children have to be reminded to get their lunchboxes, and it provides a much smoother lunch line if everyone is getting a tray.”
Dan strongly considered beating his head against the yellow painted concrete brick wall when the librarian approached the mic. She proceeded to go over the mastery of consonant blends and when your child could move to a higher reading group in her classroom. Then she produced a poster board full of books that she urged parents to write the school board to have removed from the library.
All of the children appeared to be just as bored as Dan and the staff was losing control of the room. Aida, who carried a book with her most everywhere she went, was leaned up against Fionna reading her book quietly. Dan added her a chair when he realized that she might be graduating from elementary school before they were allowed to leave the meeting.
She would beam and bite her lip, patting Fionna’s tummy whenever she felt Halia move. Fionna seemed to have decided that bonding with her girls was a vastly better use of her time so she was showing Aida where to touch when Halia moved.
The delighted grins stretched across his girl’s faces and the twinkle in their almost identical eyes as they giggled quietly and nodded to each other had Dan much more interested in his family than in the meeting.
Mrs. McBeecham had returned to the mic. Dan leaned and popped a kiss on the top of Aida’s head delighting her. Suddenly, every head in the room turned towards him. Concern set in as Dan tried to discern why he was being stared at. Fionna was panicked.
“Uh, Mr. Vindico?” Mrs. Beecham drawled in a scolding sigh. “My eye just landed on you, what with your just standing there so tall and well built, you must work out,” she gushed. Vomit swirled in his gut and then rocketed upward and singed his throat. “But being built like a strapping stallion won’t keep you from the red rule violation list, will it Mr. Vindico?”
Meredith sank down low in her seat and covered her face with her hands. Fionna’s mouth fell open in fury over another woman flirting with her husband. Tears welled in Aida’s eyes. “Why is she being mean to you, Daddy?”
She appeared to still be waiting on an answer so Dan decided to clear something up. “Well, Mrs. McBeecham,” he sneered. “I was unaware, since my daughter is new to McCarron, that my wife and I were not allowed to have our child once school was over, or anytime at all, actually, seeing as how she is our child.”
To Dan’s relief, the crowd seemed to agree. This was however not the response Mrs. McBeecham was hoping for. She began to pout. “Well, Mr. Vindico, it is our job here at McCarron to keep your little bear and all of our little bears safe.”
“Does she want to see mama bear?” Fionna threatened. Dan clasped his hands on her shoulders thinking this would be a particularly bad time for one of her rather erratic pregnancy mood swings that would likely end with Fionna shoving McBeecham’s apples down her throat.
“From her father?” huffed from a dad on the other side of the room.
“Yeahs,” were echoed around the lunchroom.
“My daddy just wanted to pick me up because I’m his baby girl, and it was my very first day at school ever, and he missed me,” Aida tried to explain sweetly.
Every parent in the room gazed adoringly at Aida. Dan tried to wipe the smirk off of his face without much success as the crowd stirred and began discussing the ridiculous two o’clock rule.
A man near the front stood. “I feel that we should form a subcommittee to discuss reworking the policy that children have to be picked up before two o’clock if it is a parent that is picking them up. And Mr. Vindico will be the head of our committee.”
Wait. What? Dan’s mouth dropped open and he shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can’t,” Dan pled as soon as he was able to be heard. “We’re busy all the time,” he gestured to Fionna’s stomach and then realized what he’d just said.
Fionna grimaced in horror as parents began to chuckle.
“I am all for disbanding the two o’clock rule but I cannot head a subcommittee,” he fumed.
“Well,” Mrs. McBeecham huffed defiantly, “Since we do not have a subcommittee chairman, we do not have a subcommittee. Now, I do encourage everyone to sign up and join our PTA. With your membership, ou will each get a car sticker of our beary great school and a plastic McCarron Elementary cup. Now, I believe it is now time for your little bears to lead you to their classrooms. If you have more than one little bear here at McCarron, please take your time as the teachers will be available until eight thirty. If you happen to have a student in our Gifted program,” she rolled her eyes and then through a vengeful look at Dan, “You may also stop by and meet Mrs. Willow our Gifted teacher.”
Dan helped Fionna out of the chair certain he’d died and gone to some kind of PTA hell.
“You’re busy all the time?” Meredith disdained as she and Olivia made their way over.
“That is not what I meant.” Dan shot his sister a warning glare. Fionna’s giggles turned to guffaws as she laced her arm around his and kissed his cheek. They were herded out into the entry way of the school where tables had been set up for parents to pay to join PTA and to purchase school memorabilia.
“So, they want people to pay to join an association that not five minutes ago they were complaining didn’t have enough members,” Dan huffed under his breath.
Fionna smirked. “They do use the money for the school, babe.”
“Would you like a McCarron t-shirt or sweatshirt? We don’t have them in maternity sizes,” the PTA president chirped to Fionna.
“Oh, uh,” Fionna looked horrified as she took in the bright crayon green sweatshirt that read, “My little bear learns to care at McCarron.” There was a brown bear on the front sticking his hand in a honey pot.”
“Uh… well… since you don’t have maternity maybe I’ll just get one later
“How about a McCarron bumper sticker, Dad?” the woman flung a car magnet at Dan.
“I am not putting a, I’m a caring Papa Bear, magnet on my Ferrari. That is just disturbing.”
“Look, you could get a sticker for your helmet or for the Augusta,” Fionna could hardly make it through the quip before she was giggling hysterically.
“Moving on.” Dan discreetly slipped the magnet back on one of the tables and followed Meredith down the hallway.
A brood of mother’s from Aida’s class sauntered towards them. “When are you due Mrs. Vindico?” one sneered. Dan wondered how a relatively innocent question could sound so smug.
Fionna drew from Dan suddenly. He felt her internal Receiver’s shield form around her quickly as she pulled herself away from what she clearly saw as a dangerous situation. His energy filled her rapidly. He shuddered from the heavenly sensation.
“Towards the end of November,” she stated quietly, tucking further behind Dan.
“I suppose when you start out as young as you must have been when you had Aida you feel you can space them out. You’ll find, I’m afraid, that if you put too many years between them that the older children ask lots of uncomfortable questions and then they just aren’t close as siblings that are less than two years apart like my Mindy and Michael,” the woman ridiculed.
Fionna’s jaw clenched. She wasn’t going to inform the McCarron bitch committee that they’d adopted Aida and that she had not given birth at twenty two, not that there would have been anything wrong with that.
Dan narrowed his eyes at the woman still glaring at his wife.
“Now, Mrs. Vindico, will Aida be signing up for softball and cheerleading? They both start next week. I didn’t see her name on either form,” another mother edged in.
“Aida wasn’t really interested in playing a sport after school and we’re about to have a baby, obviously,” she gestured to her swollen midsection. “Aida wanted to be in the reading group at the library on Fridays.” Fionna pled, as if she had to prove her worth as a mother to these horrible women.
Fury pulsed in Dan’s shield. Every Gifted parent in the hallway looked over in concern.
“The baby and I can do the reading group with her,” Fionna offered almost mutely.
“Well, you’re still young. You’ll learn. The more they’re involved in the better,” the woman who’d asked about Aida’s playing sports sighed.
“Come on, Mommy,” Aida urged.
Fionna offered the women a slight smile and then followed Aida into Mrs. Powell’s classroom on the Koala Second Grade hall.
Mrs. Powell grinned as they entered. “Well, hello, Aida, how are you this evening?”
“I’m very well. Thank you, ma’am,” Aida responded perfectly. “Come and see my desk!” She grabbed Dan’s hand, leaving all manners behind, and rushed him to her desk.
“She’s a lovely child. She makes each and every day a delight. Thank you so much for giving me hope that perhaps not every parent has completely lost their sense of themselves and of understanding that just because something is good for Susie doesn’t make it good for… well, Aida,” Mrs. Powell whispered.
“Oh, thank you.” Fionna blinked back tears as she hugged Mrs. Powell. The wise, tender face of the best teacher in the entire district, in Dan’s opinion, pulled into a knowing smile.
“Don’t let them get to you, my dear,” she soothed. “Aida is a product of a wonderful, loving, caring home. Che is confident in herself and in your love. At eight years old, that’s really all she needs. Worry about test scores and homework when she’s older. Right now, just enjoy her.”
Mrs. Powell smiled at them and then gestured her head to the collective mob of women that had attacked Fionna. They appeared to travel in a pack like some kind of fungus.
“This is my reader,” Aida announced as she pulled out a well-worn book with a picture of an eagle flying high above the mountain tops. While she showed Dan all of her textbooks, Haley approached with her mother.
“Hi, Aida. This is my mommy,” Haley announced.
Aida beamed. “Hi, Haley. This is my mommy.” Both of the girls began laughing.
Fionna extended her hand. “It’s so nice to meet you. I’m Fionna Vindico.”
Dan saw his wife’s smile falter. She was reading something from Haley’s mother, though Haley and her parents were not Gifted.
Judging from Haley’s mother’s exhausted expression and down trodden demeanor, Dan guessed that life had taken its toll.
“I’m, Ruth. It’s nice to meet you as well. Haley’s told me all about Aida.” She grinned sweetly at Aida though exhaustion plagued her.
“This is my husband, Dan.”
“Nice to meet you,” Dan shook the woman’s hand, giving her a kind smile.
“I really appreciate…” Ruth choked trying to thank Dan and Fionna for making Haley’s lunch.
“Oh, it was no trouble at all.” Fionna rescued her immediately.
“It means more than I can ever tell you,” Ruth refused to meet Fionna’s gaze.
“Please, don’t worry about it. I love doing it.”
“My husband was just hired on as a security guard at a bank at nights. That’s helped some.”
“Did he work in security before?” Dan quizzed nonchalantly.
“He’s trying to work another job while going through the police academy. It’s just gotten a little tight so he tried to pick up a night job. I work days at the grocery store out on Clark but they won’t ever give me forty hours, so I don’t have any benefits,” she confessed the strain.
Dan nodded. “I have quite a few connections to the local precincts. When will your husband graduate?”
“Hopefully, in December.”
Dan smiled. “Why don’t I make a few phone calls and see if we can’t get him started on at a precinct, while he finishes training. That would get you insurance.”
“Really? You would do that for us?” Ruth seemed stunned.
“Of course.” It certainly wouldn’t be a difficult thing for him to do. Fionna beamed up at him.
“He’s a real hard worker,” Ruth urged.
“I have no doubt.”
Mrs. Powell gave a formal greeting and encouraged the parents to look around the classroom. Haley dragged Ruth to see her spelling test that was hanging on the board full of children’s work.
As soon as they moved away, the bitch committee made a rapid reappearance. “Hi Saran. Hi Jessica,” Aida offered half-heartedly. She took Dan’s hand, seeming to have no more desire to deal with the offspring than Fionna had to deal with the mother pods.
Jessica rolled her eyes at Aida and Dan narrowed his.
“We noticed your talking with Ruth Tribble a moment ago,” Jessica’s mother whispered.
With Mrs. Powell’s assurances that she was a good mother coupled with Fionna’s abject disdain of any person thinking that they were better than someone else, she glared. “Why, yes, we were. Haley and Aida have become such good friends and we’re hoping to get the girls together to play.”
“I’d be careful. You know Haley’s father is out of work,” Jessica’s mother mouthed the words as if the man had concisely decided that he’d rather his family go hungry than understanding that he was trying desperately to work them out of a bad situation by the grit of his teeth.
“And that means she shouldn’t have friends?” Fionna fumed.
Jessica’s mother clutched at her chest. “We were only trying to make certain that you ended up in the right kind of groups here at McCarron, Mrs. Vindico. You live in the right kind of neighborhood. You should hang out with the right groups.”
Fionna offered a vicious scowl, “Well, thank you for your concern but I think Aida is perfectly capable of picking her friends.” The implication was quite clear. Aida hadn’t chosen Jessica and Saran and by Fionna’s estimation she’d chosen rather well.
Dan certainly knew there was much more to it that either Saran or Jessica’s mothers, but he shared his wife’s opinion no matter the reasoning.
Aida was a Receiver. Not nearly as strong as Fionna, and not developed yet, but a powerful Receiver, none the less. They could feel the emotions of those around them. Receivers would never put themselves in a group whose goal was to make other’s feel badly about themselves. It simply wasn’t in them because they could feel the responses to their hurtful words and actions.
This often meant that Receivers were the target of the abuse. They would rarely strike back. It was the very reason that most Receivers developed such strong internal shields. It was no coincidence that Receivers and Ioses Predilects tended to make very strong couplings.
The protector was driven to protect those he loved above all others but often needed to be reminded to feel emotions the way their mates felt them.
They spoke with Ruth once more and then headed down to Mrs. Willow’s classroom. One day a week Aida would attend Gifted classes taught by Governor Willow’s wife. They would learn about their energies and how they would be able to use them once they developed.
“Dan, Fionna, I was hoping you’d stop by,” Leah smiled as they entered the small classroom. “You have a seat.” She directed Fionna to her rocking chair near the door.
“Hi, Mrs. Willow. How are you?” Fionna embraced the Governor’s wife. Dan was hugged as well. Governor Willow had been Dan’s boss when he was Chief of Iodex and he knew the Willow’s rather well.
Wes Willow, an old friend of Dan’s, was in his mother’s classroom with his wife and his sons, Kendrick and Clayton.
Aida kept tight hold of Dan’s hand and her eyes on Kendrick. He’d pinched her rather hard at Rainer and Emily’s wedding over the summer and she was timid. Dan kept an eye on Kendrick as well keeping his body and his powerful shield between his baby girl and the demon child as Dan had taken to referring to Wes’ son.
“So, you’re first PTA meeting and you’re already the head of a subcommittee,” Wes teased.
Deciding that he had to allow that, Dan rolled his eyes chuckling his own shock over the meeting. “Not sure where that came from but I will not be heading any committees.”
“That woman is insane. Mom can’t stand her,” Wes assured him. “Dad said you spent the summer in Hawaii. That sounds amazing,” Wes was clearly trying to mend fences.
Dan smiled,” It was perfect.” He took Fionna’s hand as Aida willed bravery and let Mrs. Willow show her all around the classroom.
“I’m really happy for you, man. Really. You deserve all the good things. God knows you’ve been through it.” Wes gestured from Fionna to Aida and back to the baby. The last time Dan and Wes had really hung out it had been Amelia on his arm not Fionna.
“Hey, but that’s a mess at Venton. I saw you on the news this morning.”
“Yeah, I somehow seem to keep stepping in hornet’s nests.”
“Didn’t sound like you had anything to do with it,” Wes huffed.
“Still a disaster.”
“That just sucks. That’s our alma mater. I hate to see it tarnished like that, you know?”
This was precisely what he’d tried to explain to his father that morning. Each and every graduate knew that Venton held a piece of them, a piece of their souls, a piece of their past, and their innocence. The scandal wounded the entire community.
“I don’t get it. I mean why not get divorced, or separated, why do it that way?” Wes was careful to keep any of the kids from hearing him. Not really wanting to get into Wilshire’s affair with Wes, Dan nodded.
“Daddy, look!” Aida gasped excitedly. Dan moved to her immediately. Mrs. Willow was showing Aida an electrostatic arch she was producing with her hand. She let Aida touch the arch, which made Aida’s hair stand slightly.
Dan laughed. “Pretty cool, huh?”
Aida nodded her head in amazement. “I’m going to have my very own baby sister,” Aida announced to Mrs. Willow.
“I see that. Do you think maybe you and mommy will bring your baby sister in after she arrives and is big enough to visit our class?” Mrs. Willow requested of Aida.
“Can Halia come to school with me please?” Aida begged.
Laughing, Fionna nodded. “Sure, but she’ll need to be a few months old first, okay?”
Turning quickly back to Mrs. Willow Aida reiterated, “When she’s a few months old we can bring her.”
“Perfect.” Mrs. Willow winked at Aida making her grin.
“How far apart are your boys?” Fionna asked Wes’ wife sweetly.
She chuckled. “Oh, well, right at nine months.”
Dan shook his head at Wes who’d squeezed his eyes shut tightly for a moment.
Fionna only nodded, taking in Wes’ embarrassment. “They look just like Wes.”
“Yes, well, for Lauren’s sake, we’re hoping they don’t act just like Wes,” Mrs. Willow teased.
“You’re a dog, you know that?” Dan goaded under his breath feeling the old friendship rekindle quickly.
Laughing, Wes nodded. “Yeah, I know but look at her.”
Dan let his mind run in reverse. Wes and Lauren had met the summer of their junior years. The Willows had vacationed on Hilton Head Island. Lauren Kendrick lived in North Carolina and attended Gutner the Gifted academy in Raleigh. By the end of their family’s vacations, Wes was pleading to transfer to Gutner which his parents refused. They kept their long distance relationship going and married right after they both graduated.
Dan had attended the wedding with Amelia. Lauren was fairly average looking to him but he was happy to hear, after eleven years of marriage and two boys, that Wes was still drooling over his bride.
“She nearly choked me when we back for her checkup,” Wes admitted, bringing Dan back to the present.
He joined Wes’ laughter, slapping him on the back and shaking his head at him. “So, what, you made use of the hospital bed or did you at least take her home first?”
Wes seemed thrilled that he and Dan were reconnecting as he laughed. “Yeah, even Governor Haydenshire harasses me about them. He loves to remind me that even Will and Garrett were eleven months apart. And if I may offer you a piece of advice, you do have to cast her even if she’s nursing. Trust me.”
“No joke,” Dan chided.
“Hey, so, Aida will be in mom’s class on Fridays with Clayton. Maybe we could all go out sometime? I, for one, would love to hear the story of how Dan Vindico scored Fionna Styler.”
Fionna beamed. “Aww, it’s ‘cause he’s such a stud,” Fionna joined in the teasing, embarrassing her husband thoroughly.
“He did just inform the entire PTA that you’re always busy,” Wes cracked up as did Lauren.
“Okay, we need to go now,” Dan kept the laughter flowing. Aida moved back to Dan and laid her head against his waist. “You tired, baby?”
“A little bit,” she confessed hesitantly.
“Do you want Daddy to carry you?” he asked quietly.
Aida blushed and shook her head but she did want that Dan could read it in her pleading rhythms that soothed when she fell against him.
Wes chuckled. “Dad’s cool and all until there are other kids around.”
“Aida, come watch what Grandma can do,” Kendrick urged.
Aida whisked away trying to stifle a yawn. Mrs. Willow held a potato. She harnessed the energy store in the starch and lit a light bulb.
“Mom’s great for parlor tricks,” Wes offered wryly.
“Hey, how’s she doing?” Wes gestured his head to Aida discreetly. “I saw your and Fionna’s ad on adoption from poorer Realms. That’s really cool. The softer side of Dan Vindico. Never thought I’d see that.”
Still grinning, Dan nodded. “She’s done amazingly well. Hawaii helped. It wasn’t a smooth ride before that but she’s perfect.”
Fionna was listening intently to Lauren’s birth stories. Wes gave Dan a wry smile. “Another girl?” He gestured to Fionna’s stomach.
“Yep.” Dan couldn’t help but beam excitedly.
“Dan Vindico and a house full of girls,” Wes laughed. “You ever get tired of Barbie you can come hang out with us.”
“Barbie’s are old school, Wes,” Dan goaded wryly. “It’s all about superheroes and princesses now. Come on, get with the times.”
“So, say, Ken or Clay want to date Aida at some point what will that be like for them?” Wes goaded.
“Very, very painful,” Dan came right back.
“Figured you hadn’t changed that much. Okay, what if one of the little Haydenshire twins wants to go on a campout with the newest baby girl in a few years, out on the farm like we used to? I don’t suppose that will be happening either.” Wes continued to harass Dan.
“Do I look stupid to you? Keaton and Henry Haydenshire might out do Will and Garrett.”
“Wow,” Wes stunned.
On their way back to the car, Aida extended her arms up to Dan, no longer caring who saw her. Thrilled, he scooped her up into his arms.
“I’m jealous.” Fionna kissed Aida’s cheek as she laid it on Dan’s shoulder.
“Mommy wants to be carried, too,” Aida informed through another yawn.
He nestled her between his chin and his shoulder. “I’ll carry mommy once we get home.”