“School doesn’t get out until three,” Dan growled.
“Yes sir, but in order to keep all of our students safe during dismissal, we insist that any student being picked up early must be checked out by two o’clock,” the elementary school attendance clerk explained yet again.
“It is five minutes ‘til three. How exactly do I go about getting my child so that she does not get on the bus as I am here and would like to take her home?”
“Well, if you registered her in our Big Bears Ride the Bus program then you’ll have to fill out additional paperwork to register her as a Caring Bears Car-Rider, but she will still have to ride the bus today because we require forty-eight hour’s notice to change programs. Because your family is new here, I’ll be nice and go ahead and get you the Caring Bears packet and perhaps you could fill it out at home and then return it to your child’s teacher by the end of the week.”
The woman pulled a thick manila envelope from under the counter and handed it to Dan. Judging by the weight of the envelope, there had to be thirty sheets of paper in it.
Willing to bet that the entire teaching staff couldn’t keep him from his baby girl, Dan debated marching to Aida’s classroom and extracting her himself. With a deep breath, he tried to think of what Fionna would want him to do.
“Fine. And let me commend you as the former chief of the CIA that you’ve done an outstanding job of being a paper-pusher and protecting my child … from her own father!” Thankful he’d remembered to supply the fake CIA story the Gifted people told Non-Gifted people about Iodex, he slammed the office door on his way out. Four door slams in one day, that was a new record. Dan raced back to his car.
Now, he was locked into the parking lot blocked by loading buses and cars. When he eventually managed to crawl to the main road, he followed Aida’s bus, traveling at less than 35 miles an hour, all the way home.
Pulling in the driveway quickly, Dan leapt out of the car. He rushed to the end of the street where the bus would let Aida off.
Beaming, she raced to him throwing her arms around his waist. “Hi, Daddy!”
“Hey, baby girl.” Dan felt the rest of his day wash from his weary soul.
“I missed you, and I saw you driving behind us, but the bus driver said I wasn’t allowed to get off,” she explained dejectedly. “I told her that you were my daddy, and that you were right there, but she said, sit down right now, or she would give me a red slip.” His little girl appeared to have been crushed by the driver’s threat.
He lifted her up into his arms. She folded herself around him laying her head on his shoulder, making everything in his world fall into perfect accord in that moment.
“It’s been a rough day. Let’s go home.” He carried her back up the sidewalk towards their house. Fionna met them on their trek.
“I saw you pull in. What happened to picking her up?”
“Long, ridiculous story.”
Fionna gave him his smile. The one he knew could light the entire world. He felt the warmth of her love and her trust flow through his veins, restoring his body. “I’m just glad you’re both home. Halia and I missed you so much.”
“I missed you, and Daddy, and Halia bunches,” Aida announced.
Dan inhaled deeply as he set Aida on her feet. He was home. He let the relief and the contentment fill him.
“You made Aida-cookies,” Aida trilled as she raced to the kitchen. Dan had smelled the heavenly scent as well. Along with freshly perked coffee and the scent of Fionna, that sweetly seductive scent of coconut and vanilla and the heady perfume of her.
“I take it your day got even worse?” Fionna laid her head tenderly on his shoulder.
“It's better now. How’s my tiny baby girl?” He rubbed his hand over her bump.
“She missed you talking to her.”
“Believe me, I missed talking to both of you. Can I have a cookie too?”
Laughing, Fionna took his hand and led him to the kitchen. He joined Aida at the bar where she was gazing at the plate of coconut, chocolate drizzle cookies that were one of Fionna’s specialties. Moving as quickly as she was able Fionna placed two on a small plate for Aida and supplied her with a glass of cold milk. She made Dan a matching plate and poured coffee with cream and sugar for herself and her weary husband.
“How was school?” Fionna looked desperate to hear about Aida’s first day in a real school. She’d never attended school other than in the orphanage in Brazil.
“It was a very long time, and I wanted to come home.” Aida confessed as she ate her cookies slowly, savoring every bite. “I was worried you might miss me, and if you missed me a lot it might make your tummy hurt, and baby Halia is in your tummy so if it hurts that might hurt you and Halia.”
“Well, I did miss you,” Fionna assured her quickly. “But I want you to have fun in school, too. Halia and I are okay. We’ll just be extra excited as soon as you get home.”
Aida nodded thoughtfully as she took a sip of her milk. “If you missed me too much, I could stay home on some days and only go on some days.”
She was killing him. Dan wasn’t going to survive her raising. How could anything on earth be as sweet as his precious baby girl? “Did you miss Mommy so much your tummy hurt, sweetheart?” He already knew the answer.
She nodded solemnly. “And you, too.”
“Did you make any new friends?” Fionna asked hopefully.
Aida nodded again and Dan saw relief play in his wife’s eyes. “Yes, I ate lunch with Sidney, and she says her daddy works with Grandpa.”
Dan tried to think of someone who worked at the Senate with his father that had a child named Sidney.
“And Haley pushed me on the swings, and then I pushed her. She was very sweet, but some of the other kids weren’t nice to her.” Aida’s voice hung on the verge of tears.
Part of being a Receiver, just like Fionna, meant that Aida, though she wouldn’t fully be able to access her abilities until she went through puberty, could already feel the emotions of those around her on a small scale.
“Why weren’t they nice to Haley?” Fionna asked.
Tears pricked her eyes as well. She could feel Aida’s anguish. “She said her daddy lost his job, and they didn’t have much money, and her jeans weren’t new like mine. And one of the girls named Jessica made fun of her. And Haley didn’t bring a lunch so I gave her mine because I know it makes your tummy hurt if you get too hungry. And my tummy already hurt, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt more. She didn’t have breakfast either.”
Tears fell rapidly down Fionna’s face.
Dan patted her hand. “How about if mommy and I make Haley a lunch when we make your lunch?”
“Can we do that because she was very hungry?” Aida pled.
“Of course, baby. Mommy will pack her extra snacks for before and after school, too,” Fionna vowed. “Free breakfasts and lunches don’t start for another two weeks because they don’t have the funding. School lunch programs were cut in the latest Non-Gifted budget.” She explained how Haley wasn’t able to receive the lunch provided by the school.
“We’ll take care of it,” Dan pledged. It never ceased to amaze him what things were cut from Non-Gifted Congressional budgets. Hungry children were somehow allowed to fall below their bottom line. “What else happened today?”
“Well, I got put in the Eagle reading group. Ms. Powell said that I could help the other students with reading, but then a little boy named Felix said that people in the Eagle group were a not nice word. Words that are about what’s in your nose when you have a cold and what you sit down on. I can whisper it in your ear if you don’t know it.”
“I’m sure I could figure it out.” Dan winked at her.
“Well, maybe Felix has a little trouble with reading,” Fionna suggested.
“It’s still not nice to say that word.”
“No, it isn’t,” Dan agreed.
“And I saw Olivia when we were going to the playground.” Aida lit excitedly. Chuckling, Dan was pleased that Aida was so happy to see his sister’s little girl. After a decade of pushing his family away, he was still adjusting to them being integrated in their lives. Aida had been the bridge he’d needed. She’s taken his hand and shown him how to get there.
“Did you get to play with her?”
“No, because she’s in first grade and I’m in second grade, but I waved to her and she waved back. And then a little boy named Stevie said I had to be his girlfriend.”
Dan felt fury sear through him. Fionna bit back a giggle.
“But I said that my daddy said I wasn’t old enough to have a boyfriend, but that he could be my friend. Because if I am old enough then I want Alex to be my boyfriend.”
Dan fought the urge to bang his head against the table. Alex was his godson. His best friend’s oldest child. Fitz lived in Paris as he was the French Iodex Captain. Dan had taken Fionna and Aida to spend a week with the Fitzroys last spring. Despite all of the insanity of that trip, Aida and Alex had taken to each other almost immediately.
“Ms. Powell let us pick our take-home folders and I picked purple,” Aida announced next. “And we put all of our papers to show you and Daddy in our take-home folders. And then one side is the papers you keep at your house, and the other side is papers you bring back to school once you show your parents. Do you want to see?”
“Of course we do. Go get it.”
Aida rushed to the entryway to retrieve her purple take home folder. “May I please go watch Supernova with Sophie?” she asked sweetly as she handed Fionna the folder.
After retrieving her baby doll, she settled on the couch, and Dan summoned the television to the Gifted networks, locating the children’s show about all kinds of energy that was Aida’s favorite.
“Dan,” Fionna gasped suddenly.
Racing to the kitchen, he immediately panicked.
“What?” He stared at her stomach looking for any sign of distress.
Her hand flew to her mouth in shock.
“Fi? What’s wrong? Does something hurt? Are you bleeding?”
Shaking her head, she pointed to a paper she’d laid on the island.
“All About My Family” was the heading on the worksheet.
There were questions about the members of each child’s family.
‘My name:’ was the first question.
Aida had written: Aida Santos Hanai Vindico, in her best handwriting. Santos had been Aida’s last name before she was adopted and Hanai was Hawaiian for precious adopted child.
Dan smiled as he went on reading purple and The Paperbag Princess as responses to her favorite color and book.
‘I Live With:’ was followed by, My Mommy and My Daddy and My baby sister Halia lives in my mommy’s tummy until it’s time for her to come out and play with me.
Dan chuckled as he continued.
After ‘My Daddy’s Name Is:’ she’d written Dan Vindico very neatly.
But the next question had his eyes goggling. After ‘My Daddy’s Job Is:’ Aida had written -- to teach at the big school that I can’t go to until I’m sixteen, and to play with me, and to give mommy her bathes at night and rub oil on her.
“Oh shit,” spat from his mouth.
“Yeah,” Fionna’s face was glowing crimson. “Keep going.”
‘My mommy’s job is:’ was followed by, My mommy takes care of me and daddy, and grows baby Halia in her belly, and makes yummy food, and kisses daddy on the mouth a lot.
Forcing himself to go on, he came to. ‘List three fun things you did over your summer vacation:’
‘Mommy and Daddy and me went to live in our house in Kauai,’ was listed first. Dan managed a breath as he continued. I got to grow my own flowers in my garden with my Papa was followed with I got to take bathes outside on our farm and to take hula lessons.” Aida clearly couldn’t narrow it down to only three.
‘Something that made me laugh:’ was the next prompt. ‘When Daddy put icing on mommy and ate it off of her at the party for when they got married.’
Dan’s head fell into his hand. They hadn’t made it a point to anyone at the school that Aida was adopted. They saw no reason. She was just as much theirs as Halia would be. But having your seven-year-old at your wedding reception wasn’t a common occurrence, and Dan had, in fact, put icing on Fionna’s face and neckline and then licked it off at the reception his mother had insisted upon.
Grimacing, Dan wondered when the Auxiliary department of the Gifted Senate would be showing up to investigate their parenting skills.
“There’s a note from the teacher,” Fionna whimpered. “I didn’t read it. I was too scared.”
Dan pulled Fionna into his chest as he switched the papers to the note attached with a paperclip. ‘Dear Mr. and Mrs. Vindico,’ it began. He swallowed hard trying to decide who to phone first. He could call his father or go straight to the top and phone Crown Governor Haydenshire. He was going to owe a lot of people a lot of favors if he got them out of this unscathed.
‘First let me say that I’ve been teaching second grade for almost thirty years, and this isn’t the worst I’ve seen. I talked with Aida, and she explained that you adopted her last spring. I’ve attached a blank copy of the worksheet as these will be displayed on my bulletin board for open house at the end of the month. I thought perhaps you could help Aida create a new ‘All About Me’ sheet. I admire your willingness to take Aida on. She is a lovely, caring child that is clearly adored by her parents. I look forward to working with you throughout the year, and please don’t worry about this. It is wonderful to know that Aida comes from a loving family home. Perhaps after Christmas, I could persuade you to bring in Aida’s new little sister for the class to see. We’ll be doing a unit on how we grow. Thank you, Mrs. Powell.’
“Thank God someone at that school has some common sense,” Dan sighed his relief.
“Are they taking her away?” Fionna was on the brink of tears.
Dan read Ms. Powell’s note to his wife.
Her entire body relaxed against his. “Maybe we don’t know how to be good parents. Maybe I’m no good at this.”
“Hey, come here to me.” Taking her hand, he guided her back to the entrance to the living room. Their little girl was sitting contentedly on the couch watching the television, while she ran her fingertips through her doll’s hair. “She looks pretty good to me, Fi. She’s just fine. It’s like her teacher said, she knows she’s loved, and she knows we love each other. I’m not sure what better foundation we could give either of our girls.”
“Dan, I’ve been feeling weird all day long. The stuff at Venton won’t get out of my head. I knew she was having a hard time at school. Everything felt off. Are you sure you told me everything that happened today? I feel like I’m missing big pieces.”
Dan reviewed his day. He repeated the things he thought were pertinent. The conversation he’d overheard between Governess Martain and Chancellor Wilshire and that the chancellor had left the assembly early.
“Whose class did they get you to cover?” Fionna asked suddenly.
“Uh, they told me her name, but honestly, I forgot it. I can go look it up. I need to read over the curriculum anyway.”
“So, it was a woman?”
“Yeah. Does that matter?”
“Maybe. Was her name Katherine Bryant?”
“Katherine or Kaitlyn or Karen, something like that. Why, baby?”
“Because of this.” She handed him a copy of The Enquirer. He couldn’t halt his eye roll.
“Fi, come on. This shit is nothing more than a gossip rag and you know it. I can’t believe you bought this.”
“Just cast it, would you?” she commanded.
“I am only doing this for you.” He gathered heat in his hand and ran it over the cover page. The print changed as he harnessed the static electricity from the printer used to make the paper.The title changed to The Gifted Examiner.
Reading the headline, his mouth hung open in shock. It took his mind a moment to process the words in bold print. Remembering which paper he was holding, he shook his head. “I told you this is complete crap. I’ve known Chancellor Wilshire most of my life. He would never do this. He and his wife used to come to Mom and Dad’s for barbecues.”
“That’s what I thought, too, until you told me they’d asked you to cover another class. I had a feeling it was hers. I told you there was deception over the entire campus. Everything about Venton feels heavy with the weight of it. And I think it’s more than just this.” She pointed to the magazine. “I don’t know what else is going on, but I’ll be up there tomorrow so maybe I can discern more. This is the same stupid paper that keeps reporting that the baby is Garrett’s and that I’m having an affair with him. It makes me sick. I love Garrett but not like that. He’s my best friend but he’s not my soulmate. It hurts him, and it hurts you, and it kills me that there are people out there who will believe it’s true just because they saw it in print. So, if that isn’t true and it was a headline story for months and months, how could this be true? I can’t wrap my head around it, but Dan I have a feeling this is the truth.”
“I sure as hell know better than to doubt your feelings, Fi. Give me a little time, I'll figure out what the hell is going on at Venton.”