“Daddy, it’s this way.” Olivia tugged Cole’s arm.
Cole moved cautiously through the throng of people milling about in the hallway at Central Pines Elementary School. Everything was created in miniature. There were small desks in each of the classrooms that didn’t even reach his waist and mini coat hangers on the walls outside the doors. There were tiny chairs and pint-sized chalkboards that only reached knee height. Viewing this miniature world from the perspective of its daily inhabitants was an experience. He was used to living in a world of adult decisions and grown-up issues. Everything he observed as he moved around the tiny people was through a lens of pure innocence.
Cole stared down at his daughter as she interacted with her peers. He listened and smiled when she pointed up to him, proudly proclaiming, “That’s my Daddy!” The children looked up at his six-foot frame, wide-eyed and open mouthed. He smiled at them in return before they hid behind the knees of their parents. Cole shook their hands diligently and murmured pleasant greetings, but he still couldn’t shake the feeling he didn’t belong here. He knew it was his duty as Olivia’s father and only living parent to be here, but this miniature world was virtually untouched by the pain and horror that could be inflicted on people’s lives. Olivia had seen glimpses of it when her mother had passed away from breast cancer, but he saw no evidence of that sadness as she mixed and mingled with the other kids. He was the one who felt gangly and awkward, like Grawp from the Harry Potter books. He wanted to fit in with the other parents, but he was afraid he was just bumbling around the hallways, destined to spread destruction with his clumsiness whether he meant it or not. Olivia showed no sign of cutting him any slack as she led him to the music room, gym, cafeteria, principal’s office, art room, playground, big kid classrooms, and then, her favorite place, the library.
“It’s not like your library, Daddy,” she whispered as they walked through the door.
“What do you mean, princess?”
“Daddy, you have to whisper in here,” she said holding a pudgy finger to her lips. Behind her tiny glasses, her eyes grew wide as she pointed to the “Shhh, quiet zone” sign written in bold, red letters above the checkout desk.
The librarian smiled at them. She was a thin woman with horn-rimmed glasses and a bouncing ponytail behind her head. Cole had been expecting a wrinkled old hag, but he realized his assumption was a faux-pas.
“I mean, this library has just kids’ books, Daddy. Your library has all kinds of books. And people take them and don’t return them. We have to return the books here.”
“Well of course, pumpkin. This is a library, where you have to bring the books back. They loan them to you. I own a bookstore, where I sell books. People give me money and then the books are theirs. But with the money, I can order more, and that way I never run out of books to sell to people.” He made sure he was whispering and Olivia tilted her head, so her tiny pigtails swayed to one side. He’d painstakingly spent forty-five minutes that morning brushing her hair and parting it exactly the way it looked in the picture on his phone when she said she wanted pigtails for her parent-teacher conference. He’d been grateful for the dryer’s steam cycle, that tumbled the wrinkles out of her pink and white dress so he didn’t have to Google how to iron it, and he’d made sure each pigtail was perfect and even on the sides of her head. As she tilted her head, one of the hair ties slipped.
“Let me fix your hair, honey.” She straightened up and he secured the tie again, smoothing the hair on the back of her head.
“We have a place where we sell books here,” she seemed to have thought about what he said.
He nodded when she turned around. “Why don’t we take a look when we get to your classroom, and talk to your teacher.”
She took his hand again, and Cole gave the library one last look. There was a small play table and puffy bean bags for the kids to sit in. He kind of wished his bookstore could emulate the welcoming atmosphere, but it housed stacks and shelves crammed together, so there was only just enough room to browse, with nowhere invited patrons could sit and peruse potential purchases. He might have to remedy that.
Cole followed Olivia down one last hallway and they stopped outside the door to her classroom. Mason Savage, the Mr. Savage Cole had heard so much about, was talking with another parent, so Cole guided Olivia a bit further along the hallway. They stopped in front of her coat hanger, and he traced the letters of her name on a small, laminated label while staring at the picture above her little cubby. The picture was a crude, stick figure family with printed block letters that said, “My Family”. Up and down the rows of coat racks and cubbies, all the stick figure families showed a child in-between a mother and father, though occasionally siblings appeared, and sometimes pets. In Olivia’s drawing, her yellow hair was evident as were the crayon-colored, big, blue eyes, and she was holding his hand. He could tell the stick figure dad was him. It was taller than even their red house in the background. He loved that her depth perception was so skewed, it made the picture even more endearing. But there was one thing that really got to him and caused a lump to grow in his throat. Where every other picture along the row had the sun drawn in the corner of the paper in bright yellow crayon, Olivia’s drawing had another stick figure: a woman with the same yellow hair and blue eyes. She was high in the sky and had two lumpy shapes sticking out of her back: her wings.
Cole blinked back the tears threatening to slip down his cheeks just as he heard a soft but deep voice behind him. “She has a brilliant mind. Olivia sees things differently from the other kids.”
Cole turned and stared into the eyes of Olivia’s first grade teacher, Mr. Savage. The green in those depths sparkled so much under the fluorescent light, they appeared to be lit by an eternal flame. Cole cleared his throat, unaccustomed to being hit with the kind of instant attraction he was currently experiencing. He and Penny, his wife, had appeared to the outside world to be a normal couple. But they had kept their proclivities well hidden, including the fact that Cole had always been bisexual. Cole wasn’t bothered by his attraction to Mason Savage, as he recognized that part of himself. It was more the fact that he hadn’t been interested in anyone since the passing of his wife almost two years ago. He hadn’t taken any notice of men or women, instead opting to devote his time and energy to the one person in his life who mattered the most: Olivia.
Standing in the hallway of her elementary school, Cole mentally smacked himself for the momentary lapse of sanity as he stared at Mr. Savage and nodded stupidly. “Yes, she does,” was all he could croak out.
Mr. Savage stuck out his hand and Cole took it, shaking it firmly. He found it strange that an elementary school teacher’s hands would be so rough, and briefly wondered what kind of hobbies he pursued.
Cole came to his senses when Mr. Savage let go of his hand. He blinked, looking around for Olivia. He felt his heart race when he noticed she wasn’t in the hallway with him and turned full circle. “Olivia!”
“It’s alright. She’s in the classroom. You were so transfixed by the drawing, I sent her in to make sure her desk is in order so she can show it to you. She’s excited and a little bit anxious for you to see it.” Mr. Savage turned away, and Cole stared after the athletic form that now had his back to him. How did he look so at ease in khaki pants and a burgundy button down shirt that hugged his torso? He was as tall, if not an inch taller than Cole, yet he didn’t look like the Incredible Hulk, about to smash into things as he passed by them. Cole was still struggling with his own feelings of being oversized, as he trailed after Mr. Savage like a wayward puppy. He wondered if this was how the kids felt in the wake of their huge teacher.
Cole entered the classroom and looked around. Olivia was in the back corner by the water fountain, quietly drawing at her desk. She looked up, pushed the tiny glasses up her nose, and waved to him. “Hi, Daddy!”
He waved back, then walked over to the small round table to join Mr. Savage. Staring down at the tiny, plastic chair he crumpled his form into a ball and sat down with his knees pressed to his chest, as Mr. Savage sat cross-legged on the floor behind the desk, putting them eye to eye again.
“Apologies for the accommodations. They don’t consider adults when designing children’s classrooms.” He, of course, had a desk over in the corner, but surprisingly, it barely looked used. There were stacks of books and folders and pencils galore, but the untidy appearance suggested it was used as a catchall dumping ground. The adult-size bean bag in the front of the classroom told another story. There was a large indent in the seat, as if that was Mr. Savage’s favored place to sit and interact with the kids.
“It’s alright,” Cole murmured. He looked across the table at Olivia’s teacher who smiled warmly and opened a folder.
“You’re the last parent to meet with me, and I’m glad. We didn’t get a chance to meet when Olivia started school here midway through the year, so I want to catch up with you.”
“Why? Is everything alright? Is there something wrong?” Cole felt a surge of panic rise in his chest and threaten to consume him. He worried that she was behind in school, wasn’t making any friends, or that her behavior might be bad and Mr. Savage was about to tell him she hadn’t adjusted well to changing schools. He had worried about all these things before, but strangely, she seemed more well-adjusted to the move than he was. He’d decided they needed a change, so they moved about forty-five minutes away from their old home to a new house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Olivia hadn’t protested, and Cole had also managed to find an excellent location to move the bookstore to. His new shop was nestled in the middle of Water Street, the only other main street besides Main Street in the small town of Central Pines, Vermont. It wasn’t much of a move, but he hadn’t been able to stand living in the town where Penny had passed. Cathance had been an even smaller town, where everyone knew what had happened. Everyone felt sorry for him and Olivia, and he just couldn’t stand the sympathy anymore.
He still went back almost every weekend. He recognized the importance of family and Olivia got to spend the night with her grandparents, Penny’s mom and dad. It was good for Olivia to have time with Loretta and Bill, her gram and gramps. They would come to the house occasionally and visit, but he wanted to give them their space. His own parents were deceased, and he’d grown fond of Loretta and Bill, calling them Mom and Pops as Penny had done. At first they’d begged him not to make the move, but they soon recognized he needed to stand on his own two feet as a single parent and learn how to be a father to Olivia without Penny there to help. None of them let Olivia forget Penny, not for one instant, but they had to develop a new approach to her upbringing. It was non-traditional and Cole worried that sometimes it wasn’t working.
“Everything is fine. Just fine,” Mr. Savage’s voice was soothing and Cole wondered if it was the voice he adopted for the benefit of the kids. “Olivia is excelling in all her studies. She’s surpassing her classmates in reading, writing, and history. She’s also on a par with everyone else in science.”
“They do science at this age, Mr. Savage?” He couldn’t remember doing science at that age. He couldn’t actually remember much before second grade, but only because Mrs. Bean had worn these large floral print dresses that made him think of his mother’s curtains.
“Please. Call me Mason, Mr. Armstrong.”
“Ah, thanks, Mason. Cole is fine too,” he folded his hands on the table but forgot he was still holding his legs up and his knee smacked into the edge. He winced and rubbed it, then resumed his fetal position upright in the chair.
“Cole,” Mason smiled at him and glanced down at the folder on his desk. “Yes, they have science. Mostly it’s just going for walks and exploring the environment. They have a bug and bird chart they keep at their desks, so if they see anything on what we call Forest Friday, they can write it down. Or if they see anything in the playground, they can share it with the class.”
“Forest Friday?” Cole had to shake himself so he would stop staring at Mason’s lips. This was so not the time or place for fantasies and he wanted to scream at his brain to knock it off.
“Yes. If the weather’s nice, the school has a huge field out back. The kids and I take a walk along the trails through the woods and explore. It gets them out of the classroom, and I personally believe it helps promote development and learning by interacting with their surroundings.”
Cole nodded, impressed with the ideology. Even as a bookstore owner, he relished being outdoors. He could see where Olivia would be on par with the other kids at those sort of activities. He didn’t like to stereotype anyone; girls were just as capable of liking the outdoors, the mud, bugs, animals, and all those things not typically associated with little girls. But over the last year, he’d really pushed reading and getting lost in the fantastical worlds that books held as a way to cope with her mother’s death. She had a penchant for taking a book outside and sitting on a blanket on the lawn. She would run up to him and ask about a word or something but she didn’t really explore at their new house, even though they were on the edge of a large forest. He supposed he should encourage her to be more active outside this summer.
“Her math could use a little improvement, but I think she’s young enough that it’s just one of those things that’s expected from kids her age. She’s certainly doing just fine at it, but it doesn’t engage her the way the rest of the subjects do.”
Mason’s voice snapped Cole back to attention. “Huh? Oh, math. Yes, that seems to be her least favorite subject. I try to make a game of it at home.”
“That’s a great way to teach her. It makes it fun.”
“She’s doing great in her extracurricular classes like music, art, gym, and language, and all of those teachers are impressed with how well-adjusted she is.”
“Good, good. I’m glad to hear it. I was worried about that.”
“I thought you might be. So here’s my number, if you ever need to chat or you have concerns. All my kids’ parents are free to reach out to me via email. I will respond within twenty-four hours, but as you have some unusual circumstances, please feel free to contact me by phone with any questions or concerns.”
The sentimentality sounded almost patronizing to Cole, but he supposed if he was handing out his personal number, he was being genuine. Cole reached over and felt his fingertips brush Mason’s as he took the card. A jolt ran up his hand and along his forearm, and he glanced up into Mason’s eyes. They were just as startlingly green as they had been out in the hallway.
“Thanks. She…has she had any issues or, um, mentioned…” He didn’t know how to say the words, despite the importance of asking them.
“Olivia talks about her mother as if she knows her very well. She speaks about her being in heaven, and we’ve had to reprimand a couple of kids who’ve teased her for not having a mother, but she takes it in stride. Really, Cole, you have nothing to worry about. She’s a well-adjusted little girl. One of the brightest in my class, and I’m pleased to have her here.”
Cole’s lips trembled as he looked over at Olivia. Her head was bent over her desk as she sat coloring, and he saw something glint on the corner of her desk. He turned back to Mason, who was smiling at him.
“Thank you again. I try to talk to her about, well, about Penny. But sometimes it’s hard. I don’t know what to say or I wonder if I’m even saying the right thing. You know?”
Mason sat back and rubbed his jaw, where the evidence of a five o’clock shadow had appeared. “I understand what you’re saying. If we ever felt we needed to contact you, if she was having a bad day, we definitely would. But I can tell you, we’ve seen a lot of single parents. To be fair, mostly single mothers but sometimes foster kids or grandparents raising their grandkids. To date, I’ve never had a single dad. As strange as it sounds, fathers parent differently to mothers. We’re all about promoting and accepting differences here at Central Pines Elementary, so it’s been a bit of an adjustment for us as well. I had a conversation with Mrs. Redner, the principal, and she said she was in contact with you when Olivia first started, but to be honest, she’s more adjusted than some of the other kids who come from non-traditional parentage. I don’t think you give yourself enough credit, Cole. Olivia is one of the best students I’ve ever had.”
Cole felt a sense of pride swell in his chest and he couldn’t help it, he grinned broadly like an idiot. He supposed this was like when guys one-up each other about who has the best grill, biggest lawns, best house. He had a few friends, but never ones he felt the need to do “the guy thing” with. He knew all about “bro code”, and there were certain rules to be observed, but when someone praised your kid, hey man, you couldn’t help but get a little King Kong-crazy proud.
Cole rose from the tiny table, folding Olivia’s progress report neatly and putting it in his pocket. Mason rose with him and shook his hand before they walked over to Olivia’s desk.
“Olivia, your Dad and I are all done. Is there anything else you want to show him?”
Olivia looked up and shrugged. “No, he’s seen all the other classrooms, Mr. Savage. This is my desk, Daddy!”
Cole looked over the small, tan, and green desk she was sitting at. The composite material was scratched and faded in places from years of use, but the shiny penny taped in the corner of the desk caught his attention again. Olivia stood as he read her name tag, but his eyes kept darting back to the coin.
Olivia tucked her drawing away in the cubby under the desk and Cole noticed that her fingertips brushed over the penny before turning away.
“I’ll walk you out,” Mason offered.
Cole nodded as he guided Olivia toward the door. He glanced back at the desk one last time before leaving the room and almost bumped into the doorframe, but Mason’s hand shot out and clamped around his upper arm. Where his fingers touched Cole’s skin just below the sleeve of his t-shirt his arm tingled.
“Watch it. This school is mini-sized, even the door frames will jump out and get you.”
He was grinning, and Cole felt the heat rise to his cheeks.
They stopped so Olivia could go to the bathroom. As Cole and Mason waited in the hall, Cole was trying to figure out a way to ask about the penny, but Mason seemed to sense the query was on the tip of his tongue when he offered an explanation.
“Her first day of school, she was scared. She was worried she wouldn’t fit in with the other kids. I noticed she was fidgeting with something shiny in her hands and I asked her what it was. She said it was a penny she found on the sidewalk where the bus drops the kids off in the morning, and that she and her mother had a saying they made up based on the original chant. ‘“Find a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck. Think of me when you’re sad, touch your Penny and you’ll be glad…”
“I’ll always be there by your side, my baby Olivia, my joy, my pride,” Cole finished. He was blinking rapidly, trying to hold back the tears that pricked his eyes. Penny and Olivia had made the chant up when Penny had first got sick. She told Olivia to look for pennies on the ground if she felt she needed a sign from Mommy, and she told her it was like she was sending a hug from Heaven when she found them. Olivia had two jars full already. She was an expert at finding pennies on the ground now. If he’d known Olivia was so scared that first day, he would have come to the school straight away. “Thank you for helping her,” he finally whispered. He felt Mason’s hand squeeze his forearm.
“It’s my pleasure. She’s a special little girl and she’s very lucky to have a father like you.”
Olivia came skipping out of the bathroom and smiled at them. Cole felt the pressure from Mason’s hand leave his arm, and he wished it hadn’t. He’d found comfort in the gesture.
“All set, Daddy,” Cole turned back to Mason, whose hands were in his pockets, and he waved once before turning back to the classroom. Cole watched him go for a moment before Olivia asked, “Is everything ok?”
“Yeah, sweetie, everything is fine. Mr. Savage is a pretty amazing teacher, huh?”
“Oh yes, he’s the best. You should be friends with him at the bookstore!” She skipped along beside him.
Cole found he was secretly wishing he was better acquainted with Mason Savage. Maybe someday he’d have the nerve to ask him to the store after hours, or to the house for a beer, or to catch a game on TV.