On Tuesday Con had to accept the fact that, budget restrictions notwithstanding, he couldn’t live on Frosted Mini-Wheats. Not once he ran out of milk. He cracked open the silent tomb of his apartment, got his car, and set out for Trader Joe’s.
He was going to have to put groceries on a credit card which, according to every financial advice column he’d ever read was the first step to rack and ruin. But what choice did he have? He couldn’t touch his savings. His rent had to come first.
“Mr. Connor! Mr. Connor!” squeaked a familiar voice.
Con looked away from the frozen food case—Veggie sausage patties? Really—and smiled automatically at the sight of Dizzy Miss Lizzy running toward him, her black patent leather shoes smack, smack, smacking the wood floor of Trader Joe’s. Then he remembered the current situation. His instinctive pleasure drained at the sight of the square, sinewy figure following silently in Lizzy’s wake, and his smile straightened into a thin line. He could feel his whole face hardening.
He tried though. He didn’t want Lizzy to think for an instant that his hostile feelings extended to her. He dredged up a stiff smile and tried to infuse a little warmth into his, “Hey, Miss Lizzy.”
“Mr. Connor, we’re having ice cream.” Lizzy reached up a skinny arm—Con winced inwardly at the site of the sticker-covered cast on her other—with every expectation of being picked up. But Con could no more have picked her up than he could have run her over with his grocery cart. He wasn’t sure he would ever pick up a child again. He went cold just remembering that contemptuous, What kind of normal grown man makes a career out of hanging around little kids? with all that it implied.
“That’s great, Lizzy.”
“Up,” Lizzy prompted.
If Con’s smile got any tighter, he was going to pull a muscle in his neck.
Wes Callahan reached them. He wore faded jeans, a red T-shirt, and an expression as grim as Con’s felt.
“Myers.” His brown eyes were dark and direct.
“Callahan.” Con was equally brusque.
“Up,” Lizzy commanded.
Callahan said, “Angel, Mr. Myers has to buy his groceries.”
His little angel slipped her hand into Con’s and confided, “I’m not talking to Daddy.”
Me neither. But Con didn’t say it. Instead he got out, probably with all the warmth of a social robot, “That doesn’t solve problems.”
Lizzy was unimpressed. “Michael J. tried to feed one of Miss Pip’s goldfish to Roscoe.”
Con said weakly, “Uh…”
“Daddy! I like this flavor.” Lizzy darted away to press her face against the glass door of the case across the aisle. “Daddy, this kind.”
“I guess I’m forgiven,” Callahan observed wryly. He was looking at Con. He even smiled, sort of, as he added, “For the moment.”
Con turned, opened the frozen food case and grabbed the first thing he could reach. Anyone else he would have asked the usual things. How was Lizzy doing? How was Mr. Callahan doing? But obviously Lizzy was doing fine, and making polite conversation to her asshole of a father was beyond Con.
“Look, Myers,” Callahan began awkwardly.
Con threw a couple of packets of frozen brown rice in his cart and let the case door swing shut. He pushed his cart away, but Lizzy came darting back like a butterfly.
“Mr. Connor, you didn’t sign my cast.”
“Angel, Mr. Con—Myers will sign your cast when he comes back to school.”
Con stopped his cart and threw a disgusted look at Callahan. Wasn’t that typical of the kind of parent Callahan was? Blithely lying to his kid so he didn’t have to be bothered with the awkwardness of telling an unhappy truth.
Meeting Con’s fierce gaze, Callahan reddened, looking uncomfortable.
Con said to Lizzy, “If you’re still wearing a cast the next time I see you, I’ll sign it. Okay?”
Lizzy’s rosebud mouth turned down. Her dark eyes looked mournful. “But when are you coming back to school?”
Okay, maybe it wasn’t all that easy to tell unhappy truths. “We’ll have to see how it works out,” Con hedged. He gave his cart a nudge, aware that he was trying to sidle away. There were other shoppers around them now and this was getting more awkward by the minute.
“What?” Callahan was clearly unfamiliar with the term “inside voices.”
Lizzy began to cry. That was mostly about her father’s harsh tone of voice rather than anything Con had said. She couldn’t know what Con was really saying.
“What are you talking about, Myers?” Callahan demanded.
Really? In public? Right there and then in the frozen food aisle? In front of Lizzy? Con gave Callahan another of those scornful looks and determinedly wheeled his cart away. Behind him he could hear Lizzy making little mooing sounds—but that was okay. That was her crying-for-attention voice. Her father was quieting her, his deep voice reassuring but refreshingly brisk. Refreshing, because Dizzy Miss Lizzy had Wes Callahan neatly twined around her littlest finger. Good. Con hoped she’d run him ragged when she hit her teens.
But no more thinking about Lizzy or her homophobic jerk of a dad. No more worrying about the family dynamics of his former students. Or the fact that Michael J. had tried to poison Con’s rabbit—former rabbit—with sushi. It wasn’t his problem anymore. It wasn’t his business.
Con wheeled his cart into the shortest line and before he knew it, he had his bag of credit card authorized groceries and was walking out into the warm dusk that smelled of exhaust and the nearby Taco Bell.
“Myers! Hold on.”
Con looked around at the shout. A couple of crowded rows over, he spotted Callahan swiftly buckling Lizzy into her car seat inside a silver Porsche. Lizzy, despite her age, was still too small and light to sit in a regular seat. Callahan closed the door on her and strode over to where Con waited.
He said without preliminary, “Did you quit?”
“I was fired.”
Callahan looked honestly shocked. Even dismayed. But Con said bitterly, “As if you didn’t know. As if you weren’t behind the whole thing.”
Callahan frowned, black brows drawing into a forbidding line. “Now wait just a minute. I never—”
“Save it,” Con said.
“Look, I admit I kind of lost it the other day. She’s my kid. My only kid. And, yeah, I can be an overprotective dad. And yeah, I did raise hell with Bea and Andy. I don’t believe the supervision on that playground is adequate.”
Anger had taken Con this far, but when he said, “You practically accused me of…” his voice shook and then cut out completely. It was too horrifying, too painful to put into words.
Callahan looked blanker than a Monday morning chalkboard. But then, then recognition dawned. Remembrance. He actually seemed to lose color. For just a second he looked stricken. “No,” he said. “I didn’t—I never—” His normal healthy color returned, flooding his face, and he blurted, “I never, I swear to God, never suggested—”
“Bullshit. You said it to my face!”
Callahan gaped. Probably not an expression many people saw on Wes Callahan’s face. “I what? That’s not what I said. It sure as hell isn’t what I meant. That thought has never entered my mind. Is that what they said to you?”
“I don’t want to talk about it with you,” Con said. “You are the last person I want to discuss this with.”
He turned to unlock his car door, jumping at the sudden warm weight of Callahan’s hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah, but if that’s what they said I said, I want to know. Because that is total bullshit. And for the record, I never said I wanted you fired. Are you kidding? Liz idolizes you. You’re the main thing she talks about when she gets home from school.”
He squeezed Con’s shoulder. A fleeting gesture of kindness, which shouldn’t have meant anything, but after five days of feeling like a pariah? Yeah. It meant too much. Con kept his face turned away, tried to keep his breathing steady and not give himself away because this was humiliating enough without the added shame of breaking down in front of Wes Callahan.
“On top of which,” Callahan added, “I never said you were the only negligent teacher in the yard. I don’t think that for a—”
Thank God. For a second there Con had been in danger of excusing, even forgiving this asshole for his role in his troubles. But no. Callahan was exactly the jerk he seemed. Maybe not a homophobic jerk, maybe not a genuinely evil-minded jerk, but still a jerk and still the reason Con was now jobless.
Con drew a sharp breath and turned to face Callahan. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You weren’t there. And as far as negligence goes, you’ve now left your five-year-old daughter sitting alone in a car for how long?”
For about three minutes at most. But Callahan turned instinctively. The Porsche’s windows were tinted, so whatever was going on inside—nothing, in all likelihood—was invisible to them. Con took advantage of that moment of distraction to get inside his car and start the engine. When he looked up again, Callahan was loping back to the Porsch
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