This is a raw draft, as produced for NaNoWriMo.
This is a young!Magnolia story – this starts when she’s eight years old, so about seventeen years before the start of Mirrorfall.
The shoe store’s break room was small – it had originally been part of the mytical “back room” that customers seemed to believe held everything from the “black pair of shoes I saw last week” to Dorothy’s red slippers.
They rarely believed it held a tiny portion of unsorted stock, a suspiciously large roll of bubble wrap, and all of the stationery the store required on a day to day basis.
The break room held a small, round table that – if you were generous – held four chairs. There was a slim fridge, a microwave, an ancient electric kettle, and one cupboard that held the tea and coffee supplies, and a basket for each employee’s food – apparently to reduce theft and misappropriated lunches.
He rarely worried about people stealing his cheap noodles, or the two-day old bread he brought from home for his morning toast.
Jennifer – one of the casuals – knocked on the door frame. ‘Don? Call from your kid’s school.’ She angled the cordless phone at him, and he rose to take it from her.
He smiled in appreciation, and walked to the back corner of the room – it wasn’t any more private than sitting at the table, but people tended to take the hint more when you were standing and talking, rather than sitting and talking.
He pressed the phone to his ear. ‘Donald Hammond.’
‘Don, it’s Elisabeth,’ the school’s secretary said. ‘I’m afraid you’re going to have to come and collect Maggie.’
Two separate stabs of fear drove into his chest. The first was, by far, more important. ‘Is she hurt?’
‘No,’ Elisabeth said, ‘she’s not.’ Her tone confirmed his second fear. ‘She was in another fight.’
He lifted his head to look at the clock. ‘I’m off in two hours,’ he said. ‘Can it wait?’
The secretary clicked her tongue. ‘I’m afraid not. We’ll discuss it further when you get here, but it looks like she’s going to be formally suspended.’
Donald sank back into his chair, and rested his face heavily on one hand. ‘All right,’ he said, after a deep sigh, ‘I’ll come as soon as I can.’
Elisabeth gave a polite goodbye, and apologised, and he hung up the phone, and lightly placed it on the table – he didn’t often break things in anger, but there was no point in risking store property to a moment’s indiscretion.
He stood, tossed out the remains of his sandwich, and walked into the small bathroom at the back of the break room – another reason this portion had been broken away from the proper back room. He ran the cold water for a moment, then lightly splashed his face before drying his cheeks.
Another suspension wasn’t something they could deal with right now.
There were no other schools in the area that she could transfer to – if she had to change schools again, they would have to move, and moving was a big expense he couldn’t cover.
Moving would be another loan from his mother, another bit of red in the ledger that he couldn’t repay. Another reason for his parents to be disappointed. Another reason they’d feel less inclined to be involved with their only grandchild.
They didn’t know his little girl was half bird. They didn’t know anything, other than he’d had a one-night stand, and that the mother was completely uninvolved. His parents – particularly his mother – had encouraged him to get some sort of legal arrangement in place – if only so that Magnolia’s mother couldn’t just waltz back into his life and take her away.
For all he knew, that’s precisely what was going to happen – let the human parent change all of the nappies, then steal the child away once it had become a little person.
His parents would give him the money if he needed it.
He closed his eyes and prayed that he wouldn’t need it.
He straightened his clothes, and inspected himself in the mirror – ensuring that he looked every bit the professional, respected, store manager that he was supposed to be.
His reflection looked fine – he’d managed to bury everything, as was normal.
A long sigh worked its way up from his chest, and he let it out before returning to the break room; retrieving the birthday cupcakes from the fridge, and walking back out to the store.
Excuses were easy enough to make – there would be the inevitable after-school rush of parents needing to replace shoes, or teenagers with enough money to waste on the new fashion, but his staff could handle it. His assistant manager had been working at the store for five years, and even the casuals were competent enough.
He walked slowly out to the parking lot, only sighing a little – the spot he chose had the shade from the tree next to it swing around in the afternoon, so that the car was shaded and cooled by the time he drove out at the end of his shift.
When leaving two hours early, however, the interior was hot, and the heat from the steering wheel bit into his hands.
He rolled down the driver’s side window, then leaned across to roll down the passenger window – if he didn’t, Maggie would think he was either forgetful, or angry – and he hated when she thought he was angry.
As good as children seemed to be at conveying their big, deep emotions; they weren’t always that good at reading them. He never yelled – he rarely yelled, all parents were allowed an outburst or three; but she also seemed to interpret his other negative emotions – disappointment, sadness, and plain old fatigue – as types of anger.
He loved her, and nothing would ever change that.
He started the car, and drove – almost on auto-pilot towards the school – traffic, at least, was far better than he was used to.
There were half a dozen parent parking spaces set aside in the parking lot – each with a little outline drawing of a stick figure holding the hand of a smaller stick figure. He pulled into the one closest to the office, and quickly made his way up – it had been easy to memorise the admittedly easy route the last ten times he’d visited – four from calls he’d received during the work day.
He passed a closed door – a door to a small room, even smaller than the break room he’d just been in – and resisted the urge to open the door and see if Maggie was in there – she likely was, it was where they kept children awaiting pick up by their parents – unless they were actively puking or otherwise needing medical attention.
Don continued to the office, each step seeming heavier and heavier – there was only one logical answer, if they pushed for suspension.
Two schools so far, since she’d stepped foot in pre-school. This year had been much harder – the kids at this school just seemed more likely to pick and provoke, to rile her up and watch her lash out in return.
They’d tried dying her hair – but the colour always seemed to leech out, making even permanent black dye come out as a pale grey – and she loved her white hair, even if it made the other kids call her out as a freak. They’d tried explaining to her teachers that it was a medical condition – but kids would be kids, and apparently that meant teasing their peer for their weird hair.
And she had nine more years of schooling left to get through.
If she kept getting suspension after suspension, soon – either Child Services would take her away, a worry that always came when he couldn’t sleep – or there would be no schools left that would take her, and he’d be forced to home school her, and he’d have to quit work to accomplish that.
And that would disrupt their lives more than he could stand – they didn’t have anyone they could rely on to help – his parents might be willing to dig into their pockets for a loan, but they wouldn’t help educate Maggie, or watch him whilst he was at work.
He took another step, his shoes feeling like they were weighed down with concrete.
Elisabeth smiled at him from her far-too-neat desk and stood to shake his hand. ‘The principal is waiting to speak with you.’
It always struck him as somewhat strange that Elisabeth insisted on saying “the principal”, even to parents – when it would seem far more…grown up to say “Arturo is waiting to speak with you”.
Or…maybe she did that for parents who weren’t being called to discipline meetings.
She knocked on the door to the principal’s office, and he stepped through.
Arturo Soto stood and shook his hand, a grave look on his face. ‘Donald, how are you?’
He sat when the principal indicated, and tried to keep his face neutral. ‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘There’s been an incident, and as we’ve discussed, we’ve got a zero tolerance policy when it comes to fighting. Magnolia broke that policy. Again.’
Don clamped his mouth shut, biting back on snapping back – there was a zero tolerance policy against fighting back, but there didn’t seem to be such a policy against inciting the incidents that caused Maggie to strike out in the first place.
He considered his words carefully. ‘She only fights back when she’s teased. If the girls who tease her-’
Arturo lifted his hands. ‘They’re just words, she needs to learn to ignore them. She can’t go hitting everyone who comments about her hair, or-’
Don pointedly looked around the office. ‘Where are the parents of the kids who teased her?’
Arturo didn’t take the bait. ‘I’m going to have to suspend her for fighting.’
‘Please don’t,’ he said, the words coming out like a prayer. ‘Please.’
The principal shook his head. ‘I’m afraid the gravity of the situation means I need to-’
‘That will go on her permanent record,’ he said. ‘And every-’
‘It’s for the good of her classmates,’ Arturo said. ‘If you like, I can recommend a counsellor, or-’
She would be fine if no one teased her. She would be fine if- Ifs and buts and candy and nuts.
He felt his resolve slowly coming together – it was a rash decision to make without running the numbers, but it was the only thing he could do. ‘Is this the only option?’
Arturo nodded. ‘I’m afraid so.’
Don leaned forward and placed his hands on the desk. ‘I would ask…’ his voice trailed off, and started to crack. He closed his mouth and swallowed, his mouth suddenly feeling very dry. ‘I would-’ He nodded – more to himself, than to the principal. ‘If I were to pull her out of school, to change schools, could we avoid putting the suspension on her permanent record?’
Arturo leaned back in his seat. ‘That seems like an extreme reaction to this. I know the situation is…less than ideal,’ he said, his faint Chilean accent coming through as his words became slower. ‘But is that what you really want to do? Changing schools may not have the desired effect.’
Don forced himself to smile, and hoped that the expression didn’t look too unnatural. ‘And yet, it may be the change she needs – a new school and a new start.’
Arturo folded his hands. ‘If you’re willing to do that, then I guess…we could make accommodations.’ The principal leaned forward and picked up a desk calendar. ‘We’re right in the middle of term – how soon would you be looking at changing schools?’
Don put a hand to his forehead. ‘I’ve already booked part of the June/July holidays off, and…’ he trailed off. It was Thursday. ‘Can I get back to you on Monday?’
Arturo nodded. ‘Take her home today, keep her home tomorrow. Call me on Monday before you bring her in. So long as you’re changing schools…I can probably make some accommodations for her to have her classes separately.’ Arturo scratched his chin. ‘We’ve had occasion to set children up in the corner of the library or the teacher’s lounge before – so long as she can handle a few days of self-paced learning-’
Don gave a quick nod. ‘Yes. Please. Thank you.’
Arturo stood. ‘I assume you know where she is?’
He nodded. ‘Do I need to sign her out?’
‘Yes, just speak with Elisabeth before you leave.’
He walked from the office, and signed the sun-yellow slip of paper that the secretary handed to him. There was a tiny wash of relief as the reason stated for Magnolia leaving early was a tidily-circled “other”.
Don smiled, then left to go back to the little room with the closed door. He sighed, then knocked. There was no answer for a moment, then he heard Maggie’s tiny voice call. ‘Yeah?’
He turned the handle and walked in – Maggie, and her school bag, both sat on the table. She was hunched in on herself, her arms resting on her crossed legs.
‘You know they don’t like it when you sit on the table, sweetheart.’ He said, and walked forward, lifting his arms towards her.
She looked up, pushed off the table, and launched herself into his arms. If any other eight-year-old had done that, he probably would have fallen over, but probably thanks to the part of her that was a bird, she never seemed to hit with the impact she should – unless she wanted to.
He caught her, and she seemed to grow heavier in his arms as she dangled towards the floor. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, sniffling into his sleeve. ‘Sorry.’
Don held his little girl for a moment, then put her down, and picked up the multi-coloured backpack and slung one of its straps over his shoulder, and wrapped his other arms around Magnolia’s shoulders. ‘Come on, birthday girl, we’ve got cake to eat.’
The walk to the car was uneventful – there were a few students with window seats that looked out – as was the right of kids bored in class to see people leaving early. He unlocked her door, and removed the bakery package, then she slid in, and lifted her arms for her backpack.
He handed her the backpack, then got into the driver’s seat, and drove – his driving skills operating on autopilot, something he was grateful for, considering the swirl of other thoughts, worries and spikes of terror that comprised the rest of his mind.
She didn’t speak, and he wasn’t sure that he could.
Their favourite park was the best option – it was a large space – with tables under huge Moreton Bay Fig Trees, and an aging playground in one corner.
He handed her the bakery package after they parked. ‘Go pick a table, okay?’
She nodded, and ran for the table under the largest tree.
Don opened the back seat of the small car, and dug out the picnic kit he’d packed that morning – plates, serviettes, a few other snacks to augment the cupcakes, and some juice kept cold by a frozen water bottle.
He hefted the basket, and stopped before locking the car, ducking back into the driver’s seat to retrieve his notebook and pen from the centre console – he could always begin to sketch out a budget as she played.
Cleaning up the table was easy – a few broken figs to wipe away, no remains of past picnics, or broken bottles to deal with.
He handed Maggie a baby wipe for her to clean her hands with, then did the same before starting to lay out the food.
Magnolia sat silently on the other side of the table, watching as he laid out the meagre attempt at a birthday party.
‘Daddy?’ she said slowly.
He wiped his hand again, then walked around the table, sat beside her, and wrapped an arm around her. ‘I love you, Maggie. I’m not mad. I want you just to think about your birthday, and we’ll deal with everything tomorrow, okay?’
She sniffled again, so he handed her a serviette. ‘You got pink,’ she said, raising a hand to point up the cupcakes. ‘Those are my favourite.’
‘I know,’ he said, and felt tears welling up. ‘Happy Birthday, Maggie.’