The perfect match, p.23
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       The Perfect Match, p.23

         Part #2 of Blue Heron series by Kristan Higgins
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Page 23

  Author: Kristan Higgins

  “Very impressive,” he said. “Anyway, I’m here because I’m concerned about Charlie Kellogg. ”

  Dr. Didier sat down and tapped a few keys on her computer, then frowned. “I don’t see you listed here under contacts. What’s your relationship to Charlie?” she asked.

  “I was engaged to his mother. She died several years ago. ”

  Dr. Didier gave a nod, then stretched her hands over her head, cracking her knuckles. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but I won’t be able to discuss anything with you. ”

  “I realize that. I’m a professor over at Wickham. ”

  “Cool beans!”

  “But I did want you to be aware of the fact that I think Charlie’s being bullied. ”

  Dr. Didier sighed. “So you’re still in touch with this kid?” she asked. “Even though his mom died, what. . . three years ago?”

  “Yes. ”

  “And do his guardians know you’re still involved? Because when an adult not related to a child expresses an interest, you know. . . the bells, they go a little crazy. ”

  Tom blinked. “Excuse me?”

  “Are you a pedophile, in other words?”

  “Christ! No!”

  “I’m just gonna put in a request with the police to check you out, okay? It’s routine. ”

  “I’m not a child molester! Besides, the police have already talked to the Kelloggs about me. ” And didn’t that sound damning. “Look,” he said more calmly, “I lived with the boy and his mum. His grandparents are. . . distracted, and his dad is barely in the picture. I’m just trying to look after the kid. ”

  “And by look after, what do you mean?” Dr. Didier asked. “Because it sounds creepy, Mr. Barlow. ”

  Oh, now he was Mr. Barlow? He was Tom when he was going to be her weight-lifting partner. “What I mean is, I think I should report it to his f**king school when I think he’s getting roughed up!”

  “All right, all right, settle down,” the principal said, holding up her hands. “I appreciate your concern, and I’d ask that you appreciate mine. You can’t be too careful these days. I will be calling Charlie’s grandparents to tell them that you came by, for the record. ”

  “Fine. ” Great. Janice would tell Charlie, and Charlie would be furious.

  But still.

  “So why do you think Charlie’s been bullied?” Dr. Didier asked.

  “I picked him up from a party a couple of weeks ago, and his ear was bleeding. He says he’s fine, but he’s not very talkative. ”

  “Did he tell you why his ear was bleeding?”

  “No. He said he got it caught. It’s a piercing. Nasty thing. ” Tom swallowed.

  “So it could’ve been that. ”

  “It could’ve been, yes. It also could’ve been some prat who smacked him or yanked his earring or—”

  “Look, Tom, our school has a no-tolerance policy on bullying. If it was witnessed, our students have been told since they were in kindergarten that they are not to stand for such behavior, and saying nothing is akin to bullying itself. ” She rolled her eyes. “And we all know how well that works. Kids still get bullied. It’s just more subtle these days. ”

  “So what will you do?”

  She pulled a face. “We’ll do everything we can. If you have a name, if Charlie would like to talk to a staff member or the guidance office, if anyone comes forward, or if there’s a witnessed event, we’ll aggressively investigate. We don’t tolerate bullying. But we also can’t control what those little shits do on their own time, forgive the language. And frankly, I can’t do anything with some vague complaint from a person who’s not even involved in Charlie’s custody. I’m sorry. I’ll keep an eye out, and I’ll tell the teachers to do the same thing, but that’s all I can do. ”

  Shit.

  “Is he doing all right here?” Tom asked, unable to help himself.

  She gave him a small, sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry. I can’t discuss it. ” She sighed. “Do you talk to Charlie’s grandparents?”

  “Yes. ” And they’d been as receptive as two fat bricks—Janice staring at his crotch, Walter nursing a drink, both of them feeling sorry for themselves for having to deal with their recalcitrant grandson.

  “Wish I could do more. ”

  “Right. Thanks for your time, Dr. Didier,” he said, standing up and shaking her hand.

  “You’re welcome. See you at the gym. ” She held up a fist for a knuckle-bump, and he complied.

  Walking out into the rain, Tom remembered how, back in the day, fights were held in the schoolyard or on the streets in his run-down neighborhood. At least it was out in the open and done with. Now, in this day and age, when kids seemed smarter and crueler, where half the parents didn’t pay attention or wouldn’t believe that their precious little Sam or Taylor could possibly be anything other than a perfect angel, because to admit such would be to have to spend more than ten minutes a day with the creature. No, today, bullying was a casual sport, and if a kid killed himself over it, ah, well, he must’ve been really f**ked up, and little Sam or Taylor wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.

  In other words, Charlie was on his own.

  But he had Tom. And, whether he liked it or not, soon Charlie would have the Holland family, as well. Honor’s dossier included a niece and a nephew, the girl in high school. And, please God, that might help.

  * * *

  AN HOUR LATER, Tom had managed to get Charlie out of his room at the Kelloggs’ and into the car.

  The kid looked like a vampire, with his dark hair and eyes, white skin and Goth clothing and general exhaustion. “You eating all right these days?” Tom asked as they drove to the lake.

  Charlie grunted.

  “I thought a bit of fresh air would do us both some good. We could take a hike if you want. ”

  “I don’t. ”

  Of course. “Okay, we can just sit and breathe, then. ”

  Tom pulled into a parking area at the edge of an abandoned train track, and they got out. He’d read about the town’s plans to develop a bike trail along here, and wouldn’t that be splendid, being able to cycle through the farmlands and forests? Across the way and up the hill a bit, he could see a red kite against the gray sky. “Look there,” he said, pointing.

  Charlie barely glanced. If the kite reminded him of what they used to do together, he said nothing, and though Tom was used to such reactions these past three years, he nonetheless felt his throat tighten.

  “So, Charlie, it’s been a while since your mum died. I was wondering how things are for you. ”

  Charlie shrugged and made a trisyllabic grunt, which Tom took to mean, I don’t know.

  “Right. Well, if you ever want to talk about things, I’m always here. ”

  An eye roll. Charlie looked exhausted from having to deal with the idiocy of adults; Tom half worried he was about to pass out from boredom.

  “Listen, I’ve got some news. ” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m seeing someone. ”

  Charlie, who was not moving to begin with, seemed to freeze nonetheless.

  “She’s really nice. ”

  No reaction.

  “She’s looking forward to meeting you. ”

  And still nothing. There was maybe a quiver around his mouth.

  “Her name’s Honor Holland. She’s Abby Vanderbeek’s aunt. Do you know Abby?”

  No answer.

  “She’s a couple years ahead of you. A junior this year. ”

  Nothing.

  “I wanted to let you know. And it’s not like I’ll forget your mum—”

  “I have homework. Can we go?” Without waiting for an answer, Charlie pushed himself up and trudged to the car, his mood as black as his clothes, a stark contrast to the dancing kite across the hill.

 

 

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  “I TOLD Y
OU he was perfect,” Goggy crowed. “Finally, someone listened to me!”

  “You can’t go around bragging about it, Goggy,” Honor warned. “I’m only telling you because. . . you know. . . you mentioned the green card issue, and I don’t want anyone to have the wrong impression. Because that would be illegal, Goggy. And I’d be in big trouble. ”

  “Of course I won’t tell! You think I can’t keep a secret? I can keep a secret. Your grandfather lost ten thousand dollars in the stock market last year, and did I tell anyone? No. I didn’t. When I walked in on Prudence and Carl doing it on their kitchen table, did I mention it to anyone? Not a soul!”

  Honor rubbed her forehead. “Wow. Okay. So this time, you really, really can’t tell. And we’re, um, we’re in love. It was fast, but we, uh, we love each other. ” Four more hours on YouTube had stressed that little nugget to the thousandth degree. The only reason to marry a non–U. S. citizen is for love, attorney after attorney had warned. And here are some of the questions you might be asked. Who made dinner last night? What did you do last weekend? What is your spouse’s favorite dessert?

  “I knew it! I knew you’d love him! He’s wonderful. And so handsome. ”

  “You still haven’t met him. ”

  “I don’t need to. ” Goggy folded her arms and smiled. “Oh, you’re getting married! I want more great-grandchildren, pronto. ”

  “Okay,” she said. “Thank you, Goggy. I have to go tell Dad now, so don’t call him, okay?” She glanced around her grandparents’ cluttered living room. Like so many colonials, it had several doors—to the kitchen, the front stairs, the dining room. “Your heating bill will be a lot less if you close those doors. ” She paused. “I sure would love to see you in a new place. Or, at least, on one floor, Goggy. I hate having you go up and down those stairs all day long. ”

  “Oh, pooh. That’s my exercise. Go. Get out of here. You want some cookies? I baked today. ”

  She wanted them, all right. Any fortification for her talk with Dad, because she sensed this wasn’t going to go well.

  * * *

  SHE WAS RIGHT. Dad was in the living room, nursing a glass of dry Riesling and waiting for Mrs. Johnson to allow him into the kitchen to eat.

  “Petunia!” he said as if it had been weeks since they’d seen each other and not two hours. “How’s my girl?”

  “I’m great, Dad. Um, how are you? Excited about the wedding?”

  Dad and Mrs. J. wanted to get married fast “in case either of us dies first,” Mrs. J. had said, and so the wedding would be in six weeks, just after the Black and White Ball.

  “Very,” he said. “What’s new with you, baby?”

  “Um, well, funny that you asked. ” She cleared her throat, trying to remember a time when she’d lied to her dad. It had been a few decades. Possibly never. “You know that guy I’ve been seeing?” Sorry, Daddy.

  “No. What guy?” He frowned.

  “Um, the guy I told you about?”

  The kitchen door banged open. “Jackie!” Mrs. Johnson said from her domain. “Are you hungry, dear boy?”

  “Mrs. Johnson, you get more beautiful every week. ” Honor rolled her eyes, but sure enough, her brother came into the living room a second later, holding a piece of the lemon pound cake Honor had been told she couldn’t touch. “Hey, Dad. What’s up, sis?”

  Right. Well, better to have an ally (sort of) in the form of her big brother. “I was telling Dad about a guy I’ve been seeing. ” She fixed Jack with a stern gaze.

  “Really? I thought you were headed for the convent. ”

  “Oh, Jack. Don’t make me hurt you again. ”

  Dad put down his newspaper. “Getting back to this person. . . what’s his name, anyway?”
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