Mr. Right’s Baby
Her desk was still empty. Surely she wouldn’t miss today. Not after he had waited so long. Adrian Wright stood by the door of the first grade classroom welcoming each student who entered with a smile, a hand on the head to ruffle the hair of the boys, bending to help pick up dropped lunches or hair barrettes, answering the inevitable question of, “Are you Mrs. Sandy’s substitute?” at least twelve times. But still she did not come.
The clock was moving steadily toward eight and the room was fast filling up, but her desk was still empty–except for a well-chewed, fat, red pencil in the groove at the top. Her name, stuck onto the front of the desk at the beginning of the school year with sticker paper, was badly frayed from eight months of chairs and desks bumping, and stained from several dribbles of watercolor, but it was still legible. Carly Simmons.
The students were putting lunches in the coatroom, emptying book bags, putting homework papers on Mrs. Sandy’s desk. They were talking and laughing freely, but were quiet and orderly. Mrs. Sandy had taught them well. About half of them had hair ranging from almost pure white to tow heads to light brown. The other half were dark-haired, dark-eyed Hispanics. Carly wasn’t Hispanic, but he thought she would have dark hair. Like his.
The corridor was clearing as kids made a last minute dash for their classrooms. There were only three or four children left and they were older, third or fourth grade. Adrian grasped the doorknob to close the door. Maybe tomorrow, then. Maybe she would be here tomorrow.
A little girl suddenly came skidding around the corner of the hallway, long, dark braids flying, one of them already loose, the red ribbon dangling. She charged straight toward Mrs. Sandy’s classroom doorway and straight into his heart. It was her.
She was perfect. She was just as he had imagined her ever since he had learned of her existence six months ago. Her hair was, indeed, black like his. Black and shiny, and he wanted to touch it to see if it was as soft and silky as it looked. He held out a hand. He had patted the other kids on the head as they came in. But this time, his hand was shaking too badly so he let it drop. It wasn’t just his hand that was shaking. He thought his legs might crumble beneath him if he weren’t gripping the doorknob like an anchor in an emotional storm.
Carly caught herself with one hand on the doorframe and looked up at him, a big smile showing a perfect row of baby teeth she hadn’t yet lost. “Are you Mrs. Sandy’s substitute?” she asked.
Adrian tried to swallow the golf ball that had suddenly lodged in his throat. Unsuccessful, he merely nodded. Carly skipped on into the room, thumped her book bag onto the seat beside her desk, and started putting her books into her desk. Several girls gathered around her, one of them pointing out Carly’s loosened braid. Carly pulled the elastic band from the end of her other braid and loosened it as well, leaving her hair in two, nearly waist length ponytails slightly waved from being held briefly in braids.
She was beautiful. He wanted to go right in there and scoop her up, and give her the seven years of hugs he had missed out on giving her. He wanted to feel her arms around his neck and hear her call him “Daddy.”
But the little girl putting her homework paper on the teacher’s desk had no idea he was her father. Maybe she didn’t even know she had been adopted, given up without her father’s knowledge or consent. All she knew of him was that while Mrs. Sandy was out having a baby, he was her substitute for the three weeks left of the school year. She didn’t even know his name.
Adrian took just a moment to compose himself, gritting his teeth and taking a deep breath, before he had to go in there and treat her like any other child.
“First day jitters?” Mrs. Webb, the kindergarten teacher next door, was just reaching out to shut her door when she saw him. She smiled and shoved an unruly mop of blond curls off her forehead. “You’ll do fine,” she assured him. “I’ll be right here if you need me. But Carly Simmons can help you out with classroom routine. She’s a great kid.”
“Carly.” He could barely get the name out, but managed a smile. “I’ll remember. Thanks.”
She nodded and closed her door, calling to an Edward to stop bouncing a ball.
When Adrian closed his own classroom door, he turned to find Carly standing there waiting for him. “Can you tie this for me?” she asked, pulling at the ribbon that still dangled from her ponytail. It had been tied over an elastic band that still held the ponytail in place.
To Adrian it was a wonderful gift she was giving him, the right to tie a bow in her hair. Adrian took the ribbon, the backs of his fingers touching her hair. She tilted her head to give him better access and he tried to keep his hands from shaking as he performed this small service for her.
“Thank you,” she said, reaching up to touch the slightly crooked bow before skipping to her seat.
“Thank you,” he almost said before changing it quickly to, “You’re welcome.”
Adrian took up a piece of chalk, called the class to order and turned to write his name on the board. “This is my name,” he told the class, “Mr. Wright.”
The rest of the class simply nodded and sat waiting for him to continue, but he heard an audible gasp from Carly. Her eyes widened and her hand shot up.
“Is that really who you are?” she asked. “Are you really Mr. Wright?”
Puzzled by her attitude, Adrian laughed and assured her that he really was Mr. Wright. Then he passed out a math worksheet Mrs. Sandy had left for him and started the day.
For Adrian, the day spent with his daughter was a joy almost too painful to accept. He knew he gave her more attention than he gave anybody else. But he couldn’t help it. He watched her add teeth marks to her pencil as she worked. He watched her play kick ball at recess. He watched her line up and go down to the cafeteria clutching a pink Barbie lunch box.
At lunchtime, he looked at her school records. It was just as the detective who had found her told him. Mother’s name: Kathryn. Father: Brent, deceased.
By two-thirty, he had had about as much joy as he could hold for one day. His daughter seemed healthy, happy, and well-adjusted. She was outgoing and friendly, and very intelligent. He still wanted to know about her home life. What kind of mother was Kathryn Simmons? Kind? Gentle? Stern? Strict?
And somehow, he wanted to be a part of Carly’s life. Unlike the woman who had given birth to her, there was no way he could just walk away from her.
As he led the class out to the buses, he allowed himself to pat her on the head, small compensation for all the good night kisses and bedtime stories he had been denied. She looked up at him. “My mom is supposed to pick me up. I hope she comes.”
An alarm went off in Adrian’s heart. Was her mother unreliable? Irresponsible? “Does she usually pick you up?” he asked.
Carly nodded, anxiously scanning the cars lined up in front of the school next to a row of yellow buses. “There she is! She came!” A wide smile of relief played over her face as she pointed to a sporty red car just rolling to a halt at the end of the line.
Adrian’s brows crunched together at the sight of the car. He had envisioned a Toyota mini van or a Ford Escort. What was the mother of his child doing jaunting around in a flashy sports car? A flashy red sports car.
“Come on! You’ve got to meet her!” Carly was tugging at his hand, urging him toward the car. And her mother.
He definitely wanted to meet this woman.
“Just a minute, Carly. I have bus duty.” He squeezed her hand holding her there, savoring the tang of joy that surged through his heart as her trusting fingers clasped his.
One boy jostled another getting on the bus and Adrian pulled him aside, holding his shoulder, making him wait until last. The boy fidgeted, Carly kept jumping up and down, but Adrian was the most impatient of all. At last the bus was loaded, the boy leapt up the steps, and Adrian let Carly tow him along toward that red car.
The door swung open even before Carly reached it, letting out a blast of rock music along with a stream of cold air. She tossed her book bag and lunchbox behind the seat and bounced in. “Mom! I found him! I found Mr. Right. Now you can get married!”
Adrian’s brows arched. Looking for Mr. Right, huh? So she was man hunting. Adrian bent down to get his first look at Kathryn Simmons. By this time he was expecting a barracuda with long red nails impatiently tapping the steering wheel.
She was not what he expected. She was worse. A dirty white gym shoe with a toe poking out sat on the brake. The leg was shapely enough to give Adrian’s loins a lurch, except that there was some unidentifiable smear of sludge on the calf and a half-healed scrape on the knee. A slash of rusty brown cut across both thighs and a smudge of black grease went from thigh to a pair of cut off jeans that looked like they had been run over by a herd of cattle. There was a spate of bare midriff topped by an unwieldy pair of what Adrian could only think of as boobs, large and round and barely held in check by a once white shirt tied across the ribs. A strand of shoulder length blond hair streaked by sun and grime fell from a lopsided ponytail only tentatively held in place by a yellow elastic band. Her face, with its pug nose, softly rounded pink mouth, and wide blue eyes would have been more attractive without dirty brown and black streaks.
Adrian gritted his teeth and managed to be polite. “Hello, Mrs. Simmons. I’m Adrian Wright, Mrs. Sandy’s substitute for the rest of the year.”
Kathryn Simmons jabbed at the radio, cutting off the din, curling her fingers into fists and crossing her arms to hide broken nails lined with black. At that maneuver, her boobs threatened to escape and she shifted, risking a quick tug to her shirt before hiding her hands again.
“See, Mom? Mr. Right! I found him!” Carly was on her knees on the seat.
“Oh! Oh no, Honey! I didn’t mean…” Mrs. Simmons’s blush didn’t stop at her face. It traveled down her throat right down to the curve of those awesome boobs. She looked at Adrian, horrified. “I’m sorry. She doesn’t understand. I…” She swallowed hard and nodded her head. “Nice meeting you, Mr. Wright.” She put the car into gear and Adrian took the hint to move back.
Adrian watched the car fade into the traffic. Well, not fade. Not that car. A helpless trepidation stole over him. Just how wise was it to leave his daughter in the care of Mrs. Kathryn Simmons? And what could he possibly do about it, anyway?