Principle Caulder adjusts his tie, once again shifting uncomfortably in his worn leather chair. In the ten minutes that has past since we first sat down, he has managed to look down my mother’s blouse a total of six times.
I clear my throat, making eye contacting and raising one brow so that he knows I am aware of what he has been doing.
A fine sheen of sweat breaks out across his forehead and Axel stifles back a laugh.
“So sorry I’m late,” a honey-laced voice apologizes, the door to the already cramped office sliding open. “I was in my studio when you called and I had left my cellphone in the kitchen. I came as soon as I checked my messages and got myself cleaned up a bit.”
The woman shuffles past my mother and me, sliding into the empty chair next to Axel and I watch his entire posture shift. He adjusts himself so that he is no longer leaning back with one foot jutted out but is now sitting straight up with his hands folded neatly in his lap.
Seeing him like this is almost worth the grounding and lecture I am going to get once we leave.
She leans forward, extending her hand toward my mother. “How rude of me, I didn’t introduce myself. I am not usually this much of a mess, I swear. Lillian Browning, Axel’s mother.”
For someone who birthed the guy currently in the running for the next anti-christ, Lillian Browning looks like she stepped right off the cover of an old Woodstock poster.
Her mahogany hair is plaited down her back, specks of colored paint speckled across her denim overalls and the tan shirt she wears under them. She has the same intensely dark eyes that Axel does, only hers are warm where his are as frigid they can get.
Were it not for the fact that Caulder seems familiar with this woman, I might not believe she is who she is claiming to be because there is no way this pleasant woman raised the jackass next to her.
“Cassandra Peak,” my mother replies, taking Lillian’s hand into hers.
She smiles in response. “I must admit, I already knew that. I have seen your name and picture in the paper multiple times now and, I must say, you are a truly talented journalist. I have always found it empowering to see women succeeding in what is typically a male-dominated workforce.”
“Now that you two have properly been introduced,” Caulder interrupts the two women as they begin to chatter. “Let’s discuss the reason we are all here, shall we? Mrs. Gillard, our school’s nurse, stated that she interrupted an altercation between Axel and Eveline after he escorted her to her office after a minor injury during their shared gym class. I took the liberty of speaking with both of them prior to our meeting and, while they both agree that this began by Eveline sustaining the injury, neither will accept fault for how quickly the altercation escalated. It does seem that, upon entering her office, Mrs. Gillard witnesses Eveline strike Axel. Eveline claims that Axel instigated the incident while Axel claims Eveline hit him without provocation.”
The room begins to feel crowded and my stomach turns, a thickness settling onto my skin. This is the same way I feel when lunch rolls around and I am in the cafeteria, like someone threw lukewarm oil on me.
Lillian stares down her son while my mother attempts to do the same to me, only my mother is making the same thoughtful humming sound she always does when she is thinking things over.
“Axel?” Lillian’s voice takes on an authoritative tone and, I have to admit, even I feel like behaving. “Is that what actually happened? You had nothing to do with Eveline hitting you?”
He diverts his eyes to the ground, mumbling something inaudible under his breath.
“Excuse me?” his mother snaps.
“No ma’am, there might have been more to it,” he replies, his voice louder this time but still very obviously submissive. “I might have downplayed my role in things. There is a tiny chance that maybe I gave her a small reason or two to hit me, but she g-”
“That will be enough from you,” she silences.
My mother turns to me but, unlike Axel, I do not cower at the sound of her voice. Instead, I only grow more annoyed by the condescending voice she uses to address me. “Eveline? Did you really hit him?”
“Obviously.” I motion to Axel’s blood stained shirt and slowly blackening eye. “But, in all fairness, he had it coming. Every time I see him he has some smartass comment and i-”
“I’m a smartass?” Axel cuts me off. “None of this would have happened if you could just control that off the rails temper of yours. Principle Caulder, Miss Peak, maybe one of you should consider having her drugs tested because she seems to be suffering from a major cause of roid rage! You are seriously unstable.”
I grip the edges of my seat, worried that I might actually break them off. “I’m unstable? You’re one to talk! And I don’t have roid rage! If it wasn’t for that stupid root and your refusal to participate in gym, Reibart would have never volunteered you to take me to the nurse’s office in the first place.”
“Or maybe you could have paid more attention to where you were going instead of staring at me like some kind of creeper...” His voice trails off and, I swear, I can feel the mood in the room shift.
Lillian, who has been insanely calm this entire time, is now cutting her eyes at Axel with a vicious glare.
Axel swallows nervously.
I am beyond intrigued.
“Cassandra,” she addresses my mother. “Is it alright if I call you Cassandra?”
My mother nods. “Of course.”
“Cassandra, I apologize for my son’s behavior in this office and for his actions today. I spoke with Mr. Caulder before leaving my house and he informed me that, with the exception of today, your daughter has a spotless record. Axel, well, it is safe to say that he can be a bit of a handful at times, but this is something both of us are working on. Some days are harder than others, but we are making the best of it.”
“I completely understand, however-” My mother cuts her eyes at me. “Eveline is not without fault as well. She knows that she has no right to resort to violence over something as simple as words and, rest assured, she will receive fair punishment as well.”
Lillian angles her body back towards the obviously shocked man sitting in front of us. “Mr. Caulder, what form of punishment did you have in mind for these two?”
He readjusts his tie for the eight times, glances down my mother’s shirt again, scans through his files, and then clears his throat. “Being that Eveline does, in fact, have a clean record and it is clear that Axel is working through some personal issues, I have decided to be a bit more lenient than usual. The two of you are suspended until Monday, during which I want you to think about what occurred here today. I expect that, with your return, will come a change in attitude. Might I suggest that, in the future, if the two of you cannot get along that you just avoid each other in general?”
“All of that sounds fair to me,” my mother agrees as she rises from her chair and I follow suit. “May I request that you have Eveline’s teacher’s email or fax over any classwork and homework she might miss? I wouldn’t want her thinking this is some kind of vacation.”
Lillian moves so that she is now standing beside my mother, studying her face like there is something in her features that need to be deciphered. In fact, it is actually kind of similar to the look Axel gave me in homeroom the first day back, only Lillian didn’t give my mother the finger. “Same with Axel, only I will have his sister swing by to collect it. Thank you.”
Principle Caulder nods, dismissing us all.
My mother grabs me by the elbow the moment we have left the office, her voice low and harsh as she pulls me into a corner. “What in the world has gotten into you as of lately? You assured me last week that nothing was wrong and now, not even a full week into the school year, you are punching some boy in the face? You are lucky his mother is such a lovely person and decided not to press charges or things could have been much worse for you. This is not like you, Eveline, and, frankly, I am growing a bit more concerned about you each day. Was what he said to you that horrible that you had to hit him?”
“Yes, it was.” I fold my arms across my chest. “Okay, so maybe I didn’t have to hit him. I don’t know, I wasn’t thinking. I kind of just reacted without considering what might happen, okay?”
“Well, might I suggest thinking next time? Jesus, Eveline, I was in the middle of a job when he called to let me know you had gotten into trouble. Do you know how bad it looks to have to leave in the middle of the day to pick up my troubled child from school?” She pauses, tapping her foot impatiently like she believes I might actually answer her. “It makes me look weak, that’s what it does. Look, I have to get back and see if there is any of my story left to salvage. Take your car, go straight home, and let me know when you arrive, okay?”
“I’m sorry and I will,” I mumble, not quite sure if I am more pissed or ashamed right now.
I watch as she disappears down the hall, my shame and anger combination fading the farther away she and her judgmental eyes get. I grab my book bag off the floor, slinging it over my shoulder as I head to my locker. My mother was serious about having my work sent to the house, which means I need to make a trip to my locker to grab my things so I’m not stuck unprepared. I don’t need an assault and terrible grades tarnishing my record and ruining my chances of getting the hell away from this place.
“What were you thinking?” I hear Lillian’s voice lecture from the hall next to where I am.
I close my locket quietly, peeking around the wall just in time to see a not so cocky Axel lower his head and cram his hands into the pocket of his jeans.
“I wasn’t. I told you that I hated it here and that I didn’t want to come back, but you made me. It was bad before, but now all she and her stupid friends do is stare at me and whisper.”
“And I clearly remember telling you that coming back here was not optional. We are needed here, I can feel it. I have always felt that our place was in McCall and I can’t just ignore that feeling because you are fighting me. I know this is a struggle for you, I really do, but you cannot miss any more school because of it. You are already a grade behind where you should be and, even though you wish I would, I am not ready to give up on you. You have so much potential, Axel, I just wish you could see that.” She places a loving hand on his shoulder, giving it a quick squeeze. “This is your senior year, try and enjoy it. Come next year, things are going to get complicated and I don’t want you throwing away what little time you have left to be a normal kid. I want you to go out, make friends, get a girlfriend, and do normal kid things. I want you to live as much as your life as you possibly can before dedicating every minute of it to her like I know you will do.”
“And no more stunts like the one you pulled today. Don’t give me that look, that incident had you written all over it and we both know it. If someone had seen you, well, things could have played out differently.”
“No one saw me,” he argued. “I just wanted to teach her a lesson.”
His mother sighs. “She’s just a girl, Axel, she can’t be that bad.”
“You obviously haven’t spent enough time with her.”
One of the straps on my bag slips down my shoulder, sending it crashing loudly into the locker next to me. I scoop it up and bolt for the parking lot, not about to be caught creeping in the hall eavesdropping on their conversation.
I don’t stop running until I reach my beat up Honda, hands shaking and fingers fumbling as I try to get the key into the door lock. The door swings open and I let out a sigh of relief, slamming it behind me before locking it.
Turning on the car I look over the steering wheel in preparation to pull out, catching a glimpse of Axel as he passes by in his rusted Jeep. He glares at me as he drives by, suspicion coating every inch of his face.