Had he not told Cara’s homeroom teacher just this week that the problem was the other girls?

***


Nothing became clearer when he’d reached the school. Cara was staring solemnly at her black buckle shoes with her hair hanging loose and unevenly shorn. It was jarring to see her without all that long hair streaming from either side of her head.

One look at her, and he’d swept into the principal’s office to read the man up and down in a voice booming enough to startle students out in the hallway. Cara said nothing as she waited for it all to finish, then followed him out to the car, her little body heaving the occasional sigh.

She didn’t cry. She barely looked up. In the car, she fixed her gaze on the passing scenery and refused to lift her head.

“I’m proud of you,” Brent said after a time. “You were very strong back there. It isn’t always easy to be different, and children can be cruel and foolish. We’ll get your hair taken care of before school tomorrow, and you can show them how little effect they have on you.”

Cara didn’t acknowledge what he’d said. She just sighed again.

Brent didn’t know what more he could do to help her immediately. Once they entered the office again, he instructed Mona to find a salon where she could take Cara that afternoon and order the girl some lunch.

“What do you want, darling?” he asked her.

“I’m not hungry.” Cara hopped on the sofa, kicked off her shoes, and pulled out a book.

Stumped, Brent decided to leave her alone for a while. Mona could take care of the problem with her hair, and Cara could keep herself occupied. She was very good at that.

The next time he looked up, an hour had passed, and there was a gorgeous young woman in his doorway. He was captivated by her large, dark eyes and the pout of her lips. His first thought was that an actress had slipped past Mona to beg for a quality role. She was pretty enough.

The girl approached him with a slim 8x11 envelope.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mr. Sanderson, but I have a delivery from your CFO, Allen Billings. He said you needed to sign these papers right away, and I’ll just run them right back to him,” she said.

He found himself frozen for a moment. Her voice was thick and just a shade deeper than he’d expected from the doe-eyed young woman. Brent recovered after a moment and rose to take the envelope from her.

“I’ll take care of these right away,” he said.

“And if you need to make any changes, he said to just initial them. I’m not sure what they’re in reference to, but he indicated that you’d seen them before,” the girl added.

“I’m sure.” Brent opened the envelope and glanced at the papers. “And your name is?”

“Oh! It’s Jessica.” She put her hands behind her back and shifted her weight to one foot.

Brent gestured to the side of the room. “You can sit on the sofa while you wait.”

She looked over and rocked on her heels once, as though deciding what to do. Brent returned to his desk to look over the papers carefully.

“Hey, shouldn’t you be in school?” Jessica’s voice teased.

“I had to leave,” Cara said quietly.

“Oh? Are you not feeling well?”

“I feel fine. Some sixth-grade girls cut my hair,” Cara said with an edge to her voice that added, silently, “Obviously. Can’t you see?”

“Ugh. Middle school is the worst. Something in kids’ hormones from sixth-eighth grade makes them all insane. It starts to get better after that. When I was in middle school, these girls spread so many rumors about me that I just hid in the bathroom during lunch.”

“If you do that at my school, you’ll get in trouble.”

“I would have, too, but I just got so tired of dealing with them.”

Brent looked up and saw Jessica reaching out to touch Cara’s hair.

“It’s not so bad though. I mean once you get it evened out. This is a pretty good length for you. I bet now that it’s short, you’ll get just a little bit of curl. You could even have the hairdresser give you a swing bob. You’d look like a flapper.” Jessica smiled. “Do you know what that is?”

Cara arched a brow. “Of course I do.”

“Sorry. I don’t know what references fly anymore, now that kids have Netflix. I heard my friend’s little brother make a Friends joke the other day. So old!”

Cara smiled a little. “Kids in my grade are always repeating memes. That’s all they ever say. Over and over. And the boys all do this thing where, if you trick someone into looking at you doing this—” She made a circle with her index and thumb and let the remaining finger curve just slightly. “—they get to slug you.”

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