“Please, Uncle Dre, let me stay home with you today. Can you homeschool me? Please!”
Dre stroked his goatee and laughed. “Unfortunately, I’m not smart enough to homeschool you or anybody else.”
“I’m serious,” Bailey pleaded, her face twisted in terror. “Please don’t make me go!”
As his Jeep inched along behind the long line of cars dropping off kids in front of Parker Elementary School, Dre peered over his shoulder at the cute little girl sitting in his back seat. Bailey’s stress level was way too high. She’d had a few run-ins with a bully at her old school, but he assumed the transfer to Parker had fixed everything.
“What’s going on? Why don’t you want to go to school?”
Bailey hugged her book bag to her chest as if it were a life raft. “I just don’t.”
“C’mon, talk to me. Is somebody bothering you here too?”
After a long beat, Bailey slowly bobbed her head.
Dre had purposely used the word bothering, not bullying. He was tired of hearing all the hoopla about bullies. Kids getting picked on was nothing new. It happened in his day and would keep happening until the end of time.
Truth be told, today’s kids were too damn soft. People turned backflips to protect them from the realities of life. Like everybody getting a freakin’ trophy just for participating. That was the stupidest crap he’d ever heard. Sometimes life is hard. Kids need to know that sooner rather than later.
“Please don’t tell my mom,” Bailey begged, her brown eyes glassy with tears. “She’ll fuss at me for not standing up for myself.”
Dre reached back and gave Bailey’s foot a playful squeeze. “No, she won’t. But you do have to start standing up for yourself. If somebody’s being mean to you, you have my permission to be mean right back.”
He wasn’t condoning violence, but if another kid started some mess, the only way to show ’em you weren’t no punk was to clap back twice as hard. Most bullies were wimps. Once you got in their face, they backed off. That’s what he’d taught his son to do and, to his knowledge, Little Dre had never had a problem. He would teach Bailey to do the same.
“You don’t get it,” Bailey huffed, her shoulders drooping. “That won’t help.”
They were almost at the drop-off point, when Dre steered his Jeep out of the line of cars and made a hasty U-turn in the middle of the street.
Bailey’s upper body sprang forward. “We’re going home?”
“Nope.” Dre pulled to a stop along the curb. “I’m walking you inside. I want you to show me who’s messing with you.”
Bailey slumped back against the seat, her lips protruding into a pout. “That’ll just make it worse.”
Turning off the engine, Dre hopped out and jogged around to open the back door. “Let’s go.”
He took Bailey’s hand as they stepped into the crosswalk. The closer they got to the school doors, the slower Bailey walked. By the time they reached the entrance, Dre felt like he was tugging a sixty-pound bag of potatoes.
“Please, Uncle Dre,” Bailey whispered, glancing all around. “Please don’t make me go!” Her tiny hand clutched two of his fingers.
Dre led Bailey off to the side, squatted until they were at eye level, and caressed her shoulders.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s no reason for you to be this stressed out about going to school. If somebody’s messing with you, I need to know about it. What’s the kid’s name?”
Bailey hung her head as a tear slid down her right cheek. For a second, Dre thought she was about to come clean.
“It doesn’t matter,” she mumbled, hoisting her book bag higher on her shoulder.
Bailey jerked away from him and dashed inside the school.
He was about to go after her when a woman stepped in front of him, blocking his path.
“May I help you, sir?”
The woman’s chin jutted forward like an accusing finger pointing him out in a lineup. “And you are?”
“I’m Bailey’s”—he paused—”uh, I’m Bailey’s godfather.” He’d started to introduce himself as her uncle to make himself sound more legit but changed his mind.
“Your name?” Her tone conveyed all the warmth of an icicle.
Dre pegged the woman to be in her early forties. Her thick, black hair fell a couple of inches below her ears in a blunt cut that matched her funky disposition. Her sleeveless, form-fitting, red dress hugged every inch of her curvy frame. Actually, she was kinda hot. Kerry Washington’s classy style with Cookie Lyon’s bad attitude.
“Bailey’s mother didn’t tell us someone else would be bringing her to school today.”
She looked him up and down like he was some pedophile on the prowl for a new victim.
Dre couldn’t seem to pull his eyes away. Despite an innate seductiveness, the woman still managed to carry herself with the spit-shine polish of a CEO. If professionalism had a smell, she would reek.
“Erika had an early meeting in Irvine and asked me to drop her off.”
Dre ran a hand over his shaved head. Rarely did anybody—especially a female—make him feel this degree of uneasiness. “I’m sorry. I didn’t get your name.”
“I’m the principal. Darcella Freeman.”
He should’ve guessed. A sister with a little power.
“I’ll be dropping Bailey off and picking her up from time to time,” Dre said, anxious for the chick to move out of his way so he could go after Bailey. “Erika got a big promotion. Her job’s a lot more demanding now.”
“Is that right?”
“Yep, that’s right.” What’s up with this chick?
“Please ask Bailey’s mother to email the office authorizing you to pick her up from school.”
Dre nodded. “Will do.”
He still wanted to go inside, but the woman stayed put like a queen guarding the gates of her castle.
Without saying goodbye, Dre pivoted and headed back across the street. As he opened the door to his Jeep, he made a mental note to have a talk with Erika. She’d been thrilled about getting Bailey into Parker Elementary because of its stellar reputation. But the place might not be any better for Bailey than her old school.
Dre also couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. And not just with Bailey.