Kerry pedaled her bicycle harder than really necessary, hoping the burn in her thighs would at least distract her mind a little bit from the thumping and fluttering in her gut. The dropping sensation had returned almost immediately after she’d left the library, exacerbated by how vague Mx. Cardoso’s message had been.
Had they already heard about her going to Paxwood House? Did they want to single her out just to scold her? But who would have told them that Kerry was there?
Paxwood wasn’t exactly a big city. Word could get around pretty quickly. And, really, why else would Mx. Cardoso be reaching out?
Mx. Cardoso had a pretty strong no-texting-the-students policy because of how it could be perceived. Mx. Cardoso was young for a teacher, and, well, the world didn’t have a great history of giving transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming individuals the benefit of the doubt. The school had a perfectly good internal messaging system where administrators could check all the messages in the event of accusations of impropriety. In another world, Mx. Cardoso would be positively celebrated as the town prodigy. They’d graduated high school at fifteen and finished both their undergraduate and graduates degrees at a breakneck pace, maintaining high marks the whole way through. If more people were accepting of the fact that Mx. Cardoso was nonbinary, maybe the town would show a little more pride in them.
Not that Paxwood was worst place in the world for queer people–the principal supported Mx. Cardoso’s pronouns and preferred title and did not allow students or staff to get away with any form of harassment toward the shop teacher. Mx. Cardoso didn’t exactly get invited to special events or showcased in newsletters, though.
Kerry knew more about Mx. Cardoso than most who weren’t actually shop students mostly because she loved to hang around Cardoso Auto while Mx. Cardoso was on duty, so she could ask them about local legends. It was also the preferred gas station and car repair shop for most Paxwood locals, which meant especially once she started driving, she was able to do something helpful–get gas–and indulge in stories at the same time.
Even with that connection, this was the first time Mx. Cardoso had ever texted her.
So, it had to be about Paxwood House. After all, Mx. Cardoso had been pretty gravely serious, so if the rumor mill was fast enough that they’d already heard, that had to be it. So, she started to prepare her defense as Cardoso Auto came into view.
Really, nothing that had happened that day had been magical. Some dumb teens came across a stray dog that was probably just taking shelter on the porch of an abandoned house. The dog got startled. Cody was startled. Sometimes people broke bones when they fell backwards down a flight of stairs. In a lot of ways, Cody was lucky it was his leg and not something even worse.
Even Char’s frustration was more like a natural consequence of how things had gone. There wasn’t anything nuclear about any of this.
Could be the real weird stuff was inside the house, and the dog had been trying to protect Cody by keeping him from going inside, though.
Kerry tilted her head to one side when that thought struck her just as she chained her bike up to the bicycle rack down the far side of the repair garage.
Okay, if the dog had really been some kind of guardian or something, then…
The loud buzzing of power tools interrupted that thought, and she shook her head.
No, she was just spinning stories were there weren’t any, trying to make up a reason for everything that had gone wrong. The dog had just been a stray acting out of self-preservation, and that was all there was to it.
When she crossed past the open repair bay door, she glanced inside to see who was working on the car, exactly. It was Dominic Cardoso, one of Mx. Cardoso’s older brothers. He lifted a hand to wave to Kerry, pointed toward the office, then went back to whatever he was doing on the engine of the car he was working on.
But he didn’t call out–and that gave Kerry an opportunity. She hadn’t been able to control a lot today, but she could at least try to get a drop on Mx. Cardoso in the office. If they were alone, she could take a minute to get a sense of their mood or maybe even their intent for texting her before she revealed herself.
So, she stuck close to the wall as she approached the office door. Then she paused to time her entry to the pitch and intensity of the power tool sounds. She pushed the door open at just the right time, the garage sounds masking the chime of the bell, and only opened it exactly far enough so that she could slip through. Hopefully the motion of the door wouldn’t give her away, either
“…old boyfriend?” A feminine-sounding voice, unfamiliar to Kerry. Kerry missed whatever the start of that sentence had been, but picked up the context when Mx. Cardoso replied.
“No, no, Bran made it pretty clear when I chose to come back here that we were done,” Mx. Cardoso said. “If we’re really going to talk about our dating lives while we wait for her to get here, how about you and that life-saving firefighter of yours?”
“Look, the only reason he has any interest in me was because he saved me that night and he wanted to understand what he saw. That’s not a great basis for a romantic relationship.”
Kerry crouched over and kept close to the wall so it would be harder for either Mx. Cardoso or their guest to spot her from the front desk, but she could still get a look at who was back there. Mx. Cardoso looked as casual as always, though today with a coverall pulled up over their shoulders but still unzipped, a floral-print shirt showing through from underneath in stark contrast to the muddy grey-brown fabric.
The woman also stood behind the counter. Light brown hair, light olive skin, but most distinctly, she had one prosthetic arm. This, more than anything else about her, held Kerry’s attention. She didn’t meant to stare, but she couldn’t help it. She wanted to know the story of this woman and how she’d come to lose her arm. The need for that story felt urgent inside her chest, almost overwhelming.
But, no, asking about it would be altogether too rude. And, suddenly, she regretted coming in as silently as she had. The chime of the bell would have made it so much more natural to introduce herself. Now the door was closed, and she was inside and crouched over and they hadn’t noticed her. It would get awkward fast.
“Well, people meet in all kinds of ways,” Mx. Cardoso was saying, though. They had an almost mischievous smile as they said that. “I mean, Bran and I–“
Mx. Cardoso cut off and looked around quickly, like they wanted to be sure no one but their guest heard the story they were about to tell. Kerry couldn’t get out of their line of sight fast enough.
“Of course you slipped in.” They smiled. “Rowen, this is Kerry, the intrepid journalist I told you about on the phone. Kerry, Rowen Hayward. Thought you might want to meet your alternative buyer, maybe introduce her to your mother.”
“What?” Kerry asked, raising an eyebrow. This was not what she’d expected. She walked up to the customer side of the counter. “How…?”
“How did I get here so quickly?” Rowen asked in return, leaning toward Kerry. “Just lucky I was already headed out this way when Alex called me. They said you’d be the best one to tell me what’s going on with the sale of this old house.” Her smile faded as she looked more closely at Kerry, though. She actually shivered, just a bit. “Alex, do you feel this?”
Mx. Cardoso made a noncommittal noise and looked Kerry up and down more intensely. Then they actually cursed–something Kerry had never personally heard any teacher do, even though it was only natural that teachers probably cursed just like everyone else.
“You went to Paxwood House, didn’t you?”