The Family We Make
Dan Wingreen © 2020
All Rights Reserved
“Yo, Mr. Kent!”
No, no, not now!
“What do you want, Jamal?” Spencer Kent asked, not glancing up from his phone as he furiously tapped the screen. Commanders of Warfare 3, a Four Square clone where people built up a character and “conquered” real-world locations, was his latest obsession, and he was so close to reclaiming his rightful spot as the Great General of Laurence Tureaud High School from the little prick who kept taking it away from him. Whoever CaptainSpock77 was, Spencer knew he had to be a student, because he never knocked Spencer off during class. It was always right before school or during sixth period—which he assumed was the bastard’s lunch period—and Spencer was determined that this would be the day he’d vanquish his foe forever.
Still, even with most of his attention focused on glorious conquest, he couldn’t help noting that being able to recognize one of his new students by the sound of their voice six days into the new school year was never a good thing. Spencer once had a dog who’d, according to his parents, gone through three different names before he finally remembered to keep calling him Avery. Personally, he doubted the accuracy of that story, but he’d be the first to admit he was pretty shit at remembering names unless the person in question was a Bringer of Stress.
And, sure enough…
“If I didn’t do the essay, but I still read the story, do I still get credit?”
Spencer stifled his first exasperated sigh of the day. “No, Jamal.” He winced as his commander lost half its health bar. “The whole point of the essay was to show you read the book.”
“But I did read it.”
“And how am I supposed to know that if you didn’t do the essay?”
“You could trust me?”
Spencer didn’t have to look up to know there was a cheeky grin on the kid’s face. He could sense it.
“I could also throw myself in front of a train. Doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”
A decent number of kids chuckled. “That’s cold, Mr. Kent.” Not as cold as the icy ball of despair that will form in the chest of CaptainSpock77 when I win this battle. “My pops says all this literature stuff is bullshit anyway, and I ain’t never gonna use it in the real world.”
“Language,” Spencer droned. “And your dad’s right. You aren’t ever going to use anything I teach you outside of this class unless you decide to study literature in college. But. You’re still inside my classroom for the rest of the year, and until then, you need to do the work you’re assigned, or you’ll be right back here next year doing the same—son of a bitch!” he finished with a hiss as his commander fainted, and two adorable, blushing anthropomorphic ambulances carried it off on a stretcher.
How the fuck did I lose? I had it!
“Language, Mr. Kent.”
The bell rang, signaling the beginning of first period, and the end of Spencer’s noble crusade to free the school from tyrannical bondage. It took more effort than he’d care to admit to keep from throwing his phone at the wall. Fucking mobile gaming was going to kill him.
What kind of shitty algorithm picks a school as a command center anyway?
Spencer glared up at Jamal. The kid standing in front of his desk was ridiculously tall for a fourteen-year-old, and Spencer was a short man who liked to keep his chair as low to the ground as possible, so some of the intimidation factor was probably lost. Sure enough, there was the cheeky smirk.
“Class,” Spencer called out, not even trying to keep the growl out of his voice. He was pleased to see a few flinches from the more perceptive and easily rattled students. “Be sure to take the time to thank Jamal for the surprise quiz you’re going to be taking today.”
There came a chorus of groans and some scattered “fuck you, Jamal’s” he decided to ignore. Jamal scowled, but Spencer merely raised an eyebrow and pointed at his assigned seat toward the back of the room. “Unless you want a desk closer to me, I suggest you take your seat and get out some paper. I’m thinking this test will take the form of an essay question.” He raised his voice. “Hopefully, the rest of you got some practice writing essays over the weekend.”
His words were met with another louder round of groans. Spencer smiled to himself.
Spreading the misery rarely failed to improve his mood.
Much later in the day, the bell rang at the end of Spencer’s relatively problem-free fourth-period class. After more than a week of the usual post summer “what the fuck am I doing with my life?” funk, it was nice to once again feel like he was starting to get a handle on things. Especially since, through a clerical screwup of miraculous proportions, Connor was in his class.
And speaking of the kid…
“Connor!” he called. “Can you stay behind for a minute, please?”
Connor paused, adjusting the large backpack weighing down his narrow shoulders before nodding and walking over to Spencer. The classroom emptied rapidly, and when they were alone, he reached over to help Connor take the pack off before it tipped him over.
“Dad, stop,” Connor said, ducking away and somehow keeping from upending himself despite a precarious wobble. Spencer glanced around the classroom, but they were alone, so he didn’t bother reminding the kid to call him Mr. Kent at school. “I’m just gonna have to put it back on in two minutes anyway.”
“It’s gotten bigger.” Spencer had no idea how that was even possible, but his kid’s bag was at least twice the size it had been at the beginning of the year. Logically, he knew Connor had been carrying around a bag nearly as packed full of books and crap all through middle school, but being able to see how much weight his son had to lug around in the middle of the day was a brand-new experience this year. “How can you even lift this?”
Connor rolled his eyes in pure-teenage disdain. This particular expression had popped up over the summer, and part of Spencer still wanted to scream into a pillow at the thought of The Teen Years finally kicking into gear. “I’ve been carrying it around all day with no problem. It’s not gonna suddenly throw me down the stairs just because you noticed how full it is.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Did you really hold me back to talk about how heavy my backpack is? I’m gonna be late now.”
“Ah, but that’s just one of the perks of your dad being a teacher.” He leaned over his desk and pulled a small slip out of a drawer before brandishing it with a flourish. “Nepotism. In the form of unlimited late passes. Now you can even make it to your locker to get your lunch before your next class without being late like you’re always complaining about.”
This has to be worth at least five dad points.
Connor stared flatly. “What lunch?”
“The one I made you before I left for school.” Spencer frowned. “You didn’t see it?”
“You didn’t make me anything, Dad.”
“Of course I did. I left it right on the kitchen table in a bag like I always do.”
“No, you didn’t. There was nothing on the table but the coffee pot. And a new burn mark.”
Spencer shook his head, but before he could say anything, he remembered his phone buzzing earlier that morning as he filled his thermos. There had been a notification from his game telling him about a special deal on Command Points, and he bought five hundred of those fuckers and used them to train the shit out of his commander and…
Then I got in the car and drove to school. Shit.
“Oh.” Spencer rubbed the back of his head. “Did you pack one yourself, then?”
It wouldn’t be the first time his son had to take care of himself after Spencer left for school at ass o’clock in the morning, but no matter how often it happened, it never stopped making him feel like a shitty father. That it had been happening more and more as Connor grew up was just the icing on the Spencer-Sucks-at-Parenting cake.
“You never went shopping this weekend. There’s no food in the house.”
Right. Shopping. That thing I kept putting off.
He needed to delete every game on his phone the second his next class ended.
“Shit. I’m so sorry, kid,” he said, pulling out his wallet. “Do you need…”
Of course, I don’t have any cash. Fuck me.
“I don’t suppose the lunchroom takes Visa?”
Connor snorted. “They don’t even take twenty-dollar bills.”
Connor shrugged as well as he could with the straps of doom digging into his collarbones. “It’s okay. I took some money from the lock box under your bed I’m not supposed to know about.”
“Ah.” Spencer winced. “Can we…maybe pretend you’re too young to know what any of the other stuff in that box is? And then completely forget about it?”
“Too late. It’s already filed away for my inevitable therapy sessions when I get older.” Connor flashed him a rare in-school grin, and Spencer couldn’t help being struck by how much the kid looked like him. Everyone had said so pretty much since Connor’s birth—although fourteen-year-old Spencer had very much disagreed that he looked anything like the mushy lump of skin that was newborn Connor—and their similarities had only become more obvious as he grew up. Aside from the slight Asian slope of his hazel eyes and his naturally tanned skin, he was the spitting image of Spencer as a teenager. Same mop of soft black curls, same sharp nose, same chin, same short stature—although Becky had been tiny for her age too, Spencer remembered; poor kid never had a chance in the height department. Sometimes looking at his son was like peering into a mirror fourteen years in the past. Kid even had the same facial expressions. Thankfully, those similarities made him ridiculously easy to read.
This particular grin was a perfect match for Spencer’s I’m-fine-now-but-I’m-also-trying-to-cover-up-how-not-fine-I-was-a-few-hours-ago expression.
Time for damage control. The last thing I need is this coming up in front of my parents when I’ve just started living down the “Grandpa, do you shave your pee pee like Daddy does?” incident. Fuck, the kid really is gonna need therapy one day…
“I’ll just…give you the rest of the money in that box when I get home. And then, you know, hide it better.”
And then drown myself.
“Dad,” he said, eyes wide, “there was like six hundred dollars in there.”
“Really?” Connor nodded. “Okay, revising my statement because I can totally use that kind of money—I’ll give you a hundred and hide the box. And we can go shopping together right after school, just so you can make sure I actually make it further than a block.”
Because Spencer was self-aware enough to know the odds of him actually going through with deleting his latest time sink was pretty fucking low.
“Can I get a frozen pizza?” Connor asked hopefully.
“I’m giving you a hundred dollars! You’re gonna make my house smell like pizza too?”
Pizza was the bane of Spencer’s existence—well, one of many, really—and ever since he’d graduated college he tried as hard as he could to keep it from tainting his living space.
And there go the big, pleading eyes. Fuck. I’m such a sucker.
“Fine. But no more pizza until you’re at college.”
“Or next month, whichever comes first.”
Connor rolled his eyes again, but Spencer could see him trying not to laugh.
“All right,” he said, tossing his kid the late pass. “Get to…what do you have next?”
Spencer winced again. “Ew.”
Spencer shuddered. “The worst. You should skip.”
“You’re a pretty bad influence.”
I know, but you like pizza and math despite my best parenting efforts, so hey, failure all around.
“Yeah.” Spencer sighed. “Okay, how about I pretend I just gave you a speech about how important your schooling is, and you’ll pretend I’m not horrified my kid actually likes math, of all things.”
“Math is so easy though!”
Spencer shook his head. “My son is a freak.”
“What did math ever do to you?”
“It’s more the fact that it exists, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh my God, are you really quoting Harry Potter right now?”
Spencer’s lips twitched. “Always.”
Connor groaned. “And you think math is bad.”
“And Harry Potter isn’t?”
“Harry Potter is genius.”
“Tolkien is genius.”
“You were raised wrong.” Spencer paused. “Or really, really right. I can’t decide.”
“I’m leaving,” Connor said, sighing.
“Don’t forget to take a nap next period,” Spencer called after him. “That’s what math is for!”
Connor didn’t respond as he ducked around the few kids who bothered showing up before the warning bell and disappeared into the hallway. The kids followed him with their eyes and then turned their attention to Spencer, seeming surprised, amused, and, in the case of one mousey girl Spencer had always secretly thought of as the biggest nerd whoever nerded, horrified.
Worst teacher ever.
“If you tell anyone what I just said, you’re all writing me a four-page essay on Steinbeck’s use of adverbs,” he said, fixing them with his best teacher glower. “By hand.”
They very quickly found other things to be interested in.
“Don’t forget to finish the book by the end of the weekend!” Spencer said as the final bell of the day rang. “And don’t give me those looks; it’s a short book. And you all have at least a rudimentary understanding of the English language; it won’t be that hard. There’s going to be a test and a report when you’re done, and both will cover things that aren’t in the Cliff Notes or on Wikipedia, so no shortcuts.”
He took note of which students seemed particularly dismayed by his last statement and tried to commit at least their faces to memory. Troublemakers he’d happily throw off Navy Pier and never give them a second thought, but the ones who refused to learn he took as a personal challenge. They would have one fact about at least one of the books he made them read rattling around in their heads on their deathbeds if he had to cut them open and shove the books in their skulls himself.
Once they left—and he could be sure none of them were going to come running in with a last-minute question—he let out an exhausted sigh and collapsed in his chair. Summers off or not, if someone had told him being a teacher was going to be more tiring than college, he would have…honestly, he probably wouldn’t have done anything. He’d already abandoned a journalism degree for a teaching degree, and he seriously doubted even his overly indulgent parents would have paid for another pointless semester. Not when they’d also been paying for Connor’s…everything, really, at the same time.
He shook himself out of his thoughts and made a halfhearted attempt at going through some of the homework he had piled up on his desk as he waited to see if anyone would show up for their scheduled detentions. Most likely, they would; few freshmen were up to skipping so early in the year, and the ones who thought they could get away with it didn’t make the same mistake twice after Spencer tracked them down. Spencer smirked to himself, then settled in to do some grading.
The best part about teaching literature the way he did was he could substitute work with reading and discussion more than most teachers, but the downside was most of the work he did assign were essays and other assorted written crap. No succulent, mouthwatering, easy-to-grade multiple-choice tests for him. Or, not very many, at least. And definitely not in the summer homework, which he still hadn’t finished grading.
Spencer couldn’t be sure how long he’d been slogging through, but by the time he got to the third different “the Old Man should have just went to Jewel-Osco and got some Chicken of the Sea” joke, he figured he deserved a break.
The halls still had kids roaming through them as he made his way to the cafeteria vending machines, but by the time he remembered he didn’t have any money and changed his destination to the teacher’s lounge, they’d mostly emptied out. As he walked through an area of the school he hadn’t been in for years—while desperately pretending this detour wasn’t the biggest adventure he’d been on in almost as long—he came across two older students—boys probably, but he couldn’t tell for sure from this angle—crowding a freshman-sized student against a row of lockers.
“Hey!” he barked, enjoying the way his voice echoed down the deserted hallway almost as much as he enjoyed watching the little shitbags flinch. “What’s going on here?”
Voice deepened for intimidation? Check. Threateningly neutral question? Check. It’s been too long since I’ve been able to do this. Please let this little freshman have a split lip or a bloody nose or something visible, so I can hand out some sweet, sweet suspensions.
“Shit,” he heard one of them say. “Come on, bro.”
Spencer gave a halfhearted shout for them to stop as they ran off, but he knew it was pointless. Only freshmen ever listened to the “get back here and wait to get in trouble” stuff. He resigned himself to letting them go right up until he came closer to the kid they’d been harassing and found himself staring into his son’s wide hazel eyes.
“D—uh, Mr. Kent…”
Spencer saw red. He hated bullying at the best of times, but seeing it happen to his kid right in front of him, hearing the slight tremor of fear in his voice… All of a sudden, he was back in his own high school years; a small terrified boy who couldn’t take care of himself, let alone the tiny life growing inside a girl he’d exchanged maybe eight sober sentences with. The hall was so quiet he could almost hear the echoes of long-ago taunts and jeers.
“So, is your baby a little faggot too? Or is it just retarded?”
“I can’t believe that chink’s actually letting you raise her kid. I would have got rid of it the second I found out it was yours.”
“So, what are you gonna feed it anyway? Dogs and rice balls? Or just a steady diet of dick?”
He didn’t even realize he’d started to take off after the kids until he felt a hand grab his wrist, trying to hold him back.
“No, Mr. Kent, stop! Mr. Kent! Dad!”
Habit stopped him, more than anything else. Neither one of them wanted it to become common knowledge that Connor was Mr. Kent’s son. Spencer because he loved having Connor in his class, and Connor because he already had a hard-enough time without being known as the son of the most hated literature teacher in the school. Hearing Connor call him Dad in the middle of the halls had him glancing around to make sure no one had overheard, which had the side effect of freezing him in his tracks.
Fuck it. It’s not like I can catch them now anyway.
Spencer took a deep breath and turned to his son.
“What the hell was that?” he asked as he pried Connor’s hand off his wrist. “And I swear to god if you say ‘nothing,’ I’m gonna shove you inside a locker myself.”
“You can’t actually put a person inside these lockers. They’re too narrow. I think they were designed like that on purpose so no one—”
“Don’t change the subject,” Spencer said, crossing his arms. He’d never been tall, but he’d had years of dad experience in using every centimeter of height he did have to loom threateningly.
Spencer raised an eyebrow.
“Okay, it’s not nothing,” Connor admitted, worrying at his lip and refusing to meet Spencer’s eyes. “But it’s not a big deal. They’re just a bunch of idiots who like picking on younger kids.”
Spencer clenched his jaw until he was sure he could speak without yelling. “I could quote suicide statistics that prove how much of a ‘big deal’ shit like this can be.” Connor opened his mouth, but Spencer steamrolled right over whatever he might have said. “And even if this is just an isolated incident of two bored losers pushing someone around because he’s too small to fight back, you’re my kid, so that makes it a big deal to me.”
“It isn’t though.” Connor’s voice was barely above a whisper.
Spencer refused to dignify that with a response. “I want names. Now.”
“No way, Dad,” Connor said, sounding panicked. “If they get in trouble, they’ll know I turned them in, and then it’ll get so much worse.”
“They’ll know it was you? So, they’re not actually bullying other kids?”
“They never got caught by a teacher with anyone else!”
“I could just say I recognized their faces.”
Connor started shaking his head before Spencer had even finished. “No, Dad, I’m not risking it. I’m not gonna be their punching bag for the rest of the year. No way. Please just let this go. Please. I promise it’s nothing I can’t handle. Just please don’t make this worse for me.”
He’d never been good at resisting his kid when he begged for something, but this time his anger outweighed the usual guilt that came along with being a middling-at-best single father.
“I could ground you for the rest of the year.”
“I’m home alone more often than not.” Connor said it straightforward, like it was just a fact of life and not anything particularly bad, but Spencer still mentally flinched. “You get back right before dinner, so that’s like four hours of grounding time before bed every day total. I could deal with that.”
Spencer could have reminded him about weekends, or the fact that he was only so late on days when he had to supervise the ninth-grade detentions—a task that had fallen to him as the newest freshman teacher—but he recognized when his son was going to be stubborn about something no matter what logic he used.
“Fine,” he ground out. “But I’m going to find out who those kids are on my own, and when I do, they’ll be spending so much time in detention they won’t have a spare second to think about who might have turned them in.”
“Dad, no. Please just forget about it.”
“I can’t do that.”
Connor’s eyes hardened. “Fine. I hope you enjoy it when I start coming home with broken bones every day.”
In an impressive feat of strength, he grabbed his bulging bag in one fluid motion and ran down the hall.
Connor flipped him off over his shoulder right before rounding the corner.
Spencer sighed. “That went well,” he informed the nearest locker.
The locker wisely stayed silent.
He sighed again and rubbed at his too-dry eyes. If there was one thing he absolutely hated, it was fighting with his kid. Even when he was in high school and college and his parents were raising Connor more than he was, he’d always felt like it was the two of them against the world. It had taken a few years and more than a few lectures from his mom before he could bring himself to discipline Connor instead of finding ways to excuse his misbehavior, but even now when he had a better handle on all the parenting crap, he couldn’t help feeling horribly alone at times like this.
And he’s only barely fourteen. How the hell am I gonna deal with the next five years?
Although, Spencer had pretty much been asking himself the same question since he was a teenager, and his answer had always been the same. As long as Connor didn’t get anyone pregnant, Spencer could deal with anything. He believed that. He had to because the alternative—that he couldn’t do this by himself—wasn’t even an option. Becky was gone, his parents were almost four hundred miles away, he couldn’t afford a nanny, and guys weren’t exactly lining up to have their shot with the neighborhood’s twenty-eight-year-old single dad. No, Spencer was on his own, and being on his own was something he’d made peace with a long time ago. He could only do what he’d always done: muddle through, hope for the best, and occasionally take his frustrations out on any student stupid enough to give him an excuse. Lucky for him, he had the perfect two already lined up.
All he needed to do was find them.