Eddie sits in a chair in front of the principal’s desk, bouncing his leg anxiously--a habit he picked up from Richie, that annoying little twerp. Mrs. Smith is calling his mother for the third time in the last hour, and Eddie knows she won’t be picking up; Wednesday mornings are when she runs her errands and doesn’t return until late afternoon. This is the perfect time to get suspended, Eddie really has to pat himself on the back for that one.
Mrs. Smith sighs and sets the phone back down. “Well, Mr. Kaspbrak, normally if a parent can’t be reached, we move on to the emergency contact, but it looks like your mother failed to list one on your forms.” She glances down at his file and taps her fingers on the desk.
After flipping through all his papers again, she leans back in her chair and gestures to Eddie. “I wouldn’t normally put this decision into the hands of a student, but considering the matter at hand, I’d like to deal with this as soon as possible. So, is there an adult in your life who you think I should contact in lieu of your mother?”
Eddie’s eyes widen a bit. If he can get out of telling his mother… Except he’s coming up blank. He has no family in Derry, and his mother’s only friends are the judgmental, nasty women from the church. He’d rather sit here all day than get them involved.
Great, my one chance to turn this around, and I can’t even--
“Oh! You could call my um-- my mother-in-law,” Eddie says.
“Care to explain to me how you have a mother-in-law when you’re only in the 6th grade?” she asks, crossing her arms and looking at him critically.
Eddie pulls the chain out of his shirt, showing off the gold ring dangling from the end. “Well see it goes back to when we were six, and Richie brought me this ring, said he had saved up his allowance for two whole months and that since we were gonna be best friends forever and already loved each other and shit--I mean shoot, shoot, sorry Mrs. Smith-- that we should get married. He was going on about how his parents are married and they always watch their favorite movies together and just get to like hang out all the time and share everything. And I told him he was crazy but he kept talking about all this cool stuff married people do, and I mean we already did half that stuff anyways, plus he’s real convincing Mrs. Smith, you should have heard him, he even mentioned tax benefits. I’m trying to get him to join the debate team when we get to high school but he’s all--”
“Eddie,” Mrs. Smith interrupts, “breathe.”
“Right,” he says, deflating. He lets the ring fall back against his chest and rubs it like he always does when he’s nervous.
“I won’t even pretend that I understood half of that, but this is Richie’s mother you’re referring to? Richie Tozier’s?”
She sighs again. Personally, Eddie thinks she could cool it with the sighs a bit; this wasn’t a great morning for him either but you didn’t see him huffing and puffing, Jesus.
She assesses him for a moment. “Look, Eddie, you’re a pretty good kid. Aside from some detentions for talking in class, this is the first disciplinary action taken against you. Because of that I’m going to trust that calling your friend’s mother is the appropriate move.”
“Husband...” Eddie mumbles under his breath, twirling the ring.
“What was the Mr. Kaspbrak?”
“Nothing, ma’am,” he says.
She gives him a look. “Lucky for you I practically have this number memorized. Richie is quite the trouble maker. I’m surprised you’re so...taken with him.”
“He doesn’t mean to cause trouble, I swear, he just has a hard time sitting still. His grades are all really good Mrs. Smith, and he even helps us all with our homework!”
She hums noncommittally and dials the number.
He’s been sitting here for what feels like forever. He didn’t get much from Mrs. Smith’s side of the conversation with Maggie but she told him to go wait in the plastic chairs outside her office and he’s just been sitting and stewing in his own thoughts. The longer he sits, the more anxious he gets. His brain’s been repeating the same thing for the last five minutes:
I shouldn’t have said Maggie, I shouldn’t have said Maggie, I shouldn’t have said Maggie
The door suddenly opens and Richie’s mom walks in. Eddie shoot up out of his seat, wringing his hands together. Seeing her makes this all much more real and so much worse. This is Richie’s mom.
Maggie is pleasant with him, always. She greets him with smiles, asks how his day was, invites him to dinner. But she doesn’t quite get Richie and Eddie like Richie’s dad does. Went seems endlessly amused by the pair of them, asking questions to get Richie going, egging him on. Maggie never mocks but she never does anything more than smile, never joins in.
And now here she is, at the school to pick him up because he’s getting suspended. For punching someone. There goes winning over the in-laws, Eddie thinks to himself.
“Eddie,” she says, crossing the room to him. “This is certainly a surprise. I should thank you, it’s nice to shake things up every once and a while.”
“Maggie I’m so so sorry,” Eddie starts, but he’s interrupted by the principal coming out of her office and calling them in.
“Mrs. Tozier, thank you so much for coming. I know the circumstances are a little odd, considering you aren’t his guardian, but we really need to handle this in a timely manner,” Mrs. Smith says, gesturing for them to sit.
“Of course. Anything for Eddie.” Eddie looks at her, surprised. “Now you said on the phone that he’s getting suspended, but you never explained exactly what happened,” Maggie prompts.
“Well it’s a sensitive matter. An older boy seems to have been making some remarks about Eddie and it got out of hand. Eddie saw fit to punch the other student before a teacher pulled him off and separated them. We have a zero tolerance policy for violence at this school, as is clearly stated in the code of conduct that Eddie signed at the beginning of the year. I’m afraid I have no choice but to suspend him.”
“I’m sorry,” Maggie says, brows furrowing,”this is very out of character for Eddie, so I’m sure you can understand my confusion. What kind of remarks was this other student making?”
“Oh, you know how middle school boys can be. The usual.” Mrs. Smith waves her hand dismissively.
“Actually, the middle school boys my son spends time with are perfectly lovely, so no. I don’t know. Spell it out for me,” Maggie throws back. Eddie squirms in his seat a bit; he’s never heard her use that tone before.
“Ah. There were a few comments about his...sexuality.” Mrs. Smith looks uncomfortable. “Of course, this is unacceptable, but we urge students to talk to a teacher if something like this is going on.”
“Comments about his sexuality.”
“Yes, Mrs. Tozier, that’s what we were told.”
Maggie turns to him. “Explain.”
Eddie glances between Maggie and Mrs. Smith, “It’s um. It’s what she said. He just...said some stuff,” Eddie says quietly.
“Yes, so I’ve been told. Tell me what stuff he said,” Maggie pushes.
“Mrs. Tozier, the comments from the other student aren’t why we’re here--”
“No they aren’t, which is probably why a student got punched.” She addresses Eddie again, “Tell me.”
Suddenly Eddie regrets being honest about why he hit Patrick. It’s one thing to tell the principal, but it’s a whole other thing to tell Maggie. She must see something on his face because she softens slightly.
“Hey. It’s okay, you don’t have anything to be ashamed of. I just need to know so I can help, Eddie.” She reaches out and gently rubs his arm.
Eddie blinks a couple times and looks down at the floor. “He called me a...you know.” He can’t even say it, it makes him feel too dirty. “Said I was gonna get AIDs, ‘n offered to try and ‘beat the gay away’. Said even if it didn’t work, it’d be a better way to go.”
He glances up to find Maggie glaring at Mrs. Smith, rage practically radiating off of her.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
Eddie’s eyes almost pop out of his head. Not once, in all the years he’s known her, through all of the frustration that is loving Richie, has he ever heard her swear. She tells off both Richie and Went regularly for cursing at the dinner table.
“Let me get this straight,” Maggie says in an even voice. She somehow makes it sound more terrifying than if she were screaming. “A student threatened Eddie’s life because of who he loves, and because Eddie didn’t stand for it, he’s getting suspended?”
“There are other ways--”
“And what happened to this other student?” Maggie interrupts, “the one who said those horrible things?”
Mrs. Smith clears her throat. “Due to his injuries, he’s at home.”
“At home as in suspended or at home as in getting a day off as a reward for being a vile little boy?”
“His nose was broken! Mrs. Tozier, this is a serious issue—“
“Yes, it certainly is. It’s a serious issue that you’ve allowed for that kind of bullying to take place here. I have no doubt that this wasn’t the first time Eddie had to deal with homophobic and threatening remarks.” She looks at Eddie and raises a brow. He nods his head. “You see? And my god, the fact that Eddie snapped and hit him? It should have been dealt with before it came to this.”
“Regardless of context, we have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to violence, as I said before.”
“Regardless of context?” Maggie says, raising her voice. “How dare you! You want to paint Eddie as the aggressor when all he did was stand up for himself against a bully who should have been stopped by a teacher or administrator! So excuse me, but I’m going to be taking my son-in-law out of class for the rest of the day because he’s been through something traumatic, and if you so much as think of taking disciplinary action or including this in his record, I will make your life a living hell.”
She stands abruptly, leaving Mrs. Smith sputtering at her desk. “Come on, Eddie, we’re going to get ice cream,” grabbing his arm and leading him out of the office.
After she’s signed him out—under the glare of Mrs. Smith—she marches them back to her car.
Eddie slides into the front seat, and slowly buckles up, trying to subtly do the breathing exercises Richie taught him to help with his anxiety.
(Taught maybe isn’t the right word; Richie found them in a magazine article at the grocery store, shoved the whole thing down his pants and walked out, and then showed up at the quarry later making a joke about how it wasn’t a magazine, he was just happy to see him.)
(Man, he’s the best husband.)
Eddie’s been so caught up in trying to calm himself down that he hasn’t even been listening to Maggie, who’s in what sounds like the middle of a long winded rant and hasn’t even started the car.
“--and I mean it! You know, this is discrimination, I’m sure of it! I’d like to see her try something, I will not back down. I’m sure the ACLU would have something to say about this, I’ll have Went find some contact information for them, just in case--”
Eddie’s not sure what about that sets him off, but it’s like one second he’s taking deep breaths and listening to her impassioned speech and the next his body is shaking and his face is soaked.
“Oh Eddie, honey, it’s okay, shh.”
She unbuckles them both and pulls him against her.
“Shh, sweet boy, let it out,” she soothes, gently rocking him.
He turns his face into her neck and tries to smother the sobs that are pouring out of him. She smells like his childhood, like happy days spent with Richie in their backyard, and he’s so grateful that she’s here, that she cares. Her hand gently rubs his back, and he thinks about how different she is to his own mother; his mother’s love is both distant and smothering, a combination of her desire to control everything about him, to keep him close, while never actually seeing him for who he really is. For a moment he’s struck with jealousy that he didn’t get this as a child, that instead he got hospital visits with his mother sat in a chair on the other side of the room and a cold stethoscope pressed to his back. Just as fast as it came, the jealousy leaves him. He might not have gotten this kind of love but he’s so happy that Richie did. It’s thanks to that love that he’s the boy he is today, and Eddie loves him fiercely. Eddie takes one finally breath in the safe space she’s created for him before pulling back and wiping at his eyes.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I did that,” he says, embarrassed.
“Eddie, sweetheart, there’s nothing to be sorry about.” She looks into his eyes like she’s searching for something. “Can I ask one more question? And then I promise I’ll let this whole thing go.”
He’s nervous, under the intensity of her gaze, but he nods his head. After everything she’s done for him today, and everything she’s willing to do for him, he could never deny her.
“Did that boy...Did he say something about Richie too?”
The shock must show on his face, because she gives him a sad smile.
“How...how did you know?”
“I told you, I found it completely out of character for you to hurt someone like that. Until I thought about how much you love Richie, how protective you are of him, even if you pretend you’re not. I thought about someone saying those things to Richie, and suddenly I could picture you taking a swing crystal clear.” She reaches down and takes his hand. “You’re a good husband.”
He blushes at the compliment. It’s the first time she’s ever said those words, and it shouldn’t make him feel so warm but it does. “Thank you, Maggie, for everything.”
She reaches out slowly and holds the ring hanging around his neck for a moment, gently rubbing over the smooth metal, before meeting his eyes. “Didn’t you hear me back there? If you’re going to be a part of this family, you might as well get used to calling me mom.”
They smile warmly at each other.
“Now let's get this show on the road. We have to get some ice cream so we can rub it in Richie’s face later!”