When they walked into the loft that first day, they were full of hope. It was fall again. The autumn after a tough year, the economic downturn sweeping through even the toniest of communities, including theirs. But now, things were starting to look up. It was the start of a new school year. New beginnings. Everyone was eager to connect, eager to be part of something bigger.
Even those who had things to hide.
The Silver Swans Nursery Academy was new to Lauren Smith, Andrea Vaughan, and Ronnie Stuckey, but they'd heard it was the best place to send one's young children in all of Raisin Beach, California, and they felt fortunate that there was a spot for their children this term. They were excited to attend the school's Welcome Breakfast, an event held every September on the very first day the kids were sent into the classrooms. The breakfast used to be a lavish affair, with a pyramid of donuts, piles of every fruit imaginable, and an ice sculpture of the school's mascot, an erudite, bespectacled owl sitting on a branch, ostensibly ready to teach the young Silver Swans students all he knew.
But this year was more tempered. There were bagels and a variety of spreads; there were grapes and pineapple and an assortment of juices; there was coffee, the tureens lined up, the paper cups ready, though also accompanied by a sign of a smiling cartoon Planet Earth declaring, Love me! Travel mugs preferred! There was not, however, a man in a chef's hat cooking omelets to order. Nor were there caterers circulating with bacon-Gruyre bites. It felt excessive to shower everyone with a gluttonous spread after so many had lost their jobs and so many businesses had gone bust.
After Lauren Smith shook sugar packets into her coffee, she came face-to-face with Piper Jovan, the school's director, who was making a point of greeting each parent. It was hard not to gape at even a dressed-down Piper. The woman's dark, thick hair spilled down her shoulders. Her eyes were ethereal blue, and her lips were plump, and she had a Marilyn Monroe beauty mark next to her mouth. And that body!
"Wow, the Grand Recession didn't hurt you any," Lauren blurted.
Piper blushed mock-bashfully, then looked Lauren up and down. "I don't think we know each other yet."
"Lauren. My son is Matthew? Seven months? My husband should be up in a minute. Well, I hope. He works on a TV show? Ketchup? We moved here last year." Lauren was babbling. She always did when she was nervous.
Then a young man standing just behind Piper tapped her arm and murmured. Lauren studied him closer. "Is this your son?" she asked Piper.
The guy-chubby-cheeked, dark hair neatly combed, wearing a fastidious black oxford buttoned to his collar-barked with laughter. "I'm her assistant!"
"Oh. Sorry." Lauren's gaze bounced from him to Piper. "I'd heard you had a son, Piper, and I just thought . . . anyway, it's nice to meet you!" She smiled dumbly at the man. "What's your name?"
"Carson Dillard." He was still snickering. "And I'm twenty-five. Piper's son is thirteen. No amount of moisturizer is that good."
Lauren's guffaw came out like a honk. Piper just stared like Lauren had three heads. Lauren slunk off, her face blazing. They all would talk about this later, how Piper had the tendency to make you slink away.
"Oh, Lane!" Piper said loudly, turning to the next parent who'd arrived. Lane Wilder looked like the human version of a Labrador retriever. "Thanks for stopping by!"
Lane smiled sheepishly. "Oh. Yeah, thanks. I put Patricia on the kids." He was the kindergarten teacher downstairs. This was his first foray to the loft as a parent, and his girlfriend, Ronnie Stuckey, beamed at him with pride.
But Piper's smile flattened when she noticed Ronnie. Ronnie was taller than Piper, and thinner, and her face had perfect golden-ratio proportions. This made other women jealous, even women like Piper.
"Hi, I'm Ronnie!" Ronnie said brightly. Her accent was from . . . somewhere. Not Raisin Beach, that was for sure. "My daughter, Esme, she's in the fours? Lane and I are-"
"Partners." Lane reached for Ronnie's hand. "Piper, I'm so excited you're going to finally meet Esme's brave, wonderful mom."
Piper's gaze swept up Ronnie's body. While other mothers were going for the natural look this morning, Ronnie unapologetically had a smoky eye and glossy lips, and her face looked airbrushed. Piper also seemed utterly confounded by Ronnie's bag, which looked like an old-style western jacket with its long leather tassels and grommets and was emblazoned with a large G for Gucci. A trained eye might say it was a fake.
A pink tinge crept up Ronnie's neck. "I hope it's okay Esme is enrolled. Lane and I aren't married, I mean. But I saw on your website that partners' children can enjoy the staff benefits, and we filled out the application and were accepted-"
"Of course it's fine," Piper interrupted. "Our inclusion policy extends to all sorts of families. Parenthood doesn't fit into just one box."
"Oh." Ronnie looked relieved. "Okay, good."
"I like your earrings." Piper's assistant poked his head around Piper's frame. He pointed at the jagged metal sculptures that hung so low from Ronnie's earlobes that they nearly grazed her shoulders.
Ronnie grinned, touching her left lobe. "Thanks!" But as she walked away, her smile faded. "Did I do something wrong?" she whispered to her boyfriend. "That seemed weird."
"What? No!" Lane patted her hand. "Piper can be brisk sometimes, but seriously, she's great. You're going to love her."
Lauren, meanwhile, was still loitering by the coffee, listening to a pack of mothers nearby talking about how their ten-month-olds were talking in full sentences. Another mother in the group said she'd brought her toddler daughter to volunteer at the local food bank with her. "It's really enriching her spirit." A toddler volunteering?
When someone touched Lauren's arm, she jumped guiltily. "Sorry!" a voice said. "I just-What you said to the director's assistant back there, about being her son? I asked her the same thing."
Lauren turned to the blond woman speaking. She had a delicate nose, high cheekbones, and kind eyes that were a bright, shimmering blue.
"I'm Andrea," the woman said. She offered a hand with pink nails squared off at the ends.
Lauren introduced herself, too. Then she added, "Now, what were you saying about the assistant?"
They both eyed Carson Dillard. He was still standing subtly behind Piper with his hands folded at his waist like he was some kind of consigliere.
"I asked if he was her son, too," Andrea whispered. "Sometimes, my son stands behind me in just the same way. Like he's waiting to see what move I'm going to make before doing anything himself."
"And when you asked it, did they look at you like you were from another planet?"
"Well, they were looking at me like that anyway." Andrea gestured to her body with a shrug. "It's my first time out. I mean, not out, not out as this"-again she pointed to her chest, which had a hint of a bosom. "I mean out in this community, as a mom. I'm new. God, sorry, I'm so nervous. Don't mind me."
"Ah," Lauren said. "It's okay. We're new, too. Moved here this past winter, right when my baby was due."
Andrea took a big drink of her coffee, then cast Lauren a guilty look. "Do I smell like Bailey's? I shouldn't be telling you this, but I had to spike my drink."
"Do you have any more?" Lauren blurted, her eyes sparkling.
Andrea paused a moment as though shocked, but then whipped out an airplane bottle and glugged some into Lauren's coffee cup. Both of them sipped and smiled conspiratorially.
"So how old's your son?" Lauren asked, after mentioning that her seven-month-old was in the nursery.
"Four. In pre-K. With Miss Barnes."
"Miss Barnes?" Ronnie Stuckey, overhearing, came toward Lauren and Andrea tentatively. "The fours? My daughter has her, too."
"Oh!" Andrea said, and more introductions were made between her, Ronnie, and Lauren. "So what do you think of her?"
"Miss Barnes? She seems great." Then Ronnie looked around the loft in the same way Audrey Hepburn's character did the first time she walked into Tiffany's in that movie. "This is all great, you know? Like, insanely great. Although . . ." She glanced at Andrea with trepidation. "Does your son know how to read yet?" she whispered. "Because I just ran into another mom who has a kid in Miss Barnes's class, too, and she said that her kid breezed through every unit on the Hooked on Phonics app, and now she reads at the third-grade level."
Andrea's eyes bulged. "Were we all supposed to be doing that?"
"I don't know! Was there a handbook we missed?"
"Psst," Lauren said, moving closer to Ronnie. "She's got Bailey's for your coffee." She pointed at Andrea. "Just in case all this"-she gestured around at the other mothers, who were clustered and talking in high-pitched voices-"is too much." Then she quickly added, "I'm just saying, it's a little . . ."
". . . Overwhelming?" Andrea finished.
The three women shared a look of understanding. Ronnie's eyes widened at their coffee mugs, but after thinking it over, she said, "What the hell?" Then she glanced toward her boyfriend, who was now speaking in one of those gaggles of eager mothers. "But pour it in quick. My boyfriend over there? He teaches kindergarten here. I don't want to get him in trouble."
Andrea dumped the rest of the bottle into Ronnie's cup with impressive sleight of hand. After she finished, she did a double take at something on Ronnie's left wrist. It was a yellow rubber bracelet not unlike the Livestrong bracelets people were wearing in the early 2000s. "Where'd you get that?"
Ronnie inspected the bracelet and shrugged. "Some guy gave it to me-my boyfriend I did a meal-delivery service for him and his wife over the summer, after those wildfires? It's like a cancer bracelet or something?"
"Does the guy have Willy Wonka hair?" Andrea's voice had an edge. "Bulgy eyes?"
"Yeah, that sounds right. His name was . . . Jerome?"
"Jerry." Andrea looked more and more uneasy. "Do you . . . know him?"
"Only in passing." Ronnie sipped. "He seemed nice, though."
"Ah." Andrea's shoulders relaxed a little. "He is nice. His wife has cancer. The bracelets, look"-here she showed her own wrist; she was wearing a similar yellow bracelet-"his daughter made them. Flora. She launched a sportswear brand last year, and I guess this was part of the line."
"Impressive." Ronnie smiled, and then added, to Andrea, "I bet you have a lot of cool friends like that. Designers and whatnot. You have that look."
"Me? Oh, not really." Andrea blushed. "And Flora moved up the coast, actually-we weren't even friends. I actually don't know another soul in Raisin Beach."
"Me neither," Ronnie admitted. "I mean, not really." She mentioned that she, like Andrea and Lauren, hadn't moved there that long ago.
Lauren took a sip and looked at Ronnie. "Do you work?"
"Me?" Ronnie froze. "Um, yeah. At this . . . nonprofit. It's really boring."
"Your looks are wasted on a nonprofit!" Lauren chided, then pointed to herself. "My looks, however, are not wasted on being a stay-at-home mom." Then she looked at Andrea. "How about you?"
Andrea took another big swig of her coffee. "I run this blog/support group thing. For people transitioning." Again, she gestured to herself, shrugging. "Or anyone dealing with micro-aggressions, actually. It's not limited to just one group of people."
Lauren looked intrigued. "Does mom-shaming about how I should love breastfeeding even though my nipples still feel like they're going to fall off count as a micro-aggression?"
"Absolutely. You're welcome to chat anytime."
Lauren smiled. Then Ronnie raised her cup. "Well, cheers! Nice to meet some normal people."
They toasted and smiled at one another. From across the room, they noticed Carson, the assistant, looking their way. "Think he knows what we're drinking?" Lauren whispered, stifling a giggle.
"Maybe he needs some," Andrea said. "The kid needs to lighten up."
Then Piper clapped her hands. "Everyone? Can we gather around?" She stood in front of the loft's massive stone fireplace. Everyone dutifully quieted down and turned to her.
"I just want to say, welcome-or welcome back-to Silver Swans Academy." Piper's voice was honeyed and regal. "I'm glad we're all back on track and here together." She laced her hands together like she was doing a cat's cradle. "For those of you who are new, I want to give you our origin story. Our birth story, if you will. Though don't worry, it doesn't involve eating the placenta."
A few men chuckled uncomfortably.
"So. Once upon a time, I had recently moved to Raisin Beach after a very difficult relationship. And I was walking with my son down this very block, and I passed this very building." Piper waved her arms about the space. "Back then, it was called Glory Be Nursery School. Maybe some of you knew it?"
Most faces were blank. Five years ago, when Piper had started as director, was a long time in the parent world. Most of those who had preschool children at Glory Be were long gone. And even though many parents had grown up in this town, it wasn't like they kept tabs on the preschools until it was a necessity to do so.
"And it . . . well, it was beautiful . . . but it needed TLC. And I just felt . . . called. I wanted to teach, but I didn't want to teach just anywhere. I wanted to make a difference. I thought about working where my son went to school-he was in elementary school by then-but I thought, Oh, North, he'll be okay. But I remembered him as a younger child. He wasn't fine then-the separation from his father was hard on him. And I thought, That's the age group that needs me. Such formative years, you know? So much can go wrong."
Everyone murmured appreciatively. When Piper became director at Glory Be, she'd inherited an already thriving preschool. Maybe it wasn't the choicest preschool in town, the one with the miles-long waiting list that required an entrance exam, but the parents who brought their children there were fashionable and professional and educated. Yet after Piper started, she rebranded it into Silver Swans and turned it into the only school that mattered.
"Now, if it had been last year, this would be the part of the speech where I'd talk about our programs," Piper went on. "Our art installations. Our playground renovation. Our impressive list of famous guests who will teach and inspire your kids, everything from cooking to botany. And while all of that is still in place, the world is a little different, isn't it? In the past year, a lot of us have had a wake-up call. A lot of us have learned valuable lessons about what matters . . . and what's superficial." She cleared her throat. "And maybe some of you-more than some-felt so uncertain that things would bounce back. I just want to say we hear you. We see you. It's been hard for us at Silver Swans, too. And I just want to say, thank you for making the investment in us again this year. I know that for some, it might be more of a hardship, and maybe it doesn't seem as important. But education is important, and we will try our hardest and do our best and always be a place of support and caring."