From either side of the gym, shimmering blue stars hung between boy-girl exclusive crowds of junior-high-schoolers. JoAnne’s son Russ looked adorably ridiculous with his gingery hair gelled into spikes. Always the class clown, Russ insisted on an oversized smiley-face pin for the lapel of his plaid blazer.
At first JoAnne had been irritated that her son wouldn’t wear the boutonniere she bought, but he smoothed things over by pinning the flower to her jacket. “You look beautiful, Mom!” Russ was a charmer, like his dad.
“JoAnna-Banana!” Bob Wexler entered the gym with trays of cupcakes and baskets of cookies slung over his arms. His dimpled smile spread beneath warm chocolate brown eyes.
“Hey, Baker Bob,” JoAnne said. “Thanks for catering.”
Bob’s daughter Lisa was in Russ’s grade, but JoAnne had met Bob at a support group for single parents. They’d gone out twice outside the group. The first time she let him down gently, explaining she needed more time to grieve her late husband. The second time, they almost hit it off, but Bob’s affection overwhelmed her. He showered her with roses and candies, recited poems in her voicemail, and serenaded her on the street.
“You’re sweet,” she had told him. “Almost too sweet.”
He sighed. “A baker can’t be too sweet.”
Now, he set his desserts on a folding table. “More to unpack from the Bob-mobile!”
JoAnne laughed. “Sounds like you brought too much.”
He winked. “No such thing!”
Within the hour, the boldest girls started dragging boys to the dance floor. They swayed arms’ length to slow songs.
When a fast one started, Bob slid out among the kids and made jerky maneuvers that vaguely resembled the Macarena. “Come on, guys! Cut loose!”
One of the other chaperones cringed. “Poor guy. They’re laughing at him, not with him.”
JoAnne shrugged. “So long as they’re laughing, Bob’s happy.”
Lisa Wexler took her father by the arm, whispered into his ear, and kissed his cheek. Then she shoved him back toward his dessert station. It was a kind gesture. A gentle, Dial it back, Dad. Not the mortified protest of an angsty teen.
Later, in the lobby, JoAnne counted raffle tickets. Sniffles and sobs down the darkened hallway caught her attention. She approached to find gelled red spikes slumped in plaid sleeves, the smiley button discarded on the floor.
Her son glanced up, red-faced, tears streaming. “Leave me alone.”
“Sweetheart, what happened?”
“Tina Smith called me a greasy snot.”
“I need space, Mom! Jeeze! Do you have to chaperone everystupid event!”
JoAnne retreated a few steps toward the lobby, eyes misty, heart aching. What would Russ’s dad have done? Was this a time when a 13-year-old boy should be left alone?
She glanced up to find Bob Wexler, eyes knit with concern. He took a step toward Russ.
“Bob—” she whispered.
He held up a hand. “Five minutes,” he mouthed.
JoAnne stepped out of view and listened.
“Russ, girls your age can be cold. I should know, I live with one.”
“I guess,” Russ murmured.
“But you’ve got personality, buddy. Take five then get back out there and dance to the fast ones. Make ‘em laugh. Show them you’ve got thick skin.”
“I don’t have thick skin,” he muttered.
“You just don’t know it yet. I’m telling you, somewhere in that gym there’s at least one girl who thinks you’re cute, but she’s too scared to say.”
“Maybe . . .” A long pause, then Russ said, “Probably more than one.”
Bob laughed. “That’s more like it!”
JoAnne relaxed and retreated out of earshot.
Ten minutes later, Russ reappeared, pinning the smiley back on. Bob patted his shoulder, flashed JoAnne thumbs up, and slipped into the gym.
“Sorry, Mom,” Russ said. “I didn’t mean to take it out on you. I’m fine now.”
She hugged him and followed him back into the dance. Starry lights twinkled over the crowd of kids, now almost fully mingled. She found Bob by the desserts. “Thank you for that.”
“Don’t mention it.” Bob shrugged. “When I was 13, nobody danced with me either.”
“The guy you dance with in junior high is different from the guy you marry.” JoAnne bit into a gooey red velvet cupcake and flashed Bob thumbs up.
Across the gym, Russ approached a girl sitting alone and offered his hand.
“It’s tough, isn’t it?” Bob said. “Sometimes my daughter takes care of me as much as I take care of her.”
Russ and his dance partner swayed to the music and disappeared in the crowd of kids.
“It is tough, Bob.” JoAnne squeezed his hand. “Maybe we can talk about it this week? Over coffee?”
Bob smiled. “That’d be . . . sweet!”
Kevin M. Folliard is a Chicagoland writer whose fiction has been collected by The Horror Tree, Flame Tree Publishing, Hinnom Magazine, Thrilling Words, and more. His recent publications include “Halfway to Forgotten,” featured on The No Sleep Podcast, and the Short Sharp Shocks! Halloween tale “Candy Corn.” Kevin currently resides in La Grange, IL, where he enjoys his day job as an academic writing advisor and active membership in the La Grange and Brookfield Writers Groups. When not writing or working, he’s usually reading Stephen King, playing Super Mario Maker, or traveling the U.S.A.