Riding Tall

By: Kate Sherwood

Chapter 1

“COME ON, Mr. Bowerman,” Joe said with what he hoped was a charming smile. It wasn’t easy to be firm and still pleasant, wasn’t easy to seem respectful but still go after what he wanted. This was the sort of job he’d always sent his twin brother to do, and there was a reason for that. But Will had his own concerns now. This was Joe’s problem. “I know it’s not as tidy as it could be, but we’re working on it. The elementary school didn’t have a problem with the setup.”

“You’re asking us to register a student for whom you are not legally responsible and who has no fixed address.” Mr. Bowerman shook his head as if he were saddened by Joe’s irresponsibility. The man had been a vice principal at the school when Joe had attended, and then been transferred elsewhere, to the town’s general relief. Now he was back as principal, inching his way toward a retirement that couldn’t come soon enough for his students. He hadn’t been flexible when Joe had been a student, and he certainly didn’t seem to be mellowing with age.

Joe tried to be calm as he repeated what he’d already told the man three times. “She has a fixed address. Our address. She’s staying with us.”

“Staying,” Bowerman said pointedly. “Not living. That doesn’t sound like a fixed address to me. We can’t create schedules for every couch surfer in the district, you know.” He pronounced “couch surfer” as if simultaneously proud of his use of the vernacular and somewhat disgusted by its feel in his mouth.

“Lacey’s not couch surfing. She’s here for the rest of the school year, at least.” Joe wanted to make his point a little more vehemently, probably with a bit of volume. The school had a legal obligation to educate the students within its catchment area, and Bowerman should just admit that and stop wasting Joe’s time. Yeah, it’d feel good to do a little yelling right about now. But Bowerman seemed like the sort of guy who’d hold a grudge. Joe wasn’t worried about himself, but Ally still had most of a semester in the school and would be needing support for scholarships and graduation awards. There was no point in making things more difficult for her. “We’re hoping to have the paperwork sorted out in the next few weeks. Jean Carpenter’s the social worker on the case, Andy Stark is onboard—”

“We don’t take instructions from the provincial police,” Bowerman scoffed.

Joe tried to ignore the interruption. “The aunt down in Sarnia has said she’s happy to be rid of both girls. There’s nowhere else for them to live and nowhere else for them to go to school. Lacey needs to get registered here.”

“Once the paperwork’s in place—” Bowerman started, but now it was Joe’s turn to interrupt.

“They’re saying weeks for that, at best. It could be longer. Lacey’s already missed too much school, and this is her last year—her marks really matter.”

Bowerman looked pitying again. “Lacey Walton’s marks don’t really matter. She’s not heading for postsecondary education. She’ll be lucky to pass.”

“Okay, well, maybe her marks weren’t great in the past, but she’s a smart kid. She can do better if she gets more support at home. But if she is a weak student, that still means she shouldn’t be missing a ton of school while we wait for things to get formalized. She needs to be in class.”

“We’re not a day care, you know. We’re not here to solve your childcare issues.”

Joe frowned in confusion. “She’s seventeen. She doesn’t need a babysitter.” He wished Will was there. Or Mackenzie. Yeah, Mackenzie would definitely understand what was happening here. The guy could read people like Joe could read animals. If Mr. Bowerman were a stubborn steer refusing to go into a chute, Joe would know how to handle the situation. He wouldn’t push too hard, he’d try to figure out what the steer was thinking. Was the animal scared of something? Was he seeing an obstacle in the chute that Joe hadn’t noticed? “Lacey was okay when she was here last time, wasn’t she?” Joe didn’t know about any problems, but he’d mostly heard Ally’s stories, and it was quite possible his sister had cleaned things up to protect her friend.

Bowerman raised an eyebrow. “Well, here we get into one of the problems with a casual arrangement without paperwork. Until I have documentation of your legal relationship with Lacey, I’m afraid I cannot discuss any aspect of her history with you. The privacy legislation is quite clear. I also couldn’t discuss any aspect of her current behavior. So if she acted up and needed to be suspended, who would I contact? If a teacher had a concern…?”