Single-mom Allie lives a busy, kind of boring, but safe life on the North side of Chicago, and all she wants is for her son, Owen, to grow up healthy and happy. When a teacher suggests martial arts to help Owen gain self-confidence; Allie is dubious until she meets Jake--the thoughtful, caring and attractive karate instructor. Allie is certain her crush on Jake is one-sided and therefore harmless, but when Jake indicates he’s interested in her, Allie struggles to believe him--and to have confidence in her judgement and heart. If Allie can overcome her trust issues and communicate to Jake the kind of support she needs; she and Jake can face her past and build a future--even when her abusive, obsessed ex gets out of prison.
Chapter 1: Allie
The train clattered down the tracks, the north side of Chicago whirring past. The fresh-ish air generated by the movement alleviated some—but not all—of my anxiety-induced sweating. Despite my hopes, best efforts and prayers to the CTA gods I was going to be late. My phone dinged with a welcome distraction—a text from my sister Sara, wishing me luck and asking me to call her when I was finished with the parent-teacher conference.
Sara knew I was nervous, anxious I’d be judged by the teacher and the other parents for the choices I had to make. I never volunteered because of work, and my son, Owen always had the keychain that said “after school care” clipped to his backpack. I wanted to be the parent who picked him up at 2:30, fed him a nutritious snack and shuffled him to an enriching activity, but I needed to pay rent. It was 4:47. Three more stops. I took a deep breath and did some calculations.
I’d make it. I would have to run and there would be no time to pee, but I’d be there. For a single parent reliant on Chicago public transportation, it would have to do.
When the train doors clanged open at Bryn Mawr, I shot out onto the narrow platform and ran down the south stairs to the sidewalk where the smell of roasting lamb from the gyro place mingled with the late summer, hot trash smell of the city. Dashing past the panhandlers at the corner store, I caught a merciful green light at Broadway—the last busy street before the school. After that it was an easy three block jog down calm, tree-lined streets to Pierce Elementary. I ended my run outside the kindergarten class, exactly on time.
“Mrs. Alison Mahoney?” Mrs. Jackson asked. An older black woman, her hair was streaked with gray. Her hazel eyes examined me over her glasses, acknowledging I’d made it on time, but she’s clocked it had been close.
“Allie, please, and it’s Miss,” I said. Again, I worried about the impression I was making—out of breath, my long brown hair scraped into a messy bun, teal work scrubs, no make-up, dark circles under my eyes older than Owen. I was young. So young people did a double take when I explained that yes, I was Owen’s mother. Their faces would scrunch as they did the math in their heads; Owen came along right after my twentieth birthday, so that made me 25. “Not quite a teen mom!” I’d cheerfully quip if anyone was rude enough to ask.
I was a good parent. Owen was the center of my life and he had everything he needed, but the circumstances of his birth--and the assumptions strangers made about me—fed the monstrous insecurities that were always ready to surface.
None of that seemed present when Mrs. Jackson invited me in with a measured, pleasant smile, gesturing for me to sit in a little chair in front of a crescent table, where a pile of worksheets and art marked “Owen” waited. The room was cheerfully functional. Primary colors and multiple bookshelves stacked with toys and books, and a line of pegs along the wall for coats and lunchboxes. I quickly found Owen’s spot—labeled with his name in his shaky handwriting—and my chest inflated. Owen had been in daycare since he was 12 weeks old, but the tangible evidence of his life away from me always found fresh ways to pull at my heart.
“Owen is a very sweet, bright boy,” Mrs. Jackson began, and I relaxed. Of course he was, but hearing other people say it never got old. I wanted to enjoy the moment—before I told her what I had to tell her. Mrs. Jackson went through his work, pointing out a paragraph he’d written on his favorite animal— frogs— and showing me his math. Fascinating. “He’s doing great. But—there is one thing.”
“Yes?” I tried to override my natural panic with the more traditionally appropriate look of polite concern.
“Yesterday, Owen was playing, and said ‘these F—word blocks won’t stay up’.”
“That’s strange,” I lied. Owen swore, and it was all my fault. Life was frustrating, so I cursed and he copied. Unfortunately, the first time he did it, I laughed—I couldn’t stop myself. Little kids swearing is funny, but that was a mistake, and he’d been dropping the “F” bomb for a laugh—or to impress—ever since. “He must’ve picked that up from the train, or there was construction by our park—the workers?” I was flaming at the lies. This is why you need two parents—so you can blame your partner when your kid says “fuck” in Kindergarten.
“We talked about appropriate language, and I’d appreciate it if you could underscore that,” Mrs. Jackson said, looking over her glasses at me. I nodded as if I had no higher purpose.
“Aside from the curse word, do you have any concerns about Owen?” There was more I had to tell her; she was his teacher, she needed the background, but—not yet. I wanted to be normal a little longer.
“There is one thing. It’s not bad, but it's worth discussing.” Again, my stomach dropped, anticipating disaster. I clutched at the table, pressing my palm flat, bracing for her observations. “Owen is very passive. He lets the other kids run right over him—they want the ball; he gives them the ball. He knows the answers, but he’s not confident enough to speak up. I worry, down the line, he’ll be vulnerable.”
“I see what you’re saying.” I had noticed it. Owen answered most challenges with a shrug, and he would walk away rather than argue. “I never thought it was a problem, but I can see the issue. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Martial arts,” Mrs. Jackson said, and I hissed out a breath. I had never studied martial arts, but I’d been punched and kicked. My gut reaction-no way. Doing something violent, inviting it into our lives after what we’d been through --the thought made me flinch. Mrs. Jackson sensed my dubiousness. “Studies have shown Martial arts is good for children who need to be more assertive. It’s great for kids who need confidence. It might be just the thing for Owen.”
“I’ll check into it.” I made a note on my paper to be polite, but I wasn’t convinced. I was skeptical, and would be much more inclined to soccer--or T-ball, but it wasn’t like Owen’s kindergarten teacher was suggesting he take up MMA fighting. Mrs. Jackson had been teaching for a while--her introductory email had said 30 years, and she had worked with tons of kids. Her opinion was significant, and if she thought martial arts could help Owen, I should consider it. My traitorous brain pointed out Karate could provide Owen some positive examples of masculinity, and it’s not like I was doing a lot in that department. If the male examples provided were toxic, well, we could quit. I could probably afford it since I wasn’t paying for daycare, and at least it would be on a consistent schedule. In a snap, I decided I’d research it to see if it was even possible given my considerable financial and time constraints and go from there.
As I see-sawed on marital arts, Mrs. Jackson had moved on to what to expect in the next quarter, and the conference was wrapping up.
“Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?” She smelled something.
Time to speak up. No more stalling. Courage.
“Yes, actually,” I began, fighting to keep eye-contact. My fingers picked at my purse’s strap, and I couldn’t stop them. I wanted to close my eyes and pretend this wasn’t happening. I wanted to hide under the desk. Not an option. “Owen’s father terminated his parental rights just before Owen’s second birthday. He was threatening Owen’s safety, and I left him.” I hated talking about it. I left out all the bruises, the scars he’d stamped on my body. I didn’t say anything about the night we left—his call from jail, demanding I bail him out, my promise to do so, and how instead I called my sister. We had grabbed what we could, stuffing it in Sara’s car while Owen slept in the car seat. I trembled the entire time, certain he’d catch me, somehow, and I’d pay for it. Even now, I worried he’d find us, when I knew he was in prison. I closed my eyes at the awfulness of it all, but I continued. “Owen witnessed violence at a young age, he experienced trauma. If you notice anything related to that, or think Owen needs—anything, really, please let me know.”
“I see,” Mrs. Jackson said, her tone calibrated, but the dominos were falling in place, snapping together a picture of our lives from the pieces I’d shared. “I’m very sorry. Thank you for sharing that with me. It’s important background, and it offers some insight into Owen and some of his confidence issues. I do think martial arts—and possibly an appropriate male role model would be beneficial. On the whole, though, I think Owen is doing great, but if I think further intervention is warranted, I will reach out.”
Message received. My guilt, which also hovered right under the surface, bubbled up and I bumped karate lesson research to the top of my to-do list.
With that, the conference was over. Mrs. Jackson thanked me for coming as she walked me to the door, and I thanked her for staying late. The niceties concluded, I hustled to pick up Owen, googling “Andersonville karate” as I walked. A website opened, dominated by an image of two smiling, attractive, and in-shape men in Marine Corps Cammies— one with dark hair, one blond. The blond one had extraordinary blue eyes that leapt off the tiny screen, making me stare for a second. I shook my head—focus, Allie— and checked the address—convenient enough to our apartment and the school to work.
Owen shouted “Mama!” when he saw me, and I stowed my phone. He ran towards me, and my heart lit up like a neon sign switched on at twilight.
Picking him up was the best part of my day.
Late summer Chicago settled around us as we headed home on the wide sidewalk, hand in hand. The park down the street was filled with happy screams of kids playing before dinner, and sunlight shone through the still green trees lining the streets. The afternoon heat was starting to dissipate, and families gathered on porches and front stoops, greeting the end of the day. Owen and I walked towards the part of the neighborhood where the big grand buildings had been carved into apartments, affordable for a mere mortal like me. As we walked, I asked Owen a few softball questions before I got to the point.
“You said the F-word yesterday?” I fished, looking for his side of the story.
“Connor’s brother had to take poop medicine!” Distraction. Owen was clearly hopeful this entertaining tidbit would distract me. But I was not deterred. “The F-word?”
“It slipped.” His eyes were wide and innocent. “It was a moment of high emotion.” I bit back a laugh--my own excuse for swearing parroted back at me was funny, but I had learned that lesson.
“Can’t do that, kid. That’s not a school word. It’s inappropriate, and it doesn’t fly with Mrs. Jackson.”
“Tell me about it.” I allowed myself a chuckle at his tone.
On the way home we walked past parents coming home from the train, families reunited on porches and stoops after a day spent apart. I smiled and held Owen’s hand, and the familiar pang dissipated as we approached the gray facade of our building and the woodpecker who lived in the tree outside our apartment knocked against the wood. I pushed a smile through the melancholy, squeezing Owen’s hand, remembering what my Mom always said. I had to remember to be grateful for what I had.
Our apartment was one of six in an old building built in the late 19th century. A long hallway led to the kitchen, with three bedrooms and the ancient bathroom sprouting like leaves off the stem of the hallway. The wood floors were old but gleamed, and a bit of original molding crowned the entryway into the living room. That molding had justified me signing the lease—that little bit of beauty in this home that had sheltered families for over a hundred years made me feel that this would be a safe place—a good place— where my son could thrive.
Dirty dishes were piled in the sink and dinner needed to be cooked. Two loads of laundry needed folding and research on karate lessons waited. Sara wanted to hear about the parent teacher conference, but we could discuss while I folded the laundry—and she’d have an opinion on the “karate—too violent?” question.
As I locked the door behind us, the tension seeped out of my shoulders. Safe at home with Owen; he was happy, we were together, and I couldn’t ask for more than that.