A Falcon's Bend Series Novella
On his last day on the job, Warren Jensen and Amber Carfi are called to the Falcon's Bend High School. Sloane Oligney, mother of one of the students, and high school math teacher Chad Martin are two of the unfortunate hostages of a troubled, violently dangerous student "JZ" who blames Sloane for his girlfriend Laura breaking up with him. Sloane has been blind since birth and refuses to believe in love at first sight. Even as Chad's voice helps her through their precarious situation, she wonders if "love at first sound" is possible...and whether they'll make it out alive to find out.
"He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself." ~Chinese Proverb
"You had me at hello." ~Dorothy Boyd from Jerry Maguire
Friday, September 21
"We were just kids when we married. And I was at the hospital for so long every day, every night, I couldn't have a life."
Though it'd been almost a week since the spontaneous conversation with his ex-wife, Michaela's words strolled through Chad Martin's mind often, like a jarring toothache, no matter what else he was doing. Each and every time, he recalled his own unspoken response, too. "So what's changed, Chael?" They both lived in Falcon's Bend, Wisconsin, a small town that wasn't exactly a mecca for entertainment. Chad had grown up here and, following college, returned after he got married and they both got jobs in the community. He and Michaela had been divorced for almost seven and a half years now, yet she hadn't bothered to take any of the job offers he suspected she must have gotten from larger hospitals--ones with more advancement opportunities for a doctor with Michaela's single-minded focus.
They'd run into each other at the coffee shop on Saturday and ended up sitting together despite the awkwardness that tended to accompany their infrequent meetings. She'd made an uncomfortable comment on how good he looked, which made him cerebrally aware she was as attractive as he remembered her. He'd been wondering how to politely say he had papers to grade when she'd done a U-turn and started talking about, of all insanity, getting back together. She hadn't apologized for what happened to split them up, something he believed was entirely her fault. Their marriage had been rocky, underscored with extended periods of times when he was alone, getting infrequently, last-minute, harried, you-understand calls from his wife. She'd never apologized back then either. Their divorce had been hard on him. He'd gone through months of wondering what the hell was happening to his life, and then he'd realized almost abruptly that he was relieved. Their marriage had been cold, distant, barely there considering the unbelievably long hours she worked.
Convenient for sex. That was the best I could say about our marriage. Even if she was never home, the few times she was I could count on getting laid. But, frankly, I'm in a good place right now. No, I don't date and I get lonely sometimes, and maybe that bothers me more lately because my friends ask me if I'm dating someone too much, but my work fulfills me. I love my job, love the kids that challenge and motivate me to do my damndest to make this a time in their lives that shapes who they are and where they're heading.
His desire to be a positive influence in the life of high school students was a big part of the reason he'd agreed to take on the Careers class while a fellow teacher went on maternity leave. He had the block open anyway and maybe it meant he had to do a lot more grading at home instead of during the free period until October, but this was worth any questionable sacrifice on his part. While most of the kids in his advanced mathematics classes were on the college track, he didn't share Mrs. Rusk's jaded attitude that the kids in her Careers class were destined for a future of manual labor. She claimed they used the period to catch up on sleep anyway. While he couldn't totally deny the assessment since Mrs. Rusk had left him in charge, he'd used the time to get to know the kids one on one, attempting to figure out their interests and encourage them to stretch themselves.
The very first Careers class he'd substituted, he'd walked through the desks and woken up every kid slumped and only half-listening after lunch, saying, "Maybe you've learned otherwise from your parents or friend's parents, but life isn't about grinding through the days to make it to the weekend when you can blow your mind with alcohol or drugs, trying to forget your ordinary life. It's about finding out what you want, enjoying your life, loving your job. You've got the freedom to make choices about what's coming up next for you that don't mean you slide by, watching your own reality like you've got no say about where it's all going. It's about starting to build on your dreams, now, dreams that you can make reality if you've got enough determination. I'm here to help you do that. Every teacher and employee at this school is here for that purpose."
To that end, he'd gone off Mrs. Rusk's syllabus and contacted the parent of one of his more prodigious students, asking her to speak to his Careers class. Sixteen-year-old Laura Oligney's mom, Sloane, had been born blind, but she was an in-demand freelance computer programmer. With the technology coach and her tech team made up of students, Sloane had organized the school's LAN network.
Laura talked about her mother often. She was one of the few-as-to-be-otherwise-singular students who actually got along with her parent (according to Laura, her father had never been in the picture beyond the initial donation to her existence) and even claimed that she told her mother everything. Laura was the whole package--an eager, go-getter with equal amounts of charm and genius, highly regarded by both students and teachers--and she'd become Chad's unofficial teaching assistant within the first few weeks of the school year starting. She'd been the one to suggest to Chad that she privately tutor some of the students struggling to comprehend his lessons. Chad had been offering private tutoring sessions to all his students since he'd come to work at Falcon's Bend High School, but he couldn't deny some kids did seem to work better with fellow students, especially Laura with her outgoing, affable personality.
A few weeks before, Laura had come into his classroom while he was talking to Isabelle Granville, a senior who'd had a sports-related accident a few years before that resulted in permanent blindness. Isabelle had previously been ambitious, a good student with unequalled competitiveness. In the years since, Isabelle had withdrawn, all but given up on going to college, on having a real career, of ever leaving her parents' house. Since he'd taken over Mrs. Rusk's Careers class, Chad had been encouraging Isabelle not to give in to despair despite the obstacles, drawing out her interests and relentlessly trying to get her to believe her life hadn't ended when she lost her sight.
After Isabelle had left, agreeing to at least consider his perfectly realistic suggestions, Laura had urged him to contact her mother about speaking to his Careers class--specifically for Isabelle. She'd given him Sloane's email, and Chad had been excited because Isabelle had admitted to enjoying all her computer classes since this year's tech team had installed text-to-speech programs on her school laptop.
Sloane had responded to his initial email with enthusiasm and they'd worked out a date. While email wasn't exactly a place to infer disposition, Chad had incongruously enjoyed the eager, informal back-and-forth, relaxed and fabulous correspondence they'd shared for the week they'd worked out details for the visit. Every response had him anxious and distracted until it arrived, and he'd derived almost as much pleasure crafting his own responses to her witty and captivating notes. He'd been sorry when there'd been nothing more to discuss once all was in place and the possibility of an email from Sloane was no longer forthcoming...until the one he'd been able to send earlier this week with a gentle reminder that'd felt more to Chad like a desperate plea for renewed attention than touching base.
This past weekend, he'd found himself smiling, goofy, considering all the "electronic conversations" they'd had. Unbelievable that he'd never actually met someone who occupied so many of his most pleasant thoughts since the very first time she'd emailed him back. He could barely wait to meet her for her Careers visit. Beyond that, it was still early in the school year and they'd yet to have a parent-teacher conference, but he'd realized how much he was looking forward to the first one in early November. Surely Sloane would come. Her daughter was one of the most popular, brightest students, and Sloane had already proven herself happy to get involved in Laura's school activities.
Feeling like his thoughts were inappropriate, Chad had forced himself to get out of the house on Saturday. He'd ended up at Java & Jazz, not a place he often visited after an unfortunate and surreal event that'd happened only a few months after his divorce. Just his luck, he'd bumped into Michaela there and she'd sprung the let's-get-back-together trap on him literally out of nowhere. They hadn't seen each other in years. While he'd initially been flattered that she found him attractive enough to blurt out a crazy proposition he wasn't interested in, he'd only realized the source of his gratification after he'd (lied and) told her he'd think about it and fled the scene. In the relative safety of his car on the way home, he'd laughed his ass off--during which his face and neck became furnace conduits--when he wondered hopefully if Sloane would find him attractive.
Damn, I'm so rusty at physical attraction, it's hard to imagine I've ever had any relationships before, especially a lot of them. He'd gone from girlfriend to girlfriend as a popular, smart, athletic teenager; a party-crazed, intelligent-enough-to-get-bored-easily, (still) athletic college student; and, even after he'd settled down a little, he'd had no trouble attracting the opposite sex. But even he had to admit since he'd tied the knot and subsequently gotten divorced, he'd entered some bachelor's no-man's-land. That incident more than seven years ago, when he'd met a woman who could have easily become the love his life if not for the fact that she was brutally murdered barely a day after their hook-up had scarred him in a way no one else had probably even noticed because he'd buried the trauma deep inside himself, far from the light of day. He rarely thought about anything but the reproductive biological imperative that surprisingly reared its head less frequently with each passing year.
Every day of this week had increased his awareness that he would soon meet the woman behind the email, the woman who'd mothered one of his favorite students. In the back of his mind, though, was Michaela's proposal and his inability to know what the hell to even say to her. She'd texted him that morning, and he'd ignored that as well. Maybe she just wants convenient sex. That was always good between us, regardless of the disappointing rest of our relationship. Maybe I should take what I can get, get laid by an attractive woman and call it even. It's been years since I've so much as kissed a woman. And it's not like we have to fall in love again, if we ever shared that once upon a time. So why doesn't that "free milk" interest me even remotely?
Chad didn't experience so much as a twinge of victory that Michaela must be stunned at his silence. She'd always considered herself a catch, the kind of gorgeous woman any man would fall all over himself to have, even if just temporarily. That she'd had to text when he should have been jumping at her offer the second it was given would result in delayed punishment if he did choose to respond to her. From a strange sort of distance, he realized he had no intention of contacting her, not even to tell her he wasn't interested. He had zilch desire to hurt her, despite her cruel breakup more than seven years ago, and she'd undoubtedly be offended by anything he had to say in turning her down. Better to say nothing so she could preserve her dignity and find someone who could give her whatever the hell she was looking for. Did she even know?
Isabelle Granville's name drew his attention from the other side of the teacher's lounge, where he'd come for a last cup of coffee during lunch period. He got up and moved over to the school nurse talking to the secretary.
"What's going on with Isabelle?" he asked after politely interrupting the two women.
"Oh, I sent her home last period," Charlotte said. "Fever. Must be coming down with something, poor thing."
Chad murmured something, went back to the chair he'd been sitting in, got his briefcase and coffee and left the room on autopilot. He navigated himself to the Careers classroom on the opposite side of the school from the classroom he'd taught math in since he'd started working there. He went back-and-forth in his mind on how to handle the news that Isabelle wouldn't be here for Careers today--the very day he'd most wanted her to be present. Should he email Sloane, try to reschedule? Would she even get the email in time? He didn't have her phone number. Trying to get it from Laura would probably take too long.
A cursory glance at his ultra-geek calculator watch told him there was no time for anything. Sloane would already be on her way here. The bell would ring in less than ten minutes. Even though he'd been looking forward to meeting her and having her talk to his students, the one person who would benefit the most from her career advice was absent. Could he ask Laura to come in a second time? While her work was freelance, she was booked solid and she'd had to do some rearranging and hoop-jumping to come in for today's hour-and-eighteen-minute class. To ask her to do it again within the time he had until Mrs. Rusk returned from maternity leave would be stretching his luck.
Chad grimaced in frustration. If he left the situation to Mrs. Rusk, quite frankly he left the advantage to chance. While he wasn't one to speak ill of colleagues, he knew Rusk saw Careers class the same way the students did: A free, useless period for those who weren't on the college track and didn't have the ambition to do more than endure a bunch of random adults shuffling through to drone on about what they did for a living. Mrs. Rusk normally taught social studies but she'd agreed to also take on Careers long ago and no one could remember anyone else having ever taught it before her, despite that she was still young enough to have a baby and she was perfectly adequate at teaching her regular subject. She didn't care about the class any more than her students did...and it showed, or had until Chad had agreed a month ago to take it on temporarily.
Once inside the classroom, he quickly set up his laptop and emailed Sloane, not surprised when the minutes ticked by without a reply and students started to trickle in. Realizing he was just going to have to go through with this and appeal to Sloane's clear willingness to help out someone who faced similar obstacles she had herself, he got up and started mingling with the kids who entered the initially quiet classroom.
Chad considered it a victory that no one slouched in their desk from the time they sat down in it the way they had when he first started teaching the class. Even the kids who had no interest in the class, in learning period, and, quite frankly in being in school at all, seemed to be more willing to engage in semblances of conversation with him. The only one who resisted was Jeron Zabek, or JZ as he liked to be called (and Chad refused to), a senior who'd just barely gotten through to his last year of high school. At six-foot-one, the muscular eighteen-year-old already had a moustache and a police record for drugs, alcohol and vandalism. While his natural state was withdrawn and uncommunicative when not around his tough-guy-delinquent crowd, in the past few weeks, Chad had made some progress in getting him to open up.
For someone who was eight months from graduating, Jeron seemed to have no direction in his life, and, not surprisingly, Chad believed that to be a direct result of his upbringing. His parents had divorced in his single digits. His dad was a deadbeat womanizer, and little more needed to be said on that. The mother had remarried after divorcing Jeron's father, had more children with the new husband who had about as much interest in Jeron as his own father appeared to. The times the school had tried to get hold of the biological father, he'd insisted Jeron's mom "took care of all that". Only if the school social worker insisted he come to the school to deal with Jeron would he appear. The man could be counted on not to say a single word the whole time he was on the premises.
The mother had divorced the second husband after several years as well. She'd just remarried a third time a year ago, and, according to the school counselor, she was beleaguered with her own cares--her other children, her new relationship. She'd resigned herself to Jeron's bad behavior, convinced there was nothing she could do to help him beyond lecturing and insisting he wasn't doing his part at home, while silently looking forward to the day when he wasn't her problem anymore. Apparently, the legal system was all she envisioned in her oldest child's future.
"Everything all right, Jeron?" Chad asked him, noticing the larger young man's body language--rather than being his status quo of withdrawn and sullen, Jeron seemed restless, maybe even nervous. He was sitting up straight as an arrow in his tight desk, his hands folded into one huge fist. His dark, hooded eyes refused to meet Chad's.
Unfortunately, it was at that exact moment the guest he'd been looking forward to meeting materialized in the classroom. Chad briefly squeezed Jeron's thickly-muscled shoulder and moved toward the woman entering the room behind a large, salt-and-pepper German Shepherd on a leash. Instantly, every girl in the class flew from their seats with cries of adoration.
Chad swallowed the sudden lump in his throat, recognizing his own nervousness at a meeting he'd been looking forward to with almost inappropriate eagerness for weeks. Sloane was a couple inches under his height of five-eight in barely heeled, straightforward black leather boots, wearing a quarter-sleeve, ribbed turtleneck sweater and jersey-knit cotton black pants that perfectly showed she took excellent care of herself. Slim without being too thin, it was obvious she wasn't a "fashion hound" (Laura's own words) like her daughter. She wore no discernable makeup on her peaches-and-cream complexion, nor a stitch of jewelry, nothing fancy. Her streaked blond hair was pulled into a deceptively sloppy twist at the back of her head with a plain, thick, black headband holding the mass back. She wore black sunglasses that completely covered her eyes, and, when several of the female students commented on how much they liked them, she acted completely natural about wearing them indoors on an early autumn day.
The ease she displayed in interacting with the kids made Chad smile, hanging back while she introduced her guide dog, Stallion: "A name that, I know, should have given him a complex, but as you can tell, he's too humble and sweet to be intimidated."
Chad laughed out loud, and Sloane lifted her head a fraction as if she'd taken notice of him in the circle of giddy, giggly girls around her. A rush of excitement flooded him, forcing him to tamp it down. He had to talk to her before the class got underway.
Behind her, lurking in the doorway was another woman holding a set of car keys that jingled suddenly and made Sloane turn in that direction to say, "Mary, thanks for driving me. I'll see you at two-forty--is that right, Mr. Martin?"
Chad shifted so he could approach Sloane from her right side. "Call me Chad. If you don't mind, could I talk to you privately, Ms. Oligney?"
"Sure. And it's Sloane."
They'd agreed to first names in their emails, but he understood that venue seemed to dictate informality the way this one didn't assume.
Very carefully, he put a hand on her forearm and gently steered her toward her driver Mary still standing in the classroom doorway. He turned back to tell the students to keep the noise to a minimum until they returned.
"Everything all right?" Mary asked when Chad closed the classroom door behind them. A few students were still in the hall, rushing to classes in the mere minutes they had before the bell rang.
"I guess that's what I need to figure out. Unfortunately, Isabelle Granville was sent home with a fever before lunch, Sloane. I just found out, so the email I literally sent you six minutes ago couldn't have reached you in time. The rest of the class will benefit as much as Isabelle, but I was really hoping she could be here for your visit. She could really use some encouragement not to give up hope. But I know your schedule is packed and giving us your time today wasn't easy to accommodate."
Sloane didn't appear stressed by the news. "I was hoping to talk to Isabelle myself. I don't mind coming back at another time when she can be here. We'll work it out."
"Thanks. You'll be a hit both times, even if the majority of students attending doesn't change," Chad said appreciatively, wondering self-consciously if he was gushing. He wasn't sure why, other than that Sloane smelled like sugared grapefruit, and he couldn't help being finitely aware to the point of giddiness of the scent beckoning him closer.
"So, should I come back at two-forty, Sloane?" Mary asked.
"That'd be great, Mary. Thanks. See you."
When the other woman walked away, Chad felt relief because he'd been convinced Mary could see his physical reaction to her employer and was judging him. Focused on Sloane, he uneasily brushed back the natural long curls his students sometimes compared to ramen noodles. He had little by way of a hairstyle, let alone concern about his hair, and he was frequently told by other teachers and staff that his hair was too long and "hippie". "Thanks again for agreeing to stay today and come back another time, Sloane...but I admit I'm hoping you can come back before October."
She grinned like he'd said something amusing. "Why October? Did Laura tell you about my Halloween sunglasses collection?"
Chad chuckled, unwinding a little in the presence of someone so easygoing that even his odd inability the last few years to be comfortable around most single women dissolved. Sloane was like her daughter--confident without being conceited, the way so many young women were these days in the age of "female self-empowerment", warm, funny, just a little off-beat. "No. She never mentioned it, but I may have to ask her about it now. I meant because I'm teaching the Careers class temporarily, just until Mrs. Rusk returns from maternity leave. I've heard she tends to be...well, unhappy...when substitute teachers try to change her set-in-stone curriculum."
"Have you done that, Mr. Martin?" she asked in mock astonishment.
"Well, now, I admit I have, Ms. Oligney, and radically," Chad rumbled. "If possible, I'd like to keep that a secret as long as I can."
A smile unfurled in response, transforming Sloane's face into the most beautiful he'd ever seen. Chad was captivated by her flawless skin and unadorned mouth. "In the interest of providing my daughter's schoolmates with a quality education, I'll do my best to oblige your deception as soon as possible."
Feeling a little breathless, he chuckled again and could only be grateful she couldn't see the heat and color creeping up his neck past the collar of his shirt and "rock star" blazer, as Laura called it. "I appreciate it, Sloane. I really do, and I know all my students, and Isabelle especially, will benefit from the time you spend with them."
"No pressure now?"
They laughed as one.
"Not a problem," she said.
"Then I guess we should get in there."
"If you don't mind, I like to walk around a new room and get a feel for it, so if you'd be so kind as to be my escort?"
"Just tell me what to do," Chad said enthusiastically, reaching for the door and her arm.
"Stallion will keep me from crashing into anything, but I'd like to see the room through your eyes as you give me the tour."
The kids in the room were restless, mostly forming their little cliques outside their desks while the more withdrawn, lone wolves were sitting quietly in their desks. Chad walked around the tight space, giving Sloane the lay of the land, before the bell rang, he called the class to order, and everyone rushed to their seats. He introduced Sloane, mentioned that Isabelle had gone home with a fever, and that Sloane had already agreed to come back--something that was met with cheers he didn't try to quell. He opened the floor to Sloane, then went to sit behind his desk.
Mrs. Rusk...Charlotte...had told him she generally worked during any class-time that featured a speaker, grading social study papers, facilitating only when she was required to. Chad had never done that. He treated the class like any other he taught, and he was actively engaged with the room. He noticed that most of the kids were avidly and enthusiastically engaged in Sloane's life of their own volition, asking interesting questions without being prompted, and he couldn't blame them.
As Sloane told them her story of being born blind to parents who refused to let her view her condition as the means to live a life without dreams, direction or determination, Chad saw his own philosophy brought to life. She spoke in a laidback manner, coaxing easy laughter from a group he'd called grumpy out loud the first time he'd substituted for them. In ways, he couldn't help feeling as if he and Sloane were the only two in the room. She'd fallen in love with computers when she was in high school, programmed her first one when she was a sophomore, which entailed completely rewriting the code from scratch until it read text back to her, and she'd gone to college, intending to make a career of this love. Now she used text-to-speech programs with customized modifications, and she'd built a self-sustaining freelance career out designing computer programs from her home. She didn't have to do any marketing to garner jobs; word-of-mouth did that for her.
Chad glanced at Jeron, noticing again how restless he was--more so than usual. And something more. He looks like he's grappling with some inner turmoil just barely contained. Though he knew Jeron met with the school counselor at least once a week and Chad believed Violet cared deeply about the students she worked with (at times, Chad doubted the social worker, Patrick, harbored the same concern), he was also aware Jeron said little if nothing during those sessions. He hadn't gotten much further than the counselor in getting the boy to open up, but he'd made some headway. I'll get someone to cover my Focus class, contact Jeron's Focus teacher after Careers is over, and see if I can't get him to tell me what's bugging him today.
Chad didn't easily pass his Focus Period off to anyone else. The goal of Focus Period was to help students with their individual needs, like monitoring grades and dealing with homework they might be struggling with, and naturally it was a time to teach character-building concepts. He took Focus seriously and saw it as an opportunity to bond with students, though there were the occasional periods that were more like study hall with everyone focused on homework alone, so he could grade math papers. As much as possible, though, he tried to take time with every single person in his Focus classroom each school day. But he sensed whatever was bugging Jeron was critical and required some one-on-one time with someone who cared that the guy resembled little more than a time bomb about to go off in the middle of an otherwise oblivious atmosphere.