Joseph P. Wisniewski listened to the slap and shuffle of his Birkenstocks echo along the empty corridor of Caldwell High School. He knew where his steps were taking him, but he wasn't sure why anymore. That echo seemed to ping around the empty spaces inside him, searching for the answer. He'd give himself until the end of the term to figure things out or hand in his resignation. To quit teaching.
He navigated a crooked course along the wide vinyl hall dulled by Mr. Stenquist's ineffective floor wax, avoiding the sunlight flooding through the open classroom doors to nurse his hangover in the shadows. It wouldn't be so easy to detour around the back-to-school business with his fellow faculty that was sure to nudge his early morning headache into a midafternoon migraine.
"Suck it up, Wisniewski," he muttered, rubbing a hand over the last batch of four-day stubble he'd feel until deep into Thanksgiving vacation. "This is why you get paid the big bucks." Steeling himself to confront another school year, he shouldered his way through the office door.
Linda Miller glanced up from her command post behind the reception counter. "Well, look what the cat dragged in."
Joe's grimace eased into a smile. The middle-aged secretary's crusty personality masked a gooey cream center. Linda might be mouthier than the average clerk, but she anted up pay phone coins for teen crises and found more niches for hopeless grads than the local armed forces recruiting office. "Hey, Linda."
"What? No tan from the tropics? No handwoven shirt from Nepal? No bruises from a dustup with a jealous husband? Exactly what kind of summer vacation did you take?"
"The restful kind." He turned to pull two months' junk mail and memos out of his office box. "And I told you that black eye was a misunderstanding. Pamela was legally separated. The divorce decree was in the mail."
"Hmph." She came around the counter with her nose in the air, sniffing with a smirk. "Aramis. A seductive scent. With undertones of Excedrin and Scope that almost disguise the subtle hint of too much Scotch."
"Come on, Linda. Even you can't smell Excedrin."
"No, but I can see that whatever you took isn't living up to its advertising." She pinned him to the wall with a look that made him feel like he was ten years old and smeared with enough incriminating evidence to get grounded for life. "Just look at yourself. What a waste of tall, dark, and handsome, not to mention all that education. Have you ever once used those over-the-top looks or that under-the-radar charm to pursue anyone suitable to be the mother of your children?" She shook her head. "You know, your brains are interesting enough when they aren't pickled, and your conversation's kind of pleasant when you bother to move beyond the grunting stage."
Because he was just about to grunt a response before moving out of firing range, Joe stood his ground, resigned to taking a few more lumps. Knowing Linda, they were coming.
"Shame on you. Forty years old and nothing much to show for it."
"The way you look today, fifty would have been a generous guess." She wagged a scolding finger under his nose. "Well, it looks like you're finally going to pay the piper."
The waving finger made his stomach pitch and roll. "I'm really not in the mood for a lecture on overindulgence at the moment."
"That's rightwhen it comes to lecturing, you're the pro. But I'm not talking about talk."
Something about the gleam in her eyes set off alarm bells that intensified the throbbing in his head. "What is it? What's going on?"
The phone interrupted. Linda's lips spread in a smile that hinted of hell on earth. "Duty calls," she said, patting his arm before she retreated to her post. "Duty calls us all, sooner or later."
He followed her into the cramped area behind the counter, dumping his unread mail into the wastebasket. Carefully nudging the clutter on her desk aside with one hip, he settled in to wait while she recited the late registration litany for a new parent.
"...Yes, I'm sure that would be all right, Joyce." She tried to wave him away, but he dodged and stuck. "Donny can take the forms home Monday after classes."
"Tell me," he said with a growl when she dropped the receiver back in its cradle.
She folded her hands over a stack of fall sports schedules. "Maybe if you kept in touch, you wouldn't come back to nasty little surprises."
Behind him, another door clicked open. "Joe?"
"Speaking of nasty little surprises," Linda muttered under her breath.
He turned to see Kyle Walford, Caldwell's principal, step out of his office. Joe's headache shifted into migraine mode ahead of schedule.
"Joe, buddy. Looking good." Kyle swept a hand through his hair and smoothed down his tie as he moved toward the reception area. Joe wondered, not for the first time, how Kyle's wife got the greasy kid stuff out of his ties. Then he wondered if there was any way to get out of grasping that same hand when Kyle offered it in greeting.
"Where have you been?" said Kyle. "I tried calling you all day yesterday."
"That's odd. There was no message on my machine."
Kyle threw a companionable arm around Joe's shoulders, an awkward position for them both since Joe was several inches taller. "Well, you're here now, and there's someone I'd like you to meet."
"I was going to check on a few things before the faculty meeting." Joe dug his heels deep into his Birkenstocks, resisting Kyle's attempt to maneuver him into the principal's office. "I don't want to be late."
"You can't be late if I'm not there," Kyle pointed out, flashing even, white caps.
Joe remembered that Kyle's smile had been bartered for a local dentist's outfield billboard. He didn't smile back. "Who is it that's important enough to keep everyone waiting?"
"Well, Joe...it's your student teacher."
It wasn't often that Joe got angry enough to worry about high blood pressure. But he could feel the adrenaline pumping through his system now. There it was, coiling in his gut and rippling along his jaw. He didn't want his classroom turned into some sort of petri dish, didn't want a stranger probing into the hows and whys of what he didespecially when he didn't know how and why himself any more. He just wanted to get his job done and make his escape every afternoon shortly after three o'clock. "I don't have student teachers, Kyle."
"Plenty of teachers do, sooner or later." Kyle playfully punched Joe's arm. "And now it's your turn."
"I don't have student teachers, Kyle."
"You've got one now." Kyle's fingers twitched a bit as he smoothed his already smooth tie. "Come on into my office and I'll introduce you."
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From the book LEARNING CURVE by Terry McLaughlin
Imprint and Series: Harlequin Superromance, ISBN: 0373713487
Copyright ©2006 by Teresa A. McLaughlin