“Is this straight?” Dad asks, peering in the mirror across from the front door and messing with the badge on the breast pocket of his blue shirt.
There is almost no crime on our little island because Dad is legendary for taking down drug rings and poachers, but when it comes to the little things, like pinning his badge on straight, he still needs help.
That’s why I’m here.
When Mom died last spring, I came back from Jacksonville so I could live at home and help Dad. He and Mom were high school sweethearts and married not long after graduation. He’s always been taken care of. I don’t want him to be alone.
I move to where he is and turn him, unpinning the badge and straightening it. I smooth his salt and pepper hair off his forehead and stretch up on my toes to kiss the smooth patch of cheek above the line of his beard. “I seriously doubt they’re going to send the Chief of Police home for a dress code infraction.”
“We’ll see,” he chuckles, giving my blond ponytail a gentle tug. “You ready for your first day influencing the youth of Port St. Mary?”
I was over the moon when I got the call three days ago that Mrs. Martin had had surgery and they needed a long-term sub for her class. Not that I’m happy they hacked out her gallbladder or anything, but her loss is my gain, so to speak.
I come from a long line of educators. Mom was my first grade teacher. Both of her sisters, her father, and her grandfather taught as well. You could say it’s in my DNA. I resisted it for a while, thought I wanted to go into finance, but by my junior year at Clemson I had to finally admit to myself teaching was what I really wanted to do. I changed my major to Education and finished my credential just before Mom died.
Since her death, it’s felt even more urgent to me to teach—like maybe following in her footsteps will somehow keep her spirit alive. But Port St. Mary and the surrounding communities are small, and teaching jobs are pretty scarce. I was afraid I was going to have to try elsewhere come fall. This was a prayer answered…which makes me a little afraid I might have had something to do with poor Mrs. Martin’s gallbladder flaring up. And now it’s starting to feel like one of those “be careful what you wish for” scenarios.
I rub my sweaty palms down my slacks. “What happens if they hate me?”
Dad wraps me in his arms and squeezes me in a bear hug, crushing the air out of my lungs. “They’re going to love you, punkin. Your mom would be so proud of you right now,” he says, a catch in his voice. “I hope you know that.”
I swallow back the lump in my throat and look up at him. I can’t even remember the last time he’s brought her up out of the blue like this. “I know, Dad, but thanks for saying so.” He lets me go and I shoulder my messenger bag. “Time to face the music.”
We step out the back door to where my old electric blue Chevy Lumina is parked in the driveway, next to Dad’s only slightly less conspicuous cruiser. Dad watches as I slide in and turn the key. The engine chugs but doesn’t turn over.
I blow out a breath and pop the hood. By the time I grab the monkey wrench on the floor of the passenger side and get out of the car, Dad already has the hood propped up and is looking over the engine compartment.
“Don’t mess with Frank, Dad.” I point my finger in a circle at the guts of my poor Frankencar. Me and my best friend Chuck rebuilt most of the insides from junkyard parts when we took auto shop our senior year in high school. “It’s a delicate balance.”
He grins and steps back, his hands in the air. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
I will always love Frank—he was my first—but I know I need a new car. Dad’s offered me Mom’s T-Bird, but I’m twenty-three. I’m supposed to be responsible for myself at this point. And besides, I’d rather he sold Mom’s car and put the money towards his retirement. Even though Port St. Mary is pretty sleepy most of the time, everyday he goes to work, I worry.
I reach between the radiator and the engine and give the alternator a sharp rap with the wrench, then slip back into the driver’s seat. When I turn the key, Frank chugs twice, same as always, then rumbles to life.
Dad ducks into the cruiser and gives me a little salute as I pull out.
Port St. Mary Elementary is only about two miles from home. It takes a grand total of eight minutes to drive there. Technically, it’s a one-room schoolhouse. The tiny twelve-space parking lot butts up against an octagonal building, which, in fact, is just one big room inside. In the exact center of the building are the bathrooms and storage closets, and from there, folding accordion partitions section off each wedge of the octagon. Each wedge is a grade level, kinder through sixth, and a multipurpose room. To the right of the parking lot is a doublewide “portable” that houses the school offices and small staff room. Behind that, children are already gathering in the playground, which is really just a weed-infested lot with a slide and jungle gym that has been there since before I started kindergarten here.
When I walk around the octagon to the door marked with a big yellow four and step inside, it’s like deja vu all over again. Mrs. Martin (she told me to call her Pam when we talked on the phone about the lesson plan yesterday, but I can’t bring myself to) has had the same posters on the walls since the dawn of time. The presidential chart ends with Reagan. She had already been teaching fourth grade in this same classroom for, like, twenty years when I had her.
I move to her desk, to the right of the door, and set my bag on it. And that’s when I see the note from Principal Richmond.
A new student.
I brush my palms down my slacks again, a fresh jolt of nerves twisting my insides into knots. I was already going to be way over my head with a classroom full of nine-year-olds fresh off Christmas vacation and all sugared up on candy canes.
I look over the instructions. Sherman William Davidson needs his reading comprehension assessment, writing and grammar evaluation, and his math skills worksheet completed by the end of the week.
I blow a wisp of hair off my forehead and unpack my toothpaste and toothbrush, my journal, and a few of my favorite colored pens into Mrs. Martin’s desk, careful not to displace her things too much. I’m just pulling the assessments for the new kid from the file cabinet when the classroom door opens. I hear Principal Richmond’s gravel voice before I turn around. “…and his classroom is here. We just got word a few days ago that our regular fourth grade teacher is out on medical leave, but Sherman will be in good hands with Ms. Wilson. She’s a very capable substitute.”
I take a deep breath as I turn and hope he’s not lying.
I substituted five times during fall semester. For the most part, everything went great until I subbed for Mrs. Yetz’s eighth grade class the week before winter break. Somehow, what started out as a math lab on probability devolved into a liar’s dice tournament, complete with money changing hands. I wasn’t sure they’d call me back after that.
But when I see Principal Richmond waddle his round frame through the door, I straighten the scarf I tied over my favorite teal sweater and try to look as confident in what he said as he does.
“Ms. Wilson,” he says, waving me over. “This is your new student, Sherman.”
Sherman is a wiry little thing with unruly brown hair and clothes that hang off him a little. He looks as if he’d vanish into himself if given the chance.
“He goes by Sherm,” the man standing next to him says.
I look up into some of the most amazing eyes I’ve ever seen. Heavy dark brows curve over irises the color of honey with burgundy flecks through them. Thick brown waves are loose around a strong face with angled cheekbones, and a square jaw covered in two-day stubble. Set in flawless olive skin are lips so firm and red they make me forget the frown that’s turning them down slightly at the corners. He’s just so…gorgeous, like something out of a magazine or a movie. And he’s tall—well over six feet of broad shoulders tapering to narrow hips under his blue button-down shirt. The tails are loose over pressed jeans that fit him just so. Everything about him is tailored and cultured and nothing like any of the year-rounders who live on this bumpkin island. But it’s not just the way he looks. A blend of confidence and something else I can’t identify but makes him feel a little intimidating wafts off him with the spicy cologne I keep catching hints of. He’s nothing like anyone I’ve ever met, even at Clemson.
I feel my jaw dangling and snap it closed, pulling myself together long enough to extend an arm. “I’m Adri.”
Principal Richmond clears his throat, and when I flick a glance his direction, I know my ogling didn’t go unnoticed. His brow is deeply furrowed and his frown curves so low it makes him look like one of those marionettes, where their chin is a whole different piece of wood than the rest of their face.
My eyes bulge and I shift my outstretched hand to Sherm. “I mean, Miss Wilson. Welcome to Port St. Mary, Sherm.”
The boy just looks at me with sad eyes the color of his…father’s?
My gaze gravitates back to the guy towering over me. Could he be Sherm’s dad? He looks way too young to have a nine-year-old. He also looks all business. There’s nothing soft or nurturing in his cold, sharp gaze as it flicks around the classroom, silently assessing.
“What’s on the other side of those partitions?” he asks Principal Richmond.
“The third and fifth grade classrooms,” he answers.
The guy’s eyes continue to scan the room. “He’ll spend all day in here?”
The principal nods. “Except when he’s on the playground.”
“Is there security on campus?”
Principal Richmond looks momentarily perplexed, rubbing his round stomach as if he’s thinking with it. “Not as such. We have yard monitors during recess and lunch, and the teachers are responsible for the children when they’re here in class.”
“What about lunch?”
“He can bring his own lunch, or buy a bag lunch from Nutritional Services for three dollars. Either way, if it’s nice weather, the children eat outside at the picnic tables. On rainy days, we open the partitions and they eat inside as a group.”
The guy reaches into his pocket, but Principal Richmond holds up his hand to stop him when he comes out with a thick wad of cash. “We don’t allow students to carry money on campus. When we’re done here, I’ll take you to the office and have you purchase a scan card for Nutritional Services.”
The guy nods, then moves to the door and jiggles the knob. “The exterior doors are left unlocked?”
“During school hours, yes.” Principal Richmond answers, moving to my desk and shuffling through the papers I pulled for Sherm.
The guy’s full lips narrow into a tight line and he scowls at the door. He spins and starts toward the door in the back of the room, leaving no stone unturned.
I wipe my hands down my slacks again and decide just to ask. “So, you’re Sherm’s father?”
His feet stall on the chipped linoleum and he seems to finally notice I exist. “Brother,” he answers, and that one word seems to carry the weight of the world with it as it falls from his mouth.
His eyes make a slow sweep of my face, and as they trail down my neck, the front of my sweater, over my hips and down my legs, I’m frozen in place, paralyzed by the intensity of his gaze.
Principal Richmond shoves some papers in my face, breaking the spell. “You still have fifteen minutes until the bell. Maybe you can get Sherman started on these.”
“Um…” I grab the papers out of his hand as Big Brother blinks, some of the thickest lashes I’ve ever seen hiding those incredible eyes. “Yeah. We’ll do that…”
Principal Richmond guides Big Brother to the door. “Let’s get out of their way and let them get started. I’m sure Sherman will have a positive experience here. Children his age tend to adjust quickly,” he’s saying as the door swings closed behind them.