“Hey, Coach! Where are the basketballs?”
Jake Campbell looked up from his clipboard and narrowed his eyes at Jeremy: junior, running back. He took a moment to find it amusing that he categorized the kids he knew on sight by first name, class, and position if they played one of the sports that he coached.
“We’re not playing basketball today,” he answered as he checked Jeremy off his attendance sheet.
“Aww, man! We’re running?”
“You betcha,” Jake drawled with a pleased grin. “Outside,” he added with relish. “In the coooold.”
The kid’s shoulders slumped, and he turned to head for the gym exits that led out to the football field and the track that circled it. Jake chuckled and shook his head, checking off more kids as they straggled out of the locker rooms.
Jake enjoyed his job at Parkview High. The kids liked him, and he liked them, for the most part. He coached year-round: football, wrestling, and baseball. And he won. Here in Georgia, winning was a big deal.
P.E. classes were just the five or so hours of warm up before he got to do his real job. That hadn’t changed at all since he’d walked these very halls as a student himself years ago, and no one cared enough about high school phys ed to try and change it. Jake huffed and ticked off the last name on his list. Baseball tryouts started today. Just two more hours of this mind-numbing repetition, and he’d be able to get to the good stuff.
“No, Carolyn, you can’t petition PETA to get a waiver from dissecting the frog. The frog’s already dead. It donated itself to science. Don’t let its sacrifice be in vain,” Brandon Bartlett said, shaking his head as he walked toward the front of the lab, watching the students pull on their latex gloves and cloth masks.
“Jimmy, no fire today. Off with the Bunsen,” he said distractedly, hearing a huff from his side, and the slight whoosh of gas-fed flame shut off. He pointed out the correct instrument for Callie to use and moved to the whiteboard.
Brandon pulled his glasses from his shirt pocket and slid them on as he looked at the teaching materials. “You all have the directions for the dissection, and trust me, they haven’t changed from yesterday when we went over them. Yes, Kelly?”
“Mr. Bartlett? What if I get guts on my uniform?” the cheerleader asked.
“There are aprons in the closet. That would be an intelligent security measure,” Brandon answered. “Drake?”
“Can I cut off its head first?”
“Is cutting its head off first in the directions?”
“No, Mr. Bartlett.”
“Are we going to tempt fate by not following the directions?”
“Scrubbing out the dissection pans every afternoon for a week.”
“Sir! No cutting off the head, sir!”
Brandon rolled his eyes. Sophomores. No longer wide-eyed and scared, not yet mature enough to be trusted to their own good sense. “Good choice.”
As the students got to work, Brandon notated their presence in his attendance book and also marked who had been given what equipment on the two-person teams. He glanced up, a half-smile on his face. This was his lab. After almost ten years of teaching, twenty-five grant applications and a good wrangling with the principal and the school board, they’d agreed to build the large facility.
He was proud of his work at Parkview High. Even more so because it was his high school – he’d walked these same halls for four years – and he felt quite at home, although the students looked younger and younger each year. He frowned, glancing over at the gaggle of cheerleaders. He didn’t feel that old, but…
Checking his schedule, Brandon remembered he had planning period during his next block, before the last class. He’d skipped lunch and left his meal in the fridge in the lounge, so he’d escape there to stop the drain of his mental faculties. He glanced up to see Drake and Aaron flinging frog guts at each other and sighed. Some days he could just feel his brain dribbling out of his ears.
An hour before his last class of the day, Jake sat in the corner table of the teachers’ lounge, sipping his water and eating his sandwich as he read. He had camouflaged a paperback in the Sports page of the morning paper, and whenever someone came in, he would curl the newsprint around the book protectively and follow the person with hard black eyes. It wasn’t worth the jokes from these prisses about his reading ability to do otherwise.
He sat with his back to the wall, feet up on the table, waiting for one of the other coaches to come in and hoping no one else made the effort to try and talk to him. In high school, a lifetime ago, he’d been the leader of the pack; popular, athletic, good-looking. Now, as a coach in the same high school years later, he was dealing with a herd of teachers who had all been nerds in school and resented him on principle. Jake had quickly learned how the outcasts felt. The only difference, he mused with a small smile, was that now he didn’t give a flying fuck what the others thought of him.
Having met Rhonda in the hall, Brandon walked with her, talking shop. As the chemistry teacher, she’d petitioned the administration to get an Advanced Placement class, and Brandon had asked for one, too, so they were discussing plans for the next nine weeks. They talked all the way to the lounge, where Brandon glanced around and saw Jake Campbell sitting by himself, reading.
They were and always had been complete and total opposites. Jake had been the Homecoming King their senior year – and the Prom King, too. Mr. Popular. Brandon had been Valedictorian and the captain of the Academic Team. A nerd – and even amongst the nerds, not so popular because he hadn’t come through the same system of schools they did. Still musing while grabbing his lunch, he sat at a round table in the middle of the room where he could keep talking with Rhonda.
Jake slowly slid lower in his chair and lifted the paper higher, his eyes at a level where he could still see the room but quickly divert them before contact was made.
Brandon tried to make eye contact, to at least give Jake a nod, but the other man deliberately wouldn’t look at him. The science teacher sighed. He’d tried to be friendly to Jake, and to Misty and Troy as well – other students from their class who had come back to teach – but none of the three would even acknowledge him. They obviously held their high-school opinions close to their hearts. He wondered why he tried. Shaking his head to something Rhonda asked, Brandon started on his lunch.
Some people Jake could just feel in a room. Brandon Bartlett was one of them. Jake didn’t know why. He supposed it was because he remembered the guy from high school, and the memory weighed heavily on him. No matter how old you got, high school was always yesterday. Jake had never been the type of guy who’d gotten his rocks off on making other people miserable, but some of his teammates and ‘friends’ had, and he remembered the way they’d treated Brandon and his type. It was a painful memory for Jake; he had never joined in, but he had never tried to step up and stop it, either.
Jake shifted in his seat and sniffed as he read the same line over again in his book. The door to the lounge opened again, and Jake looked up to see Gerald and Lena walk in together. He almost sighed in relief – his fellow outcast phys ed teachers to the rescue. They were a dying breed – the real coaches. The other coaches in the school were either decent part-timers, like Troy; off-campus hires; or teachers who had once touched a piece of sporting equipment, like Misty. Those were worse than the people who only taught; they thought they were at the top of the food chain, straddling the academic and athletic worlds. But only a precious few did either job well, and those were the ones smart enough to disregard the invisible class barriers.
“Well, hello, beautiful,” Jake drawled in greeting as he folded over the newspaper. His eyes purposefully went from Gerald’s hulking form and his perfectly shaved mocha-colored head to the athletic blonde beside him. “And hello to you, too, Lena,” he added with a smirk.
Brandon’s eyes shifted up to see the newcomers, but he carried on his conversation as the two made a beeline to Jake, not even a smile or a glance in his and Rhonda’s direction. Resigned, he popped open his Gladware bowl of grapes and nudged it toward the other teacher so she could share.
“You’re such a pervert,” Lena laughed softly as she headed for the fridge.
“’sup, Coach?” Gerald asked in his deep bass voice as he sat down. “Who won last night?” he gestured to the paper Jake was holding. “Or can you even tell when you hold the paper upside down?” he asked pointedly as he flicked the corner of the page with a laugh.
Jake cleared his throat and blushed a little, smiling sheepishly as he slowly put his book in his lap and turned the paper right side up.
Rhonda snickered in the middle of a sentence, and Brandon frowned, turning to look over his shoulder at Jake and Gerald, one of the other football coaches. It looked like Gerald was teasing Jake about something. Brandon looked back to Rhonda. “What?” he asked.
She leaned forward to whisper. “Jake was holding the paper upside down. You know, the one he was reading so intently that he couldn’t even acknowledge our presence?”
Brandon’s brows flew up, and he grinned widely. “Really?” he said in a hushed voice, barely resisting the urge to turn around and look again. “That’s pretty funny that Gerald caught him.”
Jake kicked Gerald’s shin under the table and blushed harder, sliding down further in his seat as Lena tossed Gerald a bottle of water and giggled. “I hate you both,” he declared with a small smile, tossing his book onto the table and laughing along with them.
Snickering again, Rhonda leaned forward. “Don’t you think he’s handsome? I think he’s really handsome.”
Brandon boggled. “Gerald?”
“No, silly. Jake!” she whispered excitedly.
Brandon wondered where the cool and collected chemistry teacher had gone. She had to be ten years older than he was. “Ah … I went to school with Jake,” he said uncomfortably.
“You didn’t tell me you were friends! Maybe you could tell him a little about me,” Rhonda wheedled quietly, smoothing her red hair behind her ear.
Now Brandon was really getting wigged. “I said I went to school with him. Not that we were friends. And, Rhonda, if you want to approach him, I’m thinking that’s something you should do yourself. He never really liked me then. Doesn’t now, for that matter,” he added quietly as Rhonda tossed flirting looks over his shoulder.
“How’s the team looking this year?” Lena asked as she sat down. She coached fast-pitch softball, and they always had a little bit of a competition between the two teams.
Jake shrugged and sat up straighter. “Couldn’t really say,” he answered ambiguously, smirking at the woman as Gerald gave a booming laugh. Jake caught snatches of conversation from the other table and glanced over there. The chemistry teacher peered at him, batting her eyelashes in an alarming manner, and Jake’s eyes widened. He automatically looked over at Brandon questioningly, trying to gauge whether he should retreat or if this was something he could throw Gerald in front of and be safe.
Brandon chanced a glance over his shoulder and saw Jake looking at him, query written on his face. Brandon couldn’t help but wince a little and shrug, trying to convey an apology with a tiny shift of his head toward Rhonda.
“I think ... I think I left the showers running,” Jake blurted suddenly as Gerald laughed harder and slapped his thigh. Lena watched him stand up with a slightly outraged look on her face, obviously thinking that he was making a teasing attempt to bypass their annual teams discussion. The head coach waved at them as he gathered up his stuff and glanced up at Brandon again distractedly.
Not sure why he was even trying – other than simply feeling bad for his fellow man – Brandon met Jake’s eyes again and subtly turned his head and eyes to the door, indicating he should make his escape while he could. Then he turned back to Rhonda, cleared his throat and spoke a little more loudly. “So, Rhonda, you were going to tell me how the application process for your A.P. class went. What did you tell the school board, exactly?”
“You can’t hide from me for long, Campbell!” Lena called as Jake slunk toward the door. He turned around and gave her an irritatingly impish grin and then looked back to the table where Brandon sat, apparently distracting the chemistry teacher. He gave the man a little smile and a nod of thanks as he made a hasty exit.
Watching Jake escape from the corner of his eye, Brandon turned all his attention on Rhonda, who was now waxing rhapsodic over paperwork. He figured he’d done his good deed for the day. Possibly the week.
“Health? You want me to teach freshman health?” Brandon asked for the third time, utterly stunned. He stood in Mr. Berry’s office – the same Mr. Berry who had been his geometry teacher – and just shook his head. “I’ve got honors biology, a sophomore and a junior biology class each and freshman quantitative physical science. I don’t have a block for a health class,” he pointed out triumphantly.
“But you have a block for the A.P. biology class you applied for,” Tom reminded with a small smile as he rocked back in his chair. With a roll of his eyes and a sigh he shook his head. “Look, I know this isn’t your cup of tea. But we have no one else even remotely able to teach the course, and we can’t get rid of it because it’s required. You remember health, Brandon,” he went on in his gravelly voice. “You put in a videotape of Rescue 911, and you sit and do your planning while the kids sleep.”
“You’re cutting the A.P. bio class? Tom,” Brandon pleaded. “Can’t you hire a sub? A temp to work an hour and a half a day? I do remember health class, that’s what scares the hell outta me. CPR dummies and lurid descriptions of diseases and putting condoms on bananas!”
“They got rid of the condoms,” Tom retorted with a wry smile. “Parents made a fuss.”
“Aw hell,” Brandon muttered, sitting down hard in the chair and slumping. “Great. Just great. Freshman health. Jesus, Tom. Fine. I’ll do it. It’s not like I have much choice, do I.” It wasn’t even a question.
“Well, I suppose technically you could quit,” Tom offered with a shrug. “Unfortunately, health is already scheduled during the last block, so you’ll have to shift your planning to second since the A.P. class isn’t happening.” He pursed his lips in disapproval. It was obvious he wasn’t happy about asking Brandon to do this. He just didn’t have a choice. “We’ve lost some staff over the Christmas break, you know that. A few maternity leaves, a few unexpected retirements ... We were also short a baseball coach until someone volunteered,” he went on with narrowed eyes. Brandon just grunted noncommittally, already working out the changes he’d have to make in his planning to allow for the change of classes. He wasn’t really interested in staff turnover. “Thanks for volunteering, Brandon,” Tom went on pointedly, smiling slightly as his eyes danced with affectionate amusement.
Freezing in place, Brandon blinked and looked up slowly at the man who had shepherded his teaching career along for years while becoming a good friend. “What?” he drew out slowly and balefully.
“Don’t worry,” Tom was quick to go on. “That varsity team is a well-oiled machine, so I hear. They just need an extra set of arms, you won’t be doing much. Hell, I don’t even know what you’ll be doing, but it won’t be hard. And since you’ve got the background to be the team trainer as well, you’re the best qualified person on staff. Actually, you’re the only qualified person on staff.”
Brandon looked at him incredulously. “How in the hell do you figure that? What background?” he asked, his voice higher than usual.
“You’re male and big enough to keep the boys in check,” Tom said before hurrying on. “And you did study anatomy and physiology, did you not? Trainer.”
Finally becoming aware that his jaw was hanging open, Brandon snapped it shut. He stared blankly at Tom a bit longer and then rubbed both hands over his face. “Anything else, Tom?” he asked, his voice dangerously quiet.
“Brandon,” Tom said softly. “I know this isn’t your thing, and I am truly sorry. But I know you understand that the school needs you to be a team player. It’s all for the kids.”
The science teacher sighed, and his shoulders relaxed. It was the one thing that was unshakable in him and dammit, Tom knew it. Brandon would do anything for the kids. It was why he got up at 4:45 a.m. and drove 40 minutes to come in at six o’clock to tutor, a task almost all other teachers avoided like the plague. “All right, Tom,” he agreed wearily.
“Thank you, Brandon,” Tom responded sincerely as he stood and extended his hand over the desk. “And unlike the tutoring, you do get paid extra for the coaching,” he added optimistically.
Brandon chuckled and stood to shake Tom’s hand. “Well, that’s something. I’m guessing the health class is already in session with a sub?”
“Jake Campbell has been doing double duty on the health class and senior phys ed until we could find someone permanent. And he’s the man you need to talk to about baseball,” Tom answered. “Hey, didn’t you two graduate close together?”
“Yeah, same year.” Brandon said with a small nod. “You still taught geometry then,” he added with a smirk.
“I still had all my hair then, too,” Tom shot back with a quick grin. “You want me to have someone track Jake down after the class is over?” he offered with a gesture to the public announcement system in the outer office.
Brandon grimaced. “No. I’ll wander out to the gym. I think I know where his office is,” he said, squinting a little at the school map on the wall.
“If you find him in his office then good on ya,” Tom laughed with a dismissive wave. “Kid never could stay in one spot even when he was younger. Thanks again, Brandon. I won’t forget it.”
Nodding, Brandon headed out and turned toward the athletic complex, walking through the empty halls, his rubber-soled loafers not making much sound. He found the hallway of offices and checked the doors until he found one with a “Coach Campbell” sign tacked up in the window, but the office was closed and dark inside. The science teacher turned around and headed to the gym itself. There were older kids sitting in the bleachers and some shooting baskets, but no teacher in sight. Brandon frowned in consternation before belatedly recalling what Tom had said about health taking his planning period and moving planning to the hoped-for A.P. class slot in second block. Jake was pulling double duty with the health class. Brandon figured this must be the coach’s senior P.E. class, left unsupervised as he watched over the freshmen. So the science teacher made his way to the health class and checked his watch. Five minutes until afternoon announcements.
Inside the classroom located just off the gymnasium complex, Jake watched a ball of wadded up paper fly through the air and hit the rim of the wastebasket. It teetered there, seeming to almost cling to the plastic trash bag. Jerome – freshman, wrestler – leaned sideways from the table seven feet away and blew on it frantically as Jake chuckled quietly. The wad of paper wavered some more and then fell with an anti-climactic plop onto the ground just beside the trash can.
“Oh ho!” Jake shouted with glee. “And it’s a dollar to teacher for the brick shot.” He laughed as he held his hand out and made the universal gesture of ‘gimme my money.’
“Man,” Jerome whined as he dug into his pocket and pulled out four quarters. He got up and trudged over to slap them into Jake’s palm with a sheepish smile. “I got it next time,” he said confidently with an inclination of his head before tossing the paper in the can and heading back to his seat. Jake had told the perpetually lazy freshmen that if they shot a trash basket and made it, he’d acknowledge their brilliance in an appropriate manner according to the difficulty of the shot. But if they missed, it was a dollar fine for being too lazy to get up and walk the ten feet to the can.
Brandon stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame, watching the little scene, hard pressed to keep a smile off his face. He wondered what Jake had offered to do if they made the can shot. Then a couple of girls started whispering loudly and looking his way. He blinked, wondering if he had something on his shirt or tie. Glancing down, he remembered he’d taken off his tie and rolled up his sleeves after his last class, and unbuttoned the top two buttons on his shirt in agitation as he’d dropped his glasses on the desk before going to see Tom. He’d even dragged his fingers through his hair enough times while talking to the principal to pull it out of the tie that usually held the shoulder-length dark hair neatly at his nape. Christ. He must look like hell.
When Brandon looked up again, three girls were whispering and pointing and blushing. He raised an eyebrow in surprise and glanced to the teacher at the front of the room. Jake followed the whispering and turned to look at the open doorway with a raised eyebrow. “Mr. Bartlett,” he said, covering his surprise and confusion with his usual friendly, somewhat cheeky style of greeting. “What can we do you for?”
The girls squealed quietly, and a few of the boys snickered, while Brandon just shook his head. “I’m the new health teacher,” he answered, which caused even more of an uproar amongst the girls. God! Why were they doing that?
Jake frowned at the squeaky little freshmen girls and looked back at Brandon with a slightly confused smile. “My apologies,” he offered wryly with a smirk, earning him a few playful boos as he stood up and strolled to the doorway. “Oh boo hoo, go practice your bank shots,” Jake drawled to the class. “They’re all yours,” he said to Brandon softly as he stepped out into the hallway. He stopped and leaned against the wall by the door, peering back inside. “They’re a generally good group,” he murmured to Brandon softly. “You shouldn’t have much trouble.” He paused, looking the man over. Something was different about him, but he couldn’t figure out what it was, besides looking a little rumpled. It wasn’t the glasses. The missing tie maybe? The slightly annoyed glint in his eyes? Jake gave a mental shrug and pushed off the wall. “Want me to stick around through announcements?”
The P.A. crackled to life, and Brandon smiled a little. “If you don’t mind hanging around, Tom said I should talk to you,” he said below the front office secretary’s voice blaring out of the speakers. When the bell rang, the kids were off like a shot, walking between them, though several of the girls walked more slowly. “Bye, Mr. Bartlett.” “See you tomorrow, Mr. Bartlett.” “I’m looking forward to health class, Mr. Bartlett.” Brandon’s face got more and more mystified as the classroom emptied out.
Jake grinned as the last of the class trailed off down the hallway. “You certainly wowed them, Stud,” he laughed. “What did you need from me?”