Check "Yes" or "No"byHLD©
Tuesday had not been the best of days.
So on Wednesday, Jacob Eckholm was not in a good mood. Not hateful. Not bad. He was just . . . there.
He got to work early and really didn't want to talk or interact with anyone, but in his job that wasn't an option. Luckily he got to his room before anyone could engage him in conversation, so he shut the door and steeled himself for the inevitable barrage of questions that were coming.
Fitzpatrick High School wasn't a big place and news traveled fast, rumours even faster.
The prep bell rang at exactly 7:30. First period started in 10 minutes.
With a sigh, Jacob went to the door, unlocked it and put on his smile.
"Good morning," he said to each student as they filed into the room, greeting them all by name. His first class was full of juniors, most of them 16 or 17 years old. They came in, took their seats and chatted with each other about the things that occupy the attention of high schoolers, especially the upcoming Homecoming dance.
The tardy bell rang and Jacob quickly scanned the room and marked a handful of kids absent.
"I hope you all were good for Mrs. Bowen yesterday. Clear off your desks." Jacob picked up a stack of papers off his desk and stood at the front of the room. "There are twenty multiple choice questions, ten short answer and then you get your pick of which essay you want to do. If you want extra credit, you can do the other essay question for up to ten additional points. Any questions?"
"What are the answers?" Jaime McCallister called from the back of the room.
"The answers are all C," the teacher replied with a smirk.
"What are the correct answers," Tiffany Dunlap asked, the smile on her mouth matching her teacher's.
"That's what you're going to tell me." He counted out five tests and placed them on the first student's desk. "Take one and pass them back. All those in danger of failing, repeat after me: Our father, who art in Heaven . . ."
There was a nervous chuckle from a couple of the kids. As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in school. And it was a good thing he taught in a small rural district; in some other parts of the country, that joke would bring a lawsuit, not a laugh.
"All right, folks," Jacob said, counting out enough for the second row. "The test is out. No talking until they're all in. When you get done, find something to do that doesn't involve making any noise. You may begin as soon as you receive the test."
Once he had passed every row, Jacob went to the back of the room and began to grade the assignments he had left for them while he was out. He hoped a couple of these kids would take the entire period and they wouldn't have any time left at the end of class. But even then, his luck wouldn't last all day.
These were his good kids. All were categorised as "gifted" and civics was a breeze for them. The last test came in with fifteen minutes left in the period. When it hit his desk, Jacob knew the inquisition was about to start.
"So, Mr. Eckholm," Caitlin Bowyer began. Jacob sighed. "Are you going to ask Miss Armstrong out?"
From the day Tracy had served him papers, he knew this question was going to come up. The only question was how to respond.
"Couldn't you guys wait until the ink on my divorce is dry?" Jacob said, trying not to sound too annoyed.
"Aw, c'mon, Mr. E.," Brad Dingess said, "You know she wants you. And now you're available."
"I'm not available," Jacob replied with a frown. "I thought I'd get to be single for at least 24 hours before people started fixing me up with dates."
"Okay, Mr. E.," Brad said with a grin. "We'll wait until after lunch before bugging you again."
The rest of the day was pretty much the same.
With about a thousand students, FHS was small enough that every student was known to pretty much every teacher and vice-versa. The faculty was a close-knit group; they watched out for each other and most of them were friends both in and out of the building.
Jacob had been at the school for seven years, two as a sub and full-time for the last five. He knew everyone in the building and most of his kids's parents. However, when he started, it had been a whole different story. He hadn't grown up in this community and didn't know a soul.
The morning he arrived, there had just been a fight in the hallway so the secretary and the principals were running around frantically trying to sort out who was involved in what. No one could spare the time to show him to the room or even where to sign in.
Of course, new folks are pretty easy to spot and she was the first person who didn't walk by him. As he stood by the door to the office, she signed in herself and then turned to him.
"Good morning." She extended her hand. "I'm Ann Marie Armstrong."
He shook it bewilderedly. "Jacob Eckholm."
"Who are you here for?"
He fumbled around in his folder looking for the note he had scribbled on a sticky when the school board office had called him that morning. "Mrs. Paulson . . . Ninth grade English."
"Come on . . . she's right down the hall from me." Waving at someone in the principal's office, Ann Marie called out, "Sally, I'm taking him with me. Who has the keys to Brenda's room?"
"Terry should have unlocked it first thing this morning," the other woman said, walking out to apologetically greet Jacob. "Sorry to be so rushed, but there's been a little bit of excitement here this morning."
He followed Ann Marie out of the office. The first thing he noticed was the way the other students cleared out of her way. Her head was held high and her steps firm and deliberate. Although she was a couple of years younger than he, she had a commanding presence borne of experience in the classroom.
The second thing was all the admiring glances the boys gave her. She was attractive with dark, shoulder-length hair. She had on a long skirt and loose blouse that tried to hide her generous curves.
Since starting in the county as a substitute teacher two weeks before, Jacob had met dozens of people and only remembered a handful of names, but she was one of the few he never had to think twice about.
His first day had been rough, as the kids all wanted to see how far they could push the new sub. She came to check on him at lunch and from then on, whenever he was at Fitzpatrick High, she made a point to drop by and see how he was doing.
It hadn't occurred to him that she was coming by to flirt.
After two years in the substitute pipeline, a spot opened up in the social studies department. He had enough seniority to get on full-time. It didn't hurt that the principal liked him, too.
This was Jacob's second career. After discovering that a sociology degree was basically worthless, he went back to school, got his Master's in education and then went out seeking employment. It's a good thing his wife had a good job and could afford to put him through school again.
The first year as a sub passed quickly, and the next even faster. While paying his dues on the sub list and in a long-term stint, Jacob familiarised himself with the students and he picked up things quickly. By the time he was hired in full-time, he seemed to be pretty well-established with a reputation for expecting the best out of the students and being one of the "cool" teachers.
As his star had been rising in the school system, his marriage was falling apart. He and Tracy met in college and after graduation they settled closer to her family. Her mom had never liked him and after years of grating, had finally turned her so paranoid that she served him divorce papers, thinking that he was spending all of their money or otherwise keeping it from her.
In reality, he had put most of their money in savings or in an investment account and during the divorce hearings, Tracy was shocked when she found out how much they had actually saved up. Realising she was mistaken about Jacob squandering their money, Tracy tried to reconcile, but at that point, he wanted nothing to do with her; after all, if her mother had been able to turn her against him before, she would be able to do it again.
Childless, they divided their assets and he moved out. She kept the house and he got the majority of their savings. Now he lived a couple of miles from the school in a small apartment complex and was starting over. He thought about moving, but he couldn't do that to his kids now that the school year had started.
Although his divorce had been mostly amicable, Jake still felt sick to his stomach. It was as if he had failed at something, even though he knew that it wasn't his fault.
When the last bell rang, he was glad the day was finally over. All six classes had asked variations on the same questions. He deflected them as best he could, telling them all in effect to mind their own damn business.
He sat behind his desk, not really wanting to go back to his apartment. Even after living there for the last four months, it still didn't feel like "home". There was a stack of exams from his civic classes and some homework left over from his geography classes that all needed to get graded.
The school usually cleared out pretty quickly after the final bell. The only ones left were the coaches with their sports teams and the odd student who had after-school detention. Jacob drew the first exam from the stack and got out his red pen when there was a knock on the frame of the open door.
"Hey. What's going on?" Ann Marie asked.
He looked up and smiled weakly. "Just trying to get through these exams."
She looked tentative. "I heard about some of the things the kids said today."
Ann Marie crossed the room and sat down in a chair on the other side of his desk. Jacob had been carefully avoiding her all day. There had always been a latent attraction between them. They were about the same age, they liked many of the same things and if not for his wife, might have spent the last seven years as more than just co-workers.
"Wanna talk about it?" she asked.
"Not really," Jacob replied with a frown.
"I understand," Ann Marie smiled at him. "Listen . . . Can you still help me with the homecoming fundraiser next weekend? Wes and Cindy said they'd pitch in but they don't want to run the concession stand. I don't suppose you'd want to spend an afternoon in the grease pit?"
Jacob, who had been careful to avoid making eye contact, looked up and saw the hopeful look on her face. He smiled unconsciously, unable to refuse the pretty woman. "Of course I can. It's not like I have anything better to do . . . You did stock up on cheesesticks, right?"
She laughed nervously. "You can have all the cheesesticks you want, Jake."
There was an awkward silence between them. Then Ann Marie stood up, unsure of what to say next.
"I'm sorry for being such a downer, Annie. I just . . ." His voice trailed off.
"I know," she said softly. "If you want to talk . . ."
An invite to dinner was on his lips, but he squelched the thought. You'll just rebound off her. She deserves better than that.
"Thanks," he replied quietly.
Ann Marie looked like she was about to say something else, but instead walked to the door and left, unaware of his eyes on her slim waist and round, swaying hips.
Jacob shrugged and went back to his papers.
"Thanks for your help folks," Jacob said as the last of the kids filed out of the concession stand. It had been hectic all day. And the heat didn't help.
To raise money for the dance, the student government held an annual outdoor fall carnival at the Lion's Club field. They had an inflatable castle, a water slide, face painting, a bean bag toss and virtually anything else that they could use to make a little bit of money. Everyone in the county was invited and it was usually a big hit with the elementary and middle school kids.
Jacob kept the kids and parents in the concession stand moving and they made a fair amount of money. After all, it was blazing hot—even at the end of September—and they had the only soda fountain and ice machine for miles around. He wiped down the counter one more time and then stepped outside.
He smelled sweaty and greasy.
Some of the other teachers and parents were picking up trash and others were loading the dunking booth into a truck. Jacob spotted Ann Marie across the football field.
She waved and then headed over to see him.
"Thanks for your help today," she said. If she had any inclination to hug him, the cloud of oil that hung over him warded her away.
"It's my pleasure," Jacob replied.
They shared an uncomfortable silence.
"I don't suppose you're hungry," Ann Marie said. "How about we go get some real food?"
"I can't go out like this," he replied.
"C'mon," she coaxed. "My treat."
"Let me go home and shower first," he said after a minute, not really wanting to spend another Saturday night alone. "I'll pick you up at say, six-thirty."
She smiled. "I can't wait."
He turned and headed to the parking lot, some extra bounce in his step.
An hour later, Jacob was scrubbed and clean. He had to wash his hair twice to get the smell of grease out of it. He wore a pair of shorts, sandals and a nice polo shirt. He got in his truck and drove over to Ann Marie's house.
She was sitting on the swing chair on her porch. As he pulled up, she stood and walked to the steps.
Jacob got out to greet her. He could only stare. When she was at school, she tended to dress conservatively. Not frumpy or matronly, but she wore clothes that radiated authority rather than sex appeal. After all, it was hard enough to keep the attention of adolescent boys without having them constantly looking at her round breasts and curvy hips.
It occurred to him that he had never been around Ann Marie in a social setting. Whenever he had seen her, they had either been at school or a school-related function. And he had been married. He had never seen her dressed to kill.
She wore a blouse that was fitted just right to show off her ample bosom. It didn't show off too much cleavage and narrowed at her waist. The A-line skirt highlighted her full hips and hinted at just enough leg to be enticing, but not enough to be revealing. Her high heels accentuated her shapely legs and the ring around her second toe glimmered under the setting sun.
Coming down the steps, she took his hand and he led her to the truck. After Jacob opened the door, Ann Marie climbed into the passenger's seat. He closed the door as she buckled up.
Jacob got in on his side. He grinned sheepishly. "I feel underdressed now."
"Don't worry about it," Ann Marie said. "Where are we going?"
"I thought we'd drive over to the mall over at Northridge Crossing. There's a new restaurant there I'd like to try," Jacob replied.
"That's kind of far," she said.
"Yeah, well, if we go anywhere here in town, we're both going to catch hell for this on Monday."
"We're going to catch hell anyway, Jake." In a county with only one high school, there are no secrets. Everyone knows everyone else. "Mrs. Sowards asked who I was waiting for. She knows I've got a date and I'm sure she watched you pull up."
Jacob chuckled. "So she's probably calling everyone she knows, right?"
"Yeah, well, I'd still like to so someplace where we can have a little privacy," he said. "Besides, we have to keep them guessing at school."
They both shared a nervous laugh.
The drive took over half an hour. The two made some meaningless small talk. Where he had mostly juniors, she had a mix. Her classes were sophomore English, creative writing and somehow she had been conned into taking over as the yearbook sponsor.
He asked about her students, partially to get her talking but also to scope out some of the kids who might be in his room the next year. The drive was pleasant and with the sun going down, it wasn't too hot.
As they pulled into the parking lot, Ann Marie squeezed Jake's hand. "In case I forget to tell you later, I had a great time tonight."
Jake shot her a quizzical look and blushed. He started to say something, but his date was already out of the truck.
The restaurant was a rarity for this part of the country: fresh seafood. Having grown up along the Gulf of Mexico, Jacob could never conceive of a culinary style that was devoid of fish. That is, until he experienced life in rural America. Most everything around was steak and potatoes. The closest thing to fish around was Captain D's and no one liked sushi; not that anyone around had even tried it, but it was just so out of place in middle America.
Since they were running a little late for the dinner crowd, they got a table quickly. The place was noisy, but the lights were low and the setting reasonably romantic.
Jake ordered bacon-wrapped seared scallops over rice pilaf. Ann Marie hemmed and hawed for a moment then settled on the crab alfredo.
"Seafood isn't my thing," she said, blushing just a little.
"Oh, my god . . . I'm so sorry, Annie," Jacob mentally kicked himself for being so inconsiderate. "It didn't occur to me . . ."
"That's okay, Jake," she took a sip from her water. She looked away for a second then smiled mischievously. "You can make it up to me on our next date."
Her reply made him pause. She only winked.
At just that moment, in Jacob's mind, Ann Marie went from being a pretty colleague to a beautiful young woman. Now that he no longer had to worry about his wife or what people would say, Jake saw his friend in a whole new light. He was free to look her over. He could pursue her now. His pulse raced.
The rest of the date seemed to fly by. They talked nervously. Neither really knew what to say. Their relationship had been professional for so long, each felt awkward broaching their personal lives. Plus, it seemed, Ann Marie was being a little extra cautious because of Jake's recent divorce.
They left the restaurant and went to a couple of stores in the nearby strip mall. He bought a couple of books at Borders. She picked up some earrings at Kohl's. Soon, they ran out of excuses to stay out and Jake took her home. They drove back to her house, mostly under an awkward silence.
As they pulled into her driveway, Ann Marie gathered up her things.
"Thanks for taking me out, Jake," she said softly. "I had a great time."
"Me, too, Annie," he replied. She made no move to get out of the truck and he left the engine running. Neither said anything for a long moment. "Listen . . . I'm sorry for being such a boring date tonight. I—"
"No, it's okay," Ann Marie interrupted. "I'm not a very exciting person either."
"I just don't know if I'm ready for this," Jacob admitted. "I'm damaged goods, Annie. You don't want to go out with me."
"I do want to go out with you, Jake." She looked him in the eyes. "I have for a long time. But I don't want to be your rebound girlfriend. Nor do I want to put your broken heart back together."
"I don't want that either," he breathed a sigh of relief.
They sat there in the truck for a few long moments. Finally, Ann Marie reached for the door handle. "Walk me to the door."
Jake hurriedly got out of the truck. He offered his date his arm and led her up the steps to the porch. The motion sensor turned the light on. The neighbours didn't appear to be up, but someone was probably watching.
Nosy bastards, he smiled to himself.
Her one hand stayed in the crook of Jacob's arm while the other fumbled through her purse for her keys. After some jostling, Ann Marie pushed the door open, but turned without inviting him in.
Jacob's pulse raced as her fingertips gently caressed his face. He had to remind himself to breathe.
Leaning in, he saw Ann Marie tilt her head back and close her eyes. Their lips touched briefly at first. Hers were soft and wet and sweet.