tagSci-Fi & FantasyA Stitch in Time Pt. 02

A Stitch in Time Pt. 02


Chapter 5

The woman who opened the door to my knock early in the afternoon on January 2 was clearly surprised to see me.

"Mister Sterling," she said coldly, holding the door open two feet and no more. "What can I do for you?"

"I came to ask a favor, Mrs. Palmer," I said. I'd dressed nicely, in the same outfit I'd tried to wear to church before Jeanne shot it down. I figured if I'd dressed in church clothes — which I hadn't managed to buy yet, anyway — Mrs. Palmer would have been a little suspicious. As it was, she gave me a long look, as if measuring me for a suit.

"Come in," she sighed finally, after the inspection was finished. "May I offer you a drink?"

"No, thank you, ma'am."

She gestured to the couch, and took a seat opposite me.

"Ma'am, I'd like to take your English Honors class," I began.

"Absolutely not," she cut me off.

"Ma'am, I — "

"Mister Sterling," she cut me off again. "Let me tell you a story. I had a very good student in my ninth grade English class. But he became involved in sports and unlike some of the athletes I've known — some of the student-athletes — his academic work started to slip."

"Ma'am," I started again.

She held up her hand and I shut up again.

"I monitored his progress throughout tenth grade," she continued, "and it continued to slip. I decided to give him one more chance last year, out of respect for his mother, who'd become a dear friend of mine, and because I remembered what kind of student he'd been. Are you following me, Mister Sterling?"

I simply looked at her.

"He came to class less than half the time," she was working herself into high dudgeon. "When he was there he sat in the back with his friends and smirked at me. He didn't submit his final paper until two weeks after the school year ended.

"A paper that was below what he was capable of doing, Mister Sterling," she went on, nearly foaming at the mouth now. "Well below. And even then, Mister Sterling, even then, I went out on a limb for him and convinced the principal to give him a C as his final grade instead of the C-minus that the rules said he should have received. No, Mister Sterling, you are out of favors."

"I understand that, ma'am," I said, "but —"

"It is not something that admits of any buts, Mister Sterling," she insisted.

"This is for you," I said, opening the manila folder I'd brought with me and handing her its contents.

"What is it?" she asked skeptically.

"It's the paper I should have turned in last spring."

She read the title and looked up at me.

"You wrote this paper last spring and turned in that other piece of —" she began.

"Crap," I agreed. "No, ma'am."

She looked even more surprised.

"You wrote this recently?"

"Last week, ma'am," I nodded.


"To show you how serious I was about getting into your class, ma'am."

She gave me another long look and then turned her attention to the paper. She read the first paragraph or two before looking back at me.

"If you had come to class," she said, "you would have known I don't agree with your thesis about the role of the Fourth Tempter in Eliot's play."

"Actually, ma'am, I was in that class," I said. The notebook I'd found in my pile had contained, among its few scribblings, a notation of Mrs. Parker's views of that very thing.

"Then why this?" she held up the paper.

"You wouldn't consider it a very persuasive paper, ma'am," I suggested, "if you were already persuaded of its conclusion before you read it."

She looked at me like I'd grown antennae, and slowly returned to the paper.

"So you're suggesting that if I acquiesce in your request, I can expect this kind of work, rather than the crap you gave me last year?" she tossed the paper on her coffee table when she'd finished.

"I'm suggesting only that this is the kind of effort I'll give you, ma'am," I said. "What you'll get is a different question entirely."

She gave me a kind of half-smile, still turning it over in her mind.

"I have to point out that this is your fault, ma'am," I said, really pressing my luck.

Her eyes flashed at me, challenging me to explain that outrageous statement.

"Ma'am, if you'd let Mr. Linwood give me that C-minus, there'd be no way I could pull my average up to a 2.75. But you gave me a C, and Ms. Carter in the office tells me that if I do well enough this spring, including in your class, I can get a 2.74 something that will get rounded up to a 2.75."

She looked at me and gave me a crooked smile, which turned into a small chuckle after a few seconds.

"Hoist by my own petard, eh, Mister Sterling?" she said.

"So it would seem, ma'am," I agreed.

"Of course, if you'd turned in this paper, you wouldn't need to take my class," she said, picking up the paper on the coffee table.

"Touché, ma'am," I smiled. "Of course, I'm the one who's going to have to pay for both of our mistakes by working my butt off, ma'am. All you have to do is let me in the class."

"Oh, very well," she said. "This 2.75 is important to you?"

"Yes ma'am," I said. "It's —"

She cut off my explanation with her hand.

"Allow me the fantasy of pretending that your love of learning has simply been reborn, Mister Sterling," she said. "And I don't need to point out how disappointed I will be if I don't see the kind of effort you have promised me."

"No, ma'am," I smiled. "Thank you. May I use your phone, ma'am? I need to call Ms. Carter and let her know."

"I'll do it myself, Mister Sterling," she said. And she did. Right then and there with me listening.

I got up early the next morning and found what I thought was most likely the kind of outfit I would wear to school. Jeanne didn't say anything nasty about it at breakfast, so I was fairly confident as I followed her out the door to the bus stop.

"Where are you going?" she turned abruptly to confront me.

"To the bus stop?" I suggested.

"You have a car," she pointed to the Subaru in the driveway. "You're a senior. Why take the bus?"

"Do you want to practice driving?" I asked her.

"No," she said after a moment's thought. "I'd be too nervous pulling in there. Why aren't you driving? Won't Stephie be upset you're not picking her up?"

She said "Stephie" in the same scornful tone she'd said "Sheila" on Christmas, so I jumped to the conclusion that Stephie was a girlfriend, probably the girlfriend if she expected a ride to school.

"She'll just have to be disappointed," I said nonchalantly. Picking Stephie up had three problems. The first, perhaps not insurmountable problem, was the actual act of driving. I hadn't had the car out since Christmas Day, and wasn't confident of my ability to navigate busy streets that would have crosswalks filled with children. The second, more difficult problem was that I had no idea where Stephie lived. And of course, the third problem: I had no idea who Stephie was. I didn't remember a Stephie, or even a Stephanie, from ninth grade.

"So tell me," I said as we reached the bus stop, "which of my girlfriends have you liked?"

"I liked Cammie," she hissed.

"Cammie," I nodded.

"Before you turned into an asshole with your little blow or go ultimatum," she seethed.

"My what?" I asked.

"Oh, fuck you, Trick," Jeanne spat. "You know exactly what I'm talking about."

The bus's arrival prevented any further discussion, so I found a seat by myself at the back. I wouldn't really have broken up with Cammie Rowe because she wouldn't give me a blowjob, would I?

"PaTRICK STERling," came an annoying whine from the front of the bus after one of a series of stops to which I'd stopped paying attention. "The TRICKSTER!"

I vaguely recognized Bobby Bunt, a guy I'd been in ninth grade with. He'd never been particularly talented athletically, and he certainly hadn't been nice to me back in ninth grade, so I was inclined to brush him off now. Of course, there was a chance that he was my best friend now.

"Dude," I nodded as he eagerly sat down in front of me and turned around. I'd decided that "Dude" would be my answer to everyone, until I figured out who was who and what was what.

"So, good holiday, Trickster?"

"'Sokay," I nodded. "Yours?"

"Excellent, Trickster," he nodded. "Excellent."

We weren't best friends. He was too eager. I'd be willing to bet he'd been cut from the varsity baseball team last year. He managed to chat on for another ten minutes with minimal contributions from me until we reached the school.

Fortunately, there were a number of students who couldn't remember the combination to their lockers after the two-week holiday. None of them had my additional problem — no idea which locker was actually theirs. But both of them turned out to be a non-issue. Ms. Carter was standing at the counter in the office with a big book opened in front of her, writing down locker numbers and combinations as a line of students filed past her. I waited my turn, I told her my name, and I got my slip of paper. I opened it up just outside the office: "137, 34-22-5; nicely done, Patrick."

The printout that Ms. Carter had given me the week before let me know that I had Mr. Smithson for homeroom, and the absence of any explosion or even icy staring let me know that it wasn't something I shared with the mysterious Stephie. I had become more and more apprehensive about meeting this girl. Who was I dating? What was she like? Did we have common interests? I was heartened by the fact that I had obviously been found attractive by Miss Edwards, and disheartened by my apparent rejection of Cammie Rowe.

Stephie wasn't in my first period class. Mr. Kennedy's government class apparently appealed to the athletes. I recognized most of the guys as athletes, greeting them with high fives, low fives, and forearm bumps as they were offered to me. I greeted every "Trickster" with a "Dude." There was a smattering of girls in the class, as well, although they were a distinct minority. It was a fairly dull class; Mr. Kennedy was a fairly dull teacher. He passed out the textbooks, gave us our first assignment, and began lecturing on the separation of powers. I took careful notes, to the obvious surprise of the guys sitting around me.

Second period was a little more exciting. Mr. Anson greeted me with a sarcastic "Nice to see you, Mr. Sterling," and then, no more than ten minutes into a quick review of last semester's work, asked me with a smirk to explain the cause of the War of 1812.

"The nominal cause, sir, or the real cause?" I innocently blinked my eyes.

"I'm sorry?" he stopped his pacing of the front room to stare at me.

"Well, of course the nominal cause was the British impressing sailors off of American vessels," I explained, parroting what I'd read in "American History for Dummies." "But many scholars believe that the real causes were economic, of course, having to do with trade between a young America and two countries, France and Britain, that were still at war with each other. And then there's the issue of territorial ambition. Many powerful Americans coveted Canada, which was —"

"Thank you, Mister Sterling," he stopped me.

It ended up being a long time before he called on me again, and then only because I raised my hand to argue with him about the objections voiced by Abraham Lincoln to President Polk's 1848 war against Mexico.

Stephie wasn't in that class, though, nor was she in Mrs. Palmer's class, the Honors English Seminar. I didn't get any high fives, low fives, or forearm bumps in that class. What I got was an entire class of stunned looks, the kind that a luncheon of society matrons would give a bum who wandered into their midst from the street.

Mrs. Palmer smiled at me, though, and told me she had saved me a seat in the front row. I smiled back and thanked her. And took my seat.

She started teaching immediately, informing us that the entire seminar would be devoted to the works of a single author, Herman Melville. She gave us our first reading assignment, a short story called "Bartleby, the Scrivener," and our first writing assignment.

"What I want," she said, "is a one-page single-spaced hypothesis. On the syllabus that I just passed you will find the URL of a website that contains a short biography of Herman Melville. I want you to pick one fact from that biography — just one — and hypothesize about how that fact might have influenced Melville's writing. Has anyone here read Melville?"

It turned out the answer was no, and Mrs. Palmer smiled.

"Good," she said. "I don't want to know — yet — how it did or didn't influence him. What I want from you, by Friday, is how it might have influenced him. For example, he was a crewman on a whaling boat. Oh, and that's the one fact that is off limits. How might his experience on that boat influence his work? What would you look for when you're reading? Miss Josephs?"

"Will you be grading this, Mrs. Palmer?" came a prim voice from directly in back of me. I recognized Missy Joseph's voice, dripping with even more false sweetness than it had in ninth grade. From the little I remember of her, she probably felt betrayed, that Mrs. Palmer had stolen her seat and given it to me.

"I will be grading every single thing you write in this class, Missy," Mrs. Palmer said. "If you write on the board, I will grade that. If you pass notes, I will grade them. If I catch you text-messaging, I will grade that. And since none of you seem to be able to spell in text messages, you should be prepared accordingly. There will be no examinations. This is a writing seminar. Any other questions? Very well, the essay by Friday. Bartleby by Monday."

I was on my way to my fourth period Astronomy Class, clear across the building in the science wing, when I was grabbed by the shirt collar by a short but well-muscled man wearing a T-shirt and sweat pants, who spun me into the front office.

"Coach?" I guessed.

"What the hell is this, Sterling?" he asked, waving a piece of paper in front of me.

I tried to follow it, unsuccessfully, until I started to get dizzy. I gave up.

"Sir?" I asked.

"Your schedule?" he finally let me in on what we were discussing. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

I could see Ms. Carter watching me intently from behind the counter.

"Sir," I began, "I'm taking advantage of the fine educational opportunities that this school offers. I believe I've been remiss in that the past few years."

Coach was a little taken aback; behind him, Ms. Carter was utterly failing in her effort to suppress a smile.

"Why?" Coach finally sputtered.

"Because I don't want to end up as assistant manager at the Seven-Eleven like my brother if I get injured. Sir."

"I've gone to a lot of trouble to arrange visits from scouts for you this semester," he changed tactics. "Pro scouts, Trick."

"Yes, sir," I said. "I still left my afternoons free, except for Wednesdays. And that's only sixth period."

"You do realize that this is our chance at the big leagues, don't you, Trick?" he said. "The team's not gonna be hittin' or fieldin' behind you like last year. We'll be lucky to make the conference playoffs."

"Yes, sir," I said. It didn't surprise me; most of the guys in the front row in the picture on my desk had been seniors last year. I was a little curious about "our" chance at the big leagues, though.

"When is the first one scheduled, sir?" I asked.

"Thursday," he muttered. "Seventh period."

"I'll be there," I smiled. "Ms. Carter, can I have a pass for my next class, please?"

The bell had gone off several minutes ago, and with pass in hand I ran down the hall to the physics room, where the students sat not at desks but at lab benches, with two stools to a bench. I handed Mr. Carruthers my note, and he directed me to the only open seat, at the back of the room near the window, with a very hot-looking blonde who'd broken into a big grin as soon as I entered the room.

"Hey, Trick," she whispered to me as I took my seat.

"Hey," I said.

"Didja get what you wanted for Christmas?" she continued in a low, sexy tone.

Mr. Carruthers was in the midst of passing out textbooks and explaining what would be expected of us, but I was a little leery of just telling this girl to shut up. She could be Stephie's best friend. Hell, she could be Stephie, although that seemed a little unlikely.

"Yeah, sure," I tried to end the conversation.

"I didn't get what I wanted," she pressed on in spite of me.

"A gag would have been nice," hissed the girl directly in front of me as she turned around to glare at us.

"Cammie Rowe," my benchmate smiled cruelly as she readied a retort, "why don't you —"

"Some problem back there?" Mr. Carruthers asked.

"No, sir," Cammie whipped back around after a final glare at me.

"No," the girl next to me drawled insolently.

"No, sir," I said. "Something was squeaking back here — this chair maybe — and Miss Rowe asked me to keep it quiet. I'm sorry if it bothered the class."

In front of me, Cammie Rowe and her bench partner, a guy I vaguely remembered as some sort of band guy, started shaking with giggles. The girl beside me turned her cruel smile into a malicious glare and then turned it on me. But she did shut up for the rest of the class.

Mr. Carruthers spent the rest of the period explaining that there would be no lab today, but at next Wednesday's lab, he would assign us partners. A week later, he expected each pair of partners to pick a single area of the sky on which they would concentrate their research. Throughout the semester, he explained, he would give us the tools to understand everything we needed to know about the stars and other objects we'd be viewing, and our final research project would reflect our application of those tools to our chosen area. By the end, I was very pleased to be in this class.

No Stephie in the religion class either. There were only seventeen students in all, and the first three seats of the five rows were already occupied when I entered, each of them with a smartly dressed student wearing a pastel button-down shirt and either slacks, for the boys, or longish skirts, for the girls. I found a seat four back, next to the only other student who didn't look like she'd come from the same mold.

"Patrick Sterling," I introduced myself as I sat down before the bell rang.

"Tanya Szerchenko," she smiled shyly. Mrs. Jenkins walked in then, frowning slightly at the rows of cookie-cutter classmates that Ms. Carter had warned me about when she'd signed me up for the class. She smiled at me and Tanya, clearly the class misfits, and began to lecture. She explained that we would be examining the Old Testament as history, putting various books — some historical, some prophetic — in the contest of their times. This was actually better than Sunday School. By the end, I was glad I was taking this class, too.

I finally met Stephie at lunch. It was after I'd stood in line, paid for my burger and fries, and stood stock-still at the door, realizing I had no idea where I was supposed to sit. My "usual" table — the one I'd been sitting at before Christmas, when I was in the ninth grade — was still in the same place. I recognized Rabbit Parker, who'd added maybe another inch in height but nothing in weight, and Tommy Narburg, who had apparently never stopped eating the "extra" food from Rabbit's plate. And Bill Kuehn, who used to whip my butt semi-regularly at chess, and Sammy Houghtaling, who played the trumpet. Next to them was the kid from Astronomy, the band guy, whose name suddenly came to me: Aaron Fleishmann. I took two steps toward them before I realized that they were sitting with two girls, a very obvious change from the table I'd left. One of them was Cammie Rowe; the other was my sister, Jeanne.


A shrill voice floated across the room, cutting through conversations like a knife through butter.

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