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Just a Matter of Timing

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Eve Baird arrived at Elaine Fisher High School bright and early the morning of September 16th. School was already almost two weeks in and she had some concerns about starting her new job so late, but the principal, who had hired her, had assured her it wouldn’t be a problem. The parking lot was still fairly empty at seven AM, and she took a moment to enjoy the warm sun on her back as she leaned into the back seat of her SUV to look through her bag and make sure everything was in order. A small, older car pulled into the spot next to her and a slightly gawky man in a light-coloured suit hopped out.

“Hi there,” Eve tried, figuring it couldn’t hurt to introduce herself to the other staff. “Nice morning, isn’t it?”

“Hm?” Already half-turned away from his car on the way towards the school, the man turned back and looked at her, as if surprised to be seen and spoken to. “Uh, yeah, hi.”

“Eve Baird,” she introduced herself, shutting the door of her car and hoisting her bag onto her shoulder. “I’m the new guidance counselor.”

“Didn’t know we needed a new guidance counselor,” he said, almost to himself, with a slight frown. Then he ran a hand back through his dark, slightly messy hair and slapped on a smile. “Flynn Carsen. Librarian. I doubt we’ll see each other around very much. Nice to meet you though.” With a curt nod he turned away again and headed inside.

“Yeah, nice to meet you too,” Eve muttered to herself, hoping that the other faculty members were more personable. Adjusting her backpack over her shoulder, she shook her head and followed him inside, turning left towards the main office once in the door. She glanced around the front foyer as she passed through, but Carsen had already disappeared.

“Hi,” she said, a little uncertainly, to an aging woman at the first desk in the office. The woman glanced up. She had thick, dark-rimmed glasses and hair that was still mostly dirty-blonde cropped smartly to her chin. Her dark suit was crisp and spotless.

Before Eve could introduce herself as planned, the woman stood up and came around the desk. “You must be the new guidance counselor, right? Ms. Eve Baird.”

“Uh, it’s Colonel, actually,” Eve answered.

“Really!” The woman smiled, and Eve, though still a bit uncertain about the situation, found herself admiring how the older woman’s features could go from hard to warm in no time flat. “May I ask with whom?”

“NATO,” Eve answered. “I know, I know, weird career change. But things have been intense in the field the last few years and I was recommended a change of pace. Not an easy decision, but it seemed like a good idea, ultimately.”

“Well, I certainly won’t mind having another woman of discipline around here, Colonel Baird. You can call me Charlene,” the older woman told her, turning to look through the papers on her desk for a moment.

“Thanks. Um, I’m supposed to be meeting Mr. Judson…?”

“Mm, he told me you were coming. An emergency meeting with a parent came up, so he’ll see you this afternoon. He asked me to do the paperwork and the tour and all that.” Charlene produced a contract from a folder on her desk and handed it to Eve. “Have a look at that today and get it signed and back to me by the end of the day, if you don’t mind. I assume Mr. Judson’s told you a bit about our school’s situation?”

“Not very much,” Eve admitted, resting her backpack against the edge of Charlene’s desk to tuck the contract inside. “We really just did the usual interview and basic hiring stuff. All over the phone, too.”

Charlene huffed. “That man… You know he’s retiring, too? Principal here for forty years and then he retires mere weeks into a new school year. Won’t let us give him a proper send-off, even. Says he just wanted to get the year started off right and then slip out quietly.”

“He didn’t mention that at all,” Eve answered, frowning.

Charlene sighed heavily. “Well, it’s nothing for you to worry about. He’s leaving Mr. Jenkins in charge, who’s been our vice-principal for nearly as long as Mr. Judson’s been principal. Bit of a shut-in, but an exceptionally good man, I assure you. I’m sure you’ll get along with him well. Mr. Judson insists that he deserves to have been principal years ago – he’s always been loyal to the school, and he has family history here. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there.” She waved a hand. “Let me show you to your office, first of all. We can talk as we go.”

Charlene led Eve out of the office and halfway down a hallway across the foyer. “We haven’t had a good, dedicated guidance counselor since Ms. Noone left us years ago. It’s really just been other faculty filling in where needed. You’re sorely needed here,” she said as she unlocked a door and led Eve through a small, sparse waiting room. Everything was slightly dusty, as if no one ever came through. On the other side was a small office with a window and another locked door. “We’ve decided that we’re going to give you the files for all the students who most need the counseling services. More standard cases will continue to be handled by other staff on an as-needed basis. They’ll share the other office over there-” here she gestured across the waiting room to another door. “-and this one is all yours. We cleaned it up and everything. Our tech teacher told me he’d be down this afternoon with your account information, so the computer’s all yours once you can get onto it.”

Eve put her backpack down on the desk and glanced around. The office was fairly empty – a desk, a computer, a bare bookshelf, a couple of chairs – but she didn’t expect trouble working with it. “How does a school this size go years without its own guidance counselor?” she had to ask.

Charlene sighed again. “We were a well-funded institution for years,” she explained, “but things have gone downhill recently. Student population is still pretty high compared to other schools in the area, but it’s decreased in the last five years or so, and the school board has tightened up on us. Keeping things under budget has been hell. I’m afraid your benefits aren’t going to look anything like what you’re used to from the army.”

“I was prepared for that,” Eve admitted with a laugh.

“Good. Shall we take a tour?”

Charlene walked Eve up and down the halls and stairwells of the high school, pointing out important rooms and giving the best explanation she could of the school’s layout, not to mention a few key points of its history. Eve could tell the old building had once been in much better repair, and found herself disappointed that the school board was letting it fall apart. They navigated their way between little knots of students, trickling in one busload at a time as 8:30 approached.

“I left the library for last,” Charlene was telling her, “because it’s the other thing we were hoping to get your help with. By the end of last year it had reached a truly spectacular level of disrepair – it just wasn’t functional any more, to say nothing of whether it was up to code. Over the summer we had to find a contractor who could renovate it and stay within our budget. It’s going to take a few months. In the meantime, our librarian, Mr. Carsen, is taking the opportunity of the library’s contents being moved to storage to do a long-overdue inventory check. But the ridiculous man is spreading himself too thin. He can’t give input on the redesign, completely reorganize, do a full inventory, and fulfill his role as an admittedly underutilized student resource all by himself.”

“So you want me to help manage all that,” Eve surmised as they reached the library doors, which were cordoned off with caution tape and had a notice on the window informing students that the library was closed for renovations.

“Well, ideally, we’d love a few students to help,” Charlene explained. “But we haven’t got any volunteers yet. If you can come up with any way to get some involved, I encourage you to do so. I’m leaving it all in your hands. But Mr. Carsen also needs someone to keep an eye on him. He’s resistant to help, but he’s bitten off far more than he can chew, and there’s only so much that we can do for him in administration. We’re busy enough as it is.”

Eve narrowed her eyes. “He doesn’t know you’re getting me to do this, does he?”

Charlene looked at her knowingly for a moment, her smile thin. “You’ve already met him, I take it.”

“In the parking lot,” Eve confirmed. “He’s… less than friendly.”

“Well, then, you see what I mean,” Charlene said, throwing her hands in the air. “He’s a brilliant man, he really is. Absolute genius. He’s got twenty-two degrees, if you can believe that. I’ve worked with him for a decade. But he’s also an idiot. He hardly knows how to interact with students – he only does just barely well enough to keep his job.”

“Well, let’s get this over with,” Eve muttered, but not without a hint of a smile.

She followed Charlene into the library, which was bigger than she’d expected from her tour around the rest of the school. It was also in total disarray. Most of what she saw was empty shelves, miscellaneous bits of garbage left over from packing, and a stack of boxes sitting by the door, presumably waiting to be moved. “Flynn!” Charlene shouted into the library, cupping her hands around her mouth. “Where the hell are you?”

He came running out of the shelves, and Eve had to suppress a laugh. The man ran with all his limbs at once, flying in every direction. He scrambled to a stop when he saw her standing with Charlene. “Oh. You,” he greeted, balking.

“Yeah. Me,” she answered, arching an eyebrow.

“Flynn, I understand you and Colonel Baird have already met,” Charlene started.

“Yeah. Parking lot. Just doing the tour I guess?” Flynn answered shortly, apparently antsy to get back to whatever he’d been doing.

“No,” Charlene responded, crossing her arms. “Flynn, you’ve got too much on your plate and I don’t have time to stand around breathing down your neck. Colonel Baird, when she’s not busy down in the guidance office, is your new handler.”

“What!?” he squawked. “Charlene, I do not need-” he turned to Eve. “Listen. I’m sure you’re very nice and everything. But I don’t need a ‘handler.’ I’ve got everything under control here.”

“Mm, no,” Eve answered, placing a hand on her hip. She’d come in willing to cooperate with the guy, but she didn’t appreciate being condescended to. “Mr. Judson hired me, and this is a responsibility I’ve been given. We’re going to work together whether you like it or not, Mr. Carsen.”

“You’re perfect,” Charlene told her with a grin. Then she turned back to Flynn. “I’m handing all of my executive power on this project to Colonel Baird. You still bring budget issues to me, but everything else goes through her.”

Flynn clasped his hands together for a moment, pointing at the two of them with his index fingers. He seemed to be thinking, but then he said, “…Nope. I’m going to go talk to Judson about this.” With that he stepped forward and pushed past them, out the library doors.

“Excuse-” Eve was ready to follow after him, but Charlene shook her head.

“Don’t waste your breath,” she advised. “Mr. Judson will set him straight. That man is about the only person in this world that Flynn consistently listens to. You may as well go get settled into your office. The school day starts in a few minutes and I’m sure you’d like some time to get sorted. Until you get your computer login, hard copies of all your students’ files have been put in the filing cabinet in your office.” She handed Eve the keys. “I’ve got to go get ready for the morning announcements. Let me know if you need anything.”

--

Eve didn’t have much to add to her office. A pencil cup on the desk, a few sticky notes and paper clips in the top drawer, three books and a signed photograph from her old team on the shelves. She wasn’t a person who tended to have many things. But at least that meant it didn’t take her long to get started. After glancing over and signing her contract for Charlene, she started in on the files in the cabinet, putting aside a few for students that she thought she’d like to speak to. There were over a hundred students assigned to her specifically, and all of them were important cases for one reason or another, but there were a small handful that seemed high-priority, and she wanted to try and get to know those kids before anything big came up for her to deal with.

After lunch, Mr. Judson knocked on her office door. She quickly let him in, pleased to finally shake the hand of the man who had hired her. “It’s my pleasure,” he insisted with a warm smile.

They sat down and he leaned against the desk, getting straight to business. “I’m so glad to finally have another guidance counselor in the school, Colonel,” he told her. “I’m sure you’ve heard, we were really quite sorely in need of your services.”

“Charlene told me a bit about it, yes,” Eve answered. “I can’t believe the board has let this slide for so long. I was sure a school with a population this large would be getting at least a little bit more attention.”

“We’ve been on and off the chopping block a few times,” Judson admitted. “The only thing that’s saved us from closure the last two times they threatened is that there aren’t any other public high schools near enough and large enough to take on our student body, even if you split them up. The closest school is Benwick, and it’s a private institution. But we’re still hurting for resources.”

“Well, I’m glad to help however I can,” she said with a nod. “Improving the school and its environment is my job, so I’ll do my best.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” he said. “A new guidance counselor was the one big thing I really wanted in place before I felt like I could leave. I want to know my students are being looked after. And the rest of my faculty are wonderful, and of course I’m leaving the school in excellent hands with Mr. Jenkins, but I really had to be sure that the students would be looked after on an individual level. They’re the most important thing.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, Mr. Judson,” Eve told him. She liked the man even more now than she had on the phone; he was wise and caring and she could tell he loved his job for all the right reasons. “I’m glad to find myself in a place where I feel like I can have a positive impact.”

“Very encouraging,” he said with a smile. “Now, I know Charlene gave you the tour and got you settled in. Is there anything else I can do for you this afternoon?”

“I think I’m doing okay for now,” she told him, glancing around the office as if something relevant might pop up. When it didn’t, she looked up and offered him another smile.

“Excellent.” He patted the table as he got to his feet. “I encourage you to drop by the staff room after school and try to meet the other staff if you can; they’ve heard you’re here and they’ll be curious, I’m sure. Otherwise, I’m at your disposal for the next week and a half, and then you’ve got Mr. Jenkins.”

“Thank you, sir,” Eve said, getting up to shake his hand again. “So good to meet you. I’m sure we’ll talk again soon before you go.”

Near the end of the day, Eve took her contract and three files down to the main office. “Hey, Charlene,” she asked. “Is there any way I can request meetings with these students?”

Charlene lifted her glasses and flipped the files open, peering at the names. “Yes, I think that’s a good idea. For all of them. I’ll write up letters to send to their homerooms tomorrow morning. Do you prefer morning or afternoon appointments?”

--

Early the next day – a Wednesday – Eve was trying out her new computer login when there came a gentle knock at her office door. She got up and let the girl in with a smile. “You must be Cassandra,” she greeted.

“Yeah.” The student held up a piece of paper. “I was told to come down and meet you.”

“Have a seat,” Eve invited, gesturing to the faded blue chair on the near side of her desk. She went back to her seat and gave the girl a quick once-over. The wavy, flaming-red hair stood out first, of course, but a timid smile, bright blue eyes, and a colourful, cheerfully feminine outfit came soon after. Royal blue sweater-vest over a floral blouse and a bright yellow pleated mini-skirt. Despite her shyness, the girl had a warmth about her, and Eve liked her immediately.

“So you’re the new guidance counselor, right?” Cassandra asked before Eve could introduce herself. “I heard something about you on the announcements. We’re supposed to give you a warm welcome.”

“If you want to,” Eve answered, smiling a little. “My name is Eve Baird.”

“So… are you having meetings with all the students, or just the dying ones, Ms. Baird?”

Eve was a little taken aback; she hadn’t expected the girl to be so direct. Cassandra didn’t seem hostile, though, so she didn’t go on the defense. Instead she figured this was a young woman who would appreciate honesty. “It’s Colonel, actually,” she started. “I know a lot of folks use civilian titles when they leave the service, but I’ve never known anything else. ‘Ms.’ just doesn’t sound right.” She smiled.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize. I’ll remember that. You were in the army?”

“NATO counter-intelligence,” Eve confirmed, and smiled a little more at Cassandra’s surprised and impressed look. “Feel free to spread that around if you like. I don’t mind inspiring a little healthy fear.” She winked, and Cassandra grinned. Good. Any student she could make more comfortable with a well-placed joke was going to be easier to work with. “Anyway, to answer your question, no, I’m not meeting with all my students. Just a few. The ones I think I’d like to get to know ahead of time, in case anything important comes up.”

Cassandra tucked her hands under her legs, clearly a little nervous. “That makes sense. Sorry for being glib with you.”

“That’s all right. I understand you’re in kind of a difficult situation, Miss Cillian,” Eve assured her.

“Just Cassandra’s fine,” the girl said with a shrug. “And yeah, I guess you’d call it that. How much do you know?”

“Just what’s in your file,” Eve answered, tapping the brown folder on her desk. “Which is a little sparse on the medical side. And your academic record, so I know you dropped out of all of your extracurriculars last fall when you got your diagnosis. Spent a little time away from school, then came right back and managed to keep your grades up. I’m impressed; that can’t always be easy.”

Cassandra shrugged again, looking down. “I don’t know. Classes aren’t hard…”

Eve waited a beat to see if Cassandra was going to finish her sentence, then finished it for her. “But life is.” The redhead nodded. “Cassandra, I want you to know, you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. But I’m here as a resource for you, and I encourage you to take advantage of that if you can. Anything you tell me is entirely in confidence; it won’t leave this room.”

“Except in cases where the safety of myself or another student is immediately threatened by another person, in which case it’s your legal duty to report it,” Cassandra pointed out.

“Yes, exactly,” Eve agreed, a little bit surprised. “I wasn’t going to leave that part out, you know.”

“I know the policies,” Cassandra said, shrugging a third time.

“It seems to me like you know a lot of things,” Eve told her.

“I guess so.”

Eve sighed and folded her hands on the desk. “Cassandra, I’m here for you. Whether that means you want to vent about your situation, ask advice, or just get regular run-of-the-mill help with your academics. You can leave now that we’ve exchanged names, or you can stay if there’s anything you want to talk about.”

There was a pause, and then, for the first time since they exchanged names, Cassandra looked up and met Eve’s eyes. “What does my file actually say about the tumour?” she asked. “No one’s ever told me how specific the school’s record is.”

Eve flipped open the folder on her desk and paged through the file for a moment. Licking her lips, she paused to work out the word in front of her before trying it out loud. “You have an oligodendroglioma, diagnosed just under a year ago. Seizures, hallucinations, synesthesia. We have contact info for your doctors. Not much else.”

Cassandra nodded, eyes going back to the desk. “It’ll be a year in two weeks,” she said. “Getting the diagnosis was… weird. Scary. My parents are doctors, but not for this kind of thing. My mother’s a vascular surgeon, my father’s a cardiac specialist. When I started having seizures they obviously knew something was wrong, and they had the resources to get me in to a neuro clinic pretty fast. But going from a couple seizures to full-blown hallucinations and an incurable tumour diagnosis in the course of three months is… overwhelming.”

“I can’t even imagine,” Eve answered, her heart already breaking for this poor girl. She’s only sixteen, she thought.

“I couldn’t keep up with all the extra stuff I was doing, suddenly knowing I’m going to die. I mean, probably not… really soon. But too soon, you know?” Cassandra’s leg bounced nervously. “I won’t go to college, I guess. What’s the point? So I just kind of… quit everything. Mathletes, science fairs, trivia team, peer tutoring, music lessons… all of it. None of it seemed to be building toward anything anymore. I keep my grades up because I don’t know any other way, but that’s all I do.”

Eve was grateful that Cassandra was opening up to her. It seemed like a lot of this had been trapped inside for a while, with no one for the girl to talk to about it. “Do you miss any of it?”

Cassandra thought for a moment. “Not really,” she said eventually. “Sometimes it could be fun, but mostly I did it for my parents, and most of the fun disappears when you’re being pushed as hard as possible. I do miss knowing people, though. Those things were the only reason anyone knew who I was. At least I was on some kind of social map, even if it was only other nerds who knew me. No one really talks to me or knows who I am anymore.”

“Can I make a recommendation?” Eve asked. Cassandra nodded. “I think it would be really, really good for you to be part of something outside of classes again. Doesn’t have to be something you’ve done before, doesn’t even have to be at the school. But it sounds to me like you need to be part of something that puts you around other people.” Cassandra glanced down at the floor again, and Eve sighed. “Will you consider it, at least?”

“…Yeah. Okay,” the girl agreed finally.

“How about you come meet with me again in a few days and we’ll talk about it a little more?” Eve suggested. She cast around her desk for a moment, then pulled the sticky notes out of her drawer and jotted a few things down on the top one. “I don’t have cards yet, but here. There’s my email and my phone number in this office. You give my suggestion some thought, and we’ll work forward from there.”

“Okay.” Cassandra took the sticky note that Eve was holding out and stuck it to the cover of a book inside the bag she’d placed on the floor next to her chair. “That’s all for today?”

“Yep,” Eve confirmed. “You’re free to go.”

Cassandra got up from the chair and headed out. Halfway out the door, she paused and glanced back in. “Thanks, Colonel Baird.”

“No problem, Cassandra.” Eve gave the girl a smile, and then the door was shut again.

Eve barely had time to start checking her new email account after Cassandra left before another student came in without knocking, plopping himself unceremoniously into the chair on the other side of her desk. She looked across at him, one eyebrow arched high. A young Asian kid, hoodie hanging open over a graphic tee, one leg propped up over the arm of the chair.

“You must be Ezekiel Jones,” she said drily.

“That’s me,” he answered with a grin, and she was slightly surprised by his Australian accent, though she hid it tactfully.

“I was told not to expect you to show,” she informed him.

“Yeah, I considered skipping,” he admitted with a nod. “But I heard you were army and I got curious. What kind of school hires its guidance counselors out of the army? They must want to get a handle on me more than I realized.”

“News must travel fast around here.”

“Well, I’m the kinda guy who always hears it first.” He reached into the pocket of his sweatshirt and produced a crumpled letter, waving it in the air. “So I heard you wanna talk to me?”

Eve folded her hands on the desk. “That’s right,” she agreed. “Doesn’t have to take long if you don’t want it to. Just wanted to meet face-to-face before anything too significant comes up. I hear you’re a bit of a troublemaker.” If he was expecting a hardass, she didn’t mind being one.

“A bit? I must be slacking. I’m the troublemaker…” he glanced at his letter again. “…Baird.”

“That’s Colonel Baird,” she corrected him.

“Really! Cool.” Ezekiel crammed the letter back in his pocket, then looked at her desk. “Hey, is that my file? What’s it say?” He reached for the folder near her hands, but she managed to pin it down before he could snatch it.

“Ezekiel Jones,” she answered. “Fifteen years old, tenth grade, average marks even though based on your transcripts you could obviously be doing better.” She raised an eyebrow. “Probably too smart for your own good, in fact. Prankster with a worrying habit of knowing all the rules and all the loopholes. Chronic class-skipper. And as of recently, petty thief. Not to mention the fact that the school hasn’t managed to successfully communicate directly with your parents since early last year.”

For just a fraction of a second, she thought she saw worry flash across his face. “Well, they’re pretty busy,” he said nonchalantly, recovering quickly. “And we don’t have a landline.”

“Mm, that’s what it says,” she agreed, deciding this wasn’t a kid she could get through to by pushing. “They have cell phones?”

“I’m not supposed to give out the number,” he answered evasively.

“All right.” That line of questioning wasn’t going to get her anywhere today. “Anything you need to talk about, Jones?”

“Not really,” he said, shaking his head.

“Great.” She handed him a sticky note much like the one she’d given Cassandra. “Here’s my contact info until I get cards, in case you do need me. I’ll have an eye on you, got it? Get back to class.”

“Back?” he scoffed. Clearly he hadn’t been there to begin with. But she gave him a pointed look, and he sighed. “All right, fine. I’m going, Colonel. See you ‘round.”

Because Ezekiel didn’t stay nearly as long as Cassandra had, Eve had a longer break before her next appointment. She managed to submit her formal request for business cards and read through some of the booklet of school policies that Charlene had given her. Around eleven there was a single hard knock at her door, and she let in her third appointment.

Jacob Stone wasn’t especially tall, but he had a much bigger build than either of the other two. Surly, too. Dark hair styled upward, still a bit tanned from the summer, rumpled flannel rolled up to his elbows and half-buttoned over an old t-shirt, beat-up workboots. Eve knew the type; she’d seen enough of them come through the army. She’d whipped more than a few of them into shape, too. Sitting silently in the chair across from her, waiting for her to speak – he didn’t intimidate her in the slightest.

“Jacob Stone,” she greeted simply. “I’m your new guidance counselor. Colonel Eve Baird.”

“Hi,” he answered gruffly.

If he wasn’t going to give her anything to work with, that was fine. She didn’t mind doing the talking. “I thought we should meet properly before anything important came up that needed my attention. I prefer to know my charges before any emergencies, and you seem like the kind of guy who might cause one.”

“That so?” he replied, and she began to detect a hint of a southern accent.

“All right, pal,” she said with a sigh. “A year ago you quit football despite having been a strong player and you stopped interacting with your peers almost entirely. You’ve been getting into fights with other students, both on and off campus. And you’ve been letting your marks fall ever since, when you were barely pulling average to start with. At this rate you’re not going to graduate with the rest of your class in June. What’s going on?”

He shrugged. “Just ain’t good at school.”

“Here’s the thing, though,” Eve disagreed. “I spoke to your English teacher yesterday afternoon when I was being introduced to other staff. She’s certain you’re smarter than you let show. You slip sometimes, I hear, let on how much you know. It comes out in your answers in class and the essays you hand in. Based on your middle school transcripts and standardized test scores, I’m guessing she’s right.”

Jacob shifted slightly in his chair, and Eve smiled a little bit inwardly. She was beginning to get a feel for the kid’s tells – he was trying to think his way out of the corner she was backing him into. She had always read people well, and she’d dealt with so many different kinds at NATO that she’d developed a knack for working out idiosyncratic body language pretty fast. He probably thought he was closed off – arms crossed, gaze hard, posture relaxed but all his muscles tensed as if for escape. She wondered for a moment if she should use the one other thing she knew, then decided she may as well. She had no idea if he’d ever come back to her of his own free will if she didn’t make the extra effort now.

“Ms. Lewis did mention one other thing she thought I should know about you,” she ventured.

“And what’s that?” he asked, almost challenging her. But his arms tightened slightly against his chest.

Eve stretched out her hands on the desk in front of her. “She was telling me about a board-wide essay-writing contest that students are encouraged to enter. She collects the submissions and sends them on to the school board before the deadline in May. She doesn’t normally read them, she told me, but last year one of them caught her eye because she didn’t recognize the student’s name. James McKelvie. She stopped to have a closer look and ended up reading the whole thing. Phenomenal work, she said. But as she suspected, there was no student by that name at the school. Never had been.”

“Weird,” Jacob answered casually, but his whole body had gone stiff.

“Ms. Lewis recognized things about the work, though. Certain turns of phrase, certain ideas that had been alluded to but never fully explored by one of her students. She’s quite certain the essay was yours, Stone.”

He was quiet for a moment, and she hoped she’d played her cards right. “Well, obviously it didn’t win.”

“They can’t give the prize to a student whose name and contact information are fake, pal.”

He sighed deeply. Then, finally, “Shit.”

“Watch your language,” she warned him. “I agree, though. Surely you thought of that?”

Another long pause before he spoke. “Didn’t really want the prize,” he admitted slowly, casting his gaze down to the floor for the first time since he’d arrived. “Just wanted to see how it’d do. Thought maybe they’d release the name even if they couldn’t get in touch. You know, see if anyone could find the guy, or somethin’.”

“I won’t tell Ms. Lewis,” Eve informed him on a hunch. He relaxed ever so slightly. “I can’t. Everything we talk about here is strictly confidential unless a student’s safety is in immediate danger. You know that, don’t you?” He only shrugged. There’d been a lot of that today. She carried on. “Stone… why would you throw your grades out the window like you’re doing? You’re obviously brilliant.”

“Grades don’t hardly matter when all your old man ever talks about is makin’ a man of you and goin’ back where we came from. Guy ran the family business into the damn ground, that’s why we’re out here – that ‘n I halfway think he’s avoidin’ the state police for some kinda fraud or somethin’. But he makes out as if we’re goin’ back to Oklahoma any day now and pickin’ it all right back up. Doesn’t give a damn about my grades, all he wants is a son who can work hard and will take over for ‘im one day.” A lot of bitterness came bursting forth from the young man; Eve was almost taken aback. He’d gone from completely laconic to angry and verbose in a matter of seconds. She didn’t wonder now why he got into so much trouble, though.

“You know you don’t have to do what your father plans for you, right?” she asked him carefully. “You’ll be eighteen in less than a year. I know it’s not a simple thing to get out from under parents’ thumbs, but it’s possible. Especially if you take advantage of the intellect you clearly have.”

Jacob shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “You don’t just… leave your family.”

“The most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life,” Eve told him slowly, waiting for him to meet her eye before continuing, “is that you make your own family.”

“Can this be over now?” Jacob asked, frowning.

Eve sighed. “Fine.” She peeled off and passed him another sticky note, prepared earlier. “This is my contact info until I get cards sorted out. Hang onto it, and come back to me if you need anything. And,” she added pointedly, “Stay out of trouble.”

“Sure,” he answered without conviction, snatching the note and stuffing it into the pocket of his jeans.

“I mean it,” she called after him from the office door as he crossed the waiting room. “I don’t want to see you back here again except on your own terms.”