Mr. Jackson's classroom was covered in posters.
As I stood in it for the first time, I knew that the posters were what I would remember about it years later. The walls were slathered with images, all depicting different images of faraway places and people. If you walked into the classroom, you could learn things just from gazing around those walls.
The desks were small, but nobody seemed to mind because they were too busy staring around at the posters, eyes wide as coins, small smiles tugging at their mouths. When you looked at the walls of Mr. Jackson's classroom, you were no longer a small child with shaking fingers and a tentative smile. You were an adventurer, traipsing through the streets of Rome and Greece amongst your fellow classmates.
Mr. Jackson was seated on his desk as we filed into his room for the first time. It was the first day of the seventh grade, and everybody was nervous, but as soon as we walked into the classroom, there was an overwhelming sense of ease. This wasn't going to be one of those classes that had us with our hearts in our throats every day. This was going to be fun.
He smiled at all of us in spite of the fact that we were avoiding his eyes. None of us had made many friends yet, and we had spent most of the day with our irises pointed directly at the floor, flickering up briefly in order to make sure that we didn't walk into walls. As soon as the bell dinged, signaling the beginning of class, Mr. Jackson stood up and wrote his name on the board. He wrote slowly, as though trying to give us enough time to collect ourselves before turning around and flashing a wide smile.
"Hello," he said, showing white teeth and twinkling green eyes. "I'm Mr. Jackson, as you can see."
I noted that his handwriting was sloppy and it made me smile.
"This is Latin I," he continued, absently shoving up one of the sleeves of his red plaid button down. He was dressed more casually than the other teachers, but I could already tell that this suited his personality perfectly. "Much of this course will focus on Latin vocabulary and Mythology. Next year, should you choose to continue on with Latin II, we will look more deeply into grammar. But let's get you settled into seventh grade before we start worrying about eighth, yeah?"
A nervous titter floated through the class, causing everybody to exchange awkward smiles. Mr. Jackson looked extremely satisfied with himself.
"Now, I want everybody to gather around in a circle so that we can have a very serious conversation about how awesome I am."
The students exchanged confused smiles.
"Just kidding. We're gonna play name games so that you guys can get to know each other. I'm not quite that self-centered."
I let out a loud laugh while the rest of the class stared at him in shock. Immediately, a grin was sent in my direction.
"One more thing," he said, eyes still on me. "I have an absolutely terrible sense of humor. Each time I make a bad pun, I have a put a quarter in the pun jar," he says, pointing towards a jar placed carefully on his desk, "and at the end of the week I buy the class candy for Fun Friday. My first year of teaching, the students told me that this would help me beak the habit, but it hasn't actually worked so far. Go figure."
He strode confidently over to the desk and picked up a small, bright blue ball.
"Here's how the game works: Because I'm one of the lucky teachers that gets to have you from seventh grade to twelfth grade, should you choose to take Latin as opposed to one of the other language tracks, I get to see you all grow up. When I toss the ball in your direction, I want you to say your name, your favorite color, and what you hope to accomplish in the next six years of your life. And, believe me, I always remember."
His gaze pierced the circle as he looked around, giving each of us a glance. I couldn't tell whether or not he was serious, but somehow, I doubted that he ever was.
"So. My name is Mr. Jackson. I like the color blue. And in the next six years, I want to break my coffee addiction." The class laughed, and before I knew it, the ball was being thrown in my direction. I must have looked surprised when I caught it, because Mr. Jackson cocked an eyebrow at me. "You laughed at my joke, so you get to go first. That way you can get it over with. It's a gift, really."
I sat there for a moment, tossing the ball back and forth between my two hands. Finally, I opened my mouth.
"My name is Jennifer Holt. My favorite color is white. And over the next six years, I want…"
What did I want? I wanted everything. I wanted an entire world of things that I wasn't certain if I would actually be able to get. There was something completely alarming about pondering the next six years. Automatically, my heart seemed to speed up. This felt like I was being asked to figure my entire world out on the first day of seventh grade, and seventh grade felt like the first day of the rest of my life, and in that moment there was no such thing as small words or small decisions or being small.
Everything seemed to matter.
"I want to figure things out."
My nails dug into my skin as I waited for him to laugh at how general that answer was, but Mr. Jackson gave me a thoughtful nod and scratched the back of his neck.
"Yeah," he said, eyes squinting at me thoughtfully. "That's a pretty good idea."
The cafeteria was the worst place in the world.
I decided this as I walked away from it quickly, my cheeks burning red with shame. It wasn't something that I hadn't thought before, but longer it took for me to make friends, the more humiliating it all became. As I dashed away from the chatter filled room, I realized that I had absolutely nowhere to go. Perhaps a bathroom stall? No- too cliché. The library? No, no food allowed.
Sighing heavily, I took a seat on the ground and leaned against one of the lockers.
"Jen! There you are!"
I looked up to see Mr. Jackson marching purposefully down the hall.
"Hi, Mr. Jackson," I said, blushing awkwardly. He was my favorite teacher, and the fact that he was seeing me on the ground made an unexplainable fury rise up inside of me, reaffirming that I just wasn't good enough.
"I really need your help," he said, skipping over any pleasantries.
"Why?" I asked, confused.
"My friend packed my lunch for me, and she put pizza in it."
He looked at me imploringly, as though I was supposed to understand what he was trying to communicate with me just through the word 'pizza.'
"And," Mr. Jackson said, sighing, "I hate pizza. I can't eat it."
"Nobody hates pizza," I laughed, widening my eyes disbelievingly. "Don't be ridiculous."
He raised an eyebrow at me.
"Jen. I thought we were friends. How could you judge me like this? It's not my fault! I was born this way."
My mouth dropped open dramatically, making him chuckle a little bit.
"You actually, genuinely hate pizza?"
"With a burning passion deep within my soul."
"You're a Latin teacher," I remind him. He sticks his hand out, offering it to me, and I take it carefully, rising easily as I do so. "Rome is the pizza place."
"I've been to Rome. If you order pizza there, they give you sassy and judgmental looks."
"I know the look," I admitted. "My mom has it down pat. Anyways, why don't you just throw your pizza away?"
He started walking down the hallway towards his classroom. Without really knowing why, I followed him.
"Because then I'll be hungry," he stated. "Better to coerce one of my students into giving me her sandwich and letting her have my pizza. C'mon."
Mr. Jackson unlocked the door to his room and allowed me to pad in after him. I flicked on the lights for him, and he gave me a grateful smile in lieu of thanking me.
"So, why did your friend pack your lunch for you?" I inquired as he began to rummage through his messenger bag, looking for his lunch. He pulled out a brown paper bag.
"We take turns," Mr. Jackson said absently, handing it to me.
"So, you live with her?"
"No," he said, shaking his head. "I just…"
I gave him a half smile as he began to realize what he was implying.
"She's your girlfriend."
He didn't say anything, instead handing me two wrapped pieces of pizza before sitting on the desk next to mine.
"What have you got for me, then?" he questioned as he excitedly rubbed his hands together.
I reached into my pink and brown polka dotted lunch box and pulled out a turkey and cheese sandwich.
"Sharp cheddar," I said. "That's good stuff, Mr. Jackson."
He narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
"Jennifer Holt, I gave you pizza. If you have gushers or a pudding snack pack in that bag, I think that I have earned the right to it."
"No way!" I laughed, snatching the bag away from him. "You aren't touching my pudding snack pack."
His mouth dropped open.
"I let you have my pizza!"
"You said you didn't want it!" I reminded him.
Caught out, the corners of his mouth turned down slightly as he forlornly turned to his sandwich.
"No good deed goes unpunished," he murmured into the empty classroom. "I see how it is."
But, smiling slightly, I pushed my pudding snack pack towards him. He didn't say anything, instead reaching into his shirt pocket and pulling out a silver spoon. At the incredulous look on my face, he shrugged modestly.
"Always come prepared," he quoted. "Being a boy scout taught me that."
"You were a boy scout?" I giggle.
"Something like that," he replied lightly. His face grew more serious as he frowned down at my sandwich. "I wish I had been a boy scout. It would have been good preparation for later in life."
But at the sound of my voice, he looked up, playful attitude coming back immediately.
"Teaching you crazy middle schoolers needs a special form of preparedness."
"I recommend Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul," I commented sarcastically. "It's quite the educational read."
"Is it now?" Mr. Jackson laughed. "I'll be sure to look into it. So, Jen, what do you really like to read?"
A smile started to quirk at the corner of my mouth as I thought about the question.
"I just finished the Harry Potter series and I'm kind of depressingly obsessed with it."
"Some students have suggested that I look like Harry Potter," Mr. Jackson commented, running a hand pointedly through his messy black hair. "Dark hair; green eyes; dashing good looks."
I cocked my head to the side as I carefully reviewed him.
"Nope. Don't see the resemblance on that last part."
"Ouch," he laughed. "That burned. I'm gonna tell Annabeth that one when I get home; she'll get a kick out of it."
"Aha!" I said, sticking my finger triumphantly into the air. "The pizza packing person has a name! And a long one at that."
He looked a little annoyed with himself.
"I'm really supposed to keep a professional face on and not talk about my girlfriend in front of twelve year old girls."
"I'm thirteen in two weeks," I commented helpfully. "And don't worry. I love a good love story."
"Well, that's all you're going to hear about it. I have a strict rule about not drooling in front of my students."
"One more thing before we move on completely from the subject?"
"Yeah, okay. Make it count."
"Your eyes light up when you say her name," I pointed out. I turned back to my pizza before waiting for his reaction. "That's all."
Mr. Jackson was standing at the chalkboard when I walked in, but he turned around when he heard the thump of my backpack hitting my desk. At the sight of me, an excited look crossed his face.
"Can you stay after class today, Jen?"
"Sure," I nodded, frowning. "Is everything okay?"
His eyes became bigger.
"Oh, you're not in trouble. I just wanted to run something by you, and seeing as this is last period I thought it would be a good opportunity."
Other kids began to file in, so Mr. Jackson gave me a quick nod before turning to Tommy Davis and reminding him to take his hat off before class started. Although Mr. Jackson's lesson about etymology was interesting enough, I couldn't help but remain focused on what was going to happen after school. Despite the fact that he had told me that I wasn't in trouble, I wasn't sure whether or not I believed him. By the time the clock hit 2:15, I was practically on the edge of my seat, praying for the other kids to leave class so that Mr. Jackson could tell me what the issue was.
As the last student was asking Mr. Jackson a question about his vocab quiz, the door flew open, revealing a petite girl with long brown hair and milky pale skin. She tiptoed timidly into the classroom and plopped herself down at the desk closest to the door, waiting until Mr. Jackson finished talking to the boy about extra credit options. As soon as he left, Mr. Jackson turned to focus on the two us of.
"Hi, Dianna!" he said brightly.
"Hi," she responded, voice extremely small.
"So, you like Harry Potter and Jen here also likes Harry Potter. Discuss."
With that, he turned his spinny chair around to face the computer and began loudly typing on the keyboard. Dianna looked horrified as she glanced over at me, her small hazel eyes panicked. I didn't know what to do either, so the two of us sat there in total silence for at least three minutes before Mr. Jackson's chair whizzed around once more.
"I totally think that Harry and Hermione should have ended up together," he said conversationally.
"WHAT?!" Dianna and I gasped out simultaneously, and with a smirk, Mr. Jackson turned back to his computer.
"I think he's kidding," I said, moving closer to the girl.
"I hope so," she admitted softly.
"I can't fathom having to learn from a teacher with such terrible opinions," I said loudly, and I was pretty reasonably certain that Mr. Jackson's typing got even louder after I said that. He began softly humming to himself, making both me and Dianna burst into giggles.
"Did you ever notice that Mr. Jackson is secretly an enormous dork?" I stage whispered, making Dianna's eyes widen.
"I didn't hear that at all," he said. "But if I had, I probably would have reminded you that puns are cool."
"Sure they are, Mr. Jackson," Dianna chuckled, and with a secret smile exchanged between the two of us, we were suddenly best friends.
The June air was soft against our arms as we leaned against the grass, trying to keep the pages of the book down. The other kids were utilizing the mandatory gym class, but Dianna and I weren't ones for participation, so we usually changed clothes and then spent the entire class period on the sidelines, talking about the books that we were reading and making side comments about the other kids in the class. I was teaching Dianna how to be sassy. She was teaching me how sassy I was.
"What language track are you taking?" I asked Dianna, placing a bookmark carefully in Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech.
"Spanish, I think," she murmured, running her thumb carefully over the artwork on the cover. Her soft tone starkly contrasted the yelling from our classmates on the soccer field, but I had gotten used to it over the course of the school year. "You?"
"Latin," I said definitively. We had been on German track for the last quarter, Spanish the quarter before that, and French prior to Spanish. They were good enough classes, but none of them really compared to the fun that the students had in the Latin class. There was no way that I was going to be leaving Mr. Jackson. After all that he had done for me that year, I knew without a doubt that he was my favorite teacher. School wouldn't feel right without him. Besides, there was nothing more enjoyable than the way he would tell mythology stories. He added these special and funny personalities to the Gods, making them seem three dimensional and absolutely ridiculous. There was no way that I was missing out on the opportunity to listen to that for the rest of high school.
"Everybody is taking Latin," Dianna noted, eyes flicking up to the sky in the most minimal eye roll I had ever had the pleasure to witness. "I heard Mrs. Kline saying that they might have to hire more Latin teachers. You might have a different teacher next year than Mr. Jackson."
"Ugh," I said, flopping over onto the grass. "Why would anybody take Latin without Mr. Jackson there to teach it?"
"It's the question of the century," Dianna nodded, allowing herself a laugh. "I guess you're gonna have to close your eyes and hope really, really hard."
So I did.
The first day of school, Mr. Jackson wasn't in class yet when we filed in. This seemed rather unusual to me, as he was known for sitting on his desk and greeting students as they walked in. I had been looking forward to dropping some sort of funny comment about my summer and seeing the smile lines that would erupt over his face as he realized that he was stuck with me for an entire year this time.
"Where do you think he is?" I asked Dianna as we took our seats at the desks. She had decided to apply for Latin track at the last minute, which I was extremely grateful for, as most of our friends were either on different tracks or in different class periods.
"I don't know," she said, pursing her lips. "This is weird, isn't it?"
I shrugged, knowing that he would show up, and decided to let my eyes skate around the classroom, enjoying the posters that rested on the walls.
"Where do you wanna go?" I asked, turning towards Dianna. "Out of all these pictures on the walls?"
She was opening her mouth to answer when the door burst open, and in strode Mr. Jackson, a huge grin on his face that could only be described as shit-eating. The two of us exchanged amused glances.
"Guys," he said, setting a box down on his desk and going to stand at the front of the room, "over the summer, I had the best idea for Fun Fridays!"
For a moment, there was complete silence. Then, the entire class erupted into laughter. Mr. Jackson looked around at us, surprise on his face. His eyes flicked towards the pun jar, which held no quarters yet. At the sight of my face full of amusement, he scratched the back of his neck.
"Was it something I said?"
"No." I shook my head. "Just… welcome back, Mr. Jackson. It's really good to see you."
"No, really. What's going on?"
"What was your idea?" Liam Crawford asked, directing Mr. Jackson's attention back towards what we were talking about in the first place.
"Ah," Mr. Jackson said, turning around and picking up the box that he had just set on his desk. "You're gonna love this. It's like Apples to Apples… but Latin style! How cool is that?"
"So cool," Marina Smith told him, trying not to smile. "Very impressive."
He looked so satisfied with himself that we couldn't help but pretend to be enthralled with the game as we pushed our desks together for a first day of school refresher.
The test was actually kind of hard, which was weird, because Mr. Jackson never gave difficult tests. Luckily, he had allowed us to take it in a group after about fifteen minutes of the class bellyaching about its content. Satisfied with our work, we had all gotten into circles of three and began talking out the tests together while Mr. Jackson went to his desk and graded the papers that he had assigned his sophomores.
It was a pretty peaceful environment until the door burst open and in walked a woman that none of us had ever seen before. She had hair tied neatly into a bun at the top of her head with some unruly wisps flying haphazardly around her face. The neat skirt suit that she wore seemed to be tailored to perfection. And on her feet were ballet flats, obviously sensible for walking through the busy streets of New York City.
As soon as Mr. Jackson saw her, his entire face lit up, and at the expression on his face, I immediately knew who this woman was. A smirk started to etch its way onto my lips, and I put down my pencil so that I could lean forward on my elbows and watch the interaction that was about to take place before me.
He stood up as though he was going to give Annabeth a kiss on the lips, but suddenly seemed to realize where he was and drew back, wrapping his arms tentatively around her instead. Over her shoulder, his face contorted into a horrified look. I stifled a laugh at his expression, covering my mouth with my hand.
"Hi," Mr. Jackson said, his face contorting at his own awkwardness. He pulled back so that he could look into her eyes, his own lighting up at the sight of her. "What are you doing here?"
"You forgot both your briefcase and your lunch," Annabeth said, holding them up and cocking her head at him in a manner that could only be described as lovingly judgmental. Immediately, I knew that she was perfect for him. "I thought I would drop them off before work."
"How thoughtful of you," he murmured, his voice softening as his smile grew. "And you get to see my classroom!"
"It's really great, Percy." Her voice was equally tender. "I love all the posters."
You go, Mr. Jackson.
"They remind me of where I've been," he replied, his tone nostalgic.
There was a small silence between the two of them as they seemed to come to an understanding about exactly what the posters did mean to them. Immediately, my imagination went into overdrive. What happened in these places that adorned the walls of Mr. Jackson's classroom? Maybe they had met in Rome, sitting at a café along the side of the street and happening to be reading the same book. Or maybe they had hated each other and went on a school trip to Greece and fell in love in front of the water that was the bluest blue I had ever seen in my life. Or perhaps they had stumbled into each other in Pompeii, hands and voices getting wilder and louder as they realized their mutual passion for the classics.
Whichever story was the real one, I sort of wished that I knew it.
I didn't know why I stood up, but perhaps it was because I wanted to let Annabeth know that I existed too- that I was tangled in the web of his life and her life and that I mattered to him on the days that I wrote especially good essays or traded my pudding snack packs for a half a sleeve of Ritz crackers.
"Who's this, Mr. Jackson?"
The two of them turned around, seemingly surprised to see anybody who wasn't in their universe. A polite smile crossed Annabeth's face, but it wasn't all there, as though she was still lost in the place that she had been in for the past few minutes with Mr. Jackson.
"Oh, this is Mrs. Jackson," Mr. Jackson said confidently. A shocked, panicked look crossed his face, and his hand immediately went to scratch behind his ear, a nervous tick. "I… I mean… the future Mrs. Jackson. ANNABETH! This is Annabeth."
Although I was reasonably certain that my ribs were going to crack from all the effort that I was taking not to laugh, Mr. Jackson was still looking utterly dismayed.
"Interesting," I said, not trusting myself to say anything else. Mr. Jackson's entire face was turning bright red, even to the tips of his ears. He looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him up. I hoped that Annabeth would rescue him, shooting encouraging eyes in her direction.
"Mr. Jackson and I met when we were your age," she told me, and I immediately savored the lone piece of personal information that I knew about my teacher. Mr. Jackson, for his part, was still frozen in place. I gave Annabeth an endearingly exasperated look, which caused her to laugh softly, before I turned to Mr. Jackson and stage-whispered, "Annabeth is pretty," and then scampered back to my desk.
"Yeah, she is," came Mr. Jackson's voice as I walked, but I ignored this and sat down so that I could put my head next to Dianna's.
"It's the girlfriend," I said happily. "Isn't she pretty?"
"She looks really professional," Dianna noted, tilting her head thoughtfully to the side. "What do you think she does?"
"Probably something awesome," put in Marina Smith, and the three of us laughed together, carefully watching the interaction between Annabeth and Mr. Jackson as it continued. She walked to the classroom door, then spun around at the last minute to shoot a smile at him that was so radiant that it took us all aback.
"And by the way… she'll have you."
I clasped a hand over my mouth in excitement, but nobody else got the significance except for Mr. Jackson, who looked like he didn't know whether he wanted to vomit with nerves or jump up and scream and dance with happiness. When he looked up, I was giving him two encouraging thumbs up.
"Go back to your test, Jennifer," he said sternly, but the smile never vanished from his expression and, as he continued to daydream throughout the period, I knew exactly what I had to do.
"So how's operation proposal going?"
He looked up from his desktop long enough to give me a befuddled look.
"What are you talking about?"
"You're proposing to Mrs. Jackson soon, right? Run it by me. You can practice on me. I know a lot about women."
"Are you suggesting that I don't?" he inquired heatedly, but then I gave him a look that was half amused, half sarcastic and he back tracked immediately, fixing his tie to give his hand something to do. "Yeah, alright, I see your point."
"Hit me with it," I said, hopping onto his desk. "I am here for your test drive. Then I can tell you how much you're screwing up and make sure that you actually get married."
"Okay, so I was thinking-" he looked up and me and stopped talking. "Wait a second. You're a twelve year old girl. What do you know about proposing marriage?"
I rolled my eyes as I handed him a chocolate pudding and he wordlessly handed me his Cheez Its.
"I'm fourteen, Mr. Jackson. And I probably know more than you."
"But I know Annabeth," he reasoned, "so by nature I am probably more likely to put together a proposal that is better for her, personally, than you are."
I shook my head.
"There are clichés and traditional Dos and Don'ts and I have watched enough romantic comedies to know what works and what doesn't. Believe me, Mr. Jackson. You need me."
"I do?" he asked, swayed immediately.
"Yes!" I said emphatically, shoving a plastic spoon towards him. "Now will you please tell me your proposal plan?"
"Well," he said, "I was gonna take her out to dinner and put it in her cake or something."
"Oh Mr. Jackson," I sighed, taking a belabored bite of my sandwich. "Thank god you have me because that is the worst idea ever."
"Why?" he asked indignantly. His hands gripped his sandwich a bit too hard and a squirt of mustard hit his green shirt. I wordlessly handed him a napkin.
"Just close your eyes and think of the worst case scenario were that to go wrong."
"She says no?"
He thought for a moment.
"How did you two meet?" I asked him conversationally, lifting a finger to smooth a stray piece of my bangs back into my hair.
"Um… at a camp?"
"And did you have your first kiss there?"
"That's getting kind of personal."
"Do you want to get married or not?"
"Yes," he said hurriedly. "We kissed there."
"So, it's easy. Go back to the camp that you met at and go to the place where you had your first kiss and make sure that you two are under the moon so that you can read her that line of E. E. Cummings poetry about the moon and then bam. You're engaged. Simple as that, as long as you don't forget the ring."
Mr. Jackson looked at me like I was crazy. I shrugged my shoulders, got off of his desk, and patted him comfortingly on the arm.
"It'll be okay, Mr. Jackson. If all else fails, shove your hands into your pockets, push your shoulders up, and cock your head to the side. You'll look so vulnerable that she'll have to take pity on you and marry you."
The last thing I heard as I left the classroom was the sound of him blanching in my direction.
"You need to play a sport, Jennifer."
The scrape of my father's fork against his plate reflected how I felt about that particular sentence.
"You're a freshman in high school now," he said.
"Really? I hadn't realized."
He looked up and gave me an angry glare, causing me to shrink back in my seat. Okay. I may have deserved that more than a little bit.
"Colleges look for extracurricular activities when you apply. Grades are not enough to get into a good school."
I sighed and glared down at my plate. Lasagna night was definitely getting ruined.
"I don't like any sports, dad."
"Find one that you do like, in that case."
"May I please be excused?"
My mother didn't say anything, so I pushed my chair back with an unforgivably abrasive noise and catapulted myself out of the dining room, my feet loudly clunking up the staircase as I tromped up the steps. Once in my bedroom, I did the only sensible thing there was to do and grabbed my laptop, beginning a search for the different sports that my high school offered. Allowing my curser to trail down the page, I sifted through a plethora of activities that were just not interesting to me. Just as I was about to give up and go downstairs to ignite another screaming match with my parents, I reached the bottom of the page, where the last sport was listed, an addition to the school's catalogue in recent years. Girl's and boy's swim team were both coached by the one and only Perseus Jackson.
And I was reasonably certain that he would let me laze at the side of the pool instead of actually making me swim. So, really, this could only be a good thing.
The scent of the indoor pool started to smell like home alarmingly quickly. I hadn't expected myself to actually like swimming, but somewhere in the month of November, I had started sleeping through school, waiting to get to swim practice afterwards. Sometimes, when I had last period Latin with Mr. Jackson, I could tell that he was doing the same. He seemed to come completely alive when he was in the water, which was probably part of the reason why all of us loved the sport so much.
"Okay, we're doing relay races today. Everybody get in line. You gotta touch the wall, and if you don't hit it right, you're turning around. Also, if your formation for the turnaround is wrong, the entire team gets to start over again, so watch your streamlines."
There was a loud chorus of groaning from the group, and everybody stomped dejectedly across the pool area to get a good place in line. Seeing as there was so much pushing to not be in the back, I found myself dead last in line, right opposite Liam Crawford.
"So, you're aware of the fact that I'm gonna kick your ass, right?" he said, smirking playfully at me.
"As if," I replied, rolling my eyes. "You forget that I've seen your breast stroke. It's nothing to write home about."
"Yeah, but your streamline isn't nearly as aerodynamic as it needs to be, and your push off is mediocre at best."
"The beginning doesn't matter nearly as much as having proper breathing in the middle, something at which you, my friend, do not excel."
"My breathing is fine!"
"Oh, is that what your mom tells you to help you sleep at night?"
"I'll show you, Jennifer Holt."
"I'll be watching from the finish line."
He angrily reached behind his neck to pull off his t-shirt, and I almost forgot the fact that we were playfully bantering as a plethora of smooth, dark skin was revealed to me. Swallowing hard, I faced forward and tried not to wonder exactly how revealing my bathing suit was, or even if he was looking at all.
Liam Crawford was competition. I had to crush on him. I mean… crush him. Sorry. My bad.
The other kids on our team were evenly matched, so, unsurprisingly, it came down to the two of us. Mr. Jackson had stacked the teams fairly, as usual, and nobody had a true advantage. That was why being last was so difficult. This was going to be down to a fraction of a second, and the fact that I was going up against a boy with arms far more powerful than mine was not going to be helpful. With that in mind, I tried to be cognoscente of what he said about my streamline as I pushed hard off of the wall. He may have had the power, but I had logic, education, and skill. Plus, I had Mr. Jackson on my side. After all, I had gotten his girlfriend to say yes to his proposal. He had to be rooting for me.
Perhaps it was through sheer will that I beat Liam, or maybe it was because he let me win. Either way, when Mr. Jackson declared me the winner and reached his hand out to help me out of the pool, I couldn't help but notice the way Liam knocked it out of the way in order to grab my fingers instead. His mocha brown eyes met mine, warm and happy in spite of the fact that he had just lost.
Maybe I could let him win the next time. Probably not, though.
"You want me to let you do an extra credit project on Latin derivatives in Harry Potter spells?" Dianna and I nodded our enthusiasm in unison, large grins on our faces. "Seriously?"
"You can use them to teach the younger kids," Dianna suggested, clasping her hands together so that she could tuck them dramatically under her chin. "It could be a little project that you use to get the seventh graders interested in Latin."
"I don't know," he said, scratching at a bit of scruff that was growing on his cheeks. "I mean, I feel like I'd be giving you an extra project grade just for going home and watching Harry Potter."
The two of us tried not to giggle.
"But think about the Latin roots!" I sang, lifting my arms in the air. The other kids in the classroom, still working on their vocabulary packets, looked up and glared at me. I gave them small waves. A few of them rolled their eyes. A few of them laughed. Aware of how annoying I was being, I lowered my voice. "I mean, come on, Mr. Jackson. You'll win so many cool points with the younger students. This project could revolutionize the Latin department."
"Were you raised by a lawyer?" Mr. Jackson asked, his expression thoughtful.
"If that makes you feel better about losing this argument, then yes. Yes I was."
He heaved an enormous sigh, crinkling his nose in our direction before beginning a slow nod.
"I will consider this as a project that the entire ninth grade class can do. We needed another one for quarter four anyways."
Dianna and I high fived, cheering loudly. When the other students in the class glared at us, I winked at them and stage whispered,
"You'll thank us later."
I didn't go to my older sister's apartment very often, but when I did, I immensely looked forward to my visits. She always had fun stories to tell about college and how much she loved preparing for her future. It gave me hope for a better life outside of the restraining confines of high school. Especially because she, too, had survived my parents, and that wasn't something for the faint hearted.
My finger stabbed the elevator button several times as I bounced back and forth between feet, anxious to get upstairs as soon as I could. I was used to walking around the city by myself, but I rarely ventured into this particular part, and didn't want to loiter in the lobby of her apartment building any longer than I had to.
There was a soft, upbeat ding and then the elevator doors were sliding open, revealing a man and a woman pressed against the wall in an embrace. My entire face turned bright red, completely unsure of what to do- should I get onto the elevator? Should I clear my throat? They obviously hadn't heard the noise, and they just kept kissing. Her hand was tangled into his messy black hair and his hand was on her hips, moving steadily lower as they continued to kiss.
The man tilted his head to the side, and I couldn't help it: I yelled out in surprise, my hand going up to cover my wide mouth. The couple broke apart, and Mr. Jackson turned to look at me with the most guilty green eyes I had ever seen him wear. Seeing as he wasn't going to be mature about the situation, I decided to take it upon myself to act as the adult. I straightened my posture, shook my hair over my shoulders, and removed my hands from my mouth.
"Hello, Mr. Jackson. How's your Friday been so far?"
He swallowed hard, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down.
"Good, good. No swim practice so…"
"It's always a nice break," I agreed, nodding.
"Oh, and you remember Annabeth," he said, gesturing towards the girl next to him in the elevator. "My wife."
"That's right!" I chuckled. "Tell me- how'd you like the proposal?"
"It was great," she responded, slightly confused, and Mr. Jackson shot me a glare. "Why would you ask?"
"I'll explain later," he said, grabbing her hand in his. "So… I'll see you in school on Monday, right, Jen?"
"Of course," I nodded.
"And we're never going to talk about this ever, ever again, right Jen?"
"Of course," I agreed.
"So, Dianna got back together with Lily. Again," I sighed, slumping into a chair that's close to Mr. Jackson's. "I'm starting to lose track of whether they're together or not."
He barely looked up from the stack of worksheets that he was checking off as he said,
"This is becoming a reoccurring theme," he noted, "And, as your teacher, one that I'm not really sure that I want to hear about."
"Come on!" I complained loudly, throwing a fruit roll up in his direction. He caught it without looking up from his paper. "I don't want to sit there and watch two people kissing in the lunchroom while they eat lunch. Take pity on me. If I come in here, I can hide."
"You can hide in the library," he pointed out, unwrapping the fruit rollup nonetheless.
"Not necessarily. Sometimes they find me."
He looked up from the papers and rested his hand on his chin.
"Jen, did it ever occur to you to tell Dianna that you don't like it when she makes out with her girlfriend at lunch?"
"No!" I managed to get out, surprised that he would even ask. "I can't tell her that! Being with Lily makes her happy and free. I can't take that away from her just because I come from a waspy family that is exceedingly uncomfortable with any form of PDA."
"So instead you're going to spend the rest of your high school career hiding in my classroom during lunch?"
"Hey, if you wanted to avoid me you could just go to the teacher's room."
He shrugged, one shoulder going up as his head tilted towards it.
"What can I say? We have riveting lunch conversations in here and it's much better than making bets on which students are going to get together like they do."
"Please tell me that was a joke."
I shook my head in disgust as I wiped a piece of pasta sauce off of the desk with my napkin.
"How's Annabeth's morning sickness, anyways?"
"Saltines are helping," he said peacefully. "Tell your mom thanks."
"I probably won't."
"Are you two still arguing?"
"Not as bad as my father and I are arguing!" I said brightly, my voice mocking the situation.
"Mr. Jackson, how was your relationship with your dad?"
"If your answer wasn't immediately 'hella awesome,' you truly have no right to judge."
"But I had a really great relationship with my mom," he told me, pointedly ignoring the swear.
"They want me to be a person that I just can't be for them," I informed my ravioli, but he heard anyways.
"I know. I get that. But they still love you. Just like you still love Dianna in spite of the fact that she's constantly swapping spit right in front of you."
"Ugh. Stop. You've put me off my food."
Mr. Jackson pulled a blue muffin out of his briefcase and smiled fondly at it before tossing it over to me.
"Here. Blue food always tastes better."
I took it, examining it carefully.
"Is this safe to eat?"
"Of course it is! Do you think I'd try to poison you? It's blue; not arsenic."
The bite that I took was tiny, but the muffin was delicious.
"Banana nut. Nice."
"Annabeth's been on a baking kick lately. Mom calls it 'nesting.'"
"Whoa, what if she actually made a nest?"
"She'd probably do an amazing job."
"You're grossly in love. Did you know that?"
"Yeah, I've been told."
"Like, you've been with this girl for how many years? Shouldn't you hate her by now?"
"Um… should I?"
"At least a little bit," I decided. "Hey, is the muffin blue because you like swimming so much?"
He gave it a fond smile, nodding slowly.
"Yeah. Something like that."
I continued to munch on the muffin, eyes widening when a thought occurred to me.
"What's wrong?" Mr. Jackson inquired.
"You have a dog and you totally missed a prime opportunity to name it Blues Clues."
He made a doubtful face.
"I'm not sure if Annabeth and I should really be upset about that."
"Oh believe me," I said, nodding wisely, "you should be."
"I FORGOT TO DO MY ENGLISH HOMEWORK!"
Mr. Jackson, standing at the blackboard, dropped his piece of chalk as I burst dramatically into his classroom and threw my backpack onto the floor.
"I'm going to be in so much trouble," I moaned, collapsing into my desk. It was ten minute break and I was the first person to enter the classroom. He turned around, leaning against the chalkboard and undoubtedly getting chalk all over his back. He was always covered in the stuff, as he never wanted to use a Smart Board like normal teachers.
"Is it really important?"
"Yes, and I totally screwed up. I thought it was due tomorrow."
"Can you do it in a period?"
"Um, I guess?"
"Run, Jen," Mr. Jackson whispered, even though there was nobody else in the room. "Run to the library and don't look back."
I cocked my head to the side, lips turning down in my confusion.
"If you get out of the classroom now, you can go to the library and get your homework done, and I'll just mark you as here. It'll be fine."
"You'd let me do that?" I asked, awed.
"Of course," he said. "Now go before they see."
I wanted to hug him, but knew it would be tremendously inappropriate, so instead I gave him an air high-five before scooping up my backpack and booking it out of the classroom.
"Does anybody have any more questions before we move on from the pluperfect tense?"
The chalkboard was covered with information written in Mr. Jackson's messy handwriting, but when he turned around, all he saw was a slew of students with bored faces and slack jaws.
"Okay, obviously you guys are confused. Any specific questions?"
One boy raised his hand.
"I have a question."
Mr. Jackson eyed him suspiciously.
"Is it about the pluperfect tense?"
The book shook his head negatively.
"But it is about Latin."
"Go ahead," Mr. Jackson sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. He always got chalk on the side of his shirt when he did that, and then I would have to remind him to clean it as I left the classroom for my next period.
"The Spanish and German and French students get to go on trips to the countries with their languages. Why don't we ever go to Rome?"
"Maybe that's because Latin is a dead language and people in Italy speak Italian," said a girl from across the room.
"But we learn so much about Rome over the course of our studies!" argued another girl. "I mean, we talk about the places and the customs and the mythology. Shouldn't we have the opportunity to see it?"
Mr. Jackson's brows were furrowed into a frown at the front of the room, his lips caught in a grimace.
"Look, we're not going to Rome," he said.
"Um… the school doesn't have the funding?"
"We can do fundraisers!" suggested Dianna.
Mr. Jackson looked totally and completely uncomfortable. I kind of felt bad for him.
"Look, why would we even want to go to Rome?" I asked. "Passports? Yeesh. More trouble than they're worth, I'd say."
"Good point, Jen. Ten extra credit points on your next quiz." I raised my eyebrows at his haggard expression and he clapped his hands together. "Okay. Maybe no extra credit points. So, anyways, who's ready to talk about Latin grammar?"
My binders were all on the floor.
It was only a little embarrassing because it was in Mr. Jackson's classroom and I knew that he wasn't judging me and, anyways, it was lunch period. I had time to pick them up. Still, when I calmly got on the floor to pick up the scattered books and papers, the hand that reached out to help me was not the hand of Mr. Jackson.
"Hi, Henry," I said awkwardly. "Um, thanks?"
"No problem," he replied, smiling confidently at me. "This happened to me last week."
"Junior year is really having a negative effect on my paper folders," I cracked, and he laughed, brushing a hand through his light brown hair.
"What a waste of fifty cents."
"A damn waste."
Mr. Jackson was leaning in close to his computer, trying to sort out his gradebook. I was somehow glad that he wasn't paying us any attention. With all of the books picked up, Henry stuck out his hand to help me up. I grabbed it, flashing him a grateful smile.
"So, listen, Jen. I was talking to Dianna and she said that you were really excited for the new Marvel movie coming out next week. I was wondering if you wanted to go see it with me. Maybe grab a bite to eat afterwards so that we could talk about it."
"Oh," I said, taken totally off guard. "Um, are you a Marvel fan yourself?"
He quirked a smile.
"I could be."
From his desk, Mr. Jackson let out a loud snort. Henry, thank goodness, didn't notice. He was looking at me eagerly, and when I stared into the blue of his eyes, I couldn't help but think about how I didn't like them as much as I liked the brown of Liam's. But Liam had never asked me out, and in spite of the fact that the two of us were the junior co-captains of our respective teams and had been spending a lot of time together, he didn't seem to be planning on making a move any time soon. I didn't exactly want to sit around and wait for a guy who I wasn't sure would ever actually like me.
"Would the fact that we're going out to eat afterwards stop us from eating popcorn during the movie? Because popcorn is half the fun."
"No, you're right. Better to have popcorn while there and grab dessert afterwards."
"Sounds good," I smiled, trying not to feel my heart sinking lower in my chest.
"I'll see you then, in that case," he said, clutching the strap of his blue backpack and turning around to leave the room. I leaned against a desk as the door closed, bringing my thumb up to my mouth so that I could chew the nail.
"So, I don't mean to make assumptions or anything, but… you've literally bumped into walls because you were too busy laughing at Liam's jokes to watch where you were going."
I turned around and started shoving things into my backpack.
"Not helping, Mr. Jackson. Not even a little bit."
"But, also… you're biting your nails and the last time I saw you do that was seventh grade."
My head swung around so that I could glare at him, my lips tight.
I didn't know what to say, so I decided not to finish the sentence.
"Don't lead him on, Jen," Mr. Jackson said. "It's a horrible thing to do to somebody."
"What would you know about that?" I asked, laughing derisively. "You met your wife when you were, what, thirteen?"
"Twelve," he admits, "but that doesn't mean that I never did anything to hurt her. Like paying attention to somebody else because I thought that she wasn't interested in me."
"Look, you're not my mother or my father and it's none of your business who I go out with! Stop being so damn nosy!"
With that, I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder and dashed out of the classroom, angrily allowing the door to slam shut behind me, all the while knowing that there was no chance of me going to swim practice that afternoon.
"Jennifer, could you please stay after class?"
My eyes drifted from my paper to Mr. Jackson, who was seated at his desk with his chair spun towards the class. Everybody stared at me as my eyes widened in trepidation. There wasn't really anything that I could do to say no, so I merely nodded my head and let the dread settle into my stomach for the rest of the period. As soon as the bell rang, everybody bolted from their desks, ready to go. I, on the other hand, remained seated with my head down.
"Annabeth had the baby," Mr. Jackson said once the door was closed behind the last student. "That's why I was out last week."
"Yeah," I said. "I heard."
I usually wasn't this far away from him when we had conversations. It felt awkward, to say the least.
"What did you name her?" I inquired.
"How did you know it was a girl?" he frowned, and I shrugged.
"Just a hunch."
And a 50/50 shot at getting the right pronoun.
"It's pretty," I told him.
"Jen, you look really tired," Mr. Jackson informed me, done with dancing around the point. "I'm worried about you."
My eyes, unbidden, glanced down at my pale skin. I had spent half the morning trying to cover the circles under my eyes with foundation, but I had this class in the second rotation of the day, and there was no doubt that the makeup had rubbed off at some point during school.
"I'm fine," I told him, defenses going up immediately. "Don't worry about it."
"How many AP classes are you taking?"
"Jen, are you crazy?"
"The school only recommends that you take two. Why would you go against that? Especially with how much time you spend on extra curriculars."
"I thought I could handle it!" I said angrily. "You teach six classes a day and then coach swim team! That's more than any of the other teachers. You must understand it."
Mr. Jackson walked over to me and sat at the desk next to mine, looking directly at me.
"Okay, which class is giving you the most difficult time?"
"AP History, I guess," I shrugged. "It doesn't matter."
"So how can I help you?"
"Seriously. You got me married, Jen. I owe you one. Or five."
"You know that I didn't get you married. She would have said yes no matter how you proposed."
"Just tell me how I can help you."
I hastily swiped away a tear running down from the corner of my eye as my body shook with the effort of holding my tears in.
"Would naptime during class be an option here?"
He tapped his chin.
"Not really. You could skip practice today and have a mandatory nap after school, though. Then wake up at 5:30 and start your homework at the same time you would have on a day with swimming."
I nodded slowly, standing up. As I reached the door, another thought occurred to me.
"You could do something else for me, Mr. Jackson."
"Shave the mustache," I teased. "It looks really sad and I guarantee that your wife doesn't like it."
"There she is," he smiled. "Thanks for the advice."
"No problem. Have a good day. Say hello to the baby for me."
The hallways were teeming with students, which made them a terrible place to have private conversations. As soon as I saw Dianna heading towards me, I knew that I had to drag her into a safe place.
"Hi, Jen. What's going-?"
"I have to tell you something," I said loudly, grabbing her wrist and tugging her away from my locker.
"Where are we going?" she demanded, but I said nothing, instead pulling her forth through the throngs of students. We reached Mr. Jackson's classroom in record speed, and I hadn't even realized that I had been pulling her there until I was thrusting the door open and practically throwing Dianna through it.
"Hi, Jen. Hi, Dia-" Mr. Jackson began to say, but I held up a finger.
"Mr. Jackson, you are my favorite teacher and I adore talking to you but we need to have a few moments of girl time. Can you give us that?"
"Sure, but why do you have to have it in my classro-"
I had already turned back to Dianna.
"Henry broke up with me."
"WHAT?" the two of them shouted simultaneously. Both of us turned around to give reproachful looks to Mr. Jackson.
"Sorry, sorry," he said, turning back to his desk. "Don't mind me. I'm not here."
"Are you okay?" Dianna asked, pressing the back of her hand to my forehead. "This is your first big break up! What do you need? Tissues? Ice cream? Romantic movies? War movies?"
"We can watch The Gladiator in class today," Mr. Jackson put in helpfully. We glared at him again and he turned around.
"I'm fine," I said, sighing heavily. "I just… Di, I'm not even that upset. Why am I not upset? I should be totally and completely heartbroken and all I can think about is how I'm not crying and how I have an AP Bio test tomorrow."
"Maybe you're too busy to be sad," Dianna suggested.
"Or maybe you're in love with Liam," coughed Mr. Jackson from his desk.
"Liam has a girlfriend," I told him firmly. "So that can't be it."
"Just because he has a girlfriend, doesn't mean you don't have feelings for him!" argues Dianna.
"I'm with Dianna," claimed Mr. Jackson. "Because just because he has a girlfriend, doesn't mean that he doesn't have feelings for you either."
"You know, fatherhood has kind of made you a Yenta."
"Well," Dianna said, "At least you have time to figure it out. There's an entire year left of high school. And you and Liam are captains next year."
"It goes faster than you'd think," Mr. Jackson said quietly. "Just… don't let it slip through your fingers, okay?"
Despite myself, I found myself agreeing.
"Hi," I said. "Just thought I'd let you know that Liam has mysteriously broken up with his girlfriend and not told anybody why."
"That's crazy," Mr. Jackson said, widening his eyes innocently. "I have no idea why that would have happened."
"Are you sure you didn't give him a talk about letting stuff slip through your fingers?"
"That is a very brazen accusation and I am innocent until proven guilty."
"Did you ever consider taking up acting as a profession?"
"Not even a little bit; why?"
"Just something you might want to talk under advisement- you'd be perfect on General Hospital."
I started to walk out of the room, but he called after me.
"Would you consider being my TA next year?"
I spin around.
"You've got one of the highest grades in all of my classes and you're extremely good with the underclassmen in swim practice. I'm just wondering if you might be interested in teaching a seventh or eighth grade class with me next year. Helping me grade papers and stuff."
"Really?" I asked, smiling widely.
"Sure. You have a week until schedules close, so I thought I would just give you this paper to sign… and I might have already signed the bottom and gotten your guidance counselor to sign it as well, so it's just up to you and your parents."
"Thank you," I said genuinely. "Thank you so much."
"No problem, Jen."
Mr. Jackson hadn't changed much over the summer, except for one thing. As he sat on his desk to greet the students on the first day of school, a pair of black, thick framed glasses were settled comfortably on his nose. The glare of the sunlight hitting the glass almost obscured the strong green color of his eyes, and had they been any less bright, the color probably wouldn't have stuck out so much.
"Good morning, Jen!" he said, looking past me to wave at an eighth grader that was walking into the classroom. I stood a little ways behind him, acting as his shadow, which was my job as his TA. "How was your summer?"
"Really peaceful," I told him. "Liam and I spent a lot of time planning stuff for swim team fundraisers. We should have two really good semesters."
"That's fantastic," he said, pushing the glasses up his nose. At the sight, I burst out laughing. "What?"
"I'm sorry. You just seem to have hit your forties overnight."
"The glasses. You need glasses now. It's just kind of weird."
He pulled a face.
"Annabeth laughs every time I wear them."
"They're lovely," I said kindly. "You look like Clark Kent. It's just gonna take a bit of getting used to."
"I can live with that."
"Also, don't forget to take them off before swim practice."
With that, he smiled blissfully.
"Seriously, how would I not break my glasses without you?"
"Maybe you'll never know," I giggled.
The students were lined neatly up in four groups of relay teams, all ready to jump into the pool. Some of them were antsy, hopping back and forth from foot to foot. Others stood there awkwardly, looking nervously at the water. These kids were mostly freshmen, who weren't used to the fun yet competitive environment that Mr. Jackson had brought to the swim team. We would educate them soon enough.
"Don't forget to have a good push off," I told my team seriously, staring all of them dead in the eyes. "And know that if we don't win, I probably will disown all of you."
"Good to know," said Tabitha, a sophomore, as she bit her lip nervously.
"She's just kidding," Liam said, jabbing her in the side with a pen as he passed our huddle. "Jen is well known for her inspirational pep talks."
"Oh, shut it, you," I laughed, tossing my hair over my shoulder in a manner that could only be considered haughty. Or flirty. Your pick. "If I remember correctly, I have beaten you many times before."
"I let you win."
"Every single time?"
He nodded self-importantly.
"Every single time."
I shook my head at him.
"Nope, just ridiculous."
"Ready to go, everyone?" Mr. Jackson called over the crowd, and all of us leaped into the pool immediately.
"After practice," whispered Liam.
"What?" I asked, confused.
"Stay after practice and I'll show you that I've been letting you win all those years," he said, voice taking a competitive tone.
"You totally haven't!" I gasped at him, nearly stamping my foot on the ground. "Why would you even do that?"
He cocked an eyebrow.
"I might let you find that out after practice as well."
In that moment, I thought that I could feel my entire face turning bright red. For the rest of practice, I was completely antsy, glaring at the clock and waiting for 5:30 to hit. After what felt like the longest practice of my life, Mr. Jackson blew the final whistle and all of the kids exited the pool area. Liam and I waited until they were all in the locker rooms before crossing the pool area and approaching each other.
"So what are we doing?" I questioned, trying and failing not to smile.
"Racing," he said, voice low. "And we're going all out. Five laps."
"But will you cry when I beat you?"
"You're not gonna beat me."
"Yes I will," I said, stepping onto the diving platform. "I'm aerodynamic."
He smirked as he pulled his bathing cap over his dark, close cropped hair and I did the same.
"On your mark," he said, snapping on his goggles.
"Get set," I followed.
"GO!" we both shouted, and then we dove into the water and began swimming as skillfully as we could. His body had more strength, but mine wasn't completely lacking in it, and being small meant, for me, that I was more speedy, like a whisper through the water. Liam, on the other hand, was raw power when he swam, and because of that, he didn't need to be as skillful. I knew that he hadn't been letting me win all those years, but I also knew that being competitive was our way of flirting. I had grown to love it over the years.
I touched the wall just a second before he did.
"Hah!" I said, tugging my goggles off. "I beat you. You haven't been letting me win."
He didn't do anything but smile as he removed the bathing cap from his head. I removed mine as well, shaking my long hair free from its elastic and dipping it under water so that it could smooth out in the liquid.
"Okay. Maybe I made that up to get you to the pool after practice."
"Ya think?" I cheered, jumping around happily. He splashed me with water.
"You don't have to be so mean about it, Holt."
"Wanna make a bet, Crawford?"
He moved in closer, pushing a lock of my hair behind my ear.
"No. Not really."
All at once, I got quiet, reaching a finger up to stroke his soft cheek, mirroring his movement in my own way. For a moment, my eyes just focused on the contrast of my skin against his, fixating on how well they complimented each other.
"Maybe we should work together from now on," I suggested softly.
"Sounds really, really good to me," he decided, bending down to fit his lips to mine. He began to pull away, but I leaped up in the water and wrapped my legs around his waist, pulling his chest flush against mine. He opened his mouth wider and allowed our kiss to deepen while I curled my fingers around his broad, muscular shoulders.
I was sighing into his mouth when a male voice cleared his throat. Liam and I looked up, horrified, to see Mr. Jackson standing at the edge of the pool, a somewhat disapproving look crossing his expression.
"Guys. In the pool? Really?"
Liam and I had the wisdom to look guilty.
"Sorry," he said, eyes flicking down to the pool floor. Shaking his head, Mr. Jackson turned around to walk towards the door of the indoor pool, his steps echoing loudly across the floor of the room.
"One second," I murmured to Liam, kissing him quickly on the mouth before lifting myself out of the pool. "Mr. Jackson!" I called after him, and he turned around to show a smiling mouth.
"Yes, Jennifer?" he asked, fake stern.
"We're never going to talk about this ever, ever again, right Mr. Jackson?"
"Of course," he agreed.
Mr. Jackson was rarely late to practice, but when he was, we all knew what it meant. That said, everybody was antsy as we waited for him to show up, running drills as instructed in the meantime. It was around 3:30 that he dashed hurriedly into the pool room, carryingAlexandra in a purple papoose. Immediately, a crowd of students threw themselves out of the pool and assaulted him, voices cooing over the baby in harmony. Tucked safely in her cocoon, the little girl cooed adorably.
I hung back purposefully, but eventually Mr. Jackson told everybody to stop crowding his bundle of joy and get back into the pool, grinning all the while. When the crowd had dissipated, Liam and I approached.
"Hi, Alexandra," I said, voice like honey. "You look beautiful today."
She had blond hair like her mother and bright green eyes like her father, and when she saw Liam and I approach, her face broke out into a gurgling smile. She was dressed in a little pink romper that emphasized her rosy cheeks and chunky baby thighs.
"She's grown really fast," commented Liam, his face slightly awed.
"I can't believe it," I affirmed. "She's already so big."
"Wanna hold her?" Mr. Jackson asked me, eyes bright with happiness. Warmth washed over me at the sight of the pure content that he held in his eyes.
"It would be an honor," I told him, holding my arms out carefully.
Neither father nor daughter stopped smiling the entire time Alexandra was in my arms.
"Can you make sixty copies of this worksheet?"
"Thanks. And then maybe take the sophomore's worksheets in the back and do the homework check for them."
"Sure. Are you gonna be okay in here?"
"Of course," he said. "We're just going to watch a movie. Fun Friday, after all."
"So, can you do me a favor, Mr. Jackson?"
"Can you write my letter of recommendation for college?"
A slow smile began to spread across his face.
"I thought you'd never ask."
The music was disgustingly loud as it pumped through the speakers. I adjusted my periwinkle dress as though it could bring me some sort of defense against the loud speakers, but all that happened was music reverberating through my body with the swing of my arms. Liam was having a conversation with Dianna and Lily; his mouth was stretched into a wide, amicable smile as his fingers remained laced with mine under the table. In spite of myself, I couldn't help but beam.
The meal had been served an hour ago, and we were all sitting at our table, trying to make conversation over the throbbing beat of the music. However, as the three of them began talking about a teacher that I had never had a class with, I couldn't help but excuse myself from the conversation and stare around the room, eyes on my classmates dancing suggestively on the dance floor. Wrinkling my nose in distaste, my eyes settled on the sight of Mr. and Mrs. Jackson pressed against one of the walls in the back of the room. Mrs. Jackson wore one of the prettiest dresses I had ever seen- it was silver and flowed gracefully to the floor, showing off her strong arms and strong body. I couldn't believe that this woman had given birth over a year ago. She looked like she had never had a baby; it was as though Alexandra had fallen out of the sky or been birthed from her head.
Okay, maybe I paid too much attention to Mr. Jackson's mythology lessons.
"I'll be right back," I told Liam, squeezing his hand and kissing him briefly on the lips. Then I stood up and made my way over to the Jacksons. "How are you guys faring?" I inquired.
"The music is too loud," shouted Mrs. Jackson over the music. "Other than that, though, it's a really nice prom."
"We never got to go to prom," Mr. Jackson admitted. "We planned to but we were… busy… that day."
"Too busy for prom?"
"Something came up at the last minute," said Mrs. Jackson. "Anyways, we're here now and it's really nice."
"I'm glad," I said. "Is it odd to be without the baby?"
"We have some friends that are doing a little trial run tonight," divulges Mrs. Jackson.
"They're thinking of a having a baby."
"Oh, that should go well."
The two of them laughed as well.
"Jason can barely change a diaper, so, yeah, this is going to be a hectic evening for them."
"Percy's mom usually takes care of Alexandra, but Piper insisted that they had to try and Percy and I decided to just take a step back."
"Good attitude," I nodded. When I felt a tap on my shoulder, I knew that Liam was standing behind me. "Hi there," I said, turning around to look at him.
"It's a slow one," he pointed out. "Wanna dance?"
"I would love to," I said, my heart thumping loudly in my chest. "Have a wonderful night, you two. You deserve it. And don't forget to dance!"
As Liam lead me away from the Jacksons and swept me up in his arms, I decided that if a boy ever looked at me with half the adoration with which Mr. Jackson held for his wife, I would make every attempt to marry that boy. Pulling away from Liam's embrace, I carefully inspected his face.
"What?" he laughed.
"Nothing," I said, leaning forward and placing my chin on his shoulder, which I could do in my high heels. "I just realized that you're in love with me, though. So the jig's up."
"I have a feeling that you're only telling me that I'm in love with you because you're in love with me."
"Guilty," I hummed in his ear.
"Guilty," he murmured, his deep voice rumbling through me.
Graduation robes, as I came to learn, were itchy. The golden sun, beaming down at the greenery, certainly did not help the sea of squirming students as we struggled to get through our graduation. As the nervous valedictorian droned on and on, many of the graduates couldn't help but zone out, eyes focusing on a future that had always seemed distant and was now looming tauntingly right in front of our faces. It was alarming, to say the least, and as I sat there in my white plastic chair, I couldn't help but feel panic rise up in my stomach, choking me as I realized, perhaps for the first time, how terrified I was of the future.
When the speeches were over and we had walked across the stage to receive our diplomas, I posed for the obligatory pictures for as long as I could without going insane. Everybody wanted to hug me and hold onto me and I just wanted to go someplace private so that I could quell the terror that I had been hiding within myself for such a long time.
"I actually want to go to the bathroom," I told my mother. "Let me just run up to the school so that I can freshen up."
"We'll meet you in the car," she agreed, and with that I turned on my heel and made my way off of the football field and into the brightly lit school building, twisting my way through empty hallways and trying to ignore the fact that my footsteps seemed so much louder when I was all alone.
It seemed only natural to wind up in Mr. Jackson's classroom. Thankfully, it was unlocked, so I wrenched the door open and seated myself in the desk that I had sat in freshman year, resting my elbows on the table and placing my head in my hands.
"Jen?" Lifting my head, I saw Mr. Jackson standing uncertainly in the doorway to the classroom, his brows contracted into a frown. "Are you alright?"
"Yes," I said, vigorously wiping a tear away from my eye. "I just have to go face my entire family at a graduation party in a couple of minutes and I'm attempting to squeeze the sadness out of myself before I have to deal with that."
"And you chose my classroom to do so," he said, lips quirking up into a smile.
"Of course I did," I said quietly.
We remained in silence for several minutes, with Mr. Jackson seated at his desk, watching my back shake up and down.
"This is it. It's over forever," I said finally.
"Forever begins now," he reminded me calmly. "This is forever. You're in it."
The silence stretched on.
"Six years ago, you told us that you wanted to kick your coffee addiction by the time we left high school. How did that go?"
He gestured towards a trash can full of Dunkin Doughnuts cups.
"How do you think?"
We laughed together, a sweet sound that slightly loosened the melancholy knot that had formed in my stomach.
"Six years ago, you told me that you wanted to figure things out by the time you left this place. How did that go?"
I thought about it for a second. Thought about the friends that I had made and the assignments that I had done and the test grades that had made me cry and the essay grades that had made me shout with delight. I thought about the kisses I had shared and the laughter that I had both released and inspired and the wins and losses that I had gone through both in life and in the pool. And then I stood up and walked across the room, my heels clacking resiliently against the linoleum floor that I had stood on for the first time six years ago as a girl who was now a ghost- lost to the world.
I picked up a piece of chalk and wrote MS. HOLT in big letters across the blackboard, slowly, just like Mr. Jackson had on our first day of school. When I turned around, he was staring at the sight with watery green eyes and a look of pride glancing across his face.
"You're going to be a teacher?"
"Just like you."
As he stood up and offered his hand for me to shake, I knew that I wouldn't have to walk out the doors and into the world by myself.