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Take Me Back

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Tom furrowed his brow in concentration as he ran his sander over the piece of wood that would become one of four identical posts of a large four post bed he had been commissioned to build for a customer. When he had returned from his second tour in Iraq he had floundered for a bit, unsure of what to do with his new civilian life. But the opportunity to pick back up in his quasi apprenticeship with Arnie Thompson, a local furniture maker he had worked with and learned the tools of the trade from in high school, fell into his lap he took it. Over the last two years he had brought his skills out of hibernation and he dared to imagine he had even improved them. He had built many pieces for many satisfied customers and while the pride he felt at a job well done didn’t erase the weight he felt daily from his previous career, it certainly put it on the back burner, and from the outside, you might not even notice it at all most days.

 

As he slowed the sander to put it to the side, he registered a low buzzing sound nearby. Glancing around at the tools around him, he didn’t know what it could be until he noticed the little window on his phone lighting up in time with the buzzing on his tool box across the shop. With a distracted hmm of surprise he crossed the little ‘garage turned woodshop’ to grab his phone and glance at the caller id. ‘MOM’, it read in bold block letters. Flipping the phone open, he pressed the button to answer just as he noticed he was definitely coating his fairly new phone in sawdust. 

 

Rolling his eyes self-deprecatingly he pulled the phone up next to his ear, “Hey, Mom! Wasn’t expecting to hear from you in the middle of the day.”

 

His mom’s warm teasing voice floated through the phone, “I can tell. I had to call four times before you answered.”

 

A brief flash of worry surged through him before his mom seemed to realize what he was thinking and continued, “Nothing’s wrong, I just wanted to talk to you about something that came across my desk a little bit ago.”

 

Tom struggled to decipher what exactly could be to do with him at the Hatchetfield Independent School District but he held up his end of the conversation with a ‘hmm’  indicating she should continue. 

 

He heard his mom let out a huff of an excited breath and he grinned despite his confusion. “Right, okay. So we just received the list of positions that will be available in the district for next school year to post on the website and… Mr. Landry is retiring as the shop teacher at Hatchetfield High. Between you and me I saw him at the grocery store last week and the man needs to retire before he loses another finger… but I digress. Tommy you should apply.”

 

Tom blinked for a few seconds trying to process what she had said to him before finding his voice again. “Mom I’m a carpenter not a teacher, I mean am I even qualified?”

 

He heard her laugh quietly before she went on, “The teaching positions for skills and technical classes don’t require teaching degrees. You have plenty of experience, plenty of references. I’m sure Arnie would be perfectly happy to write a little recommendation for you that will tell Mr. Maclin exactly why you’d be perfect for the position.”

 

Distracted by the mention of the man who had long been the Principal of Hatchetfield High even when he himself had attended there he found himself letting out a barking laugh. “Mr. Maclin is still the Principal? How long has he been there?”

 

“Well, Tommy, that’s the thing, he’s just finished his thirtieth school year so he’s also retiring but as they haven’t hired his replacement yet, he’s going to handle the interviews for the vacant positions. When I get off, I’ll come home, we’ll look at it together, I’ll help you gather all the things you’ll need for the application and interview, if it’s something you want to pursue.”

 

He could feel the hope radiating off of his mother through the phone, and he sighed. “Why do you think I should do this?”

 

As always, Sarah Houston was quick on her feet with a response even Tom himself couldn’t refute. “You’ve been out of the military for two years, it’s time for some stability. The school system has good health insurance, it’s a steady paycheck, and you can still take furniture orders to work on after school or on weekends. I just worry about you, I want you to have a steady situation. After that debacle with the therapist, you’re finally on the right track again, and I think you should give it a shot. If you don’t like the way the interview goes, you don’t take the job if he offers it; and you won’t hear a word of complaint from me.”

 

Tom closed his eyes as he tapped his fist against his knee and he could feel large swaths of sawdust fall from his hand to the floor. It had taken some time to feel himself again after Iraq, and then some more when he had a bad experience at therapy; or rather with a therapist, and he was finally having more good days than bad. And he had always enjoyed showing his younger cousins the ropes with the tools hadn’t he? 

 

“Ah what the hell,” he started, pausing to apologize when his mom made a sound of protest at his language on the other end, “I’ll give it a shot. Thanks, Mom.”

 

“Oh good. Tell you what, why don’t you go pull up the website on the computer now and you can read the job description that way you’ll know what you’re getting into before we submit an application.”

 

Tom felt the nerves rise in his chest at the thought of using that computer. They had never made sense to him and he was still firmly in the camp of typing solely with his two pointer fingers. A tech savvy man, he was not.

 

As technology illiterate as he was, though, he was even more so an obedient man; and he found himself standing in the double doors leading to his parents’ study after a quick stop at the bathroom to wash his hands. He let out a shaky breath as if the computer desk were instead a gallows and made the trip of a few feet from the door to the desk that felt like a mile. He managed to turn the computer on without much of a fuss and, cursing the mouse for being so hard to use, he slowly navigated the little blinking cursor to the Internet Explorer icon. Giving it a few heavy clicks to be sure it ran, he waited as the fancy new high speed internet brought itself to life without the chaotic screeching of the dial up he had grown used to in high school. Even then, using the Internet to communicate had seemed a foreign idea to him, but he supposed it was here to stay.


“Okay, it’s on I think, I’m on a news page…”

 

He dutifully, albeit slowly, typed in the address for the Hatchetfield Independent School District into the search bar at the top and waited as the page loaded. At his mom’s instruction, he scrolled down until he saw a tab to the right side of the page that read, Employment Opportunities. Tom furrowed his eyebrows as he read the listing directly under the header, “Mom this says ‘School Nurse’ I’m not qualified to be a nurse." 

 

She let out a breath of a laugh as she further directed him. “No bud you gotta click on the little arrow next to the tab and all the job listings will show up, its a window and it only shows a minimized list until you click on it.” Tom moved the mouse rather erratically as the white arrow flew about the screen for several seconds before he got it where he wanted it to be and clicked on the downward facing arrow. Making quick work of reading the list that expanded before him, he bypassed the various Elementary and Middle School listings and the couple positions available at Sycamore before he landed on the list for Hatchetfield High. One for the Shop Teacher and one for the School Nurse. He read the job description over three times out of an abundance of caution before agreeing to at least apply, the worst that could happen was they wouldn’t give him the job, he reasoned. 

 

His mom was beside herself, telling him “I just know you’re gonna get it Tommy. This is the start of something great!”; before she hung up the phone without a word of goodbye, so excited she was, he supposed.

 

Later that evening, he had filled out the application online with a sizable amount of help from his mom, and he had contacted several of the local woodworkers he had worked with on various projects to get letters of recommendation. Each of them promising to work in how safety conscious and patient he was as a worker. The willingness of each of them to give him good recommendations made his heart swell a little in his chest, Tom Houston wasn’t an overly proud man but he certainly felt proud of himself at that moment.

 

Conversation with his mom turned to the kinds of things he’d try to introduce his students to throughout the school year, as the sounds of Jeopardy played in a muffled tone through the door to the den, where his dad was camped for the evening. If Tom were to guess, he was partaking in his pre-bedtime nap with the cat. “What kind of projects will you do with the kids, Tommy?”, his mom asked as she puttered around the kitchen. Memories of the projects he had done in that very class flashed through his head. Memories of the happiness and pride on his parents’ faces when he’d bring home well made projects. Including, he remembered, the jewelry box he had made for his midterm project.

 

The happiness on Becky’s face when he’d given it to her as a Christmas present, how impressed she’d been with the design he’d etched into it with Mr. Landry’s own wood burning kit he had trusted him enough to use. Lost in memory, he found himself smiling despite the regret for how things had turned out, that particular memory made him too happy not to. However, realizing he’d been quiet for far too long, he needed to give his mom an answer. “Well, I hadn’t really thought that far ahead… but probably the basics. A few projects everyone has to do, a few collaborative things, then when they’re used to it all some independent projects for midterms and finals. Maybe bird houses to start, bring out the sanders to make wood cars and have them race their cars. But, you know, this is shop, they’ll get an A as long as they don’t chop a finger off.”

 

Both Tom and Sarah jumped slightly as an unexpected voice chimed in from the doorway to the den. “Well now, uh, bud…”. Tom’s dad stood looking as surprised at his interjection as the other two occupants of the room before he seemed to recover his composure and he continued. “I kinda think if they show up and put in the work you shouldn’t hold any accidents like that against them, ya know?” 

 

Tom smiled at his dad’s back as he continued on to the refrigerator apparently done with whatever he had decided to say. He had always been a man of few, but significant, words. “Yeah you’re right. Thanks Dad.”

 

Apparently having used up his word quota for the next little bit, Tobias Houston simply hummed an acknowledgment as he left the kitchen with a can of soda in his hand; clapping Tom soundly on the shoulder as he went back to the den. His mom’s laptop still sat open on the kitchen table where they had been filling out the application a few hours earlier and both pairs of blue-gray eyes snapped to the table when the device ‘pinged’ with an e-mail notification. Tom felt her hand wrap lightly around his elbow to direct him to his newly created and still open e-mail account to see a response from the Hatchetfield Independent School District in his e-mail. Jerry Maclin, Principal of Hatchetfield High, has requested an interview on Tuesday, June 22nd, 2009.

 

Tom felt a bout of nerves twist slightly in his gut as he clicked heavily on the link to respond ‘yes’ to the invitation.

 


 

The morning of June 22nd dawned on an already awake and anxious Becky Barnes. She often liked to wake up early for some peace and quiet before her day started but this day held a new set of concerns. Having finished and graduated from her nursing program a few weeks ago, Stanley made it clear to her he expected her to start work very quickly; to ‘pay him back’ for supporting her through the nursing school he had insisted she go through. She had applied with a few different private practices in Hatchetfield, who responded saying that they were looking for someone with more experience. A statement which Becky was becoming increasingly inclined to respond to with ‘how can anyone expect me to gain experience when they only want people who already have it?’ However, today she had an interview, her first one in fact.

 

She had seen the listing for the school nurse position at Hatchetfield High and immediately applied, gaining a fairly quick response likely due to the fact that the Principal was somehow still Mr. Maclin. She had never been more grateful for a good high school experience. One where she was well-liked and had a good relationship with the teachers and administration. Whatever changes adult life had brought her in that regard, she still had that from her past. When she told Stanley about the interview he hadn’t seemed overly impressed, simply remarking that he was glad she’d be able to pull her own weight. That night, she had gone to lie next to him in bed wondering what she’d ever seen in the man.

 

Becky had put on her nicest, most professional clothes for the interview, a black skirt and a blue button down shirt and she stood next to the kitchen counter, looking out the window over the sink out onto the backyard and the Witchwood beyond. Behind her, she heard the sounds of Stanley stirring farther back in the small house that she had inherited from her grandparents a couple years back. The flush of the toilet behind a closed door and his heavy footsteps echoed down the hall. She tensed up a little as his hand trailed along her lower back as he made his way to the fridge where he pulled out a beer and turned to face her. 

 

“Why are you so dressed up?”, he enquired, his voice rough from sleep. 

 

Becky adjusted the sleeve of her button up, hopeful it would conceal the fresh bruises to all other eyes before she turned to him with a tight smile she prayed would appease him. “I have that interview today, for the school nurse position,” she forced a brightness to her tone she had perfected over the last five years.

 

Making a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat he walked back past her. “Okay. Hey make sure you go to the store after so you can make dinner later,” his voice trailed off as he exited the kitchen to drop himself to the couch. “And I need more Marlboros and Heineken too.” He didn’t appear to have anything else to say to her, settling in on the couch and turning the tv on; he was unlikely to move beyond the kitchen, living room, and bathroom for the rest of his day off. 

 

A couple of hours later found Becky driving to the interview at the high school as a bundle of nerves set up residence in her stomach. Memories of her own high school days, and who she had shared them with, filled her mind and she started sending up hopes that she could make it through the interview without vomiting. 

 

Almost as if the universe itself were mocking her, as she pulled into the turn lane that would take her to the highway where Hatchetfield High was located, she caught sight of a very familiar red fox body Mustang pulling onto the road she was preparing to exit. Heading away from the direction of the high school. A montage of happier times floated through her head, times in the car, cheering at football games, under the bleachers after football games, date nights, prom, the whole nine yards. She cursed herself not for the first time that she hadn’t actually waited for Tom, but she certainly paid the price now. She hadn’t had the courage to ask mutual acquaintances about him, so for all she knew, he was happy and in a relationship after leaving the Army.

 

The spiral she was fearing didn’t actually come, though. As seeing the car that could only be Tom’s filled her with determination to take some semblance of control back, and getting the job she wanted seemed like the perfect place to start. The interview went well, Mr. Maclin had always liked her in school and her nursing degree seemed to fill him with pride. He looked over the recommendation letters she had brought along from various instructors and practicum supervisors and internship attending nurse practitioners from her time at St. Damien’s with a beaming smile.

 

“Okay Rebecca, I’ve got a couple more interviews for this position and the shop teacher position and then I have to bring my recommendations to the school board, so you should hear something within the week, but all of this you’ve brought along is so impressive. I knew you’d do well in whatever you chose to do with your life.” Becky felt a sharp pang of regret at his words for the things in her life that hadn’t turned out the way she wanted, but with a practiced ease, she plastered a smile on her face, “Thank you Mr. Maclin.”

 

With a cryptic smile and a remark that he had just conducted another interview with someone she might remember, the interview was over and she left feeling slightly confused. Was someone she graduated with also applying for this position? She tried to retain some confidence in the days that followed but she still found herself floored when Mr. Maclin called her back the following Monday to offer her the position.

 

The end of August rolled around much faster than Becky had anticipated and she found herself in the district inservice for support personnel and staff. And almost as soon as she was getting comfortable with the various support staff that were also positioned at Hatchetfield High, the inservice period was over and she was sent to the school to familiarize herself with her office and supplies. As she was spending her afternoon organizing the cabinets and supplies to her liking she was startled by rapid knocking at the open door. Her gaze snapped up to meet those of a woman maybe a little bit older than herself with a head of curly red hair and black glasses, wrists fully adorned with bracelets and a bright smile.

 

“You must be Nurse Barnes,” the other woman said with a chipper voice, “I’m Sylvia Doyle, I’m the new Principal… well, new to the position, I taught Science here for a few years and now I’ve got my Masters’ in Administration and one thing leads to another. Gosh, look at me I’m just rambling, anyway, we’re so glad to have you here honey, I hear you’re an alum… we’ve got several of those working here now!”

 

Becky found a smile brought to her face despite her confusion and she could tell she’d enjoy having this friendly face as the Principal. “Um, yes, I am, but please call me Becky.”

 

Sylvia smiled again and patted her arm, “Sounds great Becky, you let me know if you need anything, my office is just down the hall and my extension is 3 on the phones.”

 

The first day of school arrived in a whirlwind of cars and people and traffic and Becky found herself pulling into the parking lot slightly later than she had intended to for the first day of school and she rushed inside without a second look at the red fox body Mustang that was parked a few spaces over from her own car. 

 

The morning passed by without incident and she took her lunch break in her office, as she was still a little unsure of where it was that the staff ate and the dynamics involved there. Glancing up at the clock, she found it to be closing in on a quarter to one and she cleaned up her mess to continue organizing and labeling her supplies. Lost in the fervor of organization, she was slightly startled by a tentative knock at the open door frame. Glancing down to the floor from where she was perched on the counter to better see into the cabinet, she saw a pair of tennis shoe clad feet and another pair in brown work boots that she suspected were steel toed. 

 

A young boy’s voice called out, “Are you the nurse?”

 

She found herself chuckling, “What gave me away?”

 

Still facing into the cabinet as she tried to move enough things back to be able to close the double doors, a voice that sounded older, deeper, and familiar began speaking. “Uh yeah, we had an incident with a hammer, Connor’s nail is bleeding a little bit, I think he needs more expert attention and he didn’t know where the nurse’s office is.”

 

Furrowing her brows, she pushed the doors to the cabinet closed and turned to find a distinctly older but unmistakably the same, Tom Houston. His face went blank before his mouth dropped open in recognition. His mouth moved up and down several times without a sound before he finally uttered two words that she swore sounded better out of his mouth than anyone else’s ever had. 

 

Becky Barnes?