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“Miss Belivet?”

Therese turns on her charcoal black heels toward the sound of the deep, rough voice calling her name. “Yes?”

“Jonathan Freeman.” He extends his arm out for a handshake. “As Principal of Forest Meadow Elementary, welcome to our family.”

Therese forces a smile. She shifts the dark-brown bag dangling from her shoulder and reaches out to reciprocate the handshake. “I’m excited to be here,” she responds, hushed. It’s a blatant lie, one that anyone with an ounce of social skills could decipher from the pained look in her eyes and the way her outstretched hand trembles.

“Let me show you to your classroom.”

Therese responds with a tiny nod before following Jonathan down a brightly lit hallway. The walls are lined with a variety of children’s drawings and various other arts and crafts. Therese is immediately drawn to the waxy trees and clouds, scribbled in the various shades of a Crayola box. The various shades of green and blue make her long for the freedom of her teenage years when she would wander around parks and forests taking photographs and simply admiring the world around her. Therese reaches out and brushes the smooth lines of the drawn tree bark, and she swears she can almost smell and feel the wet, muddy grass against her fingertips.

It’s funny, Therese thinks, how the colors call out to her the way they do. They’re such a stark contrast to the white-painted brick walls of the school, devoid of any real emotion or individuality beyond the specifically chosen showcase of artwork. She’s only been within the confines of the school for less than an hour and she already feels trapped. It is regimented and refined and, despite outward appearances, everything Therese isn’t.

“Your classroom is this way,” Principal Freeman instructs, pointing around the corner where the hallway bends. Wordlessly, Therese follows him. The clang of keys echoes through the long, empty hallways as Jonathan pulls a ring of them from his slacks. He fingers through the collection of them to find the key that corresponds to that particular room – 121 – and Therese lets her eyes wander toward the opposite end of the hallway as she waits for him to unlock the door.

More white and grey. More emptiness.

Therese sighs. She’s about to turn back to Jonathan when a flash of red catches the corner of her eye. Two women stand at the far end of the corner. Therese recognizes the one facing her as Ms. Abby Gerhard, a second grade teacher she’d met during her first orientation earlier in the summer. But the other woman, dressed in a dark red blouse, midnight black pencil skirt and matching heels, is who steals Therese’s attention. She can’t see her face, but Therese knows she’s stunningly beautiful. The mysterious woman’s medium-length hair is curled just slightly at the bottom, and it swishes a bit as she waves her hands animatedly throughout the conversation she’s having.

Therese cranes her neck and moves up on her tiptoes, trying to catch a glimpse of woman who curiously has her undivided attention. When Abby notices her staring, however, Therese immediately looks away and stares down at her feet, silently willing Jonathan to find the damned key so she can scurry away.

“Here we go!”

The sound of the door opening with a soft ‘click’ is practically music to Therese’s ears. Like a flash, she rushes into the empty classroom, bumping her shoulder against Jonathan’s in the process. “Sorry,” she apologizes quietly.

“I wish other teachers were as excited as you are to see their classrooms,” Jonathan laughs. He flicks on the light switch at the entryway and the room immediately lights up under the glow of the long incandescent rods embedded in the ceiling; Therese can’t help but squint a little from the harshness of it all.

Like the hallways, the room is white and sterile and bland. Despite this, it’s ripe with potential, and Therese’s brain buzzes with possibilities. Perhaps she’ll paint a few canvases to lighten up the place, or finally develop some of her nature photography that’s been sitting in boxes since she moved into her tiny apartment. The options are practically endless.

Principal Freeman gives Therese a mindless tour around the classroom, filling her in on things like where the chalk is stored and how many boxes of dry erase makers she’s allotted a month. (Therese believes the answer is two, but she’s completely checked out of the conversation by the time he makes it to that particular point). In the back of her mind, she knows she should be alarmed by the fact that she’s more excited about the prospect of decorating her classroom than actually teaching in it.

“If you have any questions, feel free to ask me or the ladies at the front office.” Jonathan walks himself to the doorway but doesn’t leave. “Is there anything else I can help you with, Miss Belivet?”

“Oh – no, no thank you,” Therese responds, resting her palm against the wood of her desk.

Her desk. Despite the setting, Therese thinks it certainly does have a nice ring to it.

“Well, don’t hesitate to ask. Have a great weekend, and we’ll see you bright and early on Monday!” Jonathan flashes a little smile and a wave before walking out of the room and into the hallway where the heels of his loafers echo with a rhythmic ‘tap’.

Once alone, Therese fumbles inside her bag and pulls out a pad of grey-blue paper and a black-ink pen. She looks around the room and jots down notes in her perfectly winding cursive. Having spent the summer collecting various posters and trinkets, she’s finally ready to make the space her own. Four years suffering through a teaching degree and this is what she has to look forward to: a classroom where she can put up cat and puppy posters as she sees fit.

“Living the dream, Therese,” she sighs quietly.

“Miss Belivet?”

The voice that calls her is feminine and smoky, deeper than she’s used to in her small social circle. For some reason unknown to Therese, the tone causes a shiver to run down the back of her neck.

“I’m Carol. Carol Aird.” This Carol – Therese’s woman in red – laughs breathily. “I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t startle you. May I come in?”