Authors: Madeleine Urban,Abigail Roux
"Hey, Coach! Where are the basketballs?"
Jake Campbell looked up from his clipboard and narrowed his eyes at Jeremy: junior, running back. He took a moment to find it amusing that he categorized the kids he knew on sight by first name, class, and position if they played one of the sports that he coached.
"We're not playing basketball today,” he answered as he checked Jeremy off his attendance sheet.
"Aww, man! We're running?"
"You betcha,” Jake drawled with a pleased grin. “Outside,” he added with relish. “In the coooold."
The kid's shoulders slumped, and he turned to head for the gym exits that led out to the football field and the track that circled it. Jake chuckled and shook his head, checking off more kids as they straggled out of the locker rooms.
Jake enjoyed his job at Parkview High. The kids liked him, and he liked them, for the most part. He coached year-round: football, wrestling, and baseball. And he won. Here in Georgia, winning was a big deal.
P.E. classes were just the five or so hours of warm up before he got to do his real job. That hadn't changed at all since he'd walked these very halls as a student himself years ago, and no one cared enough about high school phys ed to try and change it. Jake huffed and ticked off the last name on his list. Baseball tryouts started today. Just two more hours of this mind-numbing repetition, and he'd be able to get to the good stuff.
"No, Carolyn, you can't petition PETA to get a waiver from dissecting the frog. The frog's already dead. It donated itself to science. Don't let its sacrifice be in vain,” Brandon Bartlett said, shaking his head as he walked toward the front of the lab, watching the students pull on their latex gloves and cloth masks.
"Jimmy, no fire today. Off with the Bunsen,” he said distractedly, hearing a huff from his side, and the slight whoosh of gas-fed flame shut off. He pointed out the correct instrument for Callie to use and moved to the whiteboard.
Brandon pulled his glasses from his shirt pocket and slid them on as he looked at the teaching materials. “You all have the directions for the dissection, and trust me, they haven't changed from yesterday when we went over them. Yes, Kelly?"
"Mr. Bartlett? What if I get guts on my uniform?” the cheerleader asked.
"There are aprons in the closet. That would be an intelligent security measure,” Brandon answered. “Drake?"
"Can I cut off its head first?"
"Is cutting its head off first in the directions?"
"No, Mr. Bartlett."
"Are we going to tempt fate by not following the directions?"
"Scrubbing out the dissection pans every afternoon for a week."
"Sir! No cutting off the head, sir!"
Brandon rolled his eyes. Sophomores. No longer wide-eyed and scared, not yet mature enough to be trusted to their own good sense. “Good choice."
As the students got to work, Brandon notated their presence in his attendance book and also marked who had been given what equipment on the two-person teams. He glanced up, a half-smile on his face. This was his lab. After almost ten years of teaching, twenty-five grant applications and a good wrangling with the principal and the school board, they'd agreed to build the large facility.
He was proud of his work at Parkview High. Even more so because it was
high school—he'd walked these same halls for four years—and he felt quite at home, although the students looked younger and younger each year. He frowned, glancing over at the gaggle of cheerleaders. He didn't feel that old, but...
Checking his schedule, Brandon remembered he had planning period during his next block, before the last class. He'd skipped lunch and left his meal in the fridge in the lounge, so he'd escape there to stop the drain of his mental faculties. He glanced up to see Drake and Aaron flinging frog guts at each other and sighed. Some days he could just feel his brain dribbling out of his ears.
An hour before his last class of the day, Jake sat in the corner table of the teachers’ lounge, sipping his water and eating his sandwich as he read. He had camouflaged a paperback in the Sports page of the morning paper, and whenever someone came in, he would curl the newsprint around the book protectively and follow the person with hard black eyes. It wasn't worth the jokes from these prisses about his reading ability to do otherwise.
He sat with his back to the wall, feet up on the table, waiting for one of the other coaches to come in and hoping no one else made the effort to try and talk to him. In high school, a lifetime ago, he'd been the leader of the pack; popular, athletic, good-looking. Now, as a coach in the same high school years later, he was dealing with a herd of teachers who had all been nerds in school and resented him on principle. Jake had quickly learned how the outcasts felt. The only difference, he mused with a small smile, was that now he didn't give a flying fuck what the others thought of him.
Having met Rhonda in the hall, Brandon walked with her, talking shop. As the chemistry teacher, she'd petitioned the administration to get an Advanced Placement class, and Brandon had asked for one, too, so they were discussing plans for the next nine weeks. They talked all the way to the lounge, where Brandon glanced around and saw Jake Campbell sitting by himself, reading.
They were and always had been complete and total opposites. Jake had been the Homecoming King their senior year—and the Prom King, too. Mr. Popular. Brandon had been Valedictorian and the captain of the Academic Team. A nerd—and even amongst the nerds, not so popular because he hadn't come through the same system of schools they did. Still musing while grabbing his lunch, he sat at a round table in the middle of the room where he could keep talking with Rhonda.
Jake slowly slid lower in his chair and lifted the paper higher, his eyes at a level where he could still see the room but quickly divert them before contact was made.
Brandon tried to make eye contact, to at least give Jake a nod, but the other man deliberately wouldn't look at him. The science teacher sighed. He'd tried to be friendly to Jake, and to Misty and Troy as well—other students from their class who had come back to teach—but none of the three would even acknowledge him. They obviously held their high-school opinions close to their hearts. He wondered why he tried. Shaking his head to something Rhonda asked, Brandon started on his lunch.
Some people Jake could just
in a room. Brandon Bartlett was one of them. Jake didn't know why. He supposed it was because he remembered the guy from high school, and the memory weighed heavily on him. No matter how old you got, high school was always yesterday. Jake had never been the type of guy who'd gotten his rocks off on making other people miserable, but some of his teammates and ‘friends’ had, and he remembered the way they'd treated Brandon and his type. It was a painful memory for Jake; he had never joined in, but he had never tried to step up and stop it, either.
Jake shifted in his seat and sniffed as he read the same line over again in his book. The door to the lounge opened again, and Jake looked up to see Gerald and Lena walk in together. He almost sighed in relief—his fellow outcast phys ed teachers to the rescue. They were a dying breed—the real coaches. The other coaches in the school were either decent part-timers, like Troy; off-campus hires; or teachers who had once touched a piece of sporting equipment, like Misty. Those were worse than the people who only taught; they thought they were at the top of the food chain, straddling the academic and athletic worlds. But only a precious few did either job well, and those were the ones smart enough to disregard the invisible class barriers.
"Well, hello, beautiful,” Jake drawled in greeting as he folded over the newspaper. His eyes purposefully went from Gerald's hulking form and his perfectly shaved mocha-colored head to the athletic blonde beside him. “And hello to you, too, Lena,” he added with a smirk.
Brandon's eyes shifted up to see the newcomers, but he carried on his conversation as the two made a beeline to Jake, not even a smile or a glance in his and Rhonda's direction. Resigned, he popped open his Gladware bowl of grapes and nudged it toward the other teacher so she could share.
"You're such a pervert,” Lena laughed softly as she headed for the fridge.
"'sup, Coach?” Gerald asked in his deep bass voice as he sat down. “Who won last night?” he gestured to the paper Jake was holding. “Or can you even tell when you hold the paper upside down?” he asked pointedly as he flicked the corner of the page with a laugh.
Jake cleared his throat and blushed a little, smiling sheepishly as he slowly put his book in his lap and turned the paper right side up.
Rhonda snickered in the middle of a sentence, and Brandon frowned, turning to look over his shoulder at Jake and Gerald, one of the other football coaches. It looked like Gerald was teasing Jake about something. Brandon looked back to Rhonda. “What?” he asked.
She leaned forward to whisper. “Jake was holding the paper upside down. You know, the one he was reading so intently that he couldn't even acknowledge our presence?"
Brandon's brows flew up, and he grinned widely. “Really?” he said in a hushed voice, barely resisting the urge to turn around and look again. “That's pretty funny that Gerald caught him."
Jake kicked Gerald's shin under the table and blushed harder, sliding down further in his seat as Lena tossed Gerald a bottle of water and giggled. “I hate you both,” he declared with a small smile, tossing his book onto the table and laughing along with them.
Snickering again, Rhonda leaned forward. “Don't you think he's handsome? I think he's really handsome."
Brandon boggled. “Gerald?"
"No, silly. Jake!” she whispered excitedly.
Brandon wondered where the cool and collected chemistry teacher had gone. She had to be ten years older than he was. “Ah ... I went to school with Jake,” he said uncomfortably.
"You didn't tell me you were friends! Maybe you could tell him a little about me,” Rhonda wheedled quietly, smoothing her red hair behind her ear.
Now Brandon was really getting wigged. “I said I went to school with him. Not that we were friends. And, Rhonda, if you want to approach him, I'm thinking that's something you should do yourself. He never really liked me then. Doesn't now, for that matter,” he added quietly as Rhonda tossed flirting looks over his shoulder.
"How's the team looking this year?” Lena asked as she sat down. She coached fast-pitch softball, and they always had a little bit of a competition between the two teams.
Jake shrugged and sat up straighter. “Couldn't really say,” he answered ambiguously, smirking at the woman as Gerald gave a booming laugh. Jake caught snatches of conversation from the other table and glanced over there. The chemistry teacher peered at him, batting her eyelashes in an alarming manner, and Jake's eyes widened. He automatically looked over at Brandon questioningly, trying to gauge whether he should retreat or if this was something he could throw Gerald in front of and be safe.
Brandon chanced a glance over his shoulder and saw Jake looking at him, query written on his face. Brandon couldn't help but wince a little and shrug, trying to convey an apology with a tiny shift of his head toward Rhonda.
"I think ... I think I left the showers running,” Jake blurted suddenly as Gerald laughed harder and slapped his thigh. Lena watched him stand up with a slightly outraged look on her face, obviously thinking that he was making a teasing attempt to bypass their annual teams discussion. The head coach waved at them as he gathered up his stuff and glanced up at Brandon again distractedly.
Not sure why he was even trying—other than simply feeling bad for his fellow man—Brandon met Jake's eyes again and subtly turned his head and eyes to the door, indicating he should make his escape while he could. Then he turned back to Rhonda, cleared his throat and spoke a little more loudly. “So, Rhonda, you were going to tell me how the application process for your A.P. class went. What did you tell the school board, exactly?"
"You can't hide from me for long, Campbell!” Lena called as Jake slunk toward the door. He turned around and gave her an irritatingly impish grin and then looked back to the table where Brandon sat, apparently distracting the chemistry teacher. He gave the man a little smile and a nod of thanks as he made a hasty exit.
Watching Jake escape from the corner of his eye, Brandon turned all his attention on Rhonda, who was now waxing rhapsodic over paperwork. He figured he'd done his good deed for the day. Possibly the week.