Bethany House Publishers
Inside the cushion-walled cubicle bathed in morning light, Jill watched Sammi’s euphoria dissolve into tantrum tears for the fourth time in less than an hour. The child’s medication was obviously out of whack, expressed by excessive displays of inappropriate behavior. They’d be lucky to keep her together until the final bell rang; never mind sending her out to regular classes, where she would overload and self-destruct.
Swiftly Jill snatched Sammi off the floor in a modified takedown motion before the kicking feet made contact with the other students in the special ed reading lab. As Sammi thrashed in her arms, Jill’s silent prayers started. Lord, give Sammi peace. Wrap her in your loving arms. Let her know you’re here in her struggle.
Classified SIED—severe intellectual emotional disability—Sammi, like most of the kids in Jill’s caseload, had the ability to learn and achieve, but her emotional upheaval sabotaged her efforts. How did one focus such a mind on phonics and structure when all her synapses were haywire? Might as well expect symphonic music from a nuclear reactor. Jill tried not to question why God made Sammi bipolar or why Joey sat in a world of his own until something irritated him out of it.
“Too loud!” Joey pressed his hands to his ears, ready to erupt.
Jill could hear his teeth grinding in conjunction with Sammi’s wails. She pressed Sammi’s face to her breast and confined her arms. Sometimes it seemed the tighter she held her, the more quickly she calmed. She would use a full takedown if it came to it, though she hated to, especially when it would go into the child’s report. Had her father forgotten today’s medication altogether? The call she had made to him was still unanswered—as usual. Please, Lord, comfort her. If Joey lost it, as well, she’d have to call for help. She could not contain them both at once.
She glanced at Pam, who looked over from her group under the window, ready if needed. Quickly assessing the situation as defusing, Jill nodded her assurance to Pam, who returned her focus to her own group. It was a judgment call, but she gave Sammi the benefit of the doubt.
Frequently they flew blind, taking each day, each child in stride—short staffed, underfunded, yet still required to provide free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for kids whose functionality would never allow the success Jill wanted so much for them. But she ran the program the best she could.
“Jesus loves you,” she murmured too softly for Sammi to hear. Yet it seemed to help. The wails became sobs, which didn’t violate Joey’s receptors as deeply. He rocked himself, refusing eye contact, and pulled the skin between his thumb and forefinger. It would be raw again before he stopped unless Jill could distract him.
But Sammi first. If she could only control everything that might set them off. In a perfect environment she could even teach them to read. As it was, she’d feel grateful to accomplish Sammi’s goal of initiating and maintaining one healthy social contact, and to overcome Joey’s lack of receptive language.
Lord, you balance the whole universe. Help me to balance these needs. As Sammi calmed, Jill watched the erupting forces in Joey subside, as well. She glanced at the other two students. Angelica was labeled SLIC: significant limited intellectual capacity. She had brain function that simply couldn’t match her desire to learn. Her type A personality would not let her give up, and Jill longed for her success, especially when getting the brighter, more capable kids to even try was a challenge. Some days Angelica was truly her saving grace. She was well named.
And there was Chris. Jill suspected his condition was more likely sleep deprivation than low functionality. The domestic strife in his home was heard all down the block at all hours, and his blank, semicomatose refusal to perform could be partly attributed to that. Even in the midst of Sammi’s tantrum, he looked glazed.
“All right, pay attention. I want to read you a story.”
Angelica’s round brown eyes found her immediately. She loved stories and curled her legs up under the pink skirt that matched the many pink barrettes clipped onto tiny coarse black braids. Sammi’s sobs became gulping breaths.
Jill used a firm, soothing tone. “Do you want to hear the story, Joey?”
He kept rocking but stilled slightly when she said, “It’s about a rocket. And a monkey.”
Sensing peace, Jill risked loosening her hold on Sammi. The girl was big for eight, a possible growth disorder in addition to her chemical imbalances. Sammi glared at Chris, who had expended the energy to set her off in the first place by making fun of her reading. Climbing down, Sammi deliberately kicked his knee.
Chris kicked back, and Sammi charged him. As Jill moved to intervene, he pulled a fishing knife from his pocket. Jill lunged for the knife, gripped Chris’s arm, and took him down. Chris, who hardly had energy to write his name, fought until she trapped and subdued the scrappy nine-year-old. Jill’s heart pounded. This was not some inner-city school where kids knifed each other; this was small-town, middle-America farm country—probably why it was a fishing knife and not a switchblade.
Within moments, Pam had hold of Sammi, and they pulled the children apart, still kicking and hollering.
“Too loud!” Joey pressed his hands to his ears.
Jill couldn’t worry about that now. She jerked the knife from Chris’s hand. “Where did you get this?”
“Not anymore.” With the knife in one hand and the child in the other, Jill marched for the office. Presenting herself in this sort of situation to Principal Fogarty would not be pretty, but she had no choice. Her kids were rarely armed but invariably volatile. It came with the territory, but somehow Ed Fogarty always saw it as her fault. Still, she had no choice. School policy left no ambiguity in this situation.
As the stress drained, she realized Chris had grown soft in her grip. Why did he carry a knife? Protection? She frowned down at him. “Don’t you know better than to bring a knife to school, Chris?”
He had retreated into his stare.
He would be automatically suspended. She could possibly advocate against expulsion, due to his independent educational program. Even so, she would probably not see him until next school year. Disappointment and failure threatened her resolve. But there was no way around things now. She just hoped Pam had kept Joey from harming himself. Pam was a good teacher, but the kids didn’t always respond as well to her somewhat abrasive style.
As they approached the office, Chris held back. Jill stopped and turned. “I’m sorry, Chris. You made a really bad choice. Not only did you bring something dangerous to school, you used it as a weapon.”
“He’ll kick me out.”
Jill nodded. “Yes, for a while. You should have known that would happen.”
His eyelids drooped. “I’ll have to stay home.”
Jill heard the anxiety behind his dull words. “Yes, you will. Unless your parents make other arrangements.”
He didn’t answer, but his eyelids flickered.
“Is there a problem with staying home, Chris? Something I need to know?” She’d checked all year for signs of abuse, given him chances to talk, but he never did. Now he just stood there without so much as a headshake.
She took his shoulder gently. “We have to go in.” She opened the door and propelled him into the office. Mr. Fogarty responded to her with all the grace she expected—that of a bull on a tightrope. At least he blew it out with her, and by the time Chris’s mother arrived from her job, he was diplomatic and presented a gracious front. The woman looked as dull as Chris, took Fogarty’s explanation with hardly a word, then jerked Chris out by the arm. Jill sighed. The best she had managed was to keep things open for Chris next year.
By the day’s end she had earned a caramel Frappuccino. It wouldn’t spoil her appetite for the evening, just replenish her drained energy. She normally eschewed caffeine, but Dan would come for her in a little more than an hour, with some special plans he’d alluded to. Suggesting she dress up had been especially significant, since they spent more time together in sweats and running shoes. Tonight, she didn’t want to look like something dragged through the drain.
She was just to the makeup stage when the phone rang. “Hello?”
“It’s Dan, Jill. Do you mind meeting me at Marchelli’s?”
Marchelli’s? She smiled to herself. And it wasn’t even a meaningful occasion. “Running late?” She rubbed a smear of moisturizer into her neck.
“We’re on a call. I’m not sure how long it’ll take. Could be serious.”
She heard radio noise over his phone. “Go ahead, Dan. I’ll hold down the table till you get there.” She could hardly get upset over his doing his job, keeping Beauview safe and honest.
After an hour and a half of raspberry Italian sodas, the first thing she said to Dan when he arrived was, “I need the ladies’ room.”
“I’m sorry, Jill.” He’d obviously changed in a hurry. His tie was askew and one side of his collar bent up.
“It’s all right.” But she had spent the hour and a half worrying about Chris. Maybe his inattentiveness was a defensive posture. Maybe ... She shook her head. It was time to let it go and enjoy the evening with Dan. They’d only dined at Marchelli’s once before, on her birthday.
When she came back to the table, Dan had straightened his tie. His bulky neck wanted out of the collar. Not all men looked better in a suit. But she appreciated the significance.
She sat down. “Okay, here’s my day in a nutshell. Chris was suspended for possessing and wielding a weapon in the classroom. Sammi’s meds were wacko, and Joey had a serious regression in the use of bathroom facilities, probably due to the antagonism between the aforementioned pair. Mr. Fogarty indicated that I do not have control of my caseload and informed me that, contrary to policy, I must reapply for my position as coordinator next year, and I will be considered along with all other contenders, including a new hire I have yet to meet.”
Dan frowned appropriately at that. She’d made it all sound comical, but it was starting to eat her up. She gave the best she had to her kids, fought for them, hurt for them. And days like today left her searching for the reason. She closed her eyes and sighed. “I just thought I’d get that out of the way.”
Dan laughed softly. “Makes my foot chase of a teenage burglar sound tame.”
“Was that the call?”
He nodded. “He was quick, too. Or I wouldn’t have been so late.”
“Did you work up an appetite?”
Dan raised his brows. “Hungry?”
She pushed aside the menu she had read word for word, including the gratuity policy on parties over eight and the accepted credit cards. “I was too worried about Chris to eat lunch. I haven’t had anything but Frappuccino and Italian sodas since dawn.”
“I thought I detected caffeine. You either need to become a regular user or avoid it altogether.”
“It’s more effective on a haphazard basis. Keeps the shock effect at full voltage.”
The waiter approached with an air of stiff annoyance at having had his table held up with nothing yet to show for it. “Are you ready to order?”
“Desperate to.” She chose manicotti with half clam alfredo and half sun-dried-tomato marinara. Dan ordered the peppered steak marsala. He detailed the chase for her as they nibbled breadsticks and thick, spicy minestrone. It had been one of the more serious calls he’d handled lately. The young man had broken into a home in one of the nice neighborhoods, loaded his car with electronics, and started on the gun collection by the time the private security system brought Brett and Dan to the scene. Brett covered the car to make sure the suspect couldn’t double back and escape while Dan chased him down on foot. Dan could run forever, but his speed was not that great. Still, he cornered the kid and took him down, not unlike what Jill had been forced to do with Sammi.
She shook her head. “Do you think it was something in the air?”
Their entrees arrived, and the heavy starch neutralized the caffeine before she was halfway through. She settled down to enjoy the second half. “You haven’t told me what we’re celebrating.”
For answer, Dan pushed aside his plate and looked at her for a long moment, then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a photograph. He slid it face up with one finger to the middle of the table between them. Jill looked at the modest house in the photo: some character, but not overly picturesque. She looked back at Dan.
“It’s for sale. I was thinking ... maybe we could do a joint mortgage, fix it up nice, and if things were working out well ...”
“Things?” Was he actually saying what she thought?
He pulled a slow half smile. “We’ve had ten great months and ...”
“And what, Dan?”
“I’m ready for the next step.” He pulled his tie loose and opened the top button of his shirt, then gave her his direct cop gaze. “Jill, I know you have reservations. So do I. That’s why this is a good—”
“What exactly are you proposing, Dan?”
He winced. “I’m a little leery of that word. I think if we worked into it, made sure we were—”
She stared into his blunt face and wondered if he had any idea that he had just capped her day.
Jill left the restaurant, thankful she had driven herself. She needed some miles behind the wheel. As she drove, she studied the opaque sun, caught like a melon-colored Frisbee in the net of trees along the horizon. Who had tossed it there, and would they come thundering across the sky to snatch it up and send it reeling once again? What careless feet would trip through the branches green with leaf and quickened sap? What eager hand would reach for it?
The Midwestern humidity dimmed it to a lunar impotence, so much tamer than the Phoenix sun. That fiery orb ruled the desert sky like a god, dominating the scaly plants and beasts, breaking their wills, grinding them down to the base elements of survival ... or so Dan had said when he returned from his sister’s wedding this past weekend.
Phoenix had been too hot, even for a man who liked to get out and sweat. He wanted his own exertion to cause it, not the blazing sun. That was Dan, one hundred and ten percent, whether he was running down a punk peddling drugs or pumping iron or racing his bike. The one area he didn’t excel in was listening.
How else to explain his proposal? The man she respected, enjoyed, maybe even loved, had completely ignored everything she’d told him since their relationship had become serious. What exactly are you proposing, Dan? He’d made it sound so homey, so convenient. So noncommittal. Attending a wedding had no doubt sparked his consideration of the next step. But not influenced it deeply enough.
She switched hands on the steering wheel of her almost new Civic. Almost, meaning less than two years old, but purchased used from her friend Shelly, who won—actually won—a Miata in a raffle. She could still feel the grip of Shelly’s hands on her upper arms as they had jumped up and down, laughing in disbelief.
Jill reached over and turned down the air-conditioning that was raising the hairs on her arms. Her plan was to leave Beauview behind and put miles of cornfields and highway between her and home. Dan had probably gone straight home and hit his weight bench. He would work it out through his pores; she’d rather run away.
But not entirely. She had school tomorrow; students depending on her, kids whose lives would be traumatized if she left them to a substitute, even another team member. Consistency was crucial. And in this last week of the school year their stress levels rose, as evidenced by today’s stellar performances. Summer vacation was no celebration for many of them. It meant change, and they had spent nine months grasping one set of expectations only to now face a new set.
Some of them she would tutor twice a week through the summer so they wouldn’t lose all they’d accomplished during the school year. Three months was interminable for their retention. Without tutoring, she’d be starting from scratch when she rolled up to the next grade level with them.
Even though the highway stretched out before her, she recognized the end of her tether. So at the next exit, she left the highway and started back. Hands had snatched the sun and taken it home. The sky dissolved into dusky hues of peach and lavender, and the farms on either side of the road had that complacent, settled look. Instead of reentering the highway, she followed the country road that would wind back to rejoin it eventually. It would be dark when she got home. No one would notice she went in alone, nor what condition her mascara was in, though tears had yet to come.
With a sniff, Jill fanned her fingers through her hair from the forehead to the crown, then examined the ends hanging midway down her chest, fine and straight and blond. Ash, actually, though she’d never liked that description. It had been silvery blond when she was small; fairy hair, her mother said. It was still thick and soft but lacked the luster it once had. Maybe she should highlight it, frost it, streak it— something with an attitude. But she had no one to impress now, and she was clean out of attitude.
A Mendelssohn concerto, soothing and vibrant, filled the car from her stereo as she merged back onto the highway, but gathering brake lights ahead caught her attention. The lanes were moving, but at a crawl. And the cars veered and wound erratically. What on earth?
Something on the road. No, lots of things. Moving ... slowly. Turtles! Eight-inch turtles, marching onto the highway from the cornfields, and many not fortunate enough to have made it across. She looked away from the carnage of one she viewed in greater detail than she would have cared to.
Poor creatures. Did they realize they were plodding to their deaths? Could they see beyond the few feet before them, conceive of something large and fast enough to crush them in less time than it took to take their next step? Their instinct told them to plod forward, relentlessly pursuing whatever. Then splat. Nothing. The great abyss.
At least people were trying to avoid them. She swung her own wheel to the left as one turtle headed for her tires. What was this? Some great turtle exodus? A migration of reptilian pioneers. Whenever a car whizzed past, the turtles would stop, draw in their heads and legs as though the shell could save them from a couple tons of steel. She swerved to the right but heard the crunch anyway. Oh ...
A white Fiat pulled over and two men climbed out, running back along the shoulder waving their arms. Jill watched in her rearview mirror as they worked their way onto the road still waving wildly. Stopping traffic for the turtles? She had to cheer their sentiment. They were young and gangly and idealistic. While one darted out waving people to a stop, the other scooped up a turtle and rushed it to the side.
She smiled. Good for them. The men ignored the honking cars and scooped up one after another. She hoped they got every one of the creatures across to safety. But she was through it now. The cars ahead picked up speed, and she followed suit. How absurd. Who ever heard of a turtle crossing? She pictured the appropriate black-on-yellow highway sign and almost managed a laugh. Why not? They now had crossing guards.
At least she would have a story to tell her kids tomorrow. She wouldn’t mention the crushed shells and certainly not the crunch of her own tire. That was too emotional, too risky for her kids. But the parade—that they’d enjoy, and the man scooping them up and carrying them across, protection they couldn’t conceive. Even Joey would appreciate this tale.
She only hoped today had not set him back too badly. He’d had more than one regression in the course of the year, and they weren’t pretty. That was why Pam and their paraprofessional, Jack, left Joey to her, and in fact she did have better success with him than anyone else had to date. She didn’t tell anyone it was prayer that calmed him. That wouldn’t go over well in a public school, not with her team. But it was true. Prayer helped. Prayer worked. And she couldn’t do what she did without it. These kids, whom everyone would rather forget, push aside, marginalize ... they broke her heart and gave her purpose. She felt a stab and tried to ignore it, then rose up in defense. Why shouldn’t her purpose be other people’s kids? Who said happiness could only be found in having her own family?
She parked in the single garage of her townhouse, then went to retrieve the mail from her compartment in the communal box. She had just grasped the envelopes in the box when Mr. Deerborne sidled up.
“Your trash blew over.”
Jill glanced to where the rubber can now stood empty beside her garage door, though the gusting wind had stopped by noon.
“Spilled cat litter all over the sidewalk. Safety hazard, that. Someone might have slipped and taken a fall.” He waved his cane in the large knuckled hand. “I swept it up for you.”
She turned to her neighbor. “Thank you. That was very considerate.”
“Saving you a lawsuit is all.”
She smiled, though the only one likely to sue her would be Mr. Deerborne himself. “Thanks so much.”
When he stalked back across the lot between their buildings, she went inside, dropped the mail on the counter, and looked around. “Kitty, kitty ...”
The long-haired gray half-Persian-half-who-knew-what jumped onto the counter. Jill scratched his head while he purred his welcome, one of those ratchety purrs that ebbed and flowed. “Hello, Rascal.”
He licked her chin, and she tore open a pouch of food to fill his bowl. The phone rang. Shelly. She must have surveillance equipment inside the townhouse. Or maybe Brett had it bugged. More likely she’d seen the light. “Hello?” She slid the mail from under the cat’s paws.
“Well?” Shelly’s voice always sounded huskier over the phone.
“Well, hi.” Jill scooted past the sofa, dropped the stack of envelopes to the ornate corner table she’d purchased at an estate sale, then dropped to the chair upholstered with beige, brown, and black giraffes. An eclectic combination, she admitted.
“Don’t keep me in suspense. Was it wonderful? Did he ask you?”
She must also have inside knowledge. “Ask me what, Shelly?”
“Jill Runyan, I’m going to have a coronary, and it’ll be your fault.” Shelly added a deep exaggerated breath. “I know Dan had something planned, so out with it.”
Jill said, “He proposed something, but it wasn’t marriage.”
“O-kay ... so we’re working into it.”
Jill pulled a loose thread from the seam of her chair and rolled it between her fingers. “He wants to live together and see if we’re compatible.”
“Understandable. His breakup really hurt, you know. His ex was brutal.”
All of which Jill had heard before. “Well, I hope I wasn’t brutal.”
“What do you mean?”
Jill forked her fingers into the hair at the nape of her neck. She hated when Shelly’s interrogation happened before she had time to plan her explanation. She was nothing if not methodical.
“Jill, don’t tell me you broke up with him.”
If only she had a wise or even witty comeback. In truth, Dan was genuinely nice, handsome, responsible ...
“You are certifiably insane.”
Jill sank into the chair’s thickness. “You’ll never guess what I saw on the highway.”
“Don’t change the subject, Jill. How could you dump him?”
“A turtle migration or something. There they were crossing the highway, stopping traffic both ways. Ever tried to outmaneuver a turtle with a purpose?”
“Are you falling apart?”
“Of course not.” At the moment she hadn’t the energy. “And these two guys stopped traffic and started carrying them across, one by one.”
“I’m coming over.”
“No, Shelly, I’m fine.” Jill toed the heel of her left shoe loose and slipped her foot out. “I’m getting into the bath.” She took off her other shoe and set them side by side against the chair.
Shelly moaned. “How did he take it?”
“No yelling, no tears, and no personal commitment.” Unless one considered a joint mortgage personal.
“It hasn’t even been a year. Cops are slow in the personal commitment department. It’s a job hazard.”
“Your cop isn’t.”
“Shelly.” Jill rubbed her eyes. “It doesn’t matter. We’re coming from two different worlds. What’s important to me is ... incomprehensible to him.”
“You mean God?”
“My faith matters to me, Shelly. It’s who I am.” Not that Dan or Shelly had a clue what she meant by that.
“You can work out that religious stuff together.”
Jill bent a crick from her neck. “We agreed that he had his beliefs, or lack thereof, I had mine, and never the twain shall meet.”
“If you’re talking poetry, I’m calling the police.”
Jill smiled grimly. “Try Dan. He’d love a sympathetic ear.”
“Can’t you just compromise?”
Compromise. “I don’t see how.”
“You can’t act like the ice queen and expect him to marry you.”
Ice queen. Shelly had never been long on tact, but ice queen? Did refusing to sleep with Dan mean she was made of ice? She tried to reconcile that image with the hugs and kisses she poured out on the children, at personal risk. She wanted to love them, to teach and encourage them, to help them succeed. Ice queen. Is that how she seemed to Dan? To Shelly?
“Jill, this is breaking my heart.”
“I’m sorry. Just now mine’s a little shaky, too. Talk to you tomorrow.” Jill hung up the phone. It didn’t help that her best friend was married to Dan’s partner on the force. Get-togethers were bound to be jolly. At least for a while.
She fought the sudden tears. Why should she cry? So Dan had been personable and caring ... to a point. The point that ended where her limits began. Ice queen. Quite a long way from prom queen, Lord. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Jill tipped her head back against the top of the chair and resisted the tears. Falling apart did no good. She should not have dated him in the first place, should have stayed friends and avoided this ... heartache. But it was hard to withstand Shelly and Brett and Dan’s persuasion. Not to mention the loneliness that seeped in sometimes, causing brain lapse in areas where she knew better.
It was nothing against Dan. He just wanted all the elements of a relationship without the legal and moral fetters of a covenant. Or the risk. She knew about risk.
She sniffed and glanced down at the mail. Listlessly she lifted the top card, a reminder of the fifteen-year fund-raiser class reunion. If the girls could see me now.... She shook her head. How had things changed so much? She’d been on top of the world then, at the top of her class. Until Morgan ...
Jill dropped her face to her hands. Why did her thoughts go that direction every time she was vulnerable? It was fifteen years ago. For all she knew, Morgan Spencer was married with six kids. And he was hardly to blame for her problems.
But she rolled to her side and curled her knees to her chest in the chair’s embrace as tears began to flow. No, no, no. Don’t think about it. Don’t add misery to misery. But the thoughts came anyway. What was she like? Was her hair blond, or dark like Morgan’s? It had been dark, but that was newborn hair. Were her eyes still blue, the deep Spencer blue, or gray like her own?
Jill buried her face in the back of the chair and sobbed. She had to get control of this. It had been one awful mistake, and she’d done the best she could with it. She had made the right choice against all the opposition, all the pressure, all the pain. Her daughter was in the best place she could be, with parents who loved her. What more could she do? And Morgan ...
Jill drew a deep, racking breath. It had been right. It was the best I could do. She repeated the mantra until she could stop the tears; then she sat up and took the mail in her lap, forcing her mind elsewhere. She flipped through the envelopes. Junk, junk, utilities, junk. She dropped the stack without finishing and headed for the bathroom.
Some of her best time was spent there, soaking in the oversized Jacuzzi tub, one amenity that had sold her on the townhouse. She started the water. Okay, so things weren’t always as she wanted them. That was her own fault. God had planned things better, but she had blown His plan. She couldn’t change that.
She hung her sage green blouse and skirt on the hanger at the back of the door and climbed into the tub. Some things she could soak off. Others clung forever. She would spend the night trying to sleep, then go to work in the morning. At least her kids gave her purpose. And the challenges they faced beat anything she could complain about on a bad day.
For a moment her thoughts went to Dan. What was he doing? Probably thinking of all the reasons he was glad to be rid of her. The ice queen.