Several years ago (okay, more than 30) I started a book that eventually became my second novel, LIES IN CHANCE. I loved those characters so much, mostly because they'd been with me just about all of my life. An idea for a series of short stories about each of the characters has been in my brain for a long time, and I've been calling it "Songs from Rock Harbor." Well, a few months ago, I completed the first novella, "Love is Elementary." This is the romance of Drew and Joanna, two main characters from Lies in Chance.
As I delve into the second story in the series, hoping to get it finished this weekend, I thought I'd share a bit of "Love is Elementary" with you today. (This is available on amazon, createspace, and for ALL reading devices on Smashwords (click here.)
I should tell you, this particular novella is definitely more of an inspirational romance than anything else. While I don't write inspirational on purpose (not yet anyway, but stay tuned!) I do stay true to my characters and those of you who have read Lies in Chance know that Drew and Joanna both have strong moral compasses and that the Rock Harbor community, especially the school teachers, are grounded in deep traditional values. That said, drama still surrounds us, and as I wrote their story (something I really hadn't given a thought when I wrote Lies in Chance) I had to be true to them, their character, and their community.
Drew set his brief case on the battered industrial sized desk and sighed. Not one often given to self-analysis, he wondered now if he should have his head examined.
It was a good job. I left a perfectly good job, because I was an idiot about Rachel. And now I’m the principal of…
He looked out the window on the left side of the expansive classroom that now was his. Then he looked out the window on the right.
I’m the principal of a cow pasture.
He tapped the pocket of his dress shirt, a habit from his days as a collegiate smoker. No, you only get to smoke if you answer a really tough question.
How about this? What the HELL am I doing here?
“Careful, no swearing allowed here at Rock Harbor Community School.”
Startled, Drew looked up from his reverie, eye to eye with possibly the most cheerful woman he had ever seen. “I’m sorry, did I say something?”
The young woman at the door laughed. “No, but you sure looked like you wanted to. And from that dark look on your face, I’m bettin’ it wasn’t the Lord’s Prayer you had on your mind.” She crossed the room, walking right up to him without hesitation.
Drew sighed. That’s right. I’m the principal of a practically parochial cow pasture now.
“Joanna Huber. School secretary…and girls’ soccer coach…church organist next door at Rock Harbor Community Church. No affiliation to the school, except that everyone who lives in Rock Harbor attends services there.” She stuck her hand out.
Drew took her hand in his, and was struck by how tiny her hand was. His hand felt like a massive paw covering hers. He shook her hand as gently as he knew how, afraid he might break it. “Drew, Drew Shepaski. I’m the principal, I guess.” He blinked, well aware that he must look like a thundering oaf to a woman so petite, so lively and so…pretty.
“Well, if you aren’t, then you have some explaining to do to the school board!” She giggled, hiding her mouth behind her tiny hand, her dark blue eyes snapping with mischief. “Let me show you around.”
“Oh, okay. I mean, sure.” If I stop saying words, maybe she will stop looking at me like I’m a moron.
“Come on. It’s a short tour, but I promise you’ll drink some really terrible coffee at the end.” Joanna laughed again and led the way out of the room.
“Well, only if it’s really terrible.” There, that seemed sort of funny.
“It will be, I promise. The worst.” Joanna pointed to the rooms as they walked down the hallway. “First grade, that’s Tina. She’s the school art teacher. Don’t let her EVER make coffee if she’s done a project involving paste.”
Joanne made a sour face and gave an exaggerated shudder. “Trust me. Oh, and Mrs. King teaches Kindergarten. She’s the pastor’s wife next door.”
“Ah.” Joanna wrinkled her nose. “So you know. Bonus, she’s on the school board.”
“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?”
“Some might think so, but no one questions Mrs. King. Everyone’s pretty much afraid of her.” She kept a completely serious face for about a heartbeat and then burst out laughing. She pointed out several more classrooms, naming teachers and giving personal history about each teacher until they’d done a loop of the long hallway and were nearly back at his classroom.
“So what, no fifth grade?”
“New guy gets a gold star. Nope, we don’t have a fifth grade teacher just yet. Well, I mean we had one last year, obviously. But she got herself pregnant, and married…in that order.” Joanna’s eyes sparkled again as she cocked her head to one side, as if waiting for a response from him.
Drew swallowed, unsure of what, exactly to say to this pert, pretty girl with the dark auburn hair that seemed to glow in the dim daylight of the hallway.
Seemingly unphased by his lack of response, Joanna continued. “See, doing things backwards like that, that’s frowned on by the good families of Rock Harbor. Morals clause, you know.”
Drew nodded. Weirdest thing I ever had to sign in a teaching contract. Felt like Sunday school with all the “You will not’s.”
“So anyway, she moved away because…of the shame…” Joanna whispered the last words, her eyes sparkling with suppressed mirth. “And, here we are, mid July, hoping against hope that some teacher will magically drop out of the sky to fill the position. “ She shrugged. “The sixth grade teacher is ready to take on two grades. Meanwhile, we wait.”
Drew followed Joanna through the last door in the hall, the teachers’ lounge. This was a wide room that covered most of the very end of the building. The principals’ office, his office, took up the corner nearest the door, and was a sort of pass through room to his classroom. He glanced in the office, noting the partition windows in his office gave the room the feel of a guard shack at a POW camp.
“Sorta like an air traffic controllers’ space, isn’t it?” Joanna picked up a coffee mug from the wide table beneath the window opposite of Drew’s office. “You can watch your classroom and the teachers all at the same time.”
The description fits my line of thinking far better than yours. “It’s an interesting floor plan.”
“The office was added way after these two rooms were built. This room and yours were actually the original school like a hundred years ago. Here,” she handed a steaming cup of coffee. “The office was added when this room became the teachers’ lounge and we realized that a principal might just need an office, like everyone else.”
Drew held the coffee cup up, pausing before drinking out of a mug that looked more like a yard sale reject.
“I know. Ugliest cups on earth. But what can you say? Everyone cleans out their kitchens and says, ‘Well, those nice teachers, they always need coffee cups.’ The result is we’re loaded with ugly coffee cups.”
She sat down on a lumpy brown couch that also resembled many yard sales gems Drew recalled from his childhood. “Come on. You must have some questions.”
Drew pulled a hard wooden chair up to a table loaded down with stacks of construction paper and jars of paste. He took a sip of coffee and nearly spat it out. “Wow…”
Joanna laughed out loud as she stirred several teaspoons of sugar into her own cup. “I told you, terrible coffee.”
“You drink this? Every day?” Drew ran his tongue on the inside of his mouth, trying to clean away the black, bitter taste.
Joanna nodded. “Actually, with enough sugar and some of this,” she held up a canister of what looked like powdered coffee creamer. “It’s not quite as terrible. That and you’ll get used to it.”
Drew doubted both points.
Joanna sat across the table and took another sip of coffee. Leaning back, she was the very picture of someone completely at ease with herself. Drew shifted in his chair, a bit uncomfortable as she took a long hard look at him. He wasn’t sure if from her unrelenting inspection or his system’s reaction to a second sip of the brutal brew.
“You’re not much of a talker.”
The last time I had anything to say to a woman, she rejected my marriage proposal. Doubtful I’ll be making that mistake twice.
“You should probably know, Drew, I read your file.”
The third sip of high octane black stuck in his throat. “You did…you what?” He coughed.
Joanna put a hand on his arm then, and her face settled into an expression far older than her actual age. “Drew, a guy doesn’t leave a job like you did and come here for a simple change of scenery.”
“Well, I did.”
“Oh really. You got yourself a job teaching History your first shot out of college at the most prestigious private elementary school on the eastern seaboard. Shoot, probably the most prestigious school in the country. You finish your masters, start on a doctorate. Couple years go by. You win all sorts of teaching awards. And then, in the middle of what pretty much every teacher on the planet would consider a rock star career, you pull the plug and take a job teaching at a very obscure parochial grade school in a tiny town in the armpit of Wisconsin.”
“Just which file were you reading?”
She patted his hand and leaned back, the smile and cheerful glow back on her face. “Okay, I didn’t see your file. I did a web search on you.”
“Oh, nice to know my life is such an open book, at least on the internet.” And it’s time to change my name and move to an even more obscure place, obviously.
“So why the turned around? Why take this job?”
“I love teaching. “ He looked out the window. “I like cows. I was in search of the worst coffee in a teachers’ lounge.”
Joanna nodded and laughed, but her eyes never left his and Drew shifted again, trying to break away from her direct gaze. “Drew, you do get that I’m like you’re right hand man, right? You’re teaching in the mornings, and I take some of your afternoon classes so you can be all principally.”
“Wait, you’re a teacher?”
“I love how the school board is so forthcoming with little things like duties and job descriptions.” Joanna nodded, still smiling. “Yes, I’m a teacher. Teacher, secretary, coach, we all do double and triple duty here, because of all the budget cuts. You’ll be coaching boys’ baseball in the spring…provided…” she frowned.
The cloud cleared from her face and she smiled again. “Never mind. There are always enough kids for baseball. So unless you get a parent to volunteer for that duty, you’ll be coaching. Best brush up on your batting stance.” She raised an eyebrow at him.
Drew didn’t want to stare too long at her, but he was certain there was quite a bit she was trying to communicate with him in that look. “Anyway, you were saying about my right hand man?”
“Oh right. So I’m thinking we should be completely honest with each other.”
Not likely. Sorry. “Fine.”
“You probably think I already know everything about you right? And I should tell you a bit about myself?”
“If you want.” He was amazed at the woman’s power to keep talking.
Joanne giggled, a girlish, musical sound. “My story is simple. I’m a local girl. My father owned the only barbershop in town until he retired. He and mom tried living in Florida, but the humidity was too much for mom’s arthritis. They live in Arizona now. No brothers or sisters. Guess that’s why I talk to so much. No one told me to be quiet. I’ve wanted to teach here since I was in second grade. I’ve been here two years. I started out as the fourth grade teacher, but as things change, we all have to change with them.” She paused here, giving Drew that expressive look again that confused and interested him at the same time. Rested from her brief stoppage of speech, she continued. “I still live in my parents’ house, out near the highway, but I have a four wheel drive, so I get in here no matter how much snow falls, you don’t have to worry about that.”
Snow might stop teachers from getting to school? How far in the country am I?
“My favorite movie of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ “ She cocked her head to one side, chestnut locks falling low over one shoulder. “And no, in answer to your biggest question, I’ve never been in love.”
Drew nearly dropped the coffee cup. “What? I-“
Joanna burst out laughing. “I was just checking to see if you were listening! Guess you were.”
And she’s the one I’m sharing a classroom with? Great…
Joanna looked at her watch. “Oh, geez. I gotta go. Mrs. King wants to go over the music for the next six Sundays in church and if I’m late for that little summit, we’ll be stuck with her favorite version of “There is a Balm in Gilead,” extra tremolo on the organ settings.” She shuddered and wrinkled her nose again.
“And that’s a bad thing?”
Joanna gave him a quirky smile. “You’ll see if you go to services. It’s. The. Worst.” She wrinkled her nose again.
As she scurried out of the room, Drew leaned back in his chair and watched her go. In the quiet left behind, he realized he liked it when she wrinkled her nose.