For those who do not wish to print out my completed novel, I’ve decided to start uploading my story–bit by bit–as blog posts. My desire is that you will return daily for your next bit and spread the news to your friends and theirs.
And so it begins:
Laurel Bernier McHargue
To students everywhere struggling to learn,
and to your teachers who are struggling to help you.
(the following limerick precedes chapter 1)
There once was a teacher named “Miss?”
When she talked to her students they’d hiss;
But she would keep on trying,
And hide all her crying,
She’d save her kids from the abyss!
Ella McCauley hit the sack knowing that when she woke up in the morning, her new life would be a breeze. Having spent the past two years never knowing if she would see the light of the next day, she knew that her only struggle now would be adjusting to the mundane 8-5 requirements of her new job as a 7th grade English teacher. Well, there was also the requirement to earn a teaching certificate through the alternative licensure program, and that meant taking classes nights and weekends, but those requirements paled in comparison to the ones Ella experienced from her most recent tour of duty in the Middle East as a Signal Officer in the Army. Yup. Civilian life would be a piece of cake.
Despite her confidence that she could teach a bunch of 13-year-olds blindfolded with her hands tied behind her back, Ella was restless, and her 60-pound floppy-eared tri-colored rescue mutt translated her uncharacteristic nocturnal fidgeting as an invitation to play. Confused by the unexpected censure, Bones cocked his head slightly, then resumed pouncing on different body parts moving beneath the covers.
“Oh, all right,” Ella gave in, realizing that since she probably wouldn’t fall asleep for the next hour anyway, she might as well take her frisky pup for an evening stroll. Sliding her feet into the battered running shoes by the door, she didn’t even consider putting on real clothes . . . no one would notice her Wonder Woman p.j.s and over-all disheveled appearance this time of night, and even if they did, she really didn’t care.
These distinct commands, which her slobbery side-kick of only two months now had quickly learned, never failed to bring a smile to Ella’s face. She attached the leash to the camouflaged collar and opened the front door of her two-bedroom end-unit apartment. The stifling heat of the Atlanta summer night transported her for a moment to a time when a two-legged side-kick kept her company during evening walks. Sam had been the one to make her laugh when all seemed lost, when she longed to be safely home with indoor utilities and a comfortable bed, when she felt that what she was doing in that godforsaken part of the world was meaningless.
After spending nearly two years stationed together in a war zone, she and Sam talked about where they would live when they returned to the States, and had already named their future dog. Sam had always wanted to name a dog “Boner,” not only because it was inappropriate—and he was as much a rebel as Ella was—but because they would share endless laughter at any training command that would start with the dog’s name. Sam was funny and smart and strong, and Ella could not imagine her life without him.
But Sam did not return with her, and would never be there to help train the pup; she would have to endure the horrible reality surrounding his death for the rest of her life. Ella hoped that by going ahead with their plan, she would—in a very small way—keep Sam’s memory alive, and more often than not, the dog was able to make Ella laugh. For the sake of propriety, and because she was alone, she modified her dog’s name, but she always enjoyed the secret joke.
By the time the two returned from their fast-paced tour of the surrounding homes and apartment complexes—Ella never did anything slowly—Bones was ready to lap up the contents of his water bowl and plop down, gracelessly, at the foot of the bed. Ella, too, felt ready to give in to her fatigue. Fortunately, she had two days to set up her classroom and get to know her new civilian peers before her “troops” would arrive for the first day of school on Wednesday.
The 6 a.m. alarm startled her awake, freeing her from a recurrent panic-filled dream. While childhood friends would laugh at their shared, clichéd showing-up-naked dreams, Ella often woke in a cold sweat from smoky visions of chaos and blood. Lots of blood. And screaming. Her military unit was supposed to be in a safe zone, but everyone knew that there were new rules for this war. No one was ever safe.
Ella walked out to the tiny patch of grass behind her new home sipping her mug of black coffee while Bones completed his business. The morning was muggy and overcast, and although Ella was excited about her plans to make her classroom special, the atmosphere did nothing to break her nightmare mood.
“Who’s a good boy?!” Ella praised her little buddy, who came wagging back to her ready, once more, to play. She deposited her mug, threw on her shoes, grabbed the leash and took Bones for a fast one mile run before prepping for her first full day in her new work space. The school was a 15 minute drive, and Ella felt fortunate to have found this little treasure of an apartment. She would be able to bop home to let her puppy out at midday, and he had already demonstrated that he could be left alone for several hours without becoming too mischievous.
At 7 a.m. she was out the door, her conservatively cropped hair looking a bit wild from her towel-dried styling, her equally wild-patterned Capri pants topped with a brightly colored blouse over which she threw an unnecessary—but funky—belt. Years of wearing the same uniform 24/7 had left Ella with a desire to express her inner artist through her outer-wear, and she knew that she could use teaching kids as an excuse to be as flamboyant as she wanted.
She opened the passenger door to her jeep and tossed in her backpack, then turned back to grab what she had purchased from Target to eliminate the clinical feel of her classroom.
“Oh! Good morning, Harry! I didn’t think you’d be out so early today!”
“Well, I couldn’t very well let you start your new assignment without giving you a good luck hug now, could I?”
Harry Wilson stood just outside his door, holding open the screen and appraising Ella with a smile of approval. An 83-year-old WWII veteran, Harry had taken an immediate liking to his new neighbor and knew that they had at least a few past experiences in common. Harry had lost his wife of 60 years just last Thanksgiving, and now passed his days watching the comings and goings of his neighbors, completing the crossword puzzle in every newspaper, and occasionally waiting until 5 p.m. to savor his first scotch.
Ella approached her neighbor with arms open, and surprised herself by the little knot that rose in her throat. She missed her parents, who lived up in New England, and suddenly felt the need for a loving support system. Equally surprising was the strength of this old Colonel’s hug.
“Now go get ‘em, Captain!” Harry emphasized the “Captain” as he held her at arm’s length now, and then chuckled. “You sure do know how to make an entrance, don’t you?”
“Yeah, well, I figured if I wear some crazy clothes I may be able to keep their attention. I’ve heard that these kids have the attention span of a gnat.” Although students had two more days of vacation, many were showing up to complete registration requirements, and she anticipated that more than a few would make their way to her classroom to check out the new teacher.
“I’ll be coming home to let Bones out at lunch, but if I don’t see you then, I’ll come by this evening to give you my report.” Ella turned and started down the sidewalk.
“Well . . . now I don’t want to keep you, but you know I wouldn’t mind letting the little guy out while you’re gone if you can’t make it home. Just thought I’d offer.”
“Thanks, Harry!” Ella stopped briefly before hopping into the jeep. “Let’s see how he does today and we’ll talk tonight. Thanks for the hug, too,” she called out the open passenger window before driving off.