Chapter 1 - An Education
“I’m sorry, Delaney, but with your health issues, I think this is really for the best. Having subs in here so often has led to an increase in suspensions. Besides all of that, there are more budget cuts being announced for the next year, and we just can’t justify keeping your program running.”
Nothing like starting your first day back from disability with these words of encouragement from your superior.
“There’s a counseling position at the high school I can recommend you for,” the director of personnel told me. “With your credentials and experience, you can work anywhere. I know you’ve loved this job because you were able to teach and counsel your students, but you were also a great counselor before. The high school would be lucky to have you. Think about it over the weekend and let me know what you want to do on Monday.”
Just like that, all of my hard work building a program for emotionally disturbed students for the past five years was down the tubes.
Awesome, I thought to myself on the walk to my classroom. I’m so glad I came back for this! I coughed so hard, I almost lost my breakfast and rushed to my locked cabinet for my inhaler. My hands shook, and I fumbled with the keys trying to get the damn door open.
Mornings had been particularly rough since I’d suffered a bout of pneumonia last month. My asthma was now set off by anything, whether it was an artificial fragrance, a whiff of fresh-cut grass, or smoke from a neighbor’s chimney. My doctor said this was as good as I was going to get for a while, so I’d gone back to work. I’d missed my students, and also dreaded seeing what damage they’d done to each other in my absence.
Two hours later, I was attempting to keep Victor and Clarence from stabbing each other with shanks they’d crafted from the last of my pencils while giving a lesson on genetics. The sub had left safety scissors out last week and that’s all they’d needed to craft weapons of potential destruction.
My aide, Norman, took the boys to the office after they refused to quit their dueling. Normally I’d have handled it on my own, but I barely had the energy to stay upright on my stool today.
“Alright, gentlemen. It’s time for P.E. Coach Valencia will be waiting for you outside.”
My remaining ten students rambunctiously made their way out the door of my portable classroom and onto the blacktop, where they terrorized their P.E. teacher for the next fifty minutes while I tried to literally catch my breath.
I brought out my nebulizer from the cabinet where I kept my personal things locked and poured in the solution. I took my breathing treatment while surfing the net for job postings, trying to find a position where I would hopefully make a positive impact and get healthy in the process. A counseling job in the high school meant sitting at a desk and shuffling papers, which wasn’t exactly the hands-on work I lived for.
WANTED: GUIDANCE COUNSELOR TO WORK WITH A UNIQUE GROUP OF YOUNGSTERS at Havenhart Academy. PATIENCE AND AN OPEN MIND IMPERATIVE. MUST BE WILLING TO RELOCATE AND BOARD ON CAMPUS. GENEROUS COMPENSATION OFFERED. Send resume via email nigel at havenhartacademy dot org or by mail to P.O. Box 13, Haven, Arkansas, 90060.
That’s different. I’d never thought about relocating from the East Bay, but there’s a first for everything. All California had to offer me now was more disappointment and frustration. Patience and an open mind, I had in droves. Health, not so much. Was this the change I needed?
My favorite cousin, James, lived in Arkansas. At least I’d know someone nearby. I’d call him later, but for now, I answered the ad with the resume I’d worked up when I’d heard rumors my middle school behavioral program was being terminated a few weeks before I got sick. It couldn’t hurt to see what they had to say.
I loved my students, despite their daily efforts to self-destruct. They loved to brag about their illegal hijinks outside of school. In class, they stole things out of each other’s desks, insulted each other, refused to do work, and had major meltdowns worthy of Oscar nominations. But I’d made a connection with each and every one of them, and they’d all made progress this year. I knew that with a little more time most of them would make the transition to high school successfully. Others would require the high school equivalent to my program. Sadly, lack of money and a sick teacher meant they wouldn’t get that chance. I’d failed them because my stupid lungs wouldn’t cooperate.
The rest of the day went by with more of the usual. Ronnie cut his arms with some glass he found on the playground during their lunch break. Victor and Clarence came back and ended up in a real knockdown, drag-out fight that required a call to the police. Norman and I had been able to separate them before anyone got really hurt, but Victor threw a punch at Norman before all was said and done. He wouldn’t be coming back. My heart broke at the thought of him going back to juvenile hall.
Clarence quit struggling as soon as I got my hands on his arms. I made him look at me, and his breathing slowed and the anger bled out of him until he was apologizing to me profusely, begging for a second chance. I hoped he’d get one.
At the end of the day, I just wanted a bath and my bed. I prayed somehow for the strength to keep this up, at least until the end of the year, which was in a few short weeks. These kids needed more than I was able to provide for them in my current condition. I’d lost another one today, something I told myself I wouldn’t allow to happen again. I drove home in tears, grateful I had the weekend to recuperate.
A voicemail waited for me on my cell.
“This message is for Delaney Frost. My name is Nigel Hart, headmaster at Havenhart Academy. We’ve received your resume and would be delighted to make your acquaintance. Our representative, Mr. Preston, will be in your area tomorrow and would like to meet you for lunch, if at all possible. Please connect with him as we are anxious to meet you.”
“That was fast,” I said aloud as I scribbled down the number.
I was excited at the prospect of meeting with someone from this mysterious place. The only Google links I’d been able to find about Havenhart Academy when I looked further into it at lunch were from another education job site that contained the same posting, and their website, which only had a section for inquiring about enrollment for students and a phone number. No pictures, no other information and nothing written about the school by an outside party.
In this world of Internet interconnectedness, I could find twenty to thirty posts when Googling my own name. It was unnerving to find no information about this school.
What if it was a setup? I’d heard horror stories of predators luring women out for nefarious things. Not that I was paranoid, but human trafficking was a real concern in our current society. The thought of having a fresh start and maybe even getting to counsel kids the way I worked best was so tempting, I had to at least try, right?
I used my inhaler and then called the number while my cat, Ramses, watched with a disinterested look on his face. He wandered off as the third ring sounded. A deep voice answered in a sharp, almost irritated manner.
“Hello? Hi, um, this is Delaney Frost. I received a message from Mr. Hart. He left me your number?” Nervous much? My voice sounded hoarse from talking and coughing all day. I just hoped he didn’t hear me wheezing through the phone.
“Wonderful, Miss Frost,” he said, his voice sliding into a warm, welcoming tone that immediately eased some of my tension. “I’m Damien Preston, Director of Student Services for Havenhart Academy. Headmaster Hart asked me to interview you for our counseling position. May we meet for lunch tomorrow?”
I filled my lungs with much-needed oxygen as I pondered his accent. British? His voice was smooth and pleasant; the kind that would soothe an infant to sleep…or easily seduce a woman. Whoa. That thought didn’t help my attempts at breathing.
“Absolutely. Where would you like to meet?”
There was a moment of hesitation on his part. “I’m not really sure,” he said with a chuckle. “This is my first time to this part of California. I’m staying in Berkeley and I don’t really know the area. Do you know of a place?”
“How does pizza sound? There’s a great place called Zachary’s. I can meet you there?” I covered my mouth to halt a coughing fit but one slipped out.
“Certainly,” he said. His voice lost some of the warmth and the irritation seemed to return. “I’ll meet you at noon. Be sure to drink some tea with honey,” he said forcefully before hanging up.
Was it that obvious? Then I truly became frantic. I had to come up with something other than jeans and a t-shirt to wear. Tomorrow.
And Zachary’s? What was I thinking? I was going to fling sauce and Lord knew what else all over myself. I hoped by some miracle I still had a skirt that would fit and not look too schoolmarm-ish or hippy-dippy. At five feet ten and a size fourteen, my clothing options tended to be limited. My district had a loose dress code, which was great for my fashion disability. I kept telling myself someday I would dress more grown-up, but as I surpassed forty years old, it had yet to happen.
I settled on what I affectionately coined Ye Old Standby: A navy-blue skirt and matching shell with white flowers embroidered on them. I’d worn this same outfit to just about every ceremony in the past ten years, be it wedding, funeral, or graduations. I desperately wanted to make a good impression, especially after hearing his voice.
Something about this whole situation seemed like destiny calling.
The young girl hid in the closet listening to the evening’s argument coming from the next room. She’d spent many nights of her short life hiding. Hiding from his wrath, hiding from his hands, and hiding from the pain.
"I won’t do this to her anymore, Gerald! You've lied too many times, and she's too fragile. I won't let you hurt her anymore!" Mother sounded hysterical and the girl was afraid for her. Father never let Mother talk back without reprisal.
"You'll do exactly as I require, Janet. Don’t think you can go against me. Do I have to remind you what happened last time you questioned me?"
The girl cringed, remembering the beating Mother took. He managed to make the police go away that time but they’d had to run again the next morning. It was the same routine time and time again, and the girl knew to be prepared. Mother sobbed and pleaded but she had to know it was useless.
Anytime the girl had the Sight, it meant Father was closer to achieving his goals.
The girl hid her Sight from him whenever possible because it usually meant someone would get hurt. They would have to move again, and even though Father would be kinder, it wouldn’t last. He'd made a living off of impressionable churchgoers, winning their trust before he robbed them blind and moved on to the next small town. No one could resist his Influence. His dazzling smile and hypnotic eyes stole the breath from the women. The men nearly fell to their knees in worship. They were drawn to him, looking for absolution and affirmation.
No one saw him as she did: a creature out of a nightmare. A man who had the power to slide his Influence past any wards or mental walls without detection. He instinctively knew just what each situation required: finesse, coercion, flirtation, threats or acts of violence.
The young girl never imagined there would be so many opportunities for him, so many small towns. But every time she Saw a new church, they would go, and it would begin again.