There’s something about grading tests that is just so peaceful. At least, that’s what I tell myself, but month after month I go through my students’ work and wonder if I’m really that bad of a teacher or if they’re somehow messing with me. As if failing a midterm is a great way to prank their teacher.
In the quiet after-school stillness of a Thursday afternoon, I hum along to the song playing on my phone—I can’t remember the last time I was able to connect to the Bluetooth speaker I bought specifically for moments like this—and remind myself that three failed tests out of forty-eight isn’t bad. I’m not an awful teacher. Most of my students are right where they should be. There’s no need to panic.
I scream, sending a few tests flying toward the door, and it takes me a second to recognize the figure looming in my doorway. “Mark! Hi. You scared me.”
He chuckles, folding his arms as he leans against the frame of my office door and looks far too attractive for a high school math teacher. They’re supposed to be old, balding, sporting walrus mustaches. (I kid you not I had three different math teachers growing up who looked nearly identical. I’m not making this up.) But no. Mark DeNiro is like a mix between Milo Thatch from the cartoon movie Atlantis and Matt Damon, wrapped up in stylish sweaters and cardigans that always make me a little itchy when I look at them. But he wears them well and often, even though the weather here in Sun City rarely warrants the need for a sweater.
“I’m easily spooked,” I add when he still looks like he might laugh. I sound breathless—I am breathless—but not because he scared me. I’m over that already. No, I can’t breathe right now because in the few years we’ve been working at Sky View High School together, he’s never once been in my chemistry classroom. I would know, considering I’ve been drooling over this man throughout each of those years, simping like a fool for a man who has never given me the time of day and always has a woman on his arm. (That’s what social media says, anyway.)
Okay, did I really just think the word simp? Gag me. I am way too old to be using student lingo, especially a word that will go out of style more quickly than it took me to learn it in the first place.
Let me start over. I have had a crush on Mark DeNiro since the first time he introduced himself in our weekly staff meeting. Mark DeNiro has never once acknowledged he knows my name.
Until today, apparently.
“So, Briggs,” he says, bending down to pick up a couple of stray tests. He looks at one and chuckles, probably catching the terrible math my student used to get to the wrong answer. “I just heard you’re up for STEM Teacher of the Year.”
How does he know about that? I just got the email earlier today. Tucking some hair behind my ear, I hope I don’t come across as completely flustered. “Oh. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. I don’t know why anyone would nominate me.” Not that I’m mad about it. Each school in the district nominates a teacher from the STEM division. The district chooses one of those nominees to send to the state level, and then the state chooses their official “STEM Teacher of the Year” and awards them with a grant or some other high-level prize, which varies from year to year. This year, the University of Sun City is giving the winner a summer fellowship in whichever field they choose.
I am desperate to win that fellowship.
Mark leans back against the doorframe, taking in my office with his hazel eyes. “I think you’d be a great candidate,” he says eventually.
I laugh. I can’t help it. Put me in an awkward situation, and I’m going to make it more awkward. And of course Mark frowns, probably regretting coming in here because I am the weirdest person he’s ever met.
“Well, I need to head out,” he says, his eyebrows pulled together as he backs up. “Good luck, Briggs.”
“Thank.” Did I seriously just say thank?
Mark chuckles. “May the best of us win.”
The instant he’s gone, I scramble to turn on my computer and pull up the email Principal Cheng sent me this morning. I accidentally delete it at first, search Google to figure out how to bring back deleted emails, and then scan through the body again until I find the phrase ‘one of our nominees.’
“Oh,” I breathe, feeling the excitement leave my body along with my breath. I thought for sure I had a chance, but clearly it’s not as much of a done deal as I thought. “That’s okay, though. Right?” I cringe at my own sad attempt at positivity. I’ll probably need my sister, Micah, to convince me that this isn’t as lame as it feels.
Luckily for me, I don’t have much time to wallow because it suddenly hits me: Mark DeNiro just spoke to me. To me. For pretty much the first time since the day I met him years ago.
And I was a total dunce.
I groan and drop my head onto my test-strewn desk. Apparently the years of conversations I’ve had with the man in my head were nothing like the real thing. He didn’t grin at me and praise my intellect. He didn’t brush hair from my face. He didn’t even call me by the cute little nickname he gave me after he realized we both like combining brownies with cookie dough. No Brookie for me.
Nope. In real life, Mark looked at me like he made a mistake in coming all the way down the hall to tell me I would be a great candidate even though he’s clearly going to beat me.
When I’m sure Mark has left his classroom for the day, I scurry to the biology lab next door and am so glad when I find Jaydin in her classroom. “Jay!”
She barely has time to hold out her arms before I’m in her lap, fake-sobbing as I mourn the days I might have been normal and cool. (Not sure they ever actually existed, but I’m good at pretending.)
“Okay, what’s happened?”
“Mark just came into my room.”
Her scream is almost as loud as mine was. “What? When? Just now? Tell me everything.”
We spend the next ten minutes hashing out every detail of my pitiful conversation with Mark, from his words to his intonation to his body language (which, coincidentally, I am terrible at reading). Jaydin is good at peopling, unlike me, but I’m pretty sure she’s struggling to find the positives in my interaction.
“Maybe he was just as nervous as you were,” Jay says with a shrug.
“Ha! I don’t think Mark DeNiro knows what nervous is,” I grumble. “There’s no way he would ever be intimidated by me.” Which is why he’s going to get the final nomination and I’m never going to get the chance to get back into research like I want to.
“He doesn’t have to be intimidated to be nervous. Maybe he was scared because he’s really into you!”
I love that she’s trying, but Mark is always dating someone. If he was interested in me, he wouldn’t be out dating everyone except me. Our school doesn’t have any policies against coworkers dating, so the only reason he would have to not ask me out is because he is decidedly not interested.
As if she can read my thoughts, Jay shakes her head and points to my phone. “Look up his social,” she says. “See the last time he posted a picture with a hottie.”
Though I really don’t like that she calls all of Mark’s girlfriends hotties—I’m sure they have lovely names and personalities—I do as she suggests and pull up the app that I pretty much only keep for the purpose of stalking my coworker. I type in his name in the search bar and wait for it to pull up the all-too-familiar photos, but instead it shows my own feed with his name front and center.
“Cookies and cream!” I curse, fumbling to delete my post before anyone— “How does it already have three likes?”
Jay takes my phone from me with a roll of her eyes and taps away, hopefully saving me from complete humiliation. I wish I could say that wasn’t the first time I confused the post box for the search bar. “How does someone so smart have such a hard time with technology?” she mumbles. Then her eyes go wide. “Brook, he’s single.”
“What?” I snatch my phone back and stare at the post that he put up only a couple of days ago.
Soloing once again. Let’s hope life brings new opportunities.
“That doesn’t mean he’s single,” I say, even if my heart has latched on to the idea.
Jay levels me with a look that even I can interpret. She’s spent the last few years listening to me pine over this man, and she can’t believe I’m not jumping at this rare chance when Mark is the kind of guy who has his next fling lined up right after he ends the current one. “Brooklyn Briggs, what else could that possibly mean? It’s not like he sings at clubs on the weekends and just lost his duet partner.”
“We don’t know that.”
“We really do. We would have heard about it. This man is nothing if not co…proud…of himself.”
I know that isn’t what she originally wanted to say, but I appreciate her attempt at being nice. She doesn’t understand what I see in Mark, but she hasn’t been watching him as closely as I have. (For the record, no one should do what I’ve done. I’m borderline stalkerish at this point. I’m not proud of it.) She doesn’t see his subtly good qualities, like the way he wishes his students good morning as they come into class or the smiles he gets whenever he tells the other math teacher that his kids aced their tests.
“Okay, let’s say, for the sake of argument, Mark is single.” Jay straightens her glasses as she fixes her gaze on me. “Let’s say he came into your classroom today because he’s interested in you and wants to ask you out but is a bit nervous. What are you going to do about it?”
What am I going to do about it? That answer is easy. “Absolutely nothing.”
She blinks, caught off guard by that response. “What?”
I stand by what I said, even if it makes me look pathetic. “I couldn’t even talk to him, Jay. How am I supposed to do anything beyond that? I’m awful when it comes to dating and guys and things.”
“So you say,” she mutters.
“You look like a Disney princess, Brook, and you’ve got a brain to rival Neil deGrasse Tyson. If you can’t get a guy, what hope do the rest of us have?”
She’s used that argument before, and I’ve learned not to refute her claims. (For the record, I am not that smart.) But I’m not like my brother, Houston, who has overflowing confidence, or my half-sister, Micah, who sees the world through the prettiest rose-colored glasses. I spend my days trying to look cool in front of teenagers who think I’m ancient, and then I go home to my empty basement apartment and grade tests and lab procedures. Men aren’t exactly dropping out of the sky to talk to me.
Jay grabs my hand. “Don’t sabotage something that hasn’t even happened yet. Pretend this is a game of chess. He’s made his move, and now it’s your turn. It doesn’t have to be anything big; you’re just starting the game.”
Okay, chess is something I do understand. “What if I make a mistake and do something like a fool’s mate?”
“I have no idea what that is, Brook.” She shrugs. “Just…if you like the guy, take your chance while you’ve got it. This isn’t rocket science.”
She groans. “Go home, Miss Briggs. Sleep on it. You’ll know what to do in the morning. And luckily for you, no kids tomorrow!”
Thank goodness for teacher work days.
When I wake up the next morning, I know without opening my eyes that I’m not going to be functional today, let alone able to make any sort of moves in Mark’s chess game. This migraine must have crept in during the night, and one small movement of my head sends my stomach churning. Yay. I won’t be making it into school today, but at least I don’t have kids to worry about. It just means my Saturday will be spent doing all the work I should be doing today.
Who really needs a weekend, anyway?
I send a text to Principal Cheng to let her know I won’t make it in, all the while rejoicing in the fact that I don’t have to figure out a sub. I can just go back to sleep and hopefully wake to a world that isn’t blurred at the edges. It’s not the worst migraine I’ve ever had, but it’s definitely up there.
Several hours later, I can open my eyes without wanting to puke, which is a nice improvement. Though still a little dizzy, I slowly sit up and take a moment to decide if I can function enough to make some food. It’s a bit iffy. I should at least drink some water, though, so I inch out of bed and shuffle to the kitchen as smoothly as I can, eyes pinched shut until I need to see in the cupboard. I don’t like that I’ve had enough migraines that I’m able to walk around with my eyes closed, but unfortunately that’s my reality.
Once I’ve had a little to drink, I shuffle back to my room and pause at the window to peek up at the painfully bright sky. One of these days I won’t live in a basement, and I won’t have to practically press myself against the window just to get a glimpse of the weather. I feel like a prisoner down here, begging for a peek at the sun even though it’s only going to make the headache worse.
I don’t know why I bother checking. This is Sun City, where it is always pleasant and rains twice a month to keep the desert somewhat green. The sky is blue as ever and taunting me because there’s no way I’m going out into the blinding sunshine when I can barely stand to open my eyes enough to look in the first place.
A melodic whistle fills the air half a second before an entire human man drops into the window well from out of nowhere. I scream and stumble back. My foot catches on something, and I go crashing to the ground, my head hitting a bookcase on the way down.