If there was one thing Kit Morgan was good at, it was getting beaten at chess by eight-year-olds. He wasn’t proud of that fact, but after he held a tournament at the end of his first teaching year, he had to do it the next year. And the next. And while his students seemed to get better every year, Kit somehow managed to get worse.
“It’s all about the strategy,” Oliver told him as Kit waffled over his next move. His oldest friend (and now brother-in-law) had been teaching beginner coding classes all school year, and he’d finished up his last class just in time to witness Kit’s final stand. “You have to think at least three steps ahead.”
Kit resisted the urge to grumble. He still had his whole third grade class watching him, though the bell was set to ring any minute. Maybe he could delay the game long enough and call it a draw.
“Mr. H, you’re not supposed to help him,” Riley said with a snigger. He looked way too smug for a kid who still sometimes wrote his Gs backwards. Unfortunately, what he lacked in writing skills he made up for with mathematics and strategy.
Kit was pretty sure he’d lost this game the moment he played his first pawn. He was usually good at strategy; it drove him crazy that chess had always eluded him. He blamed it on the fact that the game often required him to sacrifice certain pieces to save others, and that wasn’t how he operated.
Oliver laughed, folding his arms and looking way too cool as he leaned against the white board. He and Kit had grown up together and spent their childhoods doing basically everything the same. How had he managed to grow up into the cool teacher while Kit had struggled to keep the attention of his class? Oliver had literally zero teaching training, and yet some of his coding kids—Riley included—were building whole computer programs. Okay, yes, Oliver had always tested close to genius level intelligence, but that didn’t give him an automatic ability to teach others.
No, that was just Oliver being Oliver. The man had never met a challenge he couldn’t beat.
“The bell’s about to ring,” one of the girls said, worry making her voice quiver. Apparently the stakes of this game were high.
Kit stifled a groan and took Riley’s bishop with his knight. He might as well just admit defeat instead of dragging things out.
Riley didn’t hesitate, slapping his own knight into place and shouting, “Check mate!” right as the bell rang.
All of the kids cheered, but whether because it was the last day of school or because Riley completely swept the floor with him, Kit didn’t know. He was too busy ignoring the itching sensation that washed over him as yet another school year came to an end.
Oliver waited until the last kid skipped out the door, and then he took Riley’s abandoned seat.
“I need to go help with the pickup line,” Kit muttered before Oliver could say anything.
Oliver nodded. “I know. You doing okay?”
“It’s not like I haven’t been through this transition before. This was my seventh year of teaching.” The seventh year of the same thing over and over again, leaving Kit feeling unfulfilled and restless. The last day of school was always bittersweet. As he stood and headed outside, Kit reminded himself why he did this.
He loved the kids. He really did. He loved watching them learn and grow and get wiser with every passing day. But for every kid who passed a state test with flying colors and moved onto fourth grade, another kid took their place.
It never ended.
Kit shook off the dissatisfaction that always wormed its way into his tense shoulders at the end of the year. He’d be fine. He had two months of summer vacation to pack in as much creativity as he could before he was back for another round.
“Mr. Morgan, do you have a minute?”
Kit and Oliver both paused right before the doors leading outside, turning to face the middle-aged principal of Mount Pleasant Elementary, Ms. Bundt.
Yes, like the cake. Kit had never been able to fully take her seriously after learning she was named after a cake, particularly when she wore her dark hair in a large round bun atop her head like today.
“Mr. Hamilton,” she said with a nod toward Oliver.
He took the hint, clearing his throat before slipping out into the late May sunshine.
“What can I do for you, ma’am?” Kit asked. He made a point not to use her name if he could help it for fear of laughing. It didn’t help that her first name was Cherry, so he had to resort to sounding ridiculously formal whenever he spoke to her to maintain professionalism.
Ms. Bundt clasped her hands together. “Well, I was hoping to avoid this, or at the very least speak with you tomorrow, but I’m afraid I have to catch an early flight in the morning. My mother fell yesterday.”
“Oh no, is she—”
“Oh, she’ll be fine.” Bundt waved his concern away, though she seemed to be growing more nervous, fidgeting with her hands and turning rather red.
“Do you need to sit down?” Kit asked, putting a hand on her arm before remembering he generally didn’t touch people anymore. Despite knowing he should remember things like that when it had been several years, sometimes moments snuck up on him, pushing through the careful exterior he’d crafted. Now was probably not the best time to suddenly get uncharacteristically affectionate.
Bundt, thankfully, didn’t seem to notice his microsecond touch, too busy wringing her hands. “It’s not easy to…”
Kit didn’t like where this was going. “Ms. Bundt?” He didn’t even snicker.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go, Mr. Morgan.”
Something shattered in Kit’s brain the moment he processed those words, leaving him with a sharp pain somewhere behind his right eye. He adjusted his glasses, as if making them straight would make this moment make more sense. “I’m sorry?”
“Well, you see, there have been budget cuts across the district, and every school is having to cut down on staff.”
Was it possible to forget to breathe? Kit had to shift his concentration to his lungs to keep from passing out. “But… But I’ve been here for seven years.”
In the same classroom. Teaching the same subjects. Eating the same school lunch every day.
Did he even like school lunch?
“Unfortunately, the other third grade teachers have more tenure.”
“Mrs. Halpert is retiring in a year.”
“So you see why we can’t let her go.”
No, he didn’t see. “How many—”
“One teacher from each grade. I know it sounds drastic, but so many parents are homeschooling lately that our class sizes are already smaller, and…”
Kit stopped listening. He was losing his job? The one job he was trained to do? And if there were budget cuts throughout the district, that meant a whole lot of teachers suddenly looking for work that didn’t exist.
And with the way Bundt was watching him warily, something told him she knew that.
“How many more teachers do you still need to tell?” he asked, instinctively knowing the answer.
Bundt sighed. “You’re the last.”
Kit scrubbed his jaw as his head started pounding. “When did you start telling people?”
“Um. Last week. I was trying to keep you, I really was. You were going to be one of the ones that lasted forever. I’m so sorry.”
He wanted to tell her she didn’t have to worry about him. That he would be fine. But his entire body felt like it was covered in insects, and it was taking everything in him not to fall apart in the middle of the K-through-Third hallway. So he did the only thing he could do and headed outside to make sure his kids made it home safely.
One more time.
Was he supposed to feel relieved? Because he did. Just a little, in the center of his palm. The only place that wasn’t itchy. The rest of him? The rest of him was on fire. If he couldn’t teach, what could he do?
Anything, a little voice in the back of his head said.
He hadn’t heard that voice in a long time.
“Kit!” Oliver suddenly slammed into him, nearly knocking him off his feet.
“Watch where you’re—”
“Kit, it’s happening.” Oliver grabbed his shoulders, eyes wide and wild.
Kit furrowed his brow. “What’s—”
Madi? But what would… Kit froze. “The baby?” he gasped.
Oliver nodded, stuffing his hands into his hair and dropping his phone into the grass under his feet. “I have to get to the… I don’t…”
Swallowing, Kit forced a deep breath and shoved down every bit of panic that was threatening to take him out for the rest of the day. If his sister really was having her baby, he couldn’t just stand here and wallow in his own existential crisis. Oliver was practically hyperventilating, and there was no way he would be able to get himself to the hospital like this. His wife needed him.
“Give me your keys,” Kit said, scooping up the phone. Thankfully, Oliver complied. “Maggie!” He waved to the nearest teacher overseeing pickup, one of the third grade teachers who hadn’t lost her job. “I’ve got an emergency. Can you—”
“Sure thing, Kit. We’ve got it covered.”
With that taken care of, Kit grabbed Oliver’s arm and pushed him toward the teacher lot. “Who’s with her?” he asked Oliver.
“Mom,” Oliver said breathlessly. Meaning Kit and Madi’s mom. “She said Madi’s dilated to a—”
“I do not need to know that. Get in.”
Once sure that Oliver had his seatbelt on, Kit pushed the ignition and tried not to dwell on the fact that Oliver had never let him drive his fancy sports car before now. Kit had never even asked.
Why had he never asked?
Now was not the time for second-guessing his entire life. Shaking away the familiar, dizzy feeling of being completely lost, Kit threw the car into gear and peeled out of the parking lot to the cheers of easily impressed children.
Madi’s baby was perfect. Kit spent six hours on a cramped couch in the waiting room, squished between his friends Cam and Ben. For most of that time, the two of them talked about a TV show Kit hadn’t seen, and he did his best to not think about anything at all until his mom finally came to get him so he could meet his new little nephew.
Though Madi looked exhausted, she was happy and healthy, and the minute Kit took hold of the blanket-wrapped bundle Oliver handed him, he didn’t want to let go.
He was supposed to feel nervous. This baby was a big change in his life, the product of his sister and his oldest friend falling in love, but he only felt utter happiness. He hadn’t remembered babies being this tiny, being only two years older than Madi, but it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen. As he gazed down at his new favorite person, he made a silent promise to keep this baby safe and happy for the rest of his life.
“You feel it too?” Oliver asked quietly. They were sitting next to each other on a little loveseat while Madi talked to a nurse.
Kit looked up at him.
Oliver sighed. “This kid is gonna be spoiled rotten. Just look at him.” He tucked his pinky beneath the impossibly small fingers.
“We’re calling him Orion,” Madi said.
“Ri,” Oliver added with a smile Kit had never seen before. “I can’t believe I have a kid.”
The itchiness was back, but Kit couldn’t scratch it because little Ri was sound asleep in his arms.
Maybe someday he would get the chance to hold his own kid in his arms, even if that meant risking his heart and opening up to someone again. As terrifying as that prospect was, Kit had never wanted to go through life alone. Maybe he was ready to try again.
He hoped so.
Kit didn’t get home until after midnight, desperate for a shower and a good night’s sleep. He’d been putting off thoughts about what Ms. Bundt had told him before he rushed off to the hospital, but as his eyes locked on a stack of books he’d been meaning to bring back to his classroom, his gut twisted.
For the first time since graduating college seven years ago, Kit was jobless.
And he had no idea what to do about that. The itchiness on his skin had settled somewhat, leaving him only mildly uncomfortable. He’d lived with worse discomfort most of his life, so this felt oddly manageable. Or maybe that was the growing excitement he wasn’t ready to acknowledge.
For now, he would focus on a shower and his bed and deal with the uncertainty of things tomorrow. Setting his keys on the counter, he trudged up the stairs of his little townhome and ignored the million and a half things he wanted to change about it, like rebuilding the banister and putting in a closet at the top of the stairs to replace the random alcove.
All things he couldn’t do if he didn’t have a job to pay for them.
He had been piecing his life back together with each remodel, trying to gain control over things again. Four years was a long time to relive all the memories of the disaster of a relationship that had broken all his plans for the future, and now he would have to keep suffering through the reminders of what might have been. Honestly, he was glad things hadn’t worked out with Angela, but everything about this house had been for her.
His ex-fiancée, now happily married to her best friend, had probably forgotten all about this house. Why had he even bothered to keep it when the only reason he’d bought it was for her? He would have picked something completely different if he’d been buying a place for himself.
Maybe losing his job was a sign. The universe telling him he had been stuck in a rut for too long. He already knew that part, but he’d been living this boxed-in life for so many years that he wasn’t sure how to climb out of it.
Ignoring the siren call of his bed, Kit walked through the dark to the shower and flipped the water on.
The pipes creaked. Groaned. One tiny drop of water came out of the shower head.
“Tomorrow,” he breathed, flopping onto his bed without bothering to change. The day had been long enough.