When he got back to his apartment, Neil dug around in his still packed boxes to find the few books he had kept as personal treasures from his childhood. The formula books had not worn well; they held little that the adult Neil McCrae could find worthwhile. But there were others that had kept their value, and he spent the next four hours accompanying the young Hunt brothers as they continued the expedition their father had had to abandon, collecting zoo animals while floating downriver on their Amazon Adventure.
# # #
On Monday morning, Neil arrived at work five minutes late in order to avoid meeting his colleagues before Campbell had a chance to introduce him. They were laughing and joking as old friends will when they have not seen each other for months. Neil was the only newcomer; their responses to him were quick and friendly.
Pearl Richardson was broad and heavy, with short white hair and a mouth full of laughter. Fiona Kelly sat beside her, sharing a joke, with a dry chuckle to Pearl’s hearty guffaw. Fiona was slender and pale with hair that might have been red even before her hairdresser got hold of it, and was absolutely red now.
Donna Clementi was petite and quiet. Neil thought it would take a long time to get to know her. Delores Zavala sat a little removed from the rest of the group as if she were not quite sure of her place there.
Tom Wright was well formed but slender. He had straw colored hair and a runner’s body; sitting there in gym shorts and a tee shirt he looked precisely like a P.E. teacher. Glen Ulrich looked old, tired, and ill. His eyes had the look of repressed physical pain.
“Finally,” Campbell said, completing the introductions, “is Carmen de la Vega. Her room is just across from yours, and she is teaching core to seventh graders. She will be the one to go to when you don’t understand something.”
Neil felt something like a shock run through him. It was not recognition — he did not know her and she did not remind him of anyone he knew — but it was a spark. A recognition of possibilities. It took him completely by surprise. It went straight through his smiling, guarded mask and gripped his heart in with both hands.
But when she raised her eyes to his, there was no answering spark in them. They were cool and hooded. She smiled and said hello, but it was a distant, formal smile that brought no feeling to her eyes.
# # #
The morning was devoted to discussion of the changes in the language and social science frameworks. Neil was barely aware that such things existed and had never read one. He followed the discussion as best he could and offered no comments.
After lunch, they were free to work, so Neil went to his room. The walls were bare. It would remain a place without personality until he put his stamp on it. The student desks were a mixture of styles and colors. Some were new, but most were battle scarred veterans made of dark, much carved wood. He compared their number to the list of students he had been given and made a note to ask for two more.
It was one o’clock and the temperature outside was in the high nineties. In only a few days, Neil had come to know Modesto’s end-of-summer weather pattern. It would continue to grow hotter until four or five, and hold that heat until after sundown. The room was an oven. more tomorrow