What He Doesn't Know(4)By: Kandi Steiner
“Mr. Henderson,” I greeted with a nod, hanging my coat, scarf, and purse on the hook behind my desk. “A pleasure to see you this early on the first day back.”
“Pleasure’s all mine,” he assured me, tucking his hands into the pockets of his navy blue dress slacks. “I hope you enjoyed your holidays?”
My stomach tightened at the reality of my holiday season, spent mostly alone, save for Christmas Day when Cameron and I had joined my parents for dinner. Had it not been for waking up to what I thought was a traditional first day breakfast with Cameron, I would have hustled out the door with a sigh of relief that school had started up again.
Cameron had worked long days and sometimes even nights throughout the entire break, and even when we’d had dinner at my parents’ for Christmas, he’d barely said a word. We were both asleep well before midnight on New Year’s Eve, and I’d dreamed of earlier years that night, of midnights spent kissing under confetti rain.
“It was a wonderful break,” I lied to Mr. Henderson, hoping the smile I’d managed with those words was at least somewhat convincing. Had Mr. Henderson noticed how that smile had changed over the last five years, how it had lost the vigor and brilliance? Did anyone even see me at all, or was I as dead to them as I felt inside?
“How are your parents? Well, I hope?”
It was no surprise that Mr. Henderson would ask after my parents, Gloria and Maxwell Reid. They were a shining beacon in Mount Lebanon, well known and well spoken of. They’d married at just seventeen, and run the town as a powerhouse couple ever since.
“Very well,” I said. “Dad is just as stubborn as always, and Mom is making it harder and harder for the buckle around his waist to fasten.”
Mr. Henderson chuckled. “That woman’s cooking is a blessing and a curse.”
“You’re telling me.” I ran my hands over my modest navy blue skirt before folding them together at my waist. “Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Henderson?”
“In fact, there is. We have a new music teacher starting today, taking over Mrs. Flannigan’s old position as the piano instructor.”
We both shared a sympathetic look then. Mrs. Flannigan had been with Westchester for three decades, but had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s just before the break. She’d gracefully stepped down to spend time with her family before the symptoms worsened, and we all wondered how Mr. Henderson would handle filling her position so last minute.
“I was fortunate enough to find an excellent candidate who was willing to up and move over the break, but he wasn’t able to get here as early as I’d have liked to tour the grounds or even set up his classroom. Miss Maggert took care of that for me, thank goodness,” he added. “Anyway, he grew up in the area, but never attended Westchester. I wondered if you might be willing to show him around, perhaps let him join you for lunch for a while until he gets acclimated?”
Internally, I cringed, but on the outside, I only offered a placid smile and nod. The word no wasn’t in my vocabulary, and it hadn’t been ever since I could remember. Mom had raised me to always be the hostess, the one always willing to accommodate others, and since it brought me more joy seeing others happy than it did to say no for my own discomfort, I always obliged.
Even if it meant giving up my time after school to take someone’s detention duty, or enduring paper cuts helping Mom seal envelopes for fundraiser invitations, or, like now, agreeing to be someone’s lunch buddy when even the thought of mindless small talk affected me in the way nails on a chalkboard would anyone else.
“Of course. I’d be happy to,” I finally agreed aloud.
“Wonderful!” Mr. Henderson clapped his hands together. “He’s getting set up in his classroom now, but I’ll introduce the two of you at lunch today. You’re a life saver, Charlie.” He waved as he turned to exit. “Happy first day back!”
I waved in return, but when he rounded the corner and disappeared, my hand fell, my smile fading.
It truly did bring me joy to be able to help him, to see that bit of relief in his eyes when I’d told him I could handle the task at hand. Still, my hands were already clammy at the thought of spending my lunch entertaining a stranger instead of reuniting with my favorite fictional characters between the pages of a very worn book.