written by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by 2013
“Finally,” said Principal Hulme, saying the best word that could be spoken at a teacher inservice day, “our new eleventh-grade Language Arts teacher, Mr. Zachary Hayda.”
Zachary stood and gave a shy little wave, then walked over to stand beside the three other new members of the Cooper High School for Science and Technology faculty. The applause from the returning teachers was perfunctory but warm, which was all Zachary really wanted out of a situation like this. Well, that and to be allowed to sit back down again.
The gym where the pre-semester meetings were being held was nice. It looked new; he wondered when it had been built. He didn’t remember it, but he didn’t remember much from the one time his middle school had brought all the eighth-graders over to show them what they had to look forward to after the summer break. That had been the summer his mother had moved him two states away. Cooper High School had thus remained only a memory to him, an abstraction of a future that had never come to pass.
Until, as it turned out, now. “I know you’ll all make them feel right at home,” said Principal Hulme, beaming the same aggressive cheerfulness all school administrators seemed to have. Zachary wondered if they taught that in those degree programs, or if only people naturally like that tended toward the admin tracks. “Join me in giving our new friends a big Cooper High welcome!” She started another round of applause, one that ended with the glorious news that the main part of the inservice was done.
What Zachary wanted to do was leave. What he did instead was follow the stairs up to the second floor, which was the designated area for the eleventh-grade subject teachers to have their small group meeting. He felt like a freshman himself as he walked past banks of lockers, trying to follow the numbers over the doors. There was 210 … then 214 … 216 … 220 … 254–
Wait, no. That couldn’t be right. Zachary jerked his head back to the doors he’d passed earlier, trying to get his bearings. Where was 232? That wasn’t how numbers worked. Admittedly, he wasn’t a math teacher, but he was still pretty sure that wasn’t how they worked.
“Zachary!” came a voice from the end of the hall. A flood of relief washed over Zachary as he lifted his head and saw Carmen Mendoza, the precalculus teacher, waving him over. Thank goodness he’d been introduced to her earlier as the eleventh-grade coordinator. “We’re in here!”
“Sorry, I–” Zachary stammered, pointing to the room numbers as he walked briskly toward her. “I thought we–“
“Don’t worry,” said Carmen with a laugh. “They built the new wing, what, eight years ago? But nobody teaching in the old part wanted their room numbers to change, so they just continued numbering on over here, and we all just … sort of learned to live with it.”
That, in Zachary’s experience, was K-12 education in a nutshell. He stepped into the room expecting to find the same normal desk setup he’d seen in the other classrooms. Instead, he was greeted by several tall tables, all with sinks and various pieces of equipment built into them, including computer stations and screens. Every day he was here, he learned a little more about what it was like to have magnet-school money, especially on the STEM side of things.
Carmen patted Zachary on the shoulder, then gestured to the other faculty. “I don’t know who you’ve met yet, so I’m just going to go around the room: Bernice, Libby, Ankeet, Emily, Kirstie, Sujata, Eun Ji, Faith, and Jamie, who’s so graciously allowed us to mess up his room today.”
Without the introductions, Zachary could have guessed the identities of exactly one of those people: James Smith, chemistry teacher, the only other male faculty member in their cohort. So this was his room — and that, more to the point, was him. Seated behind the desk, Jamie was frowning at the teaching computer screen with all the concentration of a man trying and failing to get something to display onto a screen. Zachary wished that feeling weren’t so familiar.
Jamie himself seemed strangely familiar too, though Zachary had to wonder if that wasn’t just the desperate bonding instinct that he felt just about every time he met one of the few other men in their profession. Zachary was fairly certain they’d never met before, and that if they had, Zachary would remember it. Slight and smooth-chinned, Jamie had pretty chestnut hair pulled back into a short ponytail. The sleeves of his blue oxford were cuffed to his mid-forearms. He looked young in a way that made Zachary suspect they were both in their early thirties and planning to get carded for several decades more.
Then Jamie lifted his gaze and turned toward the person who’d just walked into his room — and Zachary had never in his life felt the actual, physical weight of someone’s gaze before. Those dark eyes seemed to reach right through the lenses of Jamie’s gold-rimmed glasses and grab at Zachary’s lapels, to the point where Zachary had to press his lips together just to make sure he hadn’t made some terribly embarrassing noise in response.
“You’re going to be quizzed on that later, by the way,” Carmen said, making the room laugh. It was a good few seconds before Zachary realized she was referring to the names of his colleagues, all of which he had completely forgotten. He wasn’t sure he knew his own name anymore.
He turned back to catch Jamie’s eye once more, but Jamie was staring at the computer again, like he’d never even looked up in the first place, like he hadn’t all but pinned Zachary to the back wall just by looking at him. Someone else (maybe she was Kirstie?) came over to help him troubleshoot the problem, and he looked up at her, laughing at his mistake as she pointed out the correct order of operations. The screen at the front of the classroom lit up, displaying the title slide of what looked to be Carmen’s strategic plan for the year.
Zachary took a seat at one of the desks before he fell over. Had he imagined that? He didn’t see how he had, but he also didn’t see how he hadn’t. Maybe he had seen it, but he hadn’t seen what he’d seen. Jamie could have been looking at someone else, or something else, or anything at all in the universe that wasn’t Zachary.
The rest of the afternoon went by in a blur. Zachary was frankly grateful for the amount of information coming at him, because it gave him something to focus on that wasn’t doubting his own perceptions of reality. He took notes as best he could and tried not to ask too many stupid questions. He often told his students there were no such thing as stupid questions. He even sometimes felt bad about how badly he was lying to them every time he said it.
The first week of school wasn’t even a full week, with Monday off for Labor Day, but by the time Friday rolled around, Zachary felt like it had been eight years long. They’d been good years, to be sure, but years nonetheless. The first of any school year was already a lot, and the first at a completely new school was a lot more even on top of that.
At least the kids were great. What’s more, they were far less resistant to language and literature work than he’d expected from a bunch of science-focused teenagers. A few of them had even warmed up to him enough to deliver some good-natured teasing about how he dressed. “Are you going to wear a tie every day, Mr. Hayda?” asked one of his sixth-period students.
“Probably,” Zachary answered honestly. He didn’t have many outfits designed to be worn without them, even among his more casual wear. “Should I not?”
“Nah, it’s whatever,” the another student said. “But you know you don’t have to, right? The other teachers don’t.”
Zachary had to concede that point. The Cooper High faculty tended on the whole to dress more smartly than most K-12 teachers Zachary had met, but Zachary himself was still the standout when it came to fashion. He’d always been a fussy little creature, even as a child, the type to prefer slacks over jeans, who never complained about functions that demanded he wear a tie. It was college, though, where he’d put in the effort to become outright dapper, thrifting his way into a wardrobe that made him somewhat of a fixture on campus. That was all right, though. If he looked put together, people would believe he was put together; if people believed he was put together, he’d have to shape up and be put together. Better living through raising other people’s expectations.
As he was cleaning up after that sixth-period class, his last for the day and therefore for the week, Zachary heard a knock on his door. He turned to see Emily Barker, whose U.S. History classroom was right next door to his. “Congratulations,” she said, giving him a little golf clap. “You lived!”
“I lived!” Zachary agreed, sitting down on the edge of his desk. “That sounds so bad. I like it here. I really do. It’s just…” He trailed off.
“A lot?” Emily suggested.
With a heavy exhale, Zachary nodded. “Yeah. A lot.”
Emily laughed, resting her hands on her hips. “Did anybody tell you about drinks at the Corner Pub tonight?” When Zachary shook his head, Emily explained: “First Friday of every month, we’ve got a standing get-together. It’ll mostly be people you know already, a couple you probably don’t. But you’re invited. It’s always nice to get to know people a little better when we’re not all in Teacher Mode. Do you know where it is? Corner of Eighth–“
“And Robinson, yeah,” Zachary finished for her. “I actually grew up around here.”
“Did you?” Emily asked with unfeigned surprise. “Did you go to Cooper or one of the other area schools?”
There was no good or proper way to tell a colleague, particularly not a grandmotherly one Zachary had known for barely two weeks, about his parents’ nuclear-level messy divorce, nor how he’d become an object in it, a thing to hurt someone with instead of a human teenager. “No, I moved away before that,” Zachary said, hoping that would suffice for an explanation.
“Well, what brings you back?”
Zachary forced the genial smile on his face to remain in place. “Family stuff.”
That was the short version of it. The long version was what Zachary saw as he walked into his house that evening — though he hadn’t thought of it as his house in nearly two decades, and he certainly didn’t think of it that way now. It was where Zachary lived now, but as the junk mail piled up by the front door would attest, it was primarily his father’s residence.
The elder Mr. Hayda sat there in a recliner, watching TV with no particular investment in what was on the screen. The right side of his face was still noticeably droopier than his left, and would likely be for the rest of his life. How much movement he’d get back in the rest of his body remained to be seen. “Hi, Dad,” said Zachary as he hung his bag up by the door. “I’m home.”
His father didn’t move. He gave a little grunt of acknowledgment, though, which was more of a welcome-home than Zachary usually received. His father had always seemed fake to Zachary in a way Zachary couldn’t quite put his finger on when he was a child — smiling a smile he didn’t mean, laughing a laugh that had to be forced out. The stroke had removed that level of artifice, leaving behind only what was actually beneath Michael Hayda’s skin. It wasn’t Zachary’s fault that that honesty was so hostile, even to his only child.
“The first week went great,” Zachary said, talking to fill up the silence, even though he knew the TV would have done it just as well, left to its own devices. “I think the kids are really warming up to me. We start The Scarlet Letter next week. I’d like to revise the reading list, but I figured I’d wait until I was done with my first year, not come in guns blazing.”
There was no response from his father, which Zachary didn’t expect. Michael Hayda had always been a proud man, proud enough that he now refused to talk unless absolutely necessary. Silence didn’t make him confront the way his words slurred now.
“The other teachers are having a little get-together tonight,” Zachary found himself saying. He hadn’t planned to tell his father about the outing. He hadn’t even planned on going. “Just drinks. I might go. Would that be okay?”
Why was he asking permission like he was still fourteen? Because he had been fourteen the last time he’d lived under the same roof with his father, and some habits died hard. What would he do if his father said no?
But his father just looked at Zachary with a note of confusion in his expression. Zachary supposed he couldn’t blame him for the reaction — Zachary had never been the kind of kid who went out, or had friends, or really did much of anything outside the house at all, and he hadn’t changed much in his transition to adulthood. His father’s face had the same neutral curiosity Zachary imagined might have been there if Zachary said he was going to shave his head or take a pottery class. His father had no objections, but … why?
Zachary supposed he didn’t have much of a good answer himself. He was thirty years old and he’d had few enough friends in the last place he’d lived that he’d been able to uproot his whole life to care for his father, with no regrets left behind. Maybe it seemed too depressing to let that happen again. Maybe his subconscious was trying to save him from his own isolation. Maybe he just wanted the people at his workplace to like him. Maybe he was overthinking this. “I’ll make you dinner first. And I won’t stay out too late. I’ll be home before your bedtime.”
His father nodded and turned back to the television. Someone was buying a vowel. Good for them.
The Corner Pub was nicer than Zachary had expected from both its exterior and what he remembered of its reputation from his youth. The peeling wooden facade and neon beer signs in the window gave way to reveal a clean, spacious, smoke-free interior. He had no trouble finding the others, already occupying three or four tables pushed together in one of the room’s darker corners. Zachary took a deep breath, steadied himself, and walked right over.
Everyone waved and greeted him warmly as he took one of the few remaining seats at the far end of the combined table. He gave a little wave in return. “Thanks for inviting me,” he called out to Emily, who was halfway down the table.
“Of course!” Emily said, raising her wine glass in a friendly little toast. “You’re one of us now.”
He supposed he was, as strange as it felt to be so readily absorbed into this amoeba of congeniality. There were indeed a couple of people he didn’t know there, and Carmen, who was seated close to Zachary, made the introductions. Two were husbands, and two had started in the eleventh-grade teacher cohort but since moved to other positions in the school. “They’re traitors,” Carmen teased one of the latter, prompting laughter from the others, “but we still like them.”
Zachary had worried at first about how awkward this could be, sitting down at the table of a group of people who clearly had been friends for years, some even for decades. Everyone there was graciously attentive to him, though, pausing their stories at the appropriate points to explain just who this person was, or what administrative decisions had caused a particular set of circumstances. Someone had even ordered a plate of nachos for their end of the table, and Zachary, who normally hated finger foods, threw caution to the wind and decided to partake. He got no cheese sauce on his suit, and as such considered the attempt a victory.
As far as the suit went, he supposed he should have made some attempt to dress down. Most everyone else at the table looked like they’d run home first to change, swapping out their nice blouses and pantsuits for casual sundresses and t-shirts. That was the joke, after all, about kids’ running into their teachers at the supermarket and being unable to comprehend their existence as real people beyond the school grounds, as though the teachers, like the desks and chairs, just got put away for the night, ready to be pulled out the next morning and get right back to work. No wonder these celebratory outings happened at a bar; it was easier to be a real human without worrying about prying student eyes.
Not that Zachary was much of a real human — or, maybe more appropriately, not that there was much of a line between Mr. Hayda in front of the classroom and whoever he was after class let out. He was still wearing a suit, for heaven’s sake, a three-piece grey wool number that he’d had for years, and not because he thought it was somehow more appropriate for a gathering like this, but because he actually felt more comfortable this way.
Well, thoughts like that were what a glass of white wine and a social situation did to a man. Zachary was listening to Sujata talk about her new coding class and pondering the etiquette of a second plate of nachos, when the seat next to him pulled back and a man sat down in it.
Zachary was just on the edge of politely telling this stranger that this was a private gathering, perhaps he’d seated himself at the wrong table. But before he could even begin composing the objection, Carmen whistled and laughed. “Look at you, Jamie!”
Oh god, it was Jamie. Moreover, it was clear both why Zachary hadn’t recognized him and why Carmen was having that reaction to him. Gone were his usual gold-rimmed glasses, as was his ponytail, leaving his chestnut hair to fall free down to his shoulders. His sleeves were rolled up just a bit higher now than Zachary had seen them before, not too much of a difference, but enough that Zachary could see the faintest hints of colorful ink snaking out down toward his elbows. He wore thick leather cuffs around each wrist and at least two gold earrings on the side closest to Zachary. It was an out-of-school transformation the likes of which Zachary had never before seen.
Jamie ran his fingers around the rim of his highball glass, which he must have picked up from the bar on the way in. “I can’t stay,” he said with an apologetic little grin. “But I didn’t want to miss a chance to toast the year.”
“Got a hot date tonight?” asked Libby. Perhaps she was just teasing, going straight to the joke when there was a perfectly mundane explanation for why Jamie had shown up looking like a man so hot that Zachary couldn’t entirely remember how to breathe.
But Jamie just smirked at them over his glass. “Maybe,” he said, in a way that Zachary could tell meant yes.
Hell, why had Zachary worn a wool suit? He was damn near about to sweat through it now. He prayed that everyone else’s eyes were as fixed on Jamie as his were, just so they weren’t looking at him, because Zachary was not keeping it together. He had managed to wrangle his face into a neutrally pleasant expression, but that was as good as it was going to get in the way of composure. How was he supposed to behave that close to someone that attractive? How was anyone?
Carmen laughed a raised her glass to him. “Anyone we know?”
“You better hope not,” Jamie said, pointing a finger at her — and yes, he was wearing a couple rings, Zachary could see that now. “Otherwise I’m going to spend the whole date gathering intelligence, and then it’s all over for you harpies.”
The others laughed at that, and then a couple of servers arrived with more food and another round of drinks, disrupting the conversation with its distribution. Well, Zachary supposed that solved his nacho conundrum. What it didn’t solve, however, was the part where he was now seated right next to Jamie, who had somehow managed to Cinderella-transform himself into someone so good-looking that it short-circuited the language center of Zachary’s brain. And his language center was quite well-developed, which made its suddenly being taken offline more than a little distressing.
It only got worse as Jamie took the break in conversation to turn directly to Zachary. “Having fun?” God, was he wearing eyeliner? Zachary hadn’t even known he was into eyeliner on men. This was a terrible way to learn.
“Yeah,” Zachary managed, wishing he didn’t sound so much like a cartoon mouse at the moment. “It’s nice.”
“It’s always a good way to start the year.” Jamie took his fingers and raked them back through his hair, which held for a half-second before silkily falling right into place again. Zachary’s own coarse, dark hair would never have stood for such treatment. “I’m glad you came out.”
How did he — oh, no, came out to the bar. Not came out in general. Because Zachary was absolutely not out: not professionally, not to his family, barely even to himself. He’d frankly be overjoyed if most people in his life just assumed the suit was permanent, fused to him like a Ken doll’s underwear, with nothing to be concerned about underneath.
“Sorry I haven’t gotten down your hallway to say hi,” Jamie continued, turning a little more from the table and toward Zachary. Jamie sat in a chair like cats lounged on things, perfectly comfortable and poised all at once. “First week is always kind of a tornado, and I’ve been finishing up this grant paperwork, which is so boring I can’t even stand to be around myself when I’m doing it. But I want to come by next week and see your room. Emily was saying you’ve got some good art up.”
“Oh, it’s just–” Zachary shrugged, gripping the stem of his wine glass tight. He didn’t know if it would be a worse idea to drink the rest of it, or not to. “Some prints I’ve collected over the years. Nothing special. Better than bare walls.”
Jamie chuckled, and Zachary tried so hard not to stare at his mouth. “I tend to agree with you. Unfortunately, my room has bunsen burners in it, and the open-flame-plus-charming-poster combination is a mistake you only make once.”
Zachary swallowed, trying to remember how to interact with other people. Normally, he was so awkward in conversations that the other person backed off after not too long, finding an excuse to let him off the hook. But with Jamie … well, if Zachary didn’t know better (and of course he knew better), he might think that Jamie was enjoying making Zachary squirm. “Sounds dangerous,” Zachary managed.
“That’s chemistry for you,” Jamie said with a little smirk. “I spent a lot of my adolescence setting fires on purpose. Now I get paid to keep children from setting them on accident.”
It was surely just a little joke, a passing quip Jamie had probably said a hundred times before. But it rang a bell deep in the halls of Zachary’s memory, sounding some faint little bit of recognition still too vague to place. Why did Jamie sometimes seem so familiar to him?
Before Zachary could muster up a response to that, someone else at the table asked Jamie a question, drawing him into a conversation that did not demand that Zachary participate. Zachary took the opportunity to fade into the woodwork as much as he could, munching nachos one by one just for something to do that wasn’t fixing a dropped-jaw stare at Jamie. He tried to laugh and react along with the conversation, anything to cover the way he was staring at the knobby knuckles of Jamie’s slender hands, the soft curves of his lips, the way the open collar of Jamie’s shirt sometimes shifted just enough that Zachary couldn’t tell if what was beneath it was just a trick of the light or even more tattooing.
This was embarrassing. No, it was mortifying. He could use that in one of the example vocabulary sentences he wrote for his students: It is mortifying to realize in public how badly I want to fuck one of my co-workers. He needed to stop that right now. It was completely unprofessional and inappropriate. Hell, it was probably downright actionable harassment, at least by some standards. And that was all even before considering how Jamie was clearly seeing someone already! Zachary had been on the job for less than a week and he was already ruining it by being unable to stop thinking like a horny teenager. He’d never even thought like a horny teenager when he’d been a teenager. This was ruining his life.
The sad thing was, the only thing that could have ruined it more happened about ten minutes later, when Jamie glanced at his watch and sighed. “I’d better go,” he said, not to the table at large, but only to Zachary. “A friend set me up. I figure it’d be rude to be late to a first impression.”
“Oh, that’s–” Zachary found himself reviewing their previous conversations at high speed, trying desperately to tease some hint of a pronoun out of them. No dice. He didn’t want to assume, but at the same time, he didn’t dare to hope. “So, someone you haven’t met before.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said, pushing his hair out of his face. “Friend of a friend. You know how it goes.”
Zachary absolutely did not. He nodded anyway. “I hope you have fun with … them.”
From the way Jamie’s lips quirked, the hesitation had not passed unnoticed. “Enjoy your weekend, Peaches.” And just like that, Jamie was giving his regrets to the rest of the table, waving and promising he’d see them all on Monday as they wolf-whistled and wished him luck on his date.
They were all so busy with Jamie’s departure that nobody noticed the quiet little panic attack Zachary was having inside his own skin. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. But then again, Zachary was realizing, it couldn’t be anyone else.
“Hi, Mr. Smith!” called one of Zachary’s students.
Zachary looked up from where he’d been grading papers at his desk for the last ten minutes, letting the class groupwork assignment occupy the students. There was Jamie leaning in the doorway, giving a little wave.
To look at him now, it was nearly impossible to imagine the look he’d sported on Friday, the one that had haunted Zachary’s thoughts all weekend. It was Monday now, fourth period, and Jamie was again Mr. Smith, mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher, wearer of glasses and sweater-vests and perfectly appropriate clothing for an educator. Only the smirk on his pretty lips said anything to the contrary.
“Keep working,” Zachary told them as he got up and walked over toward the door. He was determined to be as professional about this as humanly possible. “Is everything okay?”
Jamie chuckled and stuck his head a little farther into the classroom, looking around. “I told you I’d stop by and see the place. It’s cute. Good job managing to keep things in here to a dull roar, too. How was your weekend?”
Zachary glanced at the students, who had pulled their desks together in threes, talking through their peer-editing work. Not a single one of them seemed surprised that their chemistry teacher had stopped by. Nor should they have, because this was a normal conversation between normal colleagues. Nothing to be awkward about. Certainly nothing to get sweaty palms about. It was just unfortunate that Zachary’s palms hadn’t gotten the memo. He shoved his hands into his pockets. “It was fine,” Zachary said, and before he could stop his own stupid brain, he followed up with the automatic response: “How was yours?”
“It was fun.” Jamie’s expression was friendly and pleasant, but there was a little quirk to the corner of his mouth that said he knew they both knew what he was talking about. “Well, the clothed parts less so. Probably not going to be a repeat, but not a waste of time, either.”
There were so many follow-up questions Zachary had here, absolutely none of which were appropriate to pose to a new colleague at a new job while standing in the doorway of a room full of teenagers. Was Jamie doing this on purpose? Or was he just like this with everyone? Probably the latter, and Zachary just hadn’t been around long enough to see him in action. But there was no denying how much Zachary was having to exert conscious effort to keep his mind from traveling down the paths of what those not-clothed parts might have entailed.
“Mr. Hayda?” called one of the students from across the room. “Can you help us here?”
Grateful for the distraction, Zachary excused himself and went to see what the students needed. Even though it just took a minute, he expected that by the time he was done, Jamie would have wandered off to something more exciting than lurking in the doorway of a class he wasn’t teaching. He was still there when Zachary turned to look again, however. Zachary couldn’t just leave him standing there. It was rude.
He didn’t want Jamie to bring up his date again, though — not because Zachary didn’t want to hear it, but because he did, and that was a terrible situation to be in. It was up to him, then, to take control of the conversation’s reins. “Hey, so,” said Zachary, dropping his voice just lower than the ambient buzz of the room, “I have kind of a weird question.”
“Shoot.” Jamie smiled right back, looking far more comfortable leaning against a door frame than he had any right to.
Zachary wished he could say that his hesitation here was because he didn’t know how to word the question, but the truth was that he’d spent all weekend running through the million or so different ways to word the question, and he hadn’t yet settled on a single one. “Were we … this is going to sound crazy, but were we in middle school together?”
Jamie’s smug little smirk broke out into a grin. “You mean, is this” –he made a quick gesture up and down his body– “what Crazy Jimmy grew up to be?”
Hearing it confirmed knocked Zachary’s knees out from under him a little. He placed his hand faux-casually against the bookshelf by the door, exhaling hard as he did his best not to fall over. He knew that coming back to care for his father would involve staring down his childhood, but he hadn’t imagined it would be staring back at him through thin gold rims. “So … yes?”
Jamie chuckled. “Let’s just say, I’m the poster child for how, when people say something is going to go on your permanent record, they’re lying.”
And what a permanent record it would have been otherwise. Everybody in the school had known Crazy Jimmy, the kid in the fingerless leather gloves and trench coat, who allegedly always had a box of matches on him and might have been responsible for up to eight hundred various fires, explosions, and acts of vandalism around town, if all the rumors were to believed. As little as Jamie looked like his Friday-night self now, he looked even less like the scrawny teenager he’d been back then, with shaggy hair and hollows beneath his eyes, and always some bruise or another shading the parts of his face his hair wouldn’t cover.
Zachary had never been one of the cool kids or the rejects. He had existed solely in the forgettable middle of the middle-school spectrum, doing his best to master the art of invisibility, at least to his peers.
But Crazy Jimmy had seen him. One day, Zachary’s mother had packed a peach in his lunch, which Zachary took out to eat at the edge of the school courtyard, bundled up against the chilly March air that was still cold enough to keep most of the other students inside. He’d been about to take a bit of it when Crazy Jimmy had appeared from out of nowhere and sat down beside him, holding out his hand. Frightened, Zachary had handed over the peach, figuring he’d conceded it forever. But Crazy Jimmy had pulled a switchblade out of his boot and sliced it up for him. In gratitude, Zachary had offered him half of it, and Crazy Jimmy had accepted.
It hadn’t been a friendship, not really. They’d never done anything together outside of school hours. They’d barely interacted during class. It was just that every so often, Crazy Jimmy had appeared by Zachary’s side during their shared lunch period, and they’d talked, or not, while Zachary ate his lunch, and watched Crazy Jimmy spin his switchblade artfully around with his nimble fingers, and maybe sometimes (even if he would not have admitted it, never at the time and barely now) thought about what those fingers would feel like against Zachary’s own.
Then school had let out, and Zachary had moved away without warning or fanfare. He’d thought of Crazy Jimmy since then, but largely in the abstract. Never in a way where Zachary had expected to see him again, and absolutely never in a way where Zachary had expected to find himself part of the same faculty.
“God, hi, I–” Zachary cleared his throat. “I didn’t recognize you.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Jamie said with a laugh and a little wiggle of his eyebrows. “When I read your name on the roster at first, I thought I might be mistaken. But there’s not that many Zachary Haydas out there. And when I saw you, I knew it.”
Zachary pressed his lips together. “I really — I mean I didn’t — you look, um, you look great!”
Jamie winked. “So do you. But I always knew you’d grow up hot.”
Surely, surely there was some response to that that wound not only preserve Zachary’s dignity, but enhance it. There had to be some quip out there that would make Zachary sound like the kind of guy who got told things like that all the time, who had any practice hearing attractive men say he was attractive too. Maybe if he had a hundred years to meditate on it, the perfect thing would come to mind. It just wasn’t happening now.
After a moment of this awkward silence, though, Jamie just laughed. “Hold out your hand,” Jamie said. When Zachary complied, Jamie drew his left hand from behind his back, making Zachary realize it had been hiding back since Jamie had shown up in his door. He only had a moment to reflect on how he’d missed that, though, because Jamie was placing a peach right into Zachary’s open hand. “Enjoy your lunch.” He gave Zachary another coy smirk, then turned and walked off down the hall, too cool to even glance back.
It was Monday. It was only halfway through Monday. Zachary wasn’t going to survive the rest of the week. He wasn’t sure he was going to survive the rest of the day, and even seeing the end of the class period was looking less and less likely by the moment. How was he supposed to continue living a normal life in a world where people like Jamie just did things like that?
And what was he supposed to make of it? He wished this were one of the books he taught, because then he’d have some symbolism, foreshadowing, something to go on, or at the very least some Sparknotes to download on the subject. Instead, he had a peach, and a middle-school crush all grown up, and whatever those two things meant together.
So he worked with someone he’d gone to middle school with. That was fine. It was normal. Lots of people worked with people they’d gone to middle school with. Just because he couldn’t name any at the moment (besides, of course, Jamie and himself) didn’t make it any less true. Probably.
When Zachary saw Jamie and other people were around, Jamie was completely casual about everything. Jamie didn’t seem to have told anyone else about his and Zachary’s history together — and of course he hadn’t, because who wanted to tell their coworkers a story about how their adolescent nickname was “Crazy Jimmy”?
Zachary had never considered the fact that teachers tended to be inveterate gossips to be a job perk before, but he was starting to see the appeal. He’d stop by the other classrooms on the hall, or see some of his colleagues in the teachers’ lounge on their off periods, and he’d casually start up conversations about, oh, anything they had on their minds — school, life, whatever. It was surely just a coincidence that all of those conversations turned, sooner or later, to Jamie.
“The kids love him,” Ankeet said, stirring creamer into what looked to be at least her third cup that morning. “Love him. He’s been here, what, four years? Two of those, he was a district-wide Teacher of the Year finalist. He’s going to win it one of these days. Of course, he cheats. None of the rest of us have an excuse to demonstrate throwing a gummy bear into a test tube of potassium. You’ll know when he does it, by the way, because we’ll all be out in the parking lot ten minutes later, waiting for the fire department to come shut off the alarm.”
“He came in midway through the school year,” Kirstie told Zachary as he helped her carry some of the Robotics Club’s competition entries to her car. “Terrible thing, the woman who used to teach chemistry, she’d been here for years, and she got this awful cancer diagnosis, it took her so quick. So here we are, it’s January, and Principal Hulme’s frantically reaching out to all the substitutes and teachers in training she knows, and as luck would have it, there’s one guy certified to to teach chemistry who doesn’t have a permanent placement already. And that’s how we lucked out and got him!”
“No one serious, I don’t think,” Libby said to Zachary as they chatted during passing period, monitoring the students in the hallway with all the adult supervisory energy two thirtysomethings could manage. “He’s kind of quiet about his personal life in general. There’s all sorts of things people bring their spouses and kids to, and he’s always just by himself. I know he goes on dates sometimes, like he did the other night, but that’s not really — I mean, I’m pretty sure he’s still single. Or divorced. No kids. I think he has a cat, maybe?”
“He’s the advisor for the QSA,” Faith told him over their respective microwaved lunches, and when Zachary’s face didn’t convey instant recognition, she clarified, “the Queer-Straight Alliance. It was his first month here, he heard some students had been interested in starting one but didn’t know who’d be their sponsor. He did all the legwork for them. I think it was one of those things where the administration might have said no, but all the paperwork was in order before they knew what hit them. He’s pretty formidable when he wants something.”
“This grey hair? It’s named Jamie.” Carmen pointed to one of the many silver strands sprouting from her hairline, her irritated tone completely betrayed by the way she was smiling. “This one too. In fact, all of them in this little patch, they’re all named Jamie Wants Something. Jamie wants to take the students to a military ordinance disposal site. Jamie wants to let students work with volatile chemicals. Jamie wants to give all the students who skipped his class to attend a protest excused absences. Jamie wants to show the students Breaking Bad. Jamie wants to yell at the school board about letting police officers on campus. Jamie wants a hundred fire extinguishers, reason unspecified. God, he’s a little monster. At least he’s decided to use his powers for good. A good rule for life is, whatever side Jamie is on, try not to be on the other.”
Zachary had no idea what side he was on about anything, not when it came to Jamie. When they were around other people, Jamie was friendly, collegial, good-natured about everything. When it was just the two of them, even in a crowd, Jamie … well, if Zachary had to classify the looks Jamie gave him, they would all fall under the category of like he wants to eat me.
Maybe Jamie was still mad at him for disappearing the way he had all those years ago. It hadn’t been Zachary’s fault, but Zachary knew from experience that didn’t matter. Maybe Zachary had misread their relationship all those years ago. Maybe they hadn’t been friendly at all, but hostile in a way that Zachary had been too fourteen years old to register. Maybe he’d done or said something insulting, and it haunted Jamie with vicious clarity while Zachary literally didn’t remember it at all. Or maybe Jamie didn’t take it as a compliment that Zachary hadn’t recognized him at first.
“Do you remember a guy in middle school with me, James Smith?” Zachary put the bowl of pasta down on the TV tray across his father’s lap. “He was Jimmy at the time, goes by Jamie now.”
His father shook his head and reached for his fork with his good hand. Well, Zachary supposed he shouldn’t have expected much otherwise. Michael Hayda had never been the most involved father, even before he’d turned into a one-weekend-a-month parent. It made sense that he’d have no memory of someone who may or may not even have been Zachary’s friend at the time.
Zachary sighed as he sat on the far end of the couch and balanced his own bowl over his knees. “He’s nice,” Zachary said, feeling a bit like the other gossiping teachers as he did. “We’re working together now. He teaches chemistry. The students like him.” This was the most fourteen Zachary had felt since leaving middle school the first time. Here he was, a grown man testing the waters to see how his parent would react to his having what might or might not have been a crush.
If his father realized that was what was happening, though, he gave no indication. Eyes fixed on the television, he stabbed at the noodles and vegetables in his bowl, then brought each slightly trembling forkful to his mouth. Whatever police procedural they were watching was more interesting to him by far than hearing about Zachary’s colleagues.
The last man Zachary would even have considered a semi-boyfriend had broken up with him with phrases like emotionally unavailable and painfully repressed. Zachary hadn’t even been able to refute any of it. He couldn’t blame anyone for breaking up with the man his sort-of-ex had described. He would’ve done it too.
Maybe Zachary should text said sort-of-ex and get him to write some kind of testimonial to show Jamie: Please do not be mad at this man for any stupid actions he may have taken in his adolescence; he’s scared that if he has a real feeling, he’ll break into a million pieces.
Yes, now that was a healthy way to handle a strained coworker relationship. Good job, Mr. Hayda. High marks for that stunning analysis.
When his phone rang later that evening, Zachary didn’t recognize the number, but saw it was a local area code. Probably work-related then; he should answer it. “Hello?”
“Zachary?” asked the person on the other end of the line.
Not until that moment had Zachary realized just what a distinctive voice Jamie had. It was deeper than his slight frame would have suggested, and just breathy enough that he always sounded a little like he’d just finished a cigarette, even though Zachary had never smelled anything like that on him. “Hi,” Zachary said, sitting down on the edge of his bed before he fell over.
“Hi.” Jamie chuckled. “Got a minute to talk about school stuff?”
It was work-related, then, just a perfectly normal call between colleagues that should not have been making Zachary’s stomach do even a single flip-flop. “Sure, is everything okay?”
“This year, Carmen has put me in charge of our cohort’s showing for the Cooper High Autumn Open House Night, and I’m calling to see if you’d like to be one of the teachers willing to stay late next Thursday and be a shining example of the best Cooper has to offer.”
“Oh, I–” Zachary stammered a moment, not sure if the compliment was sincere or sarcastic, or maybe some nebulous combination of both. “Are you sure you don’t want someone who’s been here a little longer, has a little more experience?”
Jamie laughed at that. “They’re all experienced enough to get out of working Open House Nights! Don’t worry,” he added before Zachary could start to sweat much more, “it’s pretty easy. You just have to sit in your room and look studious while the parents of current and prospective students wander through and size you up. I can’t speak to it myself, but the humanities people tell me it’s easy. Parents looking to get their kids into a tech magnet school aren’t going to be grilling the English teacher about how this will prep them for a graduate degree in engineering.”
“Do they … is that a thing that happens?”
“You don’t even know.” Jamie chuckled again. “So, you don’t tell me ‘no’ very soon, I’m going to hear ‘yes’ and act accordingly.”
So this was why Carmen had grey hairs. “Okay. Yes. I’ll do it.”
Through the connection, Zachary heard the sound of hands clapped in triumph, and realized Jamie must have been wearing some sort of headphone or headset setup, the kind of thing adults had when they talked on the phone more than never. “Awesome,” Jamie said, his smirk audible. “Wear your blue suit. The one with the gold stitching.”
The thought that Jamie might be paying that much attention to Zachary’s wardrobe, enough to request he wear something that specific… “Because it’s school colors?”
“Because you look very good in it,” Jamie said, his voice somehow even huskier than it had been before. “And yes, because it’s school colors.”
“Okay.” Zachary pressed the phone close to his cheek and shut his eyes. “So … why didn’t you just ask me about this at school?”
“I wanted a good reason for Carmen to give me your phone number. And I wanted a good reason for you to have mine. And now you have it, if you ever need it.”
“If I have a chemistry emergency?” Zachary nearly slapped himself as he heard just how goofy he sounded saying that. Maybe he should follow his father’s example and just keep his mouth shut rather than sound like an unfunny grandpa.
But Jamie laughed anyway. “Or any other kind. Anyway, I’ll let you get back to your evening.”
There was no way to say, please do not make me go back to my evening; even though you’d never know it from how much it stresses me out, the highlight of it has been talking to you. So Zachary made his polite good-byes and ended the call, then flopped back on his bed. He should have had a land line, so he could twirl the cord while he talked. Then the full and painful regression to his adolescence would be complete.
The Cooper High Autumn Open House Night was in fact as easy as advertised, at least from the inside of Zachary’s room. Jamie had been right about how few of the parents who’d stopped by had been overly concerned with the Language Arts curriculum their child either was or would be receiving. Well, if he had to be overshadowed by the STEM fields on a regular basis, he might as well reap some of the side benefits of it.
The whole period was supposed to last two hours, from seven until nine, but by the time eight o’clock rolled around, the trickle of visiting parents had all but dried up. Zachary decided to make the most of the time by catching up on some grading. He hated grading — he didn’t know anyone who liked it — but he was at least capable of getting into a rhythm with it. As long as the mistakes weren’t too catastrophic, it was even at times almost meditative.
A knock startled him some time later. He looked first at the clock, to see that it was well after nine, and then to the door, to see who had knocked. There was Jamie, standing in the doorway, wearing a crisp white shirt and skinny black tie, with his black suit jacket draped over one of his arms. Zachary cleared his throat and started neatening the stacks of paper in front of him. “Sorry, I lost track of time,” he said, standing. “I guess we should probably leave now.”
“You know, if you’d stayed, I would have kissed you,” said Jamie.
Zachary’s ears had gone bad. His entire brain had gone bad. That couldn’t be the sentence he’d just heard.
Jamie, however, stepped inside the room and pulled the door shut behind him. “I was working up my courage,” Jamie continued, resting the jacket atop one of the student desks and giving it a smoothing brush of his hand. “Trying to figure out how to do it right. Which is hard when you’re fourteen, because how is a little queer kid from nowhere supposed to learn that shit? And then fall came and you were gone.”
Was Zachary supposed to apologize? Was Jamie getting ready to hurt him? What was going on? Zachary couldn’t read the room at all. He took a step back and found himself flush up against the chalkboard. Anxiously, his fingers gripped the tray along the bottom.
By contrast, Jamie seemed cool and collected. He reached up to the back of his head and tugged out his ponytail, letting his hair fall free around his face the way it had at the bar that evening. Next he took his glasses from his face and placed both them and the hair tie atop his jacket. “So imagine my surprise when the boy I was jerking off over all that summer walks back into my life, only he’s ten times more fuckable now.”
Zachary opened his mouth in the hopes that he might be able to say something intelligible, but all that came out was air. He watched as Jamie reached up and hooked his finger in the knot of his tie, then slowly pulled it open until it hung loose around his neck. From there, Jamie undid the top three buttons of his shirt — not much, but enough that Zachary could see a little more of the tattoos that had teased him from beneath Jamie’s collar at the bar.
“And you are,” Jamie said, walking closer. “And I don’t think you know it. I thought at first you did. I thought, how could someone be that stupidly hot and not know it? But I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s that you’ve dedicated yourself to not knowing it. Because if you don’t, you don’t have to deal with how I might want to throw your legs over my shoulders and fuck you so hard I break your bed.”
Zachary’s suit pants were tailored and crisp, and they certainly had no leeway inside of them for an erection to be anything but visible. He had never been talked to like this in his whole life, and oh, did it ever have his cock’s attention.
Jamie noticed it too. In fact, he didn’t bother to hide how openly he was staring at the outline of Zachary’s cock through his trousers. “So why haven’t you called me? And before you make something up, here is a short — but not necessarily comprehensive — list of excuses I will not accept.” As he listed them, Jamie ticked them off on his fingers. “I don’t have your number. Because you do. I’ve been too busy. I know exactly how busy you are. I don’t want to. Unless you can somehow convince me that one’s true. So, what is it?”
The truth was that Zachary had wanted to call Jamie, or text him, or do something by way of phone conversation — and not just once or twice. Every night since Jamie’s initial call, Zachary had spent at least an hour staring at his phone’s screen, trying to thing of something to say that wouldn’t make him sound lie the pathetic lump he clearly was. “Um,” Zachary managed. He pressed up against the cool surface of the blackboard, praying he’d cleaned it well enough earlier that it wasn’t now completely dusting his back white. “I … meant to?”
“You meant to.” Slowly, Jamie rolled up each of his sleeves until his sinewy forearms were bare. The transformation was intense; even seeing it happen before his eyes almost didn’t make it any more believable. “And you stopped because?”
“I … didn’t want to bother you,” Zachary said, his voice sounding like dust as it left his throat.
Jamie’s lips curled into a smirk. “So it looks like I’m going to have to come bother you.” Jamie reached for Zachary’s tie and pulled its tail out from beneath Zachary’s vest. Slowly, he wrapped the silk around his fist. “God, you look good in this. Have you ever sucked anyone off while you were wearing it?”
Zachary shook his head. His heart was drumming so loud in his ears, he was sure everyone else in the building could hear it. But through the narrow window in the door of his classroom, he could see the hallway’s motion-detected lights click off. It seemed that for all intents and purposes, they were indeed alone.
Jamie smirked up at him. He was several inches shorter than Zachary, which did nothing to explain why, when they were standing this close, Zachary felt so small. Jamie’s hand carefully wound Zachary’s tie around his hand, all the way up to where it was knotted beneath Zachary’s chin. “You have sucked someone off, though. Yes?”
The adam’s apple in Zachary’s throat bobbed as he swallowed first, then nodded. Yes, he’d had some experience with oral sex, both giving and receiving. But the thought of it had never made him feel as weak-kneed as it did now, with Jamie only inches from him. Despite years of practiced composure on his part, when Jamie’s fingertips brushed the underside of Zachary’s jaw, Zachary outright whimpered.
“That’s a good sound,” Jamie said, doing it again. “I bet you make pretty noises when you’re being fucked.”
Zachary didn’t make any noises when being fucked, or at least none beyond the heavy breathing of physical activity. He kept a tight rein on himself at all times, even then. Which did nothing to explain why Jamie could make him sound like that just with the touch of his hand.
Jamie leaned in close, until his lips were right over the pulse point in Zachary’s neck. “See, I’m trying to figure out which kind of suit you are.”
“Which kind?” echoed Zachary, sounding shaky.
“Either you’re already a real freak under there. Fishnets and a cock cage. Piercings all the way down.” Jamie’s hand trailed down Zachary’s chest slowly, feeling his body through the layers of fabric all the way down to the buckle of his belt. “Or you’re still waters that don’t even know how deep you run. And you’re hoping that if you dress like that no one, including you, is ever going to suspect that you like it deep.”
Jamie punctuated the last word by grabbing Zachary’s belt buckle hard, throwing him off balance. Zachary wobbled a little and reached for something to steady him. That something wound up being Jamie’s hips, which were surprisingly sturdy, given his slim frame. It seemed he was hiding more than just the tattoos under his clothes.
“If you’re going to tell me no, tell me now. I can take a ‘no’. I’m a big boy.” Jamie teased just the tips of his fingers beneath the waistband of Zachary’s pants. “But the thing is, I think you’re pretty good by now at saying no. What I suspect you’re not so good at is saying yes.”
It was amazing, to say nothing of frankly unnerving, how Jamie could read Zachary better than Zachary had ever read any book. Could everybody do that? Was Zachary just that transparent? No, he didn’t think so, or someone else would have brought it up by now. Jamie just somehow had the ability to look at him and see down to his skin.
“So you tell me no,” Jamie whispered right up next to Zachary’s ear, “or I’m going to hear yes.”
Zachary didn’t say no. He didn’t say anything. Instead, he gripped tight to Jamie’s hips, hands closing so tight he thought Jamie surely might complain. This was such a bad idea on so many levels. It would be absolutely stupid to say yes. He couldn’t. Not him, not who he was, not where they were — he couldn’t.
But he could also keep himself from saying no.
After a brief pause, Jamie laughed and slipped his hand down the front of Zachary’s pants. They were tailored well enough, but Jamie’s wrist and arms were slender, and Zachary’s cock had already made room enough in there to move around. Jamie cupped his hand right over Zachary’s cock, with only Zachary’s underwear between skin and skin.
Startled by the touch, Zachary let out another whimpering little moan before he could bite his lips shut. With his free hand, Jamie stroked the curve of Zachary’s cheek. “Don’t be quiet on my account.”
Of course he was going to be quiet. He had to be quiet. They were on school grounds, for heaven’s sake, and he was flirting with being fired, if not being outright branded a sex criminal. He was also harder than he had ever been in his life.
Laughing, Jamie stroked Zachary with one hand, while the fingers of his other nimbly undid the top two buttons of Zachary’s shirt. “That’s the other thing I love about suits like this. You get your tie off and your shirt just a little unbuttoned, and already you look like a slut.”
Zachary’s cock jumped against Jamie’s hand. He wanted to protest, to say that he wasn’t a slut, to point out that he really wasn’t the type of man to let someone touch his dick on a first date. But either this wasn’t a date, or it wasn’t their first. Whatever it was, it had been a long time coming.
Jamie withdrew his hand just long enough to get it past the waistband of Zachary’s underwear, and oh, there it was, the fiery warmth of Jamie’s hand as it wrapped around Zachary’s shaft. “Oh my god,” Zachary mumbled, holding on to Jamie’s hips for dear life. He could feel the slick way Jamie’s palm slid up across the head of Zachary’s cock, wet with precome. “J-Jamie, please.”
With a grin, Jamie pressed his lips against the corner of Zachary’s mouth. “Please what?” he teased. “Please make you come?”
Zachary didn’t know what response he had to that — but whatever it was, it was short-circuited by seeing the hallway lights from outside the window click on. He gasped and froze in place, enough of a reaction that Jamie stilled his hand as well and looked over his shoulder. Someone else was there, out in the corridor, right outside the very unlocked door to Zachary’s room, and here Zachary was inside, his tie undone and another man’s hand down his pants.
Jamie, however, appeared cool as ever, even as he clamped his free hand over Zachary’s mouth. “Move three steps to the right,” Jamie whispered, and Zachary did, sliding along the chalkboard as gracefully as one could when one had a hand wrapped around one’s dick. As they moved, they moved right into a spot where a large bookcase blocked the view of the door. Zachary would have to keep that in mind for later, in case of student mischief. He was grateful for it now, though, as he was being the mischievous one for once in his life.
The sound in the hall was of a pair of high heels, clipping along at a moderate pace. Zachary was frozen with fear — but almost cracked explosively when, despite the threat of discovery, Jamie’s hand started moving ever so slightly up and down his cock again. The palm pressed to his lips kept Zachary from making more than a strangled little whimper at the touch.
“You’re so lovely,” Jamie whispered, his lips right up against Zachary’s ear. “I’ve got you. It’s okay.”
It was a hell of a sensation, hearing Jamie’s whispered promises in one ear and the approaching footsteps in the other. Beads of sweat were starting to roll down Zachary’s forehead, sticking his short, dark hair to his temples. His cock strained against the touch of Jamie’s hand, silently begging for more. Closer and closer the steps came, until they were right outside Zachary’s door — where they didn’t even pause. Undaunted, they clipped off down the end of the hall, until Zachary couldn’t hear them anymore.
Like his strings had been cut, Zachary slumped forward with relief, putting even more of his weight on Jamie’s body. He opened his mouth to exhale his relief, and Jamie pushed two of his fingers inside, pressing them right against Zachary’s tongue. Working on instinct more than conscious thought, Zachary closed his lips around them. Yes, he’d sucked cock before, and he’d prove it. He’d even prove it with the real thing as soon as Jamie gave him the opportunity.
Jamie’s fingers teased him to climax not much longer after that. Zachary moaned outright around Jamie’s fingers in his mouth as he came, shooting all over his underwear, the inside of his pants, and Jamie’s other hand in the process. He felt light-headed with the rush of release, enough that he had to let go of Jamie and brace himself against their sheltering bookcase to keep from falling over.
All his thoughts were jumbled in his head, but the one that pushed its way to the front was the one Jamie had opened with: If you’d stayed, I would have kissed you. No, Zachary hadn’t stayed. But he’d come back, and that had to be worth something, didn’t it?
So when Jamie opened his mouth — presumably to say something else vulgar and inappropriate and astonishingly sexy — Zachary didn’t give him the chance. Instead, he crossed the distance between them, kissing Jamie hard. He was rewarded first with the delightful sound of Jamie’s surprise, then with the force of Jamie kissing back. He was a good kisser, too, all but certainly in a way neither of them would have been at fourteen. Sometimes, it seemed, the wait was worth it.
At last, Jamie stepped back with a laugh and withdrew his hand from Zachary’s pants. He looked … well, there was no real way to put it other than debauched. His loose hair was rumpled around his face and his lips were pink from the touch of Zachary’s teeth against them. And if Jamie looked like that, then Zachary could only begin to imagine what a mess he himself was. He’d need more than just a few good straightening tugs to get himself back in order.
Meeting Zachary’s gaze, Jamie lifted his hand to his mouth. It took a second for Zachary to realize that he was licking his fingers clean where Zachary had come on them. That got a noise out of Zachary, a strangled little moan that only widened Jamie’s grin.
“And now every time you get up here,” Jamie said, “you’re going to think about how good it feels to have my hands on you.”
Bold of Jamie to assume Zachary would ever be thinking about anything else again for the rest of his entire life, whether he was teaching or not. Zachary exhaled hard, dragging his hand back through his sweat-damp hair. He felt like he’d just run a marathon and been hit by a truck in close succession. He was afraid that if he moved too much, he’d topple like a house of cards, and they’d all find him there just like that the next morning, a pile of limbs and assorted organs on the floor, completely undone by Jamie’s touch.
“So you see,” said Jamie, gathering up his glasses and jacket from where he’d left them by the door, “you, calling me? Wouldn’t be bothering me at all.”
Zachary swallowed hard and nodded. All right. Point made.
“Ball’s in your court, though.” With one last little wave, Jamie walked out the door of the classroom and shut it behind him, leaving Zachary alone to pull himself together. It didn’t need to be long-term. It just needed to be long enough to get to his car and drive home. He would strip out of all his clothes and collapse face-down on his bed, and if he woke up the next morning and found that this hadn’t all been some strange fever dream, he’d decide what to do about it then. But sleep first.
Second period was the one that Zachary had free and Jamie didn’t, not that Zachary hadn’t figured that out several weeks ago. What he’d never done about that information, though, was use it to pay a return visit.
He walked in at the same time all the first-period students were leaving and the second-period students were arriving, making his way through as part of the shuffle. He had his eye on Jamie, and as such was rewarded by an expression of genuine surprise as Jamie looked up and saw Zachary in the doorway of his classroom.
Jamie looked much the same as he ever did, with only the slightest shadows under his eyes to indicate he might have slept a little less than normal the night before. Zachary supposed he was little better. Maybe he should have called, so at least they could have been awake at midnight and staring at their respective ceilings together. It was more than a little comforting to see that even though Jamie had been the one in control last night, they’d wound up making equal messes of each other.
Zachary walked over to Jamie’s desk. “Yes,” he said, before he could get self-conscious and sabotage himself.
Jamie smirked and ran the tip of his tongue across his lower lip. Zachary stared, taken by deep awareness of how he now knew exactly how that lip tasted. He’d worn his heaviest, least flattering suit today to guard against any evidence of prurient imaginings. It was almost working. Jamie folded his arms across his chest. “Yes?”
“Yes, I — everything. Yes.” Zachary swallowed hard as he nodded. “Yes. To you, to this. Yes.”
A bright grin broke out across Jamie’s face, enough to wrinkle his nose. “You have any dinner plans tonight?”
“The same ones as you,” Zachary said, and then added, “I hope.”
The bell rang then, signaling the end of the brief passing period, and the students started to settle into their desks. Jamie glanced out toward his classroom full of expectant faces, then looked back to Zachary. “I think we have a plan, Mr. Hayda. Does that sound good to you?”
Zachary nodded. “Yes, Mr. Smith, it does.” Knowing that all eyes in the room were now on the both of them, Zachary reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a single fresh peach. “For you to get your hands on later,” he said, sending up a small prayer that the line sounded as cool out loud as it had the thousand times he’d run over it in his head.
From the way Jamie’s eyebrows gave a little arch, Zachary knew it had been a success. Well, good. If Zachary had to lose an entire Friday to intrusive dirty thoughts, then he wasn’t going to be the only one. In fact, he had a sneaking suspicion he wasn’t going to be the only one about a lot of things anymore.