“Take your time.” Mr. Savage’s smiling face pokes out of his door another ten feet down.

“Slow and steady, sir.” I slap on my smile, my professional face no matter what. Shallow breaths ensue as the back brace holds back more than just the pain. I fight the tears that have been threatening to hit all day. “Slow and steady,” I whisper to myself.

After what must have been a minute per each foot traversed, I inch my way across his office. Mr. Savage stands behind his large oak desk and gestures to the leather chair across from him. “Please have a seat.” He doesn’t wait as he sits back down and runs a quick hand over a trophy to one side of his desk, positioning it this way and that. I force myself to take one agonizing step after another.

Sitting at a red light I check my rearview mirror. Plenty of space between us.

When I finally reach the seat, he stares past me to a blank spot on the wall. He still wears his smile. “I wanted to catch you before the weekend, and since you have the Book Battle downtown tomorrow, I needed to see you before you left today.”

I smile and nod, ready to jump as high as my injured spine will allow.

I quickly glance to my passenger seat to make sure I have my books for the training at the central office.

            “First, I want to thank you for your service with us so far this year.” He shifts slightly in his seat.

I thirst for knowledge and ways to bring it to my students. I always have. I always will.

“I wanted to let you know that I will not be extending you a contract renewal.” My smile freezes on my face.

A horn blares behind me. I don’t even look up. I already know what comes next as the red light barely turns to green.

He continues to stare at the blank spot on the wall. “You are still a beginning teacher in my book. We need more than that here.”

“Sir, I thought I was making improvements. Did you see the last review I got from Ms. Stedman? She had me marked as ‘Exceeds Expectations’ in some areas and ‘meets expectations’ in several others.” A single tear slides down my cheek. I shift uncomfortably in my seat, my back screaming for a short walk to relieve the tension of sitting still.

“Ms. Stedman and Ms. Duvall both have great things to say about you, but even Ms. Stedman didn’t see a reason for me to keep you.”

Oxygen depleting further, the brace rides up my hour glass form constricting the ribs. No air. I can’t breath.

            I hold my breath and the steering wheel tight.

“I hope you understand. I have to see if there is anyone better suited for the job.” Still he stares beyond me, not seeing me. Not caring, not knowing what I had to give up to be there. Not seeing the face of every last student I had to leave behind from my previous school racing through my mind.

            The blaring horn and squealing tires ring through the air. My ears fill with the sound of the inevitable. I can almost smell the burnt rubber searing along the road.

There is no stopping the tears now. They splash on my hands as I continue to sit tall with my chin up and my eyes down. “I don’t understand, sir. You have never given me any indication that I would not be here next year. You even signed the paper to allow my daughter to transfer in for next school year.” I stop to take a few shuttered breaths.

Still looking anywhere but at me, he continues with his smile plastered into place. “I hope you understand that this is the hardest part of my job. You stepped in mid-year. For that we are very grateful. But in all honesty, you were merely the best alternative to a substitute.”

The crunch of the vehicle behind me joins the ensemble of horn and tires and crescendos the piece to a climax. I clench my eyes closed and stand on the brake with a subtle prayer in my heart.

I open my eyes and release the breath I don’t realize I’m holding. “I worked my tail off for you. I did everything you asked. I made every change you wanted. What more could I have possibly done?”

He continues to stare beyond me. He refuses to look into my tear stained face. “I know you have, all while juggling some very difficult personal issues.” He pauses, but he still won’t look at me. “You are very admirable as a professional. That is why I will recommend you to any other school. You are just the kind of person that you want to root for. A real underdog type.”

            But my prayer never makes it past “Dear God.” A crunch throws my head forward and slams it back into the headrest. Dazed and dizzy I sit watching the woman in my rearview mirror slumped behind the wheel of her car unconscious, unresponsive. I know I must fight to stay awake. She needs my help.

Numb, I stand. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate you telling me in such a timely manner.” I take a few pained steps before pausing to turn back to him. “Though I do wish I had known sooner.” Limping, I tenderly make my way out of this wreck and back to my classroom to plan for my last month of lessons with students I’ll never see again.

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Marinda K. Dennis is a short story author, novelist, and poet. She holds an MA in English from SNHU and an MFA in writing through Lindenwood University. Marinda teaches college composition and creative writing at various locations. Her short story Book Love was published with Slink Chunk Press June 2016 and To Hell and Back in 2017 in Invocations: An Anthology of Extreme Horror. In addition to this, she edits works for other published authors and lounges by the pool with her children when time allows.

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