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I should have realized. But how would I? The signs said Mister Paladino and that was his name, of course, but I just didn’t make the connection. But there he is.
Matt Paladino is about twenty-right. He’s just shy of six feet, with dark brown, almost black hair, and his tanned face has a neatly trimmed beard along a square jaw. It’s a teacher workday, I realize, so maybe he’s dressed more casually than usual, or maybe he just doesn’t care about looking professional. Right now he’s wearing blue jeans and a dark grey t-shirt tight enough to see that he’s an athlete of some kind. Not a weight lifter—he has more the look of a gymnast or dancer, with tightly bunched biceps. I look away, almost as annoyed with myself as I am with him.
He stands the moment he sees me, his face just a little red. “I’m sorry, I’ve got an appointment in a few minutes. I don’t know how you found me at work, but you need to go through your insurance company—”
What the hell? The moment the self-important bastard starts to brush me off, I reach for Jasmine’s hand. We can go straight to the office and demand a different teacher. Jasmine doesn’t need to have to—
I don’t get a chance. She evades my hand, shouts, “Mister P!” and runs right around me and into the classroom. He throws his arms out and hugs her as she buries her face in his shoulder.
I sag, suddenly confused and crazily enough, jealous. Except for the brief hug she gave me when I got her out of the emergency shelter, Jasmine has been pretty standoffish. She looks at me a little sideways, as if she doesn’t think I’m going to stick around, or that I might do something dangerous and unexpected.
It sticks in my throat a little bit that she runs to this guy.
But when he looks at me, I can see that however much of a prick he might have been to me, he feels for her. His eyes are a little glassy, not running with tears but definitely a little watery.
He slowly eases her to the floor. He composes himself, clearly not sure of himself. He coughs, covering his mouth with a fist, then says, “I’m Matt Paladino. But I guess you—” Damned if he doesn’t get this self-effacing grin on his face. “I guess you knew that.”
I reach out and shake his hand. “I guess this is a little awkward,” I say.
“Hey Jasmine,” he says. “You remember Mabel Stark?”
Her eyes widen. “Is she here? Can I feed her?”
He points to the back of the room. “She just ate a little while ago, but you can see her. I bet she’s on her wheel right now.”
Instantly, Jasmine runs to the back of the room.
“Mabel Stark?” I ask.
“White dwarf hamster,” he says. “She was sort of a mascot last year.”
I swallow nervously. I roll my eyes up toward the ceiling and say, “Maybe we need to start over.”
He raises an eyebrow.
I’m a little tongue-tied. “I mean—”
“Pretend like yesterday never happened?” he asks. Maddeningly.
I grit my teeth. Then I say in as calm a voice as I can muster, “For Jasmine’s sake.”
“Look,” he says. “We don’t have to pretend anything. It was my fault, and I was an ass. I apologize.”
I blink my eyes. In my experience, men don’t apologize for anything. “I accept,” I say.
“Have a seat,” he says, gesturing to a chair. He sits down at the desk across from me, and I relax enough to get a look at the room.
It’s cozy in here. A little stuffy, if you want the truth. Only one window actually opens to the outside, the rest are blocked by a red brick wall, with maybe a foot between the windows and the wall. Weird. Mister Paladino has decorated the room with an assortment of school stuff—maps and books. A row of computers are arrayed along one wall, and posters are above that—cats on a flying trapeze, motivational posters, and one huge, colorful poster from the Ringling Brother’s Circus that looks like it was printed fifty years ago.
Jasmine is still in the back of the room, her face jammed up against the glass of an aquarium turned hamster cage. She’s cooing to the hamster, a smile on her face for the first time since I’ve been home.
“I have to ask you one thing right up from, Chloe,” he says. Chloe? What?
“Zoe,” I say, unable to hide the annoyance in my voice. It’s not like he hasn’t had a chance to learn my name, since we spent all that time exchanging insurance information yesterday.
He flushes. “My apologies. Zoe. What I wanted to ask you was… are you sure it’s a good idea for her to come back to school so quickly. She … well, you both… have had a horrible shock.”
I find myself blinking my eyes to force back tears. “We have,” I say. “But sitting at home moping isn’t going to help Jasmine. Look at her. This is the first time I’ve seen her smile. She needs some routine… some normality.”
He nods. “Okay. Got it. Normality. I’ll do the best I can. And please, can I offer my condolences? And my apologies, again?”
I nod. “Of course.” I glance back at Jasmine. She’s wandering the classroom now. Looking at books on the shelves. She picks a wooden puzzle off a shelf, and I start to say something to her, but Mister P reaches out and touches my hand to stop me.
I jerk my hand back.
“Sorry,” he says. “I was just…maybe let her look.”
I nod, taking a deep breath. “Yes. Yes, you’re right. I guess don’t know her very well.” I don’t mean to sound wistful as I say the words, but I guess it’s unavoidable.
“I don’t understand—”
“Mister P, I was in Tokyo until a few days ago. When our parents were killed they rushed me out of the Army and sent me home.”
His eyes widen. “You were in the Army?”
I’m instantly defensive. I get so tired of people looking at me—blonde haired, blue eyed, I must either be an airhead or a slut. “You find that difficult to believe?”
He gives his head a slight shake. “I find few things difficult to believe. But… I had assumed you were a student at UMASS.”
“I’m hoping to become one,” I say. “I haven’t even had a chance to get my feet under me yet, but I can’t sit around and do nothing. So I was thinking I’d at least try to get enrolled in school. Or find a job… or … or … something.” The more I talk, the more I want someone to gag me. But for the moment I just keep vomiting words. “The thing is… I wasn’t in love with my career. But I loved the travel. I loved Tokyo. I never expected to come home on such short notice. I never expected—”
I stop talking. Because I was about to say I never expected them to get die and I can’t say that because Jasmine is walking back toward me, and for her, I have to keep my strength up. I need to show her strength, and compassion, and let her know that I can carry her too.
“All right,” he says quietly. “Do me a favor. Let’s talk via email over the next few days and weeks. A lot. I want to know how she’s doing and how I can help support her, okay? Do you guys have any other relatives in the area? Grandparents? Cousins?”
I shake my head. “No one. That’s why the Army sent me home so quickly. Jasmine was sent to an emergency shelter for abused kids until I could get home.”
He winced and began scribbling on a loose piece of yellow construction paper. “All right. Here’s my number. Call or text any time. I’ll do whatever I can. Are you all sorted for the school bus and everything else? This must be all new for you.”
I close my eyes. Despite myself, I feel relief. “I was planning to drive her to school.”
“But I want to take the bus!” Jasmine says, an edge to her voice.
My eyes pop open. She has an annoyed expression on her face, and one of her feet is set slightly forward of the other and turned out to the side. I feel a laugh start to burble up, because I do the exact same thing when I’m annoyed.
“You sure, Jasmine? It’s up to you. If you want to take the school bus, you can.”
“I did last year,” she says.
“Okay. Bus it is.”
I stand, and so does Mister P.
“Thanks,” I say.
He nods toward Jasmine. “I’m happy to do anything I can to help.”