Greendale Middle School in Baltimore, Maryland had acquired a haunted look, set among the hemlock and ancient oaks. It looked forest-like and overgrown. The sunshine failed to reach the front lawn, which had been untended for over a decade. Its landscape had become a parody of its "Greendale" title, since barely any green could be found along the trampled grass. Mottled earth tumbled up from the murk of hellish imagining.
Come Halloween some believed the corridors were haunted. There had been several occasions when Principal Raymond Gluck swore he saw a ghost meandering down the hallway, dressed in silk and satin with a white-feathered boa of yesteryear. The ghost had spoken to him in a frail voice before she vanished to slay his sanity. It reigned in his mind, its restless tenor lulled him into fitful sleep each evening, her porcelain face, against the edge of nightfall with piercing eyes, stole all peace.
Daniel Peck, Substitute Teacher Extraordinaire, looked remarkably comfortable in the uncomfortable chair. He sat up tall, spine aligned, straight, rigid, vertebrae even, circle after circle of bone, balanced atop one another in a flinty ladder of perfect posture, while turbo-typing on his laptop, awaiting his appointment with Principal Gluck.
Judy Brooks, Gluck's twenty-something secretary, wore an inappropriately short skirt, a too tight sweater, and a fake smile. Though her ample breasts were real, her politeness was as plastic as the press-on nails, which kept her typing at a low eight words per minute speed. She glanced up from the mountain of paperwork littering her desk and made a scrunched face since this new substitute made her feel nervous.
Plenty of people occupied the hard chair, from students waiting to receive an earful, to parents waiting to give a mouthful, to anything and everything in between, but there was something off about this one, something strange, and despite her indifferent ability to ignore the patient and impatiently waiting alike, Judy couldn't seem to concentrate on her administrative duties. The backlog choking her desk had more to do with Facebook gossip and eBay bidding wars, but Judy bit her lip and sighed loudly. She internally bitched and moaned and blamed the click-clack, click-clack of the sub's incessant typing and the horrible way his long, thin, freaky, spider-leg fingers jabbed at the keyboard.
She'd seen fast typists. Vice Principal Collin's secretary Rita was a banshee--the dumb bitch loved to boast about her seventy words per minute--but this guy, this Peck weirdo, typed freakishly fast, uncomfortably fast. A real Rainman on the keyboard, she thought as she eyed the intercom and clicked her nails in anticipation.
Apparently oblivious to the awkward vibes, Daniel sat firm, plugging away, rhythmic keystrokes carrying him off. Judy popped her gum and grimaced, trying to get back to managing sick teachers and absent kids. She stared at her computer monitor, and wondered what was taking Gluck so long. She wanted this weirdo out of her chair, out of her office, out of her school.
She snuck another glance. Peck bobbed as he typed and from the shoulders up, he looked like a chicken dipping for corn. She suppressed a smile. The name Peck characterized him to a "T."
At long last, Gluck's voice crackled over the ancient intercom--"Please send him in."
Judy hit the clunky, white button. "Okay, Mr. Gluck." She cleared her throat and announced, "The principal is ready to see you now."
Peck stopped instantly, the sudden ceasing every bit as weird as the rapid-fire bobbing and typing. He nodded in her general direction, put the laptop back into its briefcase, stood up, nodded again and then disappeared into Gluck's office.
Judy rolled her eyes and pulled a compact from her desk drawer. She sighed and pushed the odd substitute from her mind, while futilely frowning at the new age lines cruelly attempting to mar the vibrancy of her youth.
Principal Raymond Gluck was an overweight, bald man who wore round, wire-framed glasses which barely fit on the end of his wide nose. They were classic, John Lennon-styled spectacles, the same frames the man had been wearing since his teens, but time hadn't been kind and the glasses looked ridiculous sans hair, plus plumpness, in a cheap suit that screamed, Sellout!
No, time had not been kind, and Raymond's forehead had a mishmash of interlaced wrinkles and crisscrossed worry lines. His worn skin had seen better days; it looked like the last time he smiled was when Nixon was resigning from the presidency.
Work had been wearing him down for years. The constant turmoil, the kids, parents, teachers, classified employees, and legal system were all stupid, and stressful. Gluck knew he should have retired years ago, but he'd worked too hard to get here. There was no way he was going to give up his position, not while he and the damned board were at odds, not until the board forced him to retire or his heart stopped ticking, whichever came first.
"It's Peck. Daniel Peck."
The principal pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Ah, yes--Puck. Sorry about that. Well, Mr. Puck, I was studying your qualifications. Very impressive, young man."
"Thank you," Daniel said. "It's Peck. With an E. And, well, I'm not all that young. Fifty-six, last month." He smiled.
Principal Gluck looked the substitute teacher up and down. "You don't look a day over thirty. Fifty?"
Peck smiled wider. A perfect set of choppers, strong, white, straight, gleamed as he repeated, "Fifty-six, last month."
Gluck adjusted his glasses again. "Fifty-six?" The principal shuffled through Peck's file. "Here it is." He pointed to a paper. "Fifty-six, I figured Judy screwed up some numbers. But then...that does make sense. You've been subbing for...over twenty years? If you don't mind me asking, with all of these qualifications, why don't you just become a full-time teacher?"
Daniel leaned forward with another toothy grin. "I love teaching. It's like an addiction, really. If I were to do this full time, all the time--I'd probably overdose."
The principal, who made a practice of never smiling or laughing at work, let out a small chuckle. "An addiction, huh?"
Daniel nodded enthusiastically.
"That's a new one," Gluck muttered, rolling his eyes. He closed the file and began rifling through a stack of papers.
Daniel seized upon the lull and opened his briefcase. He removed his coffee mug, took out a thermos, and proceeded to pour himself a cup.
"We have coffee mugs in the lounge," Mr. Gluck said.
"I found out long ago that teachers are very territorial creatures," he replied, taking a sip.
Gluck shrugged and got down to business. "Okay, here we go." He separated a large stack of papers and began leafing through them. "Mrs. Stonebraker is going to be out for fifteen weeks. Maternity leave. The school's policy is twelve weeks, but she's taking an additional three. She has plenty of lesson plans ready to go. Don't worry if you don't get to everything, Stonebreaker's an overachiever, but try to make a dent." The fat man gestured at the ream of paper. "There, I think you should do fine."
"I'll get started right away." Daniel packed his thermos back into his briefcase, tucked the case under his arm, grabbed his coffee mug and reached for the lesson plans with his free hand.
Gluck waved dismissively. "Monday, Puck. We have a temp to finish out the rest of the week."
"Oh. Monday, right." The over-enthused substitute seemed to wilt. Suddenly, he looked every one of his fifty-six years.
Mrs. Stonebreaker taught five classes. The morning began with English remediation. The class followed--as evidenced by Mrs. Stonebreaker's extensive lesson plans--an intensive learning program for students who tested below basic. There were nine kids on his roll sheet, but only four showed up: Riley Peterson, an overweight girl with short blonde hair; Meiko Lee, a half-Cantonese, half-American girl; her twin brother, Kham, who was super-shy, nearly mute, and unwilling to do school work of any kind; and Steve Earl, a basketball star in training, who was much too tall for the eighth grade.
After the bell rang and the students settled in, each took a seat in the back row. The first thing Peck did was to nod and clear his throat and herd them to desks in the front. He then verified the class size against the roll sheet in his sub folder. "Only four of you?" he asked, leaning along the edge of his desk.
The students stared silently, bored, slumped in their seats like you'd expect from socially awkward, academically challenged teens.
"Well...that's okay! Four's plenty." Peck smiled a wolfish grin. More silence. He stood up straight and paced the front of the room. "Good... Well..." He gathered his thoughts, his thick brows furrowed, digging for words. After another moment or two of silent pacing, he clapped his hands and came alive. "Hello, class, my name is Mr. Peck, and I will be teaching the four of you for the next fifteen weeks. Before we get started, why don't you tell me a little about yourselves?"
The four fourteen-year-olds looked less like rambunctious middle-schoolers and more like a pack of bored tree sloths.
"Okay. How 'bout I tell you a bit about myself first?"
The quartet nodded, scratched and sighed.
"Great. My name is Daniel Peck and I've been a teacher for...a very long time. I have lots of amazing things to pass on, and I expect to gain as much from each of you." His eyes sparkled while he spoke and a smile hung genuine upon his lips. As he continued his introductions, the way he moved, raising a hand in time with his words, nodding, smiling, winking, set the teens at ease. "I've been everywhere and I've seen everything. There are untapped energies in this world, my little lambs..."
He went on and on about "Wheels within wheels" and "Hidden forces" and "Cosmic Energies."
He went on and on about "Dead spots in time and space."
He went on and on about how important it was to "Keep smiling."
He reminded Meiko of crazy Willy Wonka from that old movie. Her brother, Kham, felt the same, but it was the inferior remake which sprang to mind with the odd perma-grin that tugged Peck's lips tight and creased his face.
Riley thought Peck was weird, but nice.
Steve couldn't care less. He couldn't stop thinking about basketball tryouts after school.
Peck talked and talked and talked, seemingly oblivious to the students yawning in front of him. He smiled and preened, skipped and gestured, his words gushing forth in a mad rush of wild wisdom.
After a solid fifteen minutes of rambling, Meiko interrupted his flow. She cleared her throat and raised her hand.
It took a few more moments for him to wind down, but Peck nodded at the waving hand, raised a finger as if to say one minute. He then hurried to finish a diatribe, explaining the interplay between, "Good Energies," and oft misunderstood, "Bad Energies." When he was done he blew out a gust of air and pointed at Meiko. "Yes, Ms..."
"Lee," Meiko said.
"Yes, Ms. Lee?"
"This is English, right?" While her face was distinctly Asian, her speaking voice was pure Valley Girl.
"Um, yeah, Mr. P. This is an English class. Retard English. Remediation." She whispered remediation as if she were too embarrassed or too proud to say it aloud.
"And..." Peck wasn't following.
"Well, you're talking about, like, matter and energy and stuff."
Her brother nodded in silent agreement.
Riley chimed in, "Yeah, like math or science or something."
Steve continued to stare off into space.
Daniel smiled big and paced the front of the room. "Well, well, we've just begun. I can't expect too much just yet."
He seemed to be talking to himself. Meiko and Kham exchanged looks.
Mr. Peck stopped pacing and clapped his hands. "Okay, what I need you four to do is stand up." He fluttered his hands animatedly and shooed the students out of their desks. Meiko, Kham and Riley groaned and got to their feet. Steve snapped out of his daze and followed suit.
Peck pointed at the desks. "Now let's give ourselves some space, huh?" He made more hand motions until the kids rearranged the desks, and cleared the floor in the front of the classroom.
"Now I need all of us to join hands!" He beamed and held out both of his hands.
Meiko gave him a look, but Peck nodded emphatically and pushed his right hand at her. She took it. Riley his left. Kham took his sister's. Steve made an unimpressed face and completed the circle. The moment the circuit of flesh closed, the world went fuzzy and the room started to spin.